Kevin Brooks reminds me why I need read more deeply into Greg Ulmer‘s work as well as reread what I have read. Some of it I get intuitively, such as “To adapt a phrase from McLuhan and Ong, electronics is not secondary orality but secondary mnemonics” (Heuretics 191), which is one of the passages Kevin refers to in his post. Other parts of Ulmer I have to struggle through. While those who know me will understand why I’ve highlighted that particular sentence, I want to place it into its immediate context to demonstrate just how relevant Ulmer’s work is to mine (although you could just read Kevin’s post, which summarizes most of the highlights of this paragraph):
The Greeks developed mnemonic picture writing as a supplement to the alphabet in order to deal with the information overload that resulted from manuscript culture (Bolter, 56) . It survived through to the Renaissance but became obsolete with the advent of the book (and hence served as an example of the cycle of invention in the institutional dimension of the apparatus). The practice was codified in the Rhetoirca ad Herennium, whose equivalent today might be something like the Saint Martin’s handbook. As part of his reform of education aimed at simplifying the complexities of scholasticism, Peter Ramus eliminated the mnemonic art. “Ramus abolished memory as a part of rhetoric, and with it he abolished the artificial memory,” replacing it with his own method of dialectical order (Yates, 232). Heuretics is part of a movement that will be to the Saint Martin’s handbook what the handbook is to the ad Herennium. To adapt a phrase from McLuhan and Ong, electronics is not secondary orality but secondary mnemonics. (Heuretics 191)
Kevin’s post reminded me of this passage just as I am working on refining the so-what of my database rhapsody chapter (boringly titled “Memory and the Art of Database”). For instance, while research note cards are a database technology used as compositional tools, we don’t think of them as such because we’re taught to use them in support of print noetics. We conventionally use them, if I understand Ulmer’s term correctly, as part of the apparatus of print. While we can find counter-examples throughout the history of print, Ramus’s dialectical method is at the heart of Western print-based compositional practices (especially the Anglo-American tradition—we loved Ramus on both sides of the pond).
My argument is—my so-what is—that we can look backward past print culture as well as forward into electronic/digital culture to recognize the limitations of print-based compositional strategies, which has often been taught as an odd mixture of method and romantic inspiration. (As Ong explains in Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology, the Romantics mark a break from (oral) rhetorical culture (and with it the commonplace tradition) and the modern world. The Romantics invented/were drawn to their myth of the solitary poet (writer/composer) inspired by the muse because, culturally, they were in a culture that no longer valued the compositional practices of rhetorical culture. Left with method as the compositional theory (a compositional theory based in method rather than rhetoric, to put it another way), they turned to the classical concept of divine inspiration as part of their larger affectation of natural supernaturalism to use Abrams’ term (maybe a bit too loosely, as I’m also referring to the romantic poet’s (i.e., Wordsworth’s) affectation of common, everyday language and simple, natural, childlike imagery, settings, and themes).
Looking both backward as well as forward, I suggest the term database rhapsody as a metaphor for a different way of thinking about compositional practices. Rhapsody, of course, looks all the way back to the rhapsodes of Greek oral culture as well as much more recent Ong’s essay “Typographic Rhapsody: Ravisius Textor, Zwinger, and Shakespeare” in Interfaces of the Word, which is a study of residual orality within early typographic culture. (The essay was originally published under the title “Commonplace Rhapsody: Ravisius Textor, Zwinger, and Shakespeare.) And, of course, the term database comes from electronic databases, more importantly, from the concept of database logic of digital culture and new media. What the database metaphor lets us do is re-embrace non-analytic thought as a compositional strategy even when we are engaging in print noetic composition. (I think this is what Ulmer would call a haptic rather than analytical mode of thinking governed, or at least open to, free association, juxtaposition, linkage, etc.—very similar to and most likely including, if not itself outright, Ulmer’s notion of chora.)
To give an concrete example, let us return to the research (index) note card. As Ulmer explains in an interview: “Analytical argument or reason, when you are writing a research paper, tells you where to go: what books to look for, how to retrieve the in formation in the books, indexes, etc. It tells you how to organize what you find, how to put it back to somebody else so they can understand something they didn’t know before.” The research note card, then, becomes the places, the topoi, one stores information found during the process of that research and those topoi are called upon (organized) as the analytical argument dictates. The cards exist as part of the apparatus of print noetic.
The database rhapsody metaphor, however, asks us to think of those note cards as having a greater potential as compositional tools. The cards aren’t just static places where we store information until our argument calls for it. The database rhapsody metaphor asks us to think of them as a locus of invention and meaning making, as a database from which we rhapsodize. Just as the point behind the places and images mnemonic was not to store information statically but to bring disparate things (res) together to compose something new, we can use index cards to form new meaning through juxtaposition, linkage, and association. We can, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, brush information against information and explore the growing web of meanings that result. What I am describing, of course, is Mary Carruthers’ concept of memory and mnemonics as a machina memorialis.