The Marvelous MarÃa Beatriz and I finally got around to watching Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve’s upgrade of the 1982 version with Harrison Ford (who also appears in the 2017 version). Great on atmosphere, lame on story. We also watched the original because the MMB had never seen it. Same outcome. I had forgotten that.
American audiences did not at first take to the movie, in part because it’s slooooow (Sheila Benson from the Los Angeles Times called it Blade Crawler) and full of hyperventilated “philosophy” about playing God. And the rapey approach that Deckard (Ford’s character) takes toward Rachel (the replicant he loves, played by Sean Young) is retrograde and creepy.
But one idea shared by both movies is “prosthetic memory,” a term from Alison Landsberg’s 1995 article, “Prosthetic Memory: Total Recall and Blade Runner,” in Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment, reprised in her 2004 book, Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture.
Landsberg defines prosthetic memories as “memories which do not come from a person’s lived experience in any strict sense.” If you watch a film or television program, you will have a memory of narrative events without actually experiencing those events in a corporeal way. Do this enough times with enough media technologies, and it becomes possible for human beings to possess, like the replicants of Blade Runner, vivid memories of experiences not their own.
Unlike actual prosthetics, which are supplements to the human body, prosthetic memories become so entangled with the ongoing process of memory-making in the brain and the relation of that process to forming an identity that it becomes impossible to distinguish between real and consumed memories.
Is this a problem that needs solving? Maybe. Fake news, for instance, is “successful” (whatever that means) because the items implant information in the brain that some people cannot disentangle from their own identities: they remember the information as if they had lived it in some way. This connects with the paracosm, a detailed imaginary world that, these days, not only includes Tolkien’s Middle-earth but also something we could call Foxland.
But the problems of prosthetic memory, if any, don’t have a solution because “solution” implies a distinction between a “pure” memory and a “purchased” memory, and I don’t think such a distinction exists for modern technologized human beings. I also don’t think it squares with neuroscience research on memory formation and storage. One memory does not exist in one location in the brain but is spread across a neural network, and memories are constantly being edited and reformed according to the emotional needs of the organism. What we say we remember about an incident and the journalistic details of that incident are never cognate.
Does this lead directly to cyborgs in the era of the posthuman? Depends. Is it a problem if a person has memories implanted about visiting a place without actually visiting the location? Are the memories acquired through a virtual reality walk through the woods “lesser” in some way from an actual walk through the woods?
The problem, to me, is less about memory and memorizing per se and more about how we go about choosing the prosthetics that help us get through life. Humans are like web browsers. They can add extensions and plug-ins to extend their functionality, but with this one difference: browsers have been created to serve a particular purpose. Humans do not have such a comfortable destiny. We just keep adding prosthetics as we go along, hoping (if we even pause to think about it) for a combination that brings us some measure of fortune and comfort.
Should we take that pause, there are aids to guide our pausing. Svend Brinkmann’s new book, Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, is a self-help book written to wean people off self-help books promoting positive thinking and multitasking productivity. In a couple of hundred pages he deflates the self-improvement hype and offers in its place a Stoic practice that aims to ground the reader in a wry skepticism toward the riches fanned out in front of us by our prosthetically driven technological regime.
We are cyborgs already—that began when human beings used their first tools to rearrange reality. There’s no holding back the technological flood, but we do have ways to control what comes through the floodgates, to balance the meat-based and silicon-based life forms that reside within the local habitation of our brains and bodies. Each of us does have that control, though it’s not easy to exercise it, as Brinkmann points out, especially in a time and place when fever dreams seem to rule the day and self-discipline is described by our capitalist overlords as retrograde and dangerous.
But resistance is not futile, however hard it is to resist. Using wry search algorithms in our browser brains will make us better cyborgs, and as better cyborgs, we can tear through the paracosm of reality that cottons around us today right into reality itself. It will give us a bite of the chili pepper to clear our senses, as the MMB would say. And she is always right.