Saturday, September 10, 2005

The (old) New Invention and the Art of Memory

I've been wanting to discuss juxtaposition, mixing and remixing, and the cut-up, some of Jeff Rice's favorite terms, as practices of rhetorical memory all summer (and maybe I already have). Jeff's recent post on the need for a new definition of invention has finally pushed me to post. The problem, he argues, is that:
I've often found the invention process to be in the pattern that emerges (the avant-garde practice, later made digital within Ulmer's mystory). But the invention process is also in the merging of points, the connections made by surfing, by visiting, by tagging, by considering relationships where they do not yet exist. The invention process realized by the Web is not predicated by a claim nor by the need to demonstrate support (though, of course, such moves can occur). Instead, it is realized within connections, a rhetorical situation (as Jenny says) that is more ecology than situation. We see this invention made possible in online commerce (Netflix, Amazon). The time has come for a pedagogy of this kind of invention. It's not that we have the option of choosing "different ways to begin writing" as Lauer paraphrases Aristotle. It's that we are always choosing.
In short, that "The Web does not motivate support for persuasion as much as it allows for connections, interlinking, relationships."

As with most of what Jeff says, I couldn't agree more. What strikes me about this new understanding of invention is that it reminds me a lot of an old understanding of invention that practiced in the Middle Ages. An invention that worked hand-in-hand with memory. In fact, it reminds me a lot of the medieval notion of memory as a machina memorialis. The expanded version of the quote in the banner, which I provided in my first post, is as follows:
“[C]onceive of memory not only as 'rote,' the ability to reproduce something (whether a text, a formula, a list of items, an incident) but as the matrix of a reminiscing cogitation, shuffling and collating 'things' stored in a random-access memory scheme, or set of schemes - a memory architecture and a library built up during one's lifetime with the express intention that it be used inventively. Medieval memoria was a universal thinking machine, machina memorialis - both the mill that ground the grain of one's experiences (including all that one read) into a mental flour with which one could make wholesome new bread, and also the hoist or windlass that every wise master-builder learned to make and use in constructing new matters.” - Mary Carruthers, The Craft of Thought, p. 4.

As I explained in a comment to Jeff's post, I think the Web and new media are beginning to expose the fact that our traditional understanding of rhetoric is not the Rhetorical Tradition as it has always been practiced or even accepted during antiquity and middle ages but rather a tradition that has become privileged for various historical, political, material, and economic reasons. As Jeff notes, the problem with our understanding of invention is that it's rooted in the assumption that the purpose of rhetoric is persuasion. It's the same understanding of rhetoric that leads many compositionists to want to deny (or refuse to investigate) the fact that in the medieval period there wasn't a strong boundary between the art of rhetoric and the art of poetry. Both are about making, and memory, as the machinery of the mind, as the tool of invention, was applied equally to both.

As I suggested in my GRN presentation at C&W (abstract), artificial memory systems are databases. The art of memory is not about the storage but the retrieval and use of what is stored in memory, and one uses that material "inventively" for the purpose of "constructing new matters." Juxtaposition, mixing and remixing, and the cut-up aren't new techniques but old ones remediated: they're part of the old practices of memory rediscovered as the logic of print continues to loose its dominance over our discourse practices.

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