Urban Topography and Cultural Memory
It has often been observed that our time is obsessed with collective forms of cultural memory, which are seen as an emergency brake in the storm of unfettered ideologies of progress and rapid acceleration in the age of late capitalist consumer society and universal media networks. Our globalizing cities seem to function as the premier sites where technological innovation and economic changes compete with attempts to retrieve vanishing traditions, displaced memories, and nostalgic desires through architectural reconstruction and historicist simulations. In Berlin, the visible tension between Potsdamer Platz as the center of the German capital’s globalizing economy and the lovingly reconstructed museums around Unter den Linden is but one example of this clash between a reinvented past and an uncertain future.
This situation raises a question of interest to anthropological materialists and other practitioners of cultural studies: Is cultural memory as a form of public discourse and identify formation merely the product of collective projections onto architectural sites that in themselves have no intrinsic meaning (as Lutz Koepnick has proposed), or is cultural memory something that is inscribed in the materiality of topographic markers (streets, squares, buildings, etc.) themselves?
As with so many questions concerning urban (post-)modernity, Benjamin’s Arcades Project may help us come to terms with this one, too. In the first entry of the convolute on the Flâneur (M1,1), Benjamin leaves “the great reminiscences, the historical shudder” to the tourists, possibly because these forms of (pseudo-)commemoration are merely be superficial and evanescent forms of nostalgic projections, rather serious ways of engaging with authentic echoes of the past. The flâneur’s experience is quite different: “At the approach of his footsteps, the place has roused: speechlessly, mindlessly, its mere intimate nearness gives him hints and instructions”. Here, cultural memory is not seen as the product of individual or collective projections; it is not (merely) a form of ideological superstructure; it is not a creation of the human subject. Rather, cultural memory is something that is primarily produced by the material presence of the topographic site itself. Although activated by the perceptive flâneur, it is the place itself that initiates the formation of cultural memory through its tangible and visual signification. In this passage, Benjamin is careful not to ascribe a romanticized “soul” or “mind” to architecture; nonetheless, the topographic site is the primary agency in the communicative interaction that allows the flâneur to remember the historic events that occurred here.
Following Benjamin, we can therefore formulate a (tentative) answer to the question above: Cultural memory is not (merely) the product of collective projections onto architectural sites, and if it is, it may be little more than be an illusory or manipulated image of the past. Rather, for genuine forms of memory streets self-reflexively aware of its own mechanisms of formation, squares, and buildings are agents that articulate through their material presence the echoes of the past inscribed in them. Cultural memory, then, is the “translation” of this silent language of urban topography into the commemorating discourses of the human public. This translation is a form of hermeneutic deciphering of the textualized signification of the city that Benjamin theorizes throughout the Arcades Project. Even the total destruction or demolition of buildings (think of the empty site of the former Palast der Republic in Berlin!) leaves behind an absence that, as the dialectical reverse of its former presence, articulates meanings that must still be deciphered and debated. The public sphere, then, is not a group of autonomous subjects but functions as the medium through whose conceptual language the silent hints and instructions of the city are preserved, transformed, and communicated for the present. This view does not deny the validity of multiple memory formations competing for validity and legitimacy; rather, it relocates this pluralism from the sphere of the social public into the inherently plurivocal and overdetermined self-signification of the urban topography itself, which always triggers a wide and often controversial range of responses.
If we begin to think about cultural memory is this way, by returning to the sheer materiality of urban topography and its self-signifying practices, we may derive new criteria and standards for project of urban reconstruction and architectural preservation. We may also be able to delink cultural commemoration from some of the dangers of subjective relativism, ideological manipulation, and merely opinionated chatter. We can then envision new, possibly more authentic ways of engaging with a rapidly vanishing past in the age of ferociously competing ideologies, widespread effects of the entertainment industry, and obsessive fixations on virtual reality scenarios and digital simulations of history.
Rolf J. Goebel, University of Alabama in Huntsville, U.S.A.
 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, transl. by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 416.
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