Memory as Identity


As I was doing laundry the other day (which doesn’t happen often, but it does happen) I was thinking about the last season of Fringe. Of course, this being the internet it doesn’t matter how old that show is, so allow me a moment for the following:

WARNING! WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD! I WILL BE DISCUSSING TELEVISION SHOWS AND MOVIES THAT HAVE BEEN OUT FOR AT LEAST A YEAR OR LONGER. PLEASE AVERT YOUR EYES IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THEM AND STILL CARE.

Ahem. As I was saying. I got to thinking about the last season of Fringe, and in particular the way that the entire season wrapped up by resetting the timeline in the final episode. It seemed a little jarring in some ways, not least because it was the latest in a string of retcons and hard resets that the series had come up with that in my memory can only be topped by Eureka (no, that’s not a spoiler, Eureka spoiled itself. Seriously.) The part of it that I found most disturbing however was that in some ways it seemed to invalidate all the struggles, sacrifices and triumphs of all the characters throughout the entire fifth season. After all, if the events in question never happened, then they have no meaning, right? Or do they?

Pop culture and philosophy might seem like strange bedfellows, but they have gone together at least as far back as ancient Greece. After all, what we think of as great tragedies from that time were presented during the Dionysian festival, and we all know what kind of god Dionysus was (here’s a hint: grab a bottle of wine and get loaded. You’ll be on the right track.) These were the pop culture of their day, and yet they dealt in questions of philosophy, identity, madness (no big surprise, considering the venue), and the human soul.

So what does all of this have to do with my thoughts on the finale of Fringe? I got to thinking “did those characters truly cease to exist?” After all, if they had not taken the actions they did, the timeline wouldn’t have reset, ergo the reset is proof that they did exist, and they did indeed make their sacrifices, even if they and nobody else remembers them (which also goes back to season four to some extent). So what is the relationship between memory and identity? Are we only what we remember? If we don’t remember who we are, do we cease to exist?

Another pop culture/sci-fi look at this concept is Dark City. A fantastic film from 1998 that doesn’t get nearly the mentions it deserves, this movie plays around with the concept of memory and identity and the interaction between the two almost to an obscene degree. While it takes a very definite position on what it means to be human, it doesn’t really address the essential question of identity. Everyone in the city is memory-wiped and essentially reprogrammed as a new person several times throughout the film, and yet each person seems to have some consistency as an individual. Is this because the wipe wasn’t complete, or is there something more?

A relevant experience from my own life was when I went in for a fairly routine procedure at the doctor’s office a couple years ago. He put me under with some new drug that I don’t recall the name of, but apparently the effect was I was conscious for the entire procedure, only I was unable to process any of the events into long-term memory. So I have no memory of the procedure, nor the first two times I asked him if he was done. (Seriously, he told me I asked him the same question three times.) So here’s the question: did I exist? Physically, obviously, my body was present. But did I exist as a person? If I did, what does it mean that I have no memory of that time? If I was conscious, aware, and able to process information, but no memories of any of it exist or ever will, what does that mean?

I guess it means the same thing as the end of Fringe or Dark City: take away from it what you want. Show’s over. Roll credits.

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