Ignorance, semiotics and perceptions

Watching a recent London National Theatre Australian performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time the blog was struck by the shock and stillness of Christopher, the main character, when he is told Sherlock Holmes is not real.

Now for those who haven’t seen the play, or read Mark Haddon’s book, you need to know that Christopher appears to readers and theatre audiences to suffer from Asperger’s even though Haddon is adamant that the book is not about Asperger’s, high functioning autism or savant syndrome but about ‘difference’. But when the blog saw the play’s Holmes scene it reminded it of a similar view of Sherlock Holmes in a recently posthumously-published book, Chronicles of a Liquid Society. That book was written by one of the blog’s favourite writers, Umberto Eco, who profoundly influenced the blog’s approach to PR.

Eco was a successful novelist, a professor, an essayist and an academic practitioner of semiotics. In much of his writing, not only about semiotics and signs, he explored questions about perceptions and it is arguable that PR is related to the management of perceptions and can draw on his theories, although obviously that won’t be terribly successful unless the perceptions are aligned with reality. The perception management concept has been so appealing that some years ago Burson Marsteller adopted it as a positioning device. Although when the blog asked the then BM Australian CEO at a conference whether the company was paying royalties to Eco it was obvious the CEO didn’t have a clue what the blog was talking about.

The Eco book content is largely drawn from his weekly L’Espresso columns while the title reflects Eco’s interest in Zygmunt Bauman’s idea of ‘liquid’ modernity or society. If you want to understand this it is worth reading Bauman’s State of Crisis or alternatively just look about you at the crisis in the concept of community; the collapse of ideologies and political parties; and, the belief that consumerism defines value.

But back to Holmes. In one of the early essays in the book Eco recounts that a UK survey showed that a quarter of Britons under the age of 20 thought Churchill, Gandhi and Dickens were imaginary characters while many of them thought Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood and Eleanor Rigby actually existed. Presumably those in the theatre who didn’t laugh or smile at Christopher’s reaction were empathising with him.

There are many other interesting facts, comments and ideas in the Eco book. For instance, given the thrust of many of his novels it is not surprising that one of the Eco essays is about conspiracies. Drawing on Georg Simmel’s essay The Sociology of Secrecy and Secret Societies  Eco concludes: “A paradoxical consequence: hidden behind every false conspiracy there’s perhaps a conspiracy by someone who stands to gain from presenting it as true.” The Eco essay was published in 2007 – anticipating by a decade Putin, Trump and others in the wilds of social media – but also highlighting the advantages diverse media and communication channels can have on informing people. Eco never forgot that mainstream mass media proprietors are not always committed to just the facts but also ideologies and economic interests -for instance see his last novel Numero Uno. And, whatever online and social media’s faults, imagine a world in which The Daily Mail and Murdoch publications were the main source of ‘news’.

Incidentally, Eco also has a provocative essay on monotheism and polytheism. It has often been said the countries which both have McDonald’s stores don’t fight wars but that notion has been thoroughly refuted in recent year – mainly because the US installed them throughout countries they recently ‘liberated’ – and which are now tearing themselves and others apart. However, the behaviour of followers of one god are different to that of followers of many according to Eco. Both Islam and Christianity have fought wars to impose one sole god on others. He concedes Jewish monotheism mounted wars but, according to the Bible, they were intended to secure land for a chosen people rather than to convert others. In contrast polytheistic societies don’t go to war to convert others to their polytheistic ways.

“With all this I don’t want to suggest that it’s more civilised to believe in the Great Spirit of the Prairie or the gods of the Yoruba than in the Holy Trinity or the Only God of whom Muhammad is the prophet. All I’m saying is that no-one has ever tried to conquer the world in the name of the Great Spirit…..Brazilian Candomble (gods)..…(or) Baron Samedi,” Eco said. There is a similar thought in Gore Vidal’s novel  Julian when the newly-enthroned Emperor calls in the Christian  bishops to inform them they were welcome to persecute other Christians, as they were wont to do, but not followers of the polytheistic gods.

And while on the subject of perception management Joe Aston and Myriam Robin had a recent AFR Rear Window piece (15 January 2018) on interesting twists in perception management by Newgate Communications and their efforts with Melbourne Lord Mayor, Robert Doyle, Ardent Leisure and Hellman & Friedman. Whatever the many benefits or otherwise of Newgate’s Doyle PR campaign,  the campaign did appear to result in the latest expenditure of Doyle’s office on alcohol for hospitality purposes – “skinfuls of it” according to Aston and Robin– being revealed. It also prompted a few former Doyle staffers to recount tales of Doyle’s long lunches. Perhaps these revelations explain why, as one ratepayer said to a meeting a while ago, Doyle does seem to have grown in the job.