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Dissertation Project & Researchathon (I)


I have a dissertation project. Now it is time to stretch it into the whole thing. I will be traveling to different archives in Europe for most of this academic year 2014-5 and blogging about it. The first stop, before leaving NYC for several months, is the researchathon about my dissertation project that will happen in Studio@Butler on Sept. 29th from 2 to 5.30pm. (NB: I am trying to keep all dissertation related stuff written in English, but I am a native Spanish speaker, so you bet I will get the prepositions wrong most of the time.)

Ed. Thomas le Myésier, Breviculum ex artibus Raimundi Lulli electum, 1322. Karlsruhe, Badische Landesbibliothek, St. Peter perg. 92, f. 2v.

I feel like I have been explaining the contents and ideas of my dissertation in several different unconvincing ways this last couple of weeks. When I start, I hear myself saying that my dissertation is tentatively entitled: “Material Memory. Texts, Practices, and Debates About the Arts of Memory in the Early Modern World (1428-1615).” After that, I explain that my project is about the material circulation of the arts of memory and the Art of Ramon Llull in the early modern period, including manuscripts, printed books, and images. At this moment, I stop and become nervous thinking of at least three different problems of what I have just said. The problems are related both to the epistemological outcome of the dissertation and to its more practical formulation.

This is how I have come to summarize the project: “My dissertation examines technological practices and conceptual debates about memory in the context of cultural production during the period from 1428 until 1615 in Iberian Peninsula, Europe, and the New World with special attention to the early modern portability of the art of Ramon Llull (ca. 1232-1315). I shall call portability to the adaptation of the complex matrix of cultural practices that constituted the corpus lullianus (both original and apocryphal) to early modern cultural institutions and political projects. My dissertation will prove that there is a process of universalization of knowledge through memory that is twofold. On one hand, memory is conceptualized as the key to all knowledge around which the rising scientific disciplines are being organized. On the other, mnemonic devices circulate in increasingly broader circles as they are used for the purposes of evangelization and alphabetization. This process has its apex during the reign of Philip II and the constitution of the Lullist circle of the Escorial around figures such as Juan de Herrera, Dimas de Miguel, João Baptista Lavanha, or the king Philip II himself.”

Now, the problems.

First, I am uncomfortable, at least to some extent, using the tag “arts of memory.” The expression has an important critical tradition and it has been very useful to me so far in order to conceptualize the project. Nonetheless, after using the expression, people always subsequently ask if I work on mnemonic devices. The answer is that it is complicated, or that I do not work on mnemonic devices exclusively, or that technologies of memory do not lock discussions about memory inside a box (Frances Yates knew that pretty well, more on that later.) Mnemonic devices are tied to scholar debates and those have been well covered by history of ideas. I think memory a cognitive device that has been conceptualized partially through the forms of technology built around it. I think it is impossible to separate the history of the conceptualizations of memory from actual technological practices of memory. Two examples of this are Aristotle and Augustine of Hippo. The former uses two material metaphors (the seal and the wax tablets) in order to define the cognitive role of memory, the bottom line being that memory elaborates experience into knowledge. The latter uses the main rhetorical devices (loci and imagines) as metaphors in order to talk about how memory allows humans to access knowledge that God has deeply planted in the mind, the bottom line being that all learning we do is actually done through memory. I know this is all very raw now. I will be more specific in subsequent posts. I just need to make sense of these problems I have found while performing the feared “elevator chat” about my project.

Second and third, I don’t think it is very productive to look at my project separating the Middle Ages from the early modern period since the question of the early modern portability of a medieval author is situated at the very core of it. Let’s say preliminarily that I consider myself closer to the Löwith side (continuity) of the argument rather than to the classic Blumenbergian conception (rupture). Nonetheless, it is ultimately such a charged and tiresome debate that I would rather not be bound in my reflection by it, while keeping it out of the corner of my eyes. Moreover, I will focus in the Castilian reception of the works of Ramon Llull during the reign of Philip II, but I will be also studying other texts and documents from other Iberian domains (Aragon and Portugal), other European territories, and the New World. Even if I would gladly define my project as mainly early modern and Iberian based, those boundaries are inherently problematic.

In the middle of this sea of methodological anxieties, the pre-researchathon has been useful. Even though the researchathon has not taken place yet, it has forced me to develop some tags, keywords, and short definitions for my chapters that maybe will be useful in terms of defining the project in my head and expanding the sources through the searches me and some other helpful souls will undertake at Studio@Butler. The process that begins now is a tricky one since I need a structure so I can define what I need in terms of archival research but not so much that I am limiting myself and narrowing the project. The archive will hopefully inform it to some extent.

Last Updated 4 years ago


  • Aristotle. On the Soul. Parva Naturalia. On Breath. Trans. W. S. Hett.  Cambridge (MA): Loeb Classical Library, 1957. Print.
  • Augustine of Hippo. Confessions. Trans. James J. O’Donnell. Oxford: Claredon, 1992. Print.
  • Blumenberg, Hans. The Legitimacy of the Modern Age. Cambridge (MA): The MIT P., 1983. Print.
  • Löwith, Karl. Meaning in History. Chicago: U. of Chicago P., 1949. Print.
  • Yates, Frances Amelia. The Art of Memory. Chicago: U. of Chicago P., 1966. Print.


Noel Blanco Mourelle, « Dissertation Project & Researchathon (I) », Blogs, Columbia University | LAIC, Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures (online), published on September 23, 2014. Full URL for this article

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