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  • Chronometrics in the Modern Metropolis:The City, the Past and Collective Memory in A.H.Tanpınar
  • Özen Nergis Dolcerocca

1. Introduction: Memory Politics of the Little Square

In the opening to the entry “Streets of Paris” in The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin locates “little squares” outside the ordinary temporal relations common to historians:

The timeless little squares that suddenly are there, and to which no name attaches. They have not been the object of careful planning, like the Place Vendôme or the Place des Grèves, and do not enjoy the patronage of world history, but owe their existence to houses that have slowly, sleepily, belatedly assembled in response to the summons of the century. In such squares, the trees hold sway; even the smallest afford thick shade.1

Although the covered shopping arcades were Benjamin’s central image for his understanding of nineteenth-century Paris, “little squares,” like street names, are sites that are unassimilable to urban-industrial culture. The monumental squares of Haussmann’s Paris create an illusion of permanence and novelty, tied to the historical time of the nation and to urban renovation. Benjamin’s nameless little squares, however, suggest spontaneity, quiescence, and a reluctant and tardy [End Page 1150] responsiveness to the call of progress. A.H. Tanpınar, in Beş Şehir (Five Cities), describes small squares in Istanbul in strikingly similar terms:2

There are very few things in the city as attractive and delightful as the little squares. These are compositions of a variety of beliefs, traditions, pleasures that turned into instincts, and they owe their existence to a great deal of coincidence and even to centuries of oblivion. There is no waste or pretension in them, other than the generosity of nature that makes thrive roses, cypress and sycamore trees. In time they came into being drop by drop.3

Little squares are not candidates for historical meaning: they are the forgotten corners of the city and only belatedly respond to the demands of urban transformation. Both thinkers perceive something natural in these squares: they are not “carefully planned” but have grown up accidentally and effortlessly. They are slow but active, alive in an organic sense, unlike those monumental urban objects that assert a permanence behind which exists a relentless pursuit of novelty. Even nature itself, its trees and roses, can “afford” a thick shade, going unnoticed by urban “renewal.” The temporal order in which they exist is fundamentally different from modern temporality, conceived in Benjamin’s terms as a “phantasmagoria” of progress. These squares assert synchronicity and an alternative temporality: they do not exist in the same “now” as the Place Vendôme or Taksim Square.

The small squares make up one of those sites where an alternative history attempts to break through the oppressive surface of the myth of progressive history. They have no connection to the great men and celebrated events of traditional historiography, epitomizing instead the “refuse” and “detritus” of history. In Benjamin’s terms, the past confronts us in these neglected squares as “freely associated” and “long-forgotten images.” Tanpınar, in at times disparate methods from the German critic, pursues an alternative temporality or historical time that uncovers, “in a flash,” not what was experienced in the past, not even what is remembered in the present but what has been forgotten. The small squares to which both writers refer, among other urban sites, objects of time and “relics,” have the potential to awaken the collective from the recent past, the nineteenth century, to what has been forgotten, neglected, left in oblivion. [End Page 1151]

The movement and agitation created by enforced urban transformation, the predominant vision of the eternally changing present, events created and destroyed by an accelerated, sequential scheme of time—all these play a role in these thinkers’ search for sites of recognition where past and present lose their familiar contours. The city offers an “archive” of historical phenomena, i.e. urban spaces, architectural forms, commodities, that suggest alternative histories and novel forms of connecting with the past. The city also connects the crisis of time with socio-historical and political questions. Paris, for instance, carrying traces of different epochs, despite devastating urban...


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