Chronicles of a Liquid Society
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Umberto Eco is likely best known in popular culture as the author of The Name of the Rose, his novel that was turned into a film starring Sean Connery as a Franciscan monk working to solve a murder in 1327. Fans of his work know that Eco was far more than a novelist: he was a philosopher, literary critic, and social commentator. It might be surprising that this man of letters was also a magazine columnist, embracing the role of public intellectual for readers in Italy and beyond. A number of Eco's columns from L'Espresso, ranging from 2000 to 2015, are collected in Chronicles of a Liquid Society. Richard Dixon's translation of the work was published in the United States in 2017, the year following Eco's death at the age of 84.
In a brief introduction, Eco attributes the term "liquid society" to Polish philosopher Zygmont Bauman. Eco notes that the liquid society is a way to mark what comes after postmodernism and late capitalism, a "present that still has no name" and also lacks clear demarcation of nation-state, freedom, ideology, and subjectivity. While speaking from this particular philosophical stance, Eco's essays are evocative and often entertaining: the makings of a magazine column, not an intellectual treatise. Reading the columns published around 2000, it would be easy to be awed by his foresight about the current cultural moment, yet under the umbrella of a liquid society, one could argue that Eco simply took time -- and his extraordinary intellect -- to ponder the cultural shifts underway worldwide. As he notes his insight in predicting a multicultural Europe that would also be divisive and bloody, Eco writes, "I wasn't a prophet, just someone with common sense who often looks at history, convinced that by learning about what took place in the past we can often understand what might happen in the future."
Eco recalls and writes about life in Italy during and after World War II. His experience of 20th century events informed his perspective at the turn of the millenium. Rather than feeling alienated by "that old dude and his reminiscing" (as one self-proclaimed millennial complained on social media), the reader is much wiser to use Eco as a portal for learning more about what has happened over the past 100 years. As we mark the centennial of the end of World War I, Women's suffrage in the US and the UK, and all of the subsequent transitions globally, history can serve us well in trying to figure out how we got here. Eco's is not a voice of doom. Rather, the tone of his columns is like a brief chat at a sidewalk cafe, that you might ponder later in the day when sitting in traffic or washing dishes. He was, however, the kind of Renaissance man who might be a fine dinner companion for a conversation at the end of the world.
Thinking about his then-two-year-old grandson in the essay "Wave Ciao Ciao to the Camera", Eco asks, "And will this child of the future think it is normal to live in a world where the prime virtue is being seen, a value more important now than sex or money? A world where people will be ready to do anything to be seen on television -- or whatever will have replaced television by then -- so as to be recognized by others and not to vegetate in a frightening and unbearable anonymity." While this future -- very well aligned with the present moment -- was observable by anyone paying attention when Eco imagined it in 2002, the significance is not in Eco's foresight but in his reasoning. The desire for social media "likes" and re-Tweets is largely considered vacuous but becomes meaningful when confronted with the unbearable anonymity of a liquid society. If our In Real Life (IRL) communities fail to recognize us and we fail to look up from our devices long enough acknowledge one another, then the best assurances of our existence comes through the tally of mentions and likes. I am known, therefore I am. Revisiting the need to be seen as a kind of imperative social recognition in a column from 2014, Eco wryly contemplates the notion that "it's better to be a dishonest celebrity than an honest nonentity."
In his 2002 column "No It's Not Pollution, It's Impurities in the Air", Eco collects three pages of what he terms George W. Bush's "famous sayings" -- one-liners that reveal the former president's shortcomings, from "We want anybody who can find work to be able to find work," to "The problem with the French is they don't have a word for entrepreneur." One could also render a list of one-liners from Eco, but they are more likely to be wise in their wittiness: "History, written by husbands, condemns wives to anonymity," or, "But all places are now beginning to look like each other, and this, for once, is the real effect of globalization." And in commenting on some of his own areas of expertise: "Every time I return to the subject of the conspiracy syndrome I receive letters for indignant people who remind me that conspiracies actually exist. Of course they do." The section on conspiracies does not surprise this reader, who took too many months to finish Foucault's Pendulum, Eco's 1988 meandering yet gripping novel about conspiracy theories gone awry.
Chronicles of a Liquid Society is the kind of book that might best be read with access to a search engine close by: the reader is likely to find a historical event or person who piques one's interest, and Eco offers tremendous inspiration for getting lost down a variety of rabbit holes. The book invites two kinds of reading: the occasional quick read of a brief essay, or the sustained engagement with a singular intellect commenting on a breadth of cultural concerns. Either method is worthy of the reader's investment.