Post 1 of 3: The Architecture and Infrastructure of Memory (MAI)

Leviathan Monument

Hobbes’ Leviathan frontispiece revisited: Dingpolitik and object-oriented governance.


What is the connection between the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and the National Holocaust Monument currently being built in Ottawa, Canada? (Chalmers:105) Though this question seems rather peculiar at first, the answer is far less obscure when considered within the context of memory architecture and infrastructure (MAI). This is because MAI is intricately bound up in both remembrance and sovereignty.

The connection between memory and the authority or power to govern is nothing new: the correspondence between the two was established in early Greek mythology. According to Hesiod’s Theogony, the ability to rule over others was granted to certain favoured individuals by the Muses through their unique bond with their mother Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory and guardian over what should be remembered. As history would have it, memory would be stolen from Mnemosyne along with Hephaistos’ fire (thanks to our friend Prometheus) and humanity (led by the privileged few) became able to record their own past via material culture and technology. Mnemonic technologies (texts, film, photographs, commemorations, digital memory, the internet, etc.) have become increasingly complex, varied, and augmented as those responsible for filling the void left by Mnemosyne go about constructing our past(s).

However, though the figuration of memory has changed over time, the relationship has remained very similar: those who possess the ability to shape what is remembered and how it is re-collected are in an auspicious position to exercise sovereign rule, and inversely, those who wish to maintain such authority take a special interest in doing so. This is in part why memory studies scholars have written so extensively on both the more recent proliferation of commemorations (memorials, monuments, etc.) and their role as part of modern state attempts to reconstruct the past. The salience of state-sponsored memorials and monuments is particularly distinguishable in national capitals, where commemorative landscapes are often extremely composite and interconnected.

As a specific example of mnemonic technology, memorials and monuments are durable structures that have become delegates or heads of populations that are the punctualized result of previously formed assemblages composed of a multiplicity of actors (politicians, special interest groups, community organizations, artists, architects, city planners, academics, government organizations/departments, etc.). To say that these sites and their structures are delegates is to say that they ‘speak’ on behalf of the array of different actors who had gathered to establish them (and have since become ‘silent’ – an effect of punctualization), but it is also to say that they represent histories, specific events, ideologies and ideals, among other knowledges. Additionally, they participate in a discussion with a host of other such memorial delegates that exist within local, national, and international commemorative networks: with other delegates representing punctualized networks that then come together to form even larger commemorative networks.

It is these networks that form what is referred to here as memory infrastructure, or the organization of various punctualized assemblages that have been made durable (and to an extent more stable) through practices of art, design, and architecture.

Why is it important that we recognize MAI? Just like roads, sidewalks, trails, electricity, the internet, power plants, etc… MAI facilitates (and limits) possibilities and creates complex connections between these possibilities for both individuals and governments. This is how Canadian economic or foreign policy can be connected to a mass genocide in Europe during the 1940s (as well as a myriad of other seemingly unrelated issues). Memory infrastructure and architecture establish thoroughfares that align a variety of translated interests in order to guarantee (as much as possible) a certain range of agencies: in this case, the governments ability to successfully deploy policy decisions.


18 thoughts on “Post 1 of 3: The Architecture and Infrastructure of Memory (MAI)

  1. “MAI facilitates (and limits) possibilities and creates complex connections between these possibilities” hmm seems to me what connects them is actually this post of yours, what else could link them but our uses of them and if you assume they have some powers of their own apart from our uses what is the physics of this?


    • “seems to me what connects them is actually this post of yours” — hhaaa — good one; for sure that has some truthiness to it. However, I don’t think the point of our guest’s post is a bottom-line physics form of argumentation. Instead, I read this as a newish (so the language is not yet fully formed) discussion between the built-world and the world of imagination. I am reminded, as a sociologist, about a particular time early on in US sociology history during which “imagination” was going to play a central role in sociology thanks to early symbolic interactionist (or proto-SI guru) Thomas Cooley. His early work is littered — literally, littered, as in scattered throughout like rubbish — with discussion of the role of imagination in society. Of course, “sociological imagination” does take on a prominent role in the field, so long as are specifically talking about the first week of introductory courses (so it has been essentially ghettoized to the earliest communication of sociology to students, while scholars “in the business” virtually ignore it in the conduct of their other scholarly practices). Personally, I’d like to see more about how “imaginaries” come to shape actual material practices in observable, concrete patterns (concrete taking on an especially physical feel in this post). NOW, exactly how that all shakes out, I’m with you DMF: … not sure.


        • Could you expand more on this charge of reification fallacy? I don’t quite see how I am confusing a concrete thing with an idea. Those who design and construct physical commemorations seem to be making attempts to reify the abstract. However, what I am trying to say is that these concrete structures have an effect on how we think about/ perceive the world.


          • sorry hard to keep track of all these threads goes back to my earlier point that there are no actual/infrastructural networks, that if there are connections (as in cognitive associations) it’s only b/c you have made them in yer argument or other such human efforts, reads like bewitchment by grammar to me if taken literally.


            • I think that there are very real infrastructural networks. Ceremonial parades, walking/bus tours, pamphlets, audio devices and cell phone apps that lead people to certain commemorative sites all connected by roads and pathways, etc. I think that one could tenably argue that there is both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ infrastructure at work here.

              As far as ‘human efforts’ go, I really think that a definitive difference between our thinking is largely centred on our understanding of agency. My post draws heavily from actor-network theory (ANT) and with it, a specific definition of agency as distributed and that doesn’t privilege intention, consciousness, or any level of cognitive functioning . In my opinion, one of the best articles explaining what agency means within the context of ANT can be found here:


              • not sure what a “soft” infrastructure (I assume you mean it to be something like the opposite of a “hard” science?) could be but perhaps more to the point I’m left to wonder if you have thought thru how via ANT you might demarcate a “network” as you are referring to from the world?
                anyway didn’t mean to highjack the thread maybe our good hosts can bridge some of the gaps, cheers


    • The connections and possibilities that I am referring to here generally follow from Heidegger’s commentary on memory (and Mnemosyne). For Heidegger, memory is something that should be safeguarded and cared for since all possibilities for life, thought, and imagination are made possible through remembrance. What I am trying to say here is that both the range of possibilities for life, as well as the possibilities for governing life, are intricately bound up in remembrance.

      Memorials and other commemorations (as well as other mnemonic technologies) have a notable effect on what we as individuals or as a collective remember about our past. Inherently a part of the commemoration process is both the remembrance and disregard of certain elements of our past. So, if these physical structures/sites can affect what we remember, then to an extent, they affect our ‘possibilities for life’. In the example I referenced (the National Holocaust Monument) this was extended to sovereignty and governance, where it was suggested that the monument was assisting (or at least implicated in) the Canadian government’s foreign policy and domestic economic agenda.

      Regarding your comment, “what else could link them but our uses of them and if you assume they have some powers of their own apart from our uses what is the physics of this?”, perhaps you can unpack this a bit. The possibilities I was referring to are abstract (like belief, ideology, thoughts…), and the connections are as well (such as in the connection between the CNOOC and the Holocaust). But it seems like you’re getting at something else here, perhaps issues regarding agency?


      • but memory is a thing we do and not a thing in the world right?
        I don’t know what a collective could really be or how it could do anything (not being an agent/object/force/etc) but sure as individuals we are constantly manipulating our environs to try and achieve certain desired effects, even acts of remembering are literally acts of re-membering/bricolage/collage for some present purpose/interest someone is enacting.
        perhaps you are going to get to this later but would be interested in hearing more about how memorials function as “mnemonic technologies” and not (I’m guessing) just objects that we make reference to/of, what are their material functions/capacities and such?

        Liked by 2 people

        • Well, re: memory, it seems to be increasingly understood as something that is not just ‘in our heads’, but something that essentially involves a variety of things internal and external. This is even true within neuroscience, where some understand memory as the result of a contingent network:

          “A neural network combines information in the present environment with patterns that have been stored in the past, and the resulting mixture of the two is what the network remembers… When we remember, we complete a pattern with the best match available in memory; we do not shine a spotlight on the stored picture” (Schachter 1996:71)

          This understanding of memory is not limited to the individual nor is it limited to what we do consciously either. Following this, if I had to identify what I thought was ‘collective memory’ (or social memory) I would point to material culture and technologies external to us that help us remember and that are prominent to the collective in question. Pictures, video, recorded audio, texts, sites, commemorations – these are all physical things that help us remember. Without them, what we remember would be drastically different and in many cases limited. Within a specific ‘collective’ there are certain objects/technologies that are generally part of the groups shared experience. I think that regardless, we could either start with demarcating a specific group or a specific set of material culture/technologies, and then go forth exploring something that could be considered ‘collective’ or ‘social’ memory.

          Re: mnemonic technologies, as far as their functions and capacities… the physical presence of a memorial or a monument has a variety of effects on us apart from the abstract meaning that they are referencing. Architecture and design studies is particularly revealing here. I was hesitant to use the term ‘technology’ in reference to physical monuments and memorials as I’m sure many in STS would oppose this based on a commitment to a purer definition (I am not an STS student). However, when it comes to architecture and design, I would argue that technology is an appropriate designation (there is a considerable amount of research behind how such things are designed to interact with an audience).

          A large monument can inspire awe, a tight space can make someone anxious, nervous, or cautious, warmth from a flame can provoke hope, colours and their arrangement have a variety of psychological effects on us, and so does height (ascent or descent) and so on. The physical characteristics of these objects/sites are engineered to make us feel a certain way – opening and closing ourselves up to possibilities (typically possibilities that align with the abstract meaning behind the commemoration).

          In the case of the National Holocaust Monument (NHM) referenced in the post, the design physically suggests connections to other physical structures (along with what they represent). The NHM was designed so that it could be seen from a specific spot on the neighbouring National War Museum and there were a couple controlled vistas between the two sites. Also, both the National War Museum and the NHM have intentional views to the peace tower (Canadian Parliament Building). These physical characteristics act to reinforce the connections between the symbolic or abstract meanings associated with the other sites.

          Also significant here are things like the snow-melt system and the fabrication techniques used to display photographs on the monuments walls. The former was designed to keep the site safe and accessible throughout the winter, while the latter was meant to display photographs that would last about as long as the stone walls of the monument.


          • well really is in our bodies/heads/neurology but certainly uses cues (extended-minding isn’t actually an extended mind), the more almost architectural features of scale and enclosure/space/etc are interesting but I don’t think they get us to networks or collectives or the like which isn’t (to me) the same as say picturing/referring more than one subject.
            thanks for the clarifications and the examples, will have to give some more thought to our tendencies towards mistaken-concreteness and our more literally concrete creations and how they might reinforce the feedback looping.


  2. Pingback: 2 of 3: Memory Architecture and Infrastructure (MAI)? | Installing (Social) Order

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