Saturday, November 19, 2011

the tyranny of happiness might also just be tyranny: on memory, death, transformation, and the Khmer Rouge

Imagine for a second that you could change yourself, all of a sudden, without side effects or risk. Would you?

I guess it would first make more sense to think about what this is really asking. All of us would likely change some small things about our bodies, or personalities. Maybe we would want to be smarter, or stronger, or faster. Maybe we would want to be better looking. Or have blue or brown eyes. Or be more confident. Or whatever.

I wrote a bit about the promise of super-humanity a few months ago, about the way that biotechnology promises to transform us (some of us), and how these very post-modern possibilities are just old dreams with new reality. And I wondered aloud to myself and to others, whether we would want to grow wings, or have circuits and USB5.0 ports integrated into our brains. More likely I think we would choose to be enhanced to resemble our particular image of sexual desirability – I might look something like a cross between a goat, bat and a succubus, at least that would be my party-body. I might have an exoskeleton and claws for fighting. An anime tail for fucking, etc. A furry could actually be a stuffed-bunny. A looner might have giant neon (poppable) balloon tits and ass. And on and on.

But that's not the only thing this asks. What if you could actually rewrite the narrative that has become you, change any or all of the stories that are written on your one body. If you ask it this way, though the results would certainly be similar, the question becomes more poignant. Imagine that thing, or person, or loss, or trauma that somewhere, sometime wrote tragedy all over your body. Imagine that one event, or series of events that have come to inform all the fear and pathology in your life. What if you could simply erase it? Remove all affective results, longings, obsessions... What if that lost lover, or rapist, or abusive father, or whatever... could simply vanish from your consciousness? Or combined with other developing technology, what if that limb could be restored and the memory of it's loss erased? Or etc.?

For the time being this is still a theoretical question. But most likely not for long:

Ironically, as I write this at my local coffee shop, a girl walks in who looks exactly like an old lover. For a moment I thought it was her, and my insides sighed and rained. And that old love was a step by step recreation of an old tragedy, one that we repeated for each other daily, that repeats and repeats in my life still. And in my case, if I were to pull that thread out of my consciousness entirely, what would be left of me? And why does that matter?

All the joy and anguish and creativity that this one narrative vein has brought to my life would be gone. To a greater or lesser extent I think most of us have something similar in our lives.

The researchers of the experiments linked to above, and the journalists who covered it especially after Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, talked of the possibilities of treating mood disorders and other complications resulting from trauma. For now the results suggest an affective treatment possibility, one that doesn't erase the memory, but erases the pathological emotional response. And while not entirely the same as excising memories, it is close. The memory would become a story to which you have no connection, no real relationship. In some ways it would be like a movie of yourself with the character erased.

Over the years I have been (mis?)diagnosed with any number of mood and personality disorders. Some of the doctors I saw willingly, others I had to see in order to secure my freedom. And while PTSD, or panic disorder, or oppositional defiant disorder, or _______ dependance (or whatever else might be hidden in my medical records) significantly alter a persons quality of life, and are life threatening or terminal given the correct circumstances, removing the memories or emotional responses that together constitute one diagnosis or another strikes me as deeply troubling.

First, what kind of world would we end up with? And is that the kind of world we want? Imagine if St. Francis of Assisi's crisis of faith had been treated by removing the memories (the ideas) which caused him to destroy his burgher father's goods and walk down the street naked into his new life. Would the world have been a better place without him? What if Bukowski's childhood trauma could simply be wiped out? Would we better off? Would he have been better off? Or imagine an entire population of victims whose trauma was treated by simply removing the memories of that trauma. Who would agitate for change in such a world? Who would cry out in the wilderness? Who would be willing to risk everything to stand up for what's right?

There are clearly some things our culture and our selves shouldn't forget, no matter how painful or debilitating the memories.


Secondly, this has actually been tried on a macro-scale, with very rough tools. The push to erase memory is one lens with which to see Cambodia after the social and political collapse caused by years of US carpet bombing. What might Pol Pot have done given the ability to literally reprogram memory? The Khmer Rouge's re-education camps for urbanites and intellectuals would not have been a euphemism for torture and murder. A population could someday be humanely erased with these nascent technologies. You could wipe out a (sub)culture and kill no one.


And at a very small, insignificantly personal level, these technological possibilities talk to each of us about death. No one agrees on what a self is, on what consciousness is. It's unclear whether or not it even exists. What we can say for certain is that each one of us is a body with documents, and relationships, and narratives that together make up that body. What makes each of us a particular individual is very slight, ephemeral. In my case, if you pull out the stories that have almost killed me, that have caused me (personal, small)  immense pain; if you extract the records and documents that point to them; what you end up with is no longer me in any real sense. Maybe that wouldn't matter to new me. Just as dead-me wouldn't care.  Just as super-human me wouldn't lament the days when I couldn't fly, or fuck ten people-monsters at once with my octopus cock, and bifurcated tail.

I am not conservative by nature. I embrace transformation. I agree with Nietzsche that we are human in so far as we are overcoming. But these kinds of questions will exist for some of us, some day soon. And in the worst moments of our individual and cultural lives the promise of not living in pain or fear or panic may well lead us to embrace a new authoritarianism that will pale in comparison to everything that has come before.

And while it hard to say to someone suffering, “this suffering is important. It is beautiful in its own way. And it will pass, you will transform it into something else,” we must remember that the tyranny of happiness might also just be tyranny.  It's not for nothing that after the plane bombs, George Bush told us that our patriotic duty was to shop.

At the end of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the lovers choose to recreate the memories they willfully destroyed. Or, they are irrationally drawn to one another and cannot resist that choice. While I find this somewhat schmaltzy in the context of a love story, I do wonder if continuity would persist through these near-future technologies. Would some part of a memory resurface? Would our behaviors and motivations become even more mysterious to us? Are there cracks in all systems that seek to rationalize, coerce, normalize and explain? In this future we might all be castaways, adrift and entirely at peace in an incomprehensible tempest.  Old dreams live on.

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