Sunday, 9 October 2016

Umberto Eco and his prediction of Mass Culture

A reading of the diverse and interdisciplinary essays of Opera aperta, 1962, Diario minimo, 1963, and Apocalittici e integrati, 1964, is fundamental for an in-depth study of Umberto Eco's theory of the role and influence of mass media. From his very beginning Eco has approached the fields of communication, signification, interpretation, and cultural activities as a semiotic experience in which man must learn to read and interpret signs; and he has often repeated that it was mainly the writings of Apocalittici e integrati that led him to his semiotic studies. After the unprecedented international success-story of his first novel, The Name of the Rose, 1980, we have seen first, The Open Work 1989, and then practically every other major work of Eco translated into English. It was only a matter of time before English-speaking readers would get a chance to examine the fascinating essays of the other two collections.

Now, shortly after the publication of Misreadings, 1993 (William Weaver's trans. of Diario minimo), appears Robert Lumley's edition of Apocalypse Postponed, which includes the main essay of Apocalittici e integratiand several other erudite and witty writings which, for the most part, Eco had previously published in newspapers and magazines. The original title "Apocalyptic and Integrated" referred to the uncompromising division between pessimistic and optimistic intellectuals who either rejected or accepted mass culture. I should add that if we consider their original dates of publication, many of these writings were, at the time, quite provocative and in some cases prophetic in the analysis of contemporary mass culture.
After the world-wide success of his two brain teasing, allegorical, postmodern detective novels, The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum (1988), many readers outside Italy have learned to appreciate Eco's vast encyclopedic competence and his voracious curiosity about practically every aspect of "high" and "lowbrow" culture. Before 1980, in some academic circles, Eco was known for his theoretical writings on semiotics (see A Theory of Semiotics and Semiotics and Philosophy of Language). After the appearance of The Role of the Reader, 1979, The Open Work and The Limits of Interpretation, 1992, a much larger body of students and scholars started to refer to and discuss Eco's theories on literary criticism, textual production, aspects of narrative, intertextuality, postmodernism, the relationship between authors, texts and readers, as well as his overall process of interpreting texts. Nevertheless, especially outside of Italy, the least known features of Eco's works were the his early interests in mass media and mass culture.In my preface to an anthology of writings on Eco and literary semiotics I adopted the now current expression "information superhighway" to summarize the vast encyclopedic wealth of information available in Eco's writings; information which one may choose to use and interact with, or just file for later use. I am alluding here mainly to Eco's extensive use of international intertextuality and to his art of being able to speak to different levels of readers by providing enough material with plenty of ideas and not just information for everybody's taste, background and competence. As we all know, "information superhighway" refers to the electronic evolution that by now should have made a believer out of even the biggest skeptic of McLuhan's notion of the "global village."
Eco's encyclopedism and the way he informs, educates and entertains, together with his ability to reach a wide public, are familiar to us not just because intellectuals on university campuses continue to analyze communication but also because media experts use the same techniques in virtually every area of communication and entertainment. Today, we have become increasingly accustomed to seing everything reduced (history, world events, entertainment, politics, and culture in general) to sensational headlines. As we know, the media bombard the public with a vast amount of information which does not need to be digested or interpreted. Consequently, it is not surprising that some people, not only intellectuals, feel that the media are not really concerned with communicating because most of the time they actually confuse the public with too much "redundancy" and "noise." Thus we hear more and more the familiar clichés that the media provide the maximum of information and the least amount of communication.

As demonstrated in Apocalypse Postponed, these issues interested Eco in the late fifties. Then Italian TV was still a novelty and the rapid technological industrialization of culture, especially in the publishing and communication industry, was alienating many of the so-called traditional, conservative, and for the most part marxist intellectuals, particularly those who sided with the "apocalyptic" writings of Adorno and Marcuse. In Italy Elémire Zolla soon became the main "apocalyptic" intellectual against whom Eco felt he had to react. Eco saw Zolla's L'eclisse dell'intellettuale, 1959, (Eclipse of the Intellectual) as a target because it preceded and epitomized many of the negative views that "apocalyptic intellectuals" expressed against the threats of impoverishing and bastardizing "high" culture. Who were the alleged culprits responsible for such a dangerous operation? Naturally, it was easy to blame the operators and supporters of the industrial and technological changes within the arts, literature and culture in general. Incidentally, Zolla had published his text in the same Bompiani series where Eco would publish soon after Opera aperta and Diario minimo. In the early sixties Eco joined the editorial staff of Bompiani and most of his works have been published by this publishing house. Mass culture is here to stay In Apocalypse Postponed I shall focus primarily on Part One of the text, wishing to deal specifically with the chapter "Apocalyptic and Integrated Intellectuals." Consequently, here I shall give only a very brief outline of the other topics treated by Eco in this collection of eclectic writings which range from comic strips, radio and TV, cult movies, best sellers, porno stars, and pop-singers, to aesthetics, canonized authors and classic literature. Anyone who has read The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum has noted Eco's wide range of interests, from Dante to Donald Duck, from Plato to Elvis Presley. Most would agree that in William of Baskerville (Rose) and Casaubon (Pendulum) readers can easily recognize many of Eco's personal views on mass culture, semiotics, technological progress, intellectual tolerance, interdisciplinary criticism, encyclopedism, reader's response theories, as well as socio-political allegories. Of course, for Umberto Eco, Dante, Disney characters, Plato, Borges, Sherlock Holmes, Indiana Jones, etc.-all are valid examples of culture if they help to make the "truth laugh" and to illustrate and explain some basic truths about man. Such is one of the main goals of The Name of the Rose. Before the publication of The Open Work and Apocalypse Postponed, Eco's English-speaking readers had to wonder what his first writings were all about. Are Eco's Diario minimo and Barthes' Mythologies (1957) alike as cultural commentators and semiotic readers of the media and of culture as a whole? Was Eco already interested in semiotics in the early sixties? These and many other questions can be answered by reading Opera aperta, Diario minimo and Apocalittici e integrati. Robert Lumley's selection in Parts II-IV of Apocalypse Postponed gives us a good indication of how Eco's first observations on the media and mass culture continue in later years in his theoretical works and his novels.

A quick look at the table of contents of Apocalypse Postponed indicates that our semiotician-narrator has been observing and analyzing aspects and levels of culture. As well, he has been paying close attention to the means of production and dissemination of the culture industry which has been expanding rapidly in the last three decades. Here I must add that Robert Lumley definitely achieves his objectives in putting together a collection of essays that can convey "some sense of the development of Eco's writings on cultural issues from the early 1960s to the late 1980s" and can communicate" the wit and brio of Eco's writing" (11). In Part I, in addition to Eco's reactions to the critics' reception of the 1964, 1974 and 1979 editions of Apocalittici e integrati, we find articles on Charlie Brown, on Orwell's 1984, and on "The future of literacy." Part II, "Mass Media and the Limits of Communication," is made up of four essays on rhetoric, on the relationship between audiences and television, on live television, and on Fellini's movie Ginger and Fred. In Part III, "The Rise and Fall of Counter-cultures," the articles deal with a variety of issues ranging from private radio stations in Italy, new forms of expression in the media, and Chinese comic strips, to the question, "Does Counter-culture Exist?" Eco does not view mass culture as "counter culture," and he notes that "for every three people who talk about culture at least one is thinking of a meaning quite different from that of the others" (115). In the concluding Part IV, "In Search of Italian Genius," we find essays on vanity presses, on Cicciolina's (a porno-star) right to a seat in the Italian Parliament, and on the tradition of Italian design. As we can see from these topics, Apocalypse Postponed gives the reader a taste of Eco's repertoire. If Apocalypse Postponed were read in conjunction with Travels in Hyper Reality, we would gain an even greater appreciation of Eco's unusual encyclopedism. In fact, reading a few of these essays shows Eco to be a master of subtle parody and irony. Eco's humour cleverly deals with both the most banal or the most technical subject matter.
The role of intellectuals in the culture industry This may not be the place to enter into a discussion of the importance of Elémire Zolla's Eclipse of the Intellectual, but Eco reminds us that his Apocalittici e integrati was written with Zolla in mind. In the early sixties, Eco succeeded in establishing himself as a provocative analyst of mass communication. He forced Italian intellectuals to debate some of the effects of mass culture-effects that in North America could already be noticed on a much larger scale. One needs only to mention Marshall McLuhan, Leslie Fiedler, Herbert Marcuse, and Dwight MacDonald, all familiar to Eco, to recall the discussions of the impact of mass media and industrial culture on so called "high culture." Eco was also familiar with the early writings of Edgard Morin and Roland Barthes in France. Of course, one should remember that Eco's interests in C.S. Peirce, R. Jakobson, and the whole discipline of semiotics are actually a direct evolution of his concern with aesthetics, theories of mass communication. Even in his first essays in the sixties, the author's approach to reading, interpreting and commenting on culture could already be seen as that of a semiotician who had not yet adopted the technical jargon of the discipline. In fact, it would not be too far-fetched to consider the Eco of the sixties as essentially a young Adso (see the discussions on reading signs betwen William and Adso in The Name of the Rose) ready to learn about semiotics from the right mentor. We must also remember that as soon as Eco no longer feels satisfied by the early writings of French semioticians and structuralists like Barthes and Levi-Strauss, he turns to the studies of Jakobson and Peirce on the science of signs.
Perhaps the real importance of Apocalittici e integrati can be understood only by taking into consideration the original implications of the essay "Apocalyptic and integrated intellectuals." At the time writers and critics were too involved in endless debates on realism vs. neorealism, on the literary merits of certain works labeled "Letteratura e industria" ("literature and industry"), and on the growing presence of the experimental "Gruppo 63." Umberto Eco (with Renato Barilli and Alfredo Giuliani) was among the strongest promoters of the "Gruppo 63." Many conservative critics perceived the "Gruppo 63," merely as an extension of the French group Tel Quel and of the Nouveau Roman. On the other hand, new critics like Eco and Barilli (and writers like Calvino and Malerba) could see a definite need for Italian intellectuals to take a serious look at what was going on in the rest of the world in culture and the arts, and to try to understand the undeniable role of mass media and mass communication in our postmoden society.

In Part I of Apocalypse Postponed we can see that what has always distinguished Eco from most of his Italian colleagues (then and now) is his maintaining that the media can be improved, especially if intellectuals decide to work with in the culture industry. Also, few intellectuals can match Eco's great interdisciplinary skills. Equally important, Eco has never allowed ideology to interfere with his work. In the late sixties we saw Eco distanced himself from marxist intellectuals. He disapproved of the direction that their literary and socio-political journal Quindici was taking. Eco could not share the snobbish attitude of apocalyptic intellectuals who would never admit reading comic books, and best sellers, watching TV, or going to movies. Nor could Eco share the views of the masses and popular culture held by marxist intellectuals who put down mass culture mainly because it is mass produced by a neo-capitalistic culture industry. Incidentally, some marxist critics have extended this same argument to their criticism of postmodernism. Since the early eighties Umberto Eco and Gianni Vattimo (and to some extent Renato Barilli) have tried to correct these misconceptions.
In general, Eco's critics (most of them academic) have suggested that he is successful because he publishes trendy books. Eco's reaction to the reception of Apocalittici e integrati, shows that he has always been aware of this criticism. He singles out Pietro Citati as typical of critics who oppose him for using the instruments of high culture to analyze and explain low culture. These critics become even more uncomfortable when Eco takes examples and illustrations from low culture to explain high culture. If Eco has become deft at this practice it is because he believes that the instruments of both high and low culture are "equally worthy of consideration" and that "Plato and Elvis Presley both belong in history in the same way" (46). Eco is convinced that "today the concept of literacy comprises many media" (65). In his view, the postwar generations have been educated and conditioned more by electric and electronic media, especially TV, than by the printed word. The essays of Apocalypse Postponed take us back three decades to the days when McLuhan emerged as genial explorer of new media. They also remind us that these issues are still real today and that intellectuals must try to understand them even if they do not agree with, let alone accept, the results of mass of culture. Eco does not deny that "apocalyptic intellectuals" ought to "denounce the optimistic ideology of the integrated intellectuals" (25), nor he holds that "integrated intellectuals" should feel guilty for collaborating in the process of massification. Of course integrated intellectuals can and should play a fuller role in education, to contribute themselves and try to offer some alternatives to the alleged impoverishment of culture at the hands of media. Technophobia or denial or, worse, refusal of mass culture is no way to correct the evils of the powerful culture industry. In the closing statement of "Apocaliptic and Integrated Intellectuals," in tongue-in-cheeck fashion, Eco explains the intent of his work:
I would like to dedicate the book to those critics whom I have so summarily defined as apocalyptic. Without those unjust, biased, neurotic, desperate censures I could never have elaborated three quarters of the ideas that I want to share here; without them, perhaps none of us would have realized that the question of mass culture is one which we are all deeply involved. It is a sign of contradictions in our civilization (34). Addenda Recently, Eco has published his third novel, L'isola del giorno prima; "The Island of the Day Before." I
ntentionally baroque in plot and language, the novel may appear, at first, to be quite different from the previous two narrative works. The setting is definitely new: no more Middle Ages, labyrinths, libraries, and fewer direct allusions to present social, political and cultural realities. The story takes place partly in Piedmont (Eco's native region) and partly on an island in the South Pacific. Roberto, the protagonist, survivor of a shipreck in the novelistic tradition of Robinson Crusoe, learns to survive alone on a ship off the coast of an uncharted island, with his memories, thoughts, fears and desires revolving around the existence of his "double"-his (secret? imaginary?) twin brother. Roberto remains on the ship because he cannot swim, and thus symbolically, and conveniently for the plot, the life on the island must be observed from a distance.

The "Island of the Day Before" confirms Eco's talent in combining erudite material and popular novel. As in The Name of the Rose, here too we encounter a narrator who must work on the material of a "found" manuscript with his own inferences as he (re)constructs the events and, naturally, the entire novel. This is also a narrative which, as we read in capital letters in the final page, has a lot to do with (Harold Bloom's) "Anxiety of Influence." As with the similarities with the Pendulum, they appear with the constant issue of "the fixed point" on which to base all sources of certainty and power. In this third novel the quest for the Grail continues. But here the search is directed specifically at a puzzling question, a question that obsessed sixteenth and seventeenth-century minds dreaming of new frontiers: where exactly in the new world do the yesterday, today and tomorrow exist side by side? Works Cited Eco, Umberto. Opera aperta. Milano: Bompiani, 1962. ------. The Open Work [Opera aperta]. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989. ------. Diario minimo. Milano: Bompiani, 1963. ------. Misreadings [Diario minimo]. London: McMillan, 1993. ------. Apocalittici e integrati. Milano: Bompiani, 1964. ------. Apocalypse Postponed [Apocalittici e integrati]. Ed. Robert Lumley. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994. ------. Il nome della rosa. Milano: Bompiani, 1980. ------. The Name of the Rose [Il nome della rosa]. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. ------. Semiotica e filosofia del linguaggio. Milano: Bompiani, 1984. ------. Semiotics and Philosophy of Language [Semiotica e filosofia del linguaggio]. London: McMillan, 1984. ------. Il pendolo di Foucault. Milano: Bompiani, 1988. ------. Foucault's Pendulum [Il pendolo di Foucault]. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988. ------. The Aesthetics of the Chaosmos. The Middle Ages of James Joyce. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. ------. The Limits of the Interpretation. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. ------. L'isola del giorno prima. Milano: Bompiani, 1994. Zolla, Elemire. L'eclisse dell'intellettuale. Milano: Bompiani, 1959.

No comments:

Post a comment