Friday, May 20, 2005

Memory and the Art of Database

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."

It also ties in nicely with , , and , which I've discussed here from time to time.

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.

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At 12:32 PM, Blogger Glo said...

I am introigued by your intent to contextualize databases in terms of cultures and memory.

In particular, one of sources interested me, the one about oral memory by Petrov. Does it deal with Balkan heroic epics?

Working in the area of balkan peace, i was wondering how this programming to remember past grievances also contributes to the inability of some groups to break out of vendaetta cycles. how could memory and storage be assisted to make more flexibility a possibility?

Glo McMillan

At 4:17 PM, Blogger JohnWalter said...

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At 4:19 PM, Blogger JohnWalter said...

Petrov does discuss the Serbo-Croatian epics, but it's not limited to them. If I remember correctly, he drasws examples from a number of European traditions, and he concludes with an interesting look at the Sephardic tradition in Yugoslavia.

As for your how memory and storage could help assist in breaking out of the feud cycle -- I should note that I'm talking of the top of my head here -- the various groups would need to choose to break the cycle of violence. As Jan Assmann argues, cultural memory is what a culture chooses not to forget. The epics themselves are just a reflection of that cultural drive. What could happen is for new epics to be composed by the people of Sarajevo and other locations where there was much There's still an enemy there. Unless the enemy is Milosevic and his regime and it's about his overthrowing. But then you're still creating potential conflict with Milosevic's supporters. That's the problem with such epics of this sort. They're usually about a grievance.


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