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Canadian Journal of Sociology Online May-June 2006

Marc Augé.
Oblivion.
Translated by Marjolijn de Jager. Foreword by James E. Young.
University of Minnesota Press, 2004, 136 pp.
$US 18.95 paper (0-8166-3567-6), $US 56.95 hardcover (0-8166-3566-8)

‘Right now I'm having amnesia and deja vu at the same time. I think I've forgotten this before’.
- Steven Wright

Marc Augé is a renowned and prolific French cultural theorist and ethnologist. The author of a dozen
or so books, many translated into English, he is currently director of L’École des Hautes Études en
Sciences Sociales in Paris. Augé is perhaps best known, at least in the English-speaking world, for
his theory of ‘supermodernity’, which for him denotes an intensification of certain elements of
modernity in the direction of both excess and homogenization. One of the distinguishing
characteristics of supermodernity is the creation of an endless series of ‘non-places’. These refer to
spaces that have no discernable histories or identities; they are merely interchangeable and often
temporary transit points for travel, consumption and communicative exchange. Augé mentions
highways, the internet, airports and supermarkets in this context. (An anecdotal example of the
latter: a nearby Wal-Mart in my current city of residence, erected about two years ago, suddenly
disappeared virtually overnight. An identical store was constructed about ten blocks away,
presumably on a more profitable intersection. Habitual shoppers of Wal-Mart would find outlets in
Puerto Vallarta, Berlin or Sydney equally familiar. For more on non-places, see the excellent
discussion in Joe Moran’s recent Reading the Everyday, 2005.) In a number of studies, Augé trains
his sights on contemporary Western societies, using ethnographic techniques usually reserved for the
investigation of the ‘exotic’ other. This has the effect of ‘defamiliarizing’ everyday practices and
meanings in our own society - so as to (as he writes here) ‘diffuse the myopia or blindness that the
routine and automatism of our culture might arouse’ (13). Augé’s book Un Ethnologue dans le
Métro, a study of the Paris subway system, is an exemplary example of this approach, what Georges
Perec calls in his book Species of Spaces (1997) an ‘anthropology of the endotic’.

Oblivion is the latest available English translation of Augé’s work. It is a brief but engaging essay on
the connection between memory and forgetting (or oblivion), which takes the form of ‘a small
treatise on the use of time’, as American theorist James E. Young writes in his short preface (3). Our
experience of time, which involves crucially our efforts to construct meaningful life-stories and
narratives of both an individual and collective sort, is premised on a constitutive dialectic between
remembrance and forgetting. ‘Memory and oblivion in some way have the same relationship as life
and death’, as Augé notes (14). He insists that remembrances are not solid objects of fact buried in
our consciousness, only waiting to be retrieved by an act of will. Following the psychoanalytical
theorist Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, Augé suggests that remembrance is more like a screen on which
memory traces are projected, in a manner that both conceals and reveals, and hence best understood
as an on-going construction of ‘fictions’ (22-3). Such traces, which often generate spontaneous
images and connections à la Proust (and there is an extended discussion of the Proustian notion of
‘involuntary memory’ towards the end of this book), do not fit easily into pre-conceived or
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externally-imposed narratives. They continue to have idiosyncratic symbolic resonances that are
irreducible to what Lyotard calls ‘grand narratives’, and are especially poignant in childhood (or
recollections of our experiences as children, as Bachelard has expounded on wonderfully in his The
Poetics of Space, 1969). However, Augé does sound the warning that, in the age of supermodernity,
there is a distinct threat posed to the integrity of personal narratives, due to the fact that our lives are
mediated increasingly by all manner of images, tropes and fictions that are collectively, and largely
anonymously, authored by the culture industry. Insofar as such manufactured cultural forms take up
the function of narrating our biographies — Augé mentions, for example, how pop music becomes
effectively the ‘soundtrack of our lives’ — there is, at least potentially, a loss of personal agency.
Supermodernity therefore seems to involve a ‘return of the mythic’ that was apparently banished
when modernity, with its conception of the individual as a ‘project of self-realization’, supplanted
the religious or mythopoetic constitution of the self. (See Giddens’ Modernity and Self-Identity,
1991, or Charles Taylor’s The Ethics of Authenticity, 1992, in this regard.)

Oblivion, then, is a kind of necessary ‘work’ that we must engage in continuously in order to
construct a meaningful life-narrative, of a sort that Augé compares to gardening: ‘Remembering or
forgetting is doing gardener’s work, selecting, pruning. Memories are like plants: there are those that
need to be quickly eliminated in order to help the others burgeon, transform, flower’ (17). As such,
oblivion has significant existential and moral implications, which prompts him to suggest that it
might be possible to derive ‘something resembling wisdom, an art of living, even a morality’ from
such reflections (25-6). Indeed, he makes it clear that without such techniques of forgetting, the
repetitive character of human life would lead inevitably to what Heidegger called ‘deep’ boredom.
For instance, Augé observes that although we are often implored not to forget past slights or traumas,
of either an individual or communal nature, he makes it clear that we also, in a sense, have a duty to
forget: ‘those who were subjected to it, if they want to live again and not just survive, must be able
to do their share of forgetting, become mindless, in the Pascalian sense, in order to find faith in the
everyday again and mastery over their time’ (88).

Insofar as Augé is first and foremost an ethnologist, it is perhaps not surprising that much of the
discussion here is framed in terms of methodological questions that attend to cross-cultural study
(understood broadly, which would include the multiplicity of subcultures and so forth within Western
societies). For instance, a recurring theme is the desire to avoid both ethnocentrism and the ‘fear of
ethnocentrism’. He sees the interaction between ethnologist and the culture of ‘otherness’ as one that
shapes both parties, and is, hopefully, a mutually-enriching process in which the specificity and
integrity of each outlook is not wholly dissolved in a quasi-mystical communion between ‘us’ and
‘them’. This approach sidesteps the twin error of either reducing otherness to the perspective of the
ethnologist, or treating the meanings and practices of a foreign culture as fundamentally opaque and
beyond anthropological understanding. Confronting a radically different way of life undoubtedly
forces us to rethink our own categories, behaviors, assumptions, and so on. But, equally, we can
relativize the culture under study by reference to our own concepts and ideas. This turns on an
awareness that the lifeworld of both the ethnologist and the culture under scrutiny are each, and
equally, rooted in various ‘fictions’ and essentially arbitrary symbolic systems that are themselves
not fully open to rational scrutiny and categorization. It is in this dialogical interaction between
different cultures and world-views, even in unequal situations involving the exercise of violence, that
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new and innovative ideas and perspectives are generated. Further, all such dialogues involve the dual
work of ‘composition and recomposition’ with respect to memory, as already mentioned, in a manner
‘that translates the tension exerted by the expectation of the future upon the interpretation of the past’
(39). This explains why Augé is motivated here to explicate the central mechanisms of oblivion,
which he claims are found in all cultures. These include nostalgia for a lost past, the ritual
suspension of contact with past and future, and the pursuit of what he dubs ‘rebeginnings’. Each of
these is linked to both specific rites of collective affirmation and the formation of individual
identities. Here, Augé’s mastery of ethnological, cultural and historical detail is particularly
illuminating.

Readers with a mainstream social science bent will likely find Augé’s often poetic register of
expression, his allusive and meandering prose style, and his abundant literary flourishes
maddeningly vague and imprecise. But for those who value a more creative and transdisciplinary
approach to the analysis of sociocultural issues, Augé’s investigations here throw up many
interesting insights and insoluble questions that are ripe for further meditation and exploration.
Indeed, this is precisely his intent, for what Augé wants to encourage here is the pursuit of an
‘inverted ethnology’ that poses difficult queries, rather than supplying us with pat answers or
generate ‘testable’ hypotheses. In Oblivion, such an inverted ethnology has much to say about the
experiential qualities of time and its profound existential and ethical implications. This is because, as
Augé notes correctly, ‘Our practical life, our everyday life, individual and collective, both private
and public, is concerned with these forms of oblivion’ (25).

Michael E. Gardiner
Department of Sociology
University of Western Ontario
megardin@uwo.ca

Dr. Michael E. Gardiner is a Professor in Sociology at the University of Western Ontario. Recent major
publications include the coedited (with Gregory J. Seigworth) Rethinking Everyday Life: And Nothing Turned
Itself Inside Out, a special double issue of Cultural Studies (18, 2/3, May-June 2004); the edited four-volume
Sage collection Mikhail Bakhtin: Masters of Modern Social Thought; and Critiques of Everyday Life
(Routledge, 2000).

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June 2006
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