Abracadabra: Language, Memory, Representation


Anthropology 375/575: Abracadabra: Language and Memory in Science and Technology

MWF 10-10:50

Sewall Hall 303

Christopher Kelty


What exactly do language and memory have to do with knowledge? Are they passive tools or essential components? Are all languages equal, or are there better and worse ways of saying something? What's the difference between natural language and mathematics? Between logic and language? Between memory and storage? Between information processing and thinking? Do words do things? Do algorithms have meaning? What's the relationship between technology and thinking, or between remembering and archiving? Between meaning and information? And what does Dracula have to do with all this?

This is lecture and discussion course that considers these issues. It is a combination of history, philosophy, and anthropology. It is eclectic in its scope, and it spans 2500 years of human history. The course is principally concerned with presenting a small cross section of the great diversity of ways that langauge, memory, information, science and religion intersect.

There are five sections:

  • An introduction where we will begin with some modern scientific problems of representation and writing: birdwatching and Genetics.
  • A section on the print revolution and the rise of literacy between 900 AD and 1900 AD
  • A section on memory, in particular, the Ars Memoria of ancient and medieval scholars.
  • A section on universal and perfect languages, the logical calculus and the so-called scientific method.
  • Finally, a section on Dracula, which we will read as a document of the role of literacy, writing, circulation, and information in the 19th-20th century.

Requirements are the following:

Required reading of c. 50-80 pages per week. Assignments happen approximately every two-three weeks, students will be responsible for assignments varying in length and complexity. Readings and Assignments constitute the bulk of your grade. Mandatory participation and attendance will make up the rest.

Required Texts, available at the bookstore:
Francis Yates, The Art of Memory, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.
Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Oxford: Blackwell Pubs. 1995.
Bram Stoker, Dracula, New York: W.W. Norton Publishers, 1997[1897].
Martin Davis, Engines of Logic: Mathematicians and the Origin of the Computer, New York: W.W. NOrton Publishers, 2000.

Optional: Friedrich Kittler, Grammophone, Film, Typewriter, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Also required are readings on electronic reserve. Instructions for Use will be presented in class.


Week 1

Jan 13: Introduction

Jan 15: (1)Michael Lynch and John Law, ``Pictures, Texts, and Objects: The literary language game of bird-watching,''
(2) Lily Kay ``In the Beginning was the Word? The Genetic Code and the Book of Life'' in The Science Studies Reader, ed. Mario Biagioli, New York: Routledge, 1999
Jan 17: Discussion: Birds and Words in Science and History

Week 2

Jan 20: No Class (MLK Day)

Literacy, Numeracy, Print

Jan 22: Elizabeth Eisenstein. The Printing revolution in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press, 1983, pgs. 3-106.
Jan 24: Eisenstein Cont'd, Discussion.

Week 3:

Jan 27: Paul Saenger, The Space Between Words, Chapters. 1,15.
Jan 29: Patricia Crain, The Story of A, Chapter 1.
Jan 31: Discussion. Literacy and printing presses, technological determinism vs. social change.

Ars Memoria: Techniques of Memory and Creativity

Week 4

Feb 3: Francis Yates, The Art of Memory, Chapter 1.
Feb 5: Yates, Chapter 5. Chapter 4 Recommended
Feb 7: Discussion - New and Old Media, New and Old Memory.

Week 5

Feb 10: Yates, Chapter 6.
Feb 12: (1) Jorges Luis Borges, ``Funes, his memory'' and (2) ``Library of Babel'' in Collected Fictions, Viking Press, 1998.
(3) Mary Carruthers, `The Craft of Thought, Cambridge University Press, 1998, pgs. 1-24

Feb 14: Discussion. Memory vs. Cognition.

Film Screening: ``Rashoman'' dir. Akira Kurosawa 1950. Time TBA

Week 6

Feb 17: Mary Carruthers, ``Craft of Thought'' pgs. 25-60

Feb 19: Yates, Ch, 17.
Optional Reading: Decartes, Discourse on The Method, chapters 1-3.

Feb 21: Discussion: Methods of Thought and Methods of science

Week 7

Film screening: ``Memento'' dir. Christopher Nolan 2000. Time TBA

Feb 24: A.R. Luria, Mind of a Mnemonist,pgs. 3-40.

Feb 26: Vannevar Bush, ``As We May Think,'' from The Atlantic Monthly, July 1945, Volume 176, No. 1; pages 101-108.
At http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/flashbks/computer/bushf.htm

Feb 28: Discussion

Perfect Languages: from tables to algorithms

Week 8

Mar 3: Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Introduction, Chapters. 1, 2, (5 optional).

Mar 5: (1) Eco, Chapter 4
(2)Yates, Chapter 8. Selections from Llull

Mar 7: Discussion

Week 9

Mar 10-14: midterm break

Week 10

Mar 17: (1) Eco, Chapter 14.
(2) Martin Davis, Engines of Logic, Chapter 1.

Mar 19: Mary M. Slaughter, Universal Languages and Scientific Taxonomy in the Seventeenth Century, Intro, Ch. 2.

Mar 21: Discussion

Week 11

Mar 24: (1) Slaughter, Ch. 5
(2) Eco, Ch. 10.

Mar 26: (1) Eco, Ch. 12. (2) Borges, ``The Analytical Language of John Wilkins''
Optional: Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, Chapter 1, Las Meninas.

Mar 28: No Class.

Week 12

Mar. 31: (1) Eco pgs. 302-336 (chapters 15-16).
(2) Martin Davis, The Universal Computer,Ch. 7.

Apr 2: Geoffrey Nunberg, ``Farewell to the Information Age'' in The Furture of the Book, ed. Geoffrey Nunberg, University of California Press, 1996.

Apr 4: Discussion/Lecture: Social Character of information. Supernatural technology. (Begin Reading Dracula)

Week 13


Apr 7: Bram Stoker, Dracula, Chs 1-4.

Apr 9: Stoker, Chs 5-9.

Apr 11: Discussion

Week 14

Apr 14: Stoker, Chs. 10-14.

Apr 16: Stoker, Chs. 15-17.

Apr 18: Discussion.

Week 15

Apr 21: Stoker, Chs. 18-22.

Apr 23: Stoker, Chs. 23-27.

Apr 25: Conclusion, Reprise.

Other Important Information:

Incompletes are not given.

Honor Code issues: For the assignments, group investigation and research is encouraged, but each assignment handed in must be the student's own original work. In the case of group assignments, division of labor will be up to the students, and any necessary honor code guidelines will be provided.

Any student with a documented disability needing academic adjustments or accommodations is requested to speak with the instructor during the first two weeks of class. All discussions will remain confidential. Students with disabilities will need to also contact Disability Support Services in the Ley Student Center.

Christopher Kelty
Last modified: Sat Mar 15 14:33:30 CST 2003