There’s No Such Thing as “Cultural Memory”


Matthew C. Baldwin is Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Mars Hill University, where he teaches ancient history, Biblical literature and classical Biblical languages, and method and theory for religious studies. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina.
Read his earlier post on cultural memory here.

Que reste-t-il de nos amours
Que reste-t-il de ces beaux jours
Une photo, vieille photo
De ma jeunesse
Que reste-t-il des billets doux
Des mois d’ avril, des rendez-vous
Un souvenir qui me poursuit
Sans cesse…

However else it may be viewed, Christopher Nolan’s film “Memento” (2000) can be read as a brilliant parable, useful to theorists interested in thinking about memory and culture.

In the film, a traumatic experience has rendered insurance investigator Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) unable to retain any new memories. Instead, Leonard navigates the world by following traces of his recent but completely forgotten past in the form of a complex tangle of notes, tattoos on his skin, and polaroid photographs.

Because Leonard’s memory isn’t functioning, his “mementos” don’t trigger actual recall of prior events or situations. Instead, his collection of traces acts as a substitute for a non-existent memory. Only by continually interpreting the artifacts he finds in his vicinity (gun, car, clothing, motel room, polaroid photo, etc.), can he recreate or maintain his understanding of his present situation and purpose. And so Leonard lives, not by recollection of experience, but by a process of review and interpretation of things that he has created, written, or collected, or happens to find present to hand. And so, even in the absence of memory, Leonard pursues a single-minded mission of revenge.

So as his present moment constantly slips away, Leonard struggles to make a record of his experiences before new perceptions recede into oblivion. He doesn’t remember writing these notes to himself, or getting tattooed. But he accepts them as traces of his forgotten prior self; especially he regards the tattoos — which are hard to ignore, lose, erase or change — as presenting “facts” that identify him and compel him forward towards his goal.

baldwin3“We all need memories to remind ourselves who we are,” Leonard futilely muses to himself while driving. But his experience with his own faulty memory has led him to become a sort of positivist. He has the phrase “memory is treachery” tattooed on his body. He regards the record of “facts” tattooed on his arm as superior to memory. “Memories … are just an interpretation,” he tells Teddy (played by Joe Pantolino), “they’re not a record, and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts.”

I want to argue that Leonard’s situation resembles collective human existence. Collectively, we are like Leonard: we lack a functioning memory, and the memories of individuals aren’t directly accessible to the collective. While the memories of individuals are constantly passing away into oblivion—after all, memories are just unstable electrical configurations set in fragile grey matter, housed in bone, nourished by blood, and ended by death—the collective has no organismal substrate for memory.

Instead, in the struggle against oblivion, we (the plural is significant here) collect, compile, archive, and record. We use patterned behaviors—ritual, record-keeping, storytelling, education—to assemble some present awareness of who we have been, who we are, and what we must do. This process of assembling could be termed “culture.”

But in putting together its representation of the past, culture isn’t accessing “memory.” Nothing is being recalled. There is thus no such thing as “cultural memory.”

Culture exists instead of memory.

Yet the category “memory” is extraordinarily popular in the field of religious studies.  Hundreds of historians, cultural theorists, and students of religion have found the metaphor or analogy or image of “memory” useful in their work. Such appeals have become increasingly common in the past decade; since 2010 many hundreds of works and articles have the word “memory” in their titles. We can understand the appeal. If there is memory, then perhaps it gives us access to an real past, authentic experience, or true identity

But the parable of Leonard has a further, darker lesson to teach. As it turns out, Leonard’s positivistic confidence in his “facts” is unwarranted. The film’s audience learns Leonard’s story gradually, in reverse chronological order, like archaeologists digging into a tell. The viewer eventually sees what Leonard has forgotten about the “facts” he relies on. Leonard’s “record” has been distorted by erasure, redaction, and elimination. It has been shaped by lies from his self-interested partners like Teddy and Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss). Even Leonard himself, motivated by momentary impulses, has more than once decided deliberately to deceive his future self. Though he has worked hard to assemble a story of himself, as an autobiographer he makes an unreliable narrator. Leonard’s “facts” are factitious.

In the end he has neither memory nor fact.

He has only interpretation.

Seen as a parable of human existence, “Memento” thus presents a somewhat unattractive picture. Like Leonard, we collectively possess neither memory, nor a reliable record from our past. We know certainly that a past happened; we inherit its legacy; we manipulate its traces. Yet our self-assembly may well be propelling us forward into disaster. We are amnesiac investigators, with limited critical awareness, and a willingness to lie to ourselves. And it may be difficult to get out of this situation. To paraphrase Bruce Lincoln” “[our] consciousness is itself a product of [the] system,” while “its operations are invisible … [and its products will be mistaken as] nothing other than ‘nature’.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *