Memory Space and Memory Place Abstract: In this chapter Digan examines the different concepts of ‘space and place’ and how they relate to sites of memory. She makes a distinction between space (‘Raum’) as a social concept and place (‘Ort’) as a measurable, tangible unit. She examines thesocial interpretation of space, which assumes that space is shaped and kept in existence by actors interacting with one another. She then examines the concept of place as a measurable entity that can change meaning (and have different meanings) as a whole. To do so she uses theories from the field of semiotics to examine how the meaning of a place depends on social conventions. In both of these analyses, the crucial question is how the ‘social’ and the ‘physical’ place come together. Keywords: human geography; place; semiotics; social space; sociology of space; space Digan, Katie. Places of Memory: The Case of the House of the Wannsee Conference. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. doi: 10.1057/9781137456427.0008.
Between the 1960s and the 1980s, the people of West Berlin disagreed vehemently about the use and meaning of the Haus am Grossen Wannsee 56–58. It seems odd that a single building can embody such different meanings and inspire passionate debate over the course of almost 30 years. It seems even stranger that from the moment the decision was made to turn the house into a memorial site, the significance of the house as a Schullandheim faded away in the public mind and was almost completely eclipsed by the memory of the Wannsee Conference. It was as if the house changed seasons, transformed into something else, even though the building was the same. The discussions about the perception of a site are especially confusing (and unfruitful) because they are based on different fundamental ideas. A lot of the arguments in the debate in the West German press implicitly concerned the question: what is a building, place or site? Is it an empty vessel that has to be filled with meaning or does it have some meaning of its own? And how can one site mean different things to different people simultaneously? In Chapter 1, I discussed a selection of ideas about space and place. Though these ideas are helpful, they are also very general. In this chapter I will relate ideas of space and place to sites of memory specifically. Having considered different understandings of place, Agnew’s combination of the several understandings of place into a social and physical process is both most inclusive as well as fitting for the study of sites of memory. The next step is to look closer at these social and physical elements and the process in which they create a meaningful place. To do so I will examine the two elements separately. For the sake of clarity, I will consider space to be social (or Raum, the non-physical) and place to be physical (or Ort, the non-social). This is a choice for analytical clarity specific to sites of memory, and not meant to dismiss other uses of the words. I also do not suggest that a radical distinction can be made between the two, since they are extensively intertwined. Following the space–place duality, I propose an analogue distinction between ‘memory place’ and ‘memory space’. By ‘memory space‘ I mean the social process of shaping a space of collective (or group) memory by actors, and then acting according to the ‘rules’ of that space. By ‘memory place‘ I mean the physical site of memory that is marked as such and which people encounter in that function. Keeping this duality in mind, and accepting the idea that place-making (and place-keeping) is a) an ongoing process where b) the social and the physical are combined, two more questions DOI: 10.1057/9781137456427.0008
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arise. First, what exactly is the ‘social process’ through which a place is created? Second, how exactly does the ‘social’ get attached to a particular location? In this chapter I will examine these questions. I will start by analysing ‘memory space’, the social aspect of a site of memory. It is shaped and kept in existence by actors, interacting with one another. I will try to better understand this type of social space by using sociological action theory and Raumsoziologie as a derivative thereof. Then I will examine the physical aspect of a site of memory, or ‘memory place’. To do so I treat the concept of memory place as an entity, that is to say, a physical, measurable object that can change meaning (and have different meanings) as a whole. This means that a place has borders and constitutes an area which is demarcated from that which exists around it. A place can be a building, a park or a country. In this part, I use theories from the field of semiotics to examine how the meaning of a place depends on social conventions. In both of these analyses, the crucial question is how the social and the physical place come together. Using both the concept of localizing by Löw and semiotics based on cultural conventions as described by Eco, I will try to determine how something social such as ‘memory’ can be connected to a building, as has happened in the case of the Wannsee House. First, to learn about the forming of social space, an obvious place to start is in sociology. Unhappy with the tendency of sociologists to ignore space, or to put the concept away as a backdrop of human action and leave it at that, several sociologists have been working towards a sociology of space. One of the most well-known researchers of social space, Martina Löw, argues for a relational social spatial concept based on action in her 2001 work, Raumsoziologie. She proposes a concept of space that is not separate from everything else, but rather constituted by actors. Because it is made and kept in existence by people, it is subject to change, but at the same time not completely ambiguous as it is based on convention. A similar argument is made by Dieter Läpple in his 1991 Essay über den Raum. Für ein gesellschaftswissenschaftliches Raumkonzept. In this essay Läpple argues for a Raum-Matrix which also takes space to be a social structure.1 The key question in the second part of the analysis is what makes a place; in other words, how a physical site relates to the social space attached to it. After all, if sites of memory are, as is often said, dynamic and socially constructed, then how do these social and cultural constructs DOI: 10.1057/9781137456427.0008
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relate to the physical site? This question is of especially great relevance to the study of sites of memory, since it underpins the difference between ‘real’ and ‘fabricated’ sites. While this distinction is not definite – ‘real’ sites can also be constructed, and ‘fabricated’ sites can in fact ‘feel real’ – it is often made, just not made clear.2 The relation between the social construct of a site of memory on the one hand, and the physical site on the other, relies on a number of concepts: historical knowledge, assignment of importance to a historical event, ideas on preservation and other wider social conventions. The coming together of all these factors can be seen as a process of semiosis. It is, simply and far from perfectly put, the assignment of meaning to an object (or place), constructed and continued through a network of other meanings. To explain this reasoning I will use a standardized form of Charles Peirce‘s semiotic triangle, and the adaption thereof by Umberto Eco.
Social space The idea that space is social is one of the main focal points of theorists of the spatial turn. Most famously, ‘social space’ was seen as a crucial factor in the division of power by Henri Lefebvre and Foucault. Lefebvre’s The Production of Space especially turned into a key text for the research of (Marxist) spatial theory. However, ‘social space’ in a broader sense got to be a far wider and fundamental topic for researchers of geography, philosophy and sociology. The role and impact of space on human relations, identity, hierarchy and experience gradually expanded to all aspects of human life. Sociologist Martina Löw formulated a theory of ‘sociology of space’ that can be particularly enlightening when examining sites of memory as it focuses on the process of space-making, which is useful for an analysis of the dynamic, socially constructed idea of memory and, more specifically, ‘memory space’. Löw starts her book by examining her own discipline and the way the concept of space has been used by other sociologists. She comes to the conclusion that almost all sociologists have used space in one of two ways: either as an absolutist or a relativist concept. An absolutist concept of space is the idea of space as unmoving, existing out there in-the-world, independently of human action. Relative space, on the other hand, is a concept that supposes space is a consequence of human action. Because humans change, space can too.3 Löw argues for a relativist idea of space DOI: 10.1057/9781137456427.0008
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and to see the constitution of space as a social process in which action ‘makes’ space.4 This has an important consequence for the connection between space and place.5 An absolutist view of space would see space as something that exists independently, and thus gets ‘filled up’. This view, however, does not allow for multiple social spaces to overlap – like, for instance, a memory space and a playing space for children in one house that may be located somewhere in Wannsee. Once it is filled, there is no more room. A relativist concept of space sees space as a process and not a void, and thus it does not get ‘full’. Löw posits a thesis of space as ‘relational (An)Ordnung of actors, which are in incessant movement, which means the (An)Ordnung itself changes constantly’.6 By this she means actors who are not static, but instead dynamic and active, constitute space. The spelling of (An)Ordnung combines the words ‘anordnen’ and ‘Ordnung’, loosely referring to both the act of organizing (‘anordnen’) as well as the constituted organization (‘Ordnung’). According to Löw, actors constitute space, and because actors change, their space does too. Löw sees two distinct processes in the constitution of space. The first is the process of ‘spacing’.7 This is the positioning or arranging of people and social goods. This positioning can be literal – Löw gives the example of arranging products in a shop – but is usually a matter of placing symbolic markers to define a space. Think, for instance, of hanging signs (entrance, exit, memorial). The second process is one of Syntheseleistung, or achieving synthesis. This is the process in which the positioning as achieved in spacing is grouped in perception (or memory) as one element8 – for instance, perceiving a building with some visitors, artefacts and signs as a museum. Spacing and synthesizing constitute a space. Because space is socially constituted, it also needs to be socially ‘kept’. The existence of a space depends on social action, and does not somehow carry on without it. Löw draws on sociologist Anthony Giddens’s theory of structuration to explain how exactly this ‘carrying on’ works by drawing an analogy between Giddens’s social structures and her idea of ‘spatial structures’.9 Giddens describes structures as ‘isolable sets of rules and resources’.10 There are different distinct structures in society. An obvious example is the judicial system in a society, which quite literally has rules (laws) and resources (prisons and police forces), but one can also speak of political structures or educational structures.11 The ‘rules’ meant here are not necessarily as clear as codified law, but rather the conventions on which a structure relies. They are the implicit rules that determine behaviour DOI: 10.1057/9781137456427.0008
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without the threat of immediate sanctions. While Giddens takes these structures to be independent from space and time, Löw takes them to be independent from place and point in time, but not from space and time an sich.12 After all, there are historical and spatial elements to these structures (they develop, disband, change). Giddens’s theory of structure is a theory of social action. Structures are created through action. However, he sees a duality in the relationship between action and structure. This duality of structure means that structure is not only ‘made’ by action, but also recursively reproduced by action.13 For instance, a judicial structure means nothing if people don’t reproduce it every day. If people stopped accepting the rules of the structure, the system would collapse. People’s actions are influenced by the rules of the structure, but also keep the structure going by reproducing it, enforcing it and copying it every day. Löw claims the same duality is to be found in spatial structures.14 They influence action yet are reproduced by that same action. For instance, when entering a memorial site, people accept that the site represents a certain historical event, usually act respectfully, and try to connect with history because those are the ‘rules’ of the space. If everyone stopped accepting that a certain site represents a certain history, and started using the house as a shop, the ‘memory space’ would no longer be kept in existence and thus cease to exist. All of this leaves one question unanswered: what is the relationship between social space and place? While they are not the same thing, it is difficult to imagine a space without a location. Löw concedes that all spatial structures are somehow based on localization. Think back to John Agnew’s concept of place, in which a location is a necessary addition to the social aspect of space. In both Agnew’s and Löw’s interpretations of place and space the constitution of their concepts of space and place are not complete without a locale, a concrete site where the social and physical come together. After all, without a location, a space is nothing more than a floating metaphorical concept.15 Löw argues that while space and place are closely related, they are not the same. Unlike a space, a place can exist after the actual spacing of people and social goods has gone. Think of ruins, for instance, which can still exist as an entity even though their original use is gone. A place can keep a symbolic meaning of a spacing that was once there but now gone.16 Like the spacing of a meeting space in 1942 that is now no longer there but its localized place is still known for this former spacing. Löw adds that, especially in memory, people and things can be synthesized with their (former) localization and can, DOI: 10.1057/9781137456427.0008
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because of that, be treated differently in the present.17 However, which social space gets synthesized with which place can differ between social groups.18 When a social space is no longer there, it is no longer evident that the place it was attached to keeps its meaning. Newer social spaces can therefore interfere with the old social context when they localize in the same place, as happened for many years in Wannsee.
Semiotics of place Sociology of space teaches us about the social process of making space. It also suggests that a social space finds a place in localization. This last point needs more explanation. The idea that a social space ‘dawns on’ a place is a bit abstract. To help understand more about the connection between the social and physical aspects of a place, I will take a closer look at the interpretation of memory places. As I stated in the beginning of this chapter, I will use the term ‘memory place’ here to mean a marked, measurable entity. Through my interpretation of place as an ‘object’ (not to be confused with the use of the word ‘object’ within semiotic theory), I do not want to suggest that the interaction between the social space and the physical place is one-directional. Once a place is firmly situated within a web of social conventions, it can in turn influence behaviour. When a place is deemed a site of memory, it compels certain attitudes and actions. This can happen in many ways. On the level of experience, people may visit the site, and while doing so they may act quiet, respectful or emotional. On an institutional level, it may be deemed appropriate to invest money into the site for educational, conservational or political purposes. In short, it would be unwise to underestimate just how tight the connection between space and place as conceptualized previously is. The social does not just ‘project’ its conventions onto random, unassuming places. The interaction between space and place is not just what makes a building a site of memory, but similarly what makes a house a home. In analysis, I will approach analyse the process of meaning-making between people and place. To do so I will use some concepts from the discipline of semiotics. I will not attempt to give an overview of the field of semiotics, to give a critical discussion of its developments or specify the many different uses and types of semiotics. Instead, I will use two basic parts of the field that I think provide clarity in the way DOI: 10.1057/9781137456427.0008
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people understand memory places and how one place can have different meanings. First, I will look at the standard Peircian model of semiotics. This is the theory of signs developed by logician C. S. Peirce from the 1860s onwards. Though semiotics has of course developed since, Peirce’s model is still used as a basic theory in the study of interpretation. By looking at the production of meaning in memory sites as a semiotic process, more will be revealed about the place-people-society intersections in a site of memory. Secondly, I will follow Marcus Cordes‘s comparison in his book Landschaft – Erinnern (2010) between Peirce’s semiotic triangle and Umberto Eco‘s later work in relation to a site. Cordes discusses Eco’s work La Struttura Assente (1968), in which Eco challenges the triad and comes up with an alternative that locates the process of meaning-making in a ‘moment’ and thus as less fixed and more subjective. This will then serve as an explanatory factor for the changing meanings of a place. Giving an exact citation or definitive definition of Peirce’s theory of signs is difficult, as the basic version of his theory used today is really a synthesis of his many different papers and essays. This is complicated further by the fact that many works of Peirce read today were published after his death and not all are compatible with one another. I will therefore rely on secondary literature about Peirce to distil a workable version of his theory of signs. This is the version Cordes uses, as well as Assche et al. in their article ‘What place is this time?’ about semiotics in landscape architecture.19 I have chosen these works not because they give a comprehensive analysis of semiotics, but because both are attempts to apply semiotics to studies of landscape. Both works use the Peircian triadic model of semiosis. To produce meaning, three elements are needed: a sign, an object and an interpretant (see model below).20 The term ‘object’ can be confusing, as it does not have to concern an actual material thing, it just has to be something that exists in a culture.21 This can be a material thing, an ideology, feelings or, important in this context, a cultural or collective memory. In the context of this study we can take an object to mean ‘the memory of a historical event’. The sign is the ‘thing’ that refers to that object. In this context, it can be a historical artefact, an old document or a place. The sign and the object are not inherently tied to each other. The element that brings them together is the interpretant, the reference. It is the set of cultural conventions that brings objects and signs together (and thus makes a sign a sign).22 DOI: 10.1057/9781137456427.0008
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Sign figure 4.1
A version of the semiotic triangle, made by Katie Digan.
This is the basic Peircian model of semiotics, one that is still widely taught today. However, it has of course been criticized over the years. One of the most vocal and probably most well-known critics of Peirce is semiotician Umberto Eco. In his work La Struttura Assente (1968), Eco writes about a great problem he has with the semiotic triangle. He sees this type of semiotic theory as too heavily reliant on the logics of Gottlob Frege. Frege, a logician/mathematician contemporary of Peirce, is famous for his theory of Sinn and Bedeutung (sense and reference). In short, Frege makes a distinction between the sense of an expression and the reference of an expression. The reference (Bedeutung) of the expression is the object to which it refers, while the sense (Sinn) is the way in which it does so.23 Eco’s problem is how the idea of a Bedeutung has influenced too many semioticians into thinking semiosis needs an object. He writes, ‘the harmful notion of “Bedeutung” ’ should be seen as a residue rather than an integral element in semiosis.24 He states there is no such thing as a clear, objective ‘object’. Meaning, Eco says, does not come from a reference to an object in-the-world. Instead, the conceptual entities we refer to as objects are nothing more than cultural agreements.25 Essentially what Eco does is get rid of the ‘object’ in the semiotic triangle. This means that the process of semiosis changes. With the object gone, the interpretant is no longer an element that ties object and sign together, but rather the only element the sign is tied to. Since the interpretant consists of cultural conventions, the sign now refers to cultural conventions only. The production of meaning is thus not so much an interpretation of things in-the-world, but rather something that happens first and through which the material world is mediated.26 The ‘object-less’ semiosis means that a memory place does not refer to DOI: 10.1057/9781137456427.0008
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an ‘objective’ historical event (object), but to our cultural conventions. These conventions are both specific, like a shared idea that the Wannsee Conference was a historically significant event, and, much more broadly, like the idea that history can be tied to places, the past needs to be remembered, and ‘historical’ buildings need to be conserved. As with every set on conventions, they are not absolute or unchanging. They also only apply to certain cultural groups. This group can be a nation, but also members of a political party in Berlin, a certain generation or residents of the Neukölln district. A combination of Peirce and Eco’s (simplified) semiotics again shows how place-making is a social process, not a matter of finding the material place that fits with the correct social space like two pieces of a puzzle. When the Wannsee House opened as a memorial and ‘got its history back’, it was not a matter of finally successfully matching a sign to its rightful object. Instead, wider cultural conventions about the significance of the Wannsee Conference, the importance of the history of a building, and the ability to ‘sense’ the past in a place changed and in this way put the Wannsee House in a new (or at least brighter) light.
Notes 1 Dieter Läpple, ‘Essay über den Raum. Für ein gesellschaftswissenschaftliches Raumkonzept’, in Hartmut Häußermann, ed., Stadt und Raum. Soziologische Analysen (Pfaffenweiler: Centaurus Verlag 1991), pp. 157–207. 2 I will further elaborate on this difference in the chapter about authenticity. 3 Martina Löw, Raumsoziologie (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag 2000) p. 18. 4 Löw, Raumsoziologie, p. 67. 5 Ibid., p. 131. 6 Ibid. 7 Ibid., p. 158. 8 Ibid., p. 159. 9 Ibid., p. 167. 10 Ibid., p. 168. 11 Anthony Giddens, The Construction of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration (Berkeley: University of California Press 1984), p. 17. 12 Low, Raumsoziologie, p. 168. 13 Ibid., p. 170. 14 Ibid., p. 172. 15 Ibid., p. 200.
16 17 18 19
20 21 22 23 24 25 26
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Ibid., p. 198. Ibid., p. 199. Ibid., p. 201. Kristof van Assche et al., ‘What place is this time? Semiotics and the Analysis of Historical Reference in Landscape Architecture’, Journal of Urban Design 17:2 (2012): 233–254. Marcus Cordes, Landschaft - Erinnern: Über das Gedächtnis im Erinnern von Orten (Hamburg: Junius 2010), p. 45. Van Assche, ‘What place is this time?’, p. 236. Ibid. Gottlob Frege, ‘Über Sinn und Bedeutung’, in Zeitschrift für Philosophie und philosophische Kritik 100 (1892): 26–27. Cordes, Landschaft – Erinnern, p. 48. Ibid. Ibid., p. 51.