The best memories: Identity, narrative, and objects

In Timothy Shanahan & Paul Smart (eds.), Blade Runner 2049: A Philosophical Exploration. Routledge (2019)
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Abstract
Memory is everywhere in Blade Runner 2049. From the dead tree that serves as a memorial and a site of remembrance (“Who keeps a dead tree?”), to the ‘flashbulb’ memories individuals hold about the moment of the ‘blackout’, when all the electronic stores of data were irretrievably erased (“everyone remembers where they were at the blackout”). Indeed, the data wiped out in the blackout itself involves a loss of memory (“all our memory bearings from the time, they were all damaged in the blackout”). Memory, and lack of it, permeates place, where from the post-blackout Las Vegas Deckard remembers it as somewhere you could “forget your troubles.” Memory is a commodity, called upon and consumed by the Wallace Corporation, purchased from the memory-maker, Dr Ana Stelline, who constructs and implants “the best memories” in replicants so as to instil in them real human responses. Memory is ubiquitous in Blade Runner 2049, involving humans, replicants, objects, and machines. Even “God,” we are told, “remembered Rachael.” Nowhere, though, is the depiction of memory more important than in the attempt to solve a question of identity. Officer K has a memory of his past. Even though he knows it is an implant, it is a memory he is emotionally attached to, frequently narrating it to Joi, his digital girlfriend. But it is a memory that starts to puzzle and trouble him. When K discovers the remains of a dead replicant, a female NEXUS-7, he uncovers a secret—this replicant was pregnant and died during childbirth, a discovery that could “break the world.” K is charged with hunting down the child and making the problem disappear. Yet as K starts seeking answers to the question of the child’s identity he gets inextricably caught up in the mystery. Is he merely Officer K, or is he Joe, the miracle child of Rachael and Deckard? The answer to this question hinges on K’s memory. But is the memory genuine? Is the memory his? Blade Runner 2049 encourages us to think deeply about the nature of memory, identity, and the relation between them. Indeed, the film does not just serve as a starting point for thinking about philosophical issues related to memory and identity. Rather, as we show in this chapter, the film seems to offer a view on these philosophical issues. Blade Runner 2049 offers us a view of memory as spread out over people, objects, and the environment, and it shows us that memory’s role in questions of identity goes beyond merely accurately recalling one’s past. Identity depends not on memory per se, but partly on what we use memory for.
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