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Memory Matters in the Digital Age

From: Configurations
Volume 12, Number 3, Fall 2004
pp. 349-373 | 10.1353/con.2007.0001

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the company Lacuna Inc. advertises its method for focused memory removal with the slogan: "Why remember a destructive love affair if you can erase it?" When Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) incidentally finds out that his ex-girlfriend Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslett) has undergone the Lacuna procedure to wipe their bitterly ended relationship from her memory, he requests doctor Howard Mierzwiak to perform the same procedure on his brain. Joel is instructed to go home and collect any objects or mementos that have any ties to Clementine ("photos, gifts, CDs you bought together, journal pages"), and bring them to the doctor's office. Upon his return, Lacuna-technician Stan wires Joel's brain to a computerized headset; the doctor holds up each separate object (drawings from his diary, a mug with Clementine's picture, etc.) and tells Joel to let each object trigger spontaneous memories. Stan subsequently tags each object-related memory and punches it into a computer, apparently "recording" Joel's mental associations on a "digital map" of Clementine. That same night, Stan and his assistant come to Joel's house, hook up their drug-induced sleeping client to a machine that looks like a hairdryer but generates images similar to an fMRI, and start the erasure process. As the Lacuna Inc. website explains:

The procedure works on a reverse timeline, which means it begins with the most recent memories and goes backwards in time. This approach is designed to target the emotional core that every memory builds on. By eradicating the core, Dr. Mierzwiak is able to make the entire memory dissolve.

One by one, Joel's memories of Clementine are erased—a fairly automatic process that would have been finished by early morning, if not for Joel's realization, halfway through the procedure, that he wants to keep the good memories of his love affair, so he actively starts to resist the erasure process. Incapacitated by drugs, he embarks on a dreamlike, psychic journey with a remembered Clementine, creatively hiding her in unconscious, untargeted corners of his memory where she does not belong, in an attempt to escape the high-tech apparatus that is slowly stripping away his recollection of his former girlfriend.

Michel Gondry's fictional treatise of modern science's attempt to erase undesirable autobiographical memories raises three important questions that will be subsequently addressed in this essay. First, what is the "matter" of personal memories? Memory is obviously embodied, but neurobiologists, cognitive philosophers, and cultural theorists hold different—even if complementary—views on what "substance" memories are made of. Scientific concepts of memory have evolved significantly in recent decades, and the movie actually reflects some state-of-the-art theories on memory formation and retrieval. Second, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind presents an ambiguous answer to the issue of where memory is located: On the one hand, personal memory is situated inside the brain—the deepest, most intimate physical space of the human body. On the other hand, personal memories seem to be located in the many (mediated) objects that Joel and Clementine, like most of us, create to serve as reminders of lived experiences: photos, diaries and so forth. However, memory objects are not simply technological or material prostheses of the mind, as the movie wants us to believe. Personal cultural memory, as I will argue in this article, is neither located strictly within the brain nor outside in technological artifacts or in culture, but is the result of a complex interaction between brain, material objects, and the cultural matrix from which they arise.

Finally, Eternal Sunshine brings up the poignant issue of the recent transformation from analogue into digital "matter" of both mind and media, and again the fictional presentation of this issue is rife with ambiguities. The conversion of mental matter into digital information seems to proceed smoothly: technology deployed by Lacuna's technicians transcribes memories onto a digital map that looks like a series of MRI images. Like ordinary computer files, the "Clementine files" can be erased, and thus can be made to disappear from the place in Joel's brain where they are stored. The proposed translations from experiences into...

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