Given the name lion, we need neither the actual vision of the animal nor its image even: the name alone, if we understand it, is the unimagined simple representation. We think in names.

The recent attempts—already, as they deserved, forgotten—to rehabilitate the Mnemonic of the ancients, consist in transforming names into images, and thus again deposing memory to the level of imagination. The place of the power of memory is taken by a permanent tableau of a series of images, fixed in the imagination, to which is then attached the series of ideas forming the composition to be learned by rote. Considering the heterogeneity between the import of these ideas and those permanent images, and the speed by which the attachment is to be made, the attachment cannot be made otherwise than by shallow, silly, and utterly accidental links. Not merely is the mind put to the torture of being worried by idiotic stuff, but what is thus learnt by rote is just as quickly forgotten, seeing that the same tableau is used for getting by rote every other series of ideas, and so those previously attached to it are effaced.

Hegel, Philosophy of Mind 462 p. 220

Hegel’s example here is interesting—I have no idea what practice he is talking about (understandable if it was “forgotten” in 1845). However, after reading an article by Janis Edwards on the multiplication of the iconic representation of JFK jr.’s salute at the funeral of JFK, I begin to wonder if cultural iconography can usually be described as “shallow, silly, and utterly accidental.” I also think, sometimes, as I read dissections of cultural images like the flag-raising on Iwo Jima compared and contrasted with the flag raising at the WTC that “the mind is put to the torture of being worried by idiotic stuff, but what is thus learnt by rote is just as easily forgotten.”

Attempts to circumscribe “visual rhetoric” as the hermeneutic practice of deconstructing such images falls flat to me. What seems far more pertinent is how these images become “names”—not of things, but of qualities with a cultural currency. Images have a persistence beyond what Hegel claims—as symbols, not just as icons.

3 thoughts on “Names”

  1. Hegel seems to be referring to a Renaissance system of memory improvement — Matteo Ricci and Giordano Bruno are associated with particularly baroque variations. (Search for “memory palace” or “art of memory”.)
    Via Francis A. Yates, the technique has recently come into notice among literary types such as Harold Bloom and John Crowley. I don’t know who was trying to revive it in Hegel’s time.

  2. Paolo Rossi, in Logic and the Art of Memory, suggests that offspring of the memory systems stuck around longer than Yates implies, chiefly via Leibniz (via Ramon Lull + Bruno). I’ve had no luck finding referents in the 19th century, though. Maybe a follower of Leibniz?

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