Memory is so constitutive, so indispensable to our intellectual and practical activity to begin with that every cognitive or discursive act or fact is already tangled up in the mnemonic realm.
—Richard Terdiman, “Given Memory” 186
Jeff Rice’s recent posts on TV stories, Bob Dylan (Bob Dylan, 1963 and Columbia, Missouri, 2008) and Googledentity and Greg Ulmer’s recent post on the guiding image got me thinking about mnemonic images. Well, I’m always thinking about mnemonic images, but their intersections of image, identity, place, and memory as a method of composition illustrates an important point I’ve been working on for a while now. In effect, while Ulmer discusses the cover of Dylan’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan as a guiding image for Steve Earle, each the above posts by Rice and Ulmer has its own guiding image, an image, be it graphic, verbal, or mental, that serves as a point of departure. These guiding images, I want to suggest, are mnemonic images.
To understand what I mean by a mnemonic image, we must first understand what we mean when we use the term mnemonic. The final chapter of my dissertation is a riff, a rumination if you will, on the word mnemonic. (The chapter is, in fact, titled “Mnemonic Ruminations.”) Riffing on, but not continuing a philological remembrance of memory in the dissertation’s first chapter, in this final chapter I focus not on the more familiar noun form of mnemonic (an aide to memory) but on the two adjectival forms of the word (“aiding or designed to aid the memory” and “of or relating to memory”). When I started that chapter, I thought I was writing about aides to memory becauase I thought I was arguing that the canon of memory is about the technologizing of memory (I still do make this argument), but what I found myself arguing is that in order to revive and refashion the canon of memory for contemporary practice, we need to embrace the meaning of “of or relating to memory,” keeping in mind as Mary Carruthers asks us to, to conceive of memory as a machina memorialis, as a universal thinking machine.
In short, these images serve an architectonic function: they trigger a set of associations, links, to other ideas. They’re not containers, static repositories of meaning where fixed ideas are held until recalled, but sites for active creation of meaning through association, sampling, juxtaposition, mixing and remixing, and assemblage. To think about images in this way is to get medieval, to think about composition from the practie of medieval memoria as Marry Carruthers describes it:
Medieval memoria thus includes, in our terms, “creative thought,” but not thoughts created “out of nothing.” It built upon remembered structures “located” in one’s mind as patters, edifices, grids, and — most basically — association-fabricated networks of “bits” in one’s memory that must be “gathered” into an idea. Memory work is also process, like a journey; it must therefore have a starting-point. And this assumption leads again to the need for “place,” because remembering is a task of “finding” and of “getting from one place to another” in your thinking mind. (Craft of Thought 23)
While I want to stress the idea of the cognitive function of images (mental, graphic, and verbal), we can’t get away from the other meaning of mnemonic, the idea of “aiding or designed to aid the memory.” (Nor should we.) The two meanings exist as a dialectic and to forget or dismiss one of these meanings is to weaken the other.
Whether we are considering the rhetorical use of imagery to help make a point memorable; the intertextuality of a work like “The Waste Land” or “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue”; a lexical entry’s activation by a probe so that it is brought into working memory from long-term memory; juxtaposition as a compositional tool; or a social commonplace as a site of memory, we are considering memory as the activation of mnemonic processes by a mnemonic object.
Rice and Ulmer’s meditation, rumination to use another medieval term, on these mnemonic images, the TV shows watched and images of Dylan, serve as initial structures located within their minds that help them gather ideas as they move from one place to another. Once the composition is done, the image may or may not remain to function as a symbol (mnemonic) representing the meaning (res) of the composition, a mnemonic that both “contains” meaning and functions as a starting point for new compositions. Or, on the other hand, these mnemonic images need not make it into the final composition, such as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s fabulations written while working on Hybridity, Identity, and Monstrosity in Medieval Britian: On Difficult Middles (posted as “The book I didn’t write,” “The Book I Did Not Write, Part II,” and “Fabulations, Third and Final Installment.”