Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick | Published: 15 March, 2010
ISSUE 5 | Pages: 45-57 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2010-2264
The ‘confessional’ autobiography has become a popular variant of professional football autobiography in Britain. Co-written ‘autobiographies’ by prominent former emigrant Irish or Irish descended international footballers have featured prominently in this sub-genre. Their ‘confessions’ of alcoholism, gambling, infidelity, irresponsibility towards partners or dependents, or underlying ontological insecurity might be seen as an insightful engagement with their lives as male footballers in Britain. However, focusing on two autobiographies of Paul McGrath, and reading these ‘troubled’ accounts using psychoanalytic perspectives on sport, migration and masculinity, it is argued that they are contradictory texts which embody a peculiar variation on the emigrant “fugitive state of mind” (Davar, 1996), both approximating and deferring mature, reflexive engagement with the social and cultural construction of identity, allowing them to occupy a liminal but discontent imaginary space in which adolescent masculinity can be indefinitely extended. The homosocial world of men’s professional football is a key factor in this.
En Gran Bretaña, la autobiografía ‘confesional’ se ha convertido en una popular variante de la autobiografía del futbolista profesional. ‘Autobiografías’de prominentes antiguos jugadores internacionales, emigrantes irlandeses o de descendencia irlandesa, escritas en colaboración, destacan principalmente en este sub-género. Sus ‘confesiones’ de alcoholismo, afición al juego, infidelidad, irresponsabilidad hacia compañeros o subalternos, o subyacente inseguridad ontológica pueden ser interpretadas como un revelador compromiso con sus vidas de futbolistas en Gran Bretaña. Sin embargo, concentrándonos en dos autobiografías de Paul McGrath, y leyendo estos ‘atribulados’ relatos basándonos en perspectivas psicoanalíticas del deporte, la emigración y la masculinidad, se puede argumentar que son textos contradictorios que personifican una peculiar variante ‘del estado mental fugitivo’ (Davar, 1996) del emigrante; estado éste que tanto aproxima como posterga un compromiso maduro y reflexivo en la construcción de la identidad social y cultural, y les permite ocupar un espacio imaginario liminal pero insatisfecho en el cual es factible prolongar indefinidamente una masculinidad adolescente. El mundo homosocial del fútbol profesional masculino es un factor esencial en esta cuestión.
Emigración; masculinidad; autobiografía; deporte; psicoanálisis
In recent years the ‘confessional’ autobiography has varied the hitherto notoriously banal professional football biography in Britain (Whannel 2002). Co- or ‘ghost-written’ ‘autobiographies’ of such former emigrant Irish or Irish descended international footballers as Roy Keane, Tony Cascarino, Niall Quinn, Paul McGrath and George Best have featured in this sub-genre. Their ‘confessions’ of alcoholism, gambling, infidelity, irresponsibility towards partners or dependents, or of underlying ontological insecurity might be seen as insightful engagements with their lives as male Irish footballers in Britain. However, this paper argues that the combination of narratives organised around the rhythmic cycles of football seasons and almost exclusive focus on men’s football’s ‘homosocial’ (Sedgwick 1985) world (repeatedly distanced from the feminine and domestic) has celebrated a unique variation of Irish emigrant masculinity. Indeed the confessional discourse and popularised psychological terminology frequently licence ‘colourful’ anecdotes which legitimate the footballer’s extended male adolescent lifestyle.
And yet, with some variety, they highlight and reflexively comment on these footballers’ embodiment of contradictory migrant masculinities, sharing with generations of manual labouring Irish emigrants their self-validation and identity formation through bodily labour, along with the concomitant physical risks and enduring damage resulting from the commodification of labour power through physically demanding work, while also gaining fame and (though often temporary) wealth as celebrities. Reading these biographical accounts using psychoanalytic perspectives on sport, masculinity and migration, it is argued that they are contradictory texts embodying a peculiar variation on the emigrant “fugitive state of mind” (Davar, 1996), both approximating and deferring mature, reflexive engagement with the social and cultural construction of identity, allowing them to occupy a liminal but discontent imaginary space where adolescent masculinity can be indefinitely extended.
The paper focuses on two co-written ‘autobiographies’ of Paul McGrath. McGrath was among the most popular international Irish soccer players ever, his career lasting from 1985 to 1997. A renowned centre back at Manchester United and Aston Villa, he also frequently played in midfield internationally under Ireland manager Jack Charlton (1986-1995). Although he successfully played with severely damaged and painful knees which notoriously prevented proper training, but without apparently impeding performances, McGrath’s famously excessive, unrepentant drinking precipitated his ‘sale’ by Alex Ferguson to Aston Villa in 1989, and despite a career renaissance (McGrath was voted Professional Footballers’ Association Player of the Year in 1993), he failed to appear for several international matches due to drinking binges, and either missed many club games due to alcohol consumption, or played while under its influence. McGrath’s popularity in Ireland undoubtedly owed something to his success at a time when the national team was becoming a symbol of postcolonial renaissance in Ireland. He was reassuringly ‘Irish’ despite his mother’s migration and his inter-‘racial’ mix, while his broken biography and body became emblematic, in journalistic commentaries, of an historically, geographically fractured nation reassembled and able to function as a unit (Free 2005). For supporters he symbolically ‘contained’ anxieties concerning national identity’s constructedness and selectiveness. Accepting and celebrating “the black pearl of Inchicore”, his nickname and subtitle to this book, became a mark of national “maturity” (Doyle 1998).
The first ‘autobiography’ (with Cathal Dervan, 1994) celebrates McGrath’s supposed embodiment of the Irish ‘diaspora’ but glosses over his well known alcoholism and serial infidelity, while the second (with Vincent Hogan, 2006) is a ‘confessional’ volume written post-career and following two failed marriages. Just as Roy Keane supposedly embodied a new, ruthless, competitive, industrious Irishness, a common fantasy theme in Ireland’s ‘Celtic Tiger’ years (Free 2004), McGrath’s biographies were historically specific. The 1994 volume (with Cathal Dervan) was written when the discourse of ‘diaspora’ was emerging in Ireland as a romantic recasting of Ireland’s emigrant history from a narrative of failure to success. Belonging to a national football team composed entirely of emigrants or emigrant descendants, McGrath was held to embody a new image of emigration and emigrant descent as collective national success. This biography validates and celebrates his embodiment of Irish identity despite his ‘blackness’ (his father was Nigerian) and birth in London, so extending a persistent theme in Irish sports journalism at that time. However, in its relentless confessions of drinking, insecurities, and personal and professional behavioural transgressions, the 2006 volume (with Vincent Hogan) was intertextually related to the ‘masculinity in crisis’ theme which emerged in journalistic and social commentaries from the late 1990s onwards (Beynon 2002).
As in any co-written ‘autobiography’, the titular ‘Paul McGrath’ in each case is, of course, a constructed first person narrator whose ‘persona’ reflects a collaborative effort, the outcome of a dialogue between McGrath and each biographer. Each text discursively constructs an ‘I’ intertextually related to contemporaneous social discourses, but nonetheless indicative of the psychodynamic process of McGrath’s biographical construction as an emigrant Irish man at a historically specific moment.
Sports biographies are culturally significant because they elevate and reinforce sport stars as objects of “collective emotional investment” (Cubitt 2000: 3). The making and remaking of heroic or ‘star’ reputations depends on both ‘mythologisation’, attribution of magical powers to gifted individuals, and ‘reinscription’, star biographies constantly being rewritten in the present (Whannel 2002: 56). The drama of sport is heightened by both sport heroes’ human fallibility and frequently barely contained tensions between rule-bound conformity and maverick, rule-stretching or breaking independence, and between on-field sporting excellence and off-field social code bending and breaking. Hence sport biographies as “ups-and-downs” and “rise-and-fall” morality tales (Whannel 2002: 60-62) that, far from documenting “exemplary lives” (Cubitt 2000) chronicle unfulfilled outstanding natural talent or off-field transgressions and struggles with “inner demons” followed by personal redemption and renewal.
Written biographies are highly performative, not simply descriptive, giving narrative shape and continuity to their documented lives. Such ‘ghost-written’ ‘autobiographies’ of famous emigrant Irish footballers as McGrath’s are particularly significant in that they have attempted to address the difficulties faced by emigrant players in narratives of unhappy migrant experiences and identities. Thus they can be situated within the recent history of Irish emigrant biography and autobiography (Harte 2007). Emigrant footballers have been elite in respect of their fame and earnings, yet through reliance on ability to sell their labour power, vulnerability to injury, the whims of football clubs and unpredictability of playing form, they have shared experiences with generations of Irish male emigrant manual labouring workers.
Irish emigrant footballers’ extensive media visibility has somewhat qualified their ‘emigrant’ status. Perhaps ‘migrant’ more appropriately encapsulates their consequently ‘in-between’ status as both physically absent, but visibly ubiquitous national symbols. The paper examines how these biographies as constructive texts represent these migrant experiences. Does their confessional tone and aspiration offer insightful reflection or does their (primary?) focus on the football season’s rhythms act to defer reflexive engagement with how migration impacts on national and gender identity and, vice versa, the latter’s impact on migrant experience?
A Psychoanalytic Approach
To analyse these texts the paper draws on psychoanalytic perspectives on the construction of masculine subjectivity, on migration and migrant identity, and on sport, using concepts associated with Melanie Klein (1975a; 1975b), and an approach heavily influenced by Jefferson (1994) and Hollway (1984; 1989; Hollway and Jefferson 2000). The reasons are that, only by concentrating on the interplay between the discursive expression of identity and signs of potential unconscious underpinnings, and between thoughts and behaviour at different times in the narrators’ lives is it possible to trace and analyse the vicissitudes of those national and gendered migrant identities constructed through the medium of retrospective autobiography.
The psychoanalytic focus is prompted by the basic theses that identity is relationally constructed and that these (auto)biographies will illustrate their subject’s move between various discursive constructions of masculinity, but that a psychoanalytic frame will illuminate a particular aspect of identity construction: the interlocking of unconscious desire and power as a key motivating factor in behaviour and its rationalisation. The approach is informed by Jefferson’s (1994) and Hollway’s (in Henriques et al. 1984, and 1989) incorporation of psychoanalytic and Foucauldian thought in attempting to explain the role of human agency in the “historically constructed pattern of power relations between men and women and definitions of femininity and masculinity” (Connell 1987: 98-99, in Jefferson 1994: 14). Prompted by how psychoanalysis’ theory of desire and the unconscious dynamically impacting on consciousness disposes of any naïve notion of the unitary subject exercising conscious agency, Hollway (1989) reinserted subjectivity into the theorisation of gender identity, practice and hierarchy, but without resorting to Lacanian psychoanalysis, whose positing that subjectivity is produced through language’s ‘Symbolic order’ is an agent-less structuralism (Jefferson 1994: 18-19), or to Foucault’s reduction of “subjects to the effects of discourses” (Jefferson 1994: 16).
Hollway (1984; 1989) posited the construction of subjectivity through discursive relations, but overcame Foucault and Lacan’s problematic erasure of subjectivity by focusing on desire as the key factor in identity formation. She specifically turned to Melanie Klein’s deviation from Freud by focusing on the pre-Oedipal desire for the mother, and the more primitive pre-Oedipal defence mechanisms by which the infant copes with the frustration of this desire, commencing in the oral phase. For Klein, primitive infant subjectivity emerges by splitting the mother as maternal breast in fantasy between the ‘good’, nourishing breast and the ‘bad’, withholding breast as uncontainable, destructive fantasies are projected outwards onto the bad breast while idealising fantasies are ‘introjected’ as the ‘good breast’. These fantasies precipitate ‘paranoid schizoid anxiety’, whereby the infant fears the reprisal of the bad breast (1975a), and ‘depressive anxiety’, triggered by the onset of realisation of difference from the mother as a ‘whole’, rather than ‘part-object’, and fear of having destroyed her in fantasy (1975b). Manic projections may result from the paranoid schizoid defence against depressive anxiety and the entry into the ‘depressive position’, a landmark maturation of nascent individuation in which the infant experiences empathy and guilt.
Hollway situates these anxieties and “the continuous attempt to manage” them within social relations as a “motive for the negotiation of power” (Hollway 1989: 85), giving a decidedly social dimension to the conceptualisation of desire, tracing it to desire for power over the mother as first love object, but seeing it as the “motor for positioning in discourses and the explanation of what is suppressed in signification” (Hollway 1989: 60). Thus subjectivity develops from “two or more people’s unique histories, the contradictions between meanings (suppressed and expressed), differentiated positions in available discourses, the flux of their continuously negotiated power relations and the effect of their defence mechanisms” (Hollway 1989: 84-85). Jefferson therefore argues that “discourses and structures point towards societal and institutional levels of analysis; desiring subjects point towards the importance of life-history research” and that “both levels are necessary” (1994: 29), an approach informing their later joint work (Hollway and Jefferson 2000).
Applied to autobiography, a deliberate, rehearsed, carefully constructed narrativisation of ‘life-history’, this combination of Foucauldian and psychoanalytic concepts should illuminate both the subject’s discursive movement through the narrative, but also how, whether reflexively acknowledged, suggested, implied, or open to inference and interpretation on the basis of the ‘evidence’ provided, desire and power are interrelated in their construction of subjectivity. Seeking evidence of the elusive “unconscious
- This oral-anal sadism is pervasive, from hiding drugs to convince Caroline he was ‘clean’ (2006: 20) to laughing as people assisted when he crashed his car (2006: 157) to sabotaging recording sessions by drinking and laughing during retakes (2006: 234 and 302). [↩]
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