Expanding Ekphrasis to the Broader Field of Mnemotechny: or How the Shield of Achilles Relates to a Towel, Car, and Water Buffalo

If Lynne Kelly‘s thesis about the methods of memory used by indigenous peoples is correct, and I strongly believe it is, then the concept of ekphrasis as illustrated in the description of the Shield of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad (Book 18, lines 478–608) is far more useful than we may have previously known. I strongly suspect that Achilles’ Shield is an early sung version of a memory palace to which were once attached other (now lost) memories from Bronze Age Greece.

The word ekphrasis, or ecphrasis, comes from the Greek for the description of a work of art produced as a rhetorical exercise, often used in the adjectival form ekphrastic.—Wikipedia

While many may consider this example of Homer’s to be the first instance of ekphrasis within literature (primarily because it specifically depicts an artwork, which is part of the more formal definition of the word), I would posit that even earlier descriptions in the Iliad itself which go into great detail about individuals and their methods of death are also included in a broader conception of ekphrasis. This larger ekphrasis subsumes all of these descriptions in an tradition of orality as being portions of ancient memory palaces within a broader field of mnemotechny. I imagine that these graphic, bloody, and larger-than-life depictions of death not only encoded the names and ideas of the original people/ancestors, but they were also quite likely to have had additional layers of memory encoded (or attached) to them as well. Here I’m suggesting that while an actual shield may or may not have originally existed that even once the physical shield or other object is gone or lost that the remembered story of the shield still provides a memory palace to which other ideas can be attached.

(I’ll remind the forgetful reader than mnemotechny grows out of the ancient art of rhetoric as envisioned in Rhetorica ad Herennium, and thus the use of ekphrasis as a rhetorical device implicitly subsumes the idea of memory, though most modern readers may not have that association.)

Later versions of ekphrasis in post-literate history may have been more about the arts themselves and related references and commentary (example: Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn), but I have a strong feeling that this idea’s original incarnation was more closely related to early memory methods at the border of oral and literate societies.

In other words, ancient performers, poets, etc. may have created their own memory palaces by which they were able to remember long stories like the Iliad, but what is to say that these stories themselves weren’t in turn memory palaces to the listeners themselves? I myself have previously used the plot and portions of the movie Fletch as a meta memory palace in just this way. As the result of ritualistic semi-annual re-watchings of classic and engaging movies like this, I can dramatically expand my collection of memory palaces. The best part is that while my exterior physical location may change, classics movies will always stay the same. And in a different framing, my memories of portions of history may also help me recall a plethora of famous movie quotes as well.

Can I borrow your towel? My car just hit a water buffalo.—Irwin M. Fletcher

Brief Review: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

The Swerve: How the World Became ModernThe Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Stephen Greenblatt provides an interesting synthesis of history and philosophy. Greenblatt’s love of the humanities certainly shines through. This stands as an almost over-exciting commercial for not only reading Lucretius’s “De Rerum Natura” (“On the Nature of Things”), but in motivating the reader to actually go out to learn Latin to appreciate it properly.

I would have loved more direct analysis and evidence of the immediate impact of Lucretius in the 1400’s as well as a longer in-depth analysis of the continuing impact through the 1700’s.

The first half of the book is excellent at painting a vivid portrait of the life and times of Poggio Bracciolini which one doesn’t commonly encounter. I’m almost reminded of Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life, though Greenblatt has far more historical material with which to paint the picture. I may also be biased that I’m more interested in the mechanics of the scholarship of the resurgence of the classics in the Renaissance than I was of that particular political portion of the first century BCE. Though my background on the history of the time periods involved is reasonably advanced, I fear that Greenblatt may be leaving out a tad too much for the broader reading public who may not be so well versed. The fact that he does bring so many clear specifics to the forefront may more than compensate for this however.

In some interesting respects, this could be considered the humanities counterpart to the more science-centric story of Owen Gingerich’s The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus. Though Simon Winchester is still by far my favorite nonfiction writer, Greenblatt does an exceedingly good job of narrating what isn’t necessarily a very linear story.

Greenblatt includes lots of interesting tidbits and some great history. I wish it had continued on longer… I’d love to have the spare time to lose myself in the extensive bibliography. Though the footnotes, bibliography, and index account for about 40% of the book, the average reader should take a reasonable look at the quarter or so of the footnotes which add some interesting additional background an subtleties to the text as well as to some of the translations that are discussed therein.

I am definitely very interested in the science behind textual preservation which is presented as the underlying motivation for the action in this book. I wish that Greenblatt had covered some of these aspects in the same vivid detail he exhibited for other portions of the story. Perhaps summarizing some more of the relevant scholarship involved in transmitting and restoring old texts as presented in Bart Ehrman and Bruce Metzter’s The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption & Restoration would have been a welcome addition given the audience of the book. It might also have presented a more nuanced picture of the character of the Church and their predicament presented in the text as well.

Though I only caught one small reference to modern day politics (a prison statistic for America which was obscured in a footnote), I find myself wishing that Greenblatt had spent at least a few paragraphs or even a short chapter drawing direct parallels to our present-day political landscape. I understand why he didn’t broach the subject as it would tend to date an otherwise timeless feeling text and generally serve to dissuade a portion of his readership and in particular, the portion which most needs to read such a book. I can certainly see a strong need for having another short burst of popularity for “On the Nature of Things” to assist with the anti-science and overly pro-religion climate we’re facing in American politics.

For those interested in the topic, I might suggest that this text has some flavor of Big History in its DNA. It covers not only a fairly significant chunk of recorded human history, but has some broader influential philosophical themes that underlie a potential change in the direction of history which we’ve been living for the past 300 years. There’s also an intriguing overlap of multidisciplinary studies going on in terms of the history, science, philosophy, and technology involved in the multiple time periods discussed.

This review was originally posted on GoodReads.com on 7/8/2014. View all my reviews

Latin Pedagogy and the Digital Humanities

I’ve long been a student of the humanities (and particularly the classics) and have recently begun reviewing over my very old and decrepit knowledge of Latin.  It’s been two decades since I made a significant study of classical languages, and lately (as the result of conversations with friends like Dave Harris, Jim Houser, Larry Richardson, and John Kountouris) I’ve been drawn to reviewing them for reading a variety of classical texts in their original languages. Fortunately, in the intervening years, quite a lot has changed in the tools relating to pedagogy for language acquisition.

Jenny's Second Year Latin
A copy of Jenny’s Latin text which I had used 20 years ago and recently acquired a new copy for the pittance of $3.25.

Internet

The biggest change in the intervening time is the spread of the  internet which supplies a broad variety of related websites with not only interesting resources for things like basic reading and writing, but even audio sources apparently including listening to the nightly news in Latin. There are a variety of blogs on Latin as well as even online courseware, podcasts, pronunciation recordings, and even free textbooks. I’ve written briefly about the RapGenius platform before, but I feel compelled to mention it as a potentially powerful resource as well. (Julius Caesar, Seneca, Ovid, Cicero, et al.) There is a paucity of these sources in a general sense in comparison with other modern languages, but given the size of the niche, there is quite a lot out there, and certainly a mountain in comparison to what existed only twenty years ago.

Software

There has also been a spread of pedagogic aids like flashcard software including Anki and Mnemosyne with desktop, web-based, and even mobile-based versions making  learning available in almost any situation. The psychology and learning research behind these types of technologies has really come a long way toward assisting students to best make use of their time in learning and retaining what they’ve learned in long term memory.  Simple mobile applications like Duolingo exist for a variety of languages – though one doesn’t currently exist for classical Latin (yet).

Digital Humanities

The other great change is the advancement of the digital humanities which allows for a lot of interesting applications of knowledge acquisition. One particular one that I ran across this week was the Dickinson College Commentaries (DCC). Specifically a handful of scholars have compiled and documented a list of the most common core vocabulary words in Latin (and in Greek) based on their frequency of appearance in extant works.  This very specific data is of interest to me in relation to my work in information theory, but it also becomes a tremendously handy tool when attempting to learn and master a language.  It is a truly impressive fact that, simply by knowing that if one can memorize and master about 250 words in Latin, it will allow them to read and understand 50% of most written Latin.  Further, knowledge of 1,500 Latin words will put one at the 80% level of vocabulary mastery for most texts.  Mastering even a very small list of vocabulary allows one to read a large variety of texts very comfortably.  I can only think about the old concept of a concordance (which was generally limited to heavily studied texts like the Bible or possibly Shakespeare) which has now been put on some serious steroids for entire cultures. Another half step and one arrives at the Google Ngram Viewer.

The best part is that one can, with very little technical knowledge, easily download the DCC Core Latin Vocabulary (itself a huge research undertaking) and upload and share it through the Anki platform, for example, to benefit a fairly large community of other scholars, learners, and teachers. With a variety of easy-to-use tools, shortly it may be even that much easier to learn a language like Latin – potentially to the point that it is no longer a dead language. For those interested, you can find my version of the shared DCC Core Latin Vocabulary for Anki online; the DCC’s Chris Francese has posted details and a version for Mnemosyne already.

[Editor’s note: Anki’s web service occasionally clears decks of cards from their servers, so if you find that the Anki link to the DCC Core Latin is not working, please leave a comment below, and we’ll re-upload the deck for shared use.]

What tools and tricks do you use for language study and pedagogy?

Bookmarked Information Theory and Statistical Mechanics by E. T. Jaynes (Physical Review, 106, 620 – Published 15 May 1957)

Information theory provides a constructive criterion for setting up probability distributions on the basis of partial knowledge, and leads to a type of statistical inference which is called the maximum-entropy estimate. It is the least biased estimate possible on the given information; i.e., it is maximally noncommittal with regard to missing information. If one considers statistical mechanics as a form of statistical inference rather than as a physical theory, it is found that the usual computational rules, starting with the determination of the partition function, are an immediate consequence of the maximum-entropy principle. In the resulting "subjective statistical mechanics," the usual rules are thus justified independently of any physical argument, and in particular independently of experimental verification; whether or not the results agree with experiment, they still represent the best estimates that could have been made on the basis of the information available.

It is concluded that statistical mechanics need not be regarded as a physical theory dependent for its validity on the truth of additional assumptions not contained in the laws of mechanics (such as ergodicity, metric transitivity, equal a priori probabilities, etc.). Furthermore, it is possible to maintain a sharp distinction between its physical and statistical aspects. The former consists only of the correct enumeration of the states of a system and their properties; the latter is a straightforward example of statistical inference.

DOI:https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRev.106.620