Proof of Memory Lies in Architecture

John N. Blias-C discusses ancient Greek mnemonic techniques and the role of place in memory.

March 8, 2012

When reproduction, was not as accessible as it is today, the early Greeks, stressed the importance of the facility of recalling text through the use of memory. Often long texts would be recited solely through the use of one’s elaborated mnemonic techniques:

“…the Greeks, who invented many arts, invented an art of memory…this art seeks to memorize through a technique of impressing ‘places’ and ‘images’ on memory.”

The Greeks realized that a memory consisted of mental images, and these images required a technique that would improve their recall abilities and ultimately the memory itself. The mnemonic relationship that the Greeks developed, for the improvement of memory, was used predominantly in the exercise of Rhetoric, but this approach was also encouraged for the betterment of an individual’s intellect and imagination. This beginning of a memory improvement method stressed the importance of image and place – in memory. The ease of recall relied on the projection of a temporary mental image onto a permanent mental image.  A permanent mental image consisted of a place or a stable architectural space that could be seen and experienced directly:

“The first step was to imprint on the memory a series of loci of places. The commonest, though not the only, type of mnemonic place system used was the architectural type…The images by which the [content] is to be remembered…are then placed in the imagination on the places which have been memorized in the buildings.”

This enforced a need for a direct relationship with place. A memory could be broken down into its images, and from here these mental images were projected onto a place or loci from which they would be recalled with more proficiency; a mental image was projected onto a stable architectural place that would house, for instance, a narrative. This technique stressed the use of imagination in order to facilitate the mental re-creation of a temporary mental image (memory) on a permanent mental image (place), allowing an individual to reconstruct a memory back to life.

This regard for a mental connection to an external place reiterates Freud’s sentiments regarding preservation, in Civilization and its Discontents.  Here, Freud attempts to clarify Roman Rolland’s description of the true source of religion’s power: that “…‘oceanic feeling’ of belonging to the totality of the outside world that is supposedly rooted in everyone…”

This sensation is characterized as a survival trait that spawns from a state of consciousness familiar to that of an infant child, and can remerge in certain circumstances that bond an individual’s psyche to the external world (such as in love). This attachment response is often challenged, altered, and transcended through Freud’s reality principle, which instructs the individual to form a division between the ego and the real world.   Although the separation implies disconnect, Freud states that through this dividing line a connection with reality is recorded; that the division between ego and reality is impartial to difference; although ego and reality are separate, they are each a half of the whole.  That reality, composed of external matter, as through architecture, provides the counter, and completion, for the ego of the individual.  One cannot exist without the other.

This recording (or memory) extends the connection beyond the present to include most of an individual’s life; “that in mental life nothing which has once been formed can perish – that everything is somehow preserved and that in suitable circumstances it can once more be brought to light.”   This suggests that Rolland’s oceanic feeling can be reawakened through the use of one’s memory to connect not only to the past but to the whole that includes the present.  Freud continues, suggesting that fractured mental mnemonic remains can be completed with an individual’s imagination.

This inhibition to deny the possibility of a complete mental memory holds true in contemporary Neurobiology; “…memories, when fixed, are…difficult to erase (…they are the most durable features…acquired during a person’s lifetime).”   The neurobiological processes of the brain, with respect to memory and information gathering, create channels or pathways that house a memory – encoded content is represented as a specific path. If maintained, these pathways, through contextual repetition “…allow for a record to be ‘printed’ in the long-term memory.”

Although Freud’s position regarding the physiological functioning of memory is no longer convincing in light of recent advances in neurobiology, for the most part “…neuroscientists have not yet unraveled the secrets of the memory mechanism,”  but have determined that certain neurological functions require tactile context to impress a memory in the mind, and that that same tactile context can remind.  This suggests that although narratives or other forms of externally captured memories (as through photography) can evoke a memory, context is a superior method for recall; equally, a historical architectural collection can provide tangible proof for the imagination to reconstruct the past.

Providing context – through place, is important for allowing the individual an opportunity to reconstruct an event or experience,   “…context dependency is a retrieval effect, with context helping the subject to locate the relevant information in [their] memory store,”  so that during the perception of a place, an individual can realise a history of a city through direct contact with an architectural memory of the past (context).  This contextual factor assists the imagination, for example; by placing a historical narrative into its physical context (into its architecture), the individual can reconstruct previous historical periods more accurately, and deepen the overall experience of space and time by invoking the past into the present.

Contemporary studies on memory also place significance on the manner in which context is experienced: “We do not perceive or remember in a vacuum. The context within which we experience an event will determine how that event is encoded and hence retained.”   Placing importance on how we can adapt a historical place to accommodate the needs of the present, allows for both the previous and current states to exist simultaneously.  This referential procedure permits an individual to experience ambivalent impressions of place, stimulating the imagination in the reconstruction of memory, and deepening the connection to that place.

Consequently, the ‘oceanic feeling’ of totality that Roman Rolland wished to “…[describe] as the true source of religious behavior,”  represents an extended participation of materialized evidence that a physical memory exists outside the self; history (memory) is confirmed through the physical remnants that can be experienced directly through something previously built.  This resembles Maurice Halbwachs’ inference that “the seat of memory is to be found in society rather than in the individual.”

Maurice Halbwachs’ position, in The Collective Memory, consists of external proofs of mnemonics:

“…memory is not like a private chamber within the individual consciousness – a storehouse for personal recollections – but is more a process of reconstruction: an activity of localization and configuration functioning essentially from and within socially elaborated frames or reference systems (language, divisions of time and space, etc.)”

These references – or divisions of time and space, which architecture participates as – become fixed points in the mind which may serve to re-articulate external material for the manufacturing of memory.  It is with these material reference points that for Halbwachs, memory is allowed to exist: essentially outside the mind.

For the purpose of culture there can be no memory without external proof, from which to reconstruct – through permanent images –  a sense of reality, and through extension of Freud’s ego/reality, a sense of belonging.  For “…we preserve memories of each epoch in our lives, and these are continually reproduced; [and] through them…a sense of identity is perpetuated.”  A sense of identity and socio-collective presence – culture – is provided through the many remaining historical architectural artifacts found within cities.

Halbwachs further maintains that memory exists as material mnemonic evidence in space:

“…like an immobile image of time…there is no collective memory that does not unfold in a spatial framework… [Space] is an enduring reality: each of our impressions banishes the one that came before, nothing remains in our mind, and there would be no way of understanding the past, if it did not in effect preserve itself in the material surroundings.”

Sebastian Marot, in his Sub-Urbanism and the Art of Memory, elaborates on the evolution of the city through its social frameworks, and interprets it as a mental organism whose previous “states of existence” are partially available: “whose spatiotemporal depth, now transparent, now opaque, is more or less available to the voyage of memory.”   He cautions that “…beyond the machines for traveling in space and time…the mental health of our cities and territories no doubt depends on the degree to which…elasticity or depth…is available to be experienced everywhere…and therefore…”  it is the obligation of the architect/builder, whose responsibility it is to reconfigure our environments, through adaptation for the present or the future, “…to permit, restore or invent this availability…”  for now is the time of deepening our memories…

Frances Yates, The Art of Memory (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul 1966) xi

Yates, 3

Marot, 24

Sigmund Freud,  Civilization and its Discontents (London: Hogarth Press 1966) 6

Freud, 8

Gregory, 456

Ibid, 463

Ibid, 463

Ibid, 463

Marot, 32

Ibid, 30

Maurice Halbwachs, The Collective Memory (Toronto: Harper & Row) (citied in Marot, 30)

Ibid (citied in Marot, 30)

Marot, 32

Ibid, 32

Ibid, 32

Ibid, 40

Robert Smithson, Monuments of Passaic (From Jennifer L. Roberts, Mirror-Travels; Robert Smithson and History (New York: Yale University Press 2004) (citied in Marot, 44)

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