A reflection on the province of oblivion

Marie Clausén, author of Sacred Architecture in a Secular Age, discusses the notion of "un-memories" in relation to sacred spaces.

Giorgio Agamben reminds us that we have forgotten much more than we remember. In both senses. But also, that what we’ve forgotten is no less a part of our past, our lives, than that which we remember. Let’s contemplate those shadow memories, those un-memories, for a moment. What are they made of? The brief, the inconsequential, the uncharacteristic, the unintelligible, the unpleasant perhaps…but there is also a randomness at work: some of what floats off into that great, dark sea of un-memories is neither unpleasant nor inconsequential. Perhaps our brains are simply too feeble to retain much of anything; perhaps there is an evolutionary advantage to arbitrary suppression of the past. Whatever the reasons and mechanisms, there is something eerie about the fact that most of our past, of what has played a part in shaping us into who we are, is unremembered. It obliges us to acknowledge an essentially apophatic principle at work in our becoming – we are only able to account for our lives in terms of what we have not forgotten while aware that the lion’s share of our lives are made up of the forgotten (or more properly, the unremembered). It seems to me, therefore, that while Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is right to say that memory is a prelude to forgetting, one could equally turn the claim on its head and say that forgetting (virtually everything) is the prelude, indeed the prerequisite, to remembering (anything at all).

Whenever we make a special effort to remember something – perhaps we take a photograph, choose a keepsake, erect a memorial or write an epitaph – we engage in memory-making. And, put simply, and not without irony, the more we do this, the more we try to remember, the more we succumb to forgetting. The more photos we take, the more we catalogue and archive certain times and places, the more we invariably suffer the unphotographed, uncatalogued and unarchived to be forgotten. Just as a bright light in the window makes the night outside even darker, so the little flares of remembrance, in the course of time petrified into the lodestars of our biographies, burn sharp and bright without lighting up the ever-expanding dark matter of our personal universes. Un-memories are the unintended consequences of memory-making.

A similar principle prevails where cultural heritage is concerned. Choices of what to signpost, interpret, reconstruct and exhibit, which stories and perspectives to privilege, invariably end up obscuring everything not thus highlighted. Signposts are not entirely innocent things; like so much in this butterfly-effect world of ours, their consequences reach far beyond their immediate, pragmatic purpose. When we attend to them we become concerned with destination; a broad, sustained and ever-vigilant attention to the world becomes supplanted by a narrower, more intently focussed attention. As a result, what could have been an unstructured experience becomes a structured one – and an infinity of possibilities foreclose. There is a collateral loss of freedom, not only of movement but of imagination and memory, of the way in which we as homo ludens explore and experience space.


No exit/no through traffic: as a sign it directs movement through prohibition; as a metaphor it illustrates the limit that 'interpretation' puts on the imagination and, specifically - given the icon's felicitous cross-shape - the blocking of transitive dreaming in churches managed as cultural heritage sites.


Henri Lefebvre writes that signs have something lethal about them by virtue of their forced introduction of abstraction into nature, or the real. They cause a flattening, a loss of dimensions, in the way that a map, however painstakingly it notes changes in elevation, can never replace or properly evoke the hilly landscape it stands for. I feel quite strongly that where sacred space is concerned, this loss of dimensions is particularly to be regretted. A sacred space is by definition allusive and multi-dimensional and when transvalued into a site of cultural heritage its hypaethral quality is closed off. There is a way of forgetting churches that has nothing to do with forgetting their existence as buildings, or forgetting various bits of information about them such as when they were built, who the architect was or what style they represent – one can forget how to relate to them as poetic, existential buildings and thereby let the most mystical, intriguing and valuable aspect of them slip into oblivion. Just as signs in material terms herald the non-place, they can in the metaphorical sense implied here herald a sort of non-memory.

The thing is, that while we admit ontological waste as an eerie but necessary aspect of our personal memory-making, we are not obliged to unquestioningly accept it where collective memory-making is concerned. We should be wary not only of the cultural heritage industry’s (unwitting?) attempt to replace our personal memories (singular, uncertain, affective) with collective memories, but also, in light of the latter’s rather more designed relationship to forgetting, of the ultimate furta sacra: disappearing the very mode of human memory-making in all its apophatic mystery. 

  • Sacred Architecture in a Secular Age

    Anamnesis of Durham Cathedral

    By Marie Clausén

    Having won more than one recent poll as Britain’s best-loved building, the appeal of Durham Cathedral appears abiding, which begs the question whether an iconic sacred building can retain meaning and affective pertinence for contemporary, secular visitors. Using the example of Durham Cathedral,…

    Hardback – 2016-02-26
    Routledge Research in Architecture