Monday, January 30, 2012

The Most Trivial of that which is Remembered and Recited

Okay--so one post wasn't enough for me this week.  There's just so much that I'm reading and thinking about this week that I wanted to get a bit more fleshed out.  I'm really only exploring a drop in the bucket in terms of what I'm reading and thinking about--but I'm trying to pick the most important 20% for now and really give myself space to think about that material.

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm quite interested in the rhetorical canons and have previously started examining the way in which memory is often thought to be a "forgotten" canon of rhetoric.  In Collin Gifford Brooke's Lingua Fracta, he addresses how memory is often treated as the "victim of technological change" wherein advances such as the invite of writing as well as information storage lead to a society wherein individual memory is diminished.  Brooke goes on to explain that "[i]t may be true that our contemporary powers of memory are individually weaker than our ancestors', but is is almost certainly the case that our collective memory is stronger by virtue of our ability to store information with the printed word, audio, and video recording, as as bits on our computers" (32).

I certainly agree with Brooke that these technologies increase our collective memory, but I am not sure if I am ready to concede that our individual memory is hopeless without these media either.  Perhaps it is because I am teaching Survey of Popular Culture this term, but I am struck by what has left our memories and what remains year after year.  While it is true that there are few high cultural artifacts that I have taken the liberty memorize for the purpose of recitation (the Preamble of the Constitution and the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales withstanding), I can recite a fair number of other complex texts.

Take for example "I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous" by Frank Turner

I took great pride and care to memorize every line of this song when it first came out.  It resonated with me instantly and that made it something I wanted to know and be able to cite.  However, I have take little time to memorize the lines of the T.S. Eliot poem to which the title refers.

I wonder sometimes whether our memory really has died or whether it has shifted.  Does new media allow us to prioritize how we use our memory.  I will admit that my memory is dedicated not to high cultural things.  I can quote the song above line for line.  I can recount whole segments of Dane Cook comedy routines to you.  I could likely preform the musical Rent as a one woman show...if, of course, my voice wasn't a terrible thing to hear.  I can say just about every line to Empire Records as it's delivered by the film.  Need to know about the plot of an episode of Seinfeld?  I've got that covered too.

I am not sure that I buy into Plato's theory that writing (or any other media) will "implant forgetfulness in [our] souls" (qtd in Brooke 31).  Instead, I think the democratization of information and the ability for our collective memory to hold those items we deem less important to us has freed us from having to be memory slaves to high culture.  In other words, we're free to spend our memory capacity upon issues of popular culture, rather than, as Matthew Arnold would say "the endeavour to know the best that can be known" (qtd in Stroey 18).


Brooke, Collin Gifford.  Lingua Fracta:  Toward a Rhetoric of New Media.  Cresskill:  Hampton Press, 2009.  Print.

Storey, John.  Cultural Theory and Popular Culture:  An Introduction.  5th ed.  Harlow:  Pearson, 2009.  Print.


  1. This makes me think of the concept of personal archives (and maybe Personal Learning Networks as archives). I didn't think about it in exactly these terms; however, one of the reasons I wanted you all to blog was to construct some archival memory while also doing activities that will help the content stick to wetware memory. Humm...I like where your rambling is getting me to ramble.

    1. I'm really seeing this blog in that archival memory light. It's particularly useful now that it's spanning semesters for me. I kind of wish I had started it at the start of the program. Because it highlights only those classes I have been asked to blog for, however, it really only archives a specific aspect of my work in the last year--I am finding it interesting to think about who it paints me to be and what I need to add to paint my full persona. :)

  2. Cheri - It's interesting how, in this post, you differentiate between your memory capacity for artifacts of popular culture and what many people consider high culture. Your discussion of memory, particularly concerning the musical examples, reminds me of what John Medina says about memory in his book titled Brain Rules. No need to brace yourself because you won't be surprised to find out that memory relies heavily on repetition.

    Your ability to memorize the Frank Turner song or the entire musical score of Rent is the same as my ability to recall nearly every lyric from every Smith's song ever written. We enjoy the very thing we are experiencing and so memorization becomes a byproduct, a natural part of the process of listening to (or watching or whatever) and experiencing the music. Sure, we may consciously memorize certain songs; I know I read and reread the CD inserts of many albums, but I think it was the fact that I loved the music and the band that made it so easy to commit a tremendous amount of information to memory. Now, my response does not even begin to account for the role music and rhyme and rhythm (I'm also thinking about the rhythm of the delivery of a Dane Cook bit or something...) play in helping us to memorize certain cultural artifacts.

    So, about T.S. Eliot and other high-falutin' culture: I love "Prufrock" but, like you, have never taken the time to memorize this work. I do, however, enjoy reading and rereading it, and there are a few lines that I recall (but I'd have to cheat here by Googling to double check I have recalled them correctly).

    I am now "remembering" (on my own) how as a child, I was required to memorize Bible verses for Sunday school and the parochial schools I attended. Guess how much of that I remember verbatim? Sure, I definitely remember the gist of many of the verses I memorized, but I cannot recite them as I once did. It was work, rote memorization for purposes that are too long to go into now. Was it a total waste of time? I don't know; I'll have to think about that some more. Anyway, this is turning into a ramble. I enjoyed your post!

    1. Sarah--I think your reply points toward an interesting question about what we gain from memorization. I particularly like your connection to those Sunday school memory verses. I had more than my fair share of those going up and I really have two in memory today.

      Like you, there are many that I have a basic recollection of but I don't have in memory. Nowadays when I walk around with the Bible App on my iPhone that is complete with a searchable feature. I can find anything I might need through searching. It makes me really wonder if I'm missing out on something by not having more memorized (and that makes for an interesting question to pose to a friend of mine in a Doctor of Ministry program...).

      Interestingly the two I do remember by heart (I'm not counting "Jesus wept" as a verse here) were ones that I learned as being set to a specific rhythm. I remember clapping being involved. I think the timing and rhythm, as you also suggest, is important for memory issues.

      I'm also a terrible speller but get encyclopedia right every time because my 3rd grade teacher had us walk around the room clapping and marching to a rhythm as we spelled it out. If only we had done that for the word vacuum, which I had to write three times here before spell check told me I got it right!

    2. Sorry I'm so late to this, Cheri. Regarding the Bible and memorization, ubiquitous access to the texts has led to an overall devaluing of memorization of sacred texts in Western (or Westernized) societies overall. The Gutenberg era began a move away from memorization for preservation toward memorization for utilization. Now, after the technological revolution of the late-20th century, we're seeing less and less memorization of sacred texts altogether. If it's all in the 'cloud,' why is memorization necessary? When I was in high school I remember my theater professor forcing us to memorize Shakespearean sonnets. Why? Because that's what actors have done for years. I can't remember a single one of them now.

      On the other hand, we tend to memorize those things we value. Mechanisms aside (I agree that there's something to rhythm and melody that makes memorization much easier), I think that intimacy with a text plays a strong role in cementing it within our memories. We keep coming back to those texts with which we most resonate, from Seinfeld to Shakespeare. That, in turn, leads to repetition--another key in memory and recall. I can quote Goonies because I've seen it hundreds of times and I love it. I'm pretty sure that if I had the same relationship with Scriptural texts, my recall would be just as easy.

      Thanks for letting me contribute to your cohort's discussion. A bunch of brilliant folks. Hope I didn't say anything stupid :P

  3. Cheri - I swear I commented on this post before, but now that I'm trying to link to it, I'm not seeing it. I'll try to recreate what I wrote before.

    I've been worried about our individual memories for a long time. My worry grows every time I see a student type "" and then search for "nvcc" instead of just remembering "" Sigh. But your post has changed my mind. Clearly, we can and do remember things we deem worth remembering. But interestingly, we tend to remember "low" culture instead of "high" culture. Since oral societies pass down only what is worth remembering, I wonder if Homer's epics were the "low" or pop culture of their time? Did we make them "classics" just because people deemed them worth remembering and passed them on? What current "low" culture might one day become "classic"? Thanks for provoking all these interesting questions and reminding me of memory's theoretical depth!

    1. Hey Eric--I wonder how much of what you're seeing with those students (and I have seen faculty do it too) who go to Google for the NOVA homepage is really an issue of literacy more than memory--although perhaps memory is involved in our developing literacies now that I think about it.

      I think they don't know (perhaps haven't memorized) the basic pattern for how URLs are composed and that's why they cannot just type in "".

      I think you're right about the shifting of low and high culture. One of the things I do with my Survey of Popular culture class is trace the history of pop culture back so that my students (and I) can be reminded that every generation tends to thumb their nose at what the generation after them is up to, but somehow revere that of the generation before them in this nostalgic way. Chaucer was lowly in his day because of his crude language and subject, and is a hallmark of the canon today. I think what's changing is who gets to say what's high and low, and whose work gets considered in the first place. I think we're also re-seeing whether high and low are valuable terms. I struggle with the fact that these terms attempt to indicate what is worthy/unworthy when really all I believe they indicate is what is in power/ outside of power. But that's a discussion for another occasion (i.e. my dissertation).

  4. Cheri, I really love your writing style. I too feel like I have more thoughts and ideas than I can process, much less articulate in the blog.

    I am obsessed with memory right now. You raise so many interesting questions and observations. Does technology erode personal memory?

    In many ways I argue that it does. the classic example I use is how I used to know people's phone numbers by memory. Now I'm lucky if I remember my own. I rarely even dial a number by hand, relying instead on saved numbers in contacts or just touching the number off a website from my smart phone.

    However, I am intrigued by your conclusion that we have not lost the space for personal memory, but shifted it to other areas. I began to catalogue my own memory of collected popular culture randomness: extensive knowledge of the Golden Girls, the musical creations of Paul McCartney, all the Thomas the Tank Engine characters (thanks to my son), and more. I too also have the first 18 lines of the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales though. And The Laboratory by Robert Browning. I think we have as much capacity as ever to store information, but we are just inundated by information at a rate and volume never before known to humankind.

    How can we hold ourselves to the same standards of memory as the past if there is more information than ever before coming at us at rates faster than ever before?

    I think we need the technology to store and categorize the information. The librarians, memory is now about remembering where to find the information we need more than the information itself.

    Give me a computer and I can find the information I need. I may not draw it from memory, but I can find it from memory. Then I need the technology to store my information once found, like a vast card catalog.

    I don't think it is a dissolution of memory so much as it is an evolution of memory. Are we less cultured? Is it a loss to not have extensive passages of poetry stored in our minds? Perhaps it is - yet both you and I have literature memorized in addition to the pop culture items. So is it gone really? And is it not a gain to have access like never before? Perhaps if a person owned a handful of books, it was easier to memorize them, but what was not being read as a result of having no access? We know from our survey courses that many books were unread and undiscovered in their time. So perhaps what we lose in the kind of intimate memories/memorizations, we gain in the broadening of the knowledge base. Perhaps it is a question of breadth versus depth?