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There is a more radical way of thinking about war: in merely formal terms, in terms of internal consistency, by reflecting on its conditions of possibility – the conclusion being that you cannot make war because the existence of a society based on instant information, rapid transport, and continuous intercontinental migration, allied to the nature of the new technologies of war, has made war impossible and irrational. War is in contradiction with the very reasons for which it is waged.
If you have ever read The Name of the Rose perhaps you remember the passage when the character William of Baskerville explains to his young companion that the Latin language only survived the Dark Ages courtesy of Irish monks, who preserved what they could of it, along with numerous religious texts. Of course they could not retain the entirety of the language itself, so Umberto Eco alleges, the Irish invented it.
My people made up Latin. I do not care if that is not true – I love the anecdote.
This collection of essays represents some of Eco’s philosophical work, as opposed to his scholarly fictional novels. The theme of the pieces is broadly moralistic, with discussions of the 1991 Gulf War, the Italian press and a definition of fascism, taken from a speech given to an audience at Columbia University on 25 April 1995.
There is also an exchange with a Jesuit cardinal on the nature of God that draws heavily on Eco’s own personal reflections on religion. Eco’s warm and quizzical tone in the letter reveals a man more interested in the flow of the debate, than in achieving victory. While he has broken from his Catholic faith, he admits to still experiencing a shock of blasphemy when he witnesses a failure to abide by the strictures of faith in others. This is an admission of how much his Christian background informs his worldview, regardless of his own development as a thinker. He proposes to his correspondent Carlo Mario Martini a thought experiment. What if an alien species were to observe the human race arrive at the creation of a fictional Jesus Christ and live according to principals of compassion and love on the basis of that conception. Would that not justify the role of religion, despite existing in a universe that was an ‘accident’, of creation without any divine presence?
His assessment of the Italian media points out that politics and television have developed an increasingly close relationship, where the pursuit of soundbites and closely managed personalities have replaced the desire for factual investigation. He traces the emergence of televised media in Italy, its influence on the political arena, with Silvio Berlusconi particular symptomatic of the new order. He even predicts the role the internet could play in individual households, encouraging an insularity in its users that would remove any interest in a broader understanding in current affairs:
But a homemade paper could say only what users are interested in, and would cut them off from a flow of potentially stimulating information, judgements, and alerts; it would rob them of the chance to pick up, leafing through the rest of a conventional newspaper, unexpected or undesired news.
Eco’s assessment of the changing face of war bears almost more relevance today than it did during the 1991 conflict in the Gulf. I am reminded of how when the second invasion of Iraq by allied forces began, all of Bill Hicks’ early nineties material was funny again. His writing on the media proliferation, with managed coverage of the conflict versus the fracturing of war narratives due to multiple sources of media, feels prophetic in the present day era of uncensored video clips on youtube, or the multiplicities of websites with wildly divergent views on the war. Eco’s take on this is far more accessible to a general readership than, say Jean Baudrillard‘s The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.
His paper on the history of fascism is fascinating in how he defines what Italian fascism was not, drawing once again upon his own childhood growing up in Mussolini‘s Italy. While it shared with other totalitarian systems certain traits, such as the cult-worship of a dictator, Italian fascism, Eco insists, had no distinct philosophy, merely endless triumphalist rhetoric. What he terms Ur-Fascism is in fact a rejection of the values of The Enlightenment, embracing irrationalism.
Eco’s writing is both personable and not overly erudite, edifying the reader, while also charming. A fantastic introduction to the Italian philosopher.