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

Discourse Memory: Disaster and Subjectivity

Due to the non-linear narrative of Memento, it’s not until later on that viewers get to see why Leonard suffers from anterograde amnesia. He wakes up in the middle of the night to find his wife missing, and assuming she’s “gone to the bathroom or something,” he goes to check on her. As he nears the bathroom, however, to his surprise he hears a struggle. He grabs his pistol and bursts through the door to find an assailant suffocating his wife with a shower curtain. He shoots the intruder, but a moment later is hit on the head and slammed into the bathroom mirror, breaking it (along with his image). He falls to the floor beside his wife, her covered face the last thing he remembers. This event is a disaster. Everything is ruined. But Leonard and his wife’s ordeal is not only a disaster as it’s typically understood, but a disaster in Maurice Blanchot’s sense of a traumatic encounter too overwhelming to grasp in memory or writing. Thus Leonard’s “incident” has everything to do with the problematic relation between rhetoric and what it can or cannot gather within itself. Moreover, as Leonard struggles to come to terms with his incident and its aftermath, he reveals his struggle as one regarding the production of subjectivity with regard to “forgetting” catastrophe, and the incapacity to psychically integrate the traumatic.

In The Writing of the Disaster, Blanchot explains that “[t]he disaster is related to forgetfulness—forgetfulness without memory, the motionless retreat of what has not been treated—the immemorial, perhaps” (Writing 3). For Blanchot, then, “forgetting” disaster is not characterized by a memory receding from conscious availability. Rather, he argues that the force of disaster is so extreme that, for the most part, memory cannot absorb it at all. Disasters are thus “forgotten” before they are even remembered, held from perception-recollection by a movement more profound than repression, and reveal the power of “forgetting” to produce subjectivity.

Given the psychologically in-appropriable force of disaster, throughout Memento, Leonard must contend not only with the effects of his brain injury, but must struggle with the “forgotten” trauma that characterizes his incident. It is therefore tempting to read Leonard’s amnesia as indicative of the battle to recall and record trauma in general, that is, in relation to the production of traumatized subjectivity, and this battle becomes especially apparent when attempting to record disaster in writing. As Blanchot explains, “[t]he disaster [is] unexperienced. It is what escapes the very possibility of experience—it is the limit of writing. This must be repeated: the disaster de-scribes” (7). For Blanchot, not only is the trauma of disaster a force that exceeds understanding, undermining one’s capacity to record it, but the disaster actually un-writes (“de-scribes”) any attempt to write it. In other words, when writing about a trauma such as Leonard’s, one is struck with the sense that no effort will do, that one can feel writing breaking down. Rhetoric can only forgetfully “stammer” in the face of disaster (Deleuze). However, as Michael Bernard-Donals points out, it is this moment of “forgetting” and falling short that compels rhetoric, that gives disaster a persuasive rhetorical force, for “it is at this point—‘upon losing what we have to say’, the point of forgetfulness—that writing begins. Forgetfulness is the source of memory” (Forgetful 13). Thus the incapacity to adequately write the disaster isn’t entirely paralyzing, but rather, productive, calling one into the “im-possible” (and often politically imperative) task of recounting an event with the power to reduce writing to ashes.

Furthermore, the call to writing that disaster issues comes not only from a kind of “rhetorical imperative” to record the event, but from the disaster’s relation to repetition. Those who undergo trauma are often faced with reliving the event in some fashion, again and again, as they try (and fail) to integrate it “comfortably” into their subjectivity. In Memento, Leonard reenacts his disaster in an attempt to overcome it, but no matter what he does, it continues to haunt him. For Blanchot, however, that this “undesired return” or “ultimate over and over” happens isn’t surprising (Writing 42), because as he points out, disasters have vicious spectral tendencies, maliciously returning to afflict perception-recollection, persuasively demanding that one’s attention revisit an event (17). Traumatized subjectivity is therefore constantly and “forgetfully” reproduced through repetition. In Memento, Leonard goes so far as to stage a reenactment of his incident with an escort, having her place his wife’s belongings around a hotel room. Perhaps as an explanation why, he says:

I don’t even know how long [my wife has] been gone. It’s like I’ve woken up in bed and she’s not here . . . because she’s gone to the bathroom or something. But somehow I just, I just know she’s never gonna come back to bed. If I could just reach over and touch her side of the bed, I would know that it was cold, but I can’t. I can’t have her back. But I don’t want to wake up in the morning thinking she’s still here. I lie here not knowing how long I’ve been alone. So, how can I heal if, how am I supposed to heal if, I can’t feel time? (Memento)

Without the capacity to “feel time” because he cannot “ground” it in memory (Difference 79), Leonard repeats his trauma again and again (repetition-compulsion) and cannot escape its compelling force. This is the case as well because as one is continually revisited by disaster’s horrors, one’s subjectivity often begins to produce multiple defenses against those painful glimmers of understanding that one succeeds in gaining. As Deleuze points out, [w]e do not repeat because we repress, we repress because we repeat” (Difference 105). So while Leonard continuously repeats his incident, he is non-consciously compelled to repress certain details that he manages to learn but that are too hurtful to recall (for example, his wife perhaps surviving the assault). Through his grappling with disaster, Leonard therefore reveals at least three forms of “forgetting” that rhetorically produce subjectivities: amnesias brought on by physical damage or changes to the brain, the “forgetting” of disasters that overwhelm perception-recollection, and the “forgetting” of traumas as they are repressed. In each case, something manages to elude memory or writing, as the (persuasive) force of disaster relentlessly assails trauma’s witness.

Although faced with the obstacle of a tripartite forgetting, Leonard is persuaded to write his disaster in an attempt to find his and his wife’s assailant. This attempt is important not only because it highlights the “rhetorical” call issued by disaster and the problematic relation between memory and trauma, but because Leonard’s efforts reveal another way that memories are rhetorically produced (to great political consequence)—through discourse. Along with taking photos and writing notes, one of the most radical things Leonard does to compensate for his amnesia is to tattoo his body with principles for action and “facts” about his investigation. These tattoos cover the front of his body so extensively that patches of bare skin are rare; so seeing Leonard’s body means seeing it through the phrases that cover and articulate it. With regard to this rhetorical production of subjectivity as/and memory, Leonard explains, “[i]f you have a piece of information which is vital, writing on your body instead of on a piece of paper can be the answer. It’s just a permanent way of keeping a note” (Memento). Indeed, Leonard keeps a lot of “permanent notes,” and the following are written on his body in various fonts and sizes:

Find him and kill him / She is gone / Time still passes / John G. raped and murdered my wife / Consider the source / Memory is treachery / Learn by repetition / Photograph: House Car Friend Foe / Never answer the phone / Don’t trust your weakness / Buy film / Eat / The facts: / Fact 1: Male / Fact 2: White / Fact 3: First name John (or James) / Fact 4: Last name: G____ / Access to drugs / Remember Sammy Jankis. (Memento)

The above tattoos discursively and rhetorically produce Leonard’s subjectivity, constituting an archival memory written on the surface of his body. And although Leonard’s strategy for remembering may seem anomalous, according to Michel Foucault, subjectivity is produced as memory upon the surfaces of all bodies through discursive means as well.


Credit: Newmarket Films

            In many ways, Foucault’s suggestion that the discursive production of subjectivity is simultaneously an archival-rhetorical production of memory is the theoretical inspiration behind my argument that subjectivity as such is the becoming of memory, and that a “canonical” rethinking of memory (in rhetoric) is possible concerning images, language, trauma, and affect. This is to say that understanding Foucault’s theory of subjectivity as a theory of memory is quite important, and that one should pay special attention to Deleuze’s observation that, for Foucault, “time as subject, or rather subjectivation, is called memory . . . the ‘absolute memory’ which doubles the present and is one with forgetting” (Foucault 107). This remark emphasizes that Foucault understands subjectivity-production as memory in the broadest sense, and resonates with his scattered remarks concerning “counter-memory,” or the alternative re-production of subjectivities by new and different discourses. In what follows, then, I will demonstrate how Foucault’s theory of subjectivity (as a theory of memory) holds an integral place in my overall argument regarding memory’s potential new role in rhetorical studies.

To begin, Foucault infamously contends that “the subject (and its substitutes) must be . . . analyzed as a complex and variable function of discourse” (Language 138). This means that one’s “identity,” along with the truths of perception-recollection, is produced through language. For Foucault, therefore, “subject” does not indicate someone subjectively experiencing representations and freely floating “behind” their body in the role of a detached spectator. Rather, the term “subject” is a pun pointing out that a singular body has been subject to particular forces. Or more accurately, the “subject” indicates an immanent site of production, where who one “is,” and what one holds as true, are brought into being through discursive means, and where the accumulation of these multifold rhetorics constitutes an impersonal “memory” (or archive). For Foucault, one’s “memory” is the history of one’s subjection to discourse from various normative institutions, modes of production, and mechanisms of control, and no subject can transcend its modes of subjectivation in order to politically deliberate or act, because without these forms of “memory,” it would simply not exist.

In order to understand further how discursive subjectivation operates as a kind of memory, consider that in Memento one of Leonard’s tattoos reads “John G. raped and murdered my wife.” Through this phrase, Leonard recalls/produces multiple important “truths,” but had the phrase read differently, he would have a different sense of his identity and mission. However, Leonard has no access to truth beyond those that are inscribed in his notes and on the surface of his body, and from Foucault’s perspective, neither does any subject, even if the surface that is tattooed by discourse is not one’s skin, but what many insist on calling “the mind.”[i]

Furthermore, to argue alongside Foucault that there is no subjectivity (“memory”) that is not produced through “tattooing” by discursive rhetorics is to suggest that discursive memory is inseparable from image memory. It’s as though the Bergsonian images of perception-recollection are maps, where discourse articulates (and produces) the territories upon the maps in question. The discourse producing the maps’ territories are “primary,” meaning that one cannot experience a world “before” discourse, but the map and territory are irreducible (Foucault 49). In other words, the truths of one’s memory are born through the discourses that articulate them, and there is no “actual” state of affairs to experience independently of these articulations. Unfortunately, though, like Leonard with his photographic captions, subjects often take the discursive articulations of their memory images as “the facts,” as inescapable truths rather than as “framed” historically contingent productions. This is why Foucault argues that “the soul” (identity) is no illusion or mystifying effect of ideology, but rather the concrete fabrication of discursive rhetorics. Or as Foucault himself famously puts it, “the soul is the prison of the body” (Discipline 30), since it is the ceaselessly “remembered” truth of one’s seemingly unchanging identity that shackles one in place, making it appear impossible for one to become anew. Hence the critical goal of Foucault’s genealogical project is to overcome memory. For what is the need for a discursive re-articulation or re-production, that is, “counter-memory,” if there isn’t first a discursive “memory” to counter, for example, contingent (immanent) discourses posing as one’s unchanging (transcendent) soul?

Consider here how Memento’s Leonard tattoos his body primarily with phrases provided by those trying to persuade and manipulate him. Akin to subjectivating institutions and mechanisms of control (the military, the church, the media), Teddy and Natalie supply Leonard with information that leads him to get new tattoos and change the course of his investigation (for example, through phone calls and doctored police files). They therefore re-produce his discursive memory, compelling him to change “the facts” regarding himself and his world. Of course, this is not merely Leonard’s plight, but one faced by every subject, as one finds one’s discursive memory constantly fabricated by new and different language, often from imperial, capitalist powers that persuade subjects to create and destroy in ways that they see fit. However, although “we are . . . a function of rhetoric,” as Victor Vitanza succinctly puts it (Negation 170), this conclusion should not lead to despair. For although “memory” in Foucault’s sense is produced, quite often by problematic apparatuses of control, there is still the possibility for resistance through the counter-production of new forms of subjectivity and/as memory. For as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri point out, it is through “alternative production[s] of subjectivity [that one] not only resists power but also seeks autonomy from it” (Commonwealth 56). But a more detailed explication of how one can resist power in counter-memorial fashion must wait until the outline of the rhetorical production of memory is “complete.”

[i] With regard to the notion that subjectivities are produced by discourse, Judith Butler observes that “[t]here is no ‘I’ that can fully stand apart from the social conditions of its emergence” (Giving 7). In other words, there is no “I” that is not rhetorically constituted by discourse (which is always an immanent social force).

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