I’m reading Frances Yates’s book The Art of Memory, in which she investigates the history of the classical art of memorization by imagining images in a building; she came to it by way of her earlier studies of Giordano Bruno, and her understanding of late medieval and Renaissance ways of thinking is remarkable.
Her understanding of twentieth-century ways of thinking, however, left something to be desired, as I discovered about halfway through the book, in the chapter “Giordano Bruno: The Secret of Shadows,” where she says:
The efforts towards finding a way of conciliating the classical art of memory, with its places and images, and Lullism with its moving figures and letters, had continued to grow in strength in the later sixteenth century. The problem must have excited a good deal of general interest, comparable to the popular interest in the mind machines of today.
Mind machines?! I pictured an alternate universe, in which something like Kir Bulychev‘s mielofon had been invented by the mid-sixties (Yates’s book was published in 1966). Since I was on the subway at the time and couldn’t investigate further, I shrugged and went on. Later in the chapter I came to this passage:
As I have emphasized in my other book, the Renaissance conception of an animistic universe, operated by magic, prepared the way for the conception of a mechanical universe, operated by mathematics. In this sense, Bruno’s vision of an animistic universe of innumerable worlds through which run the same magico-mechanical laws, is a prefiguration, in magical terms, of the seventeenth-century vision. But Bruno’s main interest was not in the outer world but in the inner world. And in his memory systems we see the effort to operate the magico-mechanical laws, not externally, but within, by reproducing in the psyche the magical mechanisms. The translation of this magical conception into mathematical terms has only been achieved in our own day. Bruno’s assumption that the astral forces which govern the outer would also operate within, and can be reproduced or captured there to operate a magical-mechanical memory seems to bring one curiously close to the mind machine which is able to do so much of the work of the human brain by mechanical means.
Oh, she’s talking about computers! Now, Frances Yates was born in 1899; she grew up in a world of automobiles, telephones, and motion pictures, and was still a young woman when radio came along. But she took her degree in French, and by the late twenties was publishing articles like “Some new light on ‘L’Ecossaise’ of Antoine de Montchretien” and researching John Florio. Presumably by the late forties, when computers were being developed, she was so deeply immersed in the Renaissance that she had no idea what was going on in the technological world around her; at some point she became aware of the existence of large whirring blinking machines that did amazing tricks with numbers and were thought capable of someday matching the capabilities of the human mind, and she attached the label “mind machine” to them. Well, there’s no reason she should have been au courant with such things; what struck me was that nobody at the publishing house said “Uh, Frances, what are these ‘mind machines’ of which you speak?” The tweedy, pipe-smoking editors of the day were as out of touch as she; they could discuss Updike and Picasso, but had no interest in things that whirred and blinked. Editors have changed, of course, but the cultural divide persists; there’s a straight line between Yates’s “mind machines” and the “morphogenetic field” of the Sokal hoax of 1996. When will the sciences and the humanities finally learn how to talk to each other, and perhaps even absorb some much-needed perspective?