Wednesday, 24 October 2018

The Art of Memory and the Conservation of Culture

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An interesting aspect of the idea of an "ecotechnic renaissance", as it's presented by Greer, is that he avoids believing in either continual technological progress as a solution to our civilization's problems, or in the need for a complete regression to some past stage of material existence.

Industrialism may have brought us into a period of diminishing returns, where accessing nature's resources is becoming increasingly difficult, where topsoils are becoming depleted, and where the byproducts of our activities, especially carbon we've released into the atmosphere, are set to affect our environment in ways that make our lives increasingly difficult. At the same time, we have learned a lot in the past few centuries, through the industrial and scientific revolutions. Who knows what could emerge if the principles discovered through the industrial age could be re-purposed, and applied to our livelihoods in sustainable and regenerative ways? 

Augustin Mouchot’s Solar Concentrator, Paris, 1878.
Is innovation, however, the only way forward? We have also forgotten a lot. There is so much to be learned from traditional cultures, who I'm sure nearly always operated with a subtle wisdom that can be hard to apprehend from the heights of consumer culture. Our history also contains many innovative avenues that were opened, but were abandoned as inexpensive fossil fuels crowded out technologies that relied on other energy sources. Greer often mentions the array of solar-thermal devices from the late 19th century, esp. in France, that couldn't quite compete against the combustion of coal and petroleum products. Or windjammers: a type of modern, large sail cargo ships that were popular at the (previous) turn of the century, which could carry large amounts of bulk cargo long distances entirely by windpower. They competed economically all through the era of coal-powered steam, but, again, were edged out by diesel-powered freight ships. (I would like to work carefully through his book The Retro Future: Looking to the Past to Reinvent the Future in this blog, which is replete with examples like these two.)
A windjammer in Gustaf Erikson's fleet

Slide Rule
Another interesting point Greer makes in The Retro Future and elsewhere is  that the technologies & practices that could comprise an ecotechnic culture are not solely physical devices, that mental skills have a role to play in the toolkit of appropriate technology + culture. As something of a hybrid of a mental skill aided by a simple physical device, Greer often uses the example of the slide-rule, which can be made from wood or metal fairly easily, that allows for rapid, complex computations, without needing computers or electricity. Along those lines, I think that the practice of the Chinese/Japanese abacus, the suan pan/soroban, might be an ecotechnic hobby for interested people to keep alive in various communities (though the complexity of the mathematics would be less than the slide rule, I still think it would be a good intellectual exercise, promoting the use of these elegant designs.)

A collection of Japanese soroban.

It also wouldn't be a bad idea for a few local woodworkers to be able to build slide-rules and abacuses. Not that I think that these are going to be vitally important to us any time soon, (though there is always the remote-but-real possibility of an intense solar flare, like the Carrington Event of 1859, or an EMP attack, that could disrupt or destroy our electronics and electrical systems.) If, however, somewhere things like these devices are to be vital to a civilization in decline, someone has to carry the knowledge of them through the period in which they are generally irrelevant.

A great way to accomplish that is for local craftspeople to make things like these as beautiful (and functional) novelties. Patrons can buy pieces like these to support local economies and help foster the development of these types of skills in people near-by. And, when that craftsperson knows how to make these well and has built up a slow market for them, if they can find at least one other to pass the skill onto, we could develop the teacher-apprentice lineages that can help weather hard times.

Another example that combines conceptual tools and practical mental skills is double-entry bookkeeping. I'm not sure how true this is, but Greer (whose wife is a bookkeeper) asserts that, with the dominance of computer accounting programs, is becoming a rare traditional skill among accountants. My ignorance of this is near total, but I found an old textbook on pre-computer accounting and added it to my bookshelf, just in case.

To me, however, the most interesting mental skill Greer regularly encourages is the art of memory. This practice has gotten a lot of press in recent years, through Tony Buzan's books and memory competitions, the multitude of youtube videos that teach the basic techniques, and Joshua Foer's bestselling book, Moonwalking with Einstein. The Art of Memory can refer to a range of memory techniques, but in general it refers to the practice of creating mental images to associate with things you'd like to remember, and then organizing them throughout a familiar physical space, like the rooms of your house or workplace, or any other familiar building or outdoors route that you'd take on foot.

So, for an example, let's say you were working to memorize the anatomy of the ear, and we'll take the terms malleus, incus, stapes, and cochlea.

Malleus: you might imagine, in your front foyer, some workers banging with mallets on anvils. To flesh out the image, I might make the mallet some type of metal I liked, maybe brass or cast iron, imagine its weight & feel, and while we're at it, why not imagine this strange mallet in the shape of the malleus bone? I would imagine the sound it would make, and maybe make up a little reason why these people happened to be using mallets in this area.

Incus: in, say, an office area to the right, I would pick something that reminded me of this word. If I knew something about the Incas I might use art from their civilization as decor in the room, or maybe imagine a giant vial of dark black ink (again, why not a large glass vial in the shape of the incus bone?) Maybe some figure is writing with it using a fancy quill, or maybe the vial is cracked and ink is dripping into the white carpet.

Stapes: moving past the office to a kitchen, I might imagine something being stapled with very large staples, or maybe garlic scapes growing up through cracks in the tiled floor, and maybe someone hammering wooden stakes down through that nice kitchen floor, hearing the cracks of that expensive floor being damaged. Those three words, for me, would help me triangulate that third word I was trying to recall. 

Cochlea: and moving through the kitchen into the dining room, an obvious image is a shell, maybe I would visualize someone riding on a back of a snail, absurdly slow, maybe seated in a lotus posture and blowing a conch shell, keeping focused on the spiral shape of the anatomical structure. To ensure recall, you could include a pun, the snail rider could be holding a bottle of Coke in their other hand, and it could be a famous “Lea” (let's pick Lea Thompson), so that we have Coke+Lea = cochlea. And maybe the mallet-eers in the foyer were keeping time for this conch-shell trumpet...

And so on... it seems like a lot of work, and it is, but like anything else it becomes easier and faster as you practice, and as you become familiar with the kind of images & associations that work well with your memory, the possibilities for the technique open up. I've definitely not mastered the practice myself (though I think maybe I've moved from novice into intermediate stages) but I can see for myself this practice can keep a lot of information very easily in your memory for quite a long time. I've found the difficulty with it is not really recall, so much as deciding exactly what it is you want to memorize and putting in the work to collect up some memory journeys and create the mnemonic images you want to use.

I  also don't think that this technique is for everyone, I could see it irritating many people as an unnecessary step in learning. It's obviously not the only method of memory improvement: simple, straightforward memorization of information, through organization, repetition, and understand might be the better path for many. I also think there is a lot to be said for the traditional practice of memorizing poetry and scripture. Likewise, there is a place for memory exercises that do not include encoding systems and visual reminders, such as a daily recollection of the day's events, which I also think would be good for practitioners of the art of memory to include. There are other exercises as well, which I'd like to come back to in this series of posts.

But, for the kind of person who is intrigued by puzzles, projects, codes, cryptic/emblematic art, or even just imagery & daydreaming, it can be a way to harness that sort of an inclination to a powerful system of learning and knowledge. It provides a clear method for learning: instead of wondering, “How am I going to get all this information to stick?”, you can start straight-away organizing & editing down the points you want to remember, picking a space for a memory journey route, and coming up with images for associating to the content at hand. And, instead of the information fading as soon as the exam is done, you can set up a schedule of recall (even going through your journey once a month/a few times a year,) and keep the information in your mind indefinitely, should you want to.

How, though, does this have any relevance to an ecotechnic society? It doesn't seem nearly as an important thing to spend time on as, say, gardening, canning, fermenting, setting up a compost bin, improving the insulation in your house. To be honest, it probably isn't as important as any of these, and is never going to as popular as any of these either, and rightly so. In his book The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age, Greer introduces the concept of prosthetic culture. A prosthetic device, say a wooden leg, eyeglasses, or a hearing aid, are very useful when a person has lost entirely or in part some normal function of the human body. But in a consumerist, industrial society, a lot of what were normal capacities throughout history come to be replaced with technologies and consumer technologies (as well as a lot of social relations). Instead of getting our exercise from walking long distances, planes, trains and automobiles get us from A to B. Microwave meals and take-out food edge out home cooked meals, while pop music and Netflix supplant folk music traditions on simple instruments and storytelling, in general our abilities to entertain ourselves.

I'm not sure how far I would take this concept. Greer himself notes that there is a fine line between a tool and a unnecessary prosthesis, and of course it could be argued that these technologies, even where they supplant our capacities & skills, save us a lot of time, and allow us to have experiences we otherwise would not have had: maybe one does not get St. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club and Thriller from traditional folk music, or Mad Men & Breaking Bad from campfire stories. And of course there are tons of people engaging in home cooking, knitting clothes and making quilts, learning musical instruments and exercising their physical capacities. 
I think the point stands though, our consumer culture has disrupted a lot of our traditional capacities and skills, and has often replaced them with time-consuming distractions. Many of the technologies that enable this require a lot of energy and dwindling resources to produce, and result in a lot of pollution by the end of their short lifespans. As the conditions that support these begin to fade, it could be helpful to have in our communities people who have taken on themselves development of their innate capacities. If nothing else, it tends to build the kind of resourceful, nimble, wise minds that can deal with the challenges of industrial descent.

I have a feeling though that the art of memory leads us into something much deeper, relating to how cultures continue to exist over time. In much of the past, in so many various ways, cultures had to be economical regarding what they valued, preserved and passed on. There was no option for creating, storing & transmitting a universe of articles, books, postings, and oral presentations to record our experiences and expressions. Cultures, through the elders that understood them and worked to preserve them, had to be promulgated down through the generations using the simplest methods, with myth, stories, ritual and art preserving as much practical knowledge, spiritual tradition, and cultural cohesion as they could be used to contain.

In her fascinating recent book, The Memory Code, Australian science writer Lynne Kelly makes this connection between the techniques of the art of memory and they methods by which oral cultures preserve and pass on knowledge to future generation. She came to the topic by way of studying the natural history of Australia, particularly crocodiles. In her research, coming across the very detailed and accurate information about different species and their behaviours possessed by the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, she wondered, how is it that this knowledge is maintained and preserved? Within literate societies, we often have the vague supposition that, in the absence of the written word to store information, that knowledge transmission is just a matter of personal experience, being passed along around the campfire or through the course of the day, from parents & grandparents to the young, by word of mouth.

It became clear to Kelly, though, that the size and specificity of these oral knowledge systems required a system much beyond casual conversation between individuals. I would like go through this book carefully, there is a wealth of detail here to learn from, but in general she found, in both the present day cultures she studied and also in the history of Neolithic peoples, that there was a  systematic encoding of information related to survival and culture. The knowledge was often protected, and granted only after initiation ceremony. It was embedded in myth, associated with specific places in the landscape, connected to ritual, dance, drama and art. It encompassed things like the histories and stories of that people, their treaties & relations to other peoples, navigation routes, techniques and timings for hunting, gathering, the use of plants, and horticulture. It included information passed down for events that may never have occurred in the memory of any living person in that culture, such unusual foods to eat in the event of an extreme drought.

Lukasa memory boards used by the Luba of The Democratic Republic of Congo.

For me, Kelly has brought something to the literature of the art of memory that I haven't seen before, outside the allusions in Greer's work, about the connection of memory systems to how cultures can be learned & absorbed by an individual, and to how cultures can centred around the survival of a people, and to maintenance of a society that's worth living within. It's a difficult point to get at, but considering our current moment in history, we rely heavily on external sources like the internet to store information, and many have raised concerns about the precarious state of electronic data over the long run (see Richard Heinberg's article, Our Evanescent Culture and the Awesome Duty of Librarians). The figure of an initiated member of an oral culture, carrying within themselves vast amounts of organized information related to survival and to their culture, integrated within their daily lives and their worldview, seems like something important to contemplate as we head into industrial decline.

Cicero wrote on memory training and was
known for his mastery of the art
I'm interested in tracing how memory systems have been used in literate cultures as well. It's common to follow the art of memory back to classical Greece and Rome, where it was used primarily by orators to plan and memorize long speeches, and I think there are lessons here related to the place of reason and rhetoric in political culture. (When the classical methods of learning were codified into the seven liberal arts – the three ways of the trivium, grammar, logic and rhetoric, plus the four ways of the quadrivium, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy -- the art of memory often had its place as an aspect of rhetoric.) 
Nalanda Monastery
I've also heard (I think) examples of “memory palaces” being employed at the height of Buddhist culture in India, as a method organizing the wide range of arts and sciences that were developed at the Nalanda monastery (an ancient site of cosmopolitan learning that, to me, parallels in many ways the Library of Alexandria in Egypt,) possibly playing a role in the preservation of Buddhist culture during times of foreign invasions of India.

Mary Carruthers has two interesting books on the role of memory training in medieval cultures that I would like to unpack, (her description of St. Thomas Aquinas' use of memory techniques is really  fascinating). I would like to look at the methods of itinerant renaissance scholars, who I think used the art to store up information when access to valuable books was often rare and brief.

I've been collecting books and information about memory training for around twenty years now, and have practiced it here and there over that time. It's only in the last few years that I've gotten it to work more usefully, mostly due to learning a system to memorize numbers accurately. Over a series of posts on this topic, I'd like to share some of these findings, and what I've found works well for me in daily life. There is a lot of teaching out there related to competing in memory competitions, but I'm interested to see if memory training could be made to be a skill useful for ordinary, practical endeavors, especially in helping learn new skills and fields of knowledge. More on this to come.

*  *  *  *  *

I thought that a post in a series on memory training might be a good place to start this blog, leaning a little more towards the software of a society than the hardware. I am interested in technologies that can provide for our basic needs: water, food, shelter, heat, etc., and I hope to write posts about these sorts of topics. I'm also interested as well, though, in cultural aspects of resilience.

What sort of a culture is well adapted to surviving a time of decline?  What sort of values incline us towards conserving worthwhile aspects of the cultures we've inherited, and to avoid as much as possible damaging the ecosystems we live in, to preserve a space for the generations (of humans and other species) to come as close as thriving in as is possible for now?

I have a sense that, supposing we arrived at solutions to all our physical problems with various technologies (e.g. solar technologies, smart grids, carbon taxes, etc.), if we don't at the same time make deep changes to our economic systems and our culture as a whole, we will only be delaying the moment of reckoning. Physical infrastructure is vitally important, but it can't exempt us from arranging intelligent economic reforms. And a sensible economic order can't take the place of a healthy culture, in all its social, artistic, and social dimensions.

David Fleming, the late author of Lean Logic: A Dictionary of the Future and How to Survive It, as well as a founding member of the UK Green Party, and a source inspiration for the Transition Towns movement, (along with David Holmgren and Richard Heinberg), being asked what one could do to help make communities more resilient and prepared for peak oil, once said, (after a long pause)...

"Join the choir."

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