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

Mnemonics, or the art of memory, is today regarded as an arcane intellectual interest. It functions on the periphery of popular culture, largely through a literature of self-help designed to bolster the confidence of people insecure about their powers of recollection. If it is a useful skill, but not an essential one in a civilization whose collective memory is securely stored in the printed word and, more recently, digital media. Today’s archive exists in the library or the personal computer, not in the depths of a well-ordered mind.

This dossier will explore the historical significance of mnemonic techniques, which stored knowledge and enhanced one’s power to lecture or preach in a world that trusted in the authority of the spoken word. From the wandering rhapsody of ancient Greece who enthralled listeners with the epic tales of Homer to the philosophers of the Renaissance who constructed imaginary memory palaces to present their intricate designs of the cosmos, the development of the powers of memory was perceived to be an essential intellectual skill (Hutton 1987, 371). The art of memory as it was traditionally conceived was based upon associations between a structure of images easily remembered and a body of knowledge in need of organization. The mnemonic practitioner's task was to attach the facts he wished to remember to images that were so visually striking or emotionally evocative that they could be recalled at will.(Hutton 1987, 371). add thesis questions/direction of dossier here

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Historical Sketch of old works on Menemonics

Owing to the fact that the faculty of memory has always been more neglected than any other, attention was from the earliest times directed to the devising of methods to assist it. As one of the earliest instances of such aids I may cite the erection of memorial stones to the children of Israel, described in Exodus xxviii, 9 to 12 verse, and in Joshua iv., 1 to 24. Others will readily occur to the Biblical student. The numerals of Pythagoras were purely mnemonical. "They were," says Porphyry, "hieroglyphical symbols, by means whereof he explained all ideas concerning the nature of all things. Among the Jews it was the practice to abbreviate words, and also to form words from the initial letters of other words, as memory-aids, as Rambam for "Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon." The Jews also made use of natural words to represent numbers, similar to the Roman numerals, and used them for the purpose of dating their Bibles. At the corner of the veil used in the Jewish synagogue during prayer were strings, each with five knots to suggest the five books of Moses, a fact which suggests the old-fashioned custom of tying a knot in a handkerchief, or a thread round the finger as a reminder. "When this you see remember me," is another memory-aid, generally used as a ring-posy, and we find it thus used in 1673, by the Rev. Giles Moore, who records in his diary the fact that he presented Ann Brett with a ring bearing this inscription. In the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries the custom was also common, and it is thought to have originated with the Romans, who gave their lady-loves gems with "Remember" and other mottoes cut upon them.

The earliest attempt to assist the memory by a methodical system was made by Simonides, the Greek poet of Cos, who flourished about 500 B.C., and who invented what is termed the topical or locality memory. Simonides was engaged to recite a poem at a banquet, given by one of his patrons, and after doing so the room fell in, burying all in its debris, and disfiguring the bodies so as to render identification impossible. Simonides, however, had noted the position each guest had occupied, and was thus able to point out the remains of each. Cicero and Quintilian both refer to his system and advocate its use; and we may add that it is the basis of most modern methods. Simonides found that to fix a number of places in the mind in a certain order was a great help to the natural faculty. His plan was to form in the mind a building which was divided and subdivided into distinct parts arranged in a certain order. The order of these parts were to be thoroughly learnt. As many words as there were parts were then symbolised by the images of living creatures, and when a number of things were to be committed to memory in certain order, mental images representing them were to be placed regularly in the several parts of the building. Thus, the porch, the hall, parlour, rooms, walls, and objects in the building were arranged consecutively, and objective images, representing persons and things, were connected with them. From this systen we are said to take the phrases used in dividing a discourse - "In the first place," "in the second place,"

The Method of Loci

Long before transcription existed, there have been oral records of events in history, genealogies. In Medieval Iceland, law speakers had their entire law committed to memory (Fentress and Wickham, 1992). In medieval Ireland, it took 12 years of study to become a bard, the lowest rank of orator, and then they had over 500 stories committed to memory, as well as genealogies of all the leading Irish families (MacManus, 1967).

The indigenous people of Australia were very familiar with the method of loci. It is believed that their ancestors sung the world into existence (Cambor, 2001). Every rock and crack of the outback has a song associated with it, and the traveler knows exactly their location by their place in the song. Since then, these songs have been transcribed to aid in the understanding of the geology of the continent. In Ancient Rome, mnemonics were used by lawyers to remember the points they wanted to make in a lawsuit. The method of remembering they used is called the method of loci. The method of loci was first formally described by Quitilian, a first century Roman rhetorician. The first documented benefit of this method is found in the book “The Art of Memory” by Francis Yates, where she recounts the story of a poet, Simonides.

Simonides was invited to a dinner party to recite a poem in praise of the host, Scopas. During his recital, Simonides also included a passage praising the gods Castor and Pollux. Scopas was not pleased by this and refused to pay Simonides the full amount he was due. Just then a messenger came in and told Simonides that there were two men waiting for him outside. He went outside and found no one there. Just then the roof of the dining room collapsed, killing everyone inside. The bodies were so badly mangled that they couldn’t be identified. Simonides though was able to recall where each of the guests had been sitting.

Mnemonics Today: Where do media go to die?

According to Yates, the quest for improved memory through artificial mnemonic systems emerges as a critical part of our attempt to organize knowledge and impose an understandable order on a chaotic world. It wasn’t until the printing press was invented by Johann Gutenberg in the early 1450’s that memory techniques started to lose their prominence. People were then able to record history, genealogies, law codes and stories without committing them to memory. Today mnemonics are mostly used as a tool for remembering sequences of information, especially for recall in test situations, but also in everyday tasks like reciting phone and PIN numbers. It is no longer necessary to memorize entire texts due to advancements in modern technology. Perhaps this modern resistance to memorization masks an anxiety caused by a diminished sense of our own mnemonic capabilities (Cambor, 2001) due to developments in technology and the emergence of psychoanalysis [1].


How Mnemonics Work

Mnemonics are essentially storage devices for information in the human mind. The brain, however, is like the ultimate black box as much of its operations are a mystery and we are still just uncovering how it accomplishes many of the tasks we take for granted. Memory is one such process scientists are still trying to understand. However, there are a few things that have been discovered, and the mnemonics users of the past were aware of, that allow mnemonics to function. The process of remembering is split up into different steps: encoding, storage, and retrieval. Mnemonics are involved with encoding. The best way to learn things, or encode them, is to associate them with other things. In people's mind, "apple" will often be associated with "red" and "round." By retrieving the concept of "red," the memory of "apple" will also be triggered. Mnemonics capitalize on this principle by creating more entry points to different pieces of information.

At first glance, mnemonics may seem rather counter-intuitive in that they require you to remember a multitude of information in an attempt to solve the problem of remembering something else entirely. Rather than just remembering one date, 1492 for example, mnemonics ask that you remember a poem, "In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue." More information is required in an attempt to forge an initial piece of information in one's mind. While it seems rather contradictory to do this, however, it works because it creates more associations, thus making it more likely to stick in one's memory. A useful metaphor may be that a memory is a series of files. Mnemonics store bits of information in a number of different files through which to access the information.

Arbitrariness and the Cake-Mix Effect

In many mnemonic systems, when it comes to the specifics of the "extra" information, however, much of it is entirely arbitrary and can be adapted for each individual. Much like pre-packaged cake mix, a basic structure is offered, however the particular words and connections that will best serve the individual can be fit into the pre-determined structure. For example, a common strategy for remembering the order of things is to remember the first letter of each word and put together a new sentence in which each of the words starts with one of the letters needing to be remembered, in the proper order. So if one wanted to remember biological taxonomic classifications from broadest to most specific (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species, Variety), one need construct a new sentence in which each subsequent word starts with the next letter in order (K,P,C,O,F,G,S,V). Each individual might have a different sentence that works best for him or her, however. So while one student might find it most advantageous to remember "King Philip's Classic Order: Family Genius - Special Value'" another might find it easier to remember "Kindly Place Cover On Fresh Green Spring Vegetables." All mnemonic systems work in this manner. This flexibility makes mnemonics an incredibly useful set of strategies, and the failure of it working is essentially more dependent on the arbitrary information filled into the system. If someone fails to remember the order of the taxonomical classes it is only because the sentence used is not the best for the user.

Obsolescence and the Changing Thinker

Although mnemonics are incredibly efficient at storing information in packages that allow for easy retrieval, however they are rarely used today, in part because it is decreasingly relevant or important to remember things. As Nietzsche observed, "our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts." The way we interact with information has changed drastically since a time before writing, thus changing the way we think. To cite the oft-relevant Jonathan Crary, audiences need to be trained to use new mediums and technologies, and it seems as though our new technologies our shaping the way we seek out, take in, and digest information. In a time when memory was the only storage device or at least one of the most efficient, mnemonics were an obvious form of mediation, however, as new technologies have become available making it simple to find almost any fact in a few quick keystrokes and a quick skimming of a web page, those old strategies have become less necessary. Even before the internet our minds have begun changing. Writing became easier with the invention of new technologies and mnemonics began to fade.

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

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“A memory consists in the awareness, first, of the diminished intensity of an impression, second, of its increased ease, and third, of the connections it entertains with other impressions.” (Kittler 31)

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. It was developed out of a lack, human deficiency, can’t remember – must create shortcut to help remember, brain can’t hold a whole speech but can remember lots of images and associations, success of symbolism. Constructed out of anxiety for it being lost, it is always already lost. This mode of mediation is based on location, but it itself has no location, it is a non-space that stores imagined data.

The subject that uses the memory palace becomes split, inhabiting two realities. One must imagine one is walking through the memory palace and picking up each object while being rooted in a physical space and delivering a live speech to an audience. [LACAN on the SPLIT SUBJECT] The subject must navigate the memory palace like an automaton, automatic pilot, cannot think or act human because it won’t work. Must go through the motions, if the mind wanders or thinks too much, associations can become lost.

Memory Palace as Afterimage and Trace

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The Memory Palace becomes a spectral extension of one’s own home. This extension is a frozen image which cannot be altered if it is to function properly. 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 and faint impression of the real house. “…the privileging of the afterimage allowed one to conceive of sensory perception as cut from any necessary link with an external referent. The afterimage – the presence of sensation in the absence of a stimulus – and its subsequent modulations posed a theoretical and empirical demonstration of autonomous vision, of an optical experience that was produced by and within the subject.” (Crary 98) The afterimage of the memory palace is detachable, once it is created you don’t need the real house to evoke it, it can be evoked independently by the subject, independent of the real house as its originary referent. 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.

Memory Palaces, while seeming to be about signs and symbols, have more to do with Derrida's concept of the "trace." “The trace is not a presence but is rather the simulacrum of a presence that dislocates, displaces, and refers beyond itself. The trace has, properly speaking, no place, for effacement belongs to the very structure of the trace. Effacement must always be able to overtake the trace; otherwise it would not be a trace but an indestructible and monumental substance.” (Derrida 156) “’The Pit and the Pyrimid works similarly on Hegel’s semiology, by imposing the economy of the trace on to conventional philosophical semiotics, in which sings are conceived of as tombs, monuments, shelters of meaning, like a (dead) body enclosing a soul (Derrida, 1982, 82) For Hegel, the sign is dead and arbitrary, but the meaning lives. Being dead, the sign acts like a machine, and as a bridge. “ (85)

Artificial Memory

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. The Memory Palace is technology, it is mechanical reproduction and simulacrum. Memory palace is artificial memory, it is intentionally constructed by the subject and is not a natural memory. The associations are also artificial revealing the manipulation of memory which becomes something external that can be altered and changed. “What Plato is attacking in sophistics, therefore, is not smply recourse to memory but, within such recourse, the substitution of the mnemonic device for live memory, of the prosthesis for the organ; the perversion that consists of replacing a limb by a thing, here, substituting the passive, mechanical ‘by-heart’ for the active reanimation of knowledge, for its reproduction in the present. The boundary (between inside and outside, living and nonliving) separates not only speech from writing but also memory as an unveiling (re-)producing a presence from re-memoration as the mere repetition of a monument…(Derrida 109)”

Memory Palace as Archive/Crypt

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Memory palaces are storage of static files. “The immobile tomes are their own tombs...The immobilization amounts to a musealization, creating a work of art out of files.” (Vismann 161-162) It is the storage or archive of files turned into images. The shaping of the memory palace into a dead picture is also shaping of the self into an instrument that will read the picture correctly, shape self into automaton. Making an archive of the self, discipline and archive, discipline of memory and discipline of the self.


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. “With one sharp and one blunt end, the stylus unites writing and erasing, those two fundamental chancery operations, in one instrument. Herein lies an analogy to the workings of memory: just as the Greek verb hypomnematizesthai equates filing and remembering, its opposite, exaleiphein, combines a practical act and a function of memory by referring both to forgetting and wiping off.” (Vismann 55) Obliteration of memory palace, becomes buried as trace and remnant “Ever since Plato, philosophy has used the wax tablet to illustrate the way forgetting enables memory (Vismann).”

Mnemonic Expression: Writing Secrets and Speaking the Mind

The art of memory is like an inner writing - Frances Yates.

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. Mnemonics are thus not simply storage techniques but expression: a form of writing (or art of memory) that reveals historically deviant memories and, in attempting to control its input and output, represents the persistently black-boxed functioning of the human mind.

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, articulated above [2], mnemonics functioned as a storage technique comprised of arbitrary signifiers (like Roy G. Biv) rather than a communicative semantic system. 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 magic mnemonics

Giordano Bruno, a Dominican friar and peripatetic philosopher famous for his “amazing powers of recollection” (Zielinski 72) realized the cryptographic, communicative potential of mnemonics in the late 16th century. Bruno was eventually burned at the stake during the Inquisition for his use of magic and allegiance to hermeticism: a philosophy named for Hermes and based in Egyptian astrology, which, needless to say, clashed with Christian doctrine. In The Deep Time of The Media, Siegfried Zielinski links hermetic tradition (which persisted into the Renaissance but had to be promulgated secretly) to the “subhistory” stemming from “the passion for encrypting and deciphering texts runs through the sciences” since the 13th century (Zielinski 73). He also notes that cryptography made particular demands on memory and was thus bound to mnemonic ability (83). Bruno 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 Frances Yates, so that these “memory systems” became “a mode of transmitting a religion, or an ethic, or some message of universal import” (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" (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" (230). This divine lumen, however, was guarded by catoptric technique. Bruno's mnemonic system was based the arrangement of intricate wheels of astral symbols and magic images. Bruno's first book on the art of memory is aptly titled Shadows: as Yates observes, there is “Circaean mystification at the heart of this memory treatise” (247). Bruno’s mnemonic code thus had a dual function of unifying the human imagination and the celestial order through memory and remaining secret, decipherable only by those who understood hermetic principles.

Inner writing in wax

Wax—the inscription media associated with classical rhetoric and art of memory—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’s De oratore (finished in 55 B.C.E.) is among the earliest treatises describing mnemonics as a rhetorical art (Yates 17). Cicero credits Simonides [3] with the invention of the art of memory, when, with “with almost divine powers of memory,” he “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” (qtd. in Yates 19). Yates interprets Cicero’s portrayal of the origin of mnemonics as “an inner writing on wax” (19): Simonides internalizes the wax tablet, the medium for recording speech that Phaedrus famously concealed under his cloak in Plato’s dialogue. Cornelia Vismann identifies wax as the key medium in the shift from oral to written legal and administrative culture in the West. “To synchronize speech and writing,” Vismann describes, “the speedwriters or exceptores responsible for files and protocols drew their letters in wax, which, in Quintilian’s words, puts up as little resistance to inscribing as it does to erasing” (Vismann 55). These speedwriters also assigned to take down the senate minutes, which “in search for the aura of the authentic,” “aim[ed] for [a] presentist effect” (54). Mnemonic systems were also designed to uphold these cultural values of presence and authenticity, and were analogous to wax in their ability to suture oral performance and written record.

Wax was thus the obvious material to depict mnemonics, which interface between speech and writing. The metaphor has an additional layer: as a malleable, hand-held medium, the wax tablet suggests that the memory is likewise easily manipulable. If the mind contains a wax tablet, it may be confidently controlled. Nearly two millennia later, during the modern turn, the idea that one could rely on—let alone control—one’s memory was undercut by the development of recording technologies and the rise of psychoanalytic theories of trauma and repression. Curiously, at this historical moment, the connection between wax and memory that once portrayed both mnemonics and the inner-workings of the classical mind is used to describe the technology and the science that obviated the art of memory.

Modern memory: the return of the repressed?

Two notable depictions of wax as the material substrate of memory bracket Kittler’s year 1900: Jean-Marie Guyau’s Memory and Phonograph (1880) and Sigmund Freud’s Note Upon the ‘Mystic-Writing Pad’ (1925). “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 1992, 236), Kittler asks in Discourse Networks, 1800/1900. Guyau addressed this anxiety of the inferiority of human memory and the limits of language early on by claiming the phonograph as the most exact metaphor for man’s ability to record and recite—to read, write, and speak. Notions of manipulating the memory with images, places, and signs is replaced with a techno-scientific inscription in Guyau’s comparison: “Upon speaking into a phonograph, the vibrations of one’s voice are transferred into a point that engraves lines on a metal plate…in analogous ways, invisible lines are incessantly carved into the brain cells” (qtd. in Kittler 1999, 30-31).

Freud’s use of the mystic-writing pad as an analogy for the psyche also revises the idea of memory and inscription. Freud dismisses mnemonics right off the bat: “If I distrust my memory,” he begins, “I am able to supplement and guarantee its working by making a note in writing” (Freud 227). External “devices to aid memory” (228) are imperfect compared to our own sensory apparatus, however, which “has an unlimited receptive capacity for new perceptions and nevertheless lays down permanent—even though not unalterable—memory-traces of them” (228). Though he distrusts his memory, Freud echoes the ancient Greeks in imagining the as a remediation of the wax tablet: the mystic-writing pad. Unlike the imagined mnemonic tablet, however, Freud’s pad is not consciously inscribed, but “receives perceptions (which are accompanied—but are not consciously manipulated—"by consciousness)and passes the excitation on to the unconscious mnemic systems” (231).

Though these modern articulations of the mind destabilize the ability of human memory (assumed by mnemonics) and man’s conscious power over it (and symbolized by wax), they are haunted by the idea of control and power that they repress. Guyau and Freud participate in the same endeavor to represent the black box of the mind, reiterating the art of memory via technological and psycho-scientific metaphor.


  • Carr, Nicholas. "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group, July-Aug. 2008. Web. 10 Apr. 2010.
  • Crary, Jonathan. "Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century". Boston: MIT Press, 1992.
  • Derrida, Jacques. "Dissemination". New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 2004.
  • Derrida, Jacques. "Speech and phenomena: and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs". Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973.‬
  • Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. James Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press, 1961.
  • 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