September 20, 2008

In the City of Memory

Dating from the first century BC, the Rhetorica ad Herennium outlines the interconnection of rhetoric and memory. It presents a system for organizing the materials of memory. An orator stores and arranges his knowledge and learning for recall and access, quickly locating within the mental storehouse the necessary fact, fable, or quotation. It describes the need for structures and scenes to ground and secure what is known. With these structures in place, images to be recalled can be placed, just as writing is impressed upon a wax tablet. The scenes and structures make a cosmos in which to wander mentally, street to street, house to house, room to room.

Moreover, each of these loci acts as a theater that disappears under the pull of the drama it nonetheless supports. And contrary to expectations, the drama is defined by images, not words. A thinker such as Walter Ong insists that the written word -- from the Greeks onward -- announces the technology that births philosophy itself. With the abstracted quality of words written down, steadied and made to represent ideas removed from a living present, the perpetual becoming of speaking in oral culture gives way to literate culture's questions of a transcendent abstraction: Being. The word, always at a distance from the particularity of any speaker, is used to form knowledge within; it is absorbed in solitude, made something by the introspective musings. Hence, writing as a technology that structures thought.

The Rhetorica ad Herennium, however, stresses that memory and knowing relies upon remembered images and not studied and steadied words. The images are only like writing. What we see is the "material" presence of recollection, and attached to these, like a comet's tail of reflection, are the words. They appear within the mind only through the associated images of remembrance. In the theater, the visual presence of the actors gives voice to the script, enlivening the words, undeniably, ontologically there, to be seen.

In a famous Russian case study (cited by Mary Carruthers in The Book of Memory), a mnemonist, or performing memory-artist, described his system of memory as a conscious translation of word into picture. Each word becomes a thing in his mind, and each thing is carefully placed in his mental metropolis. Luria, author of the study, writes: "beginning at Mayakovsky Square, [he would] slowly make his way down, distributing his images at houses, gates, stores windows. At times, without realizing how it had happened, he would suddenly find himself back in his home town . . . where he would wind up his trip in the house he had lived in as a child." To call forth a passage he makes his way through imagined streets, looking up at buildings that hold the signs he can recognize and then re-translate back to words.

The imagined loci, and the imagined images, if not properly set could sometimes obscure their purpose. Thus clues were not properly seen, like when the nuances of a drama slip by due to inattention. The mnemonist describes losing images in the background. He makes a pencil too small in the scene, a white egg is placed against a white door. As a corrective he makes the settings less natural, distorting scale, playing with increased contrast, ensuring the elements do not blend too much together.

The weakness of his method were two-fold. One, noise and the speed of his initial perceptions could crowd his placements, intruding upon the necessity of space and time. He needed room: to hear sharp, uncluttered sounds and to imagine buildings and homes defined by alleyways and buffers. Each scene needed its break, the black buffer of a nowhere to accentuate the sharp, distinctive placement of image into scene.

Returning to the idea of theater, his method of placement and recall might best be thought of as Brechtian -- it uses scene and setting and image for another purpose of thought, and built into the system is the room to consider, to gain footing, to know where one is. The spectacular pace of a Mueller piece would, by contrast, would distort and disturb the harmony necessary for orderly recollection. (Mueller may have been Socratic in disposition, ready with innumerable anecdotes and recollected details that could emerge in dialogue, but his works seem intent on crowding out any efficient forms of remembrance. One must hurry through the uses of other texts, like someone taking flight from the police and trying to sightsee along the way.)

The second weakness is therefore connected to the first. How was it the mnemonist was to purge his city of memories he no longer needed? Trained to collect, arrange, and recall, he could not simply shake lose the images and the words attached to them. He tried writing down the words, to externalize them, purge them. No use. He tried to select them from their scene and imagine himself burning them. His solution to the pale Funesian plight was much simpler than he had initially anticipated. He needed only to will them gone. Through an active disregard, he created the necessary space to repopulate his city of memory.

Photos: Shimon Attie, "Between Dreams"; detail of 1511 Venice edition of The Rhetorica; Steven Foster, from his repetition series.