America Looks Ahead to the Past, In Search of a Story Line

May 10, 1992|By Michael Hill

There was an odd convergence in Baltimore last month that, quite improbably, speaks volumes about why this election season seems so empty and meaningless.

At the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, a group that ranged from Nobel prize-winning scientists to authors and philosophers discussed the subject of memory. At the University of Baltimore, a conference focused on emerging computer technologies. And, down at Camden Yards, Oriole Park opened in a burst of civic pride.

Though that seems like a motley crew of community events, all three shared a Janus-like feature -- they were looking backward and forward at the same time. It is a crucial trick that has eluded our national leaders for about a generation now.

The symposium on memory, by definition, focused on something associated with the past. But, in presentation after presentation by the scientists, it was clear that in trying to figure out how the brain remembers, the most cutting-edge, futuristic medical technologies imaginable are employed.

Moreover, the talks by the humanists involved reminded that memory is not an element of the past, but is an essential part of the present that we use to construct our vision of the future.

Philosopher Mary Warnock speculated that memory is so

cherished not because it defines each of us as individuals -- though it certainly is involved in that process -- but because it connects us with the whole of human experience, something that will go on eternally into the future.

Social critic Paul Fussell claimed that we select and alter our memories to conform to classical plot structures -- from Cinderella to Romeo and Juliet -- thus organizing them in a way that helps us in trying to make sense of present.

At the University of Baltimore, most of the presentations celebrated and demonstrated the possibilities of a computerized world that comes complete with libraries on videodisc, interactive novels and virtual reality plays.

But there was another side. Mark Crispin Miller of Johns Hopkins talked of the ways and means of advertising, how its images and techniques -- designed and derived by these celebrated technologies -- have become the ersatz building blocks of popular culture.

And, in a talk that could be termed the keynote of the weekend, Neal Postman of New York University warned that we are suffering from an information glut -- thanks to these technologies we all have access to a mountain of facts and data, but we have no way of making sense of it, nothing to tell us what among it is important and what is not worth paying attention to.

Dr. Postman said that what we need is a story. Whether it be from Genesis or the Declaration of Independence, Horatio Alger or Norman Rockwell, Steven Spielberg or Steven Bochco, the country yearns for a narrative framework that can organize the limitless information that confronts us every day.

Such a story would probably conform to one of Dr. Fussell's paradigm plots, evoking an archetype in our collective memories to use as we face the future. It can be seen as the connection with the an experience larger than the individual that Dr. Warnock referred to in her assessment of memory's value.

This narrative would necessarily arise from the past, but must look to the coming years, must give us a blueprint derived from the foundations of history that we can use in constructing the future. It would encompass the possibilities of the technologies now mapping the human brain and creating virtual realities, but would place them in a context that would show them as part of the continuum of human achievement.

The glowing success of Oriole Park at Camden Yards is due to its being the architectural equivalent of that narrative. Its setting, its detail, its structure, refer to baseball's past, conjuring up memories of its legacies and traditions. Most importantly, it evokes the game's and its team's strong connection with its communities. The park belongs in Baltimore, is intrinsically a part of Baltimore, just as the team is supposed to be.

But, with its luxurious club level, its modern conveniences, its state-of-the-art huge television screen, the park is future-oriented, designed to provide an architectural narrative for baseball in Baltimore for generations to come.

The presidential candidates would do well to realize that the electorate is in search of such a narrative. More than they want details of economic programs, more than they want the "correct" views on abortion or handgun control, more than they want a stance on aid to Russia, voters want a story that will make sense of the current state of America and its position in the world, its mission in the future. It has to reconcile the fact that while our country seems to be in deep trouble, people still get on rickety boats to try to get to our shores, our founding fathers are still quoted by those emerging from decades of oppression.

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