Blessed Are the Forgetful’: The Ethics of Memory Modification in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2009)


Miah, A. (2009) ‘Blessed Are the Forgetful’: The Ethics of Memory Modification in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In Shapshay, S. (Ed) Bioethics at the Movies, Johns Hopkins University Press.

"The bioethical issues raised through Eternal Sunshine permeate a number of crucial questions arising from emerging medical technologies. On one level, it discusses the ethics of medical science, portraying a number of challenges posed by a commercial model of medicine and the difficulty with modifying the biology of healthy subjects. It also encompasses a critique on the ethics of enhancement and the value of pursuing neurological modifications. More broadly, the movie situates bioethical debates within philosophical questions about the irrelevance of fatalism and the importance of remembering. Towards the end of the movie, these issues are foregrounded when the protagonists realise that they are doomed to be separated, but that they are also doomed to fall in love. Their response to resign themselves to each inevitability and accept the highs and lows of life seems all they can do. In the world of Eternal Sunshine, where it is possible to delete unwanted memories, it also becomes clear that people are generally capable of overcoming the trauma of those memories of their own volition. This provides a persuasive argument against the use of medical technology to alleviate some forms of suffering, no matter if we sympathise with the sufferer. Indeed, Eternal Sunshine attempts to derive clear limits to the role of medicine and encourages the viewer to seek alternative ways of dealing with suffering and accept that happiness is in part constituted by the absence of guaranteeing a life free from suffering. Even where medication might make our lives better, we would suffer at the hands of technology from being deprived of characteristics that make us human. It suggests that, without grief and suffering, we are unable to achieve the kind of intimacy that binds people together. However, Eternal Sunshine also obscures a balanced evaluation of memory modification, by relying on the assumption that it is impossible to characterise neurological enhancements as improvements. As such, it never satisfactorily attends to the fact that people are unavoidably positioned within a locus of decision making that compels them to alleviate human suffering by whatever means are available to them. In such circumstances, it is hard to imagine that people would be satisfied with relying on their own capacities, should alternative means be available. Moreover, it is not obvious that anybody is harmed by the use of such technology, even though the practical ethics of employing such means are incredibly difficult to resolve. Both a beautiful production and a subtle (and stormy) romance, Eternal Sunshine engages bioethicists through a confrontation with questions about the good life and utopia. Its narrative is a warning about runaway individualism and the problem of having too much choice and control over ourselves. However, there are various nuances that allow Eternal2 Sunshine to occupy the space of a genuine ethical issue, which leaves the viewer uncertain about how to reconcile the intuition to alleviate human suffering by whatever means are available and the concern that human suffering might also be fundamental to our appreciation of happiness."