Public Intellectual Umberto Eco

Umberto EcoThe great writer and philosopher Umberto Eco is 83 years old today. Last year, when I marked his birthday, I talked about his novel, The Name of the Rose. And I said then what I will say now: it is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. It is rare that I think a novel is too short. I never wanted it to stop. If you have not read it, I highly recommend it. And if you’ve seen the film of the same name, don’t let that stop you. It is fun enough, I suppose. And it is probably as good a rendering of the book as could be had on the screen. But the book is something else completely.

But it is probably best to think of Eco as a public intellectual — the sort of person that the United States has largely turned against. I highly recommend his essays. A year and a half ago, I quoted from his essay “Censorship and Silence” in his book, Inventing the Enemy. It is more true than ever: the way that we censor today is not by forbidding the truth but by drowning it out with nonsense. Fox News is the king of this, but more important, it is true of the media establishment writ large. Here is Umberto Eco on the issue:

Noise becomes a cover. I would say that the ideology of the censorship through noise can be expressed, with apologies to Wittgenstein, by saying, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must talk a great deal.” The flagship TG1 news program on Italian state television, for example, is a master of this technique, full of news items about calves born with two heads and bags snatched by petty thieves — in other words, the sort of minor stories papers used to put low on an inside page — which now serve to fill up three-quarters of an hour of information, to ensure we don’t notice other news stories they ought to have covered have not been covered. Several months ago, the press controlled by Berlusconi, in order to undermine the authority of a magistrate who criticized the premier, followed him for days, reporting that he sat smoking on a bench, went to the barber, and wore turquoise socks. To make a noise, you don’t have to invent stories. All you have to do is report a story that is real but irrelevant, yet creates a hint of suspicion by the simple fact that it has been reported. It is true and irrelevant that the magistrate wears turquoise socks, but the fact it has been reported creates a suggestion of something not quite confessed, leaving a mark, an impression. Nothing is more difficult to dispose of than an irrelevant but true story.

Happy birthday Umberto Eco!

See also: The Art of the Opening.

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