Alison Landsberg – Prosthetic Memory

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Alison Landsberg, Prosthetic Memory, Columbia UP, 2004.

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 memory that is formed and circulated through the modern technologies of mass culture is called “prosthetic memory” – “This new form of memory… emerges at the interface between a person and a historical narrative about the past, at an experiential site such as a movie theater or museum”(2). 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. That is to say, prosthetic memory is not directly connected to a person’s lived experience and yet anyhow deeply related with the formation of subjectivity.

According to Lansdberg, prosthetic memory can be called “prosthetic” memory for four reasons: 1) not natural or organic memory; 2) like an artificial limb, can be worn on the body; 3) interchangeable and exchangeable in the commodified form; 4) useful and feel real producing empathy (20-1). 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. Regarding prosthetic memory, the important thing to consider is whether this foreign memory will perfectly function like real memory (or experience). How artificial memory can be turn into a real experience or make people believe that they are “having a real experience”(33)?

Landsberg finds the key of prosthetic memory in its transportability – it can go beyond the biological and ethnic ownership of memory. In other words, because prosthetic memory has the capacity to produce empathy (not sympathy), it can affect any one’s bodily process of identity formation transcending fixed identities of class, race, and gender. Thus she looks at the radical potential of prosthetic memory in that it will make people politically (unconsciously?) awaken and enable political alliance among different groups, since the memory does not belongs exclusively to a particular group.

Contrary to the essentialist tendencies of identity politics, prosthetic memory can be distributed to any member across identity borderlines. However, is it democratic or free choice of subjectivity, because it is not exclusively owned by a particular group? Don’t we still have to ask the ownership of the means of prosthetic memory; or put it differently, isn’t it still problematic who owns the mass cultural technologies of memory, i.e. media technologies? In a somewhat different perspective, even if we regard prosthetic memory as a non-natural, non-authentic, or non-organic – distinct from traditional memory transfer techniques – isn’t it still a tool or apparatus for indirect memory (experience) transfer or representation? I mean, whether it is an artwork for Christian ritual or a movie for mass entertainment, all medium is prosthetic memory in the sense that it makes people feel live through the specific experience they did not really experienced by affecting them and arousing empathy in them. Thus, can we say that all the mass cultural technologies (mass media) have a political potential of prosthetic memory, under the condition that they are democratic in distributing the sensible?

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