Memento: A parable of reality management
The Fourth Estate is broken, causing us to suffer political anterograde amnesia
Who controls the past, controls the future. Who controls the present, controls the past.
Your consciousness is your mental performance of some variant of the phrase: ‘Here I am’ (or, in the Biblical idiom, ‘I am that I am’). It’s the ability to point to yourself; to recognize yourself as an actor in your environment, with emotions, intentions, and reactions that you can observe and analyze; to see that you have choices and the freedom to make them.
This is an amazing thing that humans can do and perhaps (in more limited form) a few other animals too. Its origin is a famous evolutionary puzzle and its emergence in the human head a famous philosophical and neuroscientific mystery. But there it is.
Yet, one must not exaggerate.
Humans are rarely fully conscious—much of our behavior is unexamined, automatic. This escapes our notice because we commonly misidentify consciousness with the monologue of our busy inner lawyer, always ready with post-facto rationalizations for our automatic, knee-jerk responses. But the inner lawyer is not consciousness.
Real consciousness is quite difficult; so difficult, in fact, that entire disciplines emerged long ago, and continue to sprout, to help us sustain it for interesting periods of time in the face of a myriad potential distractions (of late, so-called ‘mindfulness’ has become trendy).
It is quite impossible for consciousness—even when earnestly and expertly pursued—to be perfect. You can hardly observe yourself with full dispassion, and the observations of others about yourself may hinder your self-knowledge as often as they assist it. You are thus prone to invent all sorts of damaging or self-serving fictions about yourself. The effort to identify and discard such fictions, so that you may see yourself as you really are, however, is the very hallmark of an improving individual consciousness.
Historical and political consciousness
Your historical consciousness is your ability to say ‘Here I am in the flow of time’—a consequence of what came before. The better your historical consciousness, the sharper your awareness of just where certain ideas, beliefs, traditions, habits, and values you possess came from, giving you a measure of freedom from them.
But if you have no functional memory of your society’s past, you are without historical consciousness.
Historical consciousness becomes political when you possess a causal model of how the institutions around you behave; how their behaviors, over time, have brought your institutional system (for example, the system of State institutions in your country) to the condition it is currently in; and how that system acts upon and responds to you and your fellow citizens.
Again, if you have no functional memory of the past behaviors of your institutions, then you have no political consciousness.
In the modern West, the historical and political consciousness of democratic citizens is built via the activities of the Extended Fourth Estate.
The Extended Fourth Estate
The Fourth Estate is usually understood to be the free press. But a free academic science should also be included in an Extended Fourth Estate. For the press and the scholars together define the politically relevant reality for millions of people.
A healthy—free and competitive Fourth Estate—is the functional keystone of a democratic polity. For when every other democratic institution fails, journalists and scholars can at least turn that failure into a scandal; if they don’t (or can’t), then democracy is perhaps in fatal trouble.
The worst-case scenario is when erstwhile free media and academic systems have been ‘captured’ (clandestinely taken over) by power elites who benefit from creating a false political-historical consciousness in the citizens, in order to manipulate them. This is what we call the management of reality.
The management of reality
When a corrupt Extended Fourth Estate manages your reality, your political-historical model will contain all sorts of factual errors. Your model of the politically relevant past, and your causal story to explain how your institutional ecology got to its present state, will also be false in some key respects. In the extreme, it may be a complete fantasy.
In the Medieval West, for example, the political-historical model of ordinary peasants was a religious fable built by a power coalition of religious and political authorities to teach a moral lesson about supposed inborn guilt and the peasant’s dependence on the constituted institutional authorities to find redemption. This kept the peasants in line, lest they forsake Heaven.
What about the political-historical model of modern Westerners?
Memento: A parable
I believe that, in Memento, Christopher and Jonathan Nolan have given us a useful parable of how the construction of a genuine political and historical consciousness is made impossible for people in the modern West by a thoroughly corrupted Extended Fourth Estate. The plot of this film turns on a curious handicap: Leonard Shelby, the main character, cannot form new memories.
Shelby suffered severe head trauma while battling the man who raped and killed his wife. He can always remember everything up to that blow, but, ever since, his life is a series of disconnected segments. Within each segment, lasting sometimes a few hours, sometimes a few days, he remembers the new stream of events—until he doesn’t. And then he starts again with a clean slate. Anterograde amnesia. In spite of this, and across these disconnected segments, Shelby amazingly develops a continuous purpose: to find the criminal and kill him. Beyond amazing: he keeps to it.
That means work. Before his mind resets on him, Shelby rushes to document anything learned, or he won’t have this information later. These ‘documents’ are crafted with care, for they must be discovered later in the right order. We thus see Shelby, at every reset, go from ignorant shock to enlightenment as he discovers tattoos on his body that explain his condition and then direct him to notes, photographs, recorded speech, etc., which elucidate his purpose, chart his progress, name key persons, affirm known facts, warn of dangers, and outline future research. Historian and archaeologist of the self, Shelby pieces together, every time, an ever-growing mountain of ‘notes to self’ (bequeathed by former selves he’ll never know) and inches his vengeful quest forward.
Despite such heroics, Shelby fails—he is missing too much information.
Sometimes, before he can make a document, his mind resets—and he’ll never know it. Other times, because he is too reliant on others, he is conned. Sometimes he gets conned precisely when and because his mind resets.
Inevitably, some of his ‘clues’ are lies and lead him down a myriad garden paths. He cannot reconstruct the essential interpretative backbone. He lives in a fictional, parallel universe of the mind, and he is quite satisfied, for he doesn’t know. Yet there will be hell to pay for this innocence: sooner or later, Shelby will do something terrible—perhaps even to himself.
We consumers of news, it seems, experience political history the way Shelby experiences life. Dropped like a cork midstream on the flow of History, bobbed and jostled by forces that we dimly comprehend, we see not the river that brung us but only this eddy, this bend, this minute—too rushed to hold our impressions long.
We cannot form new memories.
How does this happen? In the media theater, reported events simply drop from the teasers to center stage without proper flashback context and are then whisked offstage into shadow, much too quickly, so that all narrative connection with the next scene is severed. We begin each news cycle with a blank slate: political retrograde amnesia. ‘Reality’ is just the latest media report. This is why history may be matter-of-factly and quite radically rewritten by the Extended Fourth Estate.
Who controls the past, controls the future. Who controls the present, controls the past.
How can the average consumer of media content, or even the average university student, even suspect that anything like this has happened? We are easily conned. Thus, we cannot reconstruct our history’s interpretive backbone.
We live in a parallel universe of the mind, a managed reality filled with a fiction of our past. And we are quite satisfied, for we hardly know. Yet, there will be hell to pay for this innocence: sooner or later we will do, or rather allow, something terrible. We will do something terrible to ourselves. For, as George Santayana famously wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
This is why I wrote The Collapse of the West: The Next Holocaust and its Consequences (at present, available in Spanish only).
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