Remembering the memory theater

Some days, it feels like my career trajectory from literature-scholar-in-training to academic librarian has taken me a long way from my old set of intellectual interests. The things that interest me now, that make me sit up and say "hmm!", aren't the kinds of things I even knew to look for when I started grad school. But on other days, it feels like everything, sooner or later, comes back around, and I'm just tracing the edges of a long and intricate pattern that eventually repeats, or at least rhymes, if one follows it long enough.

Case in point: Thanks to the magic of iTunes U, I've been downloading and listening to Paul Duguid and Geoffrey Nunberg's "History of Information" course at Berkeley. It's fascinating stuff, exactly the kind of thing that makes my librarian heart beat faster. When I got to the classes on manuscript culture and the impact of print, I was pleasantly surprised to find Duguid and Nunberg introducing the idea of the printing revolution by playing a clip from James Burke's BBC series "The Day the Universe Changed," which I still remember watching, at age eleven, when it first aired on PBS. And then, to my great delight, I realized that the clip they were using in the course was the episode that stayed with me the longest: "Printing Transforms Knowledge," in which Burke spends a couple of minutes near the beginning talking about medieval memory theater.

It was fascinating to hear it again, because that couple of minutes inspired my dissertation. The whole "memory theater" concept fascinated me, and I never forgot it. (Especially since Burke visually recreates an example involving punning mnemonics for the seven liberal arts. The one I remember best is a snake — an adder: get it? — standing for arithmetic.)* More than a decade later, I thought of memory theater while working on a graduate seminar paper, and that paper topic in turn spawned my dissertation. At my defense, when my chair asked me to talk about where my dissertation started, I began that origin story with "The Day the Universe Changed."

And now, in quite another context, here it was again. Perhaps I've always been interested in information retrieval and its long, occasionally bizarre history, even before I started thinking about it in that light. And I've now got "The Day the Universe Changed" in my Netflix queue, for old times' sake; I suddenly want to watch the whole thing over again.

* I tried in vain to find that scene on YouTube so I could link to it, but no luck. There's a "Day the Universe Changed" channel, but I can't find the memory theater bit. I suspect the series was edited somewhere along the line.

3 Responses to “Remembering the memory theater”

  1. rr says:

    Fantastic! I too have vivid memories of James Burke programmes from my childhood. “Burke’s Special” was wonderful. Most clearly I recall a scene in which the entire studio audience was asked to stand up and individuals should remain standing if they could “decode” the information he read out. There were several bits of engineering or scientific jargon which resulted in various numbers of men remaining standing but the piece de resistance was the final example where, when he started reading it the entire audience sat down almost as one leaving only a rather embarassed-looking woman on her feet. It was (of course) a knitting pattern. I remember feeling so proud that I was a member of a group of people who were initiates in one of the codes, and that this was sufficiently interesting for the god-like Mr Burke to take it seriously, and it was a girl-thing. (We’re talking nearly 40 years ago of course.) It was an extraordinarily validating experience.

  2. Amanda says:

    I love how, sooner or later, everything comes back around to knitting — whether one is talking about art or technology or code or math or socks.

  3. Yes, that particular scene from my childhood stuck in my memory too … too bad there is only the edited version on youtube …