Memory and Negotiating Space

B y Lorraine Ryan, University of Birmingham

Collective memory is central to the process of identity formation, a fact which John Gillis elucidates as follows: “The core meaning of any individual or group identity, namely a sense of sameness over time, is sustained by remembering, and what is remembered is defined by the assumed identity” (3). Space constitutes a crucial fundament of this personal memory as it provides the commemorative symbols that affirm and validate personal memory through the social approval of the individual’s memories. Moreover, individuals possess a deep affective bond to spaces, which command in them a type of loyalty to these surroundings: for example, a shabby playground may elicit affection from an individual because it materializes their childhood. This is a process known as place attachment, which Irwin Altman and Setha Low have defined as “the symbolic relationship formed by people giving culturally shared emotional/affective meanings to a particular space or piece of land that provides the basis for the individual’s and group’s understanding of and relationship to the environment” (92).

The relationship between space and the dominant memory is designed to create in Benedict Anderson’s words, “an imagined community”, a group who complies with the characteristics of the dominant group. Jenny Edkins astutely recognises that commemoration consolidates a uniform representation of the past, which prevents individuals engaging in more active forms of remembrance (130). Spatial exclusion of minority groups and migrants is frequently implemented through non-representation in commemoration, which transmits the undesirability of other groups, who are deprived of socio-spatial frameworks in which to obtain the necessary social approval of their memories. The state’s monopoly of the symbolic commemoration creates a periphery of people who are passive recipients of the dominant memory, and who do not participate in its elaboration or diffusion, and whose repressed individual memory is curtailed (Spillman 35). It can also generate entropy, a dissociative process by which the individual occupies a space from which they gain only the bare minimum, and more importantly, are denied the opportunity to gain future social and economic benefits (Lehan 45). Consequently, the individual has only a partial and unsatisfactory experience of space, which weakens their personal memory and identity.

Piérre Nora´s concept of les lieux de mémoire (realms of memory) is vital to furthering our understanding of space and memory. The decline of the institutions that previously upheld the nation state, such as the church and village communities, has compelled individuals to conserve symbolic lieux de memoire, such as archives, anniversaries, and monuments, which invest the past with present meaning (13). Geographer Stephen Legg has criticised Nora’s concept. He writes: “Les liéux de mémore are instrumental and functional in maintaining national identity, yet they are supposed to be able to rally communities in defence of minority or national rights” (493). The scholarly contributions of leading mnemonic theorists, such as Wulf Kansteiner and Susan Crane resolve this conundrum, enlightening us as to how both the dominant and minority groups vie to control public space. Although collective memory through the form of spatial control exerts a formidable influence on individual memory, this does not negate the power of the individual “memory consumer” (Kansteiner 182). The negotiation of space and memory are contingent upon the individual negotiation of it, to the extent that collective memory markers, such as sites, texts, and narratives “remain objects if they are not read or referred to by individuals” (Crane 1381). The individual capacity to negotiate space and memory has been sanctioned by the emergence of counter-memory, the memory of the repressed (Foucault 1980) as a dominant mnemonic framework. These excluded groups, which can include migrant groups, attempt to include their own memories into the public space, which effectively means that space is constantly renewed by “asymmetrical relations of power” (Keith and Pile 38), in effect, the relationship between memory, space and power is modified by changes in the social distribution of power. For example, in June 2002, a statue of prominent slave-owner, Robert Milligan was removed from the Docklands in London in response to the wishes of London´s multicultural community. Therefore, although it may appear hierarchical and homogeneous, public space is a porous site of conflicting memories.

Adapted from Lorraine Ryan, Memory and Spatiality in Postmillennial Spanish Narrative, London: Routledge, 2014.


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Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on The Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso Books, 2006.

Crane, Susan A. “Writing the Individual Back into Collective Memory.” The American Historical Review 102.5 (1997): 1372-1385.

Edkins, Jenny. Trauma and the Memory of Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Foucault, Michel. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980.

Gillis, John R. “Introduction. Memory and Identity: the History of a Relationship.” Commemorations. Ed. John R. Gillis. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2018. 1-24.

Kansteiner, Wolf. “Finding Meaning in Memory: A Methodological Critique of Collective Memory Studies.” History and Theory 41.2 (2002): 179-197.

Keith, Michael and Steven Pile. Place and the Politics of Identity. London: Routledge, 1993.

Legg, Stephen. “Contesting and Surviving Memory: Space, Nation, and Nostalgia in Les lieux de mémoire.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 23.4 (2005): 481-504.

Lehan, Richard. The City in Literature: An Intellectual and Cultural History. Berkeley: Univ of California Press, 1998.

Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les lieux de mémoire.” Representations 26 (1989): 7-24.

Spillman, Lynette P. Nation and Commemoration: Creating National Identities in the United States and Australia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

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