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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Watchmen and Postmodern Memory

The comic book, Watchmen, is a very good illustration of the progress of memory. It offers itself openly in its incompleteness. That is, the reader, all unawares, walks off at the end with a fragment he thinks the whole (and to some extent, of course, this is the fate of all books). It is only upon rereading it that one realizes the story is other than one had thought, that the arrow of time has been flipped, and that the present must reconfigure the past.

We can think of the process as something like Freudian Nachtraglichkeit. A young girl is sexually abused and as yet she doesn't have the language, the categories of thought, to fully assimilate the happening. But later in life, she does, and it might well be then that the primal scene of abuse becomes traumatic. In other words, the cause is created by the effect, so as then to produce other effects (e.g. symptoms).

Watchman insists upon a rereading. The elements composing it are so multivalent that this imperative is evident upon a first run through. As one's conception of the overarching framework changes, the significance of the film in its entirety, the informing details (words, images, allusions) morph accordingly.

As the past in the form of a first reading is subverted, one begins to wonder whether that is not the point. The past, human memory, is a constant reading and rereading by which what is recollected is progressively fictionalized. My perception of my father, for instance, was quite different when I was five than when I was thirteen. Memory is the ongoing loss of the text under numberless interpretations.

Nonetheless, we remember and we seem to recall things just as they were. We detect no interpretive breaks. We seem to look back and experience the continuity of the past as the progression of facts, one of the most widespread (and destructive) illusions of personhood. The past appears all of a piece, when it is in fact composite.

Watchment is indeed a postmodern comic book. It presides over the deconstruction of the hero, and this is a very radical move. Nietzsche knew the supreme importance of a hero, and Heidegger once called freedom the ability to choose one's own hero. But, more than that, how does one get by without a conception of the highest good (rather like trying to do with the chaos attendant upon a constantly shifting value system)? How does one do without the hero, the personification of that most worth striving for?

Dr. Patrick McCarty at
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