Recalling Memento: On the Production of Memory Becoming a Rhetorical Problem (III-IV)

Note to Self; Note as Self

Throughout Memento, Leonard not only copes with forgetfulness by writing on his body, but by scribbling a plethora of notes to himself. These notes not only “guarantee” that he knows various “facts” about his world, but “facts” about himself and his investigation. He’s quite dependent upon these notes, so much so, that after a distressing encounter with Natalie (who hides all the pens in the house), he searches frantically, exclaiming, “Stay focused, find a pen. Gotta write this down. Gotta write it down. Concentrate, concentrate, concentrate. Keep it in mind, keep it in mind, keep it in mind!” (Memento). Needless to say, the search doesn’t go well, and Leonard’s dependency upon notes makes him vulnerable to Natalie’s mnemic manipulation. Leonard’s vulnerability may seem pitiable, but are subjects with so-called “normal” memory capacities in such a radically different position? Isn’t anyone who writes notes and lists (or anything, for that matter) attempting to guarantee a “truth” across time, to rhetorically enshrine certain “facts” about the world, or to fix their identity as a subject in place through inscription?


Credit: Newmarket Films

According to Jacques Derrida, the writing of notes not only reveals the archival-memorial (“hypomnemic”) production of subjectivity through writing, it exposes how the concept of an unchanging “soul” is erroneous (given that “the self” cannot even remain the same long enough to travel from the kitchen to the supermarket, and was itself archivally produced by the “dead marks” of writing). Along these lines, Derrida explains, “At the very moment ‘I’ make a shopping list [that is, a note], I know . . . that it will only be a list if it implies my absence, . . . in the absence of my-being-present-now, even if this absence is the simple ‘absence of memory’ that the list is meant to make up for” (49). In other words, even though one writes lists or notes simply to overcome forgetfulness, this strategy entails attempting to preserve one’s “self” into the future, for example, to preserve “the self” who remembers certain grocery items, implicitly realizing that the writer is not the same subject who will read the note later on. Thus, Derrida continues, “[t]he sender of the shopping list is not the same as the receiver, even if they bare the same name. . . . Indeed, were this self-identity or self-presence as certain as all that, the very idea of a shopping list would be rather superfluous or at least the product of a curious compulsion” (49). In other words, Leonard is not the only one who employs the archival memory of notes and lists in order to stabilize his subjectivity and guarantee the truths of his world. Forgetting perforates and produces subjectivity such that one cannot even guarantee one’s existence (as a remembering subject) from one moment to the next! Along these lines, consider that while in Ferdy’s Bar, Leonard cannot remember that someone spit in his beer long enough so as not to drink it, and basically, such is the dilemma faced by subjectivities as such—unable to remain self-same across time, they resort to the “dangerous supplement” of writing to produce and preserve themselves, and have no recourse to any political vocabularies beyond those previously in-scribed in memory.

Forgetful Memory: Affection and Opacity

Thus far, it has been shown how subjectivity is rhetorically produced as memory in the form of images, discourse, and writing, as well as the “forgetting” of disaster. But memory is also rhetorically produced through “forgotten” affections, and is to a significant degree unavailable for retrieval and the writing of narrative. It’s necessary, therefore, to emphasize the power of forgetting in relation to memory’s production, and to explain how these two forces work in tandem. For as Bernard-Donals explains, “memory and forgetting are not opposites but rather counterparts in the historical, and by consequence narrative project: forgetfulness is not the absence of, but rather an integral element of memory; and all memory is shot through with moments of forgetfulness” (Forgetful 41). One of the best illustrations of Bernard-Donals’ point is affect, for a careful study of the ways in which beings affect one another reveals how they are non-consciously engaging in persuasion “before” memory, “forgetfully,” producing feelings or thoughts that other subjects can remember, though without any knowledge of the “source.”

The notion that the memories of subjects are constantly produced through “forgotten” affections and persuasion is elegantly illustrated in Memento. For example, Natalie “suggests” to Leonard that he rough up Dodd the drug dealer, knowing full-well that he’ll forget why he has done so.[i] Natalie isn’t the only one manipulating Leonard, either, so it’s little wonder that he is often confused and frustrated. He laments: “You know the truth about my condition, officer? You don’t know anything. You feel angry, you don’t know why. You feel guilty, you have no idea why. You could do anything, and not have the faintest idea ten minutes later” (Memento). Of course, Leonard isn’t the only one whose subjectivity is produced through the “forgotten” affects and persuasion of others. Every day, subjects are exposed to the affective force of others as they influence their thoughts, feelings, and behavior—producing memories, but without any knowledge of the (non-conscious) “singular”[ii] exchange that produced them.


Credit: Newmarket Films

As Diane Davis explains, “[p]ersuasion frequently succeeds without presenting itself to cognitive scrutiny” (Inessential 2), and this implies that one can find one’s memory rhetorically produced or influenced without remembering it at all. For example, one might hold certain political views, believing that one arrived at these positions on one’s own, when in fact they were the result of having watched a certain television program. Or, one might find oneself inexplicably angry or irritable after simply being around someone who was angry or irritable. Davis suggests that “forgetful” affections of this sort have the power to produce and influence memories because (singular) bodily existence is characterized by an already-prior “rhetoricity” or “affect-ability,” and bodies are open and exposed to the outside in such a way that persuasion is, in a sense, inescapable (19). Given such rhetoricity, “I” can be affected by “you” (and vise versa) before I ever realize or remember that I have been affected.

Affects transmitted without any “cognitive discretion” thus operate as pure rhetorical appeals that are immediately productive of subjectivity. Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen describes these types of “forgetful” appeals as “persuasion without a rhetorician” (Emotional 71), since it is rhetoric in operation before there is perception-recollection of a “you” or a “me.” In other words, “I” (the receiver of the “message”) am not the only one “forgotten” in this “rhetorical situation”—so are the message and the sender, the one who “affects me with ‘my’ affect” (71). Borch-Jacobsen, though, goes even further, suggesting that “I” am affected with “my” affect, and recall its productive effects, “because I have no affect of my own” (71). That is, “I” receive “my” affects from others rather than simply having them. As Davis likes to say, I am what I mime, and so when it comes to certain components of one’s memories, they are produced through a non-declinable and “forgotten” repetition of another’s affects.

Along with “forgotten” affects that have the power to produce and influence one’s memory, psychoanalysts also point up the closely-related notion of “suggestion,” where specific discursive content is uttered by one subject and is productive of another subject’s memory (largely due to source-amnesia). Along these lines, Borch-Jacobsen explains:

suggestion may well be defined, . . . as ‘a conscious idea which has been introduced into the brain of the hypnotized subject by an external influence, and which has been accepted by the subject as if it has arisen spontaneously.’ This very singular hypnotic ‘spontaneity’ is here the effect of a radical forgetting of the other. (Emotional 50)

For Borch-Jacobsen, as for Freud, subjects often produce one another’s memories by making suggestions wherein the content of the message is recalled, but not where it came from. In such cases, the other subject is forgotten, but not the other’s idea, so one falsely assumes that it “originated” from within oneself. Along with affects, suggestions therefore constitute a serious problem for rhetorical studies relating to memory, because both constitute the “memories” (traces) of persuasive encounters with others, though these encounters remain “forgotten.”

One can clarify the productive force of suggestion here by returning to Memento. At one point, Natalie persuades Leonard to beat up Dodd by having him write a note that reads: “. . . get rid of him for Natalie” (Memento). Leonard “recalls” his mission and carries it out, but with little idea of who has convinced him to do so or why he’s doing it. Leonard is upset about this later on because he’s worried about being manipulated but can’t prove it. As he says, “something doesn’t feel right” (Memento). The problem is that Leonard can’t remember being subject to Natalie’s “suggestion,” even though he has a hunch that his behaviors were suggested to him. And Leonard’s situation isn’t anomalous. Every day the memories of subjects are produced through the “forgotten” suggestions of others in situations wherein the rhetorician has withdrawn, and yet many insist that their memories are uniquely their own.

The “forgetting” of affects and suggestions, however, is only the tip of the psychoanalytic iceberg. For not only are subjects largely unaware of the ways in which their memories have been produced through non-conscious relations to others, the assemblage of subjectivity (“memory”) is characterized by radical blindness and non-knowledge. As Freud and others have argued, there is a significant part of one’s past that is completely irretrievable, “forgotten,” not available for narration, and so one finds oneself unable to fully account for one’s behavior. Here again, Memento’s Leonard serves as an image of subjectivity. He has little knowledge of his past beyond his incident, and isn’t even sure of his past prior to it. He finds himself embroiled in confusing situations, unsure of the truths by which he lives, and is incapable of explaining the circumstances of his life. In other words, Leonard can barely give an account of himself. But to what extent can anyone? Are subjects in general capable of producing such an account?

In Giving an Account of Oneself, Judith Butler argues that an immense “opacity” ranges across subjectivity’s constitution and production, and that one will confront significant difficulties when explaining one’s behaviors due to the largely irrecoverable nature of one’s relations with others. She explains, “[t]o be a body is, in some sense, to be deprived of having a full recollection of one’s life. There is a history to my body of which I can have no recollection” (Giving 38). For Butler, existence as a (singular) body thus implies an incapacity to fully recall one’s history; all subjects are amnesiacs. And when one pauses to reflect upon how stunningly un-available to perception-recollection most of the events of one’s life really are, the chasm between Leonard and other subjects begins to close. For example, Leonard can’t remember why he’s fighting with Dodd in a trailer-park, or has a coked-up escort in his hotel room, but can anyone recall precisely how or why they’ve ended up in their own fights, or how or why they have ended up on their own “dates?” Certainly, one can offer up an explanatory narrative, but how quickly does one cross the threshold between recalling the past and rhetorically/performatively instituting it?

In order to explain why opacity is such a pervasive and productive force, Butler emphasizes those formative instances that the I cannot remember because they took place before there was an I around to remember. These “primary relations” to others take place before a “self” is produced, during instances where, through a non-conscious “relation” to another, one is brought (each time) into existence. In short, one’s subjectivity is produced primarily through one’s relations to others, yet these relations are mostly impossible to recollect. Along these lines, Butler explains that “[i]f we are formed in the context of relations that become partially irrecoverable to us, then that opacity seems built into our formation and follows from our status as beings who are formed in relations of dependency” (20). Here Butler emphasizes that one’s formation (as a subject) depends upon “forgotten,” irrecoverable relations to others, such as parents, teachers, authorities, and so on, and acknowledging these formative instances of dependency and their irretrievable nature marks “the death of a phantasy of impossible mastery” over oneself and one’s powers of “self”-accounting (65). Human subjectivity, Butler argues, is characterized by non-mastery, non-knowledge, and “forgetfulness.” That is, Leonard’s amnesic predicament is that of subjects in general. But if so, how capable is anyone of giving an account of oneself, and what does it entail?

Regarding the potential for giving an account of one’s formation and behavior, Butler argues that “[t]he singular body to which a narrative refers cannot be captured by a full narration” (20). For Butler, the rhetoric of narrative cannot finally recall and articulate a life in its entirety; a life defies recollection and finalized articulation. In principle, narratives are incomplete and incompletetable, as is any attempt at “life-writing” or autobiography, and this is partially because primary relations, those encounters with others that produce who one is (becoming) are by definition “forgotten,” non-narratable. Likewise, Butler contends, “[d]evelopmental narratives tend to err by assuming that the narrator of such a narrative can be present to the origins of the story” (53). By contrast, she insists, “[one is] always recuperating, reconstructing, and [is] left to fictionalize and fabulate origins [one] cannot know” (39). This is certainly Leonard’s fate—he must produce narrative rhetorics about himself that he cannot possibly verify. Take, for example, the following conversation:

Teddy: How did you get this suit, the car?

Leonard: I have money.

Teddy: From what?

Leonard: My wife’s death. I used to work in insurance, we were well-covered.

Teddy: Oh…so in your grief, you wandered into a Jaguar dealership? (Memento)

Provided Leonard’s on-the-spot narrative and rhetorical “self”-accounting, one might smirk because as an audience member one supposedly knows better. However, according to Butler, narratives like these constantly make up for the “forgetfulness” and opacity of subjectivity broadly considered, and are integral to life, no matter the flimsiness of such accounts.

For Butler, then, while weaving an autobiographical account one will necessarily leave out one’s earliest relations, as well as (irretrievable) formative instances that span across one’s life. Or as Butler herself puts it,

[m]y account of myself is partial, haunted by that for which I can devise no definitive story. I cannot explain exactly why I have emerged in this way, and my efforts at narrative reconstruction are always undergoing revision. There is that in me and of me for which I can give no account. (40)

Butler’s observations here entail that any account of one’s own production will reveal the fissures opened by the seismic force of opacity (“forgetting”). I am thus forever bound to fabricate rhetorics about myself and my past given that “[t]he ‘I’ cannot knowingly fully recover what impels it” (58). It is important to note here, however, that Butler is not arguing that composing life-rhetorics (autobiography) is impossible, only that they are bounded by a horizon. But this horizon compels one to agree with Blanchot that “[f]orgetting is master of the game” (Infinite 214), a force that “ruin[s] our power to dispose of it” (316).

Significantly, Memento not only demonstrates how the forces of opacity and forgetting range over life, producing subjectivities and troubling the rhetoric of “self”-accounting, the film implicitly critiques those who (problematically) contend that they can “have done” with opacity. In Memento’s final scenes, Teddy attempts to “lay bare” Leonard’s forgotten past through a feat of hermeneutic mastery, engaging in what looks like a full-on deus ex machina. However, in response to Teddy’s narrative, Leonard does something fascinating: he intentionally ignores it and forgets it. One potential reading of this scene is that Leonard’s refusal of Teddy’s narrative indicates cowardice, self-deception, and pathology. This is one diagnosis. However, another way to deploy the scene is to situate Leonard’s response as resistance to what Deleuze and Guattari call “analytic imperialism” (Anti-Oedipus 23), that is, resistance to allowing Teddy to hermeneutically master him (psychoanalytic-priest style) and his past in all its impenetrability.

In line with the notion of “analytic imperialism,” one can also consider Leonard’s response to Teddy as him refusing to bow before what Michelle Ballif calls “the Oedipal imperative—of subjectivity” (Seduction 103), the demand to discover who one “really is,” to remember so as to remain “coherent” and in touch with one’s “origins” (103). That is, to allow others to write the truth of one’s past in the name of control (political or otherwise). By contrast, Leonard could care less about who he “really is”; he only wishes to complete his mission and gather the information necessary to do so. Yet this is the situation faced by any remembering subject. One can quest after the “interior” truth of oneself, seeking who one “really is” or what one “really desires,” yet opacity will always obscure the path, and one will become increasingly vulnerable to those powers promising an existential codex. However, like Leonard, one can cast the goal of “self”-discovery into the wind, seeking instead not to find out who one is, but rather, what one can do with one’s available power—an experiment that can only take place on the back of the tiger that is one’s opaque, un-masterable, and irreducibly singular, body.

[i] One of my favorite moments in Memento is when Christopher Nolan juxtaposes a scene where Sammy Jankis is taking a psychological test that shows he is unable to avoid electrified objects with a scene where Leonard returns to Natalie for help. The scene not only cleverly shows that Natalie is Leonard’s “electrified object,” but also points up the psychoanalytic notion of object-relations.

[ii] Davis contrasts the notion of singularity against individuality by pointing out that, “at the level of the organism, a rather astonishing condition of indistinction announces itself” (Inessential 24), and as she carefully outlines, this observation is significant for rhetoric and the idea of persuasive affection before thoughtful reflection.

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