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"Mnemonics Neatly Eliminate Man's Only Nemesis (Insufficient Cerebral Storage)"



Most of the mnemonic devices and techniques that remain are of simple, more standardized varieties. "Roy G. Biv" to remember the colors of the rainbow, "In fourteen-hundred-ninety-two / Columbus sailed the ocean blue" to remember major historical events, and "lefty, loosey; righty, tighty" to remember how tools work are some of the simple varieties still prevalent today. Despite the longevity of some of these devices, however, they are but a small suggestion of the much more complex and widespread mnemonic strategies of yesteryear.

Case Study or Trace Study of the Memory Palace

Memory Palaces are methods of loci which use an imagined architecture to structure a speech based on associations of symbols. They are a remediation of association. Before memory palaces were imagined, symbols were already being used to stand in for words or ideas, such as hieroglyphs. Memory Palaces abstract this notion of association of images with ideas and complicate it to allow one to remember hundreds of ideas and statements. Memory Palaces must be practiced, otherwise they are prone to being forgotten. Meant to be remembered for a specific occasion, a specific speech, or event, once the event has passed, the memory palace recedes, shatters, erases itself into the depths of the mystic writing pad’s unconscious.

The Memory Palace becomes a spectral extension of one’s own home on which the memory palace is based. This extension becomes a frozen image which cannot be altered in order to effectively work. Its static and unchanging nature reveals that it is very much like a photograph, an archiveable and petrified image, and a dead copy of a live original. The memory palace, then is an afterimage of the real house, it’s a faint impression It’s static and spectral quality lends it to the space of the crypt and removes it from the space of the living. It is the dead memory that must be summoned by the speaker, called to as the missing Other, and resurrected into the present.

Hegel - Erinnerung and Gedächtnis (good memory and bad memory). Erinnerung is good memory for Hegel, it can be accessed and functions normally, also points to a missing Other. Gedächtnis bad memory, technologized memory is prone to forgetting, like writing (Plato, Derrida). Gedächtnis relies on a crutch and acts as a prosthetic or extension. It is the mechanical reproduction of memory. Memory Palaces fall under Gedächtnis, as they are a phantom crutch for remembering which can be easily dismantled and forgotten. It does reflect Erinnerung in that it calls to its missing Other but Hegel would likely consider it to be bad memory.

Mnemonic Expression: Writing Secrets and Speaking the Mind

While mnemonic techniques were designed for oral performance without visible written aid, they were, pace Derrida, systems of representation organized by writing. Rather than utilizing writing to externalize memory, mnemonics structured texts to correlate with the (variously imagined) inner mechanisms of the psyche. Mnemonics shaped poetics via rhyme and meter, for instance, rendering the text structurally uniform so that it might be more easily remembered and spoken. Mnemonic technique thus interfaced between speech and writing, presence and trace. In the same vein, mnemonics mediated between the interior mind and the external world, articulating both. From a media archaeological perspective, mnemonics become not just storage media but written expression, inscribing secrets of history and representing the persistently black-boxed functioning of human memory.

Mnemonics as cryptography

As a mode of mediation, mnemonics represent a curious combination of semiotics and functional nonsense. Mnemonic signs (images, places, phrases) must be nearly evacuated of meaning in order to cue—but not replace—the desired information actively attached to (or associated with) them. From this perspective, mnemonics functioned as a storage technique comprised of arbitrary signifiers rather than a communicative semantic system (mnemonic vestiges like Roy G. Biv and King Phillip Came Over For Good Spaghetti confirm this view). The seemingly nonsensical functioning of mnemonics, however, leaves open the opportunity for obfuscation. If mnemonics could be objectively coded for memory, then they could also perform as encrypted transmission.

Giordano Bruno’s magical mnemonics

A historical example of the cryptographic potential of mnemonics appears in the hermetic tradition threatened by the Inquisition in 16th and early 17th century Europe. With its bond to both Hermes (the Greek messenger god) and Thoth (the Egyptian deity of writing), and its belief that man is divine, hermetic philosophy clashed with Christian doctrine (Zielinski 65, Yates 217). In The Deep Time of The Media, Siegfried Zielinski links hermetic tradition, which had to be propagated secretly, to the “subhistory” stemming from “the passion for encrypting and deciphering texts runs through the sciences” since the 13th century (Zielinski 73).

Zielinski notes that cryptography made particular demands on memory and was thus bound to mnemonic ability (Zielinski 83). Giordano Bruno, a Dominican friar and peripatetic philosopher famous for his powers of recollection and eventually burned at the stake for his for his belief in magic, took this relationship one step further. In his writings and teachings, Bruno endeavored to both transmit and internalize hermetic secrets through mnemonic technique. “The secret was the combination of the Hermetic beliefs with the techniques of the art of memory” (Yates 305) writes the Renaissance historian Frances Yates, so that these “memory systems” became “a mode of transmitting a religion, or an ethic, or some message of universal import” (Yates 387).

Bruno’s system of “magic mnemonics” (Yates 223) hinged on his belief that the memorization of significant images enabled the "harnessing of the inner world of the imagination to the stars, or reproducing the the celestial world within" (Yates 215). Memory, for Bruno, was thus a dioptric medium, allowing the passage of the sublime order of the heavens into the individual psyche, "arriving at the vision within of the One light diffused through all" (Yates 230). His mnemonic techniques, based on intricate combinations of magic images, however, were catoptric (his first book on the art of memory is aptly titled Shadows). As Yates observes, there is “some Circaean mystification at the heart of this memory treatise” (Yates 247). Bruno’s mnemonic code thus had a dual function of “unifying the world of appearances” (Yates 229) through memory and remaining secret, decipherable only by those who understood hermetic principles.

Written in wax

Beginning with the classical art of memory, mnemonics were associated with wax. As Yates describes, “the art consists in places and images and is like an inner writing on wax” (Yates 19). Wax—the obvious inscription media undergirding classical rhetoric—was remediated in recording technology and psychoanalytic discourse at the turn of the 20th century. Through a brief comparison of modern and antique articulations of wax as the material substrate of memory, we may glimpse how the rise and fall of mnemonics is subject to the imagined materiality—and malleability—of the mind.

Antique imaginary: the obvious

Cicero describes a man “with almost divine powers of memory,” who “wrote down what he wanted to remember in certain places in his possession by means of images, just as if he were describing letters on wax” (Yates 19). This exemplary figure has internalized the wax tablet as a recording device, which Phaedrus famously concealed under his cloak in Plato’s dialogue. Vismann: Greek senate minutes inscribed in wax—the inscription medium that best synchronized speech and writing (Vismann 54). Wax was a malleable surface that sutures oral performance and written record. Mnemonics was imagined to do this internally.

Modern memory: the return of the repressed?

Kittler: Guyau’s theory of the phonograph and memory “What good are the poetic mnemonic techniques of rhyme and meter when wax rolls can store not only substance and tone but real sounds?” (Kittler 236).

Freud: mystic-writing pad Trauma and repression as the death of mnemonics (haunted by anxieties of controlling memory and forgetting)



  • Carr, Nicholas. "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group, July-Aug. 2008. Web. 10 Apr. 2010.
  • Kittler, Friedrich A. Discourse Networks, 1800/1900. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992.
  • --. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.
  • Vismann, Cornelia. Files: Law and Media Technology. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008.
  • Yates, Frances A. The Art of Memory. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1966.
  • Zielinski, Siegfried. Deep Time of the Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.

External Links

  • Mnemonics - a list of a number of standardized mnemonic devices