What is Prosthetic Memory? Landsberg states “Prosthetic memories are adopted as the result of a person’s experience with a mass cultural technology of memory that dramatises or recreates a history he or she did not live”. (Landsberg, 2004: 28) and provides an early example of prosthetic memory in cinema by referencing the film, The Thieving Hand (1908).
Literally a prosthetic arm with its own memories of past events, a life of thieving learned from its previous owner. The prosthetic arm upon attachment to a beggar controls the beggars’ actions. The prosthetic arm independently from the beggar’s control, steals from people, which ultimately leads to the incarceration of the beggar as a thief. However, as this example reveals prosthetic memory isn’t limited to advanced technology. This definition appears to be relevant to any form of technology and without this early example it would be too simple to assume that this limits the definition of prosthetic memory to current technology and for example the Science Fiction genre films. However, Science Fiction genre films are prevalent with excellent examples, including Blade Runner (1982), Blade Runner 2049 (2017), Total Recall (1990) and (2012), The Matrix (1999), Johnny Mnemonic (1995) and many others with the theme, prosthetic memory significant to the narrative. However, I would argue that in media there are many examples of prosthetic memory. Less advanced technology examples exist, for instance the reading of a book, by reading a novel you are experiencing the lives and memories of the characters in the novel, memories that you did not experience directly. Another example the consumption of History books describing events set in the past create prosthetic memories for the reader who could not have directly experienced these events. These events would also be open to manipulation by historians and government, with their own cultural viewpoint applying bias to these events in a similar fashion to the film editor choosing what to include, exclude using personal bias.
For the purposes of this analysis, I will concentrate on films from the latter half of the 20th century to date.
Science Fiction genre films – Prosthetic memory
Some science fiction films, like Blade Runner and Total Recall, explore the effects of technology on memory, literalizing prosthetic memory. In so doing, these films disrupt some basic postmodern assumptions about experience. (Landsberg, 2004)
Let us consider the above quotation with postmodernism used to identify a period of film production for science fiction genre films with artificial memory as a theme. For example Hayward states “ …some critics feel that postmodernism (also known as ‘the postmodern’) refers more to an age – particularly the 1980s and 1990s, although it is still ongoing…” (Hayward, 2018: 315). It is interesting to note the advancement of the prosthetic memory as a theme with films from the 1980’s such as Blade Runner (1982) and Total Recall (1990).
Consider Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and its prequel these two films are almost a definition for advanced technology and prosthetic memory. The film follows on from the original Blade Runner (1982) “Thirty years after the events of Blade Runner (1982), a new Blade Runner, L.A.P.D. Officer “K” (Ryan Gosling), unearths a long-buried secret that has the potential to plunge what’s left of society into chaos. K’s discovery leads him on a quest to find Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former L.A.P.D. Blade Runner, who has been missing for thirty years”. (Warner Brothers, 2017) As the producer’s state, this sequel follows on from the original Blade Runner (1982) albeit with a 30-year gap from where in the final scenes of the extended version of the film (The Directors Cut, 1992) Deckard and Rachael are together in Deckard’s flying car escaping for a new life, somewhere outside of Los Angeles. The spectator is left to make their own conclusions as to what happens to them in the future, with the narrator suggesting that Rachael might not have the limited 4-year life span of a replicant, which is one of the key premises for the film, the replicants seeking an extension to their limited 4 year life span.
The sequel opens with “K” a replicant and a Bladerunner tracking down an escaped older model replicant (is this a plot hole, 4-year lifespan?). The definition of a replicant is stated as being, [r]eplicant, an artificial being in the form of a human or other creature; an android. (replicant, n. : Oxford English Dictionary, no date) replicants are banned from returning to Earth) The replicant, Morton is hiding out in a protein farm, farming what appear to be grubs that are rich in protein. “K” having retired the replicant Morton is about to leave when he is drawn to a dead tree where he discovers buried under the tree a box containing what appears to be human bones. In subsequent scenes these bones are identified as being from a replicant, with detailed investigation they find a serial number etched into the bones which identifies the bones as belonging to the replicant Rachael. Rachael is dead, she died in childbirth, which is supposed to be impossible for a replicant to reproduce, but nonetheless she appears to have had a living child according to the post-mortem examiner, with Deckard assumed to be the father. The original Bladerunner (1982) film created the possibility that Deckard was either human or also potentially a replicant, because he loses his empathy which a replicant does not have. In Bladerunner 2049 “K”, Bladerunner is aware from the outset that he is a replicant, that his memories are prosthetic. The prosthetic memories of his childhood have supposedly been created by a memory fabricator and implanted. Yet “K” is driven to investigate them as he becomes unsure whether these memories are prosthetic or real, which as Landsberg states “… people might no longer be able to distinguish cinematic memories from lived ones, the “prosthetic” from the “real” (Landsberg, 2004).
One of the key prosthetic memories are of events from his childhood, of a wooden toy horse. In the scene where K returns to the farm to continue his investigation around the dead tree, he finds a number cut into its trunk. This number 61021, a date cut into the base of the dead tree the location where he found Rachael’s bones, links him to the prosthetic memory of his childhood, the same date cut into one of the hooves of his wooden toy horse. The full prosthetic memory of him hiding the horse in the ashes of a furnace we visit in a flashback, where he is trying to escape a group of children who are trying to take the wooden horse away from him, they beat him to try and get him to tell them where he has hidden the horse. However, in the chronological timeline with “K” in the scene where he is investigating in the orphanage/workhouse he appears to remember this event. For while checking the old registers for children’s names, hoping to find the name of Rachael’s child “K” is drawn to search among the now abandoned and cold furnaces and while routing through the ashes he finds the wooden horse. His prosthetic memories now lead him to believe that his childhood memories are not prosthetic after all, that they are real, and that he is Rachael’s child. In subsequent scenes “K” learns that this memory is real and taken from a child, but in these later scenes with “Dr Ana Stelline, a memory fabricator” (Sloat, 2017), she hides from “K” that these are her own childhood memories that “K” is remembering as his own. She herself is unaware that she is the child of a replicant, these are her memories, she is the child that was running away from a group of boys and hiding her toy, the wooden horse (which was carved by Deckard). That it is her memories implanted into “K” now forming part of K’s prosthetic memories that has driven K’s investigation into his (fake) past, that ultimately led him search for and to find Deckard. Deckard who has been in hiding in a deserted and radioactive Las Vegas for nearly 30 years. This investigation that eventually drives Deckard to meet his daughter. But why is “K” angry after talking to the memory fabricator? “K” is once again certain that he is a replicant and his early memories are again all prosthetic, for a time he believed he was the child of Rachael and Deckard and his memories not prosthetic, that is he came to believe that his childhood memory of hiding the horse was his memory of events and real, not prosthetic. These memories reinforced by his investigation leading to the discovery of the real wooden horse from his memories this seemed to definitively prove that he was the child of the replicants Dekhard (there is still an ongoing debate that Dekhard is a replicant) and Rachael. Now K’s world has collapsed, he is unsure of all of his memory’s both prosthetic and real, for can he be certain that any of his memories are real, are his recent memories of actual events his own memories accrued over time since his activation or are these too fabricated? At their meeting Dr Ana Stelline the memory fabricator states that “people think the best memories are the most detailed, but memories are all about the feelings, memories should be a mist”. But all she reveals to “K” is that this memory is real, and that someone has lived it throwing him into this confused state.
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