The Alpha Primitive

Film reviews, essays, commentary and sundry writings

Memory

After finishing my last essay (well, and a few others; I finished this one after I wrote a couple other entries), I was at a loss for what to write next. I wanted to keep it going; I’m thoroughly enjoying writing these little philosophical flights of fancy, but I just couldn’t think of where to go next. Then, I decided to watch a few movies (once again, this was about three weeks to a month ago). I don’t think I necessarily did this purposefully looking for inspiration, but I just wanted to watch a few films with a philosophical bent. The first one on the docket was I Heart Huckabees, a wonderful little flick from David O Russell that represents a torrent of philosophical beliefs, from Spinoza’s views on what makes the world to existential nihilism and so on. I love that movie, and some day I’ll probably write about it, but right now, the second film I watched is much more apropos to what I plan to talk about. To me, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the best work Charlie Kaufmann has done to this point. It’s not just the fascinating script structure or the slow unveiling of what is actually going on. Really, it’s the relationship aspect of the movie, with the Joel and Clementine love affair creating a beautiful picture of how love and relationships actually work in the real world. My most recent essay talked a lot about emotional instinct and how important I consider it. I’m a romantic at heart, so movies like this hit me hard. But I’ve already talked about emotion. What really lit my fire about watching Eternal Sunshine was what it tells us about memory.

The central conceit of Eternal Sunshine is a company that can selectively erase memories, usually to remove all thoughts and feelings about a former lover. The procedure is done while the patient is asleep, and when he wakes up, he is none the wiser about what happened and who was erased. Years of your life could be gone in an instant. It’s a frightening concept, especially when Jim Carrey’s character realizes halfway through the night that he made a mistake and does not want to lose his memories of Kate Winslett (and who could blame him?). This movie seems to accomplish two things. The first is a sort of proof of Nietzsche’s concept of the Eternal Recurrence (yep, I’m just going to keep bringing up Nietzsche; I’ve spent far too much time and money on Nietzsche to not use my knowledge at hand). The second point is what I have a tendency to latch onto, which is the conceit that you are what you remember, and that memory has an incredibly strong effect on personal identity. The movie discounts this to some extent though, mostly through its support of eternal recurrence. I might get to that concept here (here’s a spoiler, folks: I didn’t); we’ll see how long it takes for me to talk about memory.

So much of what the mind does on a day to day basis is tied to memory. It’s the main “nonessential” function of the brain (I say nonessential because it does not have an effect on the subconscious upkeep of the body’s essential systems). Everything you actively do is based in at least some superficial way in memory. If you take as a premise that we as a people are the product of a life of perceiving sense data, and that our personalities are inextricably tied to our experiences, the only way this could be the case is through retention of these moments in time in some fashion. Personality, consciousness, and memory are all one in the same. This is a psychological and philosophical ideal that seems to grow out of the tabula rasa theory of human development. It follows that if our personalities are founded upon the memory of personal experiences, then when we first develop as infants, we would have to be as close to blank slates as possible, and those early experiences begin to hard wire us to become the people we are as adults. The memory centers of the brain, and the way our minds process this information allows us to function on a day to day basis. What is philosophically interesting about this is the fact that memory is by its very nature an imperfect construct. It is very simple to have false or forgotten memories, and with this concept having such a great deal to do with our personal identities, it raises an interesting questions about just what we base our entire experiences on.

There is no real sense of validation when it comes to memory. What has passed is past, and that simple tautology informs quite a lot about the constructs of the mind. We remember past experiences, past instances of sense data, but there is no way to truly confirm that the moments we remember (a tryst with a former lover, the act of watching a film, a particular sports game, etc.) are as we actually think they are (or, to whit, were). Some things can be independently and objectively verified and thus known in a purely abstract sense to be validated, but the individual moments, reactions or emotions felt while watching that hockey game that you know ended 3-2 in triple overtime because the box score will exist in perpetuity are suspect.

Experiences, perceptions, and sense data are by their very nature relativistic situations. Say person A was at that hockey game, and his friend, person B, was there as well, sitting in a different section of the arena. When they meet up after the game for a few drinks and conversation, they’re going to remember it differently simply based on having different vantage points. Perhaps a hooking penalty that person B thought was a terrible call wasn’t so bad in A’s eyes because the stick that hooked the player was obstructed from B’s view and not from A’s. Even the quality of each person’s eyesight and hearing is going to affect memories of the game. And when they talk to another friend (Person C) that watched the game on television at home, that person is going to have a third completely different memory of the game. All three of these folks saw Henrik Zetterberg score the game winner seven minutes into the third overtime (because the hypothetical game I’m talking about is a Wings playoff game, natch), but perhaps one of the two men who saw the game live was sitting in a section of the Joe that was infiltrated by Avs fans. The crowd reaction would be completely different than that of the person surrounded by Wings diehards, and more different still than the third person who had the benefit of play by play and color commentary, but the detriment of the lack of the exhilaration of the live crowd. Three people watching the same game having wildly different experiences and memories of the same outcome. It follows, then, that memory and perception are subjective concepts.

This does make logical sense, considering that memory shapes personality, and our personalities are markedly different from one another. It follows that if memory and perception were not subjective, personal identity would become homogenized. It could be said that subjectivism is necessary from the perspective that one of the great things about humanity and living in this world is the wide variety of personalities that mill around this crazy little thing we call Earth. As a quick aside, this is where I think negative existentialism gets things wrong. The fact that we exist as a sea of individuals on a tiny speck in a giant universal uncaring cosmos is not a source of despair but one of hope. But I can rail against the weaknesses of some forms of existentialism at another time. Subjective memory as a basis for personal identity is what allows us to enjoy the narrative musical stylings of Tom Waits, for example. The opening stanza of “Invitation to the Blues” [She’s up against the register/With an apron and a spatula/Yesterday’s deliveries and a ticket for the bachelors/She’s a moving violation/From her conch down to her shoes/But it’s just an invitation to the blues] is something entirely personal through the lyrical eye of Tom Waits. It may not have been based o a specific occurrence or memory (it’s often difficult to tell what’s real in the world of Mr. Waits), but it is in the voice and style of Tom Waits. And whoever listens to that piece of music is going to have a categorically different reaction to it based on his or her own memories and experiences. Without subjective memory, the lush tapestry of thoughts and feelings that a man like Tom Waits can create with his music would be the same drab gray lifeless hunk of cloth that everybody else created. An assembly line of uninteresting garbage. Who would want that?

What does subjective memory give us that shapes our world and personal identity more than any other aspect? Emotion. I know I’ve prattled on about emotion in the past, but this does at the very least confirm how important I consider emotion on a day to day basis. Emotion is heavily rooted in personal memory and perspective, and as such in personal identity. Emotions are an immediate reaction. If you’ve read my other entries, you’ll need no qualification of that statement. However, despite their nature as immediate and subconscious (you cannot actively force yourself to feel legitimately happy, sad, scared, etc.), they are still the product of memory. I am, however, making a distinction between complex emotion and sense data reactions. The feeling of pain when you touch a hot stove or the feeling of euphoria during sexual intercourse could be considered emotional due to pain and pleasure receptors being innately linked to such emotions as fear, anger, joy, etc. But this is something different because its basis is in chemical and biological reactions of the body and brain. You don’t feel pain in your hand when you touch the stove because you subconsciously and immediately remember that the last time you touched the stove it hurt. You feel pain because your hand was burned. But when you listen to your favorite song and hear that opening guitar riff, you are immediately transported in the mind’s eye to that first time you realized the majesty of the piece and how the music or lyrics remind you of a person, place, event, etc. in a positive way. It can even reach the point that you can’t even remember the origin of your emotional reaction, but you still have that innate feeling in there somewhere. It’s the difference between immediate physical attraction and love.

The flaws of memory as a concept makes us human. In the tradition of western civilization, something being described as human has a tendency to simple be a synonym for flawed. It makes sense then that a flawed foundation creates a flawed product. And, to tie this back to my article about religion and stories, this is not something that would even be a big deal were it not for the fact that the Judeo Christian tradition epitomizes perfection as the ultimate goal for human life. There is a big difference between the desire for perfection that exists in Christendom and the desire for actualization that was the goal of the Greeks and Nietzsche (yep, that pesky übermensch). I would contend that the flaws of humanity are exactly what makes us so fascinating as a species. We have the ability to create wonderful things. We have made great leaps in the quality of life. We have conquered nature and moved beyond biological evolutionary imperative. We have destroyed countless species, natural formations, climates. We are the collective kings of our domain. We have accomplished so much with this impressive flaw directly at the center of our entire being.

Memory drives everything. Our identities, knowledge, emotions, our sense of world continuity and spatial relations, all of these essential elements are the product of a biological and metaphysical concept that is not only fundamentally flawed, but also cannot be trusted in many ways. This internal conflict mirrors the classic dichotomous relationships that philosophy has endeavored to understand (good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, paper vs. plastic, Duke vs. UNC, etc.). It is all of us and none of us at the same time. We may want to play the role of Joel Barrish and hire a crazy mad (redundancy!) scientist to go through our brains and systematically destroy the memories that we choose not to want or cause us physical or emotional distress, but this would rob us of the very thing that makes us human. To do such a thing would be self-defeating and as such should not even be considered an option. You’re cutting out portions of your identity and destroying the self. I think this might be why I have such a strong reaction to the long middle section of Eternal Sunshine where Joel is fighting like mad trying to stop the process, not just because he does not want to forget Clementine, but because these moments are a part of his core being. He has become a different person because of his time spent with Clementine, and to go through with his process would halt progress. Memory is not perfect. It can cause just as many problems as it can fix or soothe. But it is what makes us who we are, and there is no reason to reject that.

POSTSCRIPT: There is a lot of John Locke in this essay, specifically An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. I haven’t read Locke’s essay in about four years, and I specifically did not read or reference it in the above work. I’m doing these little works as an exercise in writing down my philosophical ideas in as much of my own words as possible. If you want some more memory as personal identity goodness, read Locke’s Essay.