Power, Spectacle and Memory

Berlin: divided city


Throughout History, Berlin has experienced extreme power relations which are exemplified continuously and regarded as major chronological events.

The famous Berlin wall is easily adapted to Focuault’s notions of power and surveillance. The wall itself can be compared to Bentham’s Panopticon, providing those in power with constant surveillance and observation. The existence of the wall completely personified the two competing power relations that embodied East and West Berlin throughout History and which still reside inherently within Berliners to this day. As well as this, East and West Berlin still maintains an easily distinguishable contrast of archaeological physicality.

Despite the destruction of the wall, East and West Berlin is still separated by embedded totalizing discourses in which frame ideological representations of each other that are automatically confirmed or obeyed. Construction of knowledge through discourse produces perceptions and expressions of society which are governed by those in power, as poster explains; ‘power is exercised through networks, and individuals do not simply circulate in those networks; they are in a position to both submit to and exercise this power’ (Poster, 2006:37).

Although the fall of the Berlin wall was greatly celebrated, the aftermath of these two conflicting sides still exists in contemporary Berlin ‘The task has been daunting—unifying two countries with a common cultural background but antipathetic political and economic systems’(Stratenschulte, 2008:10). Two different social processes have been created and automatically constructed by its inhabitants.

Foucault’s work identifies the importance between relationships of power and knowledge. The existence of these conflictions counteracts the dominant discourse of a ‘united’ Berlin and questions the presence of ultimate, unchanging truths, thus embodying Foulcadian notions of genealogy.

The historical struggle of Berlin is now expressed through language and in the form of art. Although, when researched, it seems there is still an existing sense of embarrassment or fear of the past and hesitance in completely embracing a united and collective Berlin.

By Jessica Hale


The all-encompassing spectacle of the space of the city of Berlin is the fall of the Wall, as it represents the scars of the historical divide of Berlin between the East and the West. “For 28 years Berlin existed as two cities, the physical symbol of the dislocation between the capitalist West and the communist East” (Berlinfo.com 2011). The spectacle of the Berlin wall would not only become the reality of culture makers, but of all people within the society. Reflecting upon the fall of the Wall, Debord stated through this spectacle it is creating a drive “towards modernisation and unification” (Thompson 2012:30). Therefore creating a diffuse spectacle that encompasses the trait of Americanisation of the world through the ideology of democracy that creates “freedom of choice to the vast range of new commodities on offer” (Jestrovic 2013: 6), hence creating consumption for the masses especially through the media.

However, Drakulic states the process of ‘editing’ plays a role in the Hollywoodisation of the spectacle of the Wall (Jestrovic 2013). Drakulic argues in her book how we survived communism and even laughed “In newspaper and on TV revolutions looked spectacular: cut barbed wire and people chiseling pieces of the Wall. The boring parts of the revolution had simply finished up on the floor of television cutting rooms all over the world” (Jestrovic 2013: 6). Consequently according to Debord a spectacle presents itself as a positive as it is a “vast inaccessible reality that can never be questioned” as its “sole message is: ‘what appears is good: what is good appears” (Knabb 2002:3). Therefore, in contemporary society of Berlin, the physical evidence of the division of the wall is becoming harder to find, this is due to its saturation of memories that resulted in political powers deciding to teach willful forgetting through the architecture and the renaming of streets in East Berlin.

By Rebecca Holland


The politics of memory in the space of Berlin is controversial when considering the place as a historical space represented as contested negotiations between key political figures, historians, philosophers and artists. Berlin as a place is not simply a container of the past but a fluid mosaic of memory, matter, scene and experience that create a social space. The city functions as a place of memory that narrates national pasts and futures through combining nationalism and modernity. The violent national history of Berlin is reflected in places of memory such as the Topography of Terror International Documentation Center, the Bavarian Quarter memorial, the Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe, the Berlin Wall and many others. These places provoke controversial debates and feelings towards the national past they hold in the present and the stories about them indicate how dominant understandings of place may simultaneously constrain, direct and enable the mourning and commemorative practice of a nation (Till, K. 2005c). Berlin’s collective memory cannot be isolated from Germany’s perceptions of the past. John Ardagh reports that Germany’s reactions to the past are different in the sense that some believe in “sedulously keeping the memories alive” but there are also Germans who feel that the past should not be raked up any more (1995: 507).

According to Walter Benjamin, memory is the “scene” (Schauplatz) of the past as well as “the medium of what has been experienced the way the earthen realm is the medium in which dead cities lie buried. For Benjamin, memory is not just information that individuals recall or stories being retold in the present. It is not layered time situated in the landscape. Rather, memory is the self-reflexive act of contextualising and continuously digging for the past through place. It is a process of continually remaking and remembering the past in the present rather than a process of discovering objective historical “facts”.  As the scene of the past, social memory in Berlin and its outcomes are fluid and changing with the needs of the present. Berlin’s history keeps being reinterpreted. Representing place as an archaeological site, an unchanging, materially embodied past, is a discursive-material practice: the past is organized and structured through place to create a chronotope, or time-space formation, through which contemporary narrations and performances of subjectivity and authority are inscribed (Till, K. 2005c).

By Eva Spirova



Berlininfo.com (2011) The Berlin wall [online] available from <http://www.berlinfo.com/Traveltime/Sights/sights/divided_city/index.htm> [30 December 2012]

Jestrovic, S. (2013) Performance, Space, Utopia: Cities of War, Cities of Exile

 Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan

Knabb, K (2002) The society of the spectacle (new translation of the book by Guy Debord) [online] available from <http://www.bopsecrets.org/images/sos.pdf&gt; [1 December 2012]

Poster, M. (2006) Information Please. London: Duke University Press. 37.

Thompson, N. (2012) Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011

Cambridge: MIT Press

Stratenschulte, E. (2008) “Mission Accomplished? Berlin Society and the Challenge of Reunification”. Berlin Since the Wall’s End: Shaping Society and Memory in the German Metropolis since 1989. 1 (1), 10.


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