Putting the life back in science fiction

The re-enchantment of the future, collapse style

Sad that I missed posting in September.  My only defense is that there’s a lot going on in the real world.  Not writing for profit, sadly, but dealing with development, environmental impact reports, and policy.  And pulling weeds.  I’d rather write about something totally different: the idea that civilization collapses and magic comes back.  It’s not new, of course.  It’s the premise of, oh, the whole Shannara series, a bunch of stories by Fred Saberhagen, even the Dying Earth if you stretch the metaphor until it breaks.  You can probably name another dozen stories in a similar vein.

I think I found a different angle, one that might make practical enchantment work in the real world.  With, yes, wands, staves, amulets, fetishes, and all sorts of enchanted items and rituals.

Here’s the fundamental problem: how do you store information if you don’t have access to much (or any) writing materials and literature is rare to non-existent?  The obvious answer is memory, but it’s not as simple as all that.   After all, human memories are notoriously fallible.  The good news is that they can be trained, but only so far.  Frank Herbert’s mentats, with pages of stats running through their minds’ eyes, are fantastical, 1960s computer technology embedded in human brains.  We don’t work like mentats.

The literally classical way for storing lots of information–the Method of Loci–actually pre-dates the classical era by tens of thousands of years, if you believe Lynne Kelly’s The Memory Code: The Secrets of Stonehenge, Easter Island and Other Ancient Monuments, which I’ve been reading.  As Joshua Foer wrote in Moonwalking with Einstein, another book on the art of memory, the Method of Loci (aka the Memory Palace) is the classical version.  Human brains are very bad at memorizing large volumes of complex verbal information (like the order of cards in a deck, the Iliad, tribal laws, genealogies, planting times for dozens of crops, how to use hundreds of medicinal plants, pages of economic data etc.).  However, many of us are pretty good at spatial memory–we don’t get lost in our homes, and many of us can remember the layouts of most, if not all, of the places we’ve lived over the years without trying hard.  You might even remember the layout of a city you haven’t visited in years, or the neighborhood you grew up in.  Along with spatial memory, we’re also good at remembering certain details, which I’ll get into in a moment.  The idea of the method of loci is to take a place you know well, then start adding images to it as you walk through it in real life or your imagination.  Foer’s example is memorizing a shopping list, where he starts with a can of pickled garlic, a tub of cottage cheese, six bottles of wine, and so on up the list.  I did that from memory, because I followed his examples.  You can remember this by, say, picking a childhood home, starting at the front door, and plotting a course through the home.  At the front door, visualize, say, Margrat Garlick, drunk off her ass, holding a jar of pickled garlic.  Around the corner from her is a naked Claudia Schiffer bathing herself in an enormous tub of cottage cheese, followed by six anthropomorphic bottles of wine arguing with each other, and so on until the grocery list is finished.  As memory artists from the Middle Ages forward have noted, having a dirty imagination is quite helpful with coming up with images that glue themselves into your memory and make your memory palace work.  Combining your good memory for landmarks with a powerful images (sex, bad jokes, and  grotesque images help empower the latter), and you can make a shopping list stick in your memory for years.   That’s the essence of the Art of Memory, and it or something like it is used by all the memory champions in the world.  In ancient Rome, it was considered the prime talent, and it was used by lawyers arguing cases without notes, orators giving long speeches, and poets reciting odes (or even the entire Iliad), among others.

Dr. Kelly’s contribution to this is equally powerful.  She’s an Australian researcher who started working with aborigines on how they remembered so many plants, animals, rituals, etc., became obsessed with the various ways people remember things, and ended up not just doing a PhD on the subject but practicing a number of methods, some of which worked better for her than others did.

The Australian aboriginal version of the Method of Loci is the songline, aka the Dreamtime, and it works with landscapes rather than buildings.  They used stories that guided people across landscapes, and taught them, generation after generation, for possibly tens of thousands of years for some stories.  The methods were so good that songs allowed elders to find a tiny cave with a certain species of bat in it years after anyone had ever visited that cave, and there’s evidence that their songlines record details of the way the land looked during the last Ice Age, in that underwater surveys of certain parts of the Australian coast reveal a drowned landscape that is apparently congruent with the way it was described as dry land in songs.  They also used dances as part of  their “hunting rituals,” and this makes sense.  It can be easier to mimic the behavior of an animal than it can be to put it into words.  Combine a distinctive dance with chants, tie it to a specific artwork in a specific place on a trail that is traveled in a particular direction, and you’ve got a powerful, multidimensional set of memories to help you survive..

In any case, these basic methods use distinctive bits of landscape, from rocks and caves  to constellations in the sky, as mnemonic devices to hang stories and images onto.  Then there is the made landscape, monumental art like standing stones, rock carvings and paintings, totem poles, moai,  mounds, pyramids, and so on, all of which provide series of distinctive locations on which to hang memories.  Standing stones work, not because they are in a circle, but because each stone is distinct from the others, has a lot of structural detail (color variation, surface details, lichens, odd shapes, etc.) which can be used as visual cues, and  is separated far enough from its partners that a practitioner can focus on one stone at a time in a set path, thereby making walking around a stone circle the same as walking a course through your childhood home.

Then there’s the portable artwork.  There are thousands of mnemonic devices out there that work similarly to the method of loci.  Many are the same as rock paintings.  Not the figurative art, but the abstract patterns of dots, circles, cross hatching, geometric figures, phosphene-like images, and so on.  These images aren’t representations, they’re another form of memory palace, something distinct enough that you can hook your own memory on it by associating it with some powerful image that helps you remember the information.  This might be reinforced with a chant, a dance, or other stuff that your human brain will remember.  This kind of art can be portable, too.  There are the Australian churingas, lukasas from the African Luba people, khipus, Polynesian tattoos, medicine bundles and so on.  The whole point of the miniature bits of artwork is to form a portable and memorable pattern that its owner can use to remember something much more complex.  The information isn’t encoded in the art, the art is simply the mnemonic device, and abstract patterns work well for this purpose.  And this doesn’t even get into the other mnemonic devices, like the I Ching or African divination methods, which use simple things like cowries and coins to generate patterns that become hooks on which hang books of memorized information.

There are many forms of augmenting memory, and they are critical in societies without writing (and even ones where literacy is not widespread).  Information on everything from health and hygiene to farming, law, genealogy, landscape maps, calendars, history, the works.  Unlike books, this information isn’t written and forgotten, it is memorized, ritualized, and the rituals are practiced regularly enough that they remain fresh, using mnemonic devices as cues.

I suppose you might call this magic, but I think the term enchantment works even better, because the information is literally chanted into people’s brains, using mnemonic devices as the keys to remembering the information. You can destroy the artwork, but if someone has memorized it, they’ll merely recreate the mnemonic device again in some other form.

Although spiritual practices pervade these arts of memory, I’m not talking about using the Arts of Memory solely as a guide to spiritual rituals.  Most of this information was and is practical stuff, and that’s one reason why what the anthropologists call pagan rituals are fully entwined with daily life.  As Kelly’s Aboriginal collaborator remarked, ‘the elders were pragmatic old buggers. We wouldn’t have survived if they weren’t.’  The ritualization was to make sure that the knowledge survived intact until when it was needed.  If it was merely left to fireside chatter, it would have been degraded by faulty memories, idle gossip and so on, until it was either forgotten or useless.  Ritualizing it meant that knowledge of how to, say, survive a drought, fire, plague, cyclone, blizzard, famine or whatever was available when it was needed, even if that was only once every few generations. If the prayer you said while lighting a fire helped you remember how to light a fire, that’s good, and if the story of how the creator stocked the world with specific foods for when your crops failed helped you survive, even better–if you remembered the story correctly.

Now, if you start thinking about civilization collapsing, you can begin to realize how the world might get usefully re-enchanted.  If and when civilization shatters, there will be a pressing need for people to know how to deal with illness, droughts, floods, raise crops, livestock, and children, and where to go (and when, and why) when the weather changes again.  All of this knowledge will have to be stored and shared with less paper and fewer books, no or few electronic devices–possibly all from memory.  Dr. Kelly brought some proven techniques together, and practitioners who know this information can literally re-enchant the world to help people survive, using the landscape itself and simple things like walking sticks, amulets, rods, knotted strings, whatever, to hold symbols that help enchanters remember things they learned years before and only rarely use.

Conveying this information to students is hard, though, and Kelly believes that in most primitive societies ( remember that primitive means first, not worst), knowledge was the key to power, and it was graded so that only a few knew the important secrets, like the dangerous medicines, and no one knew them all, to keep someone from monopolizing information and taking over.  In any case, conveying a memory palace means that the student needs to memorize all the material, which means a lot of chants, poems, dances, rituals, and so forth, along with the knowledge.  They also have to have a memory similar enough to their teacher’s that they could share techniques.  Not everyone thinks the same, as I found out when I taught.  I have a good memory for bad jokes, and I learned a lot of plants by associating them with silly images (Asarum flowers look like the logo for the Klingon empire, for instance).  Unfortunately, I found that many students have no sense of humor, and they struggled with my lessons.  Similarly, Dr. Kelly found that she was great at memory palaces, lukasas, and khipus, but struggled with genealogies and divination.  And so it goes, but I digress.  It takes years of hard work to pass a memory palace onto a student, assuming you find someone whose brain works as yours does.  Over time and change, knowledge often falls out of favor, and eventually most doesn’t get passed on.  As Kelly found, she can confidently hypothesize that a place like Stonehenge or Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon was built specifically to pass on information through teaching memory palaces, but she has little idea what that information was.  That part was lost to history, but the places can still be used to contain information.  Indeed, any place with monumental art that isn’t too visually cluttered should work.  And as the Aboriginals seem to have shown, some knowledge can last for a very long time indeed.

After I wrote Hot Earth Dreams, several people asked me what they could do to survive climate change.  I blew them off, because part of the problem is no one is going to survive the centuries to many millennia it will take for our climate to return to 20th Century normal, and I was trying to tell them that their question assumed the wrong time frame.  However, I’m beginning to believe that memories might survive, if they are properly enchanted, ritualized, and passed along.  So if you want my new recommendation for the best survival art to learn to deal with climate change, along with all the disaster prep of knowing how to make a fire, get food, and so forth, I’d strongly advise becoming an expert in several versions of the art of memory.  Kelly’s book has a number, Foer’s book describes still more.  All take practice, and you need to make them work in your life now.  Perhaps you can start by using a memory palace to store passwords; after all, “#2ClaudiaSchifferSpongingOffCottageCheese” is a fairly strong password, and that’s only one image.  From there, you can work at re-enchanting your world with the knowledge you think will help you live a better life.  Chant it, ritualize it, and find apprentices who share your twisted imagination to pass your knowledge on to.  This *might* be how magic emerges from the collapse of civilization. If it works, it could be a very good thing.


8 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Given that we have a written language (unlike early aborigines), it seems that we are far better off ensuring that we can still produce written documents. If Egyptians could use papyrus, we used vellum, the Chinese, paper, there should be no serious problem ensuring that we can meet those lo-tech levels of manufactures/crafts after a societal collapse and not have to fall back on pre-technological means, like memory.

If we also fail to teach language and writing skills, then all hope may be lost for a recovery and we might as well make way for the next intelligent species to succeed us.

Comment by Alex Tolley

The critical problem is this: what do we use for writing paper? In some places this won’t be an issue, in other places it will be. I’m probably wrong, but so far as I know, the clay for making American writing paper currently comes from a mine in Cornwall. I am thinking about these kinds of supply chain problems when I think about how prevalent writing will be in the future. If you look back into history, classical Rome ran on Egyptian papyrus, and that was another bottleneck.

As for illiteracy and civilization, our current civilization, with its widespread literacy, is a historical outlier. Even in most literate historical societies, only an elite could read, and often they didn’t read much.

Furthermore, it is entirely possible to run a civilization without literacy. There were no indigenous scripts in Africa, North America, or South America, yet all three places boasted city-states and empires that rivaled those of Europe and Asia. Indeed, the Inkan Empire was the largest empire in the world at its peak, and they did it with khipus, which seem to be more protowriting than actual writing.

The key point is that memory arts and protowriting can be used with a huge variety of media. So far as we know, writing requires paper. While there are certainly a number of ways to make paper (paper mulberry bark, papyrus, parchment, fig bark, vellum, and paper), it’s unclear how big the supplies of any of these will be during a collapse. There may well be points when memorization and carving canes into mnemonic devices might be the best someone can do, and I suspect it’s a good idea to point this out now.

Comment by Heteromeles

Just about every civilization develops some form of writing once it sticks around for a while. The Aztecs had a pre-literate system of symbols and phonetic elements. These systems show up elsewhere. They usually start as pictographs and develop phonetic elements, first through rebus, then more precisely. The Inca developed mnemonic devices for accounting, particularly tax collection. The Aztecs and Inca, however, were relatively short lived empires. If they had not been conquered by Spain, odds are they would have developed more complete writing systems like that of the Mayans who were fully literate.

As for writing materials, stone works surprisingly well, particularly if you want something that can last. You can carve stuff into it or even just paint it, and there’s a good chance it will be legible tens of thousands of years later. There are all sorts of plant materials that can be used as paper. You can use leaves or beaten bark or wood pulp. There are also animal materials. You can mark bones much like stone, and you can work animal skins into leather. You can work with pigments, by carving, puncture, knotting or weaving. In Borneo, it was a good idea to leave messages to the highland Ukit about the purpose of your visit to their area by tearing and folding certain leaves in certain ways.

The problem with memorization is that memory is extremely mutable. Studies of oral story telling traditions in Europe and Asia show how changes are introduced on each retelling. The story may be very similar, but the wording is different just about every recitation, and there is no reason to believe that those stories are the stories that had been recited a thousand years or even a hundred years before. This is unlike written copies of Jewish scripture which are identical in every word and letter to those two thousand years old. It’s not like you are going to have your story tellers compute and remember a SHA-256 hash to make sure their words are precise.

Comment by kaleberg

There is a lot of knowledge that is not written down and is instead passed on by person to person interaction. People still learn through apprenticeships. People learn manners and morality through interaction with other people of their society. People learn physical skills through interaction with peers, elders and coaches. It seems to me that knowledge that can be written down tends to be of the type that is not that critical to the survival of either the individual or of a society.
When I started working as a programmer in a particular segment of industry, most of the knowledge I needed to deal with this industry, I learned on the job from my supervisors or peers. None of this knowledge could be found in books. This sort of knowledge also became outdated so quickly that nobody could possibly be motivated to bother writing any of it down.
You can get a good idea of how much written knowledge is valued by taking a box of books to a second hand book store. It is a sobering experience.

Comment by Wolfgang Brinck

Good one, Frank. So glad I found this tonight. I have ordered Kelly’s book from the library.

We could do everything we can to hang onto the printing press and written language and lose it all in one generation. In a severe enough collapse/crisis the children don’t get taught to read and thats’s it. Even if things get better within another generation or two widespread literacy is gone. Then what gets preserved is at the whim of, and depends on the interests of the few remaining literate people.

Also the scope of information that can be shared orally using encoded objects and enchanted mnemonics is huge. It could fill many volumes and no one wants to have to carry around all those books.


Comment by Claire

First of all, thanks for a mind-blowing post, and even more for the references. I may have to order some of these.

Second, this leaves out the core mnemonic technique of medieval Islamic civilization, one with a rather prominent presence in classical Indo-European cultures as well: mnemonic verse, with metre and/or rhyme acting as a checksum. For pretty much any topic on the medieval curriculum – grammar, arithmetic, inheritance law, astronomy – you can find a work consisting of hundreds of lines of highly compressed Arabic verse to help you remember it (which approximately nobody uses any more of course), plus a commentary on that work to help you unpack it. The best examples of this strategy that I can think of seem to involve literate societies where writing materials are expensive and rare, rather than illiterate ones proper; not sure if that’s a coincidence or not, but even in the latter case it could be relevant for your scenario.

Comment by Lameen Souag

Well, that’s kind of what I think of with the word enchantment: en-CHANT-ment. It literally means chanting into, but in this context, it means using chant or song to store information, especially in a context. I do happen to agree that not everyone used the Method of Loci. For example, when Jesuits tried to introduce the Method of Loci into Imperial China, the Chinese responded that it looked like too much work, and they preferred to learn their classics by rote (!). I’m not sure what all the illiterate Chinese were doing, but that’s another story (involving martial arts songs, the I Ching, and other possible mnemonic devices.

Also, you’re quite right about the difference between written and printed literature. Walter Ong (in Orality and Literacy,1982) talked about the difference between chirographic (hand-writing) and typographic (printing) societies in the way people handle information. I’m probably going to do another post on it, when I get done with the book. Unfortunately, real life is intervening in a major way right now (four effin’ EIRs to read and comment on), so I’m doing a lot less fun writing than I’d prefer to.

Finally, a fun treat because that’s semi-relevant: If you want to see information-dense songs, check out A Capella Science on YouTube. These aren’t quite what I’d call enchantments, in that you can’t become a functioning scientist just by memorizing the songs and learning the associated vocabulary. Nonetheless, they’re a really catchy example of how much information composers could cram into pop songs if they wanted to.

Comment by Heteromeles

[…] last week), I figure I might as well answer some ideas that floated up since the previous post, about our modern conceptions of magic being the residue of previous methods for storing and propagat….  Right now, my bedtime reading is Walter J Ong’s 1982 opus Orality and Literacy: The […]

Pingback by Orality, Literacy, and Enchantment as a Survival Skill | Putting the life back in science fiction

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: