This is a reaction paper for the 6th week of GY802 here in NUI Maynooth. It is broadly speaking a critique of John Wylie’s 2009 paper on the phenomenological meaning of Mullion Cove’s memorial benches.
Notes on the seen and the unseen.
What is trusted as evidence and what can be taken for granted? In his paper, Wylie (2009) constructs an edifice on which to hang a tenuously-ascribed geography of love. He states that the paper is about “landscape, absence and love” but that it took him “months to see it” (277). The benches for Wylie are “material manifestations of memory and love” (278) and their presence connotes an absence, a ghosting of their materiality in the landscape. Researchers need an attentive empathy to tap into the depth (something which the first half of his 2006 paper is taken up) of memory-places. What is present in the paper is a paper on benches at Mullion Cove but what is absent is another (far more interesting) paper about people (re)producing space. Wylie was given a chance to present the absent. He might have stayed on holidays and instead interacted with those who shared his personal journey. (In the acknowledgements he thanks “Paul Harrison and Sarah Shirley for driving to and walking through Mullion” suggesting that he coaxed others into a production of precious significance.)
Phenomenology is a method for the unravelling of the world and its inhabitations. The relationality of the spatial and social formations of the world is central to this method. Meaning is adduced from the method being deployed, cast and recast to be suited to the textures and experiences available to the researcher. The relationality of the act to the fabric of the world remains central. In this, evidence is not produced but revealed. Wylie produces evidence and imputes a formal theory of the phenomena to hand, shoe-horning the evidence into a broad idea of Derridean ambiguities. Testimony to this solo run is the use of the first person singular: it appears on 74 separate instances. He wills presence/absence into being by placing himself as the centre of the relational nature of this evidently produced landscape. But he takes this further in the section on the geographies of love (284). Citing Derrida and Caputo as philosophic ballast, Wylie broadcasts his unrequited love for another (clearly absent) when he states that “it is precisely the inaccessible…nature of the other that deconstructive…thought seeks to at once announce and cherish” (284-5). This is a love that is “fully coincidence with yourself”. It might be argued that he was as well to avoid the use of “myself” here for fear of self-absorption. Going on to state that this can be avoided, Wylie refers to himself by not referring to himself (a therapo-narcissistic ploy) because no one can truly know another no matter how close one believes one to be. The realisation that “no complete coincidence of self and other or self and world is possible” (285) nails the deficiencies in his analysis and probably ruined his holiday. Phenomenology is an engagement to the world, first knowing that self and other encompass that world within themselves. Wylie mistakes his own discovery of this fact for the readers’ presumed misunderstanding of Derrida and its very real political message. Aligning himself with the French theorist avoids an engagement with others, a level of disengagement that negates the phenomenon.
Across Dublin stand at least 30 statues of the Virgin Mary in residential areas. Their presence connotes the religious faith of people who currently live in those areas and those who have since died. They are maintained, tended, flowered and painted on a regular basis. These are routine actions conducted by those willing and able to attend to this maintenance work. They are places of beauty, this beauty is enhanced by the flowers, and other objects placed in or near the statues. This sensuous understanding of objects in space is well acknowledged by Holloway (2006: 184) when writing about séances because “whereas one should not seek to devalue how certain identities, institutions, and wider spatialities were formed and reformed through the séance, one must also not deny how this formation was infused with and achieved through embodied relations, performance, and affectual sensations.” The interaction of the former with the latter is crucial to linking the practice of spirituality with wider socio-political formations. Their phenomenological import becomes clear in that “the subjects and objects of the séance, and its contribution to wider cultural-political discourses, are given a duration or degree of stability through practice and affect” (186). Marian statues are similar in that the understanding of the sensuous understanding of the devotion intended toward them is as important as the material conditions that allowed for their erection in the first instance. The causal processes at work here are reflected in the constancy of the devotion in the Ireland of the 1950s. Marian rosary was a continuous practice for large numbers of people for much of this time until the 1970s and the continuity reflected the wider processes of change then present.
Marian statues are the material embodiment of enchanted spaces. In being present in space, their meaning is evident but also in reference to something larger and altogether less transcendent: religious spaces are produced in a political context. “This process and embodiment of enchantment is that which is engendered in…the relational production of religious, spiritual, and sacred spaces. It is an affective register that informs the space of its realization and the wider processes of belief, society, and culture” (Holloway: 184). The relational production of the Marian statues in specific Dublin areas connotes particular ways in which notions of the public, the community are understood. These are not beliefs with no material presence (now mostly cut adrift from these presences). Instead, and against Wylie, the meaning of these places does not have to be collected but instead revealed. The Marian statue is the definition of the non-coincdence of self and other or self and the world and a profound understanding of it. Devotees act knowing that the statue is not the actual mother of God. Its meaning is in its very material separation from the body. The meaning is extant, just not always amenable to formal theorisation.