It’s More Than a Movie: Prosthetic Memories

By Lizzy Sebuck

Have you ever wandered off into a day dream during class? Oh, no, no, no! Not YOU, you studious student, you, but surely you’ve heard of this happening to others. What happens when you reflect? Do you think about your dog? Your family? Your journey from adolescence to adulthood? The accomplishments you’ve made and what you have left to overcome? Are you sure you’re not just thinking about the plot to Homeward Bound?

The Theory of Prosthetic Memory states that humans often substitute memories or ideas they have seen in media entertainment in place of memories from their own reality. In Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture the argument is made that modernity makes new forms of public cultural memory possible. Alison Landsberg, the theorist behind prosthetic memory, reviews the effects that mass media, marketing, and visual art can have on a person. Landsberg’s point is that when you observe visual media, the short-term effects may be the shedding of a few tears or leaving  the theater joyful from comedy, but the long-term effects are as complex as the shaping of character and personal development in the individual viewer. Think about it: your growing appreciation and respect for your elders could be a deeply-rooted instinct you picked up from watching Chance, Sassy, and Shadow work it out from way back when.

“Prosthetic memories are adopted as the result of a person’s experience with a mass cultural technology of memory that dramatizes or recreates a history that he or she did not live” (Landsberg, 29).

The development of graphic design technology and the enhancement of visual effects has played an enormous role in aiding the cinematic experience to make movie-watching more realistic than ever. It’s the development of these cinematic advances that helps audiences gather a thorough understanding of the themes and emotion in films. The almost touchable reality that James Cameron created through the introduction of new 3D visual imaging in the widely famous Avatar has affected audiences so intensely that in some it has brought on a new level of film inspired depression because the colorful wonderland depicted in Avatar does not actually exist.

Landsberg suggests that the technologies of mass media not only change the concept of an authentic experience to the individual audience member (48), but also the vividness of the film and the created alternate realities achieved through technology creates a “suspension of disbelief and identification with the protagonist” which might affect [audiences] so significantly that the images would actually become part of their own archive of experience” (30). Essentially, Landsberg is saying that audiences adopt memories and experiences because of the alternate realities they see on the screen, then convert them into their own authentic memories.

The notion of the Prosthetic Memory brings on a slew of unsettling thoughts. Prosthetic Memories make us ask ourselves questions such as “What is real?”, “Which of my memories are real?”. This concept of Prosthetic Memory gives humans a reason to re-evaluate the development of their own personalities. Memories shape the person that we become with age. Memories based off visual media can stem from viewing all types of media. This includes films, Vlogs, YouTube clips, and Vimeos we’ve seen and the visual concepts that have affected us. Is this why some have become so obsessed with Hollywood love? Is this why so many young men and women turn into such hopeless romantics in the pursuit of happiness? Those who were raised on Breakfast at Tiffany’s generally swoon at films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and (500) Days of Summer and whisper to themselves “why not me?”. Have these prosthetic memories left audiences with an idea of what love is supposed to be versus what it actually is?

More so, consider horror and scary movie genres. The reason that so many of our twenty-something peers still sleep with their bedroom doors locked may be because of a cultured notion  they were raised on. We have been cultured to believe through the Scream series that someone is going to burst into our rooms in the middle of the night and murder us! Thanks a lot Prosthetic Memory & Nev Campbell, thanks a-freaking-lot.

Prosthetic Memories are able to shape personality, morals, and character even though they’re not real. Visual memories we obtain through film and popular culture in our youth are repressed and stay with us throughout our adult development, forming our passions, fears, and aspirations. Audiences identify with the characters they see on the silver screen and envision themselves as the hero or heroine; they take on their hardships as if they were their own. Here are the hard facts:

1: Chances are the guy from Scream is not gonna pop into your room tonight and bust out a can of whoop-ass.
2: There is no way Jim Carrey is that sweet in real life. You can be hopeful that Joel Barish is out there somewhere, but don’t hold your breath for some guy who will go through reverse memory erasing for your love.
3: No, Jack from Titanic didn’t make it, but whether you want to believe it or not, he was never your real-life lover and you really have no reason to keep crying about it 13 years later. We know through Prosthetic Memory that you really felt it with the words “I’ll never let go”, but really, it’s time.

SOURCES:

Cinephile: The University of British Columbia’s Film Journal

Psychology Today

Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture
by Alison Landsberg, 1993, pg29-50

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