Michael Gondry’s 2004 film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is a meditation on the complex interpenetrating dynamic between memory, identity, and our relationship with the world and the people we share it with. The film was allegedly inspired by conversations between Michael Gondry, the director, and one of the film’s co-writers, Pierre Bismuth. After coming across a psychology article, Gondry was interested in how memory, and feelings of nostalgia, emerge out of brain activity, and Bismuth was fascinated with a thought experiment about erasing people from memory. The plot of Eternal Sunshine effectively combines both of these interests: two former lovers, with the help of a sophisticated new brain-technology, willingly erase their memories of one another. Of course, it’s naïve to assume that the movie was conceived between these two men in a vacuum without being shaped by larger historical developments in the sciences. The latter half of the 20th century saw the meteoric rise of psychopharmacology and neuroscience, the full implications of which we are still grappling with in the early 21st century. For example, in 2003, the year before Eternal Sunshine was released, the President’s Council on Bioethics released a report entitled “Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness.” A chapter in the report deals specifically with a drug used to augment emotions associated with specific memories in PTSD patients. Like the film itself, the report seems uneasy with these new developments and their promise of manufactured “feelings of contentment” (President’s Council on Bioethics, 208) that are “severed from action in the world or relationships.” Through its depiction of a hypothetical new technology, Eternal Sunshine explores the negative consequences of post-human subjects who relinquish their painful pasts—that constitute their identities—for the promise of a painless future.

     Eternal Sunshine is really a futuristic love story about Clementine, played by Kate Winslet, and Joel, played by Jim Carrey. After a tumultuous relationship—Clementine’s free-spirited recklessness clashes with Joel’s withdrawn sensitivity—Clementine contacts the company, Lacuna, to have them erase her memories of Joel. Lacuna is a medical company that has pioneered a procedure that allows individuals to have memories of other people systematically erased by localizing these memories in the brain, and subsequently destroying them. After learning that Clementine has erased him from her memory, and by extension, from her life, a grief-stricken Joel opts to have the same procedure. Much of the film takes place in a dreamscape comprised of Joel’s degrading memories of Clementine—as they’re erased by Lacuna memory technicians—as he relives and reenacts moments from their relationship. Along the way Joel has a change of heart and realizes that his memories of Clementine, in spite of the pain they cause him, are inextricable from who he is, and worth holding on to. The latter half of the film is composed of increasingly surreal imagery as Joel tries to hide his memories of Clementine from Lacuna technicians by storing them within entirely unrelated memories from different parts of his life. Despite Joel’s best efforts, the technicians eventually locate the hidden memories scattered throughout his consciousness, and destroy them.

Ultimately, it’s Joel’s realization that his memories of Clementine are worth keeping that forces the viewer to question the ethics of Lacuna’s technology and the ways in which it transforms our understanding of the human condition. For one, by altering our relationship with the past, Lacuna’s memory device has the power to change who we are, and what we know about ourselves. Secondly, the device also has the potential to mitigate or eliminate unpleasant emotional states that are tied to our actions, or the actions of those we know. With Freedman in mind, the memory device asks viewers to consider a world in which “technology and emotions are connected in ways unfamiliar to us” (Freedman, 185). As the White House’s report on bioethics shows, however, this new world isn’t far off, and we need to assess the pros and cons of these new technologies before swimming into unchartered waters.

From a utilitarian perspective, the choice to erase one’s memories of another person is morally justifiable if it maximizes happiness and minimizes suffering (to oneself and others). Although these conditions can theoretically be satisfied by patients who choose to subject themselves to Lacuna’s memory device, the pathos we feel when watching Joel and Clementine undergo the procedure in Eternal Sunshine, as the philosopher Christoper Grau points out, arises from objections outside of a utilitarian framework. Grau’s interpretation of the pathos, and unease, we feel when watching Joel and Clementine destroy parts of themselves has to do with our relationship to the truth. By distorting our personal histories through biological interventions, our minds “represent the world less accurately than they did before” which brings us closer to “isolation and solipsism” (Grau, 123). Grau goes on to add that Joel and Clemetine, in addition to severing their metaphysical relationship with the world, also severe “personal and emotional ties” to each other (Grau, 123).

If we consider Joel and Clementine as post-humans after the memory intervention, it’s interesting to consider whether they’re closer to, or farther away from, Katherine Hayles’ conception of the “liberal humanist subject” (Katherine Hayles, 256). In her analysis of post-humanism, Hayles argues that we’re more accepting of post-human states if they align with our ideal of the humanist subject. With Grau’s criticism in mind, though, I would argue that Joel and Clementine are farther away from the ideal after their procedure. While the humanist subject is unified, knowing, and autonomous, Joel and Clementine are fractured, unknowing (in the case of their own past), and less autonomous in the sense that they’re now handicapped when making free choices informed by the knowledge gleaned from past experiences. While Joel and Clementine may be “happier” from a utilitarian perspective after their procedure, something vital seems to have been lost. Part of what’s lost, to quote the President’s Council on Bioethics, is “the truthfulness of how we live and what we feel” (213) as well as “our ability to confront the imperfections and limits of our lives and those of others” (213).

Finally, built into Lacuna’s memory device is the implicit assumption that painful emotional experiences, and the memories associated with them, are something to be pathologized and avoided rather than accepted as a normal part of the, sometimes tragic, human experience. Of course, there are exceptions. While the case can be made for eliminating truly traumatic memories (ex. rape or warfare), the case for eliminating the normal painful variety we all experience is less compelling. Instead of recognizing that even negative emotions have functional utility—they tell us how we feel about the world, they organize behavior, and they allow us to learn from experience to avoid future unpleasant states—Lacuna dismisses half of our emotional spectrum. In this sense, the hypothetical memory procedure would leave us less equipped to navigate the realities of the world. While we might be happier in our ignorance, we’ll have unknowingly severed ties with some of the most personally significant moments, and people, in our lives. In the process, our worlds would only be colored by one shade, having forgotten that others also exist.

 

References

Freedman, Carl. “Science Fiction and Critical Theory.” Science Fiction Studies Vol. 14, No. 2, 1987, pp. 180-200.

Hayles, Katherine. 1999. Chapter 10 (247-82) in How We Became Posthuman. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.

Grau, Christopher. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the Morality of Memory.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism vol. 64, no. 1, 2006, pp. 119-132.

President’s Council on Bioethics. “Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and Happiness.” 2003, pp. 1-308.