What does it mean to say that "Memory is an amateur?"
Isn’t amateurism a bad thing? After all, the word means the opposite of “professionalism.” And whatever it means, professionalism is a good thing. We can rely on professionals, their work, the time they take to do things. They’re organized, optimized, and, at the very least, they’ve worked very hard to become what they are. We know they will do what they say they’ll do because it would be bad business to do otherwise.
To call memory an amateur of course highlights things about memory that everyone knows.
A lot of the time she isn’t very reliable. It’s easy to forget things, not least of all when it is most important to remember them. Sometimes we’ll remember, but we’ll remember things incorrectly, whether it’s the meaning of a word — or something that happened in our childhood. Such misremembering is a phenomenon that can actually become more likely the more often we remember it.
Besides this, memory is disorganized. Instead of structured hierarchical trees of logic and thinking, she uses her own idiosyncratic wayfinding to get from one connection to another. The professional keeps his papers in filing cabinets, but memory hides hers in the woods.
But it goes beyond this. Memory’s primitive. She’s uncontrollable, wild, and maybe even archaic. It’s not merely that memory is an amateur, but memory resists all attempts at professionalization.
Simonides of Ceos
Perhaps the most famous attempt against her innocence is the so-called “memory palace” technique, first developed in the 5th century B.C. by Simonides of Ceos.
It has once again surfaced in popular culture thanks to Sherlock, a TV dedicated to the memory of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
But it’s not the first time it has entered the popular consciousness. In fact, it’s probably the most frequently turned-to mnemonic in western history, finding enthusiastic practitioners in the Roman period, again in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and later on in the modern era.
The circumstances around its invention matter, though.
At the time, Simonides was staying in Thessaly at the house of a noble named Skopas. Following a dispute about payment, Simonides was called to the front door of the house.
And then, the roof collapsed. Skopas, his guests and his relatives were buried under what had once been the ceiling.
Afterwards, when it became necessary to make funerary arrangements, Simonides’ spatial memory played an instrumental role in identifying those who had died. He remembered where they had all been seated or reclining when he’d gone to the door. And he went on to generalize what he’d learned from this to create the so-called method of loci, the “memory palace,” where rememberers could create their own imaginary dinner parties for their ideas — and then mentally reconstruct them after a day or so had passed, the mind had grown forgetful, and the roof had, so to speak, collapsed upon them.
The Business of Remembering
Simonides is said to have been the first poet to sell his poems for money. Prior to this, a poet would receive compensation in the form of gifts, food, shelter, and/or other forms of material support. Such would have come directly from a member of the aristocracy, with whom the poet would have resided on a semi-permanent basis.
Simonides novel way of doing business caused no small amount of controversy, especially among his fellow poets, who saw no need to innovate on the older model.
But the new order was already coming. In this instance only do we hear of Simonides falling victim to his own monetization strategy. The payment dispute came about because Skopas found Simonides’ poem unsatisfactory and refused to give him the agreed upon amount. Was the nobleman also somehow violating the norms of the older hospitality-driven society? It’s unclear. Such confusion often occurs in the transition between two orders. The twin gods Castor and Pollux, who were said to be responsible for calling Simonides to the door prior to the accident, perhaps tend to appear at such moments in time.
The identification of dead bodies, moreover, is also a kind of inversion of one of Simonides biggest income streams.
He’s primarily known for writing epitaphs.
Of course, he wouldn’t even have survived had he not been an outside contractor. This business model, besides being more lucrative, also had a flexibility that the old order couldn’t offer. It was the first great triumph of professionalism.
On the Old Order
But the technique produced by this event can also be read another way: a reflection of the older economic order in which people were bound to specific places and social structures. Simonides remembered where these dead men lay, not because of some mental model he’d made of the house, but because he knew the men, knew where they were supposed to have been.
It was, in other words, just another memory, and belongs to her and to her vast and stupefying way of ordering the world.