Abracadabra: Language, Memory, Representation


Today's reading: Mary Carruthers, The Craft of Thought, pgs 1-59.

Memory and Forgetting, Place and Thing

Mary Carruthers focuses on the arts of memory as locational arts. We have seen already how the Rhetorica ad Herrenium defines these places, and how later arts expanded the repetoire of usable places (hell, the spheres, etc). Carruthers further expands our conception of the locational nature of memory to include any kind of foundation.

Carruthers makes the case that in the Rhetorical tradition--including the Christian and Medieval Scholastic traditions in the occidental world-- memory and invention are essential to each other. She gives us two roots for inventio: invention and inventory. The memory is a place where things are stored, but like a warehouse, there must also be a system for finding them again: an index, a catalog, a system. This system is memory, not the things in it.

The stuff to be remembered is the res or subject-matter.

The system, according to Carruthers, consists of a store of memory-signs (in greek: phantasiai) and a intentio or the attitude towards the res. We therefore remember things (res) by associating signs (imagines) about which we have intentions or strong feelings. Strong images, emotional and affectual signs, lead to good memory.

Intentio, the attitude we have towards the sign we use to remember something is a very important part. It is not simple a state (like being frightened), but a more or less conscious activity. Carruthers notes that Cicero refers to it as like "tuning" the memory. Getting the notes exactly right, or giving them the correct color, or the most pleasing form.

Two other figures are used to explain this: the architectural notion of foundations, and the notion of memory as a machine.

Foundations are necessary for any memory, and we have seen various things used in places. Recall espcially, the use of the alphabet as a memory locus (Romberch's Visual Alphabet). The use of a text as a memory locus seems counter-intuitive, since it is what we remember in the first place. But that is the point of having foundations, on which to further build. We build with our memories, as if it was a tool, an engine, or hoist or perhaps a large yellow backhoe, depending on your memory...


Carruthers gives us a series of examples to think about these issues. Let's look at two of them:


The standard story of why there are constellations (such as the Big Dipper) is that they are shaped like things we know: stars in the shape of a lion, etc. With the exception of the big dipper, most of us are probably hard pressed to "see" these pictures. Carruthers suggests that this story of their origin is incorrect, and that we are not at fault for failing to see the story in the stars, because it is the stars that are in the story.

Today we are urged by astronomers and scientists to know the 'facts' about stars. For the ancient and medieval observers of the stars, however, the facts included also the fictions that governed why the stars were thought important. These stories needed a locus on which they could be built, and what better locus, than one that never changed and that everyone saw every night. Consider the myths around Orion (p. 26-7).

Vietnam War Memorial

Monuments and Memorials are important physical places. We visit them on holidays, on vacations, and sometimes every day. Are they also Memory places?

The Vietnam War Memorial is an unusual memorial. There are no human figures, and no majestic or enormous obelisks or parthenons around it. It is black granite sunk into the ground and inscribed only with the names of the dead by year.

  • How does it function?
  • What is the res of the monument?
  • What is the locus, or foundation?
  • What are the images?

Carruthers asserts that this is a particular kind of "remembering in common" that is different from "cultural memory". How?

East Berlin after 1989.

Another interesting aspect of the function of memory is the attempt to control it. Both to force one particular story (e.g. propaganda) and to try to erase another.

Postcards by Sophie Calle from Detachment. ( 1 | 2 | 3 )
Map of
	  Constellations from 1000AD

From Carruthers, The Craft of Thought, plate 5.

Christopher M. Kelty
Last modified: Mon Feb 17 09:57:23 CST 2003