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Jean Hannoyer
Seteney Shami

Quatrième partie. Les espaces communautaires dans la ville


(Memory and Identity)

Michael Gilsenan

Texte intégral

1The great German sociologist Max Weber used to refer to “the community of shared memory”, the Erinnerungsgemeinshaft. But what are we to understand by memory and the work of memory (not to mention forgetting and the work of forgetting)? These are questions whose relevance seems to grow: in historical and anthropological writing, in work on nationalism or identity, community and ethnicity. The politics of representation, iconography, material and symbolic space and the traces of pasts whose recuperation, imaging and deployment are always motivated in complex ways, preoccupy not only academics. Politicians and intellectuals, and indeed persons in all classes, invest in the works of memory in ways that may be conscious and strategic in the making of claims in the present, as well as taken-for-granted. They may battle ferociously over its sites, the definition of its events, its ownership, its aesthetic forms. Monumentalizing is met with indifference, subversion, parody, or with reverence by different generations.

  • 1 Ferdinand Tonnies, another great sociologist of the period, has made famous a typological dichotom (...)

2We should recall that in nineteenth century Germany the notion of Gemeinschaft, in contrast to Gesellschaft, had taken on a particular resonance1. The former stood for all those forms of sociability, proximity, mutual recognition and shared value held to characterize vanishing or already vanished “community” in the face of the impersonal, industrially driven division of labour of Gesellschaft. The latter was thought to make of memory something individual and personal, as the sacred was often said to have become, but it alienated people from their own past. Without a past and shared histories, in what sense could the recently formed, though supposedly primordial, nation be a nation at all? In the new capitalist order anonymity, the market, the crowd, the public, the mass, class, function and role and the whole order of modernity were taken to have displaced old forms. As the nature of public and private changed the definition, use and control of public space became ever more crucial. Was the city the centre of citizenship and a solidarity based on differentiated functions and common loyalties to the practices and symbols of space and state? Or was it the space of division and separation, of mutual ignorance and opposition?

3Weber and Tonnies both belonged to a society which was changing at a phenomenal rate. The question of whether there was in fact a community of shared memory at all was intensely problematic. Economic and social transformations were rapid, often the source of profound dislocations and differences. War, rural-urban migration, demographic change and the upheavals of industrial capitalism all played their part and made people question whether or not modernity necessarily eradicated the past. The city seemed to flaunt its break with the orders of what came to be thought of as traditional society. Internal divisions of architecture, wealth and display often divided the city into what appeared to be materially, socially and politically contradictory urban worlds. Against these aspects of modernity many sought an inner German culture and spirit within the self and in ancient myths, frequently highly worked and reworked to provide coherent, homogeneous charter for what on closer examination seem ambiguous, contradictory representations of people and place. (as in Wagner’s The Mastersingers of Nuremberg).

4I do not use this brief reference to German modernity to suggest any analogy with urbanization in Arab countries, least of all with Amman in particular. But it does perhaps remind us just how problematic notions of “the city”, “identity”" and neighbourhood, to name only three very common terms, have been in the heart of capitalist Europe. If we were to extend our view, as I think we should, to aspects of modernity and urbanization in India, or South and Central America, or China, we would of course see an enormous range of developments and crises for which a notion of “dependency” would only be a very limited tool of analysis. Just what should be compared or contrasted with what, and whether the term “city” is itself ceding to others such as region in wider discussions are issues to be debated in even the most anthropological of forums.

5Coming from elsewhere has been a common theme of twentieth century urbanization, though how the elsewhere is discursively elaborated, if it is, varies hugely. Members of self-defined communities may possess multiple grilles de lecture, or be highly constrained in what socially plausible symbolizations and understandings they can make of their own situated histories and how they locate themselves in place as well as time. The values they accord to times and places, then and now, village and city and so on, may be highly unstable and uncertain, intensely problematic in everyday life and subject to the exigencies of dominant groups.

6Transitions and movement through entries and exits, from zone to zone, across liminal areas according to not always clearly regulated temporal rhythms present routine dilemmas to people who may in any case possess vastly different resources of information or social and economic capital. Those migrants creating new areas on the margins of the city, or within areas they are defined as marginalizing (which may include the “old centre”, from which they are later expelled), are classified by the state, the municipality, planners and the socially advantaged as deconstructing the city, mongrelizing or ruralizing the idealized urban world. “Their” music, clothes, food, sanitation and presumed life habits are taken to be homogeneous and a threat at once temporary and yet somehow permanent to the essence of urbanity. No matter if research shows just how differentiated such populations may be, and how unstable are the states’s own categories of what is and what is not echt, culturally and socially. The blots on the landscape, as they are seen to be, exist and do in fact seem to assume a sociological centrality even if politically and culturally distanced from “the centre” or hidden behind walls on the way from the airport.

7Complex negotiations within the so-called “informal” sector to do with public utilities, scrap metals, waste, transport services, sexual services, drugs, movement of goods, forms of leisure, not to mention the mobilizing of support groups, etc., make of these zones key areas of modern urban political economies. When the state’s agents have difficulty in even entering or disciplining such spaces and their networks the notion of territory and boundary takes on intriguing dimensions.

8What anthropologists can contribute to an understanding of city histories and forms is well-illustrated by the papers in this section. For they delineate, with attention to detail and a close reading of social worlds, the ways in which community and identity are evolved in a city which has certainly experienced with great intensity the impact of migration, forced or otherwise, war, colonialism and the uncertainties of the present moment. Their insights invite us to reflect carefuly on what we might call the micro work necessary to understand the macro processes studied by urbanists. Through such studies we approach an awareness of the complexity of the nouveaux enjeux de pouvoir of which Curmi speaks, and of how identities and histories construct each other in frequently discontinuous ways across discontinuous periods of time. Anthropologists themselves are obliged to participate in the nouveaux enjeux de savoir and of making their own place in those enjeux. These essays trace out possible ways of engagement in these inescapable tasks.


1 Ferdinand Tonnies, another great sociologist of the period, has made famous a typological dichotomy between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft Societies.


New York University

© Presses de l’Ifpo, 1996

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