Friday, April 07, 2006

My Cognitive (Re)Turn

Donna's recent post "Virtual forgetting" reminded me that I wanted to a least touch upon habit memory and body memory and writing. Nothing profound in touching upon this as its a commonplace that habit and regularity (time, place, materials) are conducive for writing, but placing this within the context of habit memory and body memory is necessary for a comprehensive understanding of rhetorical memory. (If it's not readily apparent, I define rhetorical memory about as broadly as one can get. Essentially, if it's memory or memory related and it applies, it's rhetorical memory as far as I'm concerned.) As I was walking to meet some people for lunch yesterday, my mind jumped from habit memory to prototypes and scripts and schemas and how they can be engaged by writers. (All my reading here has, to date, been limited to cognitive linguistics and cognitive poetics; a search of CompPile shows, as I suspected, composition studies flirted with the ideas in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, but they never took like they have in literary studies.)

The more distance I get from my old dissertation, the more I begin to realize everything that was going wrong. At some point, after having done some extensive poking around in cognitive linguistics and cognitive poetics, I wrote a snippet, drawing heavily from Mark Turner's The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language as an example of the cognitive turn I wanted to take with my dissertation on memory in Old English literature. It's nothing exciting and was just meant to serve as an example of the value I was finding in this work and to show why I wanted to include this perspective. I wrote:
While proverbs have their origins in oral tradition and often represent what we’d today call folk wisdom, they also function as mnemonic devices and operate by invoking cultural values, practices, and beliefs. As John Miles Foley explains, for a “competent audience,” proverbs and proverbial speech “activate networks of immanent meaning to which they are linked by performance fiat and traditional practice” (Singer, 42). In specific reference to Beowulf, Foley argues that proverbs serve to situate the narrative within the context of the culture: “This common gambit embeds the specifics of a particular situation in the overarching traditional network that informs all individual moments. It builds a bridge between the particular and the generic, the momentary and the traditional” (How to Read 106).

We can see a proverb providing a bridge between the specific (the narrative) and the generic (the meaning of the proverb) within the first proverbial statement in Beowulf:

Swa sceal (geong g)uma gode gewyrcean,
fromum feohgiftum on fæder (bea)rme,
þæt hine on ylde eft gewunigen
wilgesi†as, þonne wig cume,
leode gelæsten; (20-24a)

(Thus should a young man bring about good
with pious gifts from his father’s possessions,
so that later in life loyal comrades
will stand beside him when war comes,
the people will support him;)


This proverbial statement, a variation of “Cyning sceal mid ceape cwene gebicgan, / bunum ond beagum; bu sceolon ærest / geofum god wesan” ‘A king has to procure a queen with a payment, with goblets and with rings. Both must be pre-eminently liberal with gifts’ (“Maxims I,” 81-83b) and “Geongne æþeling sceolan gode gesiðas / byldan to beaduwe and to beahgife” ‘Noble companions must urge on the prince / While young to battle and to treasure-giving’ (“Maxims II,” 14-15), expresses the Anglo-Saxon sentiment that good kings should buy and reward loyalty with treasure and that this treasure giving should begin early to ensure support when the throne is assumed. In Beowulf, just before this proverbial statement is made, we have been introduced to Scyld’s son Beow, who is “breme” ‘renown’ (18a) and who has had his “blæd wide sprang” ‘glory wide spread’ (18b). After Scyld’s death, Beow is described as a beloved king who long ruled his people (53-55a). The mnemonic value of the proverb resides within its bridging function that connects the particular (the narrative) to the generic (the proverb). Its mnemonic value, that good kings give treasure to buy and reward loyalty, is brought into play when it is juxtaposed with Beow’s fame and success. Because Beow is renowned while Scyld is alive, and because he becomes a beloved king once Scyld is dead, we are meant to assume that Beow acts in accordance with the proverb and with Anglo-Saxon cultural standards.

What this proverbial statement does is tell the story of Beow’s treasure-giving in mnemonic shorthand. Proverbs function this way, Mark Turner explains, because they are a form of parable and, as such, represent “a condensed, implicit story to be interpreted through projection” (5-6). In other words, by placing a proverb into a story, both the proverb and the story provide context for each other and help us interpret both. He explains:

Parable begins with narrative imagining—the understanding of a complex of objects, events, and actors as organized by our knowledge of story. It then combines story with projection. This classic combination produces one of our keenest mental processes for constructing meaning. The evolution of the genre of parable is thus neither accidental nor exclusively literary: it follows inevitably from the nature of our conceptual systems. (5)

On their own, outside of stories, proverbs exist in what Turner calls a “generic space.” The proverbial statements of “Maxims I” and “Maxims II” exist wholly within this generic space and have a generic interpretation, which are, respectively, “Both must be pre-eminently liberal with gifts” and “Noble companions must urge on the prince / While young to battle and to treasure-giving." It is this generic interpretation, the cultural values and folk wisdom the proverb represents, that a proverb or proverbial statement is a mnemonic for. When projected into a story, a proverb is given a context and its mnemonic value activates its “networks of immanent meaning."
I was told to leave the cognitive out. I'm sure the fear was that I was going to far a field and that I was delving too far beyond the expertise of anyone within the department. But now, as I reflect on it, it was just one more sign of how different our visions were for my dissertation. At the time I tried to tell myself I'd slip some of it in and deal with it in full post-dissertation, and I could have done that if this was the only problem I was having.

But now the cognitive's back. I'm insisting on it because I can't think about memory without thinking about the cognitive. This time around, it slipped in with visual thinking and conceptual metaphor (well, both were going to be slipped in the old dissertation too). Right now I'm currently rewriting the paper that is to be my first chapter. As it exists, it is a survey of medieval memory theory that draws connections to contemporary attempts to work with rhetorical memory. The thrust of that paper is that the contemporary approaches are scattered, partial, and seemingly unconnected until we place them within the context of medieval memory theory, theory which most of these scholars are unaware of. The title of that paper, which I gave as a keynote for the Texas Tech grad student conference in 2003, is titled "Remembering that which We Forgot: Reviving Medieval Memoria for the Contemporary Classroom." As I've been working with this rewrite, I've been concerned with how I was going to tie it in with social memory and integrate literature in more fully. And yesterday it hit me, and now I'm rewriting it so that rather than explore composition studies' contemporary attempts to engage rhetorical memory, it'll introduce the important issues from medieval memory theory and contemporary cognitive science that I'll be drawing upon in the rest of the dissertation. I'll still point to composition studies attempts to engage memory, many of which are quite good, I should note. I want to title it something like "Memory Medieval and Modern: Towards a Contemporary Understanding of Rhetorical Memory" but that title echoes Ong's "Digitization Ancient and Modern: Beginnings of Writing and Today's Computers," a review essay of Denise Schmandt-Besserat's Before Writing.

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