Tag Archives: Giambattista Vico

Battlestar Galactica: Corso e Ricorso


Tonight the final season of Battlestar Galactica commences.  Whereas the original 80’s science fiction series was based on Biblical themes, perhaps even Mormon themes, the re-imagining of the series in the 00’s uses pagan mythology as a backdrop, along with references to straight-from-the-headlines contemporary politics as well as a post-modern self-referentially — due not least to the fact that it is a remake of a popular series.

There is a fantastic quality to childhood that cannot be recaptured, and probably one should not make the attempt.  The Big Mac, I have found as an adult, does not taste as good as it did to my ten year old self.  It is almost inedible.  It also seems smaller.  Going back to see the original Star Wars is an exercise in nostalgia, but along with it is the sense that those movies weren’t really that good after all.  The Catcher In The Rye is a similar disappointment, and the brilliant insights I once thought I gleaned from it are now embarrassing to recall.  (But the literary journey with Holden Caulfield had seemed so deep at the time.)

Which brings us to the original Battlestar Galactica, which I caught a glimpse of a few months ago on the SciFi Channel, and found to be virtually unwatchable.

Giambattista Vico, the 18th century philologist, used this unsatisfactory experience of reviewing the past as his starting point for his interpretation of history.  The prior centuries had been dominated by notions of an Ancient Wisdom which the Renaissance was supposed to be recovering, or re-birthing (re-naissance).  This included, of course, the rediscovery of Plato in the original Greek, of course, preserved by Islamic scholars and philosophers when Europe was suffering through its Dark Age.  It was also intended to include, however, works purported to be written by ancient Egyptian wise men known as The Corpus Hermeticum.

Vico had a particular take on all of this.  He divides the history of various cultures into three distinct phases: the age of gods, the age of heroes, and the age of men.  These three phases mirror the three phases of human development: childhood, adolescence, and maturity. 

A child, as any parent can tell you, finds endless entertainment in a cardboard box, and will play with that in lieu of the fantastic educational toys you bought for their birthdays, and which came in said cardboard box.  The adult, seeking to capture this childhood experience will try to magnify the significance of the box in order to make it seem as worthy of his adult attention, and in order to justify his youthful affection for cardboard.  If you read any psychoanalytic works from the 60’s and 70’s, you’ll discover that this is a recurring theme.

For Vico, a similar thing occurs when we look at history.  Because we read ancient writings and find people who worship, say, stone circles, we sometimes jump to the conclusion that there was — and still is – something remarkable about those circles.  The mistake comes from thinking that our younger selves see the world the same way we do today.

This makes it seem as if Vico is merely a historicist, or the sort of historical colonialist who tends to look down on the past.  This is far from the case.  For Vico, each advancement in culture comes at a price.  With cultural maturity comes a loss of vitality and a certain amount of cynicism.  While in the modern world we might speak of freedom and the rights of man, we fail to think of them with the frank sincerity of our ancestors.  And the ability to treat these ideal notions as if they were real is something enviable, but difficult to achieve for the modern (much less the post-modern).  How does one go back to one’s youth?

Did I say above that Vico divides history into three phases?  I misspoke.  He actually divides it into six phases, for the three cultural phases occur once, and then recur.  The first series he calls the corso, while the second he calls the ricorso.  The same things, in a sense, occur in both the corso and the ricorso.  In each, there is an age of gods, then an age of heroes, then an age of men.  What distinguishes them is that while in the first series everything happens newly, in the second we can achieve some sort of awareness of what is happening to us, because it has all happened before.  Whether this serves us in a way that allows us to shape the unfolding of the ricorso, following Santayana’s dictum, is hard to say.  Probably not. 

But it does give us a special appreciation for what is going on, in the least.  The modern can draw parallels between the current age of men and the last age of men that came with the slow dissolution of the Roman Empire.  He can find signs of more vital cultures that parallel that of the German tribes, say, who were still in the age of heroes after Rome had long abandoned it, and try to find similar circumstances today that can slow the cultural dissolution that a cynical society portends.  Or perhaps not.  Perhaps all that Vico provides us is a tragic framework in which to view cultural history, since the essential power of all tragedies, whether it is that of Oedipus or that of Willy Loman, is that the audience always knows how the play will end.

For those who have not been watching Battlestar Galactica, the new series, now in its fourth season, is about humans in a far off star system — it is unclear whether they are from our future or from our past — who are almost entirely annihilated by a race of robots called Cylons.  Out of the billions of people who once lived in this system, only some forty thousand survive.  They are on a blind mission across the universe, attempting to escape the Cylons who are still trying to eradicate them.  They try to keep up their spirits through their faith though, unlike in the original series, and more like the world in which the audience for Battlestar Galactica lives, their faith waxes and wanes, sometimes bolstered by adversity but more often destroyed by it.  The central tenet of their peculiar religion is a variation on Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, "All of this has happened before, all of this will happen again," which they repeat to themselves throughout the series.  In order to preserve good order in the face of a hopeless situation, the last leaders of the human race, in an act of bad faith, tell their followers that they are headed toward an ancient planet known, in their mythologies, as Earth. 

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.

Where to Begin?


But in the night of thick darkness enveloping the earliest antiquity, so remote from ourselves, there shines the eternal and never failing light of a truth beyond all question: that the world of civil society has certainly been made by men, and that its principles are therefore to be found within the modifications of our own human mind. Whoever reflects on this cannot but marvel that the philosophers should have bent all their energies to the study of the world of nature, which, since God made it, He alone knows; and that they should have neglected the study of the world of nations, or civil world, which, since men had made it, men could come to know. This aberration was a consequence of that infirmity of the human mind by which, immersed and buried in the body, it naturally inclines to take notice of bodily things, and finds the effort to attend to itself too laborious; just as the bodily eye sees all objects outside itself but needs a mirror to see itself. — Giambattista Vico, The New Science