Recalling Memento: On the Production of Memory Becoming a Rhetorical Problem (I)

There’s no subject, but a production of subjectivity: subjectivity has to be produced, when its time arrives, precisely because there is no subject.

— Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations

 But time as subject, or rather subjectivation, is called memory.

— Gilles Deleuze, Foucault

Now . . . where was I?

— Leonard Shelby, Memento


In rhetorical studies, memory has an extensive and vibrant genealogy that stretches back to the beginnings of the discipline, though the value afforded to memory as an element (or “canon”) of rhetoric has waxed and waned throughout its history. For instance, in the Greco-Roman tradition, memory was considered a vital part of rhetorical training due to the need for memorizing speeches along with other critical functions (Yates xi). However, although memory was held in high esteem throughout the classical period and for some time after, as Sharon Crowley notes, modernity would strike memory a blow from which it has yet to fully recover, due in particular to the modern era’s emphasis on rote “methods” that downplay the importance of memory in rhetorical invention (35).

The question thus arises as to whether memory has any significant role to play in twenty-first century rhetorical studies, and if so, what that role might consist in beyond the sparse examples that have already been provided (Cf. Bernard-Donals; Villanueva; Vivian). In the following article, through an analysis of Christopher Nolan’s dramatic thriller Memento (2000), I will argue that one critical function that memory plays in relation to rhetoric today regards not memorization, but the production of subjectivities, in particular, those political subjectivities that are either obedient (and docile) or disobedient in relation to power (Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri call them “biopolitically resistant”) (57). I will therefore endeavor to show that the post-structuralist problem of the production of subjectivities through rhetorics is one inexorably bound up with memory, and moreover, that any investigation into memory must take account of forgetting and the dynamic (political) action/inaction that memory and forgetting compel. In doing so, perhaps I can breathe further life into memory as a contemporary “canon” of rhetoric.

In Memento, the protagonist Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) is afflicted by a debilitating condition called “anterograde amnesia,” which is characterized by the inability to form new memories. As he explains:

Leonard: Well, that’s the thing. I have this condition.

Burt: A condition?

Leonard: It’s my memory.

Burt: Amnesia?

Leonard: No, no, no. It’s different from that. I have no short-term memory. I know who I am, I know all about myself. I just, since my injury, I can’t make new memories. Everything fades. If we talk for too long, I’ll forget how we started and next time I see you, I’m not gonna remember this conversation. (Memento)

Unfortunately for Leonard, his problems aren’t limited to forgetting conversations with Burt the hotel desk-clerk. His entire existence is pervaded by comprehensive non-knowledge, and he is continually subjected to the manipulative whims of others. Moreover, he is haunted by the trauma of the “incident” that triggered his amnesia.

In an attempt to live on, and take revenge upon the man he believes is responsible for assaulting his wife and giving him brain damage (the illusive John G_____ ), Leonard adopts multiple rhetorical strategies, including taking photos of significant people and places, writing copious notes to himself, and tattooing his body with principles for action and “facts” concerning his investigation. All this makes Memento’s Leonard an indispensable case study for investigating memory’s rhetorical fabrication, and for once again making memory into a “canonical” problem for rhetoric,[i] as he operates as the prismatic assemblage by which the major lines of subjectivity production are exposed as memory. Indeed, Leonard reveals subjectivity itself as the becoming of memory, and that memory is primarily opaque.

As a preview, I contend that one can expose memory as a rhetorical problem intertwined with the production of subjectivities by showing how Leonard’s memory is archived wholly “on the outside” in form of images and written discourse, as opposed to topoi stored within mentally interior loci, and that his actions are guided by “forgotten” affects (suggestions) and trauma that elude full narratibility. Thus, in a strategy somewhat akin to that of Laura Mark’s in The Skin of the Film, I will seek to extract and analyze multiple forms of memory/forgetting from Memento’s filmic tissue, revealing that Leonard is no “sad, sad freak,” as another character in the film calls him, but rather an image of human subjectivity more generally. This may seem like a bleak observation given that Leonard’s memory is largely irretrievable, and produced by rhetorics coming from malicious sources of control, but I will conclude by contending that memory’s production likewise entails that one can alternatively and affirmatively re-produce it in the form of a “biopolitical” counter-memory.


Credit: Newmarket Films

Throughout the investigation into his and his wife’s assault, Leonard takes photos of whatever and whomever he deems useful. He keeps these photos in his pocket and frequently consults them. For example, when the deceitful Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) tries to convince Leonard to get into a different car than “his own,” Leonard holds up the photo of a dark-colored Jaguar, quipping “Oh, you’re in a playful mood?” (Memento). Employing photographic images in this manner reveals one way that Leonard’s memory is rhetorically produced and archived after his “incident.” And not only are these images useful, Leonard depends upon them for his survival.

Significantly, Henri Bergson’s Matter and Memory begins by arguing that the composite of perception-recollection that produces subjectivity is comprised of “images,” and that:

by ‘image’ we mean a certain existence which is more than that which the idealist calls a representation, but less than that which the realist calls a thing,—an existence placed half-way between the ‘thing’ and the ‘representation’ . . . the object exists in itself, and, on the other hand, the object is, in itself, pictorial, as we perceive it: image it is, but a self-existing image. (Matter vii-viii)

For Bergson, subjectivity is produced through streams (“durations”) of images, and they are not the mere appearances of things because images have an immanent material component. The multi-sensory world of images pushes back, and when one closes one’s eyes or ears it continues to exist. On the other hand, images are not unmediated by the senses, and sense is produced so as to compel the actions of the particular being who perceives-remembers. Bergson thus lays the ground for a rhetorical epistemology, where perception-recollection is understood as tailored to persuasively guide the movements of singular bodies, and where such assemblages do not represent something more foundational or real. In Bergson, there is instead a plurality of worlds lived by different beings, where memory is defined broadly as “the intersection of mind and matter” (xii).

Bergson argues therefore that perception-recollection is rhetorically produced by images, and that images are non-representational. So one must exercise caution when describing perception-recollection as “photographic” if one considers photos as representations of a more fundamental reality. Bergson challenges this representational standpoint when he writes that:

The whole difficulty of the problem that occupies us comes from the fact that we imagine perception [as well as recollection] to be a kind of photographic view of things . . . But is it not obvious that the photograph, if photograph there be, is already taken, already developed in the very heart of things and at all points of space? No metaphysics, no physics even, can escape this conclusion. (31)

Here Bergson reinforces the point that perception-recollection is composed of non-representational images or “photographs.” But for him, as for Nietzsche, one must abolish the notion of a “true world” that one represents to oneself, providing only an “apparent” view of things (ix). Instead, the opposition between “true” and “apparent” worlds is overcome.

In Memento, one finds a clear illustration of the notion that subjectivity is partially produced through an archive of images, as Leonard exists by employing, very explicitly, an “exteriorized” imagistic memory. Leonard’s photos do not merely represent reality to him, either, they constitute reality itself. These photos, like Bergson’s images, are a “selection” (from Life) relevant to Leonard’s investigation, and they are all he’s got. However, according to Bergson, this is all anyone has. One’s perception-recollection is produced, not by representing, but by selecting immanent materiality, and this selection results in the formation of images. Perception-recollection is entirely on the outside (without opposing interior loci), and if one accepts this epistemic-ontological supposition, one can in turn infer that the remembering “subject” is, as Deleuze explains, “divest[ed] . . . of any interiority” (Negotiations 98).

At this point, one might object that although memory is circumscribed (archived) in the form of images, one’s “immediate” perception is not. However, Bergson contends that “consciousness of the present is already memory” (195). In order to defend this observation, he points out that there is a temporal interval “between matter itself and our conscious perception of matter” (27). In other words, perception isn’t immediate at all; it lags behind the immanent becoming that gives birth to it. Perception doesn’t actually perceive the “present,” only the past, or rather, what one takes as the “present” is already the past. Thus the present is, strangely enough, a memory of the present, that is, an image. This is precisely why Deleuze contends that, for Bergson, the past and present are “co-present” (Bergsonism 55). So it’s possible to say that Leonard’s subjectivity is produced by three types of memory images: his photographs, the past before his injury, and what he takes as his “immediate” present.

But what about the rhetoricity or persuasive force of Bergson’s and Leonard’s images? Here one should note that Leonard doesn’t just take photos of anything; he is selective, taking them with an eye to how he can use them (for example, photos of important people or places). Bergson contends that this “view to utility” is how memory works in general (Matter 70). He explains that the images of perception-recollection are produced with regard to “the measure of our possible action upon bodies: . . . result[ing] from the discarding of what has no interest for our needs, or more generally for our functions” (30). In other words, there is no need to perceive or remember something upon which one cannot act, so images are always formed as persuasive guides available for re-activation in “kairotic” moments. Perception-recollection is therefore inherently rhetorical, composed of images that compel the movements of singular bodies. And because a broadly kairotic “attention to life” (xiv), as Bergson calls it, accompanies every image, whatever fails to promote activity is non-consciously subtracted from perception-recollection and “actively” forgotten.[ii]

On the notion of “subtractive” or “active” forgetting, Bergson’s precursor, Friedrich Nietzsche, has a lot to say. He explains that:

[f]orgetting is no mere vis inertiae as the superficial imagine; it is rather an active and in the strictest sense positive faculty of repression [Positives Hemmungsvermögen], that is responsible for the fact that what we experience and absorb enters our consciousness as little while we are digesting it . . . as does the thousandfold process, involved in physical nourishment. (Genealogy 57)

For Nietzsche, the forgetting-machine is always at work, producing perception-recollection rather than merely robbing it of content, invigorating the power of bodies by discarding what doesn’t serve their interests (which includes “forgetting” that the images of perception-recollection are indeed images).[iii] For example, Leonard takes a photo of Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), but not of the rest of her living room; he captures a shot of the Discount Inn’s billboard so that he can remember where he’s staying, but not of the street. These memory-images are captured with an eye to action, “forgetting” all else, and are only preserved if they can promote beneficial future activity. Hence, Leonard’s photographic exploits provide a clear example of what Bradford Vivian means when he explains that “forgetting comprises an essentially productive aspect of memory” (Public 126), and therefore subjectivity itself, since forgetting not only produces memories, but helps provide them with their kairotic content, a content that, depending upon what has been subtracted, can lead to radically different political interventions.

Moreover, not only are the images of perception-recollection produced with an eye to action through forgetting, according to Bergson, the apparatus of memory has a “conic” structure that maximizes and persuasively compels the activities of bodies (Matter 197). Through the cone-assemblage, where older memories are near the base and newer ones near the point, Bergson illustrates how the whole of one’s past influences “present” experience. The cone as a whole relates to the sum of one’s past, and it operates through “contraction” and “rotation,” mechanisms whereby memory-images exert a compelling rhetorical influence upon perception-recollection and action. As Bergson outlines, memory is always “contracting more or less, though without dividing, with a view to action,” and it engages in a “rotation upon itself, by which it turns toward the situation of the moment, presenting to it that side of itself which may prove to be the most useful” (220). In other words, memories compel singular bodies through a double movement—first memory narrows (contracts) to focus on a specific past event, then the most useful aspect of this event is highlighted (via rotation) in order to persuade action. Significantly, Bergson describes this process as similar to “the focusing of a camera” (171), a process whereby memories are re-imaged and re-produced again and again.

Bergson thus argues that there is no “purity” of lived experience, for not only is consciousness of the “present” already a memory-image produced with the power to persuade bodily movement, the whole of one’s past rhetorically compels one’s activities through the incessant interjection of (oftentimes politically-charged) images. As Bergson says explicitly, “there is no perception which is not full of memories. With the immediate and present data of our senses we mingle a thousand details out of our past experience” (24). In order to better understand this theory of memory whereby “present” experience is constantly produced by the contraction and rotation of images, one can turn to Memento. Throughout the film, Leonard finds himself in situations where he pulls out his entire stack of photos (his “cone”). He rifles through them (“contracting”), looking for one that will illuminate his situation. When he finds one, he then considers it in different ways (“rotating”), hoping that it will facilitate his activity. For example, Leonard forgets his relationship to Teddy multiple times throughout the film, and each time must consult his photo collection. What’s significant about this repetition, however, is that each time he remembers, Leonard recalls Teddy differently: as friend, as liar, as foe. This example is critical because it shows what Bergson means when he argues that memories always actualize themselves in a novel way—or as Bradford Vivian puts it, how “[a]cts of recollection invariably transform the nature of memory because the changing incitements and purposes of recollection ensure that we remember in different ways, even if we remember the same event” (Public 115). In other words, memories are not static; they appear anew with each recollection, and the manner in which they are framed each time can result in dramatic political consequences.

Perhaps the most intriguing thesis in Matter and Memory, and one of the most relevant to rhetorical studies, is Bergson’s argument that memory-images (as images) are not stored in the brain, or that subjectivity is produced entirely “on the outside.” This argument issues a direct challenge to the classical rhetorical tradition that describes memory as a “store-house” or “treasure-house” where static topoi are housed in their corresponding loci.[iv] But why is it that Bergson contends that memory-images aren’t topoi “treasured up” in the brain’s supposed loci? Bergson argues that once an image from perception-recollection “is no longer acting” (Matter 74), that is, no longer exerting rhetorical force upon a body, the image is ready to pass (back) into “pure memory” until one can put it to work again (181). Pure memory, however, is not a treasure-house of images stored “in” a cerebral container; rather, it is a non-imagistic, and therefore non-hermeneutic, series of electrochemical signals dispersed throughout the entire nervous system. This is to say that memory only actualizes itself as images “in” perception-recollection, and the only place where memory images are “stored,” Bergson argues, is “in” the world (“in” duration itself). The brain and nervous system are for conducting electrochemical impulses, not storing images (topoi), so the remembering subject is completely (rhetorically) fabricated “on the outside.” Resistance to the subject’s “exteriorization,” a position wide-spread in rhetorical studies, is therefore linked to the classical memory-tradition, and it possesses the greatest political import, as it allows one to maintain belief in what Diane Davis calls “the phantasm of the free and willing agent” (87), a being that can, when remembering and acting, somehow transcend its own rhetorical production.

Bergson contends that when a subject enters a situation wherein he or she needs to employ memory, the movement of contraction and rotation wrings memory from its “pure state,” actualizing it “in” perception-recollection as an image. The life of a memory therefore has multiple stages. As argued above, memory is first produced in the form of “immediate” perception, given that perception-recollection is already imaged in such a way as to persuasively compel the activities of a singular body. Once an image no longer exerts any force in compelling a body to action, it then passes from its imagistic (or broadly “tropological”) form into the dispersed electrochemical state of pure memory. Finally, when a kairotic moment presents itself, memory returns from its pure state re-born and re-imaged in a manner designed to again persuade a being’s movements. No wonder Deleuze and Guattari say that “[w]henever we used the word ‘memories’ . . . , we were wrong to do so; we meant to say ‘becoming,’” since memories are always in the process of circulating through various states, striving to compel a body’s activities (Thousand 294)! Moreover, because memory is undergoing constant metamorphosis in order to rhetorically induce the movement of bodies through images, this implies that the brain and nervous system are not an individuated “treasure house,” but rather a conductor or open circuit. Memory does not indiscriminately file the images of perception-recollection; it produces the feedback loop whereby a body responds to its world (40).[v]

To clarify the contention that subjectivity is rhetorically produced “on the outside” in the form of memory-images, one can again turn to Memento. Throughout the film, Leonard keeps photos in his pocket, taking them out in a form “similar” to how they first went in. However, Bergson argues that brains are not like Leonard’s pockets, because when images move from perception-recollection (“being acted”) into pure memory, their form changes. Perhaps if Bergson had written Memento, Leonard’s photos would have dissolved into an electro-chemical state of dispersal after he placed them in his pocket, and would have re-coagulated (as new images) whenever he needed them again. Bergson doesn’t deny that the brain (“the pocket”) plays a huge role in memory; he only argues that this role is not one of image storage. For example, in Leonard’s case, one might think his condition makes it impossible to store images (topoi) in his brain (loci), but Bergson argues that “there cannot be in the brain a region in which memories congeal and accumulate. The alleged destruction of memories by an injury to the brain is but a break in the continuous process by which they actualize themselves” (160). In other words, Bergson might argue that Leonard makes new memories just fine; he fabricates a new memory-image in every moment of perceiving-recollecting (duration). However, due to his brain injury, Leonard’s memories cannot pass into the dispersed state of pure memory whereby they can eventually become re-actualized—so everything fades.


[i]There are some scholars in rhetorical studies who do view memory as a problem. Victor Vitanza, for example, poses the problematization of memory and forgetting in terms of questioning. To question in Vitanza’s (as well as Heidegger’s) sense is to see something as a problem, not for solving, but rather, resolving or holding open. Vitanza writes that: “[i]t is a guarding of a question that is refusal to forget the Forgotten” (Negation 167). In other words, when one sees a problem as a problem or question, one is open to think something about that problem that has, until then, been forgotten or veiled.

[ii] Given that the images of perception-recollection are produced with an “eye” or “ear” to how to promote the movement and survival of the being who perceives-remembers, this entails that knowledge is already in operation in what many insist on calling “immediate” perception. Along these lines, Deleuze explains that “this is the first reason why there is no ‘savage experience’: there is nothing beneath or prior to knowledge” (Foucault 107). For Deleuze (and Foucault), there isn’t first an intention toward an object of interest and then the object is given significance. Rather, the significance of an object is already there at the formation of experience. Phenomenology as an operation of “bracketing” presuppositions is thus forfeit because there is no seeing or saying prior to knowing.

[iii] In Nietzsche’s early essay “Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense,” he explains how one never experiences the images that produce experience as images, and this leads to the erroneous view that these images aren’t images at all. He writes, “[o]nly by forgetting this primitive world of metaphor can one live with repose, security, and consistency: only by means of the petrification and coagulation of a mass of images which originally streamed from the primal faculty of human imagination like a fiery liquid, . . . does man live with any repose, security, and consistency” (Para. 9, emphasis mine). In this active forgetting of the image as image, though, it’s important to note that “metaphor” doesn’t mean that the images of experience represent anything “behind” themselves.

[iv] For what is likely the best explication of the rhetorical tradition of conceiving memory in relation to topoi stored in various loci, see Frances Yates’ The Art of Memory pages 1-26. Here she deftly outlines the Roman conceptions of topoi and loci in the works of Cicero, Quintilian, and the anonymous author of the Ad Herennium.

[v] In line with Diane Davis’ criticism of Kenneth Burke on the issue of individuation (Inessential 18-36), one can add the Bergsonian argument that “[w]e are too much inclined to regard the living body as a world within a world, the nervous system as a separate being,” when instead the nervous system is “a mere conductor” (Matter 40). For Bergson, the nervous system is open, and acts as a transmitter of affects. Memory is therefore only a delayed response and not a holding tank for representations.

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