Memento and the Cultural Production of the New Corporate Worker

Amrohini Sahay


The fluidity of subjective "identity" which has now more than ever before become necessary for the emerging "new" economies—from the wireless economy of the cyber to what business writer Tom Peters calls the "ephemeral" and "fickle" economy of just-in-time production for the global market—is now increasingly elaborated not just in business manuals for corporate executives but in "popular" cultural texts as well. To say this another way, the new business climate of production for transnational markets demands high-tech knowledge workers who display a high degree of tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty and who are skilled in techniques of improvisation: the capability of making decisions in a highly volatile environment of constantly changing information and the ability to act "effectively" (self-reflexively and inventively) on piece-meal and ever-fluctuating knowledge. In privileging a fluid model of subjectivity and spectatorship founded on such knowledge skills, films ranging from the indie film Memento to Run Lola Run to the blockbuster hit The Matrix thus function as part of the culture of corporate capitalism—a culture which is now ideologically legitimating (as always) the economic interests of capital in "artistic" form. Critics who morally condemn such films for their "inauthentic" narrative style, "improbable", hard to grasp plots, and lack of "emotional depth" to their characters, as well as postmodern viewers seduced by their staging of avant-garde cultural theory miss the political and social logic of these films: to provide the ideological training in a new model of subjectivity amenable to the interests of transnational business.

Memento (directed by Chris Nolan and winner of best screenplay at the Sundance film festival in 2001 and nominated for several Academy Awards) provides an exemplary instance of such an ideological encoding. The new self-reflexive and fluid subjectivity is encoded in Memento both at the level of form as well as at the level of content. Formally, the film provides a postmodern reworking of the classic elements of 1940s American film noir appealing to a cinematically literate and sophisticated viewing audience capable of appreciating its tongue-in-cheek play with noir. While it, for example, retains such features as the ambiguous quest for the "truth" of a crime, the setting of a shady underworld of drug dealers, crooked cops, a double-dealing femme fatale, it also puts forward a "reversal" of the normal world of noir: for instance, the film opens not only with the crime scene but also with the killer—thus complicating the familiar flow of the crime film. The film thus begins with the crime's "answers" only to subject those answers to ongoing questioning and confusion. Similarly, the film's use of a visually "messy" and complex post-linear editing style (the entire story is narrated backwards—starting from the crime scene—and told in short interspersed fragmentary episodes as remembered by the main character) presupposes a spectator who delights in negotiating a terrain of conflicting and fragmented information.

At the level of content, the film is constructed around the interplay of a main plot and a sub-plot. In the main plot we find the protagonist, Leonard Shelby, an ex-insurance agent, on a quest for revenge for the murder and rape of his wife. As a result of being assaulted during the criminal attack which (ostensibly) killed his wife, Leonard suffers from a "condition" (whether physical or psychological is unclear) in which he lacks short-term memory; that is, he lacks the ability to make new memories subsequent to the attack. As a result, he is forced to, in effect, "externalize" his memory-capability in order to "remember" not only what he is doing at any given moment but also "who" he is. Unable to use his memory to establish coherence in his life, Leonard devises a "method" to keep track of his actions: he relies on continuously taking notes, annotated Polaroid photos, and tattooing his own body with key phrases and injunctions ("Fact 5: Drug dealer"; "Learn by repetition"; "Memory is Treachery").

However, while Leonard believes that he has a "system" which will work to give him reliable access to the "facts" around which he can base his actions (at one point he even states: "Memories can be distorted. They're just an interpretation—they're not a record. And they're irrelevant if you have the facts") the film's logic works to undermine any such reliable access to the "facts", placing Leonard (as the exemplary model of a high tech subjectivity) into a void of endless interpretation and constantly displaced coherence. Among other formal means, through its layered narration of events (with each scene explaining the scene which preceded it), the film works to undermine Leonard's interpretative scheme—constantly bringing new contexts to bear on Leonard's "facts" which change their import for understanding the story. The world of "signs" out of which Leonard forges his "identity" thus remains fundamentally ambiguous and open-ended; yet in order to "act" he is forced to construct the momentary semblance of a "stable" self which can "orient" him in the present. Shelby thus stages the new corporate dogma of identity under globalization: that is, as a form of self-invention in which the subject "lives" not by reliance on any definite, clear, and coherent understanding of the world, the logic of its operations, or his/her place in them, but on a "moment-to-moment", contingent and pragmatic basis which needs to be constantly "revised" and "re-done" based on new information.

What is at stake in this version of subjectivity as fundamentally "open-ended", in constant re-creation, and able to adjust rapidly to unexpected change, unfolds with clarity in the subplot of the film. Here we learn through Leonard's flashbacks to a moment prior to his injury, of an accountant named Sammy Jenkis who suffered from the same memory disorder as himself (and who he keeps as a reference point for navigating his own illness—"I use habit and routine to make my life possible. Sammy had no drive, no reason to make it work. Me, yeah, I got a reason"). Jenkis and his wife are seeking to claim insurance money from the insurance firm where Leonard is employed, and Leonard is assigned to their case. In this moment of the film we are seemingly given access to another Leonard, a ruthless and impersonal cog of the corporate profit machine who contrives to deny Jenkis and his wife their due insurance money, and which leads to their psychological and financial ruin, and ultimately to the death of Jenkis's wife at his own hand. As opposed to Leonard, who visually embodies the ideal of the contemporary knowledge worker—young, efficient, and stylistically urban—Jenkis and his wife are portrayed as "ordinary", naïve, middle-aged working people without the "savvy" to adequately comprehend the anonymous workings of the corporate world (represented by the insurance firm and Leonard as its agent) and thus casually victimized by it. It is, then, through this two-fold representation that the film establishes its basic point: while on the one hand it seems to acknowledge the brutality of the corporate machine, at the same time it plays on the divide between Leonard and the Jenkises to point to the difference between two opposed models of subjectivity in contemporary capitalism. The fate of the Jenkises is the fate of an outmoded subjectivity—one whose belief in a stable world, a coherent identity, and the principled actions of other people collapses in confrontation with the postmodern realities of the cyber-economy. Ultimately, the film tells us, they are subjects without "drive", and thus are crushed not by the profiteering actions of the insurance firm and its agent, but rather by virtue of their own naïveté and incomprehension, their inability to effectively "play the game". (Indeed the "truth" of this "life lesson" the film teaches is hardly negated when later in the film we encounter the possibility that Sammy Jenkis not only was a con-man but had no wife—but rather, the "harshness" of the film's message is softened and mitigated thus relieving the viewer of identification with the plight of the "victims".)

Within the terms of its own much debated internal logic Memento poses the question: Is Shelby a deranged killing machine, whose quest for the killers of his wife is a delusive fiction he tells himself (complete with fake memories) to cover over his trauma and guilt at accidentally killing her as a result of his memory disorder?  Or is he instead a manipulated victim of scheming petty criminals simply searching to avenge his wife's death?  In fact, it is this fundamental (and unresolvable) ambiguity of the ending which has after the film's release spawned a speculative maelstrom on Internet chat lists and the response pages of journals in the attempt to "recover" some clue to the "truth" of Leonard Shelby's identity. But these commentators, seduced by the film's formal complexity, miss the point of the film.

The political "truth" of Leonard Shelby's "identity in crisis" is a theory of subjective identity which is being aggressively marketed to high tech workers through the myriad cultural venues of cyber-capitalism as the model of "successful" subjectivity. Leonard Shelby is an allegory of such a worker as what pro-globalization writer-journalist Thomas Friedman celebrates as an "information arbitrageur": an intellectual nomad, constantly in motion, deftly capable of weaving together multiple perspectives into temporary coherence, and thus molded according to the imperatives and uncertainties of the market.[1]

And yet, on the other side of the glamorization of such a subjectivity as the only means to "success" under capitalism, still lies the fundamental divide between the owners of capital and interests of all workers, including high tech workers. While the film represents "uncertainty" as the very "natural" condition of being/knowing the world, what is at issue is in fact the uncertainty of capitalism as it affects the lives of all sections of the working class with increasing devastation. No less than the "average" unskilled or semi-skilled workers, the privileged sections of the working class must live with the daily uncertainties of capitalism, and (as the information technology bust has irrevocably demonstrated) in a fundamental insecurity with regard to their jobs and thus the ability to meet their needs. Films like Memento not only naturalize these basic and insoluble contradictions of capitalism, but do the essential ideological work of stratifying and dividing different sections of the working class against their own collective interests in struggling for a society based not on the imperatives of profit for the owners (according to the anarchic fluctuations of the market) but rather on a system of production rationally organized toward meeting the basic needs and life security of all people globally.

[1] Friedman, Thomas.  The Lexus and the Olive Tree.  New York: Anchor Books, 1999. 17-28

THE RED CRITIQUE 3  (March/April 2002)