Desire Lines

Reflections on the issues raised by the Being in the Line project

When Avery Gordon’s concept of a social haunting was initially described to me, I began to think about a long-standing sociological tradition on the collective memory. What are the delimitations around these concepts in relation to social haunting?  Are we, for example, referring to things which haunt individuals or groups (I think the latter)? And, though a ‘social haunting’ and the ‘collective memory’ stem from two very distinct sociological traditions, is it possible that they may be related to one another? In this blog, I will reflect on how we might begin to think about the limits to social hauntings by looking at similar work on collective memory, particularly around ethics.

Memories or Hauntings?

The Barnsley case hints at how memories – or hauntings - can be investigated through archaeological research methods. My background is slightly different: I am a building historian who takes seriously notions of power, identity, and representation beyond the aesthetic value of architecture (whilst understanding that architecture’s symbolic potency remains important).  I have utilised Maurice Halbwach’s notion of ‘collective memory’ when approaching the built environment:

… the inhabitants pay disproportionate attention to … the material aspect of the city. The great majority may well be more sensitive to a certain street being torn up, or a certain building or home being razed, than to the gravest national, political, or religious events. (Halbwachs 1980: 131)

Halbwachs is useful for the building historian for his observation that no one group or individual’s identity is a tabula rasa – it is always enclosed in a spatial framework which is layered up by time and which can constrain as much as facilitate memories. It is a concept that has been much deployed in the analysis of public monuments and commemoration events – many groups utilise shrines, special places, monuments and so on in order to keep their memory alive. Whilst I disagree with Halbwach’s notion of a ‘fixed’ built environment, everyday street settings can become a ‘locus for collective memory’ and one in which there is as much conflict as there is consensus over urban forms (Hebbert 2005). This can be traced through morphological analysis – and can help to show just how dynamic the built environment is. Buildings may be considered as ‘quasi-technologies’ or ‘mutable immobiles’ – they might not move, but they do change over time and according to use (Guggenheim 2009).Tracking these changes over time through materials thus becomes a particularly important activity and, when combined with how other people interpret buildings, a powerful means for understanding that which lingers and remains (Edensor 2011).

Repressed or Forgotten?

But what of repressed or forgotten memories – how do these relate to bricks and mortar? Repressed memories represent a transitional period in which the conscious and unconscious are in conflict. On the other hand, forgetting excludes both consciousness and unconsciousness (Forty 2001).  I think that this will be a difficult distinction to tease out through the case study in Rochdale with the Rochdale Pioneers Museum. The memory of co-operation is two or three generations down the line: has this been forgotten or is it repressed? And there is an ethical point that I wish to raise regarding the painfulness of memories. Here, I turn to a novelist, WG Sebald, who shows that painful memories are ever present; they are not linear, they simply exist. The image is all important: Sebald’s images in Austerlitz are made to seem older through successive duplications; an act which indicates to me that memory can become too overwhelming to comprehend.

I am painfully aware that I am not a student of the co-operative movement, and that many of the volunteers know much more than me. And whilst Andrew’s poetry involves digging deep, I see my role as asking the more naïve questions and of providing spaces for people to begin to tell stories and explore the absences in the current narrative about the Co-operative movement and the Rochdale Pioneers. We are doing so by investigating the provision of co-operative housing – a core part of the Rochdale Pioneer’s principles. Many of the houses exist today but there are questions over whether the street names and enclosed spaces still resonate. Equally, there are many co-operative housing groups in the Rochdale borough – what do they think of the Pioneer’s principles? How do their principles ‘haunt’ many generations down the line?

A Deliberate Haunting?

But I remain perturbed at my own agency in calling ghosts up. Will this over-emphasise particular narratives? An important paper on collective memory hints at this point:

Inquiring into the experiences of traumatized individuals may start out as an attempt to discover the role of memory in action, but it often calls up memories that would not have occurred without the researcher’s stimulus and then objectifies them as part of the collective record. That record, in turn, becomes a point of reference for future remembering as well as for future perception…’ (Olick 1999, pp. 346 – 7).

The first task is, therefore, to investigate the National Co-operative Archives as a collection. What secrets might it hold into the co-operative haunting? How was it formed, and how does it operate as a guardian of the Co-operative group’s memory (or haunting)?




Edensor, T. 2011. ‘Entangled Agencies, Material Networks and Repair in a Building Assemblage: The Mutable Stone of St Ann’s Church, Manchester’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 36, 238–52

Forty, A. & Kuchler, S. eds. 2001. The Art of Forgetting. Oxford: Berg 3PL.

Guggenheim, M. 2009. Mutable Immobiles. Change of Use of Buildings as a Problem of Quasi-Technologies. In Ignacio Farias and Thomas Bender, eds. Urban Assemblages. How Actor Network Theory Transforms Urban Studies. Routledge.

Halbwachs, M. 1980. The Collective Memory. New York, Harper & Row.

Hebbert M. 2005. The street as locus of collective memory. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 23(4), 581 – 596 

Olick, J. K. 1999. Collective Memory: The Two Cultures. Sociological Theory. 17 (3), 333 – 348