Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Imagine a procedure whereby you could rid yourself of troubling memories.  Suppose that you could have particular people or traumatic events erased from your mind. This is the basis for Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where just such a procedure helps rid tormented souls of the memories of their lost loves. If the science-fiction like technology shown in Eternal Sunshine was available, ought we to use it? Under what circumstances, if any, would we be justified in erasing our memories? 

To begin with, we can consider the straightforward utilitarian response.  Utilitarianism states that an act is right inasmuch as it maximises overall happiness and minimises overall suffering.  As such, if erasing a painful memory would lead to a lessening of suffering and an increase in happiness then, not only is it permissible, it should be prescribed. In Eternal Sunshine, Joel, Clem, and Mary opt for the procedure in hope that it will indeed ease their suffering, however, this seems not to be the case. If anything, the procedure in the film tends to make things worse. This highlights one of the major problems with any form of Consequentialism (Utilitarianism being one such form) – that it is impossible to determine the full consequences of any particular course of action. How do we know that we will not, by erasing a particular episode, end up losing more than we gain by, for example, failing to learn a valuable lesson or doing harm to others?

It is, however, worth reflecting on whether there are any situations in which the risk is one worth taking.  Some people, after all, report painful and traumatic memories, which cause a great deal of stress and torment, and it is difficult to deny that, in such cases, memory removal appears to offer clear benefits in alleviating suffering.

Nevertheless, some will maintain that, even in such extreme cases, a procedure like the memory removal portrayed in Eternal Sunshine ought not to be adopted. Insight into concerns along these lines can be gained by consideration of Robert Nozick’s ‘Experience Machine’ thought experiment (Anarchy, State, and Utopia, 1971), which we considered in our discussion of Abre los Ojos.

Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s desires?…Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think it’s all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there’s no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?

Nozick’s claim is that other things do indeed matter. The reason he believes that most would not choose to plug in is because people have a desire to live in accordance with the facts – that what really matters to us is the truth, or reality. This is why Neo, in The Matrix, or Cesar, at the end of Abre los Ojos, make the choices that they do. [Incidentally, Nozick’s experience machine also brings to mind the ‘Orgasmatron’ in Woody Allen’s Sleeper.]

We can consider the memory removal technique in Eternal Sunshine as a sort of reverse experience machine – one which takes away real experiences rather than providing false ones. The result is that opting to have memory removal is akin to choosing to plug in to the experience machine – both would entail ‘living a lie’. The deprivation of truth that results from memory removal is, for Grau, a form of harm – even if we have no knowledge of having been harmed.

Having looked at the Utilitarian stance on memory removal,we must also consider the Kantian response to the issue. Kant, in his Groundwork on the Metaphysic of Morals, provides us with his Categorical Imperative, which in its first formulation states, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”. What Kant means by this is that right actions must be universalisable – when we are confronted with a moral choice we must ask whether we could, without contradiction, will that everyone else acted in like manner. Thus, when we ask ourselves whether we ought to tell a lie to avoid unwanted consequences, the answer must be no – if everyone lied, whenever they could profit from it, then no-one would trust each other, which would itself render the practice of lying impossible.

The second formulation of the categorical imperative is, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end”. To continue with the example of lying, to tell a lie to another is to aim to use that person as a means to obtaining some end. For Kant, this is impermissible. Persons are, according to the Kantian view, never to be viewed instrumentally. Human autonomy, integrity, and dignity should never be violated and, in the case of telling a lie, you would be limiting the power and freedom of another person should you lie to them.

The same goes for our treatment of ourselves – although we may choose freely that we wish to undergo memory removal we would, by doing so, limit our own freedom. We would, in effect, be lying to ourselves. As such, it seems that Kantianism (in contrast to Utilitarianism) would prohibit the memory removal procedure in Eternal Sunshine no matter the consequences of our doing so.

A further question to consider is whether memory removal actually harms those who are being erased. In the case of Eternal Sunshine it seems clear that it does when, for example, Joel finds out that Clem has had him erased. However, what about in cases when the erased person never discovers the fact that they have been erased?  How can this possibly constitute a harm to them? This is similar to the concern as to whether those undergoing the procedure harm themselves despite being unaware of the fact.

The above treatment of Eternal Sunshine puts us in a position to better understand Mary’s actions at the end of the film.  Mary obviously believes that she is righting wrongs and that, although her actions may cause some harm, they are ultimately for the best.

Finally, I earlier described the technology in Eternal Sunshine as ‘science-fiction like’, however, there is increasing research being carried out into drugs which may have the potential to eradicate memories in just such a manner – although they are likely some way off. This makes the issues raised in Eternal Sunshine, and their philosophical treatment, all the more topical and important. These issues include the morality of such a technique described above, but also lead to important questions about personal identity and being human. It may, for example, be that removing chunks of our experience makes us different people, but don’t many of us want to be different people? Isn’t that the point? Besides, each experience we gain makes us a different person – does this mean we should be prohibited form making memories – as well as erasing them? What really matters more – happiness or truth?

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!

The world forgetting, by the world forgot.

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!

Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d

 From Alexander Pope’s Eloisa to Abelard

Please feel free to add your comments, questions, links, or whatever, below.

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5 thoughts on “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

  1. I can’t deny that Kant’s ethic lacks practicality – I think it’s impossible to apply the categorical imperative to everything. We live in a world of hypotheticals, we can’t avoid that. I think he also negates himself by putting forward his maxim of universalisation, considering consequences! However, I do agree with the Kantian approach towards the concept behind “Eternal Sunshine…” (great film, I should definitely watch it again with, now with a more mature and philosophical mindset). The notion of erasing memories is unstable; there is a slippery slope. What may start out as a formula for only those traumatised by war, may extend to those suffering extreme insomnia or domestic violence. Even though we cannot accurately predict consequences, I believe that the erasing of memories is too risky. Also, isn’t that the point of life – the good and the bad are necessary factors? I’ve just started my Cyborg Studies module, and this “Eternal Sunshine…” idea seems as though it could fit in. If we delete some memories, are we perhaps not totally human, having tampered with our nature via technology and non-human things? Where’s the boundary between human and non-human identity? Hopefully I’ll find out later this term!

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  2. Thanks for your post. I think it’s interesting to think about your slippery slope in relation to physical characteristics. For example, we have no doubts that we ought to be able to surgically remove cancerous tumours; but what about cosmetic surgery? What if someone ‘just cannot live’ with a crooked nose? How does this compare to someone’s desire to eradicate the painful memories of a failed relationship, or a lost pet? I think that you are correct that the good and the bad are necessary factors; they are what make us different, and allow us to learn from experience. Memory removal would, in my view, lead to a kind of cosmetic surgery of the mind; and some people would abuse this until there is nothing left that is real.

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  3. Interesting read, Jim. I saw this movie back in 2009, and was strongly driven to blog about it that very night. I will copy my post verbatim here since my blog no longer remains public:

    “Lacuna. A gap or a missing portion. A void. A hideout for the tortured mind.

    In the 2004 comedy-drama ‘Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind’, emotionally sequestered Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) and dysfunctional extrovert Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) get involved despite their poleward personalities. However, one night after a nasty fight, they decide to get the bitter memories of their relationship-gone-wrong erased by a NY firm Lacuna, Inc. through the non-surgical procedure of induced Lacunar Amnesia. Although such medical procedure is fictitious, what if something similar actually existed? Food for rumination.

    Many of us have suffered from failed relationships. Many have wished life had a rewind button. Many have learnt that love is a word in a fool’s dictionary. Now it’s not cynicism or pessimism, you see, but the ugly truth. Because not every story was meant to have a happy ending.
    Some memories are indeed painful. They don’t let you sleep or concentrate on anything. The procedure of erasing memory has been compared to a night of heavy drinking in the movie. Yet certain incidents are so shocking, that even a raw alcohol overdose good enough to kill you is insufficient in mitigating their intensity. Could memory erasure help in such instances? Maybe. But did our mothers not tell us that with every passing day we learn? So how are these supposed to be learning experiences if completely deleted? I think a person is likely to make the same mistakes again. A very close example of this can be Mary from the movie. However, although much can be debated and questioned on the efficacy and morality of such a procedure, the movie nonetheless manages to beautifully focus on the complexities of relationships, difficulties and possible solutions. Goes without saying, this film will remain close to my heart for time to come.

    Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better, even of their blunders — ‘Beyond Good and Evil, chapter VII’, Friedrich Nietzsche”

    Although this was a prima-facie response and I’ll have to step out to philosophically explore it as and when I have the time, serendipitously, it just makes me wonder how much our thoughts here align.

    Rishi

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  4. Deleting a memory doesn’t feel any more startling than, vanity in general, cosmetic/plastic surgery (like the comment above) or “repairing” any other part of the body that feel “uncomfortable”. Or, by all means, the mind. What purpose does medications such as Diazepam have; they affect your mind and change how you think about the world (and even though it doesn’t delete your memory completely, the effect certainly is to modify the “truth”) Although I could never choose happiness before truth, even if it sounds a bit tempting when thinking about some events in life. The past would never define us, only lead us.

    The plot in Eternal Sunshine isn’t really provocative or an unexpected future, if you look at how people deal with their “faults” in present. Perhaps a quick fix for a happy life, I guess. Anyway, an extraordinarily good movie! Really Superb!

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