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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

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. Eschewing the externalization of memory, mnemonic signs were intended to structure memory from within. Though rhyme and meter, for instance, were written into text, they directly correlated to how individual memory was thought to perform. Mnemonics thus served as a medium between the perceptible world and the black box of the human mind, inscribing and representing both.

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 (Zielinski 65, Yates 217), hermetic philosophy clashed with Christian doctrine. 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 “magical mnemonics” (__) hinged on the hermetic belief that the sublime order of the heavens could be reflected internally via the memorization of significant images (Yates 229). Memory, for Bruno, was thus dioptric, possessing the divine potential of lumen. 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