The Return of the New Flesh: Body Memory in David Cronenberg and Merleau-Ponty

Dylan Trigg


From the “psychoplasmic” offspring in The Brood (1979) to the tattooed encodings in Eastern Promises (2007), David Cronenberg presents a compelling vision of embodiment, which challenges traditional accounts of personal identity and obliges us to ask how human beings persist through different times, places, and bodily states while retaining their sameness. Traditionally, the response to this question has emphasised the importance of cognitive memory in securing the continuity of consciousness. But what has been underplayed in this debate is the question of how the body can both reinforce and disrupt the grounds for our personal identity. Accordingly, by turning the notoriously “body conscious” work of Cronenberg, especially his seminal The Fly (1986), I intend to pursue the relation between identity and embodiment in the following way. 
First, by augmenting John Locke’s account of personal identity with a specific appeal to the body, I will explore how Cronenberg’s treatment of embodiment as a site of independent experience challenges the idea we have that cognitive memory is the guarantor of personal identity. Cronenberg’s treatment of the “New Flesh” posits an account of the body that undermines the Cartesian and Lockean account of personal identity as being centred on the mind. In its place, I will argue that Cronenberg shows us how the body establishes a personality independently of the mind. 
Second, through focusing explicitly on body memory, I will explore how we, as embodied subjects, relate to our bodies in a Cronenbergian world. Approaching this relation between memory and embodiment via the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty, I will argue that memory is at the heart of Cronenberg’s vision of body horror. I will conclude by suggesting that far from generating unity, Cronenberg’s vision of embodiment and identity is diseased (often literally) by a memory that cannot be assimilated by cognition. The result of this failure to assimilate body memory, is that memory itself occupies the role of the monster within.


Merleau-Ponty; Cronenberg; Body

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