|Augustin Mouchot’s Solar Concentrator, Paris, 1878.|
|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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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."