Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"Graphism" and Story-Time in Memento

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"Graphism" and Story-Time in Memento

Article excerpt

This essay brings together theories of writing as a technology and theories of cognitive semantics with the film Memento in order to make the case that cinema disembodies the human sense of story-time.

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Over the past decades, the profoundly important place of narrative in human life has been established in many ways in different disciplines, from literary studies to psychology, medicine, and philosophy. Literature itself has made a focal issue of the fundamental importance of narrative, especially, but not only, in postmodern fiction, which commonly works to make conscious the heretofore unconsciously operating structures of storytelling. One recent entry into this ongoing examination of narrative, Christopher Nolan's film Memento, has taken the literary investigation to a kind of extreme, for it explores narrativity by portraying a human being who is without it. Memento's protagonist, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), suffers a physical trauma that deprives him of what I will call human story-time capacity: he lacks the cognitive ability to situate himself in an ongoing beginning-middle-end. This, in itself, makes the film unusual and intriguing. But, as we shall see, even more intriguing is what Memento shows us in the process of telling Leonard's story, for we are also shown an exploration of the technologizing of story-time as a cognitive capacity. A close examination of Memento with respect to story-time helps us establish some useful generalizations about film as a kind of storytelling.

In order to set the stage for our study of this technologization, we first need to make clear the significance of story-time as cognition. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, among others (notably Grodal), have shown that there exists a core of conceptuality emerging directly from the physiological nature of the human species. (1) The support for their claims arises roughly from a method of surveying a very large array of linguistic samples, finding in these samples concepts that can reasonably be called universal, and relating these concepts to human motor and sensory capacities. They conclude that there must be a specifiable realm of semantics that precedes any manifestation of an actual language. The semantic core is built into our cognitive nature. It is one of our evolutionarily-provided capacities, and it is expressed linguistically in definable sets of cognitive metaphors. Over the years, they have made the case for various built-in cognitive conceptualities. I want to consider one of their strongest: time. They argue that our understanding of time, at least in its primordial sense, is not a function of culture but of nature: it is a feature of the "cognitive unconscious" and is "built into our conceptual systems" (137). Further, our knowledge of time depends on our "real experience of events" in space, and most commonly on motion, both our own and of others (139). On this level, we do not really have to think about temporality. We simply know it as a function of being human, in the same way that we know motion when we see it.

Mark Turner has taken the idea of cognitive conceptuality in a related but different direction, arguing that, in its most basic form, story, too, is a function of nature rather than culture. Because of our built-in cognitive apparatus, "story as a mental activity is essential to human thought" (12). We experience the world fundamentally in terms of "small stories of events in space" (13) before we have any particular words with which to speak or write stories. These stories are "the knowledge that goes unnoticed but makes life possible [...]. They are so essential to life that our mastery of them must be almost entirely unconscious" (14). Any actual storytelling, then, occurs as a secondary representation that takes on its fundamental qualities from our preexisting cognitive conceptuality. It seems to me that, in spite of some differences, what Lakoff and Johnson say about time and what Turner says about story are conceptually quite similar, which is not surprising. …

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