2 of 3: Memory Architecture and Infrastructure (MAI)?


Ernst Thälmann Memorial, Prenzlauer Berg, East Berlin (a commonly defaced memorial of a communist leader tortured by Nazis).

First, I’d like to thank our guest blogger this week Jordan Andrew for his intriguing post “The Architecture and Infrastructure of Memory (MAI),” which was a new topic to me.

Second, the picture in his post was original, he revealed in comments later on, which makes Jordan one of our best guest bloggers we’ve ever had.

So, my post follows-up on the original. Close readers will notice that my title is identical, with one exception, the “?”. The question mark has to do with a discussion that ensued after the post appeared. Deliberation ensued regarding whether or not “MAI facilitates (and limits) possibilities and creates complex connections between these possibilities” or if “what connects them is actually” Jordan’s post? That discussion is here; however, the sticking-points include that “there are no actual/infrastructural networks” (per Jordan’s opening line of paragraph 1) and that “memory is a thing we do and not a thing in the world right” (per Jordan’s closing line of paragraph 1).

Now, the opening line reads: “What is the connection between the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and the National Holocaust Monument currently being built in Ottawa, Canada?” which was rejected, essentially whole cloth, by our longest time commenter, dmf. Now, while I am admittedly sympathetic to the vision of the world encapsulated in MAI, dmf makes a good point with regard to this particular case in that identifying an observable, material link between the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and the National Holocaust Monument (currently being built in Ottawa, Canada) is remarkably difficult to locate outside of the landscape of the mind. My read of the opening line was not so much a challenge with regard to literally mapping an infrastructural connection between these two explicit, seemingly exclusive, objects situated in separate geographic locations; I saw the opening line more as a thought experiment — an invitation to imagine the linkage more generally, applied perhaps tentatively between things massive, steeped in memory on the same scale as the aforementioned infrastructure and memorial. The way the first line is phrased frames the image for the reader in a particular (and possibly unanticipated way): it seems to imply that a literal, material network connection linking two material sites of infrastructure or memorial can be identified, traced, or mapped. The point, to my mind, simply cannot be to establish, in an academic fashion, that it is merely possible to connect the sites. That is, though it became the subject of considerable debate, an academic claim that I find underwhelming (in fact, dmf’s concern “there are no actual/infrastructural networks” between two sites could be answered by googlemaps).


Next, the closing line reads: “This is because MAI is intricately bound up in both remembrance and sovereignty,” which links to the remark: “MAI facilitates (and limits) possibilities and creates complex connections between these possibilities.” The concern is that memory is non-material, it is “a thing we do and not a thing in the world right,” and, as such, the literal making of connections (the actual networking, in the active sense) seems all but impossible. However, as I read this, it was precisely that memory and sovereignty, as un-material as they may at first appear (given that they are conceptual in form and function, and, to many thinkers, concepts do not exist in the proper sense of the term “exist”); however, memory and sovereignty do apparently have a kind of agency (or force to intervene or shape) in our world. It may be nonhuman and, crucially, uninhabited agency; however, per Jordan’s statement, now-standing examples of memorial architecture and infrastructure (such as Ernst Thälmann Park above) seem to be memory put to material, shaping the expression of memory through designs (accepted and rejected), decisions about what materials to use (or not use), and infrastructures (some which capture the memory more effectively than some competing arrangement), all happen through material practices at a particular time with a particular set of skills, decision-makers, and concerned (or disconcerted) publics, and so on, so that when we look into these particular moments in time, memory and materialized get bound together into a portmanteau that makes “memorialized” seem so reasonable.

I look forward to continuing this discussion …

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About Nicholas

Associate Professor of Sociology, Environmental Studies, and Science and Technology Studies at Penn State, Nicholas mainly writes about understanding the scientific study of states and, thus, it is namely about state theory. Given his training in sociology and STS, he takes a decidedly STS-oriented approach to state theory and issues of governance.

12 thoughts on “2 of 3: Memory Architecture and Infrastructure (MAI)?

  1. ” memory and sovereignty do apparently have a kind of agency (or force to intervene or shape) in our world” thanks this gets to the heart of the matter for me, so if these are more than terms for human doings (remembering, ruling, etc) where would folks propose that we find these ____ (not sure what to call them other than figures of speech) and how do we get a sense of their properties and active powers (as much as I appreciate the rhetorical flourishes of ANT to note that things/objects have active physical properties is just to note that they exist)
    What would we lose in reframing this all in terms of extended-minding/tool-use or even a bit of postphenomenology?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed, I thought I had found the cusp or “heart” of the matter in the discussion (its the same for me, btw). I’ll write more on it tomorrow in the comments, but for now, the line between “human doings” and “observable real material things” is our agreed-upon staging grounds, right?


      • sounds good to me
        “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. ”
        now for me I take these questions along the lines that Rorty did that nothing other than other people involved can limit the public rhetorical uses we make of objects (texts, art-works, natural objects, fellow critters, etc) and nothing in principle (or necessarily) limits our personal interpretations (nothing is alien to being referenced/associated in relation to a “text” , writ large after Derrida) and I’m with Latour that publics need to be assembled and take maintenance, and so a bit different than the affordances and resistances (via JJGibson and co) of our manglings (Pickering) that come with material engineering efforts (whether in a lab, workshop, etc).
        this bit of a wiki might be helpful “Practices: Turner has published in the overlapping fields of sociology and philosophy, particularly on the notion of practices. In The Social Theory of Practices as well as in other writings Turner argues against collective concepts like culture: what we call culture (and similar concepts), he argues, needs to be understood in terms of the means of its transmission. There is no collective server by which it is simply downloaded and “shared”. What we take as “collective” is really produced through experiences of interaction which are different and produce different results for different individuals but which also produce a rough uniformity through mechanisms of feedback rather than “sharing”


      • As somebody trained in sociology and science and technology studies, the line between “human doings” and “observable real material things,” our agreed-upon staging grounds, is a truly difficult bit of intellectual terrain. Here is why: as you foreshadow already, sociologists don’t mind utilizing abstract, imprecise, non-material concepts such as “Culture” or even the holiest of holies “the Social” in their research (holding aside, for the moment, whether or not concepts are real things), which is not, I hope, up to much debate; in contrast, STS scholars, though many participate in the same sort of scientific endeavors (many are actually sociologists, after all), tend to tear-down abstract, imprecise, non-material concepts such as “Science” and (a la Latour) “the Social” (ohh, it is good fun to twist the blade in the soft underbelly of social science) so that we can observe what actually happens on the ground, in practices we common associate with these overarching ideas that pass so casually from mouth-to-mouth and mind-to-mind in the general public. This divide, between building-up and protecting abstractions and tearing-down and questioning abstractions, are two distinct views or vantage points from which to approach the conduct of inquiry (social, natural, whatever). That said, while the STS view (I’m thinking of big names like Lynch and Pickering on this one) could do well even without the sociological view, they do make for good bedfellows. In fact, some of the rhetorical punch of the STS view is predicated precisely upon the heavy abstraction of “Culture” or “Science.” The STS move to de-capitalize “Science” so we get “science,” in effect, feeds off of the very abstractions they are so critical of; after all, the thrust and urgency of the argument is that it constitutes a critical alternative to abstraction — without all that abstraction to criticize, the STS view would lose a lot of gas; it would cease to be a critical alternative, at that point, and STS would seem a little more drab (than it already is).

        So, apart from agreeing or disagreeing with the finer points (like whether abstractions “exist”), can we agree that in the contemporary academic landscape, it is a legitimate thing to do to (1) create and protect abstract, imprecise, non-material concepts and it is just as legitimate a thing to do to (2) question and reject abstract, imprecise, non-material concepts? Additionally, I wish to establish the meta-commentary as well that the two legitimate and reasonable positions in this discussion feed off of one another, although not equally, given that, in my view, STS has more to gain by tearing-down sociology than sociology has to gain by tearing-down STS.



        • I certainly don’t want to be a kind of concern troll, as you know I’m more from the strand of STS via folks like Pickering and Hacking who showed how lab science isn’t driven by following/acting-out abstractions but by the doings of particular people with particular things in particular settings (this of course now has echoes in neuro-science/phenomenology/anthropology as being true of all human-doings) and I take that to not only be exciting but a way to talk about these matters in ways which allow us to be both accurate and to interact with the very doers (and or those funding/monitoring/etc) in the doing.
          I think there is a kind of middle-ground via Mol and all if one take these concepts/terms as things we make (and not things we discover) to try achieve certain ends (tools if you will with varying properties) so that we can continue use them just not to treat them as what they are not in any literal sense, now to some degree we dwell poetically (here tho again after Rorty/DonaldDavidson we are in the realm of human inventions and not revelations) and I welcome that but not when folks make something akin to category errors which lead us astray (away from what was at hand), which in some sense change the subject and or lead us into fiction (modeling and all is necessary for certain tasks but we shouldn’t forget that we are making something new in the world with them).
          A parallel can be seen in philosophy where folks like Heidegger (who is an author-ity evoked in the current thread we are responding to) were despite their best efforts still caught up in certain theo-logical modes of thought (what Derrida diagnosed as a metaphysics of Presence) and so Romantically felt that beyond his excellent philosophical anthropology of tool-use/environs lay a vital realm of god-like powers displayed in the Arts, Moods, and such, the very vehicles (in the sense of Icons and such) of Culture and other higher realms and not “mere” anthropology as he derisively called it. I think sociology (political science/philosophy et al) is also haunted by certain godlike titans walking the earth of humans and objects, not yet modern if you will. If this is all besides the point here let me know I certainly won’t take it personally.


            • Ah, there is — upon some considerable reflection — yet another possible divide: what was the function of the post? Was it to raise a series of claims that can be confirmed or denied? Alternatively, was it to introduce a line of thought? If we focus on the former, then we end-up with the doing-talking discussion. If we focus on the latter, then we have another sort of discussion that is more akin to “shedding light on a topic of inquiry” rather than emphasizing the truthiness of the enterprise.


              • yes thanks as I read yer reply here it makes more explicit my stunted attempt to question if this more was more literal-minded or poetic tho I have to say Jordan’s replies to comments seem to reinforce the literal truthiness angle. I’m not one who thinks we can (or should) do without metaphors and such just that we approach them as rhetorical tools not as truthinesses, hopefully he will answer the question you are raising here.


    • I keep seeing the concept “extended mind” being brought up and I feel like I need to address this directly as I am relatively unfamiliar with the literature and subsequent discussion. When you reference it are you referring to the work of Clark and Chalmers, etc…?

      Assuming for the moment that you are, allow me to venture into some previously unexplored territory. To be exact, is the issue here over what we should and shouldn’t consider to be constitutive of the cognitive process? If so, then I will say that what I am arguing, I believe, doesn’t make an essential claim on this point, nor does it rely on such a claim being made. Perhaps this is due to my obviously being influenced by ANT – where the distinction between internal and external is often ignored (for better or for worse).

      Whether mnemonic technologies, or really anything external to our minds *constitutes* or merely act as ‘cues’ to our cognitive processes makes little difference, I think, in what I am getting at. I don’t think that I necessarily need to advocate for an ‘active externalism’ in order to forward my point about MAI and its ability to delimit possibilities for memory, thoughts, or cognitive processes more generally.

      Wouldn’t an understanding of the process of remembering as cue and state dependent – contingent and creative – still leave room for an understanding of the role of external (human and nonhuman) actors and their, albeit carefully defined, capacity for agency? And if so (even if we were to ‘drop the nonhuman agency bit’) could we not pursue an understanding of social remembering as something that is to varying degrees made possible through these external assemblages?

      Again, I’m not at all familiar with ‘extended minding’, so I guess I am asking if it should be at the heart of this discussion? I look forward to what Nicholas and dmf say in the discussion to come, along with Stefanie Fishel in her post.


      • ah yeah sorry that’s my own creation (at least as far as I know) a way to try and distinguish what Clark and other enactivists (and so minding, not Mind) are doing from panpsychists like Chalmers, which gets to
        “Whether mnemonic technologies, or really anything external to our minds *constitutes* or merely act as ‘cues’ to our cognitive processes makes little difference, I think, in what I am getting at. I don’t think that I necessarily need to advocate for an ‘active externalism’ in order to forward my point about MAI and its ability to delimit possibilities for memory, thoughts, or cognitive processes more generally.”
        I think it is very different whether some-thing constitutes or cues, as I noted above in the wiki-Turner the question/means of “transmission” (or as I would prefer assembly, interpretation, or mangling ,since I don’t think there is transmission in the sense of say diseases, or radio signals, etc) is really the central question.
        “Wouldn’t an understanding of the process of remembering as cue and state dependent – contingent and creative – still leave room for an understanding of the role of external (human and nonhuman) actors and their, albeit carefully defined, capacity for agency?
        absolutely thanks, that is a wonderfully concise way of saying what I was rambling on about in my all too fragmented way with evoking the phenomenology of architecture and the like.
        So how doe we map out such particulars in enough detail that we could answer the basic scientific question of what is working together to produce some event/effect we are coming to question?


  2. Thank you Nicholas and for those who have commented on and engaged with my post. The time you have taken to partake in this discussion with me has been much appreciated.

    After Nicholas’ post, it has become even more apparent that I did a poor job in the clarity department on my original post: as I think there are some misunderstandings about what I am trying to argue. I will do my best to address these below.

    There seems to be a lot of argument over my statement regarding how the NHM and the CNOCC are *connected*. The connection between the two is not material, but rather, they become associated ‘abstractly’. My argument has not been that the NHM and its surrounding commemorative infrastructure is in some infra-structury way physically connected to the infrastructure associated with the CNOCC. Rather, the abstract connection between the two (one that may eventually have substantial effects on how infrastructure is build and arranged) is rooted in this idea of what is made possible. More specifically, I am using the terms ‘possible’ and ‘possibilities’ in reference to agency – both individual human agency and ‘state’ agency, governance and sovereignty.

    I have latched onto the ancient Greek and Heidegger’s commentary to emphasize the connection between memory and possibility – and therefore agency. In summary, actors that have the capacity to remember, to varying degrees depend on that capacity in order to realize/exercise or imagine their agency. This is especially true for humans: what would human agency look like without the capacity to remember? Almost entirely different I would argue, and this is important, because if memory is intricately connected to how some actors exercise agency, then things that participate in constituting remembrance can play an extremely important role in establishing possibilities (and realities) where humans and nonhumans act.

    So, to bring this back into my example, the MP’s statement through which he abstractly connects the NHM and the CNOCC points to a specific way in which the NHM (as well as a broader assemblage of things) opens up possibilities for both states and individuals to act. In this case, the MP discusses how ‘the monument speaks to’ Canada’s role in foreign policy and domestic economic policy. He makes explicit connections between the NHM, Canada (Canadian) identity, values, and politics, and then moves to give a specific example of how these associations imply a particular range of possible actions: through favouring Israel’s foreign investment in the Canadian energy sector over China’s.

    The way this MP goes on justifying his preferences regarding who owns what is one way through which what individual citizens remember becomes important in relation to state agency. Since the Canadian state’s freedom to act at least in part relies on public opinion (support of its citizens), the monument and the identity/values that are endorsed by it can participate in bridging the abstract gap between more broad and seemingly unrelated philosophical, ideological, and political frameworks, and a very specific action that the government may take in the future.

    As Nicholas has previously stated, these have been relatively fresh thoughts and therefore my language may be lacking in exactness, but I hope this makes some sense.


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