Extending the Renaissance mind: 'Look what thy memory cannot contain'

In Peter Garratt (ed.), The Cognitive Humanities: Embodied Mind in Literature and Culture. New York, NY, USA/ Basingstoke: pp. 95-112 (2016)
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The possibility that non-biological resources can act as part of the cognitive system is claimed by Andy Clark’s and David Chalmers’s seminal paper, ‘The Extended Mind’ (1998). This hypothesis holds parallels with the history of the book, an area of research that has long been considering the effect on culture and cognition of the technological changes from orality to literacy and from manuscripts to printing. M. T. Clanchy’s From Memory to Written Record describes literacy as a technology that structures the intellect and Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy argues that the increasing use of texts results in the development of new forms of cognition. More recently a number of scholars have charted how the common Renaissance practices of the annotation and alteration of the books enabled readers to deal with increasing cognitive loads, through reorganising and adding to the textual structures. Furthermore, in the Renaissance the textual was understood as playing a supplementary role to biological memory and historical narratives were understood as supplementing individual experience, with another’s memories or knowledge equivalent to one’s own. In addition, Renaissance accounts of rhetoric explore the notion of language as constitutive of our humanity. These strands form a prevalent notion of language and literacy as a means of extending oneself that is equivalent to the production of biological offspring, and as a means to overcome death and forgetting. This notion infiltrated diverse spheres’ ways of understanding these activities, from literary prefaces, autobiographies, plays and poems, to jest books and medical and scientific texts. These diverse works shape this reading of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which focuses on the exploration in ‘Sonnet 77’ of the benefits and constraints of a biological versus a textual copy of the subject. ‘Sonnet 77’ evidences the co-existence of an uneasy and yet also a celebratory understanding of the human capacity to reproduce and extend itself through biological and linguistic couplings, the latter of which the reader may experience through their own encounter with the sonnets. This chapter thereby demonstrates that the fertile parallels between the extended mind hypothesis, the history of the book, and Renaissance texts invites a re-evaluation of historical, as well as modern, concepts of what constitutes cognition and subjectivity.

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Miranda Anderson
University of Edinburgh


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