Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Another Day, Another Proposal (Two, Really)

Having organized or co-organized three prior "Theory and Practice in the Composition Classroom" sessions for the Midwest Modern Language Association convention, I've finally decided to step aside and submit a proposal for the session. M/MLA posts 250 word abstracts, so I've spent part of the morning revising mine to this:
“Memory as Composition: Monastic Rhetoric, Cognitive Science, and Imageword”

In The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200, Mary Carruthers argues that the focus of medieval monastic rhetoric was on the creation of compositions for meditation rather than on persuading others. Meditation, Carruthers notes, is “a craft of thinking” used for “making things” (4). This work, both the process and the product, involved cognitive images – imagewords, to borrow Kristie Fleckenstein’s term, used in a recursive process of creating and representing meaning. These imagewords, a mixture of the memoria rerum (memory for things) and memoria verborum (memory for words) best known to contemporary rhetoricians and compositionists as part and parcel of the Ciceronian art of memory, work as metaphor, and it is by understanding them as a metaphor that we can understand how the imageword, how the art of memory itself, works. Current thought in cognitive science argues that metaphor functions through the processes of structure mapping and conceptual integration (also known as conceptual blending or mental binding), and it is through the theory of conceptual integration that we can understand how both classical and medieval ars memoria and contemporary image theory work on the cognitive level. In bringing together the theories and practices of monastic rhetoric, cognitive science, and imagery in composition studies, I will suggest a theoretical and practical framework for developing a contemporary art of memory, one that sees memory as a composition craft.
It might sound a bit familiar to some of you, as it's closely connected to my earlier musing on my cognitive (re)turn and it is, more or less, the third chapter of my dissertation, though I'm not going to talk about MOO-based writing, which I do discuss in the dissertation.

Up next is an abstract for the CCCC 2007 memory roundtable which Kathie Gossett is organizing. I'm going to talk about the role social memory plays in rhetoric and composition. Or, really, as I'll have somewhere around 6-8 minutes, I'll be talking about one of the roles social memory does play. I think, though I'm not sure yet, that I'll discuss my adaptation of Pierre Nora's notion of les lieux des memorie (site or realm of memory) and their function as a form of social commonplaces and how we can use them. While I didn't use the Nora's terminology in my cognitive (re)turn posts, the Anglo-Saxon monarchy functions as an Anglo-Saxon site of memory throughout Beowulf, and in that post I suggested a few ways in which the Beowulf-poet uses this social commonplace mnemonically. In my CCCC presentation, as well as in my chapter on social memory in rhetoric and composition, I'm going to use Jon Stewart's September 20, 2001 monologue, the first new Daily Show after September 11. What most interests me is the last half of the monologue, which reads:
One of my first memories was of Martin Luther King being shot. I was five and if you wonder if this feeling will pass. . . (choked up). . . When I was five and he was shot, this is what I remember about it. I was in school in Trenton and they turned the lights off and we got to sit under our desks. . . and that was really cool. And they gave us cottage cheese, which was a cold lunch because there were riots, but we didn’t know that. We just thought, "My God! We get to sit under our desks and eat cottage cheese!" And that’s what I remember about it. And that was a tremendous test of this country's fabric and this country has had many tests before that and after that.

The reason I don’t despair is that. . . this attack happened. It's not a dream. But the aftermath of it, the recovery, is a dream realized. And that is Martin Luther King's dream.

Whatever barriers we put up are gone. Even if it's just momentary. We are judging people by not the color of their skin, but the content of their character. (pause) You know, all this talk about "These guys are criminal masterminds. They got together and their extraordinary guile and their wit and their skill. . ." It's all a lie. Any fool can blow something up. Any fool can destroy. But to see these guys, these firefighters and these policemen and people from all over the country, literally with buckets, rebuilding. . . that’s extraordinary. And that's why we have already won. . . they can't. . . it's light. It's democracy. They can't shut that down.

They live in chaos. And chaos, it can't sustain itself--it never could. It's too easy and it's too unsatisfying. The view. . . from my apartment. . . (choking up) was the World Trade Center. . .

Now it's gone. They attacked it. This symbol of. . . of American ingenuity and strength. . . and labor and imagination and commerce and it's gone. But you know what the view is now? The Statue of Liberty. . . the view from the south of Manhattan is the Statue of Liberty. . .

You can’t beat that. . .
Note how he uses Martin Luther King, Jr., the World Trade Center, and the Statue of Liberty as commonplaces. Each functions as a social commonplace with a host of meanings. While the whole range of meanings won't all hold for specific individuals, each holds mnemonic value within American society while at the same time serving as symbols of America itself. Rather than just name each of the three sites of memory, Stewart tells us what value we should ascribe to MLK and to the World Trade Center, and in doing so he both calls upon our own store of knowledge and creates for us a cognitive image, an imageword to use Fleckenstein's term, that both makes meaning for us and serves to anchor that meaning in our minds. The Statue of Liberty is used in the same way too, but I think its also interesting that he doesn't believe there's a need to explicate, to define, the statues mnemonic value. While we can all read the meaning of Statue of Liberty against the grain, its symbolic value is deeply rooted in the American psyche, in American social memory.

I could also, and in the dissertation I might, talk about how other elements such as sitting under one's desk at school, firefighters and policemen, democracy, chaos, and even light, function mnemonically in the monologue, but the big three are more than enough.

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