A diary entry might begin like this:
Saturday, 14th July, 2018.
While on a break from work I lay in the sun in the Botanic Gardens. I tried to read for a bit, but I was tired. The sky was a beautiful cobalt blue and it was warm. Unannounced and uninvited a memory drifts into my head and suddenly I’m in Kensington Gardens, on a Sunday afternoon, sometime toward the end of 2011, but not yet November. We’re lazily sitting outside and I’m not cold, and I’m flooded with relief because now I can share my spare time with another, I’m not stressed about ‘doing nothing’, suddenly doing nothing counts for something, I’m building a relationship. That relationship ended in the winter. Christmas Eve. I’m sitting in a pew towards the back of a church, and he’s standing in the snow refusing to come inside.
No. That was the winter before. But, just now, I remembered it as the end.
Memory is a tricky thing. The Pixar film Inside Out depicts memories as short filmic scenes stored precious glass balls, that replay on a loop. Memories are tinted by emotion, can be recalled as necessary, and when no longer needed, memories are sent to the memory dump, and erased. Throughout the film, memory is depicted as both core to identity, and as a resource which can be tapped into in times of distress. Some memories are stored in a library or filing system inside the brain, others are used to build ‘personality islands’.
The image of personality islands in Inside Out function to demonstrate how Riley, the central human protagonist, is formed over time in relationship and in response to lived experience. Personality Islands are generated and supported by what the film terms ‘core memories’ and they work to sustain to an aspect of Riley’s identity. Identity is depicted as formed through relationship and sustained by both ongoing embodied experiences and through memory of past experiences which connect to a particular island. While completing my postgraduate coursework, the girl child Riley helped me to think through the idea of posthuman subjectivity.
Posthumanist representations of the human subject question “the very foundation of humanist thinking, which tells that the modern subject is an autonomous agent whose sense of being remains constant, regardless of the factors that impact on the experience of day-to-day living” (Toffoletti:2007:13). Against the humanist idea of a stable, unitary subject which sustains “the binary logic of identity and otherness” central to Humanist thought, in which “subjectivity is equated with consciousness, universal rationality, and self-regulating ethical behaviour, whereas Otherness is defined as its negative and specular counterpart” (Braidotti:2013:15), posthuman subjectivity emerges as an alternative way of conceptualising subject formation, allowing for multiplicity and in-process subjectivity, perhaps even “subjectivity-in-processes” (Deeds Ermath: 2000:411). According to Braidotti, posthumanism works “towards elaborating alternative ways of conceptualising the human subject” (2013:37). One of these alternative ways of thinking about the human subject is to move away from an idea of identity as conforming to a stable, prescribed or universal category, and instead to consider it a narrative and relational process, lessening the value of individualism and breaking down the distinction between self and other.
Now that I think about it, I don’t know if we ever sat together in Kensington Gardens. Maybe that was just something I wanted to happen. Maybe we sat in a café and argued about religion. Years later I’m in Newtown in Sydney. Its June 2014 and I’m meeting up with a boy. A man. I like him in that stupid way that you like people when you’re 17, and when he arrives and I see him outside I wave at him over-enthusiastically, and immediately regret not acting cooler. We’ve been chatting online about religion and politics and he’s grilling me on theology, and I say this would be better in person, so here we are. When I leave I give myself a stern talking to because he’s clearly not interested in me, and we’re just here to talk about the things you don’t talk about, religion, politics, and …
July 2014, On holidays in London. I go to Borough Markets. I drink coffee with the Boy from My Past, and I mention the boy (man) in Sydney. I’m going to go look at some art event in East London that he heard about and thinks I might like. The Boy from My Past makes some comment about being glad I have interesting friends, which now that I’m writing it seems condescending, but I don’t think it was.
… Three months later, I woke up in a bed that was not my own, because I’m ridiculously attracted to talking about the things you don’t talk about. He’d had a bird in a cage on the balcony, but the door hadn’t been shut properly, and when we stepped outside in the morning we saw that it had flown away in the night.
Typically, “Pixar’s films generally have two central characters who embark on a psychological and/or physical journey together or who are part of some kind of twosome in which their interaction is key to the character’s growth” (Ebrahim:2014:48). Inside Out largely follows this formula with the twosome consisting of two of the human protagonists’ emotions, and instead of resulting in Riley’s growth, in terms of progress, their journey results in the rebuilding and transforming of Riley’s identity. Additionally, Joy and Sadness – when considered as anthropomorphised nonhuman actors, originally act as individuals in conflict, defining themselves against each other – could be read as fulfilling a journey of growth to become better ‘people’, however, and perhaps more interestingly, their journey can be read as illustrating the limitations of thinking of the self as an autonomous agent, and instead show the benefits of understanding oneself as acting as an ethical, relational networked subject. In this reading, Joy becomes a symbol for the ideal “disembodied and unitary” (Ahmed:1996:74) humanist self, who is only and always functional, successful and happy, and perpetually resolving to remain this way by thinking happy. She also overlooks and erases the difference of Sadness’ experience, and attempts to train and perfect her into being happy. In the low point of this journey, having failed several times to make their way back to headquarters, Joy finds herself separated from Sadness and stuck in the ‘memory dump’ of Riley’s brain, along with discarded facts, opinions and memories deemed no longer necessary. Here, counter to Humanist belief in the “almost boundless capacity of humans to pursue their individual and collective perfectibility” (Braidotti:2013:13), Joy learns the importance of failure. Failure
allows us to escape the punishing norms that discipline behaviour and manage human development with the goal of delivering us from unruly childhoods to orderly, predictable adulthoods. Failure … disturbs the supposedly clean boundaries between adults and children, winners and losers. (Halberstam: 2011:3)
For Joy, failure also disturbs a clean boundary between happiness and sadness, and therefore self and other, individual and networked agency. Here in the memory dump Joy can let go of a stable identity, she can forget herself and cry. Reaching in to the bag she has been carrying which contains Riley’s core memories, Joy takes out a memory she has always considered a happy memory. As Joy replays the memory the beginnings of relational, transformative identification with Sadness occurs. In her model of relational identity, Weir suggests that when we identify with another, we travel into their world, and
Rather than assimilating you into myself, assuming sameness, or simply incorporating your difference into myself, I am opening myself to learning about and recognizing you: I cannot do this without changing who I am. .. through this relationship we are creating a new “we” – a new identity that includes all our differences and all our relationships. We are learning to hold ourselves together. (Weir: 2008:125).
On her second watch, Joy is able to see the memory turn blue, the colour representing sadness. Joy, functioning here like a metonym for Riley, demonstrates “it is within the ‘ordinary’ processes of memory that the self is continuously created and destroyed” (King: 2000:12). Joy sees that this ‘happy’ memory is more complex, it contains multiple stories. The memory becomes happy only after it was held together in sadness. For Joy, this new identification with Sadness “becomes a process of remaking meaning” (Weir:2008:125). Joy is not an autonomous agent, but a member of a collective which consists of four other emotions. If Riley is considered an assemblage, her emotions, Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger all consider themselves to be Riley, and act as “elements of the assemblage” who “work together” (Bennet:2010:24), or as is the case for most of Inside Out fail to work together. Here, perhaps, “there is solidarity in recognizing our alienation from happiness” (Ahmed: 2010:592). For Joy, and for Riley, there is a kind of freedom in setting aside a need to be always and only a happy child, to be allowed to be and experience other affects. The narrative resolution works to promote complex, responsive and reflexive subject formation, and depicts both an inside (Riley’s emotions) and outside (Riley and her parents) view of assembled, networked subjectivity.
I went back to uni in 2015. I took Joy and Sadness on a psychological journey. I was tearing apart personality islands, sometimes knowingly, sometimes by accident. I watched in dismay, in amazement, in awe, in sadness, as memories and entire islands – of evangelicalism, feminism and sexuality – shifted, rocked and fell. With a mixture of grief and excitement I watched as ideas and theories, as I myself, regrouped and rebuilt. That sounds too passive. I watched myself change, I changed. I did not change, I stayed the same, but I saw differently, related differently. I shifted, I realigned. I related. I was there and I am there, and I acted. But here we have stories and reflection for another day.
As I lay in the Botanic Gardens I realised that part of the problem is that “rebuilt” is the wrong tense. But not only the wrong tense, it is the wrong perspective because it implies that in some ways I might be a finished product, that I have no learning or growing left to do, and that to think like that is to have learned little from Riley. I am, in fact, always building and rebuilding myself.
There were parts of me I thought I had rebuilt and finished. I thought that I could set them aside now, they were done. During the week I had let someone kiss me. I wanted to melt into the floor and not be anywhere. There was rebuilding to do that I hadn’t even realised needed to be done. Did you see what I just wrote. ‘I had let someone kiss me’. But surely that too is the wrong grammar, and the problem of that grammar is also a story for another day. I had let myself kiss someone. We let ourselves be kissed and we let ourselves kiss. Both. Simultaneously.
I am, joyfully, still in progress.