Memory and Space


Over the last week or so I’ve returned to reading some Stiegler, after a break of maybe 6 months, as a result of editing a book chapter. I’ve used him as a key reference point to talk about human access to and cognition of an event. I’ve argued that social media works to construct the nature of a protest event – and have claimed that differently bundled accounts of an event bring individualizing conclusions. For example, that each account of an incident brings a different ‘spin’, which when brought together on a media platform moulds unique perceptions of the event. The nuances in language between accounts is telling of this ‘spin’ – some are detailed, some are satirical, some are instructive, some are rote.

I’ve also said that social media has brought a new orientation to events too. I’ve played on the spatial dynamic of Stiegler’s use of the term and more explicitly suggested social media plays a navigational role in the construction of events. For example, messages containing some kind of spatial coordination literally enable people to orientate towards that location – however it is put (lat/longs, ref. points, road names etc.). Some even explicitly command people to head to that location, but nevertheless, by presenting a happening as such (X is happening at Y) it enforces a particular (spatial) orientation.

I’ve further argued that there is a tactile dimension to these developments. Here I’ve split with Stiegler and took on a more phenomenological approach to suggest that the age of distanced vision is beyond us – and that the tactile manipulation of worlds is upon us. This is evident in the way that we have become dependent upon touchscreen phones and tablets that demand bodily interaction. The egocentric nature of contemporary mapping platforms – the “me” map – is wrapped up in this development. See the way in which Google wants to present the individualized and tailored map, for example.

As part of this research I’ve picked up where I left off with Stiegler, namely the third chapter in Technics and Time 2 (2009). ‘The Industrialization of Memory’ is a winding discussion of the effects of the digital world on human memory. It is a surprisingly lucid chapter. He’s forced to abandon some (but not all!) of his more complex terminology to deal with both the history of informatics and of telematics, as a building block for a further discussion on their transformational nature. He also makes reference to the Chappe Brothers and their telegraph system – the Semaphore Line – and its role in infamously manipulating property values in Bordeaux during the early 19th century. As Stiegler (2009: 102) writes:

This “affair”, which led to lawsuits and might be seen as one of the initiatory aspects of the monopolization of telecommunications, shows us that information is information only insofar as everyone does not possess it, that it can itself become a commercial object, and that its value to the correlates with the time and place of its diffusion: it is of value to the degree that it is diffused.

Stiegler saw this as an early example of the control of information circulation – something to which he is keen to advance an understanding of, supplementing this discussion with a reading of Simon Nora and Alain Minc’s The Computerization of Society (1981) in a later section.

But the main point I wanted to explore comes in a sub-chapter entitled ‘Event-ization’. In it Stiegler is concerned with the conceptualization of an event. Namely, what constitutes an event, how it is created, and critically, with what effect does the materialization of memory have on the nature of an event. One of his main points centres on how the media, generally put, are not simply satisfied with ‘co-producing’ news events, which they indeed do, but also:

 …actually integrally produc[ing] them, in a veritable inversion by which the media recount daily life so forcefully that their “life story” seems not only to anticipate but ineluctably to precede – to determine – life itself. (2009: 116)

This is an argument Stiegler repeatedly makes throughout Technics and Time 2: that media technologies prescribe ‘life itself’. He then continues to make a point not too dissimilar from discussion over the collapse between the production and consumption of digital maps. Of course, they are similar arguments because both concern the speeding up of technological evolution, such that the distance between the inputs and outputs of a technological-societal process (news-making / map-making) become blurry.

But this discussion gets even more interesting when Stiegler starts to talk of ‘locality’, ‘physical space’ [territoire] and maps themselves (pp. 116-117). He suggests that if there is a temporal collapse between the input (production) and output (consumption) of events, there must also be a flattening of spatial dynamics too as in this account:

When memory is produced at a speed near that of light it is no longer possible, either in law or in fact, to distinguish an “event” from its “input” or its “input” from its “reception” or reading: these three moments coincide in a single spatiotemporal reality such that all delay, all distance, between them, is eliminated – but so is all locality, since locality is constructed from differentiation, like calendarity and spatiality, and differentiation is therefore, from the outset, what happens there. But if what happens there seems to tend to be the same everywhere, “locality” tends to become universally identical, that is, to disappear… (p.116)

This is a classic reading of capitalism akin to David Harvey’s notion of ‘time-space compression’, made in The Condition of Postmodernity (1989). In ‘The time and space of the Enlightenment project’ chapter he makes the case that:

 …the history of capitalism has been characterized by speed-up in the pace of life, while so overcoming spatial barriers that the world sometimes seems to collapse inwards upon us. (p. 240)

So in this sense Stiegler is merely restating an oft-presented argument that capitalism has both sped life up and collapsed spatial barriers. Although I have reservations of such a claim – has space really collapsed? – it is nonetheless a provocation that leads succinctly into the next paragraph, where through reference to Jorge Luis Borges, Stiegler discusses the nature of a 1:1 map in relation to memory.

He makes the point that ‘[r]etentional finitude requires a law, as criterion and criteriology, permitting the establishment of differences, hierarchies, and priorities’ (117). In other words that human memory is fundamentally constrained by its own capacity to retain information (‘retentional finitude’). By extension this means that the human mind requires a supplement, an extension or a tool of sorts with which to store and retrieve further information it is incapable of storing itself. But as a requirement of this, there must be some sort of procedure for differentiating, ordering and prioritizing such information so as to render this process viable. This is where Stiegler makes the link to space as he suggests that:

Just as territory only exists when it is crossed, memory exists only when it is recalled. One must find one’s orientation in and to the already-there of memory just as one must find it in and to territory. And just as a map can never coincide with physical space “point by point” as its equivalent, its identical reproduction, just as “this Expanded Map [would be] useless” (Borges 1965, 198), bringing nothing more to an orientation, memory must reduce the memorizable in order for it to be memorable: in order to be oriented in the already-there of memory it is necessary to forget (it). (p.117)

He draws on Borges’ short story On Exactitude in Science (1965) in which a Cartographers Guild create a 1:1 Map of the Empire, which ‘point for point’ coincides with the Empire itself. Such is its size, however, it is rendered useless – there is simply an overabundance of information that renders calculation, deduction and interpretation utterly impossible. Memory, says Stiegler, is the same. It cannot be everything that has occurred, for ‘in order to be oriented in the already-there of memory it is necessary to forget’. Only then can information be stored and retrieved successfully – in the same way spatial phenomena can be only recovered from the map if it is partial, subjective, relative and abstract.

Although this is perhaps a passing note by Stiegler, it is suggestive of a more general consideration of both time and space – and gives me further reason to believe that his use of the term orientation can be made functional in the full spatial sense of the term. It also gives me further impetus to draw on the temporal as a dynamic not just in protest events, which is more than obvious, but also within a map itself, seeing as they not only fix in space but also in time, serving as frozen artifacts of material relations. I’ve yet to go on to further sections of The Industrialization of Memory, but reference to Paul Virilio’s Speed and Politics (1986) and further discussion of ‘real time’ and politics suggests an even greater discussion on time and space that will undoubtedly be relevant.

Robin Hood Gardens

Round the corner from Balfron Tower there is another (in)famous social housing complex – Robin Hood Gardens. They were built around the same time as the Brownfield Estate in the early 1970s, and designed by Brutalist power-couple Alison and Peter Smithson. Unlike the listed Balfron Tower, Robin Hood Gardens does not have any special status – and predictably demolition is in progress. Tower Hamlets Council have earmarked the site for a new development, with the second phase headed by a trio of architects.

The Smithsons on Housing (1970) was a BBC documentary on the architect’s rationale for Robin Hood Gardens. It’s a unique insight into their social theories and the ways in which they wanted to inscribe them into architectural form. After watching it I delved into reading a seminal article on mapping by James Corner (in Denis Cosgrove’s Mappings [1999]), and by sheer coincidence he retells David Harvey’s argument on spatial structure and socialization. Here is a snapshot of that argument, as told by Corner:

…[A]s David Harvey has argued, planners and architects have been barking up the wrong tree in believing that new spatial structures alone would yield new patterns of socialization. The struggle for designers and planners, Harvey insists, lies not with spatial form and aesthetic appearances alone (the city as a thing) but with the advancement of more liberating processes and interactions in time (urbanization). Multiple processes of urbanization in time are what produce ‘a distinctive mix of spatialized permanences in relation to one another’; hence the urban project ought to be less about spatial determinism and more about reshaping those urbanization processes that are ‘fundamental to the construction of the things that contain them’.

Thus, in criticizing the formalism of both the modernist utopia and the sentimental, communitarian ‘new urbanism’, Harvey argues that the dynamic multiplicity of urban processes cannot be contained within a singular, fixed spatial frame, especially when that frame neither derives from, nor itself redirects, those processes moving through it. He writes:

The issue is not one of gazing into some crystal ball or imposing some classic form of utopian scheme in which a dead spatiality is made to rule over history and process. The problem is to enlist in the struggle to advance a more socially just and emancipatory mix of spatio-temporal production processes rather than to acquiesce to those imposed by finance capital, the World Bank and the generally class-bound inequalities internalized within any system of uncontrolled capital accumulation!

Harvey’s point is that projecting new urban and regional futures must derive less from a utopia of form and more from a utopia of process -how things work, interact and inter-relate in space and time. Thus, the emphasis shifts from static object-space to the space-time of relational systems. (pp. 227-228)

What is interesting, of course, is re-watching The Smithson on Housing with this passage in mind. The failure of many Modernist housing projects was down to this faith in a ‘utopia of form’ – i.e. that bricks-and-mortar structures, or more appropriately, concrete-and-rebar structures, would solve all social ills. This blind faith – propagated by total designers such as Goldfinger and the Smithsons – was exposed when the essential circulations of everyday life within these structures broke down.

Compare, then, the above documentary and Harvey’s critique with Jonathan Glancey’s short video for the Guardian: