Memory and medium

The face I see in the dream is simultaneously that of my friend R. and that of my uncle. It is like one of the composite photographs that Galton made when, studying family resemblances, he photographed a number of faces on the same plate.
(Sigmund Freud, Interpreting Dreams, translated by J. A. Underwood, 152)

The way in which Freud here compares the overlapping faces of his dream to Galton’s composite photography fascinated me. Freud’s general metaphor for the way the psyche functions is the mystic writing pad. Here, his thinking on dreams is cast in terms of another medium, that of photography.

Francis Galton (1822-1911) was a Victorian polymath who contributed to the fields of geography, meteorology, anthropometry, biology, statistics, criminology, heredity, psychology and education [1]. He took his half-cousin Charles Darwin’s ideas in the uncanny direction of eugenics, and experimented with composite photographs. In the image below, for example, the middle right photos are composite photos of criminal types, in which Galton took photos of criminals on the same plate, with very short exposure times. The result is a picture from which one might recognize the characteristics of “2 of the many criminal types.”

Interestingly, the metaphor works both ways, since Galton was also one of the first to conduct research into visual, or photographic memory. He asked people, for example, to describe the breakfast they had this morning, conjuring a picture of the table in their mind’s eye, and measured the vividness of their visual recollections. A journal in Muse reprints one of Galton’s articles on memory, in which he describes how he walks through a street and tries to remember the buildings he passes. The article speaks of “pictures” but does not use any more specific metaphors of photography. Instead, Galton thinks of memory in terms of footsteps, familiar ways — reminiscent of the “common place” in classical thinking on memory:

I conclude from the proved number of faint and barely conscious thoughts, and from the proved iteration of them, that the mind is perpetually traveling over familiar ways without our memory retaining any impression of its excursions. Its footsteps are so light and fleeting that it is only by such experiments as I have described that we can learn anything about them. It is apparently always engaged in mumbling over its old stores, and if any one of these is wholly neglected for a while, it is apt to be forgotten, perhaps irrecoverably. Francis Galton, “Inquiries into Human Faculty” (1879) reprinted in American Imago [Muse] 61:3 (2004): 368-69.

To widen the circle even further, an 1890 Almanac apparently recommended this same chapter by Galton to photographers “for it will show them how it is possible to cultivate the faculty of visual memory, by the aid of which they may at any time call up before their mental vision scenes they have seen […] before they arrange and photograph them.”

Do similar connections between new media and thinking on the workings of memory exist in early modern culture? In an earlier post, I mentioned Gareth Sullivan’s book on memory and forgetting in renaissance drama, in which he views memory as an historically specific phenomenon. Elizabeth Eisenstein in The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe writes on the relation between the invention of print and memory; she reproduces an image of visual memory that I’ve carried around in my mind’s eye for some time (see below). I’ve ordered Douwe Draaisma’s Metaphors of Memory (Cambridge UP, 2000), and am looking forward to exploring the subject further. Suggestions for further reading (esp. early modern memory/general introductions on history of memory) much appreciated!

See also:


5 thoughts on “Memory and medium

  1. You might find The Art of Memory by Frances Yates of interest. I’ve not read it myself but it has been recommended to me as an interesting read. (Fascinating blog, btw – both in style and content).

  2. I believe that Frances Yates’s Art of Memory is the classic work on early modern memory, although I haven’t read it–a grad school friend of mine wrote a dissertation on literature and early modern theories of memory, but alas, she doesn’t know I blog, or I’d direct you to her!

  3. Another vote for The Art of Memory: it is a fascinating read. Also excellent is Mary J. Carruthers’ The Book of Memory: a Study of Memory in Medieval Culture.

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