It is always a sad day when one of your favourite authors dies. No more books (perhaps a posthumous one completed by a colleague and for some a collected works) and as a result no more of that frisson of anticipation you feel when you hear of the author’s forthcoming new book.
It is a doubly sad day when it is Umberto Eco whose work as a cultural critic has regularly informed the blog’s work as a communicator; whose novels are endlessly satisfying; and whose essays are constantly thought provoking. Talking about his work in 1986 (all dates are first English publication) when Faith in Fakes was published Eco said: “My way of being involved in politics consists of telling others how I see daily life, political events, the language of the mass media, sometimes the way I look at a movie. I believe it is my job as a scholar and 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 analyse them.”
Faith in Fakes, a collection of essays, includes a number of essays around the concept of Travels in Hyperreality which basically concerns how the fake becomes more real to the consumer than the real – whether it be Disneyland, Lyndon Johnson’s Presidential Library or Fishermen’s’ Wharf in San Francisco. The implication for consumers is that the key to communication is the manipulation of perception. Indeed, for a while Burson Marsteller was promoting itself as the experts in perception management because perception was reality. When the then Australian CEO outlined this great conceptual breakthrough at a PRIA Conference in Adelaide the blog couldn’t help asking whether they were paying royalties to Umberto Eco. The reply: “who?” Of course the blog itself has been guilty of talking about PR as an essentially postmodern pursuit but has tried to keep its tongue in its cheek while doing so.
In the essays in Apocalypse Postponed (1994) Eco analysed the Royal Wedding which had been designed, he said, less for religious reasons than for television – even down to giving the horses medication to “guarantee dung of telegenic colouring” – in which the “event was born as fundamentally ‘fake’ from the start, ready for filming. London was arranged as a studio, constructed for television.” He then compares and contrasts this with the way football is now televised. In Faith in Fakes, in the essay Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare, Eco expounds one of the most comprehensible explanations of how semiotics enables us to examine communication chains and how messages are received. In the same essay, in discussing Marshall McLuhan, Eco says: “What makes the newspaper something to fear is not (or at least is not only) the economic power that runs it. The newspaper was already defined as a medium for conditioning public opinion when the first gazettes came into being.”
Of course, Eco was not only a polymath and amazing thinker. He was a great novelist. While Name of the Rose was the most successful it is interesting to note Eco’s wisdom after he had sold the film rights. He was asked what he thought of the film and replied that what he thought was irrelevant because the film was based on a palimpsest. The text of the book was erased and a new text was created upon it – different media different story. Similarly the blog couldn’t help thinking while watching the Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Ladies in Black (based on Madeline St John’s great book) how successfully it caught the book’s nuances while using it as a palimpsest for the hilarious song ‘he’s a bastard’ which had everybody in the audience (most obviously the women) roaring with laughter and applauding. The blog’s favourite Eco novel though is Foucault’s Pendulum (1986) a mystery thriller involving a complicated plot in which more and more hermetic texts are fed into a computer. It is both intellectually challenging and very funny and should be read by everyone interested in thrillers and hermetic counter-cultural nonsense.
Another interesting Eco sideline was the epistolary exchange with Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, published as Belief or Non-Belief (1996), which roamed over ethics, apocalyptic thinking, abortion and other topics. We now know that Cardinal Martini might have succeeded John Paul II as Pope but declined even though the coalition that supported him was the coalition which later got Pope Francis elected. Martini was the Archbishop of Milan and came to Australia briefly where his lectures and presentations got amazing responses (even from a convinced atheist like the blog). Eco’s final novel, Numero Uno, was published last year and, despite mixed reviews, is a remarkable evocation of contemporary Italian politics, media and society. Think Swift with more subtlety.
In one of those coincidences which confuse us (and others like Arthur Koestler) and encourage our mind to make false connections the blog was thinking of Eco in Brisbane recently where it was presenting some Master Classes. The context was a discussion of trust raised by one of the participants and which prompted the blog to talk about a concept it had written about many years before – that the ultimate aim of communication is to build trust but to do that organisations need to aspire to authenticity and practise transparency. A few days later, hearing about Eco’s death from cancer at 84, the blog was reminded that the thoughts about trust, authenticity and transparency had been prompted by Eco’s discussion of fakes and reality. The blog, of course, never actually contradicts Eco in this respect because it follows up the discussion of trust and authenticity with a paraphrase of the great Marxist (Groucho’s) comment that all you need to succeed is honesty and sincerity and when you learn to fake those you’ve got it made.
In another coincidence, also while in Brisbane, the blog noticed in a magazine that one of the Master Class dates, February 18, was the 500th anniversary of the birth of Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary) and thus the beginning of a period in which 280 people were publicly burnt at the stake. It should be said, as the historian Eamon Duffy reminds us, that Elizabeth probably did away with a similar number but in the depths of the Tower and its dungeons even if the victims were terrorist plotters, spies and potential assassins rather than simple religious dissidents. The relevance to communication? Bloody Mary’s pogroms were the inspiration for what is perhaps one of the most influential pieces of propaganda ever written in English, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, with its moving descriptions of scenes such as Archbishop Cranmer’s March 21 1556 recantation and his courage in putting the hand that had signed a false confession to the flame first.