Amnesia, Nostalgia, and the Politics of Place Memory

Article excerpt

Abstract

This article examines two seemingly opposed modes of place-making, urban sprawl and historic preservation, and their relationship to memory. The author contends that urban sprawl creates a landscape of either willful or accidental amnesia, where the powers of place are neutralized by ignoring them or removing them from history. Historic preservation, however, can have equally depoliticizing effects by conjuring up peculiar, selective, or even wholly imaginary pasts. Despite their apparent opposition, both practices often work against a meaningful understanding of the relationship between identity, memory, and place. Rather than accept the false choice between amnesia and nostalgia, the author advocates for an ethos of what Walter Benjamin calls "porosity" in creating, maintaining, and evaluating the vitality of our urban spaces.

Keywords

memory, place, urban planning, nostalgia, amnesia, porosity

Without the enduring permanence of human artifact, there "cannot be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after."

-Hannah Arendt, quoting Ecclesiastes, The Human Condition

This article is written at the intersection of place, memory, and politics. My broad claim is that urban planning practices should be of interest to political theorists, and not only for the role they play in creating and sustaining economic and racial injustice (Bickford 2000; Farrar 2008; Hayward 2003), or for their ability to influence practices of citizenship (Kohn 2004; Kogl 2007; McBride 2005). Urban planning practices are certainly important to political theorists for these reasons, but they have an additional political dimension: specifically, they help to cultivate or diminish our understanding of the past and our place in it. How we choose to build history into or eradicate history from our cities and towns shapes our understandings of identity, community, and responsibility. In short, how we attend to the past through the medium of the built environment has political implications for our future.

Recognizing the political power inherent in the construction of landscapes makes it easy to be critical of the state of contemporary American urban planning. By any measure, the most pervasive form of planning is what its detractors call "urban sprawl." For anyone interested in fostering sustainability and vitality in American cities, sprawl is an anathema: a twenty-first-century topography of distinctly unmemorable landscapes characterized by endless, homogeneous stretches of drive-by scenery, drive-through eateries, and stunningly forgettable architecture. Yet many of the popular, academic, and practitioner responses to sprawl come uncomfortably close to what one might call landscapes of nostalgia; the rarefied remembrances celebrated by historic preservationists are one such example. As sprawl has proliferated over the past five decades, the reclamation of past spaces for preservation and beautification has proceeded apace. In direct contrast to placeless places, designated historic sites attempt to shore up memory, putting it at the front and center of public consciousness.

This article, then, is motivated by the question, What effects do these recent, and seemingly opposed, trends in place-making have on our relationship to the past, and on our capacity for politics? My answer is grounded in recent accounts of memory that emphasize its visceral and embodied qualities, as opposed to locating it solely within the realm of consciousness. At the same time, however, I take issue with this line of thought when it ignores or undervalues the role of place in the formation of political identity. Instead, I suggest here that individual and collective memory can be inherited, buttressed, or devalued through the medium of the built environment and that neither urban sprawl nor historic preservation provides the tools necessary to make space for democratic politics.

Memory and Place in Political Theory

I begin from the Nietzschean assertion that memory is embodied and that its physicality is political. …