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Excavating the Memory Palace

Arts of Visualization from the Agora to the Computer

With the prevalence of smartphones, massive data storage, and search engines, we might think of today as the height of the information age. In reality, every era has faced its own challenges of storing, organizing, and accessing information. While they lacked digital devices, our ancestors, when faced with information overload, utilized some of the same techniques that underlie our modern interfaces: they visualized and spatialized data, tying it to the emotional and sensory spaces of memory, thereby turning their minds into a visual interface for accessing information.

In Excavating the Memory Palace, Seth David Long mines the history of Europe’s arts of memory to find the origins of today’s data visualizations, unearthing how ancient constructions of cognitive pathways paved the way for modern technological interfaces. Looking to techniques like the memory palace, he finds the ways that information has been tied to sensory and visual experience, turning raw data into lucid knowledge. From the icons of smart phone screens to massive network graphs, Long shows us the ancestry of the cyberscape and unveils the history of memory as a creative act.

248 pages | 20 halftones, 12 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2020

History: History of Ideas, History of Technology

Rhetoric and Communication

Sociology: Theory and Sociology of Knowledge


"This project fills a gap in the current scholarship on the canon of memory, its fascinating inception and history, and implications for re-theorizing it within our contemporary technological context. Long's argument is historically deep and complex, building upon the iconic historical work of luminaries such as Carruthers, Yates, and others. He presents a theory that sees memory not as the isolated processes of brains in jars, but as the dynamic, social, outward-facing practice that has informed rhetorical output since antiquity, and continues to do so today. This is an insightful critique of today's data-driven practices of digital rhetoric, reminding the reader of the subjective, highly malleable set of choices that go into the selection, juxtaposition, combination, and scale of data manipulation."

Ben McCorkle, author of Rhetorical Delivery as Technological Discourse: A Cross-Historical Study

“Long investigates the rhetorical canon of memory in a fascinating way that pushes the boundaries in both theory and method. He offers rich examples and anecdotes, ranging from ancient Greece and the Middle Ages to the present, and he breathes new life into how we conceive of memory, initiating a welcome empirical methodology for rhetorical theory that a range of researchers will find refreshing.”

John R. Gallagher, author of Update Culture and the Afterlife of Digital Writing

“Just what happened to ars memoria? Long takes readers on an investigative journey of research and recovery, starting at the twilight of the Roman agora and ending with present-day digital networks. He tells the story of how the iconoclasts and their imageless memory systems changed the way rhetoricians recall the fourth canon and the significant social and historical implications for today’s digital world of visualized data. In an era of rapidly circulating news, Long’s book is a must read for humanists and pedagogues interested in questions about where, how, why, and what we remember.”

Jim Ridolfo, coeditor of Rhet Ops: Rhetoric and Information Warfare

"Long’s book is a timely reminder that there are both great promises and great dangers lurking in new technologies, but that these cannot be appreciated without a historical sensibility. No matter how new-fangled technologies may seem, they will raise similar questions as in the past about what it is for us, as humans, to know."

International Journal of Law in Context

Table of Contents

Introduction: Memory vs. Mnemonic

Chapter 1. Arts of Memory in the Agora
Chapter 2. Arts of Memory in the Monastery
Chapter 3. The Memory Palace in Ruins
Chapter 4. The Memory Palace Modernized
Chapter 5. Theory and Practice of a Digital Ars Memoria
Chapter 6. The Social Memory Palace

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