Category Archives: Theater of Memory

Virtual Nostalgia


One of the pleasures of revisiting a film franchise is the sense that one is coming back to a familiar setting with familiar people – such is the feeling of returning to the Star Wars universe.

When I went to see The Last Jedi on December 16 (3D + IMAX) I underwent an odd version of this experience. As the heroes descended on the world of Crait, a red planet dusted with white dust, I had the sense that I had been there before. This was because I had been playing Star Wars Battlefront II over the previous week; in the multiplayer game, the planet Crait had just been introduced as a new location for battles and I’d been struggling against Storm Troopers (or as a Storm Trooper) through the trenches and tunnels of Crait for many, repetitive hours. Not only that, but the 3D models used to build the 3D battle world for the game appeared to be based on the same visual assets used for the movie.

And so, when I saw the way the light reflected off of the red mud on the walls of the Crait trenches, I had an “aha” moment of recognition. My spatial memory told me I had been here before.


We might say that this was a case of déjà vu, since I had never been to Crait in reality – but only in a video game. But then one must recall that the “vu” experience of the déjà vu also never happened – the CGI world on the screen is not a place that exists in any reality. I had experienced a virtual nostalgia for a space that didn’t exist – a sense of returning home when there is no home to return to.

We aren’t quite in the territory of Blade Runner manufactured memories, yet, but we are a step closer. Games and technology that give us a sense of place and affect that peculiar and primeval faculty of the brain (the ability to remember places that made our hunter-gatherer ancestors so effective and that was later exploited to form the Ars Memoriae) will have unexpected side effects.

I think this is a new type of experience and one that marks an inflection point in mankind’s progress – if I may be allowed to be a bit grandiose. For while in all previous generations, mimetic technologies such as writing, encyclopedias, computers, and the internet, have all tended to diminish our natural memories, this new age of virtual reality and 3D spaces has, for the first time, started to provide us with a superfluity of unexpected and artificial memories.

Surrendering to Technology

My wife pulled into the garage yesterday after a shopping trip and called me out to her car to catch the tail end of a vignette on NPR about the Theater of Memory tradition Frances Yates rediscovered in the 60’s — a subject my wife knows has been a particular interest of mine since graduate school.  The radio essayist was discussing his attempt to create his own memory theater by forming the image of a series of rooms in his mind and placing strange mnemonic creatures representing different things he wanted to remember in each of the corners.  Over time, however, he finally came to the conclusion that there was nothing in his memory theater that he couldn’t find on the Internet and, even worse, his memory theater had no search button.  Eventually he gave up on the Renaissance theater of memory tradition and replaced it with Google.

I havn’t read Yates’s The Art of Memory for a long time, but it seemed to me that the guy on the radio had gotten it wrong, somehow.  While the art of memory began as a set of techniques allowing an orator to memorize topics about which he planned to speak, often for hours, over time it became something else.  The novice rhetorician would begin by spending a few years memorizing every nook and cranny of some building until he was able to recall every aspect of the rooms simply by closing his eyes.  Next he would spend several more years learning the techniques to build mnemonic images which he would then place in different stations of his memory theater in preparation for an oration.  The rule of thumb was that the most memorable images were also the most outrageous and monstrous.  A notable example originating in the Latin mnemonic textbook Ad Herennium is a ram’s testicles used as a place holder for a lawsuit, since witnesses must testify in court, and testify sounds like testicles.

As a mere technique, the importance of the theater of memory waned with the appearance of cheap paper as a new memory technology.  Instead of working all those years to make the mind powerful enough to remember a multitude of topics, topics can now be written down on paper and recalled as we like.  The final demise of the theater of memory is no doubt realized in the news announcer who reads off a teleprompter, being fed words to say as if they were being drawn from his own memory.  This is of course an illusion, and the announcer is merely a host for the words that flow through him.

A variation on the theater of memory not obviated by paper began to be formulated in the Renaissance in the works of men like Marsilio Ficino, Giulio Camillo, Giordano Bruno, Raymond Lull, and Peter Ramus.  Through them, the theater of memory was integrated with the Hermetic tradition, and the mental theater was transformed into something more than a mere technique for remembering words and ideas.  Instead, the Hermetic notion of the microcosm and macrocosm, and the sympathetic rules that could connect the two, became the basis for seeing the memory theater as a way to connect the individual with a world of cosmic and magical forces.  By placing objects in the memory theater that resonate with the celestial powers, the Renaissance magus was able to call upon these forces for insight and wisdom.

Since magic is not real, even these innovations are not so interesting on their own.  However the 18th century thinker, Giambattista Vico, both a rationalist and someone steeped in the traditions of Renaissance magic, recast the theater of memory one more time.  For Vico, the memory theater was not a repository for magical artifacts, but rather something that is formed in each of us through acculturation; it contains a knowledge of the cultural institutions, such as property rights, marriage, and burial (the images within our memory theaters), that are universal and make culture possible.  Acculturation puts these images in our minds and makes it possible for people to live together.  As elements of our individual memory theaters, these civilizing institutions are taken to be objects in the world, when in actuality they are images buried so deeply in our memories that they exert a remarkable influence over our behavior. 

Some vestige of this notion of cultural artifacts can be found in Richard Dawkins’s hypothesis about memes as units of culture.  Dawkins suggests that our thoughts are  made up, at least in part, of memes that influence our behavior in irrational but inexorable ways.  On analogy with his concept of genes as selfish replicators, he conceives of memes as things seeking to replicate themselves based on rules that are not necessarily either evident or rational.  His examples include, at the trivial end, songs that we can’t get out of our heads and, at the profound end, the concept of God.  For Dawkins, memes are not part of the hardwiring of the brain, but instead act like computer viruses attempting to run themselves on top of the brain’s hardware.

One interesting aspect of Dawkins’s interpretation of the spread of culture is that it also offers an explanation for the development of subcultures and fads.  Subcultures can be understood as communities that physically limit the available vectors for the spread of memes to certain communities, while fads can be explained away as short-lived viruses that are vital for a while but eventually waste their energies and disappear.  The increasing prevalence of visual media and the Internet, in turn, increase the number of vectors for the replication of memes, just as increased air-travel improves the ability of real diseases to spread across the world.

Dawkins describes the replication of memetic viruses in impersonal terms.  The purpose of these viruses is not to advance culture in any way, but rather simply to perpetuate themselves.  The cultural artifacts spread by these viruses are not guaranteed to improve us, no more than Darwinian evolution offers to make us better morally, culturally or intellectually.  Even to think in these terms is a misunderstanding of the underlying reality. Memes do not survive because we judge them to be valuable.  Rather, we deceive ourselves into valuing them because they survive. 

How different this is from the Renaissance conception of the memory theater, for which the theater existed to serve man, instead of man serving simply to host the theater.  Ioan Couliano, in the 80’s, attempted to disentangle Renaissance philosophy from its magical trappings to show that at its root the Renaissance manipulation of images was a proto-psychology.  The goal of the Hermeticist was to cultivate and order images in order to improve both mind and spirit.  Properly arranged, these images would help him to see the world more clearly, and allow him to live in it more deeply.

For after all what are we but the sum of our memories?  A technique for forming and organizing these memories — to actually take control of our memories instead of simply allowing them to influence us willy-nilly — such as the Renaissance Hermeticists tried to formulate could still be of great use to us today.  Is it so preposterous that by reading literature instead of trash, by controlling the images and memories that we allow to pour into us, we can actually structure what sort of persons we are and will become?

These were the ideas that initially occurred to me when I heard the end of the radio vignette while standing in the garage.  I immediately went to the basement and pulled out Umberto Eco’s The Search For The Perfect Language, which has an excellent chapter in it called Kabbalism and Lullism in Modern Culture that seemed germane to the topic.  As I sat down to read it, however, I noticed that Doom, the movie based on a video game, was playing on HBO, so I ended up watching that on the brand new plasma TV we bought for Christmas.

The premise of the film is that a mutagenic virus (a virus that creates mutants?) is found on an alien planet that starts altering the genes of people it infects and turns them into either supermen or monsters depending on some predisposition of the infected person’s nature.  (There is even a line in the film explaining that the final ten percent of the human genome that has not been mapped is believed to be the blueprint for the human soul.)  Doom ends with “The Rock” becoming infected and having to be put down before he can finish his transformation into some sort of malign creature.  After that I pulled up the NPR website in order to do a search on the essayist who abandoned his memory theater for Google.  My search couldn’t find him.

Giulio Camillo, father of the Personal Computer

I am not the first to suggest it, but I will add my voice to those that want to claim that Giulio Camillo built the precursor of the modern personal computer in the 16th century.  Claiming that anyone invented anything is always a precarious venture, and it can be instructive to question the motives of such attempts.  For instance, trying to determine whether Newton or Leibniz invented calculus is a simple question of who most deserves credit for this remarkable achievement. 

Sometimes the question of firsts is intended to reveal something that we did not know before, such as Harold Bloom’s suggestion that Shakespeare invented the idea of personality as we know it.  In making the claim, Bloom at the same time makes us aware of the possibility that personality is not in fact something innate, but something created.  Edmund Husserl turns this notion on its head a bit with his reference in his writings to the Thales of Geometry.  Geometry, unlike the notion of personality, cannot be so easily reduced to an invention, since it is eidetic in nature.  It is always true, whether anyone understands geometry or not.  And so there is a certain irony in holding Thales to be the originator of Geometry since Geometry is a science that was not and could not have been invented as such.  Similarly, each of us, when we discover the truths of geometry for ourselves, becomes in a way a new Thales of Geometry, having made the same observations and realizations for which Thales receives credit. 

Sometimes the recognition of firstness is a way of initiating people into a secret society.  Such, it struck me, was the case when I read as a teenager from Stephen J. Gould that Darwin was not the first person to discover the evolutionary process, but that it was in fact another naturalist named Alfred Russel Wallace, and suddenly a centuries long conspiracy to steal credit from the truly deserving Wallace was revealed to me — or so it had seemed at the time. 

Origins play a strange role in etymological considerations, and when we read Aristotle’s etymological ruminations, there is certainly a sense that the first meaning of a word will somehow provide the key to understanding the concepts signified by the word.  There is a similar intuition at work in the discusions of ‘natural man’ to be found in the political writings of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau.  For each, the character of the natural man determines the nature of the state, and consequently how we are to understand it best.  For Hobbes, famously, the life of this kind of man is rather unpleasant.  For Locke, the natural man is typified by his rationality.  For Rousseau, by his freedom.  In each case, the character of the ‘natural man’ serves as a sort of gravitational center for understanding man and his works at any time. I have often wondered whether the discussions of the state of the natural man were intended as a scientific deduction or rather merely as a metaphor for each of these great political philosophers.  I lean toward the latter opinion, in which case another way to understand firsts is not as an attempt to achieve historical accuracy, but rather an attempt to find the proper metaphor for something modern.

So who invented the computer?  Was it Charles Babbage with his Difference Engine in the 19th century, or Alan Turing in the 20th with his template for the Universal Machine?  Or was it Ada Lovelace, as some have suggested, the daughter of Lord Byron and collaborator with Charles Babbage who possibly did all the work while Babbage receives all the credit?

My question is a simpler one: who invented the personal computer, Steve Jobs or Giulio Camillo.  I award the laurel to the Camillo, who was known in his own time as the Divine Camillo because of the remarkable nature of his invention.  And in doing so, of course, I merely am attempting to define what the personal computer really is — the gravitational center that is the role of the personal computer in our lives.

Giulio Camillo spent long years working on his Memory Theater, a miniaturized Vitruvian theater still big enough to walk into, basically a box, that would provide the person who stood before it the gift most prized by Renaissance thinkers: the eloquence of Cicero.  The theater itself was arranged with images and figures from greek and roman mythology.  Throughout it were Christian references intermixed with Hermetic and Kabalistic symbols.  In small boxes beneath various statues inside the theater fragments and adaptations of Cicero’s writings could be pulled out and examined.  Through the proper physical arrangment of the fantastic, the mythological, the philosophical and the occult, Camillo sought to provide a way for anyone who stepped before his theater be able to discourse on any subject no less fluently and eloquently than Cicero himself.

Eloquence in the 16th century was understood as not only the ability of the lawyer or statesman to speak persuasively, but also the ability to evoke beautiful and accurate metaphors, the knack for delighting an audience, the ability to instruct, and mastery of diverse subjects that could be brought forth from the memory in order to enlighten one’s listeners.  Already in Camillo’s time, mass production of books was coming into its own and creating a transformation of culture.  Along with it, the ancient arts of memory and of eloquence (by way of analogy we might call it literacy, today), whose paragon was recognized to be Cicero, was in its decline.  Thus Camillo came along at the end of this long tradition of eloquence to invent a box that would capture all that was best of the old world that was quickly disappearing.  He created, in effect, an artificial memory that anyone could use, simply by stepping before it, to invigorate himself with the accumulated eloquence of all previous generations.

And this is how I think of the personal computer.  It is a box, occult in nature, that provides us with an artificial memory to make us better than we are, better than nature made us.  Nature distributes her gifts randomly, while the personal computer corrects that inherent injustice.  The only limitation to the personal computer, as I see it, is that it can only be a repository for all the knowledge humanity has already acquired.  It cannot generate anything new, as such.  It is a library and not a university.

Which is where the internet comes in.  The personal computer, once it is attached to the world wide web, becomes invigorated by the chaos and serendipity that is the internet.  Not only do we have the dangerous chaos of viruses and trojan horses, but also the positive chaos of online discussions, the putting on of masks and mixing with the online personas of others, the random following of links across the internet that ultimately leads us to make new connections between disparate concepts in ways that seem natural and inevitable.

This leads me to the final connection I want to make in my overburdened analogy.  Just as the personal computer is not merely a box, but also a doorway to the internet, so Giulio Camillo’s Theater of Memory was tied to a Neoplatonic worldview in which the idols of the theater, if arranged properly and fittingly, could draw down the influences of the intelligences, divine beings known variously as the planets (Mars, Venus, etc.), the Sephiroth, or the Archangels.  By standing before Camillo’s box, the spectator was immediately plugged into these forces, the consequences of which are difficult to assess.  There is danger, but also much wonder, to be found on the internet.