Eternal sunshine of the spotless refugee camp

An examination of collective memory in the Occupied Territories

Eyal Weizman’s book Hollow Land examines the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through an architectural lens. He frames the conflict not just as a struggle that happens to take place within and among cities, but rather as a struggle over the architecture of urban space itself—that buildings, roads, and other city structures are, in fact, themselves participants in the conflict.Weizman 218. He begins by providing an illustrative example—the formation of the Israeli settlement of Migron around a newly constructed cellphone tower. Ostensibly, the antenna was built as a matter of public safety after Israeli settlers complained to the military about bad cell reception when travelling between Jerusalem and already established settlements in the West Bank.Weizman 1–2. However, the attendant physical and social infrastructure needed to power and guard the antenna also provided the means for other families to build homes and, eventually, to form a new outpost. Continues Weizman: “The energy field of the antenna was not only electromagnetic, but also political, serving as a center for the mobilizing, channelling, coalescing and organizing of political forces and processes.”Weizman 2. That is, the antenna was not a neutral structure, but a means to reorganize space to the benefit of Israelis and to the detriment of Palestinians—to transform de jure Palestinian land into de facto Israeli territory. In essence, according to Weizman, this example illustrates the weaponization of urban design as a means to capture territory.

In another work exploring urban design, Maurice Halbwachs introduces the concept of collective memory, his term for the relationship between a city’s physical form and its inhabitants. This relationship centers around the idea that the very design and placement of a community’s buildings, roads, and open spaces are infused with the community’s ideals and worldviews at the time a structure or space is built. Connected to the group’s concepts, these structures then function as collective memories for future inhabitants—so long as they continue to stand, the ideas which are held within their very structure will be remembered as well. As Halbwachs puts it, “[w]hen a group has lived a long time in a place adapted to its habits, its thoughts as well as its movements are in turn ordered by the succession of images from these external objects.”Halbwachs 3. Roads and monuments remind a populace of the ideals of those structures’ creators.

More importantly, however, they function as regulatory agents within the community: with group members living among and within the materialized worldviews of their forefathers, the community conforms to these habits of thought. It “yields and adapts to its physical surroundings. It becomes enclosed within the framework it has built.”Halbwachs 2. Rendered as long-lived as brick and stone, a city’s collective memories constrain and order thought just as their material manifestations constrain and order physical movement.

Applying Halbwachs’ idea of collective memory to Weizman’s thesis yields a peculiar result: if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is mediated through the organization of urban spaces—where the construction and demolition of buildings changes both the political as well as the urban environment—then the conflict, by extension, also changes the mnemonic environment. Within Halbwachs’ framework, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes a fight over not just political and spatial control, but for the region’s collective history: whose historical habits and ways of thinking are to be remembered, whose memories are to shape present and future generations, and whose are to be forgotten. However, such an examination, in turn, reveals the limitations of Halbwachs’ architectural theory of collective memory.

Given the nature of the conflict, it is necessary to properly distinguish between simple history and collective memory, for history has been, from the very beginning, central to the conflict’s intractability and oft-used as justification for actions by one side against the other. Returning to the settlement of Migron, its inhabitants claimed the site to be that of the biblical town of the same name.Weizman 2. Though excavations unearthed nothing older than Byzantine artifacts, the area was nonetheless named Migron, and its (unfounded) biblical history used as justification for some early attempts at settlement—before the construction of a cellphone tower served as a more expedient excuse for permanent infrastructure.Weizman 2.

While the settlers did appeal to historical memory, this is merely an example of claiming present sovereignty based on past ownership. Collective memory, on the other hand, is the regulation of mental thought by the physical environment—how a “group’s image of its external milieu and its stable relationships with this environment becomes paramount in the idea it forms of itself.”Halbwachs 2. That is, according to Halbwachs, collective memory—the shape and form of the urban environment—governs the way a group conceives of itself and others. It is not merely a remembrance of one’s past, but the regulator of current thought.

Thus, if Halwbachs is correct, changes to an urban environment should actually produce changes in the worldviews of its inhabitants. And, indeed, such an example can be found in Weizman’s text: after the large-scale destruction of the Palestinian refugee camp of Jenin—the result of a multi-day battle between the Israeli Defense Forces (idf) and Palestinian combatants—the un rebuilt the camp, using the mass destruction as an opportunity to install higher-quality homes, widen the streets, and replace inadequate water and sewage systems.Weizman 203–205. “It is in this context that we can understand a statement made by one of the members of Jenin camp’s popular committee who, after seeing the un’s newly built… permanent-looking homes…, declared: ‘we have lost the right of return’.”Weizman 205. While in theory the camp’s inhabitants were still refugees living in a temporary camp, their actual homes being some plots of land in what had become Israeli territory, in practice—after the loss of the buildings that encoded in their very structure the temporariness of Jenin and their replacement with permanent infrastructure and homes—they were no longer displaced persons; they had become residents of Jenin. A change in the urban environment (even an externally produced one) resulted in a change in how the group conceived of itself.

It also appears, then, that Israel’s strategy of what Weizman calls “erratic occupation”—where the physical environment of the Occupied Territories is “unpredictably and continuously refashioned”—should result in just this same sort of outcome.Weizman 5. In essence, through the lens of collective memory, this strategy’s end result is the reorganization of Palestinian tradition and self-identity to the benefit of Israel; it is a means to excise from the group’s collective memory knowledge of its own ways of life and to deny its members “the support of the tradition that recommends them and gives them their unique reason for existence.”Halbwachs 4. In other words, erratic occupation becomes more than just a tactic to sow confusion or keep Palestinian militant groups off-balance, but a way to fundamentally alter Palestinian self-image.Weizman 5, 198.

Interestingly, this loss of Palestinian collective memory may also help to explain how Israeli settlers see themselves. Weizman describes their self-image to be that of frontiersmen—as people staking out virgin land—when in truth, they act more as colonizers or conquerors.Weizman 4. But with the land being constantly reshaped and shaken of many of its Palestinian traditions and customs, perhaps it ceases to be, in the minds of Israeli settlers, foreign territory, but in some sense truly becomes virgin land, free to be settled and fashioned with Israeli concepts. Thus, as Weizman puts it, “the mundane elements of planning and architecture… become tactical tools and the means of dispossession.” Weizman 5. But not just, as Weizman identifies, because of the political effects—it is also through the wearing away of Palestinian collective memory and its replacement with an Israeli counterpart.

Thus, Weizman’s text offers up several corroborating examples of Halbwachs’ thesis. However, the very existence Hollow Land—and, more importantly, the conflict it seeks to describe—demonstrates the limits of this argument. If urban space does indeed provide a people with “their unique reason for existence,” then it follows that its complete destruction, or the people’s exile from it, should result in the total obliteration of their collective memory.Halbwachs 4. However, while it is no doubt true that urban structures are neither neutral players in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict nor unimportant in the continuity of a people and their traditions, the very existence of this conflict makes clear that familiar spaces and buildings cannot be the sole provider of existential meaning—for, despite a diaspora lasting several thousand years in what should have been a complete divorce between a space and its people, Jews retained enough sense of group identity and tradition to eventually launch a nationalist Zionist movement, one which has given birth to both the state of Israel and the modern conflict seen today.

In the end, Halbwachs’ argument provides some insight into the present struggle—viewed through his theoretical lens, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be seen as a struggle not just for spatial or political control, but for mnemonic control; however, it also demonstrates the limits of Halbwachs’ claims. Were they completely true, there would be no conflict, for there would be no Jewish people. Likewise, while it is undoubtedly true that the architecture of the Occupied Territories can be a means to reorganize how groups see themselves and relate to one another, it cannot be said—as Halbwachs asserts—that the only resting place for a community’s soul is in their land, for even a people exiled can still remain a single people. Even a people forced from their homes, whose land is routinely redrawn and reshaped, can retain their traditions and self-identity.

  1. Halbwachs, Maurice. “Space and the Collective Memory.” The Collective Memory (1950). Print.
  2. Weizman, Eyal. Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation. New York: Verso, 2007. Print.
Written Wednesday, May 7, 2014 9:29 PM

Science, money, and “unknown unknowns”

Wikimedia Commons
Yellow slime mold

With the sequester in full force, there’s been a lot of talk about wasteful government programs and the debt, and whenever we start talking about the national debt, inevitably it seems a few Senators or Congressmen trot out a list of all the research projects they think the government is wasting its money on; this time is no different.

In particular, a couple of research projects into the mating behavior of slugs and duck penises have been singled out as an absurd waste of taxpayer money. I mean, what possible benefit could there be to society to learn the intracacies of a duck’s penis, or how slugs get it on?

And, superficially, it makes sense—in times of financial crunch, we should be spending money on the things that are important, like national defense and healthcare, not fulfilling the simple curiosity of a researcher interested in the spiralled penis of your local neighborhood mallard. If we are going to fund science, it should be on new medical treatments or improved body armor for our troops, not on how slime mold reproduces. That is, we should be funding the projects that we know can improve the quality of our lives.

But what these Senators and (usually) conservative pundits fail to recognize is that this basic, fundamental research—driven by the simple curiosity of researchers—is not only essential for applied research projects, like improved missile defense or better cancer treatments, but an extremely good investment.

If I showed you a glob of slime mold and asked you if we could use it to improve the world around us, what would you say? You might say “No,” which would be a reasonable assumption, given that slime mold is what it sounds like. But the more accurate answer would be “I don’t know.” Because you don’t—how could you? The only way to answer that question is to do basic research on it.

And it turns out it is useful. Slime mold has been studied for some time by researchers driven by their curiosity for this very strange, gross organism. Only later, after this basic research was done, did other scientists, mathematicians, and engineers come along and see how it might be useful: the growth patterns of slime mold have been used to develop better models for computer networks and urban planning, and has even been used to help predict how cancer will spread in the body, possibly opening up new avenues for treatment.

But there is no way to know this without first understanding something about the organism, even just its reproductive habits. Without first studying the mating behavior of slugs, we have no way to determine if this will be useful to us as a society. By very definition, how could we? It is, to quote Rumsfeld, an “unknown unknown.”

Only after conducting basic research on abelones and mantis shrimp did we realize that the way they construct their exoskeleton could pave the way for advanced body armor. Only after conducting basic research into the behavior of light and atoms were we able to invent lasers, computers, microwave ovens, and iPhones. The applied research—the kind with immediate benefits to society—can only happen when the basic research has been done. A field can only be sewn after it’s been ploughed; we can only invent with the tools and materials we already know to exist.

Take again the slime mold. The amount of basic research done on this slimy, nasty creature with apparently no use to humanity has already inspired work in fields as disparate as medecine, computer science, and urban planning. This brings us to our second point:

Basic research is not information that is purchased, but an investment made in future scientists and engineers. By generating new discoveries and ideas, we create the potential that this information will be the spark of an idea in some future inventor to create something altogether new or life-changing, and this serves as an incredible engine for economic development.

For every $1 the Human Genome Project cost—basic research of the type ridiculed—it generated $140 of growth in the us economy. I can think of no other type of investment with such a staggering return on investment: that is a 1,400% return rate! Not every project is necessarily going to be as successful; the slug research might not return any of the $2 million it cost to fund it. But basic research is, by its very nature, trying to learn something about our world; that very fact makes it impossible for us to know if it’s worthwhile or not.

So how do we decide what to fund? Well, what we do know is that research is very cheap. $2 million sure does have a lot of zeros in the number, but in the scope of the entire us budget, it is basically chump change. Secondly, even if only 1 out of 10 projects succeed at the scale of the Human Genome Project, that is still a $14 return on every $1 spent.

In other words, when the us funds basic research, it is not spending money, it is investing it, and for a very healthy return.

So when you hear about some research project that seems like it might not hold much merit, or is a waste of time and money, just think of slime mold. Research into its reproductive habits may just lead to better treatments for cancer, a faster Internet, or even just less traffic.