1986, Books

Travels in Hyperreality (1986) by Umberto Eco

This is a collection of what appear to be pieces primarily written for Italian newspapers. (However some of the pieces in the latter sections appear too academic for newspapers.) It is kind of scattershot, with pretty brief pieces and longer pieces, on all sorts of topics of concern to Italians in the 1970s and ’80s.

“Travels in Hyper Reality” is a fascinating essay on American museums, theme parks and, briefly, televangelists. It’s quite funny but it is also pretty dated at his point, describing a USA that existed nearly 50 years ago. (Some of these places have long closed.) It would be interesting to learn what Eco would have thought about the new spins on these types of things now, including how big Disney World has gotten. I’m sure he would have had a lot to say.

I guess “Dreaming of the Middle Ages” is moderately fascinating. He does nail a few silly ways of thinking about the world, as he often does. It’s brief and I’m not sure his framing really captures a lot but I wasn’t alive.

But “Living in the Middle Ages” is among the worst things of his I’ve ever read. It feels scattershot and carless and, worse, I detect so many cliches that I continually hear now, in this era. Now, it’s possible this was ironic or whatever on Eco’s part, but it doesn’t come off like that.

“The Sacred is Not Just Fashion” is more compelling, though brief and not entirely correct. It’s still a reasonably compelling read.

“The Suicides of the Temple” does read as a little unsympathetic. It has the aura of an expert going on Twitter and saying “I know this stuff happens all the time because in my discipline we’re aware of history, unlike everyone else.” But I still think he’s on to something here, not just in terms of the recurrence of these types of cults but in how people process their reactions. I’m just not sure this failure is particular to Americans.

I think his insight in “Whose Side are the Orixa On?” is interesting and actually kind of prescient. What happens when these types of religions are gentrified? Where do the earlier believers go?

Though “Striking at the Heart of the State” has obviously dated I do feel like there are a few fundamental insights here as to the nature of the people who attracted to terrorism and other extreme courses. Well, in this and “Why are They Laughing in Those Cages?” which feel like very much related pieces. I’m listening to Revolutions right now and his comment about the Nationalism in Argentina could apply to the communists at the start of WWI. There will always be people like this, attracted to extremism, and when one form goes out of fashion, or is replaced, they will just go to another.

“On the Crisis of the Crisis of Reason” makes the good point that people are constantly fretting about how we think about the world without, perhaps, realizing about how much previous generations fretted about the same thing.

I don’t know communications theory at all but I appreciate “Towards a Semilogical Guerilla Warfare” and I feel like it makes some good points. (I do not know, really, the people he critiques, so all of this could be unoriginal.) I will say his desire to be playful does undercut his message here and elsewhere. But that’s par for the course.

“The Multiplication of the Media” seems extremely prescient at times but, like so much of this collection, lacks rigour.

“Culture as Show Business” is very much a reaction to something contemporary. Yes, it’s a common refrain in many societies, and Eco is right to criticize it, but because the reader doesn’t know the specific thing he is reacting to, it’s kind of hard to really appreciate this.

He’s not wrong about certain fandoms in “Sports Chatter.” Once again I wonder what he would think about things today.

“The World Cup and its Pomps” is funny, like much of this collection, and I think does capture something essential about sports fandom and people’s priorities in general. He often does a better job of his final lines than the pieces on the whole (at least as translated).

“Falsification and Consensus” makes some interesting, prescient comments about the nature of the modern state, even if it gets a little too conspiratorial at times.

I have nothing much to say about “Two Families of Objects.” It is brief, it references something I have little experience of.

Knowing little of Italian pop music, I have nothing much to say about “Lady Barbara” except that I suspect what he considers “ugly” in music is a lot prettier than what I might consider “ugly.”

Not knowing of what I speak – theories of fashion and clothing – “Lumbar Thought” is a really interesting piece on how clothing affects thinking. I suspect it’s not original and I suspect feminists might view it as retrograde, even back then. But I don’t think about things this way so it opened my mind.

“Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage” is particularly interesting given the current status of Casablanca as one of the Great Movies of All Time. Eco appears to dislike it but it turns out he just doesn’t think it’s narratively conventional. His ideas about cult movies are interesting. I once again wonder what he would have thought about 21st century fandoms – I think he’d have a lot to say. But I also don’t know if I’d ever want to review a film with someone trained in semiotics, I suspect it would take days. I might have been into it in my 20s.

“A Photograph” is about something I don’t know anything about. Contrary to Eco’s belief, I had never seen it before and had to look it up. But what he has to say about images is certainly true.

This brings us to the most academic part of the book, the least accessible of the pieces.

“Cogito Interruptus” is about two books I have never read, though I’m a little bit familiar with the work of the latter. Despite not having read these books, I find Eco’s discussion of the two books quite interesting, as I have absolutely encountered imprecise books like these in my life.

The same is true, to some extent, of “Language, Power, Force” – I have never read these remarks from Barthes and I’ve read other Foucault, just not what Eco cites here. But I do find the discussion interesting and I suspect I would have found it extra interesting when I was reading more of these types of pieces back when I was in school. (I’d also have more to say!)

I haven’t read Thomas Aquinas in 18 years so at least some of “In Praise of St. Thomas” was lost on me, though certainly no all of it. I did find it kind of amusing and I feel like I probably would have agreed with much of this 18 years ago. Though, who knows? I will say it’s so weird to me to imagine living in a country where a secular philosopher is asked to write something on the anniversary of a saint. Just odd.

I’m not sure how much “The Comic and the Rule” would hold up to serious analysis but I found it thought-provoking enough. It would be interesting to watch a debate between Eco and either a standup or sketch comedian on this topic. (Or even a writer of comedies.)

I have not seen the film at the centre of “The Difficulty of Being Marco Polo” but I do find Eco’s approach both interesting and also kind of infuriating. It’s good to be aware of how other people will see something about their culture. It is, on the other hand, not good at all to appease censors in the name of cultural understanding when all you’re really doing is acquiescing to making a propaganda film.

I was born 14 years after Expo ’67 and have never been to any kind of thing remotely like a World’s Fair, unless you count Epcot, as they have fallen out of favour. So what Eco has to say in “A Theory of Expositions” is at least somewhat lost on me, at least the practical side of it. The theory of it makes some sense but I have no idea if I would agree.

To me, the travel stuff was probably the most worthwhile for me personally, though I found most of it interesting and, more importantly, funny. One thing I can say for Eco in these pieces is at least he tries to entertain (even when he is referring to things it’s hard to imagine the average Italian newspaper reader of the1970s knew well). That attempt to entertain absolutely undercuts his arguments at times but I don’t think he was necessarily trying to persuade academics with many of these.

Because of how dated so much of it is, I’d say this is only for fans of Eco or people interested in communications/semiotics/media. (Though a few of the pieces are of interest for broader audiences interested in travel or what have you.)


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