‘I’ve never seen that before…’

by Robin Barden August 4, 2014 A

Apparently Germans do remember The War.  Now this might not be an earth shattering fact for some of you, but for me, it really is something of a revelation.

Admittedly, forming your historical perspective from the History Channel is never going to result in a fully formed, analytical, objective view, but this went deeper. As far as I can recall, I’ve always known the Germans don’t talk about The War(s).  The shame, the sense of national guilt, the inability to make sense of their ancestors actions, what else could Germans do but remain silent.  But now I’m told, they don’t just remember, they do it better than US!  (Admittedly I’m half Italian and many, if not most readers, will have non UK, and, or, plural, heritage, but I beg your indulgence.)

And how do we know this?  Well the reporter who brought me this scope is clear.  Look at their monuments.  Look at their public commemorations.  Look at the war exhibits in their museums.  In other words, look at the world they walk through and engage with, every day.[i]  While the British engage in various forms of heroic retelling, Germans, I am told, have a future orientated narrative that warns rather than celebrates.  Who knew that: ‘The German word Mahnmal – a warning monument – has no direct equivalent in English, or in British culture’.

But this is about more than just culture.  The kind of culture we are born into, but can challenge and distort through our commercial choices.  This is about the national or social imagination.  This is about how the social imagination, which informs and forms how we make sense of ourselves and others, is embedded in our physical spaces and social practices: the monuments, the museums, and the play acting of public and non-public figures alike.  These background truths are then brought into focus through documentaries on the History Channel, but they were ours before then.[ii]

The social imagination is our collective background sense of things that provides the frame within which articulation can occur.  And this background, embed in the very environment itself, is highly resistant.  Change occurs, but only over large periods of time.  Societies tinker with their practice based environment, but this is the stuff of endless reform.  The background remains stubbornly in place.  Informing and forming the questions as well as the answers.  But over time, frustration with the limitations of the questions and answers posed by the particular background grows, and the tinkering, pushing and pulling on the background, suddenly opens up a space that all-at-once seems full of possibility.  A space colonised by an idea which promises to deal with the growing frustration of the masses such that it is lived with energy, and by many.  Such conviction drives a rebuilding of both the built environment and the linked social practices, but rather than simply reforming what was, what emerges is a new background.  Or more precisely, a new background is posited by the new environment that over a few generations ‘wins’ over and against the old background.  A new background sense of things, previously unimaginable, emerges, and embeds itself as a new social imagination.  A genuine non-causal shift occurs, and a ‘new world’ is born that future generations live as how things just are.[iii]

That is to say, we really do live, breathe, and think the world we walk through.  The real world environment built by our ancestors, and by our ancestors, ancestors, at the same time both accidently and purposefully.  Those coming after us really will live the real world environment we have a part in forming, for better or for worse.  The urban landscape we build will impact the reality lived by future generations, and yet this can not be determined by mathmatical calculation.  It is a case of best-judgement, not exact-science, faith, not certainty.  Even if we pay no notice to it, the urban landscape we leave will have a say in determining how life is imagined in the future.  Not just how people see themselves, the other, and even God, but the field within which they, the other, and God can be seen.  As Charles Taylor argues, it will determine what is up and what is down.[iv]  Its influence goes far beyond the momentary experience of encountering the landscape, or even the landscape’s lifelong impact on those emerged in it day by day.  That’s why spikes in doorways, and ‘poor doors’ in new developments, are an abomination.  It’s not just a question of ownership, choice, or belonging.  It’s also a question of the lived possibilities we want for our children, and our children’s, children.  Who knows?  Perhaps future generations will be born into a reality where they don’t have to fight: whether for justice, peace, or just survival.  And perhaps this has more to do with how we tinker with today’s built environment then we realise.