Posts Tagged ‘politics’



In Uncategorized on January 16, 2014 by Eoin O'Mahony Tagged: , , , , ,

By the end of this thesis, I have tried to identify a new politics of the secular, one that does not rely on opposition to the Religious. In the definition of where and what is Religious, everyday practices get scaled out of their political significance and which are then made public. Others are made to be private. This is part of a larger minoritising logic which is something that for now I will call a secularisation process. I am not entirely happy with the idea of a secularisation process in much the same way as speaking about ‘the Enlightenment’ is a problem. At the very least, a secularisation process implies that there is one of them. To become secular, places have to measure up to a standard, all the time planing away the local and the contingent.

Trying to identify such a new spatial politics of the secular is hard because the secular wants to scale the local ‘up’ to something akin to real social space. The designation of social space as real is a political process, bracketing some ideas while allowing others to achieve something called progress. One of the most destructive ideas in this conception of real social space is that secular people are freed from religion. It confines religious practice to a space that is often designated private space. When the practices and performances of this private space are deprivatised, this often occurs on terms set by political secularism. But where are these freed subjects of secularism located? Into what kind of space does this escape from the tyrannies of transcendence occur? As I have suggested already, one of the few ways to overcome this seeming paradox is to see the secular and the sacred standing in relation, not opposition. Which brings me to this post’s point.

In late November, my mother died. She had Parkinson’s syndrome since the mid-1990s. At first, the symptoms were manageable for her with some physiotherapy and medicine. Pills, lots of pills. Lewy Body dementia, often associated with Parkinson’s in the later stages, was the worst aspect of her decline. My mother drifted slowly away from us for years. At her funeral, my older brother described her dementia like being down a well and that we couldn’t reach her. She had hallucinations, initially knowing that they were just that. Later on, when they became more intense and mixed with a medically-enhanced depression, she could not tell what was real and what wasn’t. There were people upstairs, she would tell us, trying to steal her clothes and other, more upsetting, accusations. I remember her now, after her death, as the woman before all of this happened. The woman who held me and nursed me. And so, today, on my birthday it seems right that I remember the relationship I had with her, until her death. I don’t know where she is now. Although it took her a while to disappear from us entirely (from two years ago she could not speak nor open her eyes), I am still left wondering today where she is. She lives inside in me and within my family and her many friends. I don’t go for the heaven thing but she is somewhere else, just not here. I have been with others who stand alongside a grave and heard them speak to the dead. Are they disconnected from this world? Are they mad to think that the dead hear us? Of course not.

An understanding of our social and cultural life which does not, at the very least, take account of the deep sociality of these connections fails to be a secular understanding. I want a secular politics that does not define itself against the religious, which is also part of The Human. Here to me is the important bit: there is nowhere else other than this current reality into which we can go to escape enchantment. We are, in a sense, stuck with each other, in this place. We can, says Merleau-Ponty, “fly from being only into being”. Desires to escape from the barbarism of civilisation are only into a relational understanding of the healing powers of nature (Taylor, 2005) itself crossed by specific relationships and disenchantment. Being stuck in place, it can be so easy to scale ‘up’, to generalise to a level of analysis which evacuates the affective sociality of us all, together, here. To treat the world we live in and our inhabitation of it as objects would be a mistake because “the social does not exist as a third person object” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962). I want a secular politics that takes account of the expressive unity of our minds and bodies. Not a pantheism of the secular, but one that acknowledges the need for (and the missing of) each other. I know for sure that we are not self-owning.

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Not Data but data.

In Uncategorized on November 18, 2013 by Eoin O'Mahony Tagged: , , ,

Courtesy Mark Malone. Over the last two weeks or so I have been coding, collating, inputting and analysing the data coming from the questionnaires from the recent Left Forum meeting in Dublin ‘Does Ireland need a new left party?’ When the prospect of distributing a questionnaire arose in the organising group’s conversation I had to get involved. My area of expertise as a paid social researcher is compiling and analysing questionnaires. I am a trained sociologist and I have always seemed to gravitate towards the quantitative. I’m not one who believes in the innate power of numbers and I have spent some of my doctoral work arguing against the politics of numeric fetishisation in the social sciences. In my near-two decades of involvement with Left politics in Ireland, this is the first time I have seen anything resembling an analysis of needs and wants. Speaking with someone last week who is involved in Left politics in Ireland and elsewhere for much longer, she could not recall a single survey among Left wing activists in Ireland. Ever.

After the Provisional University meeting earlier this year where Stephen and I gave a decent talk about our dereliction project, it struck me that the Left in Ireland is crap at using data. We attempted to serve a larger political point about brownfield sites and circuits of capital by collecting some baseline data on Dublin city. We were trying to improve other’s work. It was relatively easy to do so but we felt it important to talk about something interesting with some ordinary enumeration. We are matching it with other data that Stephen has gleaned and publicly available data from CSO and Dublinked. We reckon we have a lot of data and this will be published hopefully next year. There’s NERI and TASC doing good econometric analysis and then there’s Unite doing excellent work through Michael Taft’s blog. And that’s about it in terms of political action. It seems to me that there’s an aversion to the use of ordinary aggregative data on the Left in Ireland, derived either from other sources or among the communities and organisations we work with.

It would seem to me that data (the stuff of all of our lives) has been allowed to be captured by the kinds of economists that we hear endlessly on RTE and other news outlets. This results in, for example, driving a coach and four through the idea of criticality and alternative analyses based on freely available data at the PRTB. (I think Ronan Lyons objected more to my questioning of his analysis than the analysis itself last week on twitter.) It allows said orthodox economists and other associated commentators to cite data without subtlely or distinction between various social classes and geographic contexts. This concedes too much political ground to those who erase the things that are worth struggling for. The ground is handed over again and again to those who never question the orthodoxy of ‘to cure the patient we have to kill him’. This is such that most journalists are left scrambling for anecdotal evidence in the absence of another view. Piaras McEinri from UCC recently demolished the low taxation woo of the ISMEs of this world on Primetime. He did this not by shouting them down but by presenting some ordinary facts derived from the project he is coordinating. To form grounded and effective consciousness among the only class that can beat capitalism we need to work hard to have these other views at our fingertips. These need to be grounded in reliable data. If there is no source of these data, how do we get it? Are there better ways to measure? There are too many Reinhart and Rogoff scenarios about right now for it to remain unimportant. Derivatives and other destructive financial instruments are ideological as well as scientific.

Why is data important? Because to see all of the parts in motion in this vast system of exploitation, we need to have as much control of the data as the system itself. I think the reason the Left in Ireland is crap at data is because we rely far too much on the rhetoric of mobilisation. How many political meetings or rallies have you been to where someone alongside you afterwards wildly overestimates how many were present? Sometimes by a factor of five or six. A rhetoric of mobilisation allows you to overclaim support but of course it also stands in the face of reality. A reality distorted will lead only to further disillusionment among people who have only so much energy. We have to be honest with ourselves first and foremost. As someone at that Left Forum meeting said in the small group sessions, we need a little humility.

I think we need a programme of research on the Left in Ireland. We need to do some counting of very ordinary things and ask some very ordinary questions. In the spring, I am going to start with some basic digital mapping workshops.


The secular is not just about religion.

In Politics on October 7, 2013 by Eoin O'Mahony Tagged: , , , , , , , , ,

Coming to the end of this Ph.D. (I’m planning on submitting for examination early in 2014) I am beginning to sift through the various positions and arguments about the existence or otherwise of this thing called the secular. I am firmly in the camp that sees secularisation as the deployment of particular ways of thinking about the world; it is not a natural occurrence. Secularisation is not an inevitable result of the decline of religion. This is a story that some like to tell so that firstly, we can feel good about being all modern, and secondly allows Us to confirm Our obviously superior way of being to The Other’s. In short, a story of the secular that assumes a progressive and inexorable move from more to less religious is a reduction of experience to the point of real and symbolic violence. It is an ethnocentric projection which prolongs a sense that We have superseded history to take an objective position. It seeks to de-anthropologise one set of human values in relation to another.

Moreover, secularisation is complementary to a worldview that extends to a deity, it is not a replacement for god. 11th century Christian monasteries referred to the secular as that which is outside their walls. This does not mean that god ceased to exist at their gate. The secular exists in relation to a religious worldview; it is in tension with a way of being in the world that draws upon theism. Within this tension are contestations of what it is to be a human – a question that arises from an objectification, a distancing, an alienation. What Taylor’s Great Disembedding grants Us Moderns is the conceit that We decide this. We authorise ourselves to live our lives. Through a process of authorisation of what is included in the human, power and place come to the fore. Some forms of the secular authorise ‘the here and the now’ over ‘the there and the past’. This is a practice with an inherent politics. Such authorisations are concerned (by no means exhaustively) with people with Down’s syndrome in the workplace, restorative justice, the extension of marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples and transgender politics. It is also inclusive of the current moves to create greater diversity in primary school provision. This is a political space which helps decide that some practices are private and others are public. Authorisation implies power.

I was thinking of this last week as I heard the story about the owner of Daintree (a Dublin paper store) refusing to stock same-sex cake toppers in his shop “because it was in conflict with his religious beliefs”. (I won’t be buying any more of my paper there.) While there may have been the use of a religious legitimation for the sake of not dealing with a conflict, the response to his refusal points to an understanding of secularism as temporally progressive. Many responses on twitter referred to the fact that This is The 21st Century and these views have no place in Ireland now. The objection to the Daintree shop owner’s decision was partially based on the sense that his views about the illegitimacy of same-sex marriage belong to The Past. For many, it was an unauthorised utterance at a time when the Irish state is beginning to authorise new forms of partnership and family. In this way, we can begin to detect a political anthropology for secularism: what is allowable here (now) and not there (then). There is a spatial politics at play, a politics where secularisation is a lens for analysis, not a destination.

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Rites of passage

In Politics,Thesis on July 30, 2013 by Eoin O'Mahony Tagged: , , ,

I am struggling these last weeks with finding any sense in my thesis work. While I have a fairly defined plan for the next period until the end of 2013, I guess I am constantly questioning my motivation. I am doing this because the end of the PhD means making choices, principally about what my next job could be. I’m not good at making choices. Here’s the plan I sent The Supervisor last week, following a query from someone else about my progress:

  • A new draft of the literature review. I have been revising it over the last couple of weeks, alongside compiling my bibliography.
  • The first half of August: write a syncretic chapter (formally Chapter 6)
  • If I have time, I’ll redraft the methodology chapter too.
  • From September to November, I would like to make further revisions to Chaps 2 to 5.
  • From November to February 28 2014, review, rewrite, rehash, rewire.

If I can squeeze out two, long-promised, co-written papers for Irish Geography over this time, that would be great too. Now, as the badge suggested, the PhD is still fine but writing it alongside work is more difficult than i had thought this time last year. OH assures me, in her continuing forbearance, that every PhD meets some kind of crisis. In short, I am jealous of the time I don’t spend writing about the geopolitical implications of a re-formed secularity. This questioning of motivation is also related to the thoughts of Kelly Baker and others. I like working with ideas, writing about them and telling others about them. There is every chance however that this full blown economic crisis will bring about the restructuring of all educational work, not just at primary level. Universities want teachers who don’t spend too much time thinking about, or actually, teaching but enough to create innovation machines sufficiently sparkly for work that is being devalued in new ways every, single, day. If they can do this for a lot less money, that’s called ‘a good thing’.

So why am I continuing? Because I believe what I have to say is important. It is worth writing about the spatial practices of Irish Catholics and its political implications. It consumes me. About one year ago, Stephen sent me a picture from Hardwicke Place, in Dublin. Last month, he sent me another picture from the same spot. Here are the two, side by side:


On the right is an image of the public housing in Hardwicke Street. It has an image of a crucified Jesus painted on. I am going to assume, but I will find out, that it was painted by people who live there. On the left is the same block of public housing, following necessary renovation, and the installation of a new football pitch in the yard. The image of a crucified Christ has been erased. (I’m going to leave aside the railings which some might interpret more significantly.) What does the image’s erasure tell us? What is implied by this redefinition of the public space? Did the people living ask for its removal? What happens to an area when art like this is removed from Dublin and other cities? (Note to self: folk art is a stupid term.) What kinds of politics are implied by the removal of the image in the area’s redevelopment? What effects did the image have anyway?

It is important that we know the answers to these questions because these are the places where we live. Place is political; it is not just a container for some quaint experiences. It reminds me of the question that got me started on this thesis in 2009: if someone took a lump hammer in anger to the Marian statues of Dublin, would it matter? if I keep this in mind until February, I might just get through this.

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Speculative positionality

In Politics on June 17, 2013 by Eoin O'Mahony Tagged: , , , , , , ,

“To the majority of Irish historians, the working class is seen as a people to be helped – always asking of government but receiving less. The reason for this is that Irish historians meet the working class, almost exclusively, through the records of relief agencies and those who ‘do good.’ In this way, the working class does not have a history, only problems which need to be addressed.”

Conor McCabe

 At the recent Conference of Irish Geographers, the very first paper I attended was Mark Hennessy’s account of the taxation and geography of late thirteenth and early fourteenth century Ireland. Mark brought us through the records he had found and researched in London with a rigour that was startling. The taxation records show a reflection of the social and economic relations in Ireland at the time, most particularly the uneven distribution of the taxes being collected by the emergent colonial power. I asked a relatively tame question but should instead have asked him the question that was jumping up and down inside of me: what parallels could we draw between the current campaign against the household tax and your work on these thirteenth century records? My academic, and not political, brain took over. Mark’s paper was very good but reminded me that historical geography is not for me. What I have heard over the last few years tends to evacuate the basis upon which societies reproduce themselves through their labour.

As the dereliction project that Stephen and I have devised develops over the coming months, spawning podcasts and dereliction spin offs, it has become increasingly important to realise that the accretion of historical facts and analysis is not interesting in and of itself. As critical geographers, we have tried to steer clear of the ‘show-and-tell’ geographies (Stephen’s phrase) that characterises much academic research in Ireland. In the historical geography frame in particular, the temptation is to stick to interpretation, not change. The launch of the Down Survey maps in Trinity College showed this ably: the maps were presented to us as wonderful illustrations, not the work of colonial force. In my work on the statues of Mary dotted around Dublin city, I have never wanted to make them quaint objects of religious ‘heritage’. They are, and always have been, parts of the city landscape that direct us to the contradictions in the re-production of the city as a place. I have tried to portray the statues as the material outcome of a population struggling with the creation of suburbs and of slum clearance. How is memory, of both higher and ordinary time, materialised in new places? Decisions about fundraising, construction and maintenance were central to this form of place making. The Marian statues of Dublin have been erased from Dublin’s ‘official history’ because they don’t fit a particular way of creating Dublin. The City Council has a database of statues and monuments. Not a single Marian statue appears in it.

Academic sociology and geography (those I am most familiar with) for the most part conceive of other erasures. The core of my argument is that these academic disciplines reproduce working class cultures on their behalf. (Now erase that cloth cap from your mind’s eye.) The erasures of everyday experience are plain to see when you ask yourself when was the last time you heard Terry (or Rita) Fagan on Newstalk’s Talking History? In a conversation with Conor McCabe, he stated that many academics fail “to look at working class communities without the prism of heroin and joyriding.” I would go further and say that Communities (capital C) are also the objects of investigation and participatory research methods, not sites of cultural reproduction. Conor reiterates this point:

“If all that is analysed is Ballymun and Fatima Mansions, that affects the macro. It’s not an either/or situation but in the absence of one, the other becomes the defining narrative.”

What is this defining narrative? Part of it is that working class Dublin (and elsewhere) is not taken seriously as a place where politics comes from, with the odd (quaint) exception. The Spectacle of Defiance and Hope, goes this narrative, is a wonderful art project but it should probably steer clear of politics. Public housing regeneration is something that is granted from above. The now defunct Combat Poverty Agency was a government-funded body that carried out valuable research on working class communities and everyday life but it was hidebound by a civil service attitude of provision. A quick jaunt through their back catalogue shows the prevalence of the Communities approach: poverty, disadvantage, participation are conceived of as things that must be tackled by policy. They are not the outcomes of the ways in which neighbourhoods continually reproduce themselves in the manner that middle and upper classes find so ‘effortless’. It is effortless because the defining narrative facilitates it. Am I off track a bit here?


Conferences for 2013

In Uncategorized on January 2, 2013 by Eoin O'Mahony Tagged: , , ,

Thanks to the part sponsorship of the Geographical Society of Ireland, I am off to the Nordic Geographers’ Conference in June. The conference is in Reykjavik and so much of the first few days will be an attempt to understand why the sun hardly sets. Like some others I am planning for 2013 (CIG, ISASR), planning for these events means bending current research interests to suit conference themes. I’m speculating that this session is the best suited to where I am right now, about one year to go on my thesis. It is only an abstract and I’m hoping the organisers will accept it as a contribution to the workshop. Geographies or emotion and memory connects with my doctoral work but more particularly I want to ground the directly political nature of spatialised memory, if I can. To my mind, so much of that kind of academic work is currently about hand-waving.

“During 2010 and 2011 I conducted fieldwork in four sites of pilgrimage in Ireland and Spain, gathering data from my doctoral thesis. The fieldwork began as an exercise in non-participant observation; it ended on my knees in the rain on an island in a Donegal lake. I began by thinking about how to elicit pilgrim responses to the settings. I ended by walking a week of the Camino in Spain and three days of penitence in Lough Derg, Ireland.

How is memory spatialised and how memories might be theorized remains a significant challenge for geography. Those who provided accounts of walking on the Camino referred to memories in places. Those I spoke with at Lough Derg repeatedly referred to how difficult it was in the past. How does the embodied experience get translated into something spiritual? These little acts of translation are filled with the spatial. But how do places form memories and how are they translated into ‘the spiritual’? How is memory spatialised and what kinds of methods serve this process? My contribution (based on my fieldwork on pilgrimage) hopes to unpack some of these questions.”

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What is change anyway?

In Posts,Thesis on April 13, 2012 by Eoin O'Mahony Tagged: , , , , ,

Last week, I was listening to my OH’s mother’s stories from her childhood. This is a woman who grew up in rural Leitrim in a time of radio and long drop toilets. She was recalling how people would call to her family home during the evening time and tell stories and share gossip. These visits of course generated their own stories. Inevitably perhaps, there was a little conversation about the decline of domestic story telling and the rise of the television. Which got me thinking: how do neighbourly concerns and stories get folded into national concerns? I mean it is not as if our everyday experiences are spatially or temporally nested like Matryoshka dolls, the local into the regional, the national and international. Briefly, where exactly do anecdotes about Jimmy Frank’s outdoor toilet cease to have a relevance? I inarticulately introduced this into a later conversation with OH but I needed to keep my eye on the road.

On Tuesday morning last, the report of the Advisory Group to the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector was released. Aside from it being a nice little headline-earner for Quinn as he attended the INTO annual conference, it is not an insignificant report. Certainly in the first twenty pages or so, the Group’s overview of the development of primary education in Ireland threw up some surprises, to me. For example, religious ethos being distributed across the school curriculum came only in political moves of the late 1960s: a certain consolidation by the Catholic bishops in the face of seeming momentous alterations in the political landscape.

As is stated in the text above, such a development represents a “significant change” in a few different things. Change is a repeated theme in the first section of the  report. On a simple accounting, the word ‘change’ appears 93 times in the document.

The changed character of the population is evidenced in Section II of this Report. p.1

The cultivation of trust and confidence in the process of transition is important so that people can understand the rationale for change and the values for the common good… p.3

Regarding the administration of primary schools a striking feature of the political changeover was the lack of change, and the continuity of the inherited tradition of primary schooling. p.10

No significant policy changes affecting Irish primary education took place thereafter until the 1960s. The sixties was a period of significant political, economic, social, cultural and demographic change. p.13

You get the idea. What strikes me on reading this first part of a very well written document is the notion of change as being symbolic to the stories we all tell collectively or, in the content of primary educational policy, ‘nationally’. Change in Ireland, like Obama’s 2008 Hope, is reserved for some elements of political life in Ireland. A change in policy to favour land speculation is not considered Change although it represents one of the turning points of our recent history. Under what conditions does Change happen in Ireland and most particularly where does it happen?

Change in this sense is too static a conception of how we notice things being one way and then becoming another way, over time. Change for the Advisory Group is a grab bag of assumptions which occludes the lived reality of people’s everyday life where symbolic and actual violence was evident. There is a story in Ireland about how Change occurred in the 1960s and 1970s: where women bought condoms and brought them to Dublin on a train, where telephones became more widely available in homes and Phil Lynott came from London a hero. In this narrative, change occurs on many scales and in different places at different times, e.g. Leitrim is temporally ‘behind’ Mount Merrion. Places coexist but differentially access something called Change, because where ‘we are now’ is the achieved terminus of progress. I might call this a Reeling In The Years phenomenon. It is not as if people in these places wake up and say to themselves “that new measure that Maurice O’Doherty read on the news last night? That’s going to change things from today!”  This is a really difficult narrative to employ when talking about changes to primary provision in Ireland or how a Change in religious practice occurs over time.

What is this Change? Can you yet tell that I’m struggling with this?  


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