Sunday, February 21, 2016

Remembering Umberto Eco

In The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes the semiologist and novelist Umberto Eco as belonging to "that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull." Eco owned roughly thirty thousand books, Taleb reported, and separated visitors into those who were stupified by the sight of them, often asking him how many he had actually read, and a much smaller group who recognized that such a library served as a research tool.

"Read books are far less valuable than unread ones," Taleb continued. "The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means ... allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books."

Compared to Eco's vast collection, my own little cache hardly merits the name "library," but it is large and disorderly enough to lose books in, and I was distressed when I read that Eco had died and was unable to located a collection of his essays called Travels in Hyperreality.

I was pleased when I finally spotted the volume lying on top of a row of other books, its white spine and thin san serif lettering entirely obscured by the drooping copy of Rain Taxi magazine lying on top of it.

Eco wrote in long sentences, bringing his wily intellect and vast erudition to bear on subjects of popular interest such as Superman, wearing jeans, Casablanca, and the Peanuts comic strip. He wrote with a jaunty, off-hand humor that might have been more pleasing if the conclusions he arrived at had been more interesting. He begins an essay titled "Two Types of Objects," for example, with the following remark:

"What would be a better way to initiate a column devoted to signs and myths—which we will try to carry forward without any obses­sion with regularity, responding instead to the suggestions that arrive from all sides—than by making a devout pilgrimage to one of the sanctuaries of mass communication, the Milan Trade Fair?"

Thus we accompany the semiological scholar as he descends from his ivory tower to apply his arcane concepts and categories to common life. And we're happy to do so, eager to absorb whatever insights a learned academic enlivened with abundant joie de vivre might care to share with us.

At the fair Eco notes two types of objects: On the one hand, beautiful consumer items that the visitor might desire and want to purchase—easy chairs, lamps, motor boats, ash trays, liquor; on the other hand, functional but ugly industrial machines that few consumers would take an interest in, though the "proprietors of the means of production" find them fascinating.

Eco describes this as a "semiology of objects." That is to say, these two types of objects may be taken as a rudimentary system of signs that "must be seen within the concrete system of the society that creates them and receives them, so they must be seen as a language listened to as it is being spoken, and of which we try to discern the regulating mechanism."[ p. 184]  

Eco's conclusion? That a visitor to the fair thinks he has made a choice between types of objects, while in fact he has "only accepted his role as a consumer of consumer goods since he cannot be a proprietor of means of production." He will never buy a lathe because the fair has told him he doesn't want one.

Is any of this true? I have never been to the Milan Trade Fair, but based on Eco's description, I would have to say no. If the visitor was thinking of starting a woodworking business, he or she would certainly take an interest in the relevant industrial machinery. And no one would stop him. 

Meanwhile, the notion that the fair presents us with a system of "signs" constitutes an obvious and irrelevant intellectual overlay to the reality of the situation, which is a simple matter of buying and selling things.

I would even go further and suggest, contra Eco, that some people who have no intention of starting a business find industrial machinery fascinating. I do. For most of us, there would be little point in buying such a thing, even if we had the means, but the structure of the fair itself doesn't dictate which choices we make.

In short, Eco's semiological analysis amounts to nothing more than a primitive, quasi-Marxist gloss that obscures, rather than illuminating, what might actually be a fascinating event, were we allowed to come into fuller contact with the relevant details.

No doubt, Eco poured his energy, curiosity, erudition, and love of life most fully into his novels, of which The Name of the Rose remains the most popular. In photographs he appears as a slightly oversized but lovable uncle—a Philippe Noiret of the intelligencia. I heard him speak once in St. Paul, but we'll leave that event for another time.

In honor of his death, I just now requested a copy of his book, The Aesthetics of St. Thomas Aquinas, from the Hennepin County Library. (Travels in Hypereality just won't do.)

I'll let you know how it all turns out. 

No comments: