The Danger in Prosthetic Memory

Upon reading Nyong’o’s “Black Survival in the Uchromatic Dark”, I find myself returning to a notion that was introduced to me in Dr. Cooper’s American Literature course at the start of this semester–a notion that George Mason University Professor Alison Landsberg calls “prosthetic memory”. In her book entitled Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture, Landsberg explains that prosthetic memories are “not the product of lived experience…but are derived from engagement with a mediated representation (seeing a film, visiting a museum, watching a television miniseries)” (p. 20). Landsberg examines the way twenty-first century culture makes images and narratives available to a wide range of people so that these people are able to form their own memories of events that they did not experience first-hand. While she says her book is not a “celebration” of prosthetic memory, Landsberg does say some pretty optimistic things about it. In the book’s introductory section, she states, “One goal of this book is to explore the ability of prosthetic memories to produce empathy and social responsibility as well as political alliances that transcend race, class, and gender” (p. 21).

While I respect Landsberg’s hopefulness, reading Nyong’o’s article has made me consider some of the more problematic aspects of the development of prosthetic memories. I think Nyong’o puts it well when he uses the words “cheap sympathy”.

In his article, Nyong’o tells the heartbreaking story of Glenda Moore, a woman who was trapped outside to face Hurricane Sandy and suffered the loss of her two young sons during the storm. Apparently, Glenda’s photo made the news:

“Far away, in a blessedly warm, dry, and illuminated place, someone struggled to explain to me how difficult it was for her to grasp the news of Moore’s loss, even as it passed before her eyes and ears on television and the Internet. How difficult it was to slow the moment down to a speed at which it could be mourned, how precarious the singular image of a life was amidst the cascade of media images continuously throwing shards of light and shadow up from the eye of the storm.” (Nyong’o)

This seems to me a prime example of the danger that lies in prosthetic memory. Someone viewing news coverage of the hurricane, seeing photos like Glenda’s that show pain but cannot possibly transfer the gravity of the situations they portray, would develop a prosthetic memory of Hurricane Sandy. This memory, though, would have no real depth to it—a photo that represents such a terrible tragedy among thousands of similar tragic situations all concentrated in one place carries an unfathomable amount of weight, and yet, when shown amongst countless images of all sorts of different things flashing across the screen, so much of that weight is diminished that a prosthetic memory based upon such images cannot possibly grasp the horrific reality of the situation.

The danger, perhaps, lies not in the formation of these prosthetic memories, but in a person’s conception of their reliability. As Nyong’o writes, Glenda Moore’s photo “forces us to witness that which cannot be witnessed, to bear that which cannot be borne, and to affect that which cannot be affected”. It is an understatement to say that thinking about a woman and her two young sons being turned away from their neighbor’s doors, left out in the elements during such a powerful storm, is painful. Yet, when Moore’s image flashes across the television screen during storm coverage, any attempt to understand what has happened to this woman and her family requires the difficult task of slowing down the moment “to a speed at which it could be mourned”. In experiencing a situation like this first hand, one would have no choice other than to live out the tragedy in real time; seeing Moore’s image flash across the screen, however, gives a person a choice—they can slow down and feel the painful weight of what they’ve witnessed, or they can continue watching the nightly news until the reporter starts on a different subject and then, within the hour, Saturday Night Live comes on and they can have a good laugh. Whether or not a person chooses to take the time to fully grasp what they have witnessed, though, they will still likely remember what news coverage of Hurricane Sandy they’ve seen. They will form, then, a prosthetic memory of the historical event.

According to Landsberg’s notions of prosthetic memory, these kinds of second-hand memories have real power to “affect people and shape their politics” (p. 21). She’s hopeful that this affect will be a positive one, but I worry about that, and here’s why:  Imagine you’re watching a particular news station where they show Moore’s distraught image on the screen while covering news on Hurricane Sandy, but the reporter does not say anything about Moore being denied shelter by her neighbors. Perhaps the reporter has not yet been made aware of this detail, or maybe the news station decided to leave it out, you know, for the sake of the viewers. Either way, you’ve got less than the full story to go by, and yet you have formed a prosthetic memory of Hurricane Sandy based on the news coverage you’ve seen. If you believe your prosthetic memory to be reliable, and it affects your ideologies and politics, then a half-truth is leading you to believe you know much more about the experiences of others than you actually do. What I’m trying to say here is that a person who is not shown (or does not see/hear/consider) a full story, and yet thinks they have a reliable understanding and memory of what others experienced during an event, might be a dangerous thing. Sure, they might gain a better understanding of others and themselves, as Landsberg hopes, but what if a prosthetic memory makes people feel as if they’re entitled to opinions about things they really know nothing about? What if someone thinks they understand what happened to someone like Glenda Moore, and they believe this understanding gives them the right to say that it was her own fault because she was uneducated and unprepared?

I do not mean for this post to be an attack on Lindsberg’s book; she makes some very intelligent arguments, and as I highlighted before, she does not mean to “celebrate” prosthetic memory. What I mean to do here, though, is point out that prosthetic memory can be a dangerous thing. I believe Nyong’o is essentially saying the same thing when he says, “I took this caution to heart whenever the demand stirred within me to demand greater visibility for black pain, suffering, agency, anything, over the course of the 12-12-12 concert. I was reminded of all that visibility obscures; of the price cheap sympathy carries.” Because so much is lost in the space between first-hand and second-hand memories, I think it is vital to remember in this age of mass culture that no matter how much we think we understand, “visibility” has the power to obscure even that which seems clear. Formation of prosthetic memories is becoming almost inevitable in our current society, but these memories are not always reliable and thus, may not be a reliable basis of understanding and judgment.

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