History and Memory

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History is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals and many copies. ~Alexis de Tocqueville, 1856.

History is to society as what memory is to the individual. It is a continuum of the recorded events from the past up until the present. History much like memory is a meta-cognitive process of accessing knowledge from the past. In the emerging age of postmodernism, the totalizing nature of objective knowledge has been challenged. No longer is there an absolute belief in its validity and truthfulness. We belong to a culture where the reconstruction of history has like in Plato’s cave, become an act of retrieving it from the confines of the walls by way of our images and signifiers of the past. History can only be recorded retrospectively, hence relies on memory, resulting in evaluation and reflection that colours and reshapes events, as Yosuke Yamahata states ‘Human memory has a tendency to slip and critical judgement to fade’. Thus history can not take place in the present as it is only in hindsight can it be recognised. Though the paradox of this rule in the words of Lenny from Nolan’s film Memento is that ‘Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the colour of a car’ and therefore as memory can be unreliable it is in this retrospective process history can be construed inaccurately. Through their representation of history and memory, Nolan in his film Memento, Yosuke Yamahata in his website Remembering Nagasaki, and Becker in his film Goodbye Lenin! raise questions about the nature of the cognitive process and the interdependence of history and memory.

Nolan represents how we as a society construct our history and cultural identity through his central character Lenny in his film Memento. Lenny suffers from anterograde amnesia which prevents him from forming new memories. He is cut off from his past as of from the last thing he can recall before his accident –his wife dying on the floor. Postmodern society lives itself through an understanding and organization of narratives by which it contextualizes itself. If there narratives breakdown, the subject splinters away from it’s unique individuality. Lenny is forced to re-contextualise himself every fifteen or so minutes. He relies on his Polaroids, tattoos, handwritten notes and various documents which are his narratives to establish his history and identity. The narratives of postmodern society breakdown with the constant rewriting and replaying of history which creates a culture of the image divorced from any referent. The reproduction of events and persons only moves the ‘facts’ further away from any real truth because of the continuous manipulation and rewriting of history (our collective memory). We become a society detached from any genuine historicism. Humans map themselves temporally within the scheme of history. However, as the subject becomes more fragmentary, as the subject approaches a society where one finds the end of historicity, where the temporal order of continuity is broken down, and time implodes into a perpetual present. Lenny is permanently trapped in the past; he can build new memory continuity from his first conscious memory to the accident, but nothing thereafter. Since he lacks the continuity of memory for all his actions and experiences after his injury, Lenny of the present has a separate identity to Lenny of the past. Lenny’s identity is constantly fragmenting only to return to the same point in time to begin the process again. He cannot feel time because he cannot experience it more than a moment.

Lenny attempts to construct his history and identity through the accumulation of physical evidence. Symbolically represented by the Polaroid pictures he uses to capture moments in time he won’t remember experiencing. By reconstructing history, Lenny creates a temporal memory. In the scene ‘Escort Service’, Lenny hires a prostitute to recreate the bedroom he and his wife slept in. The mise en scene and editing cuts of Lenny...
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