Retro Nostalgia: The Bourne Identity (2002) and the Politics of Amnesia

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One of the things that fascinates me about the Bourne movies is the question raised by his amnesia within the ideology of terrorism (read:  War on Terrorism, etc.).  To think about Bourne’s amnesia as a symptom of a particular form of national ideology is to understand that his amnesia is not simply a convenient plot device (though it is one), but also a symptom of a public amnesia.  In other words, just as Bourne’s condition enables him to alter the real by making it imaginary — i.e., changing one’s identity entirely — so too do the cast of characters who use ignorance (or willful amnesia) to wipe themselves clean of culpability (ex. Ward Abbott).  The public does not know, and those that do know fulfill one of three identities:  1) true amnesiac; 2) willful amnesiac; and 3) maintenance amnesiac (Conklin, who maintains the barrier between those that don’t need to know (the public) and those that don’t want to know (Abbott)).

Bourne’s identity, however, is split by a seeming contradiction.  On the one hand, his amnesia defines him as one who does not know himself; on the other, he is defined by what he does not (or cannot or will not) remember, but about which others have profound knowledge.  To not know
oneself, therefore, does not necessarily mean one cannot be known, as is the state of the amnesiac in nature.  But for Bourne, those with knowledge of his true self are those who want him buried, not least of all because awareness of self threatens the security of the system. 

Here the political moment rears its ugly head.  To have knowledge of the undesirable opens a new series of relations:  1) the one who knows, but doesn’t want to know (Bourne); 2) the one who doesn’t know (the public); 3) the one who doesn’t know, but doesn’t want to know (Abbott); and 4) the one who knows (Conklin).  It becomes crucial for #3 and #4 to keep #2 in the dark, because the public is the body who ultimately controls the others.  But the public’s lack of knowledge is a choice, albeit one that reads more like a handwaving than a direct order (if the order were given, they would know what is being done in their name); they live in perpetual amnesia. 

For Bourne, however, the question stems from who he was before and who he has become after the traumatic moment.  This makes him dangerous not least of all to Conklin (#4), but to the mental security of the public (#2).  Just as Bourne’s identity is shattered by the realization of who he was, so too is the public’s identity subject to traumatic exposure.  Thus the threat that Bourne poses:  forcing a public to re-imagine itself in light of torture, assassination, and rampant civil rights abuses, all part of an image of American selfhood that cannot exist concurrantly with the image Americans have made for themselves.  That Bourne exists in this political structure suggests, I think, something profound about the Bourne movies:  an awareness of what the years immediately following 9/11 have done to the public consciousness — namely, put us all into a relation between amnesiacs.

Bourne, however, does reject the past he cannot remember — and its attending identity — before knowing who he really is or what he has really done.  In choosing not to remember, he attempts, albeit unsuccessfully (see The Bourne Supremacy), to erase the traumatic through accepting the amnesiatic moment.  But in that erasure, his position in the relation of amnesiacs shifts only in relation to the public, who will never know so long as Bourne tries to move on with his life.  For Conklin and Abbott (the latter more in the second film than here), there is no possibility of security; Bourne will always constitute a threat until he is brought back into the fold or destroyed.  And yet, as the movies show, in holding dogmatically to the desire to control knowledge, the system which Conklin maintains and Abbott reboots (and Noah Vosen takes up in The Bourne Ultimatum) inevitably collapses under its own weight.  To put it another way, systematic extermination of the 1st of the four relations (i.e., the one who knows, but doesn’t want to know) results in exposing one’s hand and opens holes in the structure to be exploited.

None of this is a perfect explanation of what I’m trying to get at.  Obviously Abbott has some knowledge of Conklin’s activities, but I take as given that Abbott only set up the system, but intentionally extricated himself from the chain of information to make it possible to feign ignorance.  And I have left out the women in the film (specifically, Marie), but only because I suspect they will play a more crucial role in future Bourne-related posts.  I hope what I’ve tried to elucidate gives some indication of the complexity of the social dynamics of the film.  If not, then I’ll make myself the amnesiac and pretend this post doesn’t exist.


Feel free to let me know what you think of The Bourne Identity, or to poke holes into what I’m saying.  The comments are yours!

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

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