A brief history of the memo

Like many, I’m taken by histories of things like footnotes, the number zero, small and convenient things which I largely related to functionally.  In the most recent Critical Inquiry, John Guillory has a piece on the memo and its place in modernity.

“The genre of the memo has attracted little attention as an object of study, because it would seem to lack the features of what in literary theory we like to call a ‘text.’ Individual memos are less representative of the genre in the very proportion that they are more interesting as texts. But the ubiquity of the memo belies its triviality, and raises questions about writing in modernity that cannot be answered by asking these questions only of figures such as Joyce, Freud, Darwin, or Heisenberg. We can begin to enrich the interpretive context of the memo by referring it to the theme of bureaucracy , a subject of longstanding sociological interest. Unsurprisingly, Weber observes in his great work, Economy and Society , that ‘the management of the modern office is based upon written documents (‘the files’),’ and that this form of writing is necessarily connected to the very idea of the office or ‘bureau,’ as the spatial means of organizing scribal labor.

. . .

[T]he memo emerged as a result of a new kind of managerial practice, and not as a development of rhetorical theory . On the contrary, the invention of the memo entailed a deliberate forgetting of rhetoric, an act of oblivion. The memorandum was not an evolution of the business letter but a new genre of writing. The term ‘memorandum’ in this new generic sense began to be used in the later 1870s and early 1880s, although it did not become common until the 1920s, by which time the form of the memo was in widespread use. (‘Memo,’ 497). The idea of the memorandum as a ‘note to oneself’ precisely captures the situation of internal communication within an organization. Hence [JoAnne] Yates speaks of the memo as constituting an ‘organizational’ memory.”

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