Umberto Eco – Artforum

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Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality trans. William Weaver (San Diego, New York, and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986), 307 pages.
CONCERNED WITH REINCARNATIONS, SECOND GUESSES, unreasonable facsimiles, aftereffects, and mimicries, Umberto Eco is appropriately named. This professional distinguisher of signs from their signifieds readily admits that he practices semiotics, but the practice shouldn’t frighten anyone and he would still do it “if it were called something else” In this collection of essays he originally wrote for an Italian newspaper and magazine public, Eco gets involved with the “something elses” of this world, particularly the American ones. As a tourist in our land, he everywhere picks up on a passion for the “absolute fake,” and for “authentic duplicates” that reach the point of “reconstructive neurosis” Viewing such extravagance, one doesn’t know whether to laugh or growl—and Eco does a great deal of both. In his writing, the two kinds of response inform each other. Here is an erudite, possessed by an intellectual gaiety which acts as the instrument of a critical consciousness.

In the title piece, American culture is seen as a factory of replications of things originally created elsewhere, of styles, ideas, structures, references never naturally a part of our landscape. Eco sees our longing for historic European architecture and biblical homilies as a genuine iconic strain of American pop culture, which he neither condescends to nor applauds. He writes of the symbolism of it all as a moral and even philosophical problem before it turns into a political one. If he had stated only that we’re swamped in a hemorrhage of kitsch, and that we have our plutocratic as well as our populistic versions of it, he wouldn’t have gone beyond what has already been observed. He goes farther, though, to say that our yen for reproductions is so extreme that it decisively replaces the originals and dissipates any need for them. Like anyone else, he can enjoy the sophisticated or naive spectacle of counterfeit for its own sake, but he prefers to analyze what happens to consciousness, and what are the stakes, when objects are substituted for other objects, and certain words for other words. By examining the concentrated states of these replacements at Hearst Castle or Disney World, he implies their diffusion through the American mindscape. Living to the hilt a myth of self-sufficiency sustained by an endless inventory of ersatz objects—a delirium of transplants—will obviously do something injurious to the general sense of reality. And Eco hasn’t even touched on the media yet! He shows how our accumulated facsimiles don’t intend to emulate the models so much as to triumph over them, improving the “raw” material by technique, so as to make icons more inspiring. A national scene emerges in which reality seems inferior to our mediation of it, but Eco doesn’t deny that we need to mediate. His writings examine both the pleasures and the penalties of that act, as it communicates and deforms behavior.
Words will not suffice, Eco says (wrongly, since they never fail him), to describe the Madonna Inn at San Luis Obispo, California. “Let’s say that Albert Speer, while leafing through a book on Gaudi, swallowed an overgenerous dose of LSD and began to build a nuptial catacomb for Liza Minnelli.” Or how about, “Calvino’s Invisible Cities described by Judith Krantz and executed by Leonor Fini for the plush-doll industry” Eco attains real eloquence when he describes the rest rooms, which are cavernous, with a bit of Altamira in them, and where the water comes down the carved rock urinal “in a flushing cascade something like the Caves of the Planet Mongo” One might go on having fun with the Madonna Inn, but for the serious point that though it bristles with historical references and goofy, macaronic fantasies, they do not conceal the fact that it has no history of its own. Monster of allusions that cancel each other, the motel has no heritage and functions only as a public spectacle, emptied of all meaning but the spectacular. As I write this, Americans are refurbishing a better-known and more serious spectacle for media consumption, the Statue of Liberty, which is forced to operate as a pious symbol for ideals of liberty that the present government and most of the electorate have renounced. Whether it works as entertainment or ideology (often, now, the same thing), the spectacle is contradicted pretty sharply by history, and Eco’s remarks convey how deeply impressed he is by our routine perversion of our icons.
It shouldn’t surprise us that the author of the novel The Name of the Rose considers historical understanding vital to any intellectual critique of our moment. For historical awareness is the enemy of all closed and therefore authoritarian systems (such as, well, academic semiology), and Eco is a libertarian. History is that continuum of human circumstance through which cultural signs are unpredictably given, as well as lose, meaning. When, in his novel, the teachers of established 14th-century Catholic doctrine feel threatened by communitarian and populist dissenters, the ignition word “heretic” is bandied about to describe such dissenters and people are burned. The ferocity of repression, however, is equaled by the hysteria of the outcasts, roving mobs of megapoor terrorists. The topicality of such a historical narrative in the era of Italy’s Red Brigades has been well noticed; in this current book, Eco talks directly and contemporaneously about them, as well as about other fundamentalists, such as those at Jonestown. He certainly acknowledges aggression as a biological motif throughout history and he has a lively regard for the spirit of awe. But when demonology takes over group behavior, members can become so deluded as to think they are striking at “the heart of the state On the contrary, there are no “hearts’: no “heads’: no “centers’ Eco views the rise of millenarian violence and cult pathologies, with long traditions behind them, not as a threat to the multinational systems, but as a counterweight those systems rely on to rationalize their influence. In our era the thinking of the “Left” (which, of course, is a word that signifies “something else”) has also been invaded by such spooky religiosity. One might say, indeed, that for all cults and dogmas there is only one sign system, one fixed set of meanings and one class of reception. As for the media, “while they seem to act as thermometer, reporting a rise in temperature, they are actually part of the fuel that keeps the furnace going” It is only fair to notice that this has been their role for ages. Eco’s The Name of the Rose analyzes at great, fascinating length how the medieval church played such a media role, and examines the human costs of that media domination. These essays probe the same questions in our era.
Even if our media were owned by representatives of the communities, rather than of various systems, they would still be alienating (for there are built-in constraints and conditioning, regardless of the interests that are transmitted) That’s why Eco has a tendency to study case by hard case, and why he stresses that analysis must start at the point where the messages are received, not where they originated. What makes the messages hard to track is that the idea of the media has to be expanded enormously to include unintentional transmissions and reverberations that generate themselves once signals are initiated. One brand of polo shirts is sold with little alligators sewn on them. The people who wear them do the same thing, less consciously, as the advertisers. TV programs eventually notice such wearers. “Where,” asks Eco, “is the mass medium?” Perhaps this is to talk about inevitable modern complicities of unlike functions. But for him, it’s an example of how social phenomena take up each other’s theme. Individuals act as random carriers of images which they exchange with others in a cycle that now fades, now strengthens, as they weave the pattern of their cultural fantasies. Eco sees the fantasies as conflicting organizations of signs. To explain those conflicts, he has to enter within the media themselves. He affirms that long tradition of European intellectuals who consider it their political duty to do exactly that. This medievalist with a fast mind writes accessibly . . . and with a certain irony about himself. “Cultural anthropologists accept cultures in which people eat dogs . . . and even cultures where adults chew gum, so it should be all right for countries to exist where university professors contribute to newspapers.”

Max Kozloff is a photographer and a writer on photography who lives in New York.
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