Sunday, January 01, 2006

The vanishing craft of memory

Reflecting on the craft of memory after cooking New Years brunch (orange-cornmeal pancakes, home-fries, shirred eggs, mimosae) for a bunch of folks w/out using recipes:

I spend, compared to a lot of folks I know (and the vast majority of students I meet), an awful lot of time committing information to memory: instrumental tunes pre-eminently, but also song texts, Internet information, instructional technology, sources for teaching and research, etc. Yes, I'll consign them to a Windows folder or a blogroll, but I also try to commit them to memory.

Partly this is for professional reasons: the medieval band plays everything from memory, as we believe that both conveys a more apt impression to an audience, and also permits us a degree of musical interaction we couldn't have if we were reading. Part of my contribution to that tends to be the recitation of very long semi-spoken, recited, or chanted pieces: in Latin, old English, or Irish (to date). So I have to memorize not only lengthy and complex accompaniments (and the texts I'm accompanying) but also lengthy and complex texts, some in languages I don't speak.

Similarly, I much prefer in class (and even more in working with graduate students) to be able to pull references, citations, dates, chronologies, titles, performers out of my mental database, as I think it makes the teaching experience much more immediate.

I work on these skills, seeking not only to maintain but also to expand them. Here's why:

Part of the training that we received (the Professor Spouse and my med-band colleagues formally, and myself informally and by osmosis) was in the old techniques of the memory, the kind that Cicero taught in De Oratore Book III (essentially a method for memorizing speeches): how to associate a text with an architectural facade, a statue, or a route traveled. This connected with some other techniques I'd encountered in various folk traditions, especially N European, W African, and E European: alliteration, verbal formulas, musical mnemonics.

But I've also come to believe that in the digital age, the degree to which these arts become superfluous is mostly a bad thing. If we don't have to remember because the machines do it for us (and because the range and complexity of material is so great), then our ability to remember erodes.

That erosion, I think, can lead to loss of certain perceptual capacities, both as speaker and as listener. I think, for example, that the performance of a lengthy spoken-word piece, or a song, or even a concerto, from memory is powerful for an audience partly because that experience--the information pouring out of the performer without any visible technological or textual support--is unfamiliar in the modern world but so archetypal in the history of human culture. We have been listening to singers, storytellers, and oral poets for many centuries longer than we've been reading texts or hyper-linking web-pages. I know from observation and experience that listeners have a visceral response to memorized performance, even if they don't know where that response comes from.

So doing things from memory, and expanding or recapturing the capacity to work with the memory, is to recover perceptual modes which have been part of human culture for millenia, but are currently in remission. It reconnects both performer and listener, not only to those modes of perception, but also to the literal millions of memes that have been carried in oral, folk, and vernacular traditions, through the craft of memory.

That's also howI like to cook.


Gzeg said...

Great post Chris, and thanks for the links. I'm generally in agreement with what you've said, except that I don't know if skilled memorizers are any less common in modern societies than they were in Cicero's time. It's just that the content has changed - people spend their time memorizing sports statistics, tv trivia, computer languages and various other components of "modern" culture. This is unfortunate because we spend more time absorbing media rather than life, and because the people who do generally learn a structured approach to memorization - computer scientists - spend so much time indoors that they have very little real-world experience to contextualize their knowledge (gross generalization, I know). This isn't necessarily a bad thing in itself, but I see it as part of a larger process where we become increasingly insulated from reality.

Greg (still meaning to memorize more texts if I ever get done learning reels...)

CJS said...

Thanks for the comment. I guess I'd argue that the *percentage* of persons in the modern population who are professional memorizers is substantially smaller. And I would *definitely* argue that the craft of memorization *as part of performance* has eroded.

Good observation about scientists, and it helps more-effectively narrow the range of my generalization. I would again agree that the degree to which contemporary "professional memorizers" work with technology and information systems--rather than groups of people or with natural cycles--again is quite different from the pre- or non-literate cultures.

Thanks again.