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- 7 07 2002 - 01:00 - katatonik

The spokes and the hub, the tire, and space

“Dickens never made or kept notes but seemed to speak spontaneously and effortlessly, all the more extraordinary since the speeches themselves are as graceful and as fluent as anything he ever wrote … he had an astonishing verbal memory. He did not make notes because he memorised everything he wished to say, and this for speeches that lasted some twenty or thirty minutes. Even after he had finished, he could still repeat what he had said verbatim to reporters anxious for ‘clean’ copy. . . . How did he achieve this? The morning before he was due to speak, he would take a long walk and in the course of that journey he would decide what topics he was going to raise. He would put these in order, and in his imagination construct a cartwheel of which he was the hub and the various subjects the spokes emanating from him to the circumference; “during the progress of the speech,” he said, “he would deal with each spoke separately, elaborating them as he went round the wheel; and when all the spokes dropped out one by one, and nothing but the tire and space remained, he would know that he had accomplished his task, and that his speech was at an end.” ... One of his closest friends noticed that at public dinners he did indeed “dismiss the spoke from his mind by a quick action of the finger as if he were knocking it away.”“

From Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Charles Dickens, describing the period in the 1840s when Dickens was working on “Hard Times”. Cited in Paul Griffiths’ article “Scholasticism: The Possible Recovery of an Intellectual Practice” (in: José Cabezón, “Scholasticism: Cross-Cultural and Comparative Perspectives”, 1998, Albany, SUNY Press).
The above quote is adduced to give one example where mnemonic techniques were, even in European modernity, still in use, and where something like an “oral textuality” was perpetuated. Griffiths uses this to argue that composition and storage of texts is not necessarily bound up with writing and print, and – he doesn’t say this, but it’s what it boils down to – against a deterministic view of technology which claims that the character of certain technological tools itself fully dictates the mode of textual production, storage, and reception regardless of sociocultural factors.

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