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

Conclusion: Reminiscence and Resistance

Thanks to the mnemic assemblage of Leonard from Memento, it has been shown how the post-structuralist problem regarding the rhetorical production of subjectivity is one inexorably linked to memory. That is, subjectivity is itself the becoming of memory, a memory that is archived wholly “on the outside” and primarily irrecoverable. These observations expose a way by which one might reconceive the once-lauded “canon” of memory for twenty-first century rhetoric, particularly as it relates to politics. However, throughout the majority of this article I have kept political commentary to a minimum, focusing instead on laying the rhetorical and philosophical ground necessary for making certain political claims. I wish to conclude, therefore, by venturing into political territory, passing from the problematic of “reminiscence” to that of resistance.

Unfortunately, when one takes Memento as an image of politics, it is tempting to initially consider Leonard as a subject whose memory has been wholly produced to become a volatile killing-machine, one made all-the-more dangerous because he doesn’t appear to have the memory that a conscience requires. In this light, Leonard becomes a mercenary who has been programmed to blindly follow orders and engage in heinous acts without remorse, or a citizen led by propaganda to approve brutal imperial occupations that facilitate untrammeled corporate wealth. However, Memento lends itself to a more optimistic reading as well, as I have already suggested through my discussion of “analytic imperialism.” For although Leonard’s photographs, tattoos, and suggestibility reify the Deleuzian observation that “[t]here’s no subject, but a production of subjectivity” (Negotiations 112), this does not mean that one is condemned to remain forever enslaved to those rhetorics that initially produced one’s memory, and which may lead to violence. For just as memory is produced, one can in turn re-produce/re-direct it in the form of a “counter-memory.” Following Foucault, Hardt and Negri call the re-production of subjectivity constituted by counter-memory “biopolitics,” which they define as “the power of life to resist and determine an alternative production of subjectivity” (Commonwealth 57). Along these lines, it appears that although Leonard’s memory has persuaded him to live “only for vengeance,” it’s possible that if his memory were re-produced/re-directed, he might become capable of resistance, alternatively redefining “the facts” of his life as well as its purpose.

As it stands, however, Leonard strictly adheres to the rhetorics that have produced his memory, vigorously abiding by his photos, notes, and tattoos in order to hunt down the elusive John G_____. Natalie and Teddy encourage Leonard in this undertaking, operating as figures of governance that supply him with “facts” that serve to keep him on the trail, even if this trail ultimately leads to targets that they want dispensed with. These devious undertakings are enforced further given that Leonard militaristically disciplines himself in accordance with the truths to which he is subjected and that produce his memory. As he explains, “I have a more graceful solution to the memory problem. I’m disciplined and organized. I use habit and routine to make my life possible. Sammy had no drive, no reason to make it work. Me, yeah, I got a reason” (Memento). And because he is blinded by vengeance, Leonard appears more ready to accept “the facts” that will supposedly lead him to his assailant, and goes so far as to habituate himself in accordance with those facts, training his body to respond in a calculated, hence easily controlled, manner.

Leonard therefore does not seem to realize that the rhetorics that have produced his memory in the form of photos, notes, and tattoos are, indeed, rhetorics; rather, for him, they are simply facts. This makes Leonard an illustrative example, because he, like most, rarely questions or problematizes the rhetorics that have produced his memory. But Leonard isn’t simply a pawn in Natalie and Teddy’s murderous games. He often resists their attempts to produce his memory, even if only momentarily. For example, after beating up Dodd in his hotel room based on a note, Leonard exclaims to Natalie: “I think someone’s fucking with me, trying to get me to kill the wrong guy!” (Memento). And he is right. The rhetorical production of memory is serious business, quite often a matter of life and death. That is why it is so important that alternative forms of production exist, forms of counter-memory that, as Hardt and Negri put it, “are presented at once as resistance and de-subjectification” (Commonwealth 58-59).[i] However, these alternative forms of memory do not constitute resistance to subject-production as such, given that there is no subjectivity without its production. Instead, they constitute resistance to one form of memory-production from within another (counter-) form. But in order to live this alternative form of life, one must affirmatively forget certain preexisting forms, clearing the ground in order to “experimentally”[ii] replace them through strategies of existential “testing.”


Credit: Newmarket Films

            This investigation into the rhetorical production of memory therefore concludes with the contention that “the production of subjectivity [is] the primary terrain on which political struggle takes place” (172). Or in the terms that have been deployed throughout this article: the rhetorical production of (counter-) memory is the battleground of politics, and perhaps one entrée into reinventing the rhetorical canon of memory. It is in light of this conclusion that Leonard shows his viewers not to despair, for like him, they may not have chosen the manner by which their memories were once produced, but no one is destined to live according to their “original” memories. There is always the potential for resisting, redirecting, and metamorphosing memory, and it begins by believing in the world, believing in the immanence of life and that one can make it anew. For as Deleuze explains, “[i]f you believe in the world you precipitate events, however inconspicuous, that elude control, you engender new space-times, however small their surface or volume” (Negotiations 176). Along these same lines, Leonard leaves viewers with a glimmer of hope as well, when he concludes the film by deciding that “the world’s still there” even when his eyes are closed, even when he can’t remember (Memento). It is a triumph over nihilism and inaction that affirms the value of struggling for new memories and new hopes, even if one may not live to see (or “forget”) the fruits of one’s labor.

Works Cited

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[i] Butler explains that with regard to the production of subjectivities, “[t]here is no making of oneself (poesis) outside of a model of subjectivation (assujettisement) and, hence, no self-making outside of the norms that orchestrate the possible forms that a subject may take” (Giving 17). This Foucauldian line of thought is quite important politically because it shows how subjectivities are both the effects of subjection as well as “inventive,” resisting subjectivation from within discourses immanently.

[ii] With regard to the ethical experiment, Deleuze explains that:

[e]thics . . . a typology of immanent modes of existence, replaces Morality, which always refers existence to transcendent values. Morality is the judgment of God, the system of Judgment. But Ethics overthrows the system of judgment. The opposition of values (Good-Evil) is supplanted by the qualitative difference of modes of existence (good-bad). (Spinoza 23)

What Deleuze means here is that morality involves positing a set of unchanging rules outside of Life by which to judge Life itself. Ethics, by contrast, is the evaluation of (and experimentation with) different modes of existence without recourse to transcendent criteria. I aver that this experimentation is a matter of affirmatively forgetting outmoded, life-negating modes of existence (forms of life) in order to counter-remember new ones.

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