Mary Carruthers’s The Book of Memory

Memory is one of the five canons of ancient oral rhetoric – the others being invention, arrangement, style, and delivery, not necessarily in that order. Their relative popularity seems to ebb and flow – delivery had a high point in the 19th century with an elocutionary fad, for example, and accounting for invention was the prime focus of much of composition studies in the ’70s. Style, of course, has been fractured into a billion pieces, and arrangement left to vagaries and formulas.

Memory, however, is hardly considered at all anymore, what with our ability to look up nearly anything at the drop of a hat and document any speech. Carruthers has opened my eyes to how important memory was, not just for the ancients, but through the medieval period. She skips over the early christian period save for a peculiar use of Eusebius, which thankfully gives me some room to make my own case for citation in that period. But she does paint a pretty convincing portrait of how the ancients, at least, viewed memory vs. texts.

In this model, a written text is more of a memory aid than the authoritative record us modern documentarians think of. The real knowledge, ideas, concepts, etc, retained their primary base or home in the mind. This state of affairs appears to stem, though she doesn’t always make this connection, from the limits of pre-press texts. With each text different and handmade, only the memory could provide an ‘accurate’ account. This is a flawed view from our standpoint, as it doesn’t mesh well with transmission and redaction problems, but it’s the way writing was thought of – as a secondary backup to a more oral, memory-based knowledge. This makes sense with the original oral definition of rhetoric.

The Ciceronian orator aspired to an ideal where one could talk about any topic at length without the appearance of any preparation whatsoever – a feat only possible with a highly trained memory. Those with good memories were industrious men of high moral character – those with bad memories were simply lazy, unschooled, or undisciplined; memory was directly tied to an ethical judgment.

Most importantly for me, this casts more light on ancient views of citation. They still had a concept of plagiarism being bad, but it was centered on laziness and having a bad memory, not on theft. Ideas were not owned, but you were still expected to synthesize the ideas of others and remember the gist of what you had heard and read, if not the exact quotation. Originality was valued. If you used blocks of someone else’s material with or without attribution, you were an unoriginal bore that used old furniture that everyone had seen, to poorly paraphrase Quintilian. But you were not a thief, because texts were really only glorified Cliff Notes that could not substitute for true understanding of the material.

Today we have both connotations; students that plagiarize are both lazy AND thieves. Part of this transformation in the concept of texts comes from improved technology and new concepts of intellectual property. But another part of it is the ancient role of memory, with texts increasingly organized in mnemonic patterns to facilitate memorization (much of them Christian, the influence of religious needs is not to be underestimated) – and before that, mental strategies involving creating architectural spaces in the mind organized into grids, into which items of data could be placed. Without instruction in, or the valuing of, an expansive, all-encompassing memory, our technology allows us laziness. Identical texts do the work of cross-checking accuracy for us. Synthesis is also easier with copies of all the texts we need in front of us. No wonder, in this more ideal situation, that property snuck its way in.

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