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a time to remember, a time to forget

By Bradford J. Senning
Arizona Daily Wildcat
March 30, 1999
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Arizona Daily Wildcat

The century of memory

'80s music is in again. So are corduroys. And platform shoes.

Ours is the century of rehashed everything. Where music, fashion, even literature - T. S. Eliot's collage of literary memorabilia The Waste Land comes to mind - is all institutionally remembered into you, vying for space in your memory with your own.

Judging from magazine and TV news "century in retrospect" stories, everything that's old news is new news again. Time has a Top 100 Spectacular list to help us remember great people into the 21st century. And ordinary Joes like us are going to party a lot on New Year's Eve so that we can have a memory of the end of this century to beat them all.

Since everyone this year is in some way going to make you look at this century in reverse, we at the Wildcat want to help you make a memory of memory, so you can be better memory makers.

First of all, everything is a memory. Scientists this century discovered that we don't experience the world on time. There is actually a lapse of about a half-second between the world occurring and us perceiving it. If you ever hear anyone talking about chatting on e-mail in real time, tell him that nothing we do is in real time. A half-second, bub.

Since scientists proved that we don't experience what we experience at the same time we experience it, our entire experience is a memory.

But the only time we notice this is when we have dŽeacute;j‰ vu. DŽeacute;j‰ vu, we've discovered, is the experience of perceiving something twice. Once during the moment of its occurrence. Then again a half-second later, after the brain processes it. We say "I remember this. This already happened." Technically, we are remembering what happened a half-second before.

This is the century of memory, say our authors too. Toni Morrison approximates the stings of what she calls "rememory" of slavery in her 1987 classic Beloved. Marcel Proust, at the beginning of the century, turned a multi-volume novel of his life into one of the most intensive investigations of memory in the present day. And Thoreau, in a moment of forward thinking in the previous century, worried about our graven images of memory, all our stuff. Burn it, he might have suggested. Burn it all.

The century of forgetting

Homer: I just remembered. There's a party down at the boathouse.

Marge: You aren't remembering that. You just saw it on TV.

This is the century of Alzheimer's disease, a memory disorder. And of Gabriel Garc'a Mˆrquez who gestured at the dissolution of memory in One Hundred Years of Solitude where signs were necessary to remind the residents of Macondo that "God Exists."

You can go to the store and come back 10 minutes later, having forgotten to buy milk. You can walk out the door and come back five seconds later, having forgotten your keys. A song comes on the radio. You forget for a second, maybe two, what its name is. There is a lot of stuff to remember, so we forget almost everything.

People always thought elephants never forgot because their brains were so big. But we are finding out more and more it is because they are elephants. They don't have to memorize calculus formulas and ritual liturgies. They just have to remember delicious vegetation from bad. Rousseau taught us that animals don't even have to remember varieties, only shapes and hues. O! he would have said. If only to be an elephant!

But the complexity of life in this century for us humans hasn't been completely detrimental to our memory capabilities. We have artificial memories - computers and libraries so that we can spend our life sucking down coconut shakes in the splendor of knowing something else is taking care of all we forget.

Humans have forgotten more this century than ever before. But we've also forgotten more about forgetting than anyone has ever known. If it breathes, don't eat it. If it photosynthesizes, cut it and dunk it in a vase. That is all we know on earth and all we need to know.