Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Materiality of Memory: Is the Brain like a Bookshelf?

After reading “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”, I was struck by the materialist thinking contained in descriptions of memory and its manipulation. Quail refers to the two competing memories of his trip to Mars as “memory-tracks”; the implication at Rekal Inc is that objects of memory have physical presence in the brain, and occupy specific spaces in the brain. The technicians at Rekal can’t imbue Quail with memories of an ersatz trip to Mars because there is “no space” in that particular memory-track, implying that memory is a physical structure with finite and thematically organized limits.

But can memory be described in a wholly material sense? Are memories always coherent and neatly organized? Can memories be surgically removed without tampering with other aspects of the mind? It is implied that further tampering with Quail’s memory may cause a psychotic break; the mind, in Dick’s story, isn’t capable of simultaneously remembering two competing versions of an incident. The story asserts itself as being about the future; in other ways, the Terra that Quail inhabits is incredibly technologically advanced. The science of memory, however, still appears to be relatively fallible; this might be because the non-linear and contradictory nature of memories defies easy classification or transformation, even within the essentially boundless universe of science fiction.

The classification of memory to discretely material entity is also emphasized in the movie adaptation, Total Recall; toward the end of the movie, Quail is told that “Man is not defined by his memory, but by his actions.” But if tampering with memory can lead to psychosis, clearly the abstract workings of the brain have more significance than we realize; and perhaps they are significant precisely because they are immaterial and poorly understood, and can thus define us in ways that are unconscious but critical.

Dick’s story seems, in some ways, to be an attempt to materialize the unavoidably abstract concept of memory. In this way, it is a reflection of the larger goals of speculative literature; enabling the reader to imagine the unimaginable, to imagine that the abstract has concrete form. The story, however, demonstrates the limits of Dick’s universe; in an attempt to relate everything to narratives of material and technological progress, the author must sometimes put forward incomplete views of incredibly complex conceptual frameworks. Is an overarching narrative of materiality a critical part of science fiction as a genre? Should science fiction search for alternative paradigms of comprehension and progress? Is that even its job?


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