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The Objects of Memory

Collecting Eternal Sunshine

Frederika Shulman

“Every passion borders on the chaotic,
but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.”

—Walter Benjamin[1]


For Walter Benjamin, it was a passion for books. For Freud, it was antique fetish statues. For Vladimir Nabakov, butterflies. For each of us, it is something different: a grandmother’s scrapbook, a father’s baseball card collection. All these and more can amount to your own treasured forms of memorabilia: records of the past, mementos and souvenirs of time spent and relationships cherished in the form of collected objects. The urge to collect the past is by no means a new one, yet it has only recently emerged as a burgeoning academic discourse. It is one that is grounded in the interplay of material culture and memory studies and the recuperative veneration of the study of everyday things. The objects of memory as lieux de mémoire (or memorial sites), as Pierre Nora would have it, have the power to enable the conflation of the past with the present time, making lost moments visible once again. As Alan Radley discusses, memory is a practice through which we “engage with the material world.”[2] It is within this space that we recuperate the traces of ourselves and of the past, even if what we wish to do is forget about it; or, in fact, erase it. And it is precisely this task of erasing the past that occupies the main protagonists of Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). In an effort to eradicate all traces of his girlfriend Clementine (played by Kate Winslet) from his memory, Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) undergoes a medical procedure to do just that. What becomes evident throughout the film is the crucial role that objects imbued as lieux de mémoire play in the transmission of the past in the present. That is, by examining the function of Joel’s collection with regard to his procedure we can see how these artifacts are imbued as agents of memory and as markers of identity.

A few moments into the film, Kaufman and Gondry reveal the motivation behind Joel’s actions. We ascertain that his strike is actually retaliatory, as he has accidentally learned that Clementine presented herself at Lacuna Ltd. to have the procedure done the previous week. In his distress, Joel meets with the creator of the technology, Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, and decides to undergo the operation to rid himself of all his memories of his former girlfriend. However, in order to do this, Joel is given explicit instructions. He is told to return home and assemble every object in his possession that has something to do with Clementine. As Mierzwiak advises, these artifacts could be literally “Anything. Photos. Clothing. Gifts. Journal entries. Perfume. Books she bought for you. CDs you bought together. We want to empty your home… your life of Clementine.”[3] So Joel goes home and begins ripping books off shelves, removing toiletries from his bathroom, taking clothing out of the closet, grabbing knickknacks, art works and photographs torn from albums. He places all of these objects into two overstuffed garbage bags that he will later bring to the Lacuna offices. Ultimately, these artifacts are to be used to determine the intensity of the memories Joel associates with each item. It is through this assessment that the Lacuna technicians will ascertain how strongly these memories resonate for Joel in an effort to erase the hurt he has suffered, once and for all.

In his review of the film for the Chicago Sun-Times Roger Ebert suggests, “at the end of the day, our memories are all we really have, and when they’re gone, we’re gone.”[4] But is it really that simple? Memory is a sticky thing and current theoretical consideration would argue it is not quite as prone to simple, mechanistic ‘forgetting.’ So maybe then it is closer to Benjaminian terms: memory is itself a process of conflation and construction (an idea embraced contemporary scholarly discourse). In this sense, memory-making is performed consistently not so much in the recollection of a thing itself, but in the recuperation of the sense of it; the very essences inhabited in collected objects serve as far more than mere repositories of memory transmission, but as actively engaged sites of memory practice. As such, objects have the ability to serve as living testaments to the liminal spaces of time, culture and personal and social identities. In “Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” Benjamin writing on Proust’s notion of mémoire involontaire, posits that this construct can be understood as a product of those “contents of the individual past” that serve to “combine with material of the collective past.”[5] It is within this site of transmission that memory can be located. What defines personal and collective being becomes a marker of communal experience. Furthermore, Timothy Robins points out that cultural studies has conceived of memory as a “product of social processes whereby the past is represented through cultural forms.”[6] For Pierre Nora, these forms can be recognized in such diverse documents as artworks, souvenirs and memorabilia. Nora further asserts that lieux de mémoire can be identified only when they are imbued with “a symbolic aura” which in turn serves to play a defining role in the ritual of memory.[7] This ritual, as explicated in Benjamin, is derived from the notion that for the collector “ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.”[8]

For Joel, as a collector whose memories become manifest through his personal assemblage, it is this very notion that seems to account for a meaningful shift in the film. As he engages with the objects in his ‘relationship archive’ he realizes that he does not in fact wish to proceed. It is here that Mierzwiak’s words begin to ring true: artifacts are poised as markers of memory in their infused states. As the doctor explains to Joel, the overriding purpose for the patient’s instructions to collect the objects of his relationship and remove them from his home is that there exists “an emotional core to each of our memories.”[9] It is only without these reminders, the doctor notes, the process of forgetting can begin. “As we eradicate this core, it starts the degradation process – By the time you wake up in the morning, all memories we’ve targeted will have withered and disappeared.”[10]  The memories of Joel and Clementine’s time together will become invisible without the essence of visible markers. It can thus be understood that it is the absence of artifact that makes this process possible. In this way it becomes clear that objects can be regarded as the vehicles through which memories are communicated. As Benjamin notes, “the most distinguished trait of a collection will always be its transmissibility.”[11] So maybe it is not really about forgetting at all, but a certain kind of co-existence between what is and what was. As Steven Johnson suggests in his essay about the film, maybe we should not be so concerned about what we forget but rather, how much we remember.[12]

But the power of objects is not merely contained in their ability to act as lieux de mémoire but also in the power they possess as sites to enact their own agency. Alfred Gell maintains that agency is “attributable to those persons (and things…) that/which are seen as initiating causal sequences of a particular type, that is, events caused by acts of mind of will or intention.”[13] In this way, social agents (manifesting in the film as objects), can be regarded as “the source, the origin, of casual events, independently of the state of the physical universe.”[14] In terms of objects, Gell notes, it is not so much that things can act independently, but that they are necessarily fashioned by their owner’s intentions.

This is an operation made manifest when Stan, a technician at Lacuna responsible for Joel’s procedure, asks him to study various items selected from the garbage bags. When Stan removes a snow globe from the pile, Joel notices his neural pathways being monitored on the lab’s equipment. From potatoes dressed as Vegas showgirls to a coffee mug with Clementine’s image on it, the technician attempts to ascertain the measure of Joel’s memory associated with each item. This exercise is reminiscent of Susan M. Pearce’s contention that artifacts must be historically situated in order to ascertain and maintain their relevancy to the present. In this way they actually “accumulate meaning as time passes.”[15] Writing in 1994, Pearce explores the example of a British infantry officer’s jacket on display at the National Army Museum which she cites as a kind of souvenir: “nostalgic, backward-looking and bitter sweet…. It serves, also, to sum up, or make coherent in personal and small-scale terms, an important event” or a personal narrative.[16] For Pearce, the red coatee worn by Lieutenant Henry Anderson during the battle of Waterloo serves to contextualize the historical moment from which it derives. It is the very personal nature of its connotations that keeps it relevant today. Likewise, it can be argued that personal moments and mementos are similarly engaged through Joel’s collected items. What distinguishes these sites of memory as agents is the process by which otherwise insignificant things are imbued with personality. Artifacts can then transmit who and what we are via social and cultural myths, memories and practices. Even if such objects are relegated to the status of repository of memory they necessarily convey a history much larger than themselves. Artifacts thus bear witness to the past and define our notions of the present. But we must be forewarned: even if, as the doctor suggests, we remove the imbued object from the equation, memories can be recuperated by their re-contextualization in the present.

As made evident in the film, resonances of Joel and Clementine’s former time together linger despite their efforts to forget. When they meet again post-procedure as strangers, they are inexplicably drawn to each other. When their separate actions are revealed through a twist of fate, and audio tapes recorded at the Lacuna offices find their way into their possession, they are both equally troubled by the notion that they could have ever wanted to erase each other in the first place. Objects trigger memory once again when Joel discovers a forgotten drawing excerpted from his journal in his home. Here another observation Pearce makes about the Lieutenant’s jacket proves highly relevant. The coatee, she notes, serves a “metonymic function” for the actual battle.[17] Similarly, the artifacts associated with Joel and Clementine’s relationship in their function as lieux de mémoire can recall memories in and of themselves. This is made apparent in a subsequent scene in which Clementine holds the aforementioned coffee mug bearing her picture and suddenly, as the memory is being erased from Joel’s mind, her image also disappears from the mug’s surface, effectively disrupting its agency. A mug is rendered just a mug unless it has been given the authority of the memory of an event, an individual, or a relationship. Yet, as Pearce indicates, unlike individuals, artifacts transcend time. They do not die and, therefore, they retain an “‘eternal’ relationship to the receding past, and it is this that we experience as the power of the ‘actual object’.”[18] In this way, the significance of the jacket (and the coffee mug) is perpetuated in the memory of the witnesses of the events and their descendants, long after the battle (and post-procedure). This complex relationship forms “part of an ever-shifting flux of experience which was passed on as an inheritance to their successors.”[19] From this operation, we can glean how physical markers of experience in the form of things are not only metamorphosed into the communicative technologies of memory but moreover serve to broaden the scope of recollections themselves as transmuted from the personal realm to that of social memory. As Pearce suggests, “Put in historical terms, the experience of Waterloo, in all its guises and including its physical souvenirs, becomes part of the collective consciousness.”[20] It is within these objects, these sites of transmission, that the past conflates with the present in order to be collected as markers of memory. It is here that the liminal spaces of individual identity and culture are negotiated.

Traversing this domain of flux, objects as sites and agents of memory can also be understood as purveyors of identity. According to Pearce, “In a world of objects, different people will take different things into their hearts and minds.” [21] What is important for some will not be for others. As Benjamin notes, “One has only to watch a collector handle the objects in his glass case. As he holds them in his hands, he seems to be seeing through them into their distant past as though inspired.”[22] Similarly, James Clifford observes that objects and their collections have long served as “a strategy for the deployment of a possessive self, culture and authenticity.”[23] In other words, collecting is a small way in which to make the world our own; or perhaps, usurp someone else’s world. As Joel rudely discovers, the collection taken to Lacuna for inspection is not disposed of at all. Instead, Patrick, another lab technician, appropriates Joel’s things for himself. As Patrick explains to a fellow employee, he has fallen in love with Clementine having supervised her procedure the previous week, and decides to use the discarded objects to win her affection. In order to attain his goal, Patrick even goes so far as to steal love letters written between the pair and refers to them at opportune moments. When Joel realizes what has happened, he envisions a conversation with Dr. Mierzwiak, in which he tries to tell the physician what he has learned. “He’s stealing my identity,” Joel says of Patrick. “He stole my stuff. He’s seducing my girl with my words and my things.”[24] To further illustrate Patrick’s deception, the viewer is made privy to a scene in which he has procured a red gift-wrapped box containing a necklace Joel was going to give Clementine on Valentine’s day. To Patrick’s delight, the trickery works: Clementine adores it. She tells Patrick that it is gorgeous and exactly to her taste. “I’ve never gone out with a guy who bought me a piece of jewelry I liked,” she coos.[25] As becomes evident, even though these objects have been displaced from their original context in Joel’s collection, the memories they embody remain ever present.

Susan Stewart maintains, “The collection does not displace attention to the past; rather, the past is at the service of the collection, for whereas the souvenir lends authenticity to the past, the past lends authenticity to the collection.”[26] Furthermore, Stewart contends that within the space of the collection, all time becomes accessible.[27] In other words, Patrick is able to locate the events embodied in these agents of memory, despite their new ownership. As Stewart notes in her comparison of collecting to other forms of art, its function “is not the restoration of context of origin but rather the creation of a new context, a context standing in a metaphorical, rather than a contiguous, relation to the world of everyday life.”[28] In this way, Joel’s objects allow identity to be encoded as a means of accessing the past and a way in which to re-create his world.

Whether as a site, agent, or purveyor of memory, objects and the collections they comprise serve to inform us of the past in the present and communicate identities. Memory is a liminal space, made possible through a process of construction and conflation. In Eternal Sunshine artifacts as sites of memory seek to transmit the past, enact their own agency and establish identity. Joel’s collection of objects is key to this process of transformation: for it is not simply an archive of the past, but serves to actively engage it. Here, objects become the open books of memory that enable us to access the past in the present and to remember even if we would rather not.


[1] Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting,” in Illuminations: Walter Benjamin: Essays and Reflections, Hannah Arendt, ed., Harry Zohn, trans. (New York: Schocken Books, 1988), 60.

[2] Alan Radley, “Artefacts, Memory, and a Sense of the Past,” in Collective Remembering, David Middleton and Derek Edwards, eds. (London: Sage, 1990), 47.

[3] Charlie Kaufman, “The Shooting Script,” Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: The Shooting Script, Intro. Michel Gondry (New York: Newmarket Press, 2004), 35.

[4] Roger Ebert, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Chicago Sun Times (19 March 2004). Available online at http://www.suntimes.com/ebert/ebert_reviews/2004/03/031904.html. [Accessed 1 June 2004.]

[5] Walter Benjamin, “Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” Illuminations, 159.­

[6]Timothy Robins, “Remembering the Future: The Cultural Study of Memory,” in Theorizing Culture: An Interdisciplinary Critique After Post-Modernism, Barbara Adam and Stuart Allan, eds. (New York: New York University Press, 1995), 201.

[7] Pierre Nora, “General Introduction: Between Memory and History,” Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past, Volume I, Arthur Goldhammer, trans. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 1 & 14.

[8] Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library,” 67.

[9] Kaufman, 38.

[10] Kaufman, 38.

[11] Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library,” 66.

[12]Steven Johnson, “The Science of Eternal Sunshine: You Can’t Erase Your Boyfriend From Your Brain, but the Movie Gets the Rest of it Right,” in Slate (22 March 2004 [accessed 26 November 2004]). Available from http://slate.msn.com/id/2097502/.

[13] Gell, 16.

[14] Gell, 16.

[15] Susan M. Pearce, “Objects as Meaning; or Narrating the Past,” in Interpreting Objects and Collections, Susan M. Pearce, ed. (London: Routledge, 1994), 19.

[16] Pearce, 20.

[17] Pearce, 25.

[18] Pearce, 25.

[19] Pearce, 25.

[20] Pearce, 25.

[21] Susan M. Pearce, “The Urge to Collect,” Interpreting Objects and Collections, 157.

[22] Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library,” 61.

[23] James Clifford, “On Collecting Art and Culture,” The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature and Art (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1988), 218.

[24] Kaufman, 62.

[25] Kaufman, 63.

[26] Susan Stewart, “Objects of Desire,” in Interpreting Objects and Collections, Susan M. Pearce, ed. (London: Routledge, 1994), 254.

[27] Stewart, 254.

[28] Stewart, 254.