Forgetting in Construction of Social Identity

In our Thursday lecture Ger Duijzings introduced us to the topic of port cities as a point of heteroglossia, multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism. As a meeting point of many different nations, cultures, societies, customs and languages, port cities and towns obviously have different concepts of identity that often differentiates them from the rest of the country. As an anthropology student, I am understandably highly interested in anything that has to do with the construction of the identity so I decided to look more into the construction of the identity on the Danube Delta in Romania. I found an interesting article from Assch and al whose main theme was the role of forgetting in the construction of the social identity in Sulina. In the few next paragraphs I will talk about the importance of forgetting in making a social identity with not only references to the Sulina case but also to the Langkawi case studied by Carsten in 1991 and then connecting the whole situation to the culture of poverty and study of London prostitutes studied by Day. I know it might sound a bit stretched out but stay with me.
I would first like to remember how Ernest Renan started his well-known essay “Qu´est-ce qu´un nation?”: “in the essence of the nation is that all the individuals hold many things in common, and also that all of them have forgotten many things” (Renan, 1947).

Although remembering is colloquially seen as opposite to forgetting those two are actually only different sides of the same process (Assche and al, 2009). The more we forget, the more we will be able to remember. Therefore, we can conclude that the forgetting, usually seen not as important as remembering, is actually the dominant process in the operation of memorising (Assche and al, 2009). Although normally seen as negative, forgetting is actually a very positive process which helps us in the construction of not only our collective social identities what can be seen on the Sulina case but also in the construction of other social concepts, for example, kinship.
On the case study conducted by Carsten on Langkawi kinship concept, it was clearly shown how forgetting holds a very important role in shaping the kinship ideas and ties. Almost always, when asked about their grandparents, Langkawi not even do not remember the place where their grandparents come from but often they also forget their names (Carsten, 1991). This is due to the fact that Langkawi people, in a country clearly importantly connected with the sea, were always really mobile, leaving their hometowns and families and settling in a completely different place. Therefore, forgetting emerged as a positive process which enables not biologically connected people to see each other’s as kin. Forgetting is obviously an important process, one that is crucial for social memory. Through forgetting, the groups organise their memories, discriminating against “not important information” and construct their narratives (Assche and al, 2009). In that way they maintain their inner unity while establishing the outer boundaries.

Sulina is a small town on the shore of the Black Sea situated on the Danube Delta. It was established as a free port after the Crimean war by the European powers which wanted to safeguard the Danubian trade. It was, therefore, an attractive destination for the merchants operating in the Ottoman dominated Black Sea. Jews, Armenians and Greeks moved to Sulina in great numbers and coexisted with Europeans, Lipoveni, Ukrainians and Romanians. A multicultural place open to different customs and folklore was made. Because of its multiculturalism, Sulina held an important place in the world on the beginning of the 20th century. Unfortunately, during the Second World War, it was precisely this multiculturalism that led to the bombing of Sulina by both allies and enemies. After that, with the rise of the communist regime, because of its suspicion in international connection, Sulina was even more marginalised. Most of the Greeks, the Jews and the Armenians left and with them the connection with the wider world was lost. The population left was either Romanised or encouraged to completely assimilate and integrate into the Romanian society (Assche et al, 2009). A formerly cosmopolitan and European place was ruined by the Second World War and the communist regime. An important point that connected Ottoman dominated Black Sea and Europe was marginalised and seen as European periphery.
As Sulina and its inhabitants went from a highly regarded and important to completely marginalised, processes of forgetting emerged as useful in constructing the social identity of the town. However, it is precisely those memories that contribute to the town’s narrative which impede the desired progress (Assche et al, 2009). When groups and networks dissolve, it is impossible for them to be together, to revive their stories and customs and in such a way that safeguards their social identity. When an identity disappears, the reality created by that identity is lost as well (Assche et al, 2009). Therefore, after the Second World War and with the rise of the communist regime, when the Jews, the Greeks and the Armenians had all left Sulina, they had also taken with them the reality they were parts of. The dramatic change, dissolving historical narratives and networks, may leave local identities unable to connect past, present and future in a productive way (Assche et al, 2009) making further development impossible.
In the Sulina case, the hopes and desires for the future are self-defeating (Assche et al, 2009). Paradoxically, the expectations about what the future would bring are the thing that keeps Sulina from growing, constantly stuck in the same place forever. There are three memory mechanisms that disable the development of the town and the area (Assche et al, 2009).
First of them is the obsession with the after Crimean war era. The numbers of inhabitants that Sulina had in that period are always exaggerated, the harmony of the people coexisting in Sulina in that time overstated and the obvious problems between minorities completely ignored (Assch et al, 2009). Now, when Sulina is a part of European Union, the promises of the new wealth revive the stories about the old European wealth but in the same time the old ideas of affluence structure the expectation from the new EU future. People are also nostalgic for the communist period which they see as more secure and again more harmonised, completely ignoring all the bad parts of the regimes. However, this nostalgia will never be publicly admitted and will only be revealed once a high level of trust has been established (Assche et al, 2009).
The second mechanism is the forgetfulness about the previous lawful regimes, the possibility of planning and the trust in administration (Assche et al, 2009). The people in Sulina chose to remember Sulina from the beginning of the 20th century as a powerful port but somehow forget that the system in that time relied on a really strong local administration. The possibility of trust, cooperation and planning is completely forgotten (Assche et al, 2009). Current local citizens completely distrust the administration, partly because they have never completely identified themselves with Romanians as “Bucharest was always too far away” (Assche et al, 2009). Moreover, there is actually a contrast between the local pride in the Sulina from the beginning of the 20th century, its cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism and “Europeanism” and on the other hand, the pride in the Sulina as the pirate outcasts, a place that was never purely Romanian, the ideas of lawlessness, marginality and adventure.
The third mechanism of memorising is the deep-forgetting – forgetting that you have forgotten (Assche et al, 2009). When in margins, because of the disconnection with the other areas and because of the shared collective identity of being marginalised as opposition to other not being marginalised, a stronger community is established and the deep forgetting is much easier. With deep forgetting, the real narratives of history (and the very phrase ‘real narratives’ can be challenged in ways that cannot be included here) are completely lost and cannot be reconstructed. Although deep-forgetting is not usually a threat to spatial planning, the margin-specific one definitely is (Assche et al, 2009). The dynamic relationship between remembering and forgetting which is typical for a marginalised and assimilated community, as Salina is nowadays, can construct the features of the marginal deep-forgetting which is then completely toxic for the future development of the area.

All of this, the paradox of the hopes and desires for the future impeding progress, reminds me of the cultures of poverty. Lewis described the poor as unable to move from their circumstance because of the mechanism they evolve to cope with those circumstance which then again, at the same time, prevents them from escaping their environment. Although his theory was flawed, Day has done a study on London prostitutes and showed that the mechanism these women develop in order to cope with the current situation, as the spending of the earned money as soon as possible in order not to make any dependents who would consequently become pimps, is actually exactly what keeps them stuck in the same place (Day, 1991). The same thing happens with Sulina’s social collective identity. In order to cope with the current marginalised situation they construct a historical narrative which glorifies Sulina’s past but at the same time construct too big and impossible expectations which then consequently turn into big disappointments and mistrust toward the administration which again completely stops Sulina from developing.
As we could see from the paragraphs above, forgetting is a crucial condition of remembering. The remembering in itself is actually the inhibition of forgetting (Assche et al, 2009) and the real main achievement of the memory is actually forgetting not remembering as the forgetting allows remembering to exist. Forgetting is, in Sulina´s case, not only important for the making of social shared identity but also for the coping with the marginalised situation of the town. Social identity is a complex of images and narratives, self-produces within a group, aimed at the enforcement of the unity (Assche et al, 2009). It is shaped by the memory but also in the same time shaping that same memory (Assche et al, 2009). As the process of social forgetting is strongly connected with the collapse of social and spatial networks as economic, intellectual and political spheres, we can clearly understand why it has emerged in the Sulina case. As Sulina went from an important, world-known port with wide international connections to a marginalised area that kind of belongs to Romania but kind of does not because of its mistrust in the administration, social identity copes with the disintegration of the reality with forgetting. However, at the same time, really sadly actually, the same mechanisms that allow the people to cope with the marginalisation are the ones that keep them marginalised producing a vicious circle which is hard but not impossible to escape.

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