Flesh Machines and Memories



"She clung to the snapshot of a mother she had never had, of a little girl she had never been"

A week ago, I attended my grandmother's funeral. It was a sad and sorry affair. She was much loved by her children, grandchildren, and perhaps even by her great grandchildren (although that is debatable since they were really too young to know). The minister had the daunting task of consoling us about the loss of a woman who was dearly cherished by her family. He began his sermon by mentioning one of the greatest gifts that God gave us - the gift of Memory.

Now, I don't pretend to be a believer, I would hardly describe myself as even faintly religious. But he was right about this one. Memory. A distinctly human characteristic. I'm not talking about learned behaviors - the classical conditioning of Pavlov's drooling dogs. No, indeed, this is something much more inherent within the human being. It defines us and our experiences and our lives. Think how much of our thought is engaged in reflection, how are relationships are defined by the way things were. I may not have seen my friend Kristina for two years, but I know that I get along with her, because I have in the past. That's the way the human mind works. Memory creates experience; memory guides the way in which we act; memory gives us feeling and emotion; memory allows me to remember my grandmother and love her as the person that she was, rather than the corpse in a box. Memory prevents me from forgetting.

So what does it mean not to have memory? Or rather, what does it mean to cling on to memories that are false. Rachel's past is no more than a collection of photographs, images belonging to a life that is part of someone else's past. If she clings on to memories that aren't her's does that mean that she is not a real individual? Of course. She is living out the life of someone else, and her individuality (if there ever was one) is of no more significance than dust blowing in the wind. Rachel is an object, a creation emerging out of a factory - nothing more.

Anyone seen Dark City? It's about people who are manipulated by gruesome Dracula-like aliens. Cult following, bald men in long coats. They are trying to find the key to the soul, the soul being that essential, intangible component that makes a human a human. In order to alter humans, the aliens inject their brains with memories, altering who they are from day to day (or night to night, I should say). The humans become nothing more than manipulated objects. They are not thinking, they are not living. At points during the film we may be lulled into thinking that these people are human, but as we realize at the end, they exist on isolated rock and we can but wonder if they were ever part of the human race. Even the hero dissolves into shadow, as we learn that his childhood home is no more than a poster image on a brick wall - behind which: space, stars, nothing.

It's at this point in Blade Runner, and in Dark City, that things start to stop making sense. I have suggested that it is memory that defines the human being and makes them who they are. But what about emotions? What about personality? I would argue that personality is formed by our life's experiences, and if someone does not have life experiences then they have no personality. Babies have no personality because they have no memories. Animals, likewise. Machines, it goes without saying. But Rachel? She may be cold, and she may not know how to present herself in an intimate manner, but surely she has a personality. Her actions although awkward, show that she is capable of human behaviors. She goes through the motions of loving, she forces herself to desire.

Roy, has progressed beyond Rachel's elementary level of humanness: at the end of his life, he suddenly develops an innate human compassion, and chooses to save the life of Deckard. Why? Is it that he has spent enough time on earth to attain his own memories? Has he learned enough about humans to know that if he can save one, he should? The answer, although ambiguous, seems to lean towards the idea that Roy, in time, starts to become human; but just at the point when he begins to develop his own thoughts, feelings, experiences, he dies. Rachel, it seems has not yet reached this point; and nor, if we conclude that he is, in fact, a replicant, has Deckard.

[To other discussions of this topic by members of English 111, Cyberspace and Critical Theory, Spring 1998.]

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