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Arts of Memory (2021-)

The project explores historical arts of memory as transtemporal and transcultural modes of community building. We start from the assumption that cultural ‘arts’ such as mnemotechnics, rhetoric, writing or translation are decisive for the genesis of temporal communities, along with non-verbal or trans-linguistic modes of communication (performative, artistic, institutional, technological). The project’s focus is on the art of memory as it was originally developed in Roman rhetorics and then productively recast in the early modern period.

The so-called ars memorativa is based on an affective encoding of language into images (and vice versa), which are then placed in imaginary architectonic structures. It is thus a technique that operates in the manner of an assemblage. But it also has a communicative component: originally, the art entailed a translation of linguistic signs or chains of signs into individualised mental images (imagines agentes) meant to exploit the individual’s affective inclinations. In the early modern period, however, the art of memory underwent a significant expansion and collectivisation in connection with the emergence of new literary and artistic genres. Surprisingly, this heightened interest in the art of memory was coeval with the invention of printing with moveable type. It began to thrive when one of the most efficient media of communication became widely available. In the face of widely available standardised texts, the art of memory doubtlessly took on and fulfilled certain complementary functions, and mediated between inwardness and outwardness, text and image, object and space. The project will thus investigate how an originally radically individualised instrument of rhetorical preparation came to be forged into an effective communicative tool in conjunction with an intermedial literary practice – and how this practice could remain productive across the arts and well into the modern era, spawning an array of arts of memory.

One aim of the project is, therefore, to demonstrate the close correspondences between emergent literary and artistic genres and mnemonics in the early modern period. Potential topics to be investigated include the global reach of the art, embodied e.g. in the Jesuit employment of mnemotechnics in the context of the global propagation of faith; allegorical and architectural visualisations in literature, emblematics, broadsheets, pamphlets, and periodicals that were informed by mnemotechnical devices; the genealogy of computational poetry as emerging from the combinatorial machines of thought as devised in the Lullist tradition; or the genealogy of the virtual realities of today’s computer games, etc.

In particular in a dialogue with other EXC TC projects and further partners, the project also aims at adopting a more general theoretical perspective: the concept of imago agens will serve as a vantage point from which we will critically reflect on the notion of assemblage or agencement (from agencer – to lay out, to arrange – in Deleuze and Guattari’s original French). We will explore how this concept can underwrite the study of the intricate relationship between literature, performing and visual arts and its role in community building. It remains to be seen whether the art of memory could figure as a blue-print for an intermedial conception of literature as a practice between the arts in a transcultural and transtemporal perspective.


Student Assistant

The Obscene in Early Modern Literature (2021-)

Doctoral Research Project
Luca Lil Wirth