I attended the Midwest MLA this past weekend, where I presented “Memory as Composition: Monastic Rhetoric, Cognitive Science, and Imageword.” I have no idea why I thought that would be a good title, but for some unknown reason I went with it last spring. It is, if nothing else, an accurate description of the paper. The monastic rhetoric is largely influenced by Mary Carruthers’ The Craft of Thought, the cognitive science focuses on conceptual integration (also known as conceptual or creative blending), and Imageword comes from Kristie Fleckenstein’s Embodied Literacies (though the discussion of imagery in composition studies draws from others as well). The presentation is part of my dissertation chapter “Memory and the Art of Imagery,” with the discussions of MOO-based writing and medieval poetry left out. And unlike the dissertation chapter, it included a discussion of my attempts the week before to have the students in my Process of Composition course define the US flag as a site of American social memory (les lieux de mémorie, to use Pierre Nora’s term) imagistically rather than linguistically. I need to start working with imagistic thinking much earlier in the course next semester.
While we all think in images as well as words, formal schooling, especially that in language arts and English studies, almost always privileges linguistic thought and expression over imagistic and image-word thought and expression, even when that thought and expression manifests itself as verbal imagery. Hmm…I knew there was a reason I’ve been sitting on this link to the book Jeffrey Jerome Cohen didn’t write. Cohen’s vignettes serve (and would have served) multiple functions. First, there’s the inventional purpose of creating such images to help work out ideas. There’s the illustrative purpose in that they would have provided examples of more abstract and complex ideas. Then there’s the mnemonic purpose in that they would have helped us remember Cohen’s ideas and why those ideas were important. And, finally, there’s what I’ll call the machina memorialis function (better ideas, anyone?), which is the role Cohen’s images can play in our own thinking. According to Carruthers, such images were referred to as pictura in some sources, and both the rhetorical tropes of ekphrasis and Bildeinsatz are examples of pictura.
While I didn’t attend Michael Berube’s keynote, I did hear about it from Eileen Joy, who, by the way, first pointed me to Pierre Nora’s work. In one sense Nora’s got it all wrong (the idea that pre-modern societies just remember naturally so they do not need sites of memory) but the idea of lieux de mémoire, what I regularly refer to as social sites of memory, is one I’ve run with. While at the conference, I spent much time with Gina Merys. Our nearly weekly meetings to drink coffee and talk of dissertations, theory, teaching, students, and life in general, ended when she moved away this June to be an assistant professor. And I seem to have once again missed Brendan Riley. I blame my forgetting to contact Brendan before hand on everything else I’ve been doing, which is:
Job applications. I’m still cranking them out, and I’m now getting requests for additional materials. I’m pleased that I’m being taken seriously by some medieval search committees as well as rhetoric and composition ones. I may have dropped my dissertation on Anglo-Saxon social memory for one on the rhetoric and poetics of memory, but I draw as heavily on medieval texts, theory, and scholarship as I do from rhetoric and composition (and, of course, there’s the whole overlap with medieval rhetoric and composition). It’s the juxtaposition of medieval texts and scholarship with the work of rhetoricians and compositionists such Sharon Crowley, Kristie Fleckenstein, Jeffrey Walker, Johndan Johnson-Eilola, Michael Calvin McGee, and Patricia Dunn (to name a few I worked with today), mixed together with cognitive and social memory studies, that really gets me thinking. For me, the connections between Chaucer’s House of Fame; the unit of “theme” in oral-formulaic theory; the meditative function of “The Dream of the Rood”; the use of mental, verbal, and graphic imagery in composition classrooms; mashups or visual exhibits of American social memory as composition assignments; and the database as a site of composition are clear as can be. Making those connections clear for everyone else is what my dissertation’s about.
Add to all this some teaching and work in the archives processing the Ong Manuscript Collection, and I’m amazed that I got some substantial dissertation writing done.
The leaves in my front and backyard, however, are going to have to wait a while longer.