Are memories — whether they are personal or public — transferable, implantable, or purchasable? Landsberg argues that with the advent of new mass technologies like cinema memory can be massively distributed through the form of commodity. The mass cultural technologies are so powerful that, even though the consumers or spectators did not experience the event, they can feel as if they really lived through the historical moment. Put it another way, prosthetic memory functions like a prosthesis to the memory, being purchased as a commodity and being implanted to extend and replace a missing body part.
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Perhaps more than in any other realm, the political potential of prosthetic memory has been explored in science fiction film. Singleton uses cinematic identification to create the conditions under which audience members can take on prosthetic memories.
Memory is not commonly imagined as a site of possibility for progressive politics. More often, memory, particularly in the form of nostalgia, is condemned for its solipsistic nature, for its tendency to draw people into the past instead of the present.
The Los Angeles of the film is a chaotic, multicultural world of violence, epitomised by the assassination of Jeriko One, an important African-American rapper and a vocal opponent of white oppression.
Available on the black market, these memories circulate as commodities; consuming them threatens to prevent individuals from acting in the present, from being productive, politically engaged members of society. This negative depiction of memory is more than just the conceit of a science fiction film. The image of memory as an obstacle to, rather than a catalyst for, progressive politics and collective action is shared by many scholars as well. Historians Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, in their important recent book, The Presence of the Past, reject the frequently heard criticism that Americans are ignorant about history.
Through an ambitious survey project aimed at examining qualitatively and quantitatively how contemporary Americans feel about history, they demonstrate that most are, in fact, fascinated with the past.
In other words, Rosenzweig echoes the critique implied in Strange Days that private memory is an obstacle to collective politics. The commodification of memory, as depicted in Strange Days, only exacerbates this problem.
Similarly, the commodification of memories through history films, television, museums and the Internet threatens to construct pasts that are privately satisfying rather than publicly useful.
This critique is legitimate, but not necessarily insurmountable. It might be possible to imagine a relationship to memory that facilitates, rather than prevents, the formation of progressive political alliances and solidarities. In fact, the conditions of possibility for such a relationship emerged at the turn of the last century when two developments radically changed the conditions and contours of memory in American culture.
Modernisation and industrialisation sparked an unprecedented movement of peoples across the globe, while the birth of the cinema and other technological innovations led to the emergence of a truly mass culture.
In the context of mass migrations, memory would be required to play a crucial new role. The US experienced its largest waves of immigration from Europe in the first decades of this century, even as it witnessed the mass migrations of African Americans to the industrial centres of the North. With these movements of peoples came the rupture of generational ties, rendering the traditional modes for the transmission of cultural, ethnic, and racial memory — both memories passed from parent to child and those disseminated through community life — increasingly inadequate.
At the same moment, the cinema and the technologised mass culture that it helped inaugurate transformed memory by making possible an unprecedented circulation of images and narratives about the past. In it, there is a presumption of sameness between the sympathiser and her object.
The experience of empathy, by contrast, is not purely emotional, but has a crucial cognitive component. It therefore takes work and thought to achieve. And yet in positing an instinctual basis for fellow-feeling, Scheler neglected to consider the cultural effects of the new forms of mass culture emerging at the time he wrote — in particular the cinema.
But empathy is not instinct; it is a faculty whose exercise is more or less likely depending on social and cultural context. The emerging technologies of mass culture had the potential to create the understanding necessary for the formation of political alliances across chasms of difference.
Of course, others have reflected on the political potential of technologies of mass culture, notably Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin. Writing in the s, Kracauer and Benjamin began to theorise both the experiential nature of the cinema, the power of film to speak to, and move, the human body as well as its ability to influence the way one sees the world.
For Kracauer, film quite literally has the capacity to move the spectator. Benjamin, too, argues for the radical political potential of technologies of reproduction.
Then came film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second. But what I hope to underscore here is the unique capacity of film and other technologies of reproduction to generate empathy.
By revealing perspectives otherwise inaccessible, and by addressing the individual body in the intimate ways that they do, these technologies of reproduction serve as particularly powerful conduits for the generation of empathy. One of the most dramatic instances of how the mass media generate empathy is through the production and dissemination of memory.
Such memories bridge the temporal chasms that separate individuals from the meaningful and potentially interpellative events of the past. It has become possible to have an intimate relationship to memories of events through which one did not live: these are the memories I call prosthetic. But because prosthetic memories are not natural, not the possession of a single individual, let alone a particular family or ethnic group, they conjure up a more public past, a past that is not at all privatised.
The pasts that prosthetic memory open up are available to individuals across racial and ethnic lines. This form of memory is historically specific and quite distinct from the various forms of collective memory, which are usually circumscribed by a particular community or group.
Rather, they open up the possibility for collective horizons of experience and pave the way for unexpected political alliances. Second, like an artificial limb, these memories are actually worn on the body; these are sensuous memories produced by an experience of mass mediated representations.
And like an artificial limb, these memories often mark a trauma. I argue that commodification, which is at the heart of mass cultural representations, is precisely what makes images and narratives widely available, available to people who live in different places, come from different backgrounds, from different races and from different classes.
Finally, I call these memories prosthetic to underscore their usefulness; because they feel real they help to condition how an individual thinks about the world, and might be instrumental in generating empathy and articulating an ethical relation to the other. A sensuous engagement with the past, which prosthetic memory enables, is the foundation for more than simply individual subjectivity; it becomes the basis for mediated collective identification and for the production of potentially counterhegemonic public spheres.
In beginning to theorise their political potential, two elements of prosthetic memory are particularly relevant: their indebtedness to commodification and mass culture on the one hand, and on the other, their unique ability to generate empathy, a crucial step in the formation of political alliances and solidarities.
Perhaps in a perfect world there would be some alternative to commodity culture, but for those living in the early hours of the new millennium, a commodity-saturated capitalism prevails. And yet it is the very pervasiveness of commodification — reaching as it does into the realm of mass cultural representation — that makes images and narratives about the past available on an unprecedented scale. Prosthetic memory, as I have been arguing, is quite literally made possible by the advanced state of capitalism and its ensuing commodity culture.
It is through buying a movie ticket, paying the entrance fee to a museum, or acquiring access to the Internet, that one gains access to these images and narratives about the past.
So instead of simply condemning commodity culture, as many cultural critics have done, I will argue that the only way to bring about social transformation is by working within the capitalist system. In what follows, I will highlight particular instances where commodified prosthetic memories work towards politically progressive ends. Scholars in a variety of fields have long challenged the notion of the passive consumer.
It is important here to underscore the fact that there is indeed a limit to the number of possible readings of any mass cultural commodity. While these commodities might be multivocal, they are not infinitely so; the commodity itself imposes certain constraints on its interpretation as does the social world, or system of signs, in which it gets decoded. The mass cultural texts in which I am most interested are those that attempt to make possible progressive, or counterhegemonic readings; but because of the multivocality of commodities, even those cannot predetermine the meanings ultimately negotiated by individuals.
Furthermore, prosthetic memories cannot be owned exclusively. Despite the fact that these memories are made possible by a commodity culture, and circulate like commodities, they can never be owned as private property, and as a result they occupy a unique position within and yet implicitly opposed to capitalism. The world he inhabits is both technologically advanced and commodity-saturated, and he is therefore able to buy memories of just such a trip.
The political conditions on Mars are dire, for there is a class of people, the Mutants, whose fate lies in the hands of the evil capitalist Cohagen: he alone controls their access to oxygen through an elaborate venting mechanism. Capitalism has thus given Quade some choices about who to be. However, the mere fact that both options are in some ways made possible by capitalism does not mean that they are both equally reactionary or equally progressive.
One of the identities, that of Quade, is motivated by a social conscience, a desire to save the oppressed under-class on Mars. In other words, the prosthetic memories he has taken on enable him to think ethically; on the basis of those memories — and in particular, the memories of the oppression and ghettoisation of the Mutants — he experiences empathy.
Quade acts in a socially responsible way by turning on the oxygen mines and freeing the Mutants from the tyrannical grip of Cohagen. Commodified memories might be used in unexpected ways, in ways that actively challenge the exploitative drive of capitalism. Rosewood raises the question of whether white children — and by extension, a white audience — can take on memories of racial oppression and in the process develop empathy for African Americans. Because the film is first and foremost an attempt to put into history that which has been left out, Singleton situates his story in history: the narrative begins on Thursday, 31 December This film dramatises a moment in the history of two neighboring Florida towns, Rosewood and Sumner — the former is primarily black, the latter primarily white.
Despite the presence of much racism, the two towns manage to coexist until a white woman in Sumner, after receiving a beating at the hands of her white lover, cries rape and blames it on an unknown black man. Her allegation ignites the town of Sumner and violent lynch mobs decimate Rosewood.
But Singleton is doing more than making oppression visible. He reconstructs a radiant image of Rosewood and its citizens.
In an inversion of stereotypes, Rosewood, not Sumner, is the thriving town. In Rosewood, black families own the land and all but one of the businesses. Tranquil scenes of family and community life in Rosewood are juxtaposed against scenes of the coarser, more chaotic and unkempt life in Sumner. The hard-working African Americans he depicts in Rosewood are living the American dream.
Significantly, in this film, African American characters are privileged with point-ofview shots. To watch Rosewood the spectator must, in effect, look at the world through black eyes. Singleton is thus directing cinematic technology toward the task of producing empathy in his spectators. Not only is the narrative driven by the harrowing escape of the black children of Rosewood, but the importance of saving the children is underscored at the end by a textual epilogue which informs the viewers that the film was made possible by the sworn testimony of the children of Rosewood.
It was their words which make visible this under-represented history. But this film also foregrounds a white child. In one of its first scenes, a white man in Sumner — one who subsequently is revealed as the most virulently and violently racist of the bunch — teaches his son Emmett to hunt.
This scene initiates what becomes a veritable obsession of the film: the teaching of children. Racial prejudice, the film suggests, is not natural but learned. Emmett is brought along with the lynch mob and experiences a series of pedagogical events; in one instance his father teaches him to make a noose.
Later his father forces him to look into a mass grave. Emmett shakes his head and walks away with tears in his eyes. The lesson here, the fundamental premise of racial prejudice, is that blacks are black before they are human. At the end of the film, many of the children of Rosewood do successfully escape, but at great cost: the once thriving town is smoldering ash, destroyed by racial hatred.
But the film does not end there. It ends in the white town of Sumner. By looking as if through black eyes he is able to see through the reified, naturalised structures of societal and institutional racism. The price of this vision, though, is high for it requires him to disinherit himself. In some ways, then, Emmett becomes the model for the white spectator. It is the white spectator, like Emmett, who needs to learn to see as if through black eyes, and this is achieved cinematically.
This kind of vision, Singleton suggests, generates empathy, and it is the only way to prevent the structures of oppression from reproducing themselves.
In her book Prosthetic Culture: Photography, Memory and Identity, Celia Lury examines the specific role that photography plays in the prosthetic memories produced by mass culture. Everyone remembers the horrific events of September 11, , but many of those who recall that day did not witness the event with their own eyes. This traditional Western conceptualization of film format, in a sense makes invisible the tools of its construction, encouraging the viewer to identify with the characters and events on screen. Such a mode of viewing can promote the spectator to experience a temporary loss of ego as they engage in the process of cinematic identification. Cinema is a powerful medium of expression that can provoke a range of physical reactions in its viewers: laughing, crying, screaming, and even nausea.
Perhaps more than in any other realm, the political potential of prosthetic memory has been explored in science fiction film. Singleton uses cinematic identification to create the conditions under which audience members can take on prosthetic memories. Memory is not commonly imagined as a site of possibility for progressive politics. More often, memory, particularly in the form of nostalgia, is condemned for its solipsistic nature, for its tendency to draw people into the past instead of the present. The Los Angeles of the film is a chaotic, multicultural world of violence, epitomised by the assassination of Jeriko One, an important African-American rapper and a vocal opponent of white oppression. Available on the black market, these memories circulate as commodities; consuming them threatens to prevent individuals from acting in the present, from being productive, politically engaged members of society.
Alison Landsberg – Prosthetic Memory
Alison Landsberg Professor U. History: Visual culture, the politics of memory, affective engagements with the past, political subjectivity, Frankfurt School, race in mass culture, politics of aesthetics Professor Landsberg is an internationally recognized scholar in the field of memory studies. Her book, Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture Columbia UP, considers the way in which individuals are increasingly able to take on memories of events they did not live through. She is interested in the potential of such memories to produce empathy and to become the grounds for progressive politics. In , the journal Rethinking History published a forum on her book.