Introduction: Rhetoric/memory/place

Carole Blair, Greg Dickinson, Brian L. Ott

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingForeword/postscript

101 Scopus citations


The story is told of the poet Simonides of Ceos who, after chanting a poem in the honor of Scopas, was called from the banquet hall in which he had performed. During his absence the roof of the hall came crashing down, killing all of the guests. The guests' bodies were so maimed that their relatives were unable to identify the remains. Simonides, however, remembered where each guest was sitting just before he left the hall. He was able to identify the victims' remains by their positions in the destroyed hall. This is a founding legend of the rhetorical art of memory. As Cicero tells the story in De oratore, Simonides realized that "it is chiefly order that gives distinctiveness to memory; and that by those, therefore, who would improve this part of the understanding, certain places must be fixed upon, and that of the things which they desire to keep in memory, symbols must be conceived in the mind, and ranged, as it were, in those places; thus the order of places would preserve the order of things."1 The story also appears in Quintilian's Institutio oratoria and in the Rhetorica ad Herennium. Much later the story would be retold in the first paragraphs of Frances Yates's germinal book The Art of Memory.2 We remember this story here because it introduces three intersecting concepts that form the topoi of this volume: rhetoric, memory, and place. As the retelling of the Simonides story in Quintilian, Cicero, and Yates suggests, our interest in these three loci is part of a deep cultural history. As important as memory was in the founding works of the rhetorical tradition- memory was, after all, one of the five ancient canons of rhetoric- rhetorical studies has for years relegated memory to a background issue. Nor has Simonides' realization that place organizes memory been of much contemporary interest to rhetoric. The argument of this collection, however, is that within the contemporary moment rhetoric, memory, and place form complex and important relations. We began this project with the belief that exploring the relations among rhetoric, memory, and place is of crucial importance to understanding contemporary public culture. Public memory increasingly preoccupies scholars across the humanities and social sciences. Further, much of their scholarship suggests at least by implication that memory places are rhetorical. The position of this anthology is that strong understandings of public memory and of public memory places can emerge only by comprehending their specifically rhetorical character. The assumptions that motivate this collection are that memory is rhetorical and that memory places are especially powerful rhetorically. The essays in this book, then, explore places of public memory, attending in particular to their rhetorical (both symbolic and material) character and function. The contributing authors, who all work in some way at the nexus of rhetoric, memory, and place, offer a fascinating array of exemplary memory places, material conjunctions of our three entitling ideas. Our principal task in this introduction is to argue for the value of understanding public memory and public memory places as fundamentally rhetorical. Such a task does not imply a simple or uncomplicated vision of memory or of place. For reasons that we hope will become clear, introducing rhetoric to memory and place studies does not unify these fields of study or even simplify them.3 If anything, it adds complexity, but a congenial complexity, to the far-ranging, contemporary conversations about both memory and place. We explore the ways in which rhetoric, memory, and place seem to haunt one another in recent scholarship and how that haunting might be materialized in a serious, productive, and animated conversation among these different, highly complex coordinates of public life. We mean to stage this conversation not just as turn taking by three independently interesting participants. We stage it as a conversation of mutual recognition, one in which the participants articulate their own positions, but do so in relation to the other participants. Thus, the conversation narrows in focus as it successively takes up issues of interest to all three coordinates. We begin with a brief introduction about rhetoric, move on to a discussion of public memory in relationship to rhetoric, and finally take up the specific character of public memory places.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPlaces of Public Memory
Subtitle of host publicationThe Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials
PublisherThe University of Alabama Press
Number of pages54
ISBN (Print)9780817356132
StatePublished - 2010


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