One of the projects I’ve had to put on hold in order to finish my dissertation is “Memory and the Art of Database,” a study of database technologies through history and what light these earlier technologies might shed on computerized database design and use. I’m particularly interested in the inventional aspect of databases which Mary Carruthers explores in works such as The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200 and “Inventional Mnemonics and the Ornaments of Style: The Case of Etymology” (Connotations 2.2 (1992): 103-114).
I just found out yesterday that I can attend the Computers and Writing confernece this year, much too late to propose a paper, but not yet too late to participate in the Graduate Research Network. I’ve just submited my GRN abstract:
"Memory and the Art of Database"
Through the Renaissance, conceptions of memory focused not so much on the distinction between memory stored inside us and outside us but between natural memory, which was always internal, and artificial memory systems, which could be either internal or external. From this perspective, a simple mnemonic rhyme, a stone monument, a memory palace, a book, and a computer database are all equivalent in that they are artificial memory systems. In both the classical and medieval traditions, artificial memory systems were considered an important part of invention. Furthermore, in the medieval memory tradition the real fear was not in forgetting, but in information disorder, which was considered a sin against the virtue of Prudence. Memory system design and practice was, therefore, of no little concern.
This project, which is in its early stages, seeks to place computerized databases in their historical context by examining the practices of early technologies of information storage and retrieval such as topoi, catalogue poems, the Ciceronian “Art of Memory,” medieval florilegia, renaissance commonplace-books, indexes, libraries, card catalogues, and even the research paper note card, and exploring what light these earlier memory technologies may hold for what we might call an “art of database.”
From an Ongian perspective, how we access and store information — the databases we use — helps structure and is structured by how we think. My dissertation itself touches upon these issues. For instance, I have a chapter devoted to Anglo-Saxon non chronological presentation of historical narrative, most notably the Geatish-Swedish wars in Beowulf and Alfred’s “Preface to Pastoral Care,” though I think you can even see it in such poems as “The Wanderer.”
Finally, if we want to think about culture as memory (and I do, see Connerton, 28, and Petrov 77-78), then culture itself is a type of database, with social memory as the information and the practices of social memory as the interface. Surely someone working on social networks has made this observation before.
Connerton, Paul. How Societies Remember. Themes in the Social Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.
Petrov, Krinka Vidakovic. “Memory and Oral Tradition.” Memory: History, Culture and the Mind. Wolfson College Lectures. Ed. Thomas Butler. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989. 77-96.
Cross posted to Notes from the Walter J Ong Archives.