I Swear I’ve Heard This One Before, Somewhere…
The prominent theme of amnesia seems of note in this week’s readings, gaining resonance when paired with the larger connective thread of advertising. Although one might argue that amnesia has taken on a negative sheen thanks to its popularity in soap operas, the mechanic has been employed in a number of popular contexts that range from retconning (effecting a kind of imperfect amnesia on the audience as cannon asks them to “forget” history), dissociative fugue, and cyclical histories/journeys that continually reset. The last of these manifestations, which we see in Frederik Pohl‘s “The Tunnel Under the World,” invokes memory of myths in which the hero must repeat his trials until he learns a lesson that speaks to some supposedly profound truth. Offerings like Groundhog Day and Dark City come to mind, although these two offerings contain messages that diverge in interesting ways: while the plot of Groundhog Day focuses on an individual transformation, Dark City also nods to a sort of “cultural amnesia” that plagues the inhabitants of the self-contained city.
An easy target for this malaise is the spell cast by advertising, with such accusations made in “The Tunnel Under the World.” Written in the middle of the 20th century—a time period that saw increasing emphasis on commercialization and industrialization—it makes sense that Pohl casts the inhabitants of Tlyerton as robots driven by a consciousness that is both duped and dead!
Amnesia and complacency also manifest in Henry Kuttner‘s “The Twonky,” and here we can contrast the amnesia of time-travelling Joe with the induced state of inaction that Kerry Westerfield experiences as a result of his interaction with the Twonky. In their own ways, both Pohl and Kuttner draw a connection between media and the subjugation of the human mind and/or spirit. (Interestingly, there also seems to be a stratification of media with the telephone being suspect [speaking perhaps to telephone salesmen?] while Westerfield finds a bit of sanctuary under the marquee of a movie theater. Cinema, then, perhaps represented a higher cultural form that was less susceptible to the corrosive influence of advertising, although this notion has changed somewhat over the years as any modern moviegoer can attest to.) Given the context in which these two authors wrote, it is not overly difficult to connect the dots and see how both of these short stories spoke to advertising being conveyed through media channels as it infected the general population, supplanting natural sentience with manufactured thought (or nothing at all!) in a process that invokes some of the pessimistic views of institutions like the Frankfurt School.