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The administration of hunger : colonialism, biopolitics and the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1852 Nally, David Patrick


Seasonal hunger and "partial famines" were common occurrences in nineteenth-century Ireland, but the Great Irish Famine (c.1845-1852) was sudden, stark and devastating. The immediate trigger was the appearance of a mysterious blight causing the widespread failure of the potato harvest. In a relatively short period of time almost one eighth of the population perished, while two million Irish ploughed the seas searching for new homes and new beginnings. This dissertation aims to resituate the Famine within a nexus of political violence. This nexus was forged through a history of capitalist-colonial relations with Britain and later through a series of biopolitical ’experiments’ that brought Irish life increasingly into the realm of state power. Earlier modes of conquest and colonisation [i.e. colonization] were gradually superseded by a powerful ideology of reform and ’amelioration,’ which ultimately legitimised a series of state-led interventions in Ireland. Threading this historical narrative are three important famine landscapes. Firstly, I examine how discourse produces and sustains profound fractures between ruler and ruled--the satiated and the emaciated--and how this mobilises [i.e. mobilizes] specific government interventions ostensibly to support those deemed incapable of helping themselves. Secondly, I analyse the evolution of a series of institutional landscapes that extended and deepened the administrative arm of the state and ultimately played a significant role in operationalising [i.e. operationalizing] various modalities of relief during the eighteen-forties. Thirdly, I focus on a series of politico juridical acts that produce the figure of homo sacer--a radically depotentiated form of life that may be improved out of existence or destroyed with little compunction. Together these ’faminescapes’ manifest (and mystify) the economic relations of production, modalities of representation, and regimes of power that constitute the horror of mass starvation. An historico-political understanding of these processes is essential to challenging claims that naturalise famine. I conclude that famine mortality occurred inside a sophisticated apparatus of care and direction: aid was controlled, relief structures were operationalised, institutions were built, bodies were managed, laws were sanctioned, and ideologies were mobilised. Important too is the knowledge that famine was used as an engine of historical transformation, a practice that is still relevant to many of today’s so-called ’natural disasters.’

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