It’s with some chagrin that I want to quote the opening lines of [tag]Janine Rider[/tag]’s The Writer’s Book of Memory: An Interdisciplinary Study for Writing Teachers1 published just over a decade ago:

I was told some years ago that the rhetorical canon of [tag]memory[/tag] had great potential for contemporary study but that no one was paying attention to it. I was intrigued, and decided immediately that I would explore further. I discovered the statement had been about 75% correct: Memory is a fascinating and relevant study, and the field is still largely unexplored; however a number of excellent scholars have begun to consider memory’s importance in contemporary rhetoric. Memory’s time has arrived. (ix)

Chagrin because when I list the rhetoric and composition scholars who have taken up in memory in the past 20 years–John Frederick Reynolds, Sharon Crowley, Debra Hawhee, Winifred Horner, Walter Ong, and, of course, Mary Carruthers, to name some who have been most helpful for my work–I rarely include Rider even though I should. I think, in some ways, her book scared me: she’d already staked out the territory.

But I also want to note the irony in that passage above. I regularly say that no one studies memory, meaning, of course, that it has been largely ignored rather than ignored altogether. I don’t know if I agree with Rider’s 75% figure, though as her book is an interdisciplinary study, I won’t take exception to it. Her point is, however, valid. People have been and are studying memory and, more importantly, they’ve mostly been ignored. It’s just a hunch, but I bet if one surveyed the discipline, the single best known text on memory would be Yates’ The Art of Memory. Too much has been done since then for this to be the case. Also ironic is Rider’s claim that memory’s time has arrived. Unfortunately, for us (but not for those of us studying memory), memory’s time has not yet come. Maybe it never will, but one can hope.

But getting back to Rider’s book and my largely unconscious anxiety over it. I pulled the book off the shelf yesterday–it’s a slim book and easy to get lost on my shelf of memory books–and have gotten reacquainted with it. It’s good and it belongs in my list of important memory texts from within rhetoric and composition. This is, I think, the place place to start for those in rhet/comp who want to study memory.

Now that I’m solidly in my own study of memory rather than thinking about it as a post-dissertation project, Rider’s book no longer scares me. I know what territory I want to carve out, and while we’re arguing for the same thing, we’re arguing it by very different means. While her book is a wide-view survey of memory from the perspectives of the history of rhetoric, psychology, philosophy, literature and theory, and composition studies, my dissertation is held together by the argument that we must return to a conscious understanding of mnemonic thinking and mnemonic practice. Or, to put it another way, mnemonics is central to the canon of memory.

While we generally believe mnemonics to be memory aids to help us remember through internal recall, Classical and Medieval rhetoricians knew differently. As I’ve said many times before, in Classical and Medieval [tag]rhetoric[/tag], the distinction is not between internal and external memory (pace Horner), but instead between natural and artificial memory. Natural memory is when you can recall something unaided, as when you can recall what you had for breakfast or when you know your own name. Generally, our access to such information is so direct that we don’t need to “think” about it. Likewise, artificial memory is any memory aid, whether internal (a rhyme or a memory palace) or external (a book, a string tied around our finger, the smell of baking bread, etc.) that helps us remember.

More importantly, however, our cognitive processes are themselves mnemonic, and this has massive implications for what we do. For instance, genre and form serve mnemonic purposes. Among other things, they “prime” us for taking in certain types of information and processing that information in certain ways, and they do so because part of learning about specific genres and forms is learning and developing the mental schema, scripts, and protocols for those genres and forms. In short, the form of a memo or the genre of mystery novel function as a mnemonic which prepares us to approach these texts in certain ways. I’m overly simplifying all of this and the implications are much broader than what I suggest here, but it’s a hint at what I’m getting at.

So, simply put, to readopt mnemonic thinking and [tag]mnemonic practices[/tag] is not to return to some earlier version of orality and it’s not some desire to revive a medieval past. Instead, it’s a call to recognize that we are and always have been mnemonic in our thought and in our practice. My dissertation makes this argument by exploring rhetorical memory from four perspectives: the mnemonic function of mental, verbal, and graphic imagery in the production and reception of texts; the history of databases as compositional technologies; the role of social memory in rhetoric; and literature as social memory.

  1. Rider, Janine. The Writer’s Book of Memory: An Interdisciplinary Study for Writing Teachers. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1995. []