Making and Unmaking the Prospects for Rhetoric: Selected Papers from the 1996 Rhetoric Society of America Conference

By Theresa Enos; Richard McNabb et al. | Go to book overview

DIANNE L. JUBY University of Oklahoma


Memory Arts, Electronic Topoi, and Dynamic Databases

In The Book of Memory, Mary Carruthers offers a connection between the classical art of memory and computer memory: "What I find most interesting about the similarities between ancient and modern memory design is not that the ancients anticipated modern artificial memories (for they did not) but that human beings, faced with the problem of designing a memory (whether their own or a machine's), should repeat many of the same solutions" (296 n. 51). Neo-Luddites naturally take offense at comparisons of computer memory and human memory. Roszak, for instance, after suggesting that the analogy has as little meaning as comparing a saw's teeth to human teeth, expresses his distaste for the commonplace notion that computer memory is superior because it "remembers so much more," and idealizes natural memory as "the invisible psychic adhesive that holds our identity together from moment to moment" that "flows not only through the mind, but through the emotions, the senses, the body" (96-97). True enough. But Roszak avoids the ancient distinction between natural and artificial memory. If we restrain ourselves from romanticizing the human/machine relationship long enough to recall that the ancient memory art was a literate technology, as are computers and databases, the issue becomes not one of anthropomorphizing comparisons of quantity and quality, but of effective, practical access to stored memories when they are needed for our performance in rhetorical situations. 1

In this paper I focus on the cross-disciplinary intersection to which Corbett alludes: Theorists in information retrieval who argue that the "teeming storehouses of knowledge," today manifested in the proliferation of electronic databases and the World Wide Web, can be made more accessible by turning to rhetorical theory and recovering the topoi. Whether referring to mentally visualized architectural niches holding vividly memorable images or to the more abstract places where dialectical and rhetorical arguments reside, topoi since classical times have held the promise of rhetorical power and have had an essential connection with memory. Aristotle invokes the art of memory toward the end of the Topics as a means of "mak[ing] a man readier in reasoning, because he has his premisses classified before his mind's eye" (163b30). 2 At present, database search programs do not offer this powerful topical technê to user-rhetors. The information retrieval theorists that I discuss in this paper

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