Seeing Through the Eyes of a Semiologist: A Tribute to Umberto Eco
Many of Eco's observations read true in our hyperkinetic era of the Internet, the experience economy, the Disneyfication of entertainment, and the mega blockbuster.
An advert for a microbrew on a rusty metal placard, like a license plate on a garage wall boasting the wear and tear of highway miles logged or some nostalgic slice of Americana from a bygone era hanging in a last chance gas station, but the microbrew is only a couple years old and the sign is brand new.
This was my introduction to semiotics, the study of signs and symbols as elements of communication, not limited to language, literature, or design, but all of the above and more. Fashion, architecture, body language, gesture; the entire code of culture, natural and unnatural. The design of the placard made to evoke a nostalgia for an American past promised in the homebrewed bottle.
Reading the sign in this way was a nigh-spiritual experience, if only briefly, because it provided a window into understanding beyond what most were seeing and what I had previously known. This lesson has stayed with me since grad school; more than most of the lectures I sat through, books I read, or classes I’d taken. The Professor who provided this extracurricular education for me outside the text studied in Milan and spent time with Umberto Eco. He would introduce me to Eco’s work and change my life.
In February, Umberto Eco -- novelist, semiologist, academic, philosopher, and essayist -- passed away at 84. In the years since grad school, Eco has become a hero of mine; this column, Simulacra Beat, was completely inspired by his work. He saw cultural analysis as political action. “I look at the world through the eyes of a semiologist... I try to interpret and to help others interpret some ‘signs’,” he writes in the introduction to Travels in Hyperreality, adding, “I believe that it is my political duty... I believe it is my job as a scholar and a citizen to show how we are surrounded by 'messages,' products of political power, of economic power, of the entertainment industry and the revolution industry, and to say that we must know how to analyze and criticize them.”
Eco grew up in Italy under Mussolini’s fascist rule and came of age during the American liberation of the country. It's not surprising that he would forge his identity out of the contrast of these contradictory lenses and use this political calling as a mission to drive his scholarly pursuits.
He wrote novels as well from “the eyes of a semiologist” informed by the observations of cultural tumult from his youth. His prose is complicated and dense, yet precisely crafted, often poetic, always multilayered. Every word has weight to it. Every sentence, rhythm. Each paragraph a quality to be savored.
While he is best known for The Name of the Rose, which catapulted him to literary stardom, he wrote seven novels in total, including: Foucault's Pendulum,The Island of the Day Before, Baudolino, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, The Prague Cemetery, and Numero Zero. Four of his novels, Foucault's Pendulum, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, The Prague Cemetery, and Numero Zero are satirical meditations on the elements of fascism through various lenses.
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is most overtly personal, explicitly drawing on Eco’s childhood memories, while his Foucault's Pendulum, The Prague Cemetery, and Numero Zero are satirical meditations on the elements of fascism. These latter three deal primarily with the political bankruptcy of conspiracy theory, something fascism as a philosophy relies on to support its existence. Eco contends this elsewhere in his essay on UR Fascism (or eternal fascism), which will be explored in part two of this essay.
His novels were not just narratives, but incantations giving access to another world, which is to say they were magical. He is difficult to read. At times his meaning nearly impossible to comprehend at first blush. His descriptive prose layering upon itself in such a way that you have to return to the beginning of a sentence and make the journey to its end, again, to fully understand it. It takes effort, but when you could truly unpack its meaning you are richer for it.
Reading Eco did not just make me want to be a better writer, reading Eco made me a better writer.
Travels in Hyperreality, a collection of essays, was the first thing I’d read by him. I was researching realism and fictionality in American culture (some topics stay with you, I suppose) for the post modern lit class I mentioned earlier and was immediately taken. I shared Eco’s untethered, unfettered, broad reaching pop cultural and literary interests: comic books, ancient Medieval texts, philosophy, pop music, literature, mainstream novels, television, radio.
Eco seemed to try and absorb it all in a way I found relentlessly inspired and inspiring. He once claimed, “The person who doesn't read lives only one life. The reader lives 5,000. Reading is immortality backwards.” It is a one of my favorite all-time quotes and evokes a notion that The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana tinkers with as its protagonist can recall no personal details of his life after suffering a stroke, but can remember everything that he has ever read.
Throughout the collection of essays, Eco finds a way to consider a cultural nostalgia for the Middle Ages, often fantastical in its reimagining as a reflection and refraction of our current social-political and historical period in the West. An observation as relevant today with the popularity of Game of Thrones and The Hobbit franchise as it was when he first wrote it in 1987. He further explores secret Afro-Brazilian cults in the outskirts of Sao Paulo; considers the Superman of comics, of films, and of Nietzsche in varying light; creates an elaborate formula for identifying cult films and contemplates how blue jeans can shape thought.
Travels in Hyperreality in particular became a Rosetta Stone, Enigma Machine, and Ovaltine-branded decoder ring rolled in one. In the central essay, Eco traverses the US in search of the edges of realism discovering how America’s preoccupation with constant reinvention, with making its history new again, plays out in its fetishization of the fictional. Eco’s search (as with many of the meditations in the book) reads almost as a sacred quest. Finding meaning in the genuinely sublime and mundane; seeking significance in the ordinary and the spiritual.
I have revisited the book a dozen times in the years since I was in school. It became a lens through which I could reunderstand, reinterpret my world, my culture again for the first time. I keep an excel spreadsheet of all the sites referenced in the essays, including their current status (many have long since closed) and a corresponding Google map.
Written between 1967 and 1982, many of his meditations are simultaneously as insightfully relevant as when they were written and provide a revelatory window to view a present-day context. Rather than being an antiquated philosophical timecapsule, many of his observations read even truer in the hyperkinetic era of the Internet, the experience economy, Disneyfication of entertainment, and the omnipresence of the mega blockbuster.
In the same way understanding a microbrew advertisement provided a spiritual insight for me, if only by showing a deeper knowledge beneath the surface, Eco spent his life seeking meaning in the every day in a way that provided deeper insight. It's not just to find understanding, but truth, or true meaning, where reality and belief coincide, which itself has a sacred quality. Religion is composed of signs and symbols layered over the human experience of the sacred. Eco, throughout his writing, taught that the experience of the sacred could be traced, if not found, in virtually all the signs and symbols of humanity.