Chronicles of a Liquid Society
by Umberto Eco
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on 11/14/2017
Genres: Essays, Nonfiction
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If I say Umberto Eco, I believe most of you will automatically think The Name of the Rose. Eco wrote many more smart and captivating novels, Foucault’s Pendulum for instance, or his latest Numero Zero. He also wrote many essays, for instance on language (see Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language for example).
And for several decades, he wrote a weekly column in the Italian weekly magazine L’Espresso. This posthumous collection, Chronicles of a Liquid Society, gathers together over 110 of these columns, on a large variety of topics. Eco prefaces his work by presenting these vignettes as “reflections on aspects of this ‘liquid society’ of ours”.
The title is based on the expression coined by Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017) in his work State of Crisis. According to this Polish sociologist and philosopher, in Eco’s words, “the crisis in the concept of community gives rise to unbridled individualism… a situation with no points of reference, where everything dissolves into a sort of liquidity.” To come to terms with this “liquidity”, one needs first to become aware that we are living in such a context, and then try to develop new instruments to overcome it.
I believe the goal of Eco’s collections of short essays on modern life, on society, on social media, on education, etc., is precisely to develop awareness in his readers.
I really enjoyed these deep and often witty reflections on the state of our current Western society. If several passages could give the impression that Eco is not too happy with modern development, they reveal that progress is not the culprit, the way we handle it is the problem. “Progress doesn’t necessarily involve going forward at all costs”.
I was totally fascinated by his analysis of social media and our desire to be seen and recognized, hence people trying to appear on the camera whenever they see a tv reporter around them, or the sickly propagation of the selfie obsession.
Eco argues this behavior stems from the fact that people no longer believe in God. When they believed there was a God, they knew at least there was One person who knew all about them. Take God away, and you enter into the “black hole of anonymity”. Thus you feel the need for people to see you, and you insist on your appearance, you constantly post pictures of your every new look.
Lots of his columns are related to social media, including the issue of privacy. “The question is whether people are really concerned about privacy”. These days, “it’s better to be a dishonest celebrity than an honest nonentity”. Public self-exposure seems to have become THE proficient proof of our social existence. And with his usual wit, Eco concludes:
“for the first time in the history of mankind, those who are being spied upon are helping the spies to make their work easier”.
When we think social media and the Internet, we have to think hacking.
“Clearly the more sophisticated technology becomes, the more it lends itself to acts of terrorism… This is a problem not just for the ordinary user, but also for those who ought to be monitoring data flow, including FBI agents, banks, and the Pentagon”.
Eco also connects the use of the Internet with education, and the fact that the government is planning to replace textbooks with material taken directly from the Internet. The problem is the absence of filters. “Not all Internet users are able to judge whether a site can be trusted”. This can me a major concern for education. “It’s a skill that’s hard to teach, since those who teach are often as unprepared as students”.
Besides, “education is about not only transmitting information but also teaching the criteria for selecting… Unless pupils are taught that culture is not accumulation but discrimination, then what they’re learning is not education but mental clutter”.
And along with education, he highlights how “people’s ideas even about the recent past are vague… At one time we had great interest in the past because there wasn’t much news about the present… In American culture this flattening of the past onto the present is viewed casually, there is a failure to use the experience of the past as a lesson for the present”.
To say the least, Eco is not too positive on the way humanity is going. This reflection on the average lifespan illustrates it pretty well:
“Many of the problems we face today result from the extension of the average lifespan. But the amazing fact, and the unresolved problem, is that they plan, if all goes well, to reach adulthood at forty, whereas their ancestors became adults at sixteen”.
Another issue he sees in our evolution is the fact that “new human beings are no longer used to living in nature… This is one of the greatest anthropological revolutions since the Neolithic Age”. Nowadays, children “live much of their lives in the virtual world. Writing with just the index finger rather than with the whole hand no longer stimulates the same neurons or the same cortical areas”.
Eco covers lots of other themes, including cell phones, the press, conspiracies (cf. his latest novel Numero Zero), the American Presidential election, global warming, the veil Halloween, a hilarious passage on meds, pornography, Europe, racism, death, violence, terrorism. In regards to the Paris attacks, he writes:
Paris is a place that many of us think of as home, because real cities and fictional cities merge in our memory, as if both were a part of us, or as if we had lived in both.
There are of course several essays on books.
I found this passage hilarious and to the point. It also annoys me when I’m asked that same question by another book blogger:
“The other day an interviewer asked me, as many do, which book has had the greatest influence on my life. If, over the course of my entire life, just one book had influenced me more than any other, I’d be an idiot”.
I once wrote an article complaining about the disturbing practice in movies and television series of showing couples in bed who, before going to sleep, (i) have sex, (ii) argue, (iii) she says she has a headache, and (iv) they turn away from each other reluctantly and go to sleep. Never, I repeat never, does either of them read a book. And then we complain that people, whose behavior is modeled on television, never read.
Ideally every text should be read twice, first to know what is said, second to appreciate how it is said, and from there to obtain the full aesthetic enjoyment.
In this section, I also noted the reference to the site by Zvi Har’El who collected all there is about Jules Verne!
VERDICT: Deep and witty reflections on the current state of our Western society. Things are not too bright, but reading this book could be the first step towards awareness and the search for solutions.