Note: This project is for ENGL 8800: Rhetoric & Memory. Some of the components to this final project are multimodal, which is why it appears on this blog page. Simply put, it was convenient to place it here rather than creating another blog for one project. Please also note that this project contains spoilers to the television show, Lost.
Character Analyses in Conjunction with Theories of Memory: A Critical Survey of Lost
Of the five canons of rhetoric, memory obtains the least amount of attention after invention, style, argument, and delivery. Rhetoricians and scholars have worked to bring revival to the interest in memory theories by combining academic with artistry. One way this has been done successfully is through presenting theories of memory in film. ABC’s critically acclaimed six-season, 121-episode series, Lost (2004-2010), is an adventure drama incorporated with elements of fantasy. The characters, who are traveling from Sydney, Australia, to Los Angeles, California, become survivors when their plane inexplicably crashes. They land on an uncharted, seemingly uninhabited island somewhere in the South Pacific. At first, they await the arrival of a rescue squad, but when it quickly becomes apparent that no one knows there whereabouts, they are forced to survive together against the elements, against The Others, and against the mysteriously supernatural entity of the island and its spiritual governing presence.
Despite the thrill that inevitably arises from a story about plane crash survivors who end up discovering more than just a speck of land in the middle of the ocean, this series holds much more value than just high ratings as a Sunday night television program. Lost has become the topic of numerous message boards and blog posts. It has sparked conversation about religion, spirituality, philosophy, and elements of science fiction, such as time travel, which will be discussed later. However, one facet that has not been explored nearly enough involves studying Lost in conjunction with theories of memory. As a whole, this series is an artifact that offers creative, artistically portrayed examples of memory and grief, memory and experience, and memory functions. What is more, many of the characters are namesakes of renowned philosophers, some of whom greatly contributed to the field of memory studies in their time, shaping the way memory practices have come to be understood today. Through close character analyses combined with supplementary theories in the field, I will take a closer look at how the narratives of characters Jack Shephard, John Locke, and Desmond Hume showcase different functions of memory through this series.
Jack Shephard: Grief, Trauma, and Memory
The central character of the series is Dr. Jack Shephard, a spinal surgeon from Los Angeles. Right away, he seems like the whole package: a handsome, selfless hero who gets his bearings and immediately starts helping other Oceanic Flight 815 crash victims in the midst of their traumatic landing. He was on the plane from Sydney after having tracked down his father’s whereabouts, only to find that by the time he arrived in Australia to retrieve his father, it was too late. His father, Christian, was an alcoholic and his body had been found in an alley behind a bar. Prior to Christian’s death, he and Jack had a falling out concerning professionalism, ethics, and loyalty. Jack noticed that Christian, who was Chief of Surgery at the time, had operated on a patient under the influence, which resulted in death on the operating table. When Jack confronted his father, Christian did his best to convince Jack to remain silent, but ultimately, Jack was overwhelmed with his unethical choice, and did not keep the knowledge hidden from the Board of Directors for long.
Soon after the crash, Jack begins to see his dead father walking around in the jungle. As a doctor, he knows he is hallucinating, that he is projecting his father’s image with his mind, but he cannot help but chase it. After nearly following the runaway ghost over a cliff, Jack confides in another survivor, John Locke, his obsession with the hallucination. John tells him it’s his white rabbit, referring to Alice in Wonderland. Below is a clip (via YouTube) of their conversation from Season 1, Episode 5, “White Rabbit.”
Jack soon begins to recognize that although he is a doctor, he is not above being susceptible to posttraumatic stress and grief. He is experiencing both trauma and grief on multiple levels: having never mended the relationship with his father, finding that he drank himself to death alone in a foreign country, surviving a plane crash, discovering there is little to no chance of rescue, being elected the group’s unofficial leader, not being able to throw himself into his work like normal, and wrestling with the unwavering desire to chase his father’s ghost through the trees of the mysterious island.
As Jack’s backstory rounds out, it becomes clear that before crashing on the island, he developed a slight inferiority complex. This is the direct result of never living up to Christian’s expectations, which then created a need within him to always find something to fix, even if things don’t need fixing, so that he can feel that he has what it takes to help others. Jack’s overcompensation drives people like his father and his wife, Sarah, away. Once he is on the island, his desire to create a solution for the other survivors is unwavering, but at the same time, he learns to take this situation as a fresh start, which naturally results in grieving the loss of his regular self in addition to Christian’s death.
In the book, Unclaimed Experience, by Cathy Caruth, she presents an interesting question about trauma when discussing Sigmund Freud’s work. She says, “If a life threat to the body and the survival of this threat are experienced as the direct infliction and the healing of a wound, trauma is suffered in the psyche precisely, it would seem, because it is not directly available to experience. The problem of survival, in trauma, thus emerges specifically as the question: What does it mean for consciousness to survive?” (61). This is a loaded, beautiful question that sparks further questions of how Jack is able to handle the trauma of the plane crash (threat to the body) and surviving it simultaneously, he is in this proposed unofficial limbo that exists in consciousness. Jack emerges from the plane crash with some bruises and a cut, but nothing too serious. Ultimately, he is strong-willed and has plenty of nerve as a result of his profession, so where does the trauma go?
Although he appears to be unscathed, in a later part of the series after some of the survivors were rescued, Jack is nearly driven mad with the desire to return to the island. This begins to answer the question of what it means for Jack’s consciousness to survive. While on the island, he was in an instinctual survivor mode, quickly adapting to his crash-induced home. However, after being taken away from the spot of his traumatic plane crash and being forced into a normal routine, Jack feels more lost than he ever did on the island. When he was there, he could justify his actions by feeling he was helping others, or protecting them, or uncovering new and valuable information. Then it was all ripped away after he returned to Los Angeles.
John Locke: Destiny and Empiricism
Philosopher John Locke is credited as the founder of British Empiricism, a belief developed in the seventeenth century which is defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as the following: “Empiricism about a particular subject rejects the corresponding version of the Intuition/Deduction thesis and Innate Knowledge thesis. Insofar as we have knowledge in the subject, our knowledge is a posteriori, dependent upon sense experience” (Markie). Locke believed that we must have experiences to fuel our minds, which in the fueling of our memories and imaginations through those experiences, we are creating a broader, more intelligent self. The following excerpt can be found in Theories of Memory: A Reader, and originates from Locke’s most famous work, entitled, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.
For the narrow Mind of Man, not being capable of having many Ideas under View and Consideration at once, it was necessary to have a Repository, to lay up those Ideas, which at another time it might have use of. But our Ideas being nothing, but actual Perceptions in the Mind, which cease to be any thing, when there is no perception of them, this laying up of our Ideas in the Repository of the Memory, signifies no more but this, that the Mind has a Power, in many cases, to revive Perceptions, which it once had, with the additional Perception annexed to them, that it has had them before….our Ideas are said to be in our Memories, when indeed they are actually no where, but only there is an ability in the Mind, when it will, to revive them again; and as it were paint them anew on it self, though some with more, some with less difficulty; some more lively, and others more obscurely. (Rossington 75-76)
From this passage, Locke expresses his belief that despite our Ideas supposedly being stored in the Repository of Memory, they are in fact nowhere, until the Mind chooses to exercise retrieval of those memories. It seems he did not put much emphasis on the process of memory, and using the mind as a muscle intent for vivid recall. As Janine Rider puts it in chapter four of The Writer’s Book of Memory: An Interdisciplinary Study for Writing Teachers, “John Locke detects no evidence of innate ideas. Instead, he believes that all of our ideas come from our experiences” (54). Furthermore, according to Patrick J. Connolly, author of the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s webpage over John Locke, expands upon the ideas from Rider. He states, “Knowledge consists of a special kind of relationship between different ideas. Locke’s emphasis on the philosophical examination of the human mind as a preliminary to the philosophical investigation of the world and its contents represented a new approach to philosophy, one which quickly gained a number of converts, especially in Great Britain” (Connolly).
From this clarification of the philosopher, we can better understand John Locke, the Lost character. A lonely middle-aged man, John consistently, throughout the series, looks for a deeper meaning to his actions and experiences. He quickly impresses the other survivors with his ability to hunt wild boar and his sill with knives, of which he brought a suitcase full on the plane. The reason he ended up on Oceanic 815 resulted from the fact that he was not permitted to participate in the Walkabout he signed up for weeks prior (thus the case of knives). A Walkabout was originally found in the Australian tradition, during which a person goes out into the wilderness to find a sort of spiritual enlightenment, which turns into an event of personal growth and understanding. John misrepresented himself on his application, neglecting to state that he suffered from paralysis and needed a wheelchair. However, after the plane crashes, his paralysis is gone, and he regains full mobility in both of his legs. Below is a clip (via YouTube) from Season 1, Episode 4, “Walkabout.”
After viewing this fragment of John’s backstory, it is apparent that because he is unable to attain the experience he desires, he puts stock in destiny, which he believes will bring him the experiences he needs to become a full and whole person. He desperately clings to the fact that everything he does and everything that happens to him happens for a reason, and that this strange island performed a miracle when it healed his legs.
John prepared for the Walkabout with a more fervent level of commitment than a person without a handicap. So badly did he want to experience the process, he becomes irate when he is denied the chance to realize his dream. When his paralysis is abated after crashing on the island, he comes to find that he is able to utilize the skills that were honed in his mind, finally obtaining the opportunity to solidify them in reality. Until landing on the island John’s skills were nothing more than “Ideas in the Repository of Memory,” which were essentially nothing; never was he able to actually experience what he had prepared for. After regaining mobility, John soon attributes his fully functioning body to the generative island, which he feels is aiding in helping him to fulfill his destiny. He understands that being rejected from the Walkabout is the vehicle that propels him to his destiny.
John’s need for the wheelchair is expired; this enables a shift from imagination and intangibility of his experiences to become reality. There are instances in which he believes the island tests him, by nearly taking away his ability to walk, namely through injury. During these moments, there is a significant shift in John’s character. In these moments, he begins to lose to lose his ability to translate thoughts, all of those honed skills, into action. It is almost as though he slips away from personhood. For much of his like, especially after life in a wheelchair, John is constantly facing the doubt others have in his abilities. He despises being told what he cannot do. Every time someone tells him he is unable to do something (whether or not they are correct), he is fueled by determination to prove that he can do what they say he can’t. He needs to prove his existence through his experiences, which is why he was so determined to complete the Walkabout.
Referring back to Philosopher John Locke’s excerpt from An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, the Locke from Lost epitomizes the theories that were showcased. The necessity for experience to drive memories, and thereby ultimately driving one’s existence, is profoundly portrayed in Lost. Not only are there complex layers to the character of John Locke, these same layers are supported by centuries-old theories on memory, concretely proving the value in studying this series from a standpoint of memory studies.
Desmond Hume: Time Travel and Memory Function
Desmond David Hume, named after the eighteenth century philosopher and Empiricist, is a character with one of the most interesting story lines, and additionally, he has the most to contribute to this survey of Lost characters and memory theory. Desmond was not one the plane; he comes to the island three years before the crash of Oceanic 815 on a sailboat after being thrown off course in his race around the world. He originally entered this race to regain his honor and esteem, which, in his opinion, would once more deem him worthy of the love of his serious girlfriend, Penelope. After washing up on the island, a man named Kelvin rescues him, and together, they live for three years in an underground hatch, pushing a button every 108 minutes to save the world. One day, after Kelvin has died, Desmond fails to push the button. This causes a breach of electromagnetic energy which, as it was later discovered, was the catalyst for that caused the crashing of Oceanic 815. Eventually, the survivors discover the hatch and meet Desmond.
Due to his exposure to the highly unstable electromagnetic radiation, Desmond develops a strange relationship with Time. At first, he has “flashes,” or incomplete visions of near-future events. Then, his consciousness flits between his past and present. He does not merely “go back in time,” rather, his mind, involuntarily leaps from the present back to an earlier point in Time. Interestingly, he does not physically move through Time. Instead, when his conscious jumps from one point to the next, the body it leaves from essentially faints. When this strange onset first begins, it appears that Desmond feels something is not quite right, as if he were disoriented from being lost in a dream. The shifts become clearer to Desmond’s past and present selves; he is able to remember new details or information from each period, and he can carry that information through his consciousness to affect both past and future events. Eventually, he experiences the process enough times that he is able to recognize instantly when his consciousness transitions from a current to a former place within his mind. He is so deeply rooted in his memories that he knows when he is jilted into the past and back again to the present. The following is a clip (via YouTube) from Season 4, Episode 5, “The Constant” to better show Desmond’s experience. (Brief contextual background: Desmond, Sayid, and Captain Lapidus are choppering from the island to an off-shore frater where a team of people who claim themselves to be on a rescue mission for the survivors of Oceanic 815 await).
Now that Desmond’s abilities have been make clear, showing the value he as a character contributing to the importance of memory and film will be much less confusing. David Hume, the philosopher, was a successor of John Locke, both following and expanding upon Locke’s beliefs. Hume, too, believed in the idea of sense data. In Janine Rider’s fourth chapter, she quotes Palmer’s Looking by saying, “All we have is sense data, or ‘a bundle or collection of different perceptions which succeed each other with an inconceivable rabidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement’” (54). This directly related to Desmond’s ability to travel through time, or more accurately, the ability to travel through his consciousness in time, through his memories and experiences, to appear in a different time. Rider goes on to say that “Memory is the ‘glue’ that holds our perceptions together. It organizes them and gives us concepts of enduring things, like the concepts of oneself as a single, continuously existing self” (55). This statement neatly corresponds with Desmond as a character; he nearly comes “unglued” when he begins to move through his past and present consciousnesses. Furthermore, the idea of a single, continuously existing self is a solidified component of Hume’s ideas about memory, proving how valuable Lost is in the context of being studied through the lens of memory.
As a philosopher, David Hume was much more difficult to analyze than his Lost counterpart. After reading and excerpt from his work, A Treatise of Human Nature, found in section 2.2 of Theories of Memory: A Reader, his philosophical style differed greatly from his predecessor. Within this excerpt is a subsection entitled “Of the Impressions of the Senses and Memory,” compiled by a list of seven points giving Hume’s thoughts on the matter. Points two and three particularly flowed with this premise of this analysis. Due to their difficult nature, I will present direct quotes and then paraphrase Hume’s thoughts to relate them better to this discussion.
2.) As to those impressions, which arise from the senses, their ultimate cause is, in my opinion, perfectly inexplicable by human reason, and ‘twill always be impossible to decide with certainty, whether they arise immediately from the objects, or are produc’d by the creative power of the mind, or are deriv’d from the author of our being…We may draw inferences from the coherence of our perceptions, whether they be true or false; whether they represent nature justly, or be mere illusions of the senses. (81)
Point two, while admittedly confusing, speaks to the nature of impressions, or something (like an idea or a memory) that is imprinted in our minds. The perception of an experience is what imprints upon our memory and the sense enhance those impressions. For example, when Desmond’s consciousness jumps back to the past in Season 3, Episode 8, “Flashes Before Your Eyes,” he wakes up on the floor of his apartment, covered in paint. His consciousness is experiencing the senses, but his present-day body is not receiving the same sensory input. Therefore, when his consciousness returns to the present, he is left with the experience, but not the feeling of having paint all over his body because that component was intangible. While his mind is exposed to an event in the past, his present-day body does not physically feel the sensory aspects of that event, making it ultimately difficult to prove whether or not the event was real.
3.) When we search for the characteristic, which distinguishes the memory from the imagination we must immediately perceive, that it cannot lie in the simple ideas it presents to us; since both these faculties borrow their simple ideas from the impressions and can never go beyond these original perceptions…Since therefore the memory is known, neither by the order of its complex ideas, nor the nature of its simple ones; it follows that the difference betwixt it and the imagination lies in its superior force and vivacity. A man may indulge his fancy in feigning any past scene of adventures; nor wou’d there be any possibility of distinguishing this from a remembrance of a like kind, were not the idea of the imagination fainter and more obscure. (82)
Point three, which is arguable much denser than point two holds some intriguing philosophical ideas of memory theory. From this text, it is apparent that Hume feels that memory is not merely complex or simple ideas. Rather, memory differs from imagination because of its “superior force and vivacity.” The word ‘feigning’ in the final sentence is notated with a footnote defining it as a conscious invention. So, in essence, a person may consciously invent (or imagine) past scenes from their life, which is only a divergent act from simple recall upon empirical memories.
Both David Hume the philosopher and Desmond Hume the character greatly perpetuate the ideas of John Locke the philosopher, and despite the differences with which the characters John and Desmond are faced with, they both ultimately facilitate room for similar memory theory interpretation in different ways. Their experiences are wildly different, but neither of them would have anything worth mentioning if not for the act of experience itself.
In conclusion, Lost is a prime example of film that can be thoroughly analyzed with different theories contributing to and established in the field of memory studies. Aside from the fact that many of the characters were inspired by philosophers (some, as exemplified in this essay, were memory theorists themselves), the series adapts these nearly ancient conversations into a creative, artistic cultivation of relatable people in extraordinary situations. Lost allows for multiple opportunities for discussion, such as memory and trauma and grief, memory and Empiricism, and memory and time travel. After looking closely at characters Jack Shephard, John Locke, and Desmond Hume, the question of the validity of Lost within the context of memory studies and film is indisputable.
Caruth, Cathy. “Trauma Departures: Survival and History in Freud.” Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996. 60-62. Print.
Connolly, Patrick J. “John Locke (1632-1704).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. IEP, n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2016. <http://www.iep.utm.edu/locke/>.
Markie, Peter. “Rationalism vs. Empiricism.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 19 Aug. 2004. Web. 26 Apr. 2016. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rationalism empiricism/#1.2>.
“Walkabout.” Lost. Writ. David Fury. Dir. Jack Bender. ABC Studios, Oct. 13, 2004. Netflix.
“White Rabbit.” Lost. Writ. David Fury. Dir. Jack Bender. ABC Studios, Oct. 20, 2004. Netflix.
“Flashes Before Your Eyes.” Lost. Writ. Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard. Dir. Jack Bender. ABC Studios, Feb. 14, 2007. Netflix.
“The Constant.” Lost. Writ. Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof. Dir. Jack Bender. ABC Studios, Feb. 28, 2008. Netflix.
Rider, Janine. “Memory and Philosophy.” The Writer’s Book of Memory: An Interdisciplinary Study for Writing Teachers. Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates,1995. 51-67. Kindle edition.
Rossington, Michael, Anne Whitehead, and Linda R. Anderson. “Section 2.1: John Locke: from An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.” Theories of Memory: A Reader. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 2007. 75-79. Print.
Rossington, Michael, Anne Whitehead, and Linda R. Anderson. “Section 2.2: David Hume: from A Treatise of Human Nature.” Theories of Memory: A Reader. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 2007. 80-84. Print.