Review: Prosthetic Memory by Alison Landsberg

by tigermanifesto

Ask most Americans what they “remember” about the Holocaust, and this film will probably come up. This is the phenomenon examined by Alison Landsberg in her book.

Memory can be understood in a number of different ways. When someone asks me what a memory is–a rare but possible occurrence–I often struggle between a few options. I could go the easy way and point my hopefully friendly inquisitor to the nearest dictionary or Wiki page. That might deter the less curious. A more insistent person might push me further. At that point, I get somewhat tense. What is a memory? The trouble with finding one definition is that there are a number of ways that I think about memory and remembering. From a psychological standpoint, remembering is a function of interlocking neurological systems in the brain. Memories are traces, patterns of emotional and sensory response that the brain records. There are memories we consciously remember and memories that are recorded automatically. Memories that build blueprints of places, that allow us to feel a continuity and a progression from the past to the future. Memory is where we keep our grudges and our debts, our entire pasts as we perceive them.

These memories are trickier than they might first appear. All of them are influenced and sometimes twisted by emotions–both the ones you had at the time and the ones you feel now–and some are completely artificial. They aren’t “false” exactly, since they have a material impact on your life, but they don’t accurately represent what happened in a historical sense. Every person has their own private history, one that does not respect facts nearly as much as we expect it to. Nostalgia represents the pleasure of remembering; there is also great pain and, even worse, a dark shadow over our past.

Physiological/neurological/private memories are not the ones that Alison Landsberg primarily addresses in her book Prosthetic Memory. Rather, the work investigates collective memory, the kind of memory that is not held by an individual but by groups. She is especially interested in the kinds of memories shared by those teeming masses, the products of the industrial entertainment and mass culture complex, the audience. Her book examines how mass cultural works, especially films, create and instill memories in their audiences and how those memories come to stand in for real ones. They are, in other words, prosthetic. These are not natural or organic or historical memories, but rather constructions of culture (or at least more fully constructions of culture than “normal” memories), thought that is not their most defining feature. What gives these kinds of memories their potency for cultural change, Landsberg claims, is that they are commodified, portable, and malleable. In other words, they are memories bought for a fee and not restricted to any specific person or cultural group. While there is great danger in relying on these sorts of memories, Landsberg believes that mass culture, rather than merely a negative symptom of an alienated industrial age, can do productive, progressive, and even radical work to improve society.

Landsberg has a rather more optimistic view of commodities than many other authors of her persuasion. She especially castigates Western Marxist critics of commodification for what she considers a view of commodification that lacks nuance. Of course there is something lost in the rapid movement toward commodifying anything and everything in an unbridled capitalist economy, she admits, but there is also a great deal to be gained. Moreover, she considers that, in this era of unrestricted and universal capitalist dominance in the world, it is more useful to find what the post-industrial consumer culture can give would-be subversives rather than searching for nonexistent portals out of the system. By better understanding and utilizing this capitalist mode of producing memories for consumption through mass cultural events, progressives and radicals can exploit the system to improve or overturn it.

The reason she feels that this is an urgent matter that deserves more attention is laid out throughout the book. Her first main theme chapter, covering the birth of the film industry and the early 1900s, focuses on how prosthetic memories and mass art had an unfortunate impact on American society. By perpetuating hegemonic narratives about “melting pots” and the benefits of dissolving into the American mainstream, mass culture in its infancy helped to reinforce American norms rather than challenge them. She digs into archives of stories about immigrants giving up their languages and cultures in exchange for their new opportunities. They adopt “prosthetic memories,” memories of a common (white, European, Christian) American heritage that displaced their “natural” or “inherited” memories. But rather than seeing this as liberating, Landsberg sees these narratives as constraining and homogenizing, eradicating cultural difference for the sake of justifying and expanding an oppressive American norm of assimilation. In other words, prosthetic memories are neither good nor bad, but, because they are commodified and portable across cultural lines, can serve any number of agendas.

Having set forth a cautionary tale, partially designed to warn her readers about the dangers of ignoring or outright dismissing the power of mass culture to shape societies, she spends the rest of the book going through different examples of how different pop culture artifacts create and reinforce certain memories that are shared by audiences. To cite one example, she examines how the popular culture industry’s treatment of the Holocaust allowed Jews to transmit their “natural” memories of near-extermination through films and books like Maus to non-Jewish audiences. This transmission helps non-Jews attain prosthetic appreciation for this history and, in Landsberg’s argument, builds empathy between disparate groups. The fact that these wide-audience spectacles like Schindler’s List are pitched to a broad populace and only discriminate their audience in terms of consumers means, for the author, that they can be useful in helping to build political alliances that transcend “natural” tribes. Though I have my own problems with the Spielberg film in question, some of which she addresses (such as the fact that the film focuses on presence rather than absence and places a Gentile at the centre, though she makes a compelling argument that the latter choice is instrumental in the film’s didactic power) better than others, she makes a compelling, if imperfect, argument for the value of the flattening and commodified nature of prosthetic memories.

Landsberg offers in her book a useful concept for thinking about mass culture’s effects on the audience, and hints at how artists and critics might enact progressive agendas not by denying or attempting to reverse commodification but by taking advantage of it. While I don’t’ share the author’s same optimism, and think she could have spent more time outlining the potential risks of participating so closely in pop culture, I found this book valuable in offering a new and more comprehensive view of how popular culture affects how people act and think. Approach critically, but engage thoughtfully. I also feel that the book, because it was published before the advent of social networking (2004) and digital distribution for media, lacks a certain edge in an age where the popular culture landscape, rather than flattening and dissolving tribal boundaries, is recreating them. These are important problems to think through, but I plan on using the concept in some later writing of mine.

Next time, we’ll see how Landsberg and Napier’s books can be read together. Specifically, I will be asking: how does the idea of prosthetic memory shape what we think about how anime creates national identity in Japan.

Note: another question that might be asked is how the commodification not just of people’s memories but also of their entire identity through personalized online advertising platforms could affect her view of commodification. I wish the book had spent more time talking about how digital media might shape prosthetic memory as an idea, since there is little to go on in the book and I would like to appropriate the term for my own use.

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