Too Much Memory

1I love memory. It reminds me of who I am and how to get home, whether there's bread in the freezer and if I've already seen a movie. It's less helpful on whether I've already met someone and utterly useless in reminding me if I owe money. Overall, though, I'd rather have it than not.

2Psychologists and philosophers tell us that memory is one of the ways in which we maintain the integrity of the self. I've never met anyone who's lost his memory, but we've all seen movies in which it happens. First, you lose your memory, then you're accused of a crime you can't remember committing. I forget how it turns out but I did once see a documentary about a man who'd lost his memory. It was horrible. It was driving him insane. He could remember his wife, but couldn't remember when he'd last seen her. He thought it was years ago although it had only been 5 minutes. Every time she entered the room, he traversed paroxysms of agony as though seeing her again after an eternity of waiting. The experience was overwhelming for both of them.

3Of course, psychoanalysts are unequivocal about the importance of memory: repressed memories are the very stuff of the unconscious and analysis helps us remember. When memories are repressed, bad things happen. As Breuer and Freud stated in 1893, "hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences".

4 History has also long been concerned to discover a true memory, or at least an official one. And history has become one of the main cultural battlegrounds over the right way to remember.

5 But lately, memory has become big business. Entire industries are devoted to selling it back to us. Not private memories, but the likely memories of a group.

6 For example, my newsagent carries at least 3 "nostalgia" magazines, replete with loving photographs of old toys, reprints of old ads, interviews with old personalities, and so on. Fortunately, they're all just a bit too old and the absence of my personal nostalgia reassures me that I'm not quite as decrepit as Generation Xers claim.

7Nonetheless, amongst my 200-odd TV channels, there is one devoted exclusively to old shows, TVLand. It broadcasts nothing later than 1981 and, though its policies are clearly guided by contractual availability and cost, specialises in TV of the mid-1960s. Now that is getting dangerously close to home. And I confess that, after 30 years, re-viewing episodes of Julia or Petticoat Junction or The Mod Squad ("one's white, one's black, one's blond") is an experience both compelling and embarrassing.

8And again, this summer, as for the past 15 years, movie screens were awash in retro-films. Not films with old-fashioned plots or deliberately nostalgic styles -- such as Raiders of the Lost Ark -- but films based on cultural artefacts of the near past: The Avengers, Lost in Space, Sergeant Bilko, McHale's Navy, another Batman, The Mask of Zorro, etc. Indeed, now that we've lived through roughly six Star Treks, Mission Impossible, The Flintstones, The Twilight Zone, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Jetsons, and in view of the fact that even now -- even as I write these very lines -- locations are being scouted for Gilligan's Island: The Movie, it seems appropriate to ask if there is a single TV show of the 1960s which will NOT become a major Hollywood movie?

8That's not all. I have access to approximately 10 "golden oldies" music stations, some specialising solely in "PowerHits of the '70s" or "Yesterday's Country" or "Hits of the Big Band Era". In fact, I think Big Band is making a comeback on the pop charts. Maybe everything old is new again.

9On the other hand, memory has also become highly political. Much more that I ever remembered. All over the world, governments and institutions are rushing to remember the wrongs of the past and issue sincere apologies. President Clinton apologised to Japanese Americans, some Australian state and local governments to Aborigines, Canada to the displaced Inuit, Tony Blair to the Irish, Swiss banks to the victims of Nazi gold. The return of the repressed is apparently highly therapeutic and certainly very virtuous.

10Strangely, though, the institutional process of memory recovery is happening at precisely the time that the same recovered memory theory is under attack in the courts. After having been a potent argument in the 1980s, especially in cases involving a sexual component, recovered memory is now widely discredited. Indeed, even movies-of-the-week which at one time preached recovered memory as unassailable truth now regularly use it as the cover of false accusations and gross miscarriages of justice. Even the Canadian Minister of Justice is under pressure to review the cases of all persons jailed as a result of its use.

11It would seem that after having been private for so many years, memory has gone public. It's a political tool, a legal argument, a business. The opposite of hysteria: we suffer from too much memory. Which leads me to my problem.

12 I can't remember Princess Diana.

13This is no doubt because I avoided all mention of her when she was alive. And when she died, I was away. Not far away but conceptually away. Away from the media. I didn't follow the news till days later, when it was all over and TV had moved on to something else.

14Her exit, of course, was rather nasty. Not the sort of thing I'd want to witness, but certainly the sort of thing I'd like to know about. And it didn't exactly happen away from the public eye. There was, it is said, a crush of paparazzi in hot pursuit. And there are allegedly tons of photographs. So how come we haven't seen any? How have the authorities managed to control all those pictures? Supremely concerned with her image in life, Diana is fortunate that others are concerned with it in death. At least the absence of photographs allows us to preserve an unblemished memory of Diana, beautiful, beneficent, almost a people's princess.

15It does seem though that her memory, like her fame, is largely a by-product of media exposure. If you're in it, everyone knows about you. You're everywhere, inescapable. Your smiling face beams down on millions, your every thought reported. And it's not just the excessive, tabloid press, the fake news programmes, and the tawdry scandal sheets that indulge in this oversaturation -- although they do indulge quite a bit -- but all media. Obviously, competitive pressures are to blame. And probably also a cultivated appetite for the sordid and the scandalous.

16The upside of so much attention, of course, is that, once you're gone, there will be lots of images and sound bites to remember you by. These will be recycled again and again and again. Today's fragments of time are tomorrow's memories. Consequently, if you must be a public figure, try to have a good exit. Consider perhaps James Dean's advice to "live fast, die young, and leave a good looking corpse." Especially a good looking corpse.

17Of course, if you're out of it -- out of the media system, that is -- then, you're just out of it. Nobody will remember you anyway.

18 This is why Elvis will never die and John Kennedy will never stop dying. Except perhaps for his heavy Las Vegas phase, virtually all of the images of the King show him as magnetic, powerful, and exciting. Colonel Parker was careful about that. Elvis constantly exudes energy, an all-too-palpable physicality, forever re-energised and re-distributed by the film images of him. And the posters, and the sound of his voice, and the myth of his wildness. Fortunately, though, Elvis had the good grace to expire privately, beyond the public eye. In this, he resembled Marilyn, Rock Hudson, and Walt Disney. Of that event, he left no record.

19Indeed, the absence of such a record has allowed the remaining images to fuel a new myth. Endlessly re-circulated in a media sub-system, the images prove that Elvis lives! Consequently, people -- usually those first contacted by aliens -- keep spotting him at 7-Elevens, supermarket checkouts, and isolated gas stations. Apparently, he just wanted to live life normally. The fame had become too intrusive. And who could begrudge him that? So he faked his death, left no trace, and wandered off into the wilderness.

20To this extent, Elvis shares the fate of Hitler and the Romanovs whose deaths were deliberately obscured. As a result, Hitler lives on, at times on a desert island, sometimes in a bunker deep beneath the earth. And wasn't that Alexis, the tsarevitch? And over there, Anastasia? Aren't they having lunch with Amelia Earhardt?

21Kennedy, though, left a bad image, the queasy head shot. Too public, too visible, too shocking. It wasn't what James Dean meant. And that one image has absorbed all the others. This is ironic because Kennedy was the first president to look and behave like an actor whereas it would be years before an actor could look and behave like the president. Kennedy loved the camera and the camera, as they say, loved him. He had a permanent staff photographer who generated thousands of shots. He embraced television as no president had before, dominating the televised debates, holding live press conferences, opening the White House to TV tours. He invited Robert Drew to film his 1959 nomination campaign in Primary, giving him, as is always said in these cases, "unprecedented access".

22But the only pictures we remember come from Dallas. Gloria Steinem called it "the day the future died". Then, if we think really hard, we remember the funeral. But we can hardly remember anything else. Pictures of Jack campaigning, playing with the kids, receiving Marilyn's birthday greetings, are almost surprising. They're so fresh, as though we'd never seen them before. Kennedy should have died like Elvis, he would have lived longer in the imagination.

23As it is, he only ever dies and the very publicness of his death seems to have authorised its endless restaging. Has any film ever been more publicly scrutinised, examined, and re-created than the Zapruder film? The incident has littered the culture with such stock phrases as 'lone gunman' and 'grassy knoll'. It's also the birthplace of every crazy conspiracy theory. And everyone from the Warren Commission to Oliver Stone and Jerry Seinfeld has used the phrase "Back, and to the left".

24It's not surprising that our memory of public events should be bound up with images of those events. Most of us, most of the time, have no other access to them. This knowledge, combined with the pervasiveness of the media system, has led clever marketers of all sorts, to attempt to stage what Daniel Boorstin in 1961 called "pseudo-events". Events which exist for the benefit of the camera, with no real substance of their own. Their purpose is precisely to create an image, a feeling, a mood.

25Of course, every propagandist of any skill understood these facts long before Boorstin. How many photographs were doctored on Stalin's orders? How often was the mole on Mao's chin repainted? How often was Lenin's face itself repainted with embalming fluid? And didn't Adolf Hitler surround himself with the most exquisite filmmakers, photographers, and image-makers available? You just can't dictate without a firm grasp of your image.

26And that's the other side of modern times. Increasingly, we all have a firm grasp of image. We are no longer the media dupes which moralists frequently presume. The media have made us all rather sophisticated in the ways of the media. Everyone understands that politicians manage their images and stage events. Everyone knows that advertising is only creatively truthful. No one believes that what happens in a film really happens. We all realise that most of what's seen on TV is spin doctoring. We're hardened. And this is no doubt why the creamy sincerity of the eager tears which now attend public disclosures, the touchy-feely goodness of anyone who can "feel our pain" are so much in demand. No matter how fake, how contrived, how manipulative, they at least look like the real thing.

27At one time, popular culture merely suggested shock and violence. It did not show them directly. The Kennedy assassination marked the end of that time as people turned away from the screen in horror, asking "Did they have to show us that?" We're now in a time when popular culture suggests nothing and shows everything, in as much detail as possible. This is the moment of Diana's death and we turn to our screens demanding to see more, shouting "We have a right to know!"

28But a slippage may be happening. We know so much about media operations -- or believe that we do -- that the media may be losing their ability to define events and construct memory. This appears to be one of the lessons of the Diana coverage: the paparazzi in particular, and the media in general, were at fault. Public anger was directed not at her driver, her companions or her lifestyle, but at the media. That the behaviour of the paparazzi remains to be fully elucidated, and that Diana had the weight of accumulated prestige and exposure on her side, make meaningful commentary more difficult, but there is a clear sense in which the public sided with perceived sincerity and genuineness and against perceived exploitation. Clearly, these matters are always open to revision, but the anger directed against the media in this affair spoke of pent-up rage, of long nursed grudges, of a generalised judgment that the media have done more harm than good.

29Something similar is happening in the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. The US media are apparently obsessed with this event and greatly agitated by the necessity of further coverage. Public opinion, however, has indicated just as firmly that it doesn't care and wants the whole thing to go away. There's a split between the definitional power of the media and public opinion, a drifting apart that wasn't supposed to happen. Media commentators of both the left and the right, both those who believe in media effects and those who decry the concentration of ownership, have long agreed on one thing: the media have too much power to tell us what to think. And yet, in this case, it's not happening. Indeed, 10 years from now, what will we remember? That Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky had an affair or that the media were very agitated about it?

30The way in which media images are linked to popular memory may be changing. We are less concerned with whether the media got the event right than with how they approached it at all. Already, concern over the Gulf War centres as much on the manner of coverage as on the legitimacy of the war's objectives. And the old complaint that the media cover elections as strategic horse races, thereby ignoring substantive issues, presumes the naivety of the audience. Everyone can tell exactly what the media are doing.

31So what will we remember? How will we feel in 40 years examining old footage of today's newscasts? Memory fades and images are about emotion. Will we experience the diffuse grimness of the WWII veteran watching Saving Private Ryan, identifying less with specific acts than with the general feeling of the moment? Probably. But perhaps we'll also carry with us a second layer of meaning, an equally diffuse recognition that the moment was constructed.

32I was watching a documentary last night about Hitler's last days. I'm sure everyone's seen it or something like it. The very fact I can be sure of this is the measure of the media's ability to shape popular memory. Hitler, visibly ailing, emerges from his bunker to acknowledge his last line of defence, a string of soldiers who are really only children. He stops as though to speak to one and pats the boy on the cheek. It's a profoundly creepy moment. One feels discomfort and distaste at being so close, one is acutely aware of the distance between the image's intention and the reality of which we have knowledge. Then, suddenly and imperceptibly, the camera shifts angles and follows Hitler down the line of soldiers, a standard travelling shot. It's invisible because that's the way military reviews are always shown. It works because we want a good view. It's compelling because it draws us into the scene.

30It looks so real and is plainly read that way, as historical actuality footage. But it's also plainly constructed. And that's increasingly what we see nowadays. We see the way in which images intend to connect to emotions. Maybe it's the future of all memory, to be disjointed and creepy. To acknowledge simultaneously the reality of the event and its fakeness. Rather like the performance of Hollywood actors or US presidents or publicly proffered sentiment. Clearly, we won't be dealing with the return of the repressed as we'll remember everything. We'll just have too much memory.