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Posts Tagged ‘Art of Memory

“Right now I’m having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. I think I’ve forgotten this before”*…

 

630px-Mnemosine

Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of Memory, c. 100

 

We think of memory as something internal—we remember with our minds (or, for the materialists among us, our brains). But human history is cluttered with attempts to externalize memory by encoding it onto objects and images. We have built models and systems to help us organize, keep track of, and recall information. These techniques are part of what the ancient Greeks called artificial memory. For the Greeks, natural memory encompassed those things a person happened to remember, and artificial memory consisted of recollections a person buttressed through preparation and effort. Artificial memory was a skill that could be learned and improved upon, one that had its own art: the ars memoriae, or art of memory.

The anthropologist Drew Walker reminds us that so-called mnemonic devices are not objects that stand alone but are instead “part of action.” These memory aids cannot fully store information the way writing does; they work only if you have already memorized the related material. Yet even as mere prompts or catalysts, they serve as crucial technologies for preserving and passing on histories, cultural practices, and learned wisdom.

Scholar Lynne Kelly argues that prehistoric and nonliterate cultures relied on memory technologies to preserve their oral traditions, a practice that continues to this day. Australian Aboriginal songlines record memory in short verses that are to be sung at particular places. Knowing the song helps you find your way across the territory—its melodies and rhythms describe the landscape—while its words tell the history of both the people and the land itself, describing, for example, which creator animal built that rocky outcrop or crevasse. Some songlines tell histories that trace back forty thousand years. Many are sacred and cannot be shared with outsiders. The Southern Australian Museum’s 2014 exhibit of the Ngiṉṯaka songline caused significant controversy because some Aṉangu felt the exhibit shared parts of the songline that were meant to be secret and that its curators had not sufficiently consulted with them. While songlines transform large expanses of land into a mnemonic device, other oral cultures have turned to smaller objects—calendar stones, ropes with knots in them, sticks marked with notches—to serve as tables of contents for important stories and information…

Jules Evans reviews mnemotechnics and the visualization of memory– the ways that we remember: “Summon Up Remembrance.”

See also “It’s a memory technique, a sort of mental map”*…

* Steven Wright

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As we stroll down memory lane, we might recall that it was on this date in 1961 that President Dwight D, Eisenhower made his farewell address on a national television broadcast.  Perhaps most famously, Eisenhower, the only general to be elected president in the 20th century, used the speech to warn the nation against the corrupting influence of what he described as the “military-industrial complex.”

But he also used the occasion to urge a long view of our America and its citizen’s responsibilities:

As we peer into society’s future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.

250px-eisenhower_farewell source

 

“It’s a memory technique, a sort of mental map”*…

 

The “Memory Palace,” a form of the method of loci, is a technique by which the user memorizes a physical space (often, a palace), then– when desiring to remember something– walks to a location and “deposits” that memory… which can be retrieved simply be “revisiting” that location.  It dates back to ancient Greek and Roman rhetoricians, and, as Frances Yates explains in The Art of Memory, was in broad use all the way until the Enlightenment.

But while the technique fell out of the spotlight with the advent of wide-spread printing and the emergence of the Scientific Revolution, it didn’t disappear altogether…

This “Chronographer of Ancient History,” published by American educator Emma Willard in 1851, is one in a series of prints Willard designed to teach students about the shape of historical time. Her “Temples of Time” were (she wrote) a way to tap into the power of visual comprehension, so that the historical information conveyed would “by frequent inspection, be formed within, and forever remain, wrought into the living texture of the mind.”

This Chronographer is a more specialized offshoot of Willard’s master Temple of Time, which tackled all of history. (She also produced an American version, with a map of the United States on its faraway back wall.) Willard’s Temples, writes historian Barry Joyce, were “possibly inspired by her study of ancient Greek commentaries on history and memory.” The structure’s reliance on perspective was intended to help chronology take on a physical dimension…

More at “A 19th-Century Memory Palace Containing All of Ancient History“: and see a zoomable version of the Temple here or at the Library of Congress.

* Dr. John Watson, describing a “tool” used by his friend Sherlock Holmes

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As we tidy up, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet, the French mathematician and physicist who is probably better known as Voltaire’s mistress; she was born on this date in 1706.  Fascinated by the work of Newton and Leibniz, she dressed as a man to frequent the cafes where the scientific discussions of the time were held. Her major work was a translation of Newton’s Principia, for which Voltaire wrote the preface; it was published a decade after her death, and was for many years the only translation of the Principia into French.

Judge me for my own merits, or lack of them, but do not look upon me as a mere appendage to this great general or that great scholar, this star that shines at the court of France or that famed author. I am in my own right a whole person, responsible to myself alone for all that I am, all that I say, all that I do. it may be that there are metaphysicians and philosophers whose learning is greater than mine, although I have not met them. Yet, they are but frail humans, too, and have their faults; so, when I add the sum total of my graces, I confess I am inferior to no one.
– Mme du Châtelet to Frederick the Great of Prussia

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Written by LW

December 17, 2015 at 1:01 am

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