Memory Palace – A Trace Study

“A memory consists in the awareness, first, of the diminished intensity of an impression, second, of its increased ease, and third, of the connections it entertains with other impressions” (Kittler 1999, 31).

Memory Palaces are methods of loci which use an imagined architecture to structure a speech based on associations of symbols. They are a spatialized remediation of association. Before memory palaces were implemented, hieroglyphs and other forms of picture writing were already using symbols to stand in for words and ideas. Memory palaces abstract this notion of association and complicate it in order to allow one to remember hundreds of ideas. While mnemonics can be written down, the memory palace is completely imagined, and therefore the process and the media is black boxed within the mind of the subject, and like Iris, the message or information is internalized. The memory palace is evoked, in the same way the muse used to be evoked, in order to help the speaker remember his or her message. This method was developed out of a human lack, and the need to remember large amounts of information. When using the memory palace, one needs only to remember the symbols, after which the encoded information becomes unlocked like the chirograph which connects to its counterpart. Memory palaces were constructed out of an anxiety for memory being lost, but in reality it is always already lost.

This mode of mediation is based on location, but it itself has no location and exists as a non-space that stores imagined data. The subject that uses the memory palace becomes split and is forced to inhabit two realities as one must imagine walking through the memory palace and picking up each predetermined object while simultaneously being rooted in a physical space and delivering a live speech to an audience. The subject must navigate the memory palace like an automaton on automatic pilot but cannot get fully immersed or lost in it. Discipline of the mind and the body is necessary since the subject cannot think, but must become a machine and instrument for the reading of memory.

The Mechanization of Memory

Hegel discusses memory in two terms: “Erinnerung” and “Gedächtnis.” Erinnerung for Hegel is recollection, memory based on learning and internalization. It therefore has a relationship to the past and to a missing Other. Gedächtnis is the forgetting of meaning in favor of memorization and technologized memory, just as the technologization of speech through the act of writing represents the erasure of speech and the marking of its becoming forgotten. Gedächtnis acts as the simulacrum and mechanical reproduction of memory but empties it of its original meaning (Ronell, 2010). Memory palaces fall under Gedächtnis, as they are a phantom crutch or prosthetic for remembering which can be easily dismantled and forgotten. The technique does reflect Erinnerung in that it calls to its missing Other which is the real house, but, because reality of the memory palace is artificially constructed, it has no relationship to the past. The associations within the memory palace are also artificial, revealing the manipulation of memory which becomes something external that can be altered and changed. Derrida writes, “What Plato is attacking in sophistics, therefore, is not simply recourse to memory but, within such recourse, the substitution of the mnemonic device for live memory, of the prosthesis for the organ; the perversion that consists of replacing a limb by a thing, here, substituting the passive, mechanical ‘by-heart’ for the active reanimation of knowledge, for its reproduction in the present. The boundary (between inside and outside, living and nonliving) separates not only speech from writing but also memory as an unveiling (re)producing a presence from re-memoration as the mere repetition of a monument…(Derrida 109).” Paul de Man elaborates on the contradictory nature of Gedächtnis and Erinnerung, “Memory effaces remembrance (or recollection) just as the I effaces itself. The faculty that enables thought to exist also makes its preservation impossible. The art, the techné, of writing which cannot be separated from thought and from memorization can only be preserved in the figural mode of the symbol, the very mode it has to do away with if it is to occur at all (de Man 102).” Here, Gedächtnis effaces Erinnerung, like mechanical reproduction effaces the original, and writing effaces speech.

Memory Palace as Afterimage and Trace

The effacing of Erinnerung caused by Gedächtnis also speaks to the idea of an afterimage which effaces the original image. The memory palace is an afterimage and faint impression of one’s home which it replaces. Jonathan Crary writes that the afterimage “…allowed one to conceive of sensory perception as cut from any necessary link with an external referent. The afterimage – the presence of sensation in the absence of a stimulus – and its subsequent modulations posed a theoretical and empirical demonstration of autonomous vision, of an optical experience that was produced by and within the subject (Crary 98).” The afterimage of the memory palace is detachable, once it is created the originary house isn’t necessary to evoke it, rather it can be evoked independently by the subject. Derrida’s concept of the “trace” is essentially the afterimage of a sign. While memory palaces are the navigation of symbols within a space, where space itself is also a symbol, the nature of these symbols are imagined and therefore nonpresent. Derrida saw signs as related to living memory, and the “trace” as having to do with dead memory Derrida writes, “The trace is not a presence but is rather the simulacrum of a presence that dislocates, displaces, and refers beyond itself. The trace has, properly speaking, no place, for effacement belongs to the very structure of the trace. Effacement must always be able to overtake the trace; otherwise it would not be a trace but an indestructible and monumental substance (Derrida 156).” The trace refers to that which is no longer present, leaving only the relics and remains to be read.

Memory as Archive and Crypt

Memory palaces are a static archive of files. Cornelia Vismann links the structure of fixed archives to tombs which seal and bury files. Vismann writes, “The immobile tomes are their own tombs…The immobilization amounts to a musealization, creating a work of art out of files (Vismann 161-162).” The memory palace echoes this sentiment and acts more as a mausoleum than a museum. The frozen architecture of the memory palace is doubled by the frozen images within it, turning the palace into a crypt. The shaping of the memory palace into a petrified and dead picture reveals the artifice of constructed memory. Its static and spectral quality lends it to the space of the crypt and removes it from the space of the living. It is the dead memory that must be summoned by the speaker, called to as the missing Other, and resurrected into the present.


Memory Palaces must be practiced, otherwise they are prone to being forgotten. Practice and performance keeps artificial memory alive, otherwise it returns to the crypt. They are meant to be remembered for a specific event, such as a specific speech, but once the event has passed, the memory palace recedes, shatters, and erases itself into the depths of the mystic writing pad’s unconscious. The memory palace, then, is made to be forgotten. Vismann writes, “With one sharp and one blunt end, the stylus unites writing and erasing, those two fundamental chancery operations, in one instrument. Herein lies an analogy to the workings of memory: just as the Greek verb hypomnematizesthai equates filing and remembering, its opposite, exaleiphein, combines a practical act and a function of memory by referring both to forgetting and wiping off (Vismann 55).” In this sense the memory palace is obliterated and becomes buried as a trace and remnant. Memory and forgetting work as though in a circuit, the production of one is almost always the production of the other, to remember one thing often causes one to forget another less relevant thing. Vismann also discusses forgetting as enabling memory, just as the afterimage or trace enables the original image, or the second gives birth to the first. Mechanical reproduction also enables the original, revealing the necessity of the copy and the negation in order to preserve the referent. There is only so much space in the human brain, therefore acquiring new information or new memories must also imply a certain amount of forgetting.

By Erin Mizrahi


Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Boston: MIT Press, 1992.

de Man, Paul. Aesthetic Ideology. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination. New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 2004.

Derrida, Jacques. Speech and phenomena: and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973.‬

Kittler, Friedrich A. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Ronell, Avital. “Scoring Literature: The Drug Culture”. (Lecture, NYU, 4/8/10).

Vismann, Cornelia. Files: Law and Media Technology. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008.

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2 responses to “Memory Palace – A Trace Study

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