Note: this is a reproduction of an article that originally appeared on the University of Denver site in 1999 but which has since disappeared.

I have been unable to track down the author, Catherine Wylie, and therefore it does not appear with her permission. I shall remove it forthwith if she emails to request that I do.


MUDs, Memories and Morals: A Revisioning of Primary Orality and Late Literacy

By: Catherine Wylie

Welcome to the world of MUDs and the art of memory; two very odd concepts to grasp, even if one has knowledge of concepts and applications. Chances are, you may be well educated as to what a MUD is and how it functions within the realms of psychology and the origin of role playing games. However, it is apparent that less attention has been paid to how the MUD functions in terms of "literacy and orality" and how the basic precepts of textuality are altered by the advent of a new medium of discourse. With the burgeoning implications and cultural side affects of digital media, the playing field is wide open for experimental treatments of the MUD and how it affects, and is affected by, both old and new ideas in the game of literary studies.

However, the game of trying to decide how to decipher and register the seismic effects on the grounds of literary studies and post-modern theory, is still just breaking ground . With theorists such as Lacan, Baudrillard, Eco, Derrida, and of course, the renegade futurist, Marshall McLuhan , we are on our way to developing a new literary and cultural paradigm by which to examine the new forms erupting out of old structures of communication , especially in regards of computer mediated systems. As McLuhan states, We look at the present through a rear- view mirror. We march backwards into the future. In the name of "progress," our official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old. The world is a global village. The MUD environment, which mirrors a literal "cyberarchitecture," as well as a postmodern version of ancient paradigms of communication and loci central to human interaction, is suitable for studying the effects of orality and the importance of memory in a pre-print culture, as well as serving as a prototype for a new brand of textual revolution and its effects on the rise of digital culture.

Long before the dawn of "print culture" as we have experienced it thus far in this millennium, oration was the primary medium for mass communication in at least Western civilization. Needless to say, oration was a valued skill in ancient Greece, possessed by relatively few. Today, secondary means of communication, such as radio, TV, and telephony, have produced numerous orators and commentators. Thus, the title of orator has since become an easy one to obtain, due to the high literacy rate in print culture aided by invention of secondary forms of mass communication. A speaker can easily refer to cue cards and the like, thus not having to concentrate entirely on remembering key elements in a speech.

Without the advent of cue cards or note paper, Greek orators used what Frances Yates refers to as "the art of memory," The referential place for such a concept, resides in the mental architecture of the individual mind. The original concept of a "mental architecture" is credited to Simonides of Ceos (556- 486 bce), a Greek poet who accessed his own internal memory system to help identify a room full of dead bodies. As a guest who escaped a collapsed dining hall, he returned only to help identify the mangled corpses of the those he had been dining with that evening. He did this by means of creating an internal mnemonic system whereby he was able to recall who was sitting where at the table. Although he did this long before the disaster, he was able to recall where everyone had been sitting and what their names were.

Thus, the advent of the "memory theater" was born and ascended through time as the use of a major mnemotechnic devise that would transmute its self- referential purpose through the ages, politics, and development of mass communications. Assimilated by Roman culture, the art of memory was used as a great oratory device whereby the speaker often attached key phrases as pictured words, to various crevices and portals in his own villa. During the speech, he could mentally rerun a slow and attentive journey through his own villa, and recall all the details of its carefully constructed mnemonic architecture. For instance, perhaps a highly important key phrase in his speech could be attached mentally to an image of a portal, thus emphasizing light and enlightenment.

Taken from the originating period of Simonides, whereby memory theaters were used my poets, orators, and as an aid in the memorization of long lists of items, the evolution of the concept remained dynamic and adaptable even beyond more widespread literacy and the eventual genesis of the Johannes Gutenberg's printing press . There were those who tried to use the memory theater as a modeled attempt to grasp the mysteries of religion and the universe. Giordanno Bruno, of the 16th Century, was burned at the state for heresy against the Roman Catholic church. Accused of propagating the black art of Hermeticism , that was feared for its occult application in one man's attempt to find out more than what was commonly dictated by the Church in regards to religion and destiny. Needless to say, his memory system was an elaborate project which took a life-time of dedication and resulted in a horrible death.

On a much more benign level, the memory theater was used in the design and construction of Shakespeare's Globe Theater . Based on the hermetic philosophical principles of memory, The Globe theater was constructed in such a way as to include certain columns and visually embedded elements into the walls off to the sides of the stage. As the most elaborate theater in England during the 16th Century, The Globe was based on the memory theater of Robert Fludd, one of the last surviving progenies of the hermetic philosophers. Fludd used an actual theater stage as his mnemonic devise. The architecture of the stage lent itself to the representation of the mysteries of the heavens and the earth. The original architecture of The Globe matched the philosophical foundation Fludd's theater in that it contained a definite number of entrances, levels, and exits, and all precisely placed in hermetic order. Thus, The Globe itself lent itself to the dynamics of the Shakespearean world of human mystery and discovery.

Interestingly, the art of memory and the memory theater, had been active in the hands of Church scholars since the 11th Century. The system was used to place images in religious works of art and in the minds of the masses, so as to instil moral truths and lessons that would not be forgotten. Cicero, whose works were based on an anonymously produced treatise of memory systems called the Ad Herennium, wrote a manual on rhetoric, the De oratore. According to Cicero, the art of rhetoric could be divided into five parts. In terms of the art of memory, which could was said to be ruled by the virtuous principle of Prudence, Cicero stated that, "Virtue has four parts: Justice, Fortitude, Temperance, and Prudence. Prudence is the knowledge of what is good and bad and what is neither good nor bad. Its parts are memory, intelligence, and foresight. Memory is the faculty by which the mind recalls what has happened. Intelligence is the faculty by which it ascertains what is. Foresight is the faculty by which it is seen that something will occur before it does occur."

Unfortunately, the art of memory lost its prudential application for the use in the moral betterment of the individual and was given to flagrant displays of rhetorical "showing off," whereby one would use it only to impress his audience with the scope and adeptness of his memory. However, it was not long before the sciences recognized the art of memory as a practical means for storing and retrieving empirical data. Francis Bacon, for one, was well versed in the art of memory, which he used saw as a valuable tool in the advancement of learning. Ramon Lull, a mathematician and a believer in Caballistic religions, believed that he could use the quantifiable properties of mathematics in a system that could be retrieved from memory in order to solve any problem in the world and perhaps beyond. Due to his emphasis on quantifiable mathematics versus qualitative mathematics, one could see where such a system might be appropriately and masterfully applied.

Ultimately, the studies of Frances Yates and the art of memory, end with her sentiments that, "the serious investigation of this forgotten art may be said to have only just begun. Such subjects do not have behind them, as yet, an apparatus of organized modern scholarship: they do not belong into the normal curricual and so they are left out. The art of memory is a clear case of a marginal subject, not recognized as belonging to nay of the normal disciplines, having been omitted because it was no one's business. The history of religion and ethics, of philosophy and psychology, of art and literature, of scientific method, the artificial memory as a part of rhetoric belongs into the rhetoric tradition; memory as a power of soul belongs with theology. When we reflect on this profound affiliation of our theme it begins to seem after all not so surprising that the pursuit of it should have opened up new views of some of the greatest manifestations of our culture (Yates, 389)."

In response to the ending of Yate's groundbreaking work on the art of memory, it seems that the digital revolution might be the next frontier whereby the "lost art" or the art of memory may have insidiously begun to reposition itself as a method of mental "relearning" or "reformatting." In terms of the old order of print culture, which dictates the social stratification based on the paradigm of print and literacy, new forms of digital discourse are toppling the old forms of print communication and even other forms of modern, mass media communication. The result seems to be a recycling or reemergence of the dichotomous philosophy that exists between orality and literacy.

Donald Theall, makes an important contribution to understanding the role of cyberspace in terms of revisioning and exploring this particular dichotomy that now earned new meaning in the realm of computer mediated communications. Although his focus is on the work of James Joyce's curious, almost indecipherable work, Finnegan's Wake, like Marshall Mcluhan he sees the interconnectedness and the unbroken, song-like quality of the Wake, and uses this as a starting point for his theories on the "prehistory of cyberspace." William Gibson as well, author of Neuromancer , who was aware of the potential effects of the simultaneous nature of computer mediated communication, looked at the cyber frontier as " stacked up like one big neon city, so you could cruise around and have a kind of grip on it, visually anyway, because if you didn't, it was too complicated, trying to find your way to the particular piece of data you needed." In terms of the mass assimilation of data in such an decentralized medium, certain icons of navigation are needed to find one's way through an endless, linking stream of seemingly undifferentiated data. In regards to the "computer revolution," Gibson terms the on-line world of participation as a "consensual hallucination," which is generated by "data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system."

In order to organize a meaningful and ethically logical use of navigating and remembering information, it seems that more than a general bookmarking system will be needed. However, in a world of textual and graphical representation, how does one apply both the virtuous and the practical uses of the ancient memory theater? And, is it a viable method whereby those on the information superhighway can find a way to not only navigate the terrain of cyberspace, but to perhaps be able to signpost and develop a personal mapping system in relationship to one's own personal experience of relating within the milieu of "the global village?" Perhaps, but not quite yet is this medium easily navigable enough to lend itself to a virtual Renaissance of the old values across the major disciplines that teach a society how to recommunilize and prosper in times of major paradigm shifts and social upheaval.

However, one must find a place to start; a place to begin looking for signs of the old order to give us insight into the new. In terms of the vast world of cyberspace, the cybermilieu of the MUD might be an interesting and appropriate place to start. A self- contained world based on the model of role playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, this particular venue of cyberspace lends itself to the model of Bruno's memory theater.

Although a MUD is so far, only a text-based world, it is a rich world nonetheless, an ongoing story whereby one interacts with other players in an imaginary medium based solely on textual description and the use relatively short command phrases. In a world such as this, one is scooted off with a only a crude diagram in the form of a mapped layout of the "town" which serves as the imaginary interface. Because navigation through this town requires somewhat of an imagination, which will build by default the longer one engages in MUDding, it is advantageous to commit the layout of the land, so to speak, to memory.

As one travels through the MUD, one has experiences there that build one upon another so that whatever virtual character is engaged, it is guaranteed that this character is going to develop a MUD citizenship and a history. Whatever moral principles or psychological ramifications are inherent within that experience, are going to be part of that character's repertoire of memory. Because there are only textual descriptions of images representing certain tools, and perhaps other computer generated characters, a player cannot help but command from imagination, a visual image of objects located in imaginary locales.

While the memory theater of yore relied specifically on ideas represented by placement around real objects, the MUD does not lend itself to such sturdy resources. However, the MUD is curiously sturdy enough for the task of building a memory theater in it own right. As the average MUD is navigable through the directions of either north, south, east, or west, it is easy to establish a locus from which to move quadrilaterally in the virtual village. Usually there is a center in the township and then many buildings with many rooms which serve well in Yate's description of loci, which are a variety of places committed to memory in a certain order.

Interestingly enough, the ancient anonymous Ad Herenium, dated circa 86-82 B. C., explains the "rules" and the logical application of memory systems as they pertain to the binary nature of memory itself. According to the author of the Ad Herenium, memory can be either of a natural or artificial origination. The natural is what comes innately with thought in the immediate mind. The artificial memory, however, is an aspect of memory which is bolstered and extended by practice and concentration (Yates, 5).

In terms of the MUD, such a distinction is easy to make. The concept of town, building, room, and familiar objects are already part of one's second natured orientation of thought. The artificial memory, however, is born of the need to retrace one's steps through the virtual construction of the MUD and to survive and thrive there as well. In terms of simple directions, it could be useful, for instance to attach certain symbols or images to the words north, south, east, or west.

In regards to the digitization of text and cyberculture, it is interesting to bring into the context of the present, a quote from the author of the Ad Herenium : "For places are very much like wax tablets or papyrus, the images like the letters, the arrangement and disposition of the images like a script, and the delivery is like the reading."

According to Yates' interpretation of the Ad Herenium, "the formation of the loci are of the greatest importance, for the same set of loci can be used again and again for remembering different material.... The loci are like the wax tablets which remain when what is written on them has been effaced and are ready to be written on again."

In terms of the textual nature of the MUD and its structural aspect which includes a continual text scroller, the territory can be navigated by certain points in the loci, which in turn, can be returned to and used over and again at the player's discretion. Hence, the metaphor of a "wax tablet" fits the postmodern reality of the computer screen, constructed by the non-material aspects of binary information. Although the territory of cyberspace changes the meaning of the term "territory" itself, it is still a territory in a somewhat natural form, simply by the way in which the mind finds an immediate representation. Hence, the abstraction of the meaning of territory becomes worth looking at in terms of MUD and memory dynamics.

Jean Baudrillard, who studies the finer details of simulation in terms of computer mediated communication, claims that even the term "abstraction" has become void of previous meaning. He says, "Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept." Perhaps this is why the map of most MUDs is rather crude, leaving much to the imagination indeed. As Buidrillard goes on to further explain the postmodern nature of the MUD:

"Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. it is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself."

In terms of the MUD, Buidrillard has eloquently described the nature of the individual reality of the MUD character and how he or she is to construct a life and a meaning for themselves on the surface of a postmodern medium that simply falls away with the "real time" scrolling of the text. And yet, ask any MUDster if the MUD is a "real" place to them and they will most likely say yes. And yet the meaning of the "real" has been assigned new "postmodern" relevance which can still be found beneath the surface of the game, an older order of structure that is at once, ethically substantiated through a system of "rules."

In terms of the memory theater, which was originally used for the purpose of rhetoric, over time has shifted its cause to the realm of ethics and morals. The Church had long since used the memory theater as a means by which to instil moral fiber into the natural memories of the community at large. Although there seems to be no great need for the art of rhetoric on a MUD, such an environment does, in fact, function like a community committed to competition but also is very much opposed to the total outbreak of textually committed anarchy. Like all societies, the MUD has its rulers and its wizards who are there to make sure that order remains in tact.

Although MUDs typically started out as arenas where one could engage in a fairly healthy competition with other players, now they are an cybersituations given to a certain amount of contempt and disappointment. According to one MUDster, there are very few decent MUDs left, and very few players left who can be trusted. Like any society the motives of its individuals or groups of members are at odds with each other. In order to survive in a MUD, one has to make the right connections, observe the rules, and skilfully master the tactics of the game while trying not to suffer too much loss of virtual possessions or life, as it were. And so the metaphor fits the basic survival needs inherent in real life.

One particular MUDster, who is a part of the MUD community EVERDARK ( says that he can remember his cumulative experience through the MUD, mainly because he has a map of the whole village committed to memory. Not only has he come to rely on memory for navigation through the MUD (which can be quite difficult for a newbie), but he claims to remember every conquest, kill, and defeat he was involved in and in what loci of the MUD the event took place.

Because such experiences in the MUD are textually based, there is a wide use of imagined images with words, which fit the paradigm of the ancient memory principles from the Ad Herenium. Thus, the two necessary principles of the art of memory , are both a memory for words and a memory for things. In the case of the MUD, it is interesting to note that the objects used in the MUD are often sharp knives or other dangerous weapons. The actions carried out with such items, are usually those of the violent order, whether it be against other players, computer generated monsters, or helpless small animals such as chickens on a virtual farm waiting to be slaughtered. Furthermore, the value of such items and their acquisition, is what enables a player to move up through the ranks of the MUD hierarchy.

In terms of memory, it helps the player immensely if he or she can remember what the rules are for which areas of the MUD and for the uses of certain objects. In the case of MUDs, the hypereal architecture and the constant navigation through it, is all that the player needs for a made-to-order memory theater. In terms of the images and the actions that are to be applied and taken in the realm of the MUD, it is also interesting to note that the ancients knew that certain images were more powerful and thus, more suitable for memory training purposes than were other, less emotionally provocative images.

In the MUD, a player's very textual existence is based upon surviving and thriving in a world of dangerous images and vulnerable spaces. One must be aware of the impact of the image relayed through the word on the screen in order to navigate through a form of textual violence, which luckily still strives to keep an orderly code of ethics that protects against "foul play" and reduces the recidivism of certain MUD crimes.

In terms of the finer nuances between natural and artificial memory systems, the author of the Ad Herenium makes an interesting observation in terms of memory training:

"Now nature herself teaches us what we should do. When we see in every day life things that are petty, ordinary, and banal, we generally fail to remember them, because the mind is not being stirred by anything novel or marvelous. But if we see or hear something exceptionally base, dishonorable, unusual, great, unbelievable, or ridiculous, that we are likely to remember for a long time. Accordingly, things immediate to our eye or ear we commonly forget; incidents of our childhood we often remember best. Nor could this be for any other reason than that ordinary things easily slip from the memory while the striking and the novel stay longer in the mind."

In terms of the MUD environment and the discourse that prevails therein, it is no surprise that the stimuli of textually committed acts of violence, thievery, and trickery are what keep certain MUDs fascinating and engaging and memorable from one textual encounter to the next. And the fact that there are social hierarchies and guilds wherein special spells and powers are reserved, makes the textual territory of the quadrilateral orientation of the town, reusable - enough to build memories and to retain them for future use.

And yet, for such a violent atmosphere as a MUD, there appears to be an very firmly placed moral code of ethical behavior that all participants are required to honor and follow. No doubt, the loci of one's travels provides the stimulus for acquiring and remembering the rules. And, it is interesting to note, that if one falls out of line or goes against the rules, that the other members of the MUD community are slow to forgive and are even slower to forget.

In the experience of one MUDster, who tried to join the battle for good after being involved in the "dark side" of the MUD, it was very difficult for him to redeem his honor. In learning the MUD and its rules, he decided that he wanted to eventually become a member who is respected for their honorable place in the virtual society. In order to do this, it is taking him months to gain or regain the trust of other MUDsters who are not showing to be so quick as to let him gain admittance to a certain guild.

With all the complexities of houses within guilds warring against other houses, etc., it is amazing to one who has no knowledge of MUDs to fathom the methods used to remember all the current and past events of the game. Perhaps this is merely because the MUD environment is its own self-constructed, self-referential memory theater whereby the players are allowed access to only the most violent and competitive images, which seem to serve the strengthening of the artificial memory. In terms of the learning of morals, it seems that the memory theater, in the context of the MUD, has served its purpose well (at least for some players), in order that a standard of morals might be held to by the virtual participants in the MUD. And for those who have achieved high ranks for both the construction and the mastery of the MUD environment, they are granted the powers to either correct rebellious trouble makers or to even terminate and "kill" an uncooperative MUDster who does not obey the "rules."

In lieu of the MUD, where moral regulations reign as supreme as in real life, perhaps Baudrillard's theory of simulacra, does not apply to the postmodern, canceled out, real reality of the MUD. In terms of the MUD as a living, thriving cybercommunity of substance, it is hard to believe that Buadrillards statment could apply; "This representational imaginary, which both culminates in and is engulfed by the cartographer's mad project of an ideal coextensivity between the map and the territory, disappears with simulation, whose operation is nuclear and genetic, and no longer specular and discursive. With it goes all of metaphysics... the real is produced from miniaturized units, from matrices, memory banks and command models - and with these it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times... It is nothing more than operational... It is hyperreal: the product of an irradiating syntheses of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere."

In terms of a dichotomous approach to literacy and orality, the MUD makes a good case that perhaps the "hyperreal" world of binary reality does not have such a postmodern, polished surface as some might believe. Although it is a game, the MUD is also an environment in which places can be identified through the navigation of memory. And although the words passing on the screen are mere figures of speech, the "real time" orientation and impact of language in this particular context, combine the best of ancient moral principles of orality with the most radically altered forms of new literacy.

Hence, it was Plato who exalted the art of written communication, and Socrates who feared that such a thing would ruin the individual's relationship to society via the solitude of personal discourse. Today there are critics of computer mediated communication who feel that the relationship between the individual and him or herself will be destroyed by the "consensual hallucination" of digital literacy. Perhaps the MUD is the perfect theater or forum whereby to showcase the virtues of primary oral communication and how they are still useful and revisable in the "hyperreal" realm of the new literacy. Perhaps the scrolling, "hyper-realtime" world of the MUD, can stand as a lingering and lasting example of old forms subtly and magically directing the moral tide of one digital community, which will no doubt play a part in constructing the "global village" of the future.


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Richard A. Bartle (
18th July, 2003.