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Canadian Review of American Studies 34.1 (2004) 13-54
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High on Technology — Low on Memory:
Cultural Crisis in Dark City and The Matrix
Satisfied that the sequence of men led to nothing and that the sequence of their society could lead no further, while the mere sequence of time was artificial, and the sequence of thought was chaos, he turned at last to the sequence of force; and thus it happened that, after ten years' pursuit, he found himself lying in the Gallery of Machines at the Great Exposition of 1900, with his historical neck broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
Sluicing down our throats, washing through our minds (Eliot's chambers of the sea), the culture's dataflow surges into us momently, flushing out what we might have remembered, with the output from the socius' memory factory. The deciphering of history, a gratingly slow process of negotiation and disagreement, is replaced by a media blitz on events. All we want to know about massive cultural memory haemorrhages like the Shoah and D-Day can be squeezed into three-hour media bursts, convincing because of their technical brilliance, their ability to elicit emotions and to create in the viewer the conviction that the truth has been determined and can now be shelved—we are at last done with those crises. What [End Page 13] streams out with the dataflow are thoughts about who we've been and wanted to be, as a culture, as a society, as a people, in the face of problems of technology, faith, and memory. Anxious for optimal throughput, obeying the urgent pressure of the machine to upgrade to higher processor speeds with greater RAM, we have left ourselves little time to reflect, even less to reconsider, and instead leap from event to event, frantically memorializing (if not remembering) what the past means—a world war, the death of a celebrity, or the death of the child of a revered president all carry the same valence.1
Around us is the texture of memories, real and prosthetic, produced for us, by us. We have turned our memory devices (in the industrialized world—television, film, video, the Web) into answering machines that, on demand, spool out rote solutions to the ontological, epistemological, and existential issues that produce life's dread. At the end of the twentieth century, story-telling, especially film, was marked by a confluence of technology, religion, trauma, and forgetfulness: The historical revisionism and high-end computer graphics of Forrest Gump (1994) led to other films, like The Matrix (1999), a religious story designed to assuage our anxieties about the entangling qualities of technology's web.
Since the destruction of the World Trade Center, we have been inundated with memorials and tributes—a tide of memory-related materials, albums, souvenirs, and even beacons of light—all anodynes of cultural forgetfulness. Why have I chosen The Matrix (1999) and Dark City (1998) and not other films? John Sayles has had an astonishing career recording the creation of memory: the way it shifts, reforms, and is retold. Whether recounting the story of the Kentucky coal wars (Matewan); of slavery (Brother fromAnother Planet); of the creation of the West (Lonestar), the North (Limbo), the South (Passion Fish), or the Southeast (Sunshine State); or exploring a mythical place of violence and redemption (Men with Guns); Sayles has sketched, in luminous outlines and close detail, the pressures that act to produce cultures, cultural groups, and their agreed-upon memories. Alternatively, I could turn to the myth machine in full operation: The Indiana Jones trilogy, Forrest Gump, or Spielberg's own historical narratives (The Color Purple, Amistad, Schindler's List, Empire of the Sun). If my purpose were to deal only with...