War and Peace has been considered a classic in world literature for 150 years and it famously transcended genres in an inventive and widely influentiaWar and Peace has been considered a classic in world literature for 150 years and it famously transcended genres in an inventive and widely influential manner. It has been read, adored and/or loathed by millions. Unsurprisingly, I won’t be adding anything original to the body of extant criticism about this novel, but I nevertheless feel like recording some of my thoughts and personal responses as a reader. I suppose that in itself is some indication of the emotional and intellectual potency this book still carries.
A lot of commentary, contemporary and in the intervening years since its 1869 publication, focuses on the form of the work, trying to define what in fact this giant book is: a novel or history or some third (or fourth) thing. Tolstoy himself was unwilling to pin it down, which I think should possibly serve as an object lesson to us all. It is both and neither at once. It contains fictional characters experiencing historic events and historic people uttering fictional sentences. The work has a narrative arc, a cast of thousands, subplots and pacing that are novelistic (even cinematic) in character. But it also contains minutely detailed reconstructions of battles from the Napoleonic Wars, meditations on military strategy and the nature of violence, and philosophical treatises on the nature of historical inquiry, historical knowledge, and man’s place within history.
For my taste and personal Bildung as a reader and history nerd, Tolstoy’s thoughts on historical philosophy were most enjoyable and startling. Though he peppers the whole book with his philosophical, indeed historiographical observances, it is in the second Epilogue that he really lays everything out. I believe I am exaggerating only mildly when I assert that in this Epilogue he prefigures most of the main strains, fluctuations and epistemological problems presented by historiographical thought in the last 150 years. That is, in one tidy set of chapters crowning this already unbelievably ambitious and detailed work, Tolstoy foresaw the basic ebb and flow of western theories of history for the next century and a half.
He did not use historiographical jargon, but in his musings one can trace criticisms of structuralism, of the “Great Man” theory, of materialism, of Eurocentrism, of theories of power, and various kinds of determinism. Tolstoy asked himself the same giant questions historians (and many, many thinkers) ask themselves. What or who is the driver of history?
It seems to me that War and Peace in its entirety is Tolstoy’s best answer to that question. He (along with an army of social historians who would not gain widespread prominence for almost 50 years) rejects the idea that “Great Men” power historical change. His constant panning between domestic scenes and war scenes, between fictionalized action and historically-rendered action, between the micro and the macro of human events, demonstrates clearly his utter rejection of any ultimate importance of the actions of leaders, geniuses or any other Great Men. In fact, he explicitly states that of all people those who appear to exercise the most control over major events, those ostensibly at the center of history, are often the most bound, almost fated, to make the decisions they do and end up exercising much less willful control over any single situation.
However, Tolstoy also rejects the idea that the masses determine history. He considers the form of the power “the people” possess, and whether they do or do not give it, more or less willingly, to leaders who do or do not exercise it according to their will. Through his interrogation of this idea, we see what a whimsical idea it is to even discuss “the people” as one whole, let alone to imagine we can discern their will in a uniformly meaningful way or how it affects (or does not affect) those in power. Likewise, and through similarly reasoned arguments derived from logical consideration of written history, Tolstoy discounts God as the prime mover of historical causality. Moreover, in a way that presages Derrida’s deconstructionism, Tolstoy quite dismantles many historians’ common assumptions about power and historical change by using their own concepts and logic to question their arguments. In most cases, he seems to be unearthing mere tautologies and circles of thought.
Like any really dexterous mind, ultimately he arrives at the unsatisfying but invariably true conclusion that there is no single answer. History is driven by the constant, fluid, traceable but unpredictable interaction of the people with their leaders, of the micro and macro, of accident and purposefulness. History encompasses all things and, like War and Peace, is not any one thing…except compelling. ...more
As the full title, Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes's Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited, intimates, before beginning this book soAs the full title, Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes's Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited, intimates, before beginning this book some prior reading, namely Julian Jaynes, is advisable if not precisely necessary. Jaynes was a gifted and sincere academic who distrusted the strictures institutions place on human thought. In keeping with this attitude, he crafted his referenced opus by accessing a half dozen academic disciplines and paying little professional attention to the reception his theories might receive. Jaynes, exceedingly rare among academics, wrote what he thought and not simply what he thought would bring him professional success (which, incidentally, he eschewed in favor of pursuing the studies he wished to pursue, as opposed to the studies that would secure his career - he taught at Harvard, but never pursued tenure). He was a unique man who developed a unique theory worth revisiting. You can read a dozen people summarize Jaynes' ideas about consciousness and his bicameral mind theory, but nothing replaces reading Jaynes himself. Not only is he a clear and engaging writer, but it helps to read his own lucid and unfailingly sane authorial voice in order to take seriously his ideas that many consider "out there".
In 1976, Julian Jaynes published the strange and daring The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. In this work, Jaynes blends historical, linguistic, literary, neurological and psychological research in order to propose his unique theory of human consciousness. I find the preponderance of Jaynes' evidence in support of his thesis (or, more appropriately, theses) compelling, but cannot recreate his wealth of evidence here. Rather, I will sketch his arguments. To believe or to intelligently disbelieve his arguments, one really needs to read this book for oneself. As elucidated broadly by Marcel Kuijsten and only reordered slightly by me, Jaynes' theories can be separated into four main hypotheses which may stand more or less alone*: (1) Consciousness Based on Language; (2) The Dating of Consciousness; (3) The Bicameral Mind Theory; and (4) Jaynes' Neurological Model.** I will use these same categories in discussing Jaynes' theories.
(1) Consciousness Based on Language
Jaynes argues that "consciousness" is a linguistic space created by metaphorical language in which a person introspects upon an analog "I". In other words, consciousness pertains only to the act of regarding one's interiorized self via introspection. For Jaynes consciousness is a linguistic game, one centered around the metaphorical selves we create in order to evaluate hypothetical situations without having to act in real world situations. Much cognition we habitually attribute to consciousness actually occurs outside of consciousness by Jaynes' definition. He believes that learning and even reasoning do not necessarily involve consciousness. He provides many examples of activities we generally assume require consciousness (bike riding, piano playing, etc.), but establishes that, in fact, consciousness often hinders performance of these complex tasks. He observes that mindstate vocabulary and other words used to describe interior mental states actually derive from real physical-world vocabulary and are only applied metaphorically to mental states. E.g., To see, to grasp, and to apprehend all refer initially to actions we take in the physical world with our bodies. They only metaphorically refer to mental activity -- or more precisely, to our subjective introspected experience of some portion of our mental activity.
Now, this idea of consciousness as a linguistic metaphor, or metaphorical activity, is difficult enough for many to accept. As experiencers of consciousness, we use it to mediate all aspects of our relationship to the physical world. It seems so natural and ubiquitous that we usually categorize consciousness alongside capacities like our senses of sight or smell - things hardwired into our biology. Neurobiologists seek consciousness by studying the brain. Jaynes himself began looking for signs of consciousness by studying animal behavior before he alit on the idea that consciouness had more to do with language than it did with physiology or cognition. To accept Jaynes' idea of consciousness as a metaphorically crafted mindspace, we must also accept that the seat of our very sense of self is a cultural adaptation and not innate to us. We are taught consciousness and achieve this weird feat only through recourse to our highly complex language systems. That is, consciousness is cultural.
(2) The Dating of Consciousness
Jaynes argues that consciousness developed only 3,000 to 2,500 years ago. He arrived at this general timeframe by studying a variety of classical period writings and religious practices. As an armchair student of history familiar with the literature and practices he mentions, I found this portion of his argument most compelling. I guess biologists have a hard time believing such sweeping behavioral change could have occurred among biologically modern humans so recently, but again, if consciousness is cultural and not physiological, this shift would not seem quite so unbelievably drastic. Moreover, if the development of consciousness did occur when Jaynes says it did, many religious practices and changes in literature would be instantly explained. But why religious practices? Well, the answer to that question leads to the final pill so many cannot swallow with regard to Jaynes' theory, namely the mindstate which Jaynes asserts predated consciousness.
(3) The Bicameral Mind Theory
Jaynes argues that prior to consciousness, human beings inhabited a bicameral mindstate. Instead of using consciousness to introspect during stressful situations and, in this metaphorical mindspace, to decide what action to take, bicameral human beings solved problems and performed other types of cognition without consciousness of doing so. Their decisions and solutions issued from the brain's right hemisphere in a manner experienced by the left hemisphere as auditory hallucinations. Bicameral men and women interpreted these voices as those of gods and ancestors telling them what to do. They obeyed the voices without question. In strictly hierarchical societies like Homeric Greece, each individual's "voices" did not likely conflict with any other's. Authority was obvious and agreed upon (think of an ant colony). Interestingly, even in modern, conscious humans who experience auditory hallucinations, hallucinated voices are usually hortatory, difficult to disobey and are often interpreted as belonging to authority figures, dead relatives or to god. If auditory hallucinations tend to take this form in humans, little wonder bicameral people would tend to hear the same voices as one another, tend to attribute them to the same authority figures and, in essence, to create religion.
(4) Jaynes' Neurological Model
In 1976, neuroscience was a young field and Jaynes had only a few studies with which to work. My understanding of neurology and the brain is much weaker than my understanding of language or history, so I will not attempt to explain his thoughts. However, in the last 30 years, according to Kuijsten and several of the other authors in Reflections, neurological research has tended to support Jaynes' predictions about how the two hemispheres of the brain work and interact, such that the brain could function bicamerally, i.e., could create the hallucinated voices he postulated in The Origin of Consciousness.
In general, Reflections offers much to bolster support for Jaynes. The contributing authors come from a variety of fields, study vastly different topics, and some only adopt Jaynes' theories in part, but each and every one finds something inspiring if not rather nagging in his research - something that will not leave them alone with regard to their own studies. They must contend with Jaynes.
John Hamilton explores the experience of auditory hallucinations among quadriplegics who cannot speak. He supports Jaynes' hypothesis concerning how hallucinations function. He also supports Jaynes' belief that a broader section of humans experience auditory hallucinations than was previously thought.*** Jan Sleutels logically dissects counter arguments to Jaynes' bicameral mind theory to demonstrate that it is possible. (This sounds small, but so many scholars will not even do Jaynes the respect of properly grappling with his theories.) Brian J. McVeigh evaluates what Jaynsean theory can say about problems of the self, volition and agency. Michael Carr examines Chinese paleography of specific words relating to an ancient religious ritual and finds that changes in the words and ritual, over time, corroborate not only bicamerality itself, but the dating of Jaynes' bicameral-consciousness shift.
Reflections, like The Origin of Consciousness, makes for intensely fascinating reading. However, many questions remain unanswered. If related to language and writing, how exactly did the bicameral-consciousness shift occur? What risk do we run of dehumanizing those who do not share our mindstate if ancient people truly behaved more like ants or automata -- or, conversely, how can we use this knowledge to expand our idea of what it means to be human? What is the connection between the shift to consciousness and written language (for Jaynes asserts there is one)? If consciousness is cultural and the shift to it from bicamerality only gradual, as Jaynes describes, are there not still bicameral or partially bicameral peoples living today - say, any group that did not develop a written language, an uncontacted tribe in the Amazon or elsewhere?
And this seems to me the most important concern - that, if bicamerality really existed (and still exists), we must fight our very human urge to hierarchize "stages" of human "development" such that bicamerality falls unfailingly beneath consciousness on a progressive ladder of mindstates, in much the same way some misunderstand evolution to represent progress as opposed to adaptive change. Jaynes places no such valuations on these mindstates, but many of his detractors treat his theories as though prejudice and a sense of superiority inhere in them. I believe they are criticizing what they bring to the table rather than what Jaynes does. They presume consciousness has been some great gift to humanity and is clearly a superior state of being. I, for one, am not so convinced.
*Although if placed side by side and read with some credulity, it is hard not to feel as though Julian Jaynes were explaining to you the most intractable mysteries of human history in one fell swoop. This is partially why he is so compelling - if he is even half correct, so many various and sundry historical questions are answered. **These are Kuijsten's section headings in his essay contribution to Reflections, "Consciousness, Hallucinations and the Bicameral Mind: Three Decades of New Research". ***Which vestigal evidence of bicamerality one would expect if it were a mindstate persisting up until a couple of thousand years ago. ...more
Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe is not a work for the casual reader. Hayden White's opus requires some commitmentMetahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe is not a work for the casual reader. Hayden White's opus requires some commitment and some work. It is lengthy and there is a lot of jargon to wade through. While jargon in a work of history often seems to substitute for original or even simply interesting thought, White's project is complex enough that the jargon is warranted. It effectively becomes shorthand for very complicated ideas so that the reader can follow White has he builds his arguments and he does not need to restate himself at every turn.
Essentially, White examines eight nineteenth-century authors (four historians and four "philosophers of history") in order to dissect their works and discern the literary premises upon which they constructed their narratives. I will attempt to paraphrase his project and I will not half do it justice. White examined the works of G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Benedetto Croce, Jules Michelet, Leopold von Ranke, Alexis de Tocqueville and Jacob Burckhardt. In doing so, he paid special attention to what he called the poetic "trope" each author used to characterize their narrative. That is, were they basing their historical narratives in Metaphor, Irony, Metonymy or Synecdoche? Depending on the trope employed, each author's work would proceed on the grounds assumed by that trope. In this way, the operative trope of a work of history would necessarily characterize its subject in a certain fashion, whether the trope were consciously chosen or subconsciously employed. Additionally, unconnected to the operative trope, but working in conjunction with it, is the author's given method of "emplotment". Does he present the historical events at hand as Romance, Tragedy, Comedy or Satire? All of these questions (and oh so many more) determine, for White, the form these men's histories took.
I would come up with an example but, frankly, this aspect of Metahistory bored me a little. I already believe that history is not a science or even really a pseudoscience, but an art. It is not the least surprising to me that an historical narrative draws its epistemological assumptions from poetic conceits (storytelling conceits) and not from "objective" observation. But this very topic, whether history is a science, a pseudoscience or an art, is precisely what White's subject authors were debating. Which, in fact, brings me to what I did find really fascinating about Metahistory.
White contends that history in the newly scientific, Enlightenment world of the 18th century suffered from extreme irony. There was nothing new under the sun, man had repeated the same savage and stupid mistakes in the past and would continue to do so into the future, and while change is inevitable it is neither distinctly traceable nor predictable. This state of psychological malaise, triggered by a fever of scientific inquiry that only pointed out humankind's limitations, made it practically necessary to write history in an ironic mode. Come Hegel and the 19th century, and folks were really tired of irony. Hegel and the gentlemen whom White studies in Metahistory, sought to identify history as a discipline proper and, in many cases, as a scientific discipline. They sought to liberate it from irony and to *gasp* learn lessons from it that would improve the state of man. Okay, that last bit only generally. For as White discovered, liberating oneself from irony when the history of man is, in fact, a cyclical pageant of power relationships is not an easy task. And a good portion of these eight authors did not believe the march of history was necessarily toward something good or better.
And here's what I found really interesting - the extent to which our post-post-modern world suffers from just such an ironic malaise. We live in an incredibly ironic age. It is truly difficult to be earnest and genuine when you have been shown, again and again, that there is a dark side to every positive human impulse and that the light and the dark exist in each of us simultaneously. And if history does anything, it instructs us well of that. As I wholeheartedly believe this correlation between the 19th century and the early 21st century, and as I too have studied history hoping to learn some "truths" of humanity, I was thrilled when White repeatedly found each of his eight authors grappling with a central conundrum, with which I struggle daily - action versus withdrawal.
Over and over again, the intellectual pursuits of these eight historians led them to weigh the public merits and personal toll of remaining politically active and invested in the the future of their societies, or of withdrawing into a personal life where one invests in private pursuits and loved ones and pretty much leaves the outside world to itself. Something about studying history must bring this specific quandry upon one, for I have certainly been consumed by it in recent years. Or maybe it is a more general question we all must answer and, for those of us who are historically minded, the study of the expanse of time brings the question front and center. Maybe for the scientifically minded, studying the universe's beginnings or the minute cosmos of an atom has the same effect.
In any event, I certainly fall on the withdrawn side of things - as, it turns out, did Jacob Burckhardt. I felt a great kinship with these eight men, even the ones who answered this question differently, for at least they asked it...if all change seems to end up as the same old grinding wheel of power and oppression, why should I really advocate for change? You take a long enough perspective on history and it all seems inane. We are dust motes. And we are not even particularly kind or virtuous dust motes. We love our power and we want, want, want. It makes me think of Meet John Doe (the 1941 Capra film) and Walter Brennan's rant about the "heelots". If you are not familiar, please take a few minutes and watch this clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CYrr1o... I do not agree on every point, but I find it a really succinct way of summing up human greed and materialism. And, like Walter Brennan's character, I prefer simply to not play that whole game rather than deal with the heelots. I get by on a little and try not to wish for a lot. I withdraw and I invest myself in the people and quiet pursuits I love. I do vote, I donate a little time and money now and again, and I listen to the news. But I definitely hear it filtered through the assumptions of the Ironic trope and emplotted by a mix of Satire and Comedy. ...more
The full title of this book is Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light and it was written by a surgeon. I point out this last detaiThe full title of this book is Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light and it was written by a surgeon. I point out this last detail because I think non-professional works of high intellectual ambition are pretty rare. And well-executed ones are even rarer. I believe outsiders to an established discipline can often see patterns, make connections or hazard hypotheses that a trained professional either could not or would not do. Professional academics, scientists, artists and so forth who have spent years and years studying, practicing and executing their crafts can, and maybe should, possess a snob factor about this kind of book. I suppose I understand this stance, although I have a lot of musings about institutionalized disciplines and power structures of learning that I do not really want to get into right here. I offer, however, that I found Leonard Shlain's book about art and physics fascinating, well written and, insofar as I am equipped to say, well researched.
Shlain examines correspondences in the visual arts and physics, from the classical period through the present. I found this a wonderful project, especially as Shlain's ultimate hypothesis is not that the arts were influenced by developments in the sciences, but that the arts in strange and obscure ways seem to, over time, prefigure scientific discoveries. That is, Shlain does not propose causality, but correspondence. I find this especially interesting because it seems so unexplainable. It is precisely the kind of hypothesis I would never expect to find in an institutionally-derived work. Additionally, an institutionally-derived work would likely never purport to marry art and physics in the first place - the arts and sciences are so often viewed in opposition to each other and not as complementary visions of the same reality.
Shlain's final argument concerns an ultimate connectivity of cognitive states (and all time and matter) that occurs in a dimension we cannot perceive with our measly three-dimensional senses. Metaphorically, our individual-seeming, three-dimensional selves function like our cells, independently but nonetheless creating a unity of form and function, even of consciousness. In the case of cells the unity is us (or a cat, or a plant, etc.). In the case of us as cells...what is the unity we create? We simply cannot perceive this unity because we are locked in our three dimensionality. Some artists, as sensitive nodes, Shlain's argument runs, get a glimmer of this unity, translate it into their art and, thereby, provide effective visual metaphors for scientific discoveries that have not yet occured and that are exceedingly difficult to imagine as they precisely pertain to reality exterior to our three dimensions (he uses primarily Einstein's theories concerning gravity and how bizarrely matter behaves at the speed of light).
This may sound far out, but I would suggest you give this book a fighting chance. Shlain's basic argument, his evaluation of various artworks as demonstrating specific scientific findings - it all hinges on metaphor. And metaphor is an exceedingly powerful, non-causal means of connectivity. The roots of metaphor grow out of language, which in turn is likely the root out of which grows our very cognition. Julian Jaynes has argued that consciousness itself is a metaphorical space we have created linguistically. Additionally, many of the scientific findings of the 20th century that pertain to light, physics and the nature of reality are only comprehensible to our three-dimensional minds via metaphor. There seems to be something more accurate about the correspondences in metaphorical relationships than about the causal relationships between events that we purport to live by. As Hayden White has observed, causality is a construction imposed on events through our human need to narrativize - causality and narrative do not inhere in events themselves, and only seem to do so when we are bounded by the third dimension and cannot perceive time as a unity.
The short of the long is that Shlain probably made a few mistakes here and there that an artist writing about art, a physicist writing about physics, and a historian writing about the history of either, would not have made. But neither would the artist, the physicist or the historian likely have blended these seemingly disjointed disciplines into one comprehensive vision of the reality in which we find ourselves.
After the fifth story, I felt like I was reading the same story again and again...or at least stories that rehashed the same ideas over and over againAfter the fifth story, I felt like I was reading the same story again and again...or at least stories that rehashed the same ideas over and over again. So even while I liked the basic story template here, I didn't finish the whole book. Perhaps sometime I will. It was repetition that stopped me. I have one additional warning to modern readers - prepare for periodic but persistent racism. Written by a white European woman in the early 20th century, who purported to have extensive experience with "eastern" thought and philosophy (in quotes because she seems to mean India, but there is much much more "east"), these stories hinge on spiritual and philosophical views that would have been fairly unusual to the ears of westerners at the time - so unusual that the word "occult" winds up in the title. Anyway, the alarmingly blatant superiority complex especially typical of white people in this time period (and in so, so many others *sigh*) sneaks into otherwise interesting stories over and over again. The specifically patriarchal and condescending British view of their relationship to India in this period surely heightened this sense, even for a woman who seems to think she was writing sympathetically of Indian culture. Instead this is rather a great illustration of Said's "orientalism" at work. Interesting as sociology, I suppose. ...more
Primarily a work of philosophy, Animal Liberation discusses human attitudes toward nonhumans (that is, animals) through examining our institutional anPrimarily a work of philosophy, Animal Liberation discusses human attitudes toward nonhumans (that is, animals) through examining our institutional and habitual treatment of them and uses to which we put them. This project obviously entails a discussion of animals as food and, more specifically, of our industrialized farming culture, though Peter Singer also chronicles the history of human attitudes toward nonhumans and the ways in which animals are used in medical, military and product testing. It explores environmental as well as ethical reasons for changing our attitudes and behaviors regarding nonhuman animals. It's a sober work, polemic and intelligent, but not sensationalized; Singer uses the words of the agribusiness and science industries to let them describe their own practices, usually quoting from scientific journals or agribusiness newsletters, etc.
Like any book about an emotionally-charged, often politicized topic, if you don't already have it in you to sincerely question the basis of your beliefs and behavior, Animal Liberation will not magically change your mind. Knowing I will also not magically change anyone's mind, I only really feel equipped to discuss what I personally took away from this book rather than entering into its polemic or regurgitating facts better delineated by Mr. Singer.
So, essentially, Animal Liberation encouraged me to ask myself questions that, as a longtime meat-eater (albeit with increasingly vegetarian leanings), I found had uncomfortable and unpleasant implications for my own behavior. Only moderate, if honest, self-reflection is required to realize that something is amiss in our attitudes toward nonhuman animals. Evidence of human rationalization of and separation from how we view and treat animals abounds. I found it worth simply considering the roots of the following, fairly schizophrenic ways we view and treat animals.
Most animal farming that occurs in the United States is industrialized, which means numerous animals crowded into small, usually indoor spaces, restricted in movement, divided from their offspring and from each other, talked about in the industry's literature as machines, not as living creatures. And yet in children's books and programs, they are encouraged to identify with animals, and the farm is still depicted as something Old MacDonald ran, featuring a variety of cheery animals, usually with their young, gamboling in the pasture or farmyard, and so forth. Why effectively lie to our children about how their food is raised? We also have different names for animals when they're alive and when they're our food. We don't eat pig, but pork, and not cow, but beef. What sort of cognitive dissonance does that separation by vocabulary serve? Probably the same one that would not think of eating a cat or dog, and punishes abuse of those animals, but which offers no protection for the other huge set of domesticated animals who undergo systematized cruelty every day, farm animals - pigs, cows, chickens. We love to pet and cuddle some animals, while others we manipulate freely with no thought to their wellbeing. But are these animals different from each other in any qualitative way that doesn't rely on human desire to eat one and not the other? Should a living being's suffering and very life be secondary to what amounts to my petty preference of taste?
And, those are a small sampling of the questions Animal Liberation provoked in me, so I thought I'd share them. I'll keep my answers to myself. ...more
There are (at least) two Umberto Ecos: the historical novelist of intricate, intellectually-driven plotlines and the pithy, witty essayist who commentThere are (at least) two Umberto Ecos: the historical novelist of intricate, intellectually-driven plotlines and the pithy, witty essayist who comments on current events. Stylistically, these Ecos bear little resemblance to each other. They seem, instead, to share a teleological source, a general impulse, that is characterized by viewing everything always through the matrix of semiotics (well, that, and an encyclopedic knowledge of cultural references, arcane and popular, that allows me to mentally categorize Eco with the great compilers of history like Pliny the Elder and Isidore of Seville, rather than with any modern author).
And, of course, he is a professor of semiotics, so there's a third Eco, maybe the original Eco - those novelist and essayist fellows are only moonlighters anyway. For Eco, the world is a field of signs and he delights in deciphering not only what they may mean, but how they may mean and to whom. As I have said, all of Eco's work (and I suspect, his life) relies upon semiotic thinking, but Travels in Hyperreality may be the finest example I have yet read of his ability to translate into easily readable prose the dense patterns of meaning and signification that persist all around us in everyday life. In Travels, Eco tackles terrorism, television, cult film, charismatic cult leaders, sporting events and more.
These essays were originally published in a variety of periodicals from the late 1960s through the early 1980s, however they do not seem dated so much as they challenge a contemporary reader to familiarize herself with past "signs"; like the Red Brigades kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, the Jonestown horror or Casablanca. His topics may no longer feel contemporary, but his thoughts on them certainly do. For example, in the essay "Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare," he explores the disparity between controlling a medium and controlling a message. Even though the essay was written in 1967, when television was the most ubiquitous, instantaneous example of a communications medium, Eco's thinking is so sound that I wish the internet had been around then so he could have included an analysis of it. In fact, in true Jules-Vernian fashion, Eco's nod toward the future of communications almost presages a medium that would achieve what the internet has achieved: "[T]he constant correction of perspectives, the checking of codes, the ever renewed interpretations of mass messages." (144) (Eco actually imagined the proliferation of face-to-face contact between people, but I think the internet is metaphorically related to his vision of "semiological guerrilla warfare".)
The icing on all of this delicious cake comes, for me, in the following essays: "Travels in Hyperreality," "Dreaming of the Middle Ages," and "Living in the New Middle Ages."
In "Travels in Hyperreality," Eco examines what he perceives as the American obsession with minutely imagined, more-real-than-real (yes, "hyper" real) fakes. He traveled from coast to coast visiting wax museums, Disneyland and Disney World, San Simeon, etc., etc. He concludes that all of this fascination with "genuine" fakes has to do with America's relationship to its own history. With the exception of New Orleans (three cheers!), Eco found that most American destinations seem to put forth these hyperrealized fakes in order to fill a gap left by what Americans themselves must perceive as a lack of history. Having grown up in the "younger" west, I cannot but agree - things are razed and built over, you are taught that history, in its "proper" WASP-ish sense, began with the first white people (non-Spanish-speaking white people, that is), all other American history is hyphenated, niche history and belongs to someone else -- even if you are one of those "hyphenated, niche" Americans you receive this lesson through the funnel of dominant popular culture. And so we recreate, for example, an Italian cultural artefact like DaVinci's "Last Supper" in glorious three-dimensional wax and we look at it to the sound of classical music and we somehow know that seeing this is even better than seeing some flat, crumbling old painting on a wall somewhere.*
Or another example: one of our illustrious citizens, William Randolph Hearst, creates a European palace in bricolage of genuine antique items and accurately rendered fake antique items, jumbled together to reveal nothing more than the ludicrous and offensive wealth of their owner. I found all of this analysis accurate if uncharitable, and yet not mean spirited in any way. I would venture a guess that Eco is actually a great fan of many American cultural products, including Disneyland (though I get the sense he loathes Hearst on principle, but I'm American and and so do I). He simply can't help dissecting these products to see how they work. And if any of Eco's conclusions here annoy you, a remedy may be the delightful episode of This American Life called "Simulated Worlds" from October 11, 1996 and actually inspired by Eco's essay. It includes a piece where Ira Glass visits Medieval Times accompanied by medieval historian Michael Camille (Eco, Camille, Glass -- could they have found another of my heroes to somehow involve??). Pure gold.
Which brings me to the two essays dealing with the contemporary medieval, both how we consider the Middle Ages today and how we are, today, medieval. I think these essays also still ring true, even at the distance of 20-odd years. We do still dream of the Middle Ages, as the success of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy or the Harry Potter books will tell us. What we do not do in our popular culture is define what we actually mean by "medieval". Eco elucidates the "Ten Little Middle Ages" he believes we are all talking about when we call this movie, that book or this aesthetic "medieval". I will not recount all ten here, but the important point about the whole exercise is that the Middle Ages, as historical time period, is not the point. Well, it is periodically the point (for historians and fastidious researchers like Eco), but by and large pop culture references to the medieval, explicit or implicit, really only speak to a set of stereotypes gleaned from what we require the Middle Ages to have been for our present day purposes.
That is, they were barbaric if the film/book/what-have-you-thing uses the Middle Ages to dwell on or idealize violence. They were superstitious if the thing requires a sense of magic. They were overly religious if it requires oppression. The important aspect of each "Little" Middle Age is that it reflects our idea of the Middle Ages rather than the Middle Ages' own idea of itself. Only the historian (or the historically-minded individual, an endangered species in America) asks what a medieval person understood about their own world. As perhaps, in the future, only historians will ask what we understand about our world. Meanwhile, the pop culture of tomorrow will be using us as fodder for their own aspirations, prejudices and dreams. And perhaps we, too, will be considered a Middle Age. Eco already sees our era so: a time period of upheaval, shifting power structures and cultural revolution. "Naturally," he observes, "the whole process is characterized by plagues and massacres, intolerance and death. Nobody says that the Middle Ages offer a completely jolly prospect. As the Chinese said, to curse someone: 'May you live in an interesting period.'" (85) We do.
*NB: Eco's conclusions have more to do with the intent of these fakes than with the experiences of audiences actually viewing them. He's unpacking the semiotics of the message from the sender's perspective, I take it, more than from the receiver's....more
As is always my experience with Huxley, I got a lot out of his thoughts and intellectual work but found his actual writing quite clunky. Still,this waAs is always my experience with Huxley, I got a lot out of his thoughts and intellectual work but found his actual writing quite clunky. Still,this was a quick, easy read that I would recommend. His sarcasm and humor always keep me reading, even when the prose does not.
The conceit of the novel is that it is a deceased hermit's screenplay, which is set after the Third World War. Most of the world has bombed itself into hell-on-earth where the devil, Belial, is worshipped, human reproduction is strictly controlled, radiation causes deformities in babies who are "liquidated" at birth, and women are persecuted as the filthy vessels of such deformities.
Of course, what the novel is really about is a meditation on what Huxley perceives to be human kind's dual nature; that is our ape-self and essential self. I personally reject the idea our animal natures house our worst traits, but I nevertheless appreciate his commentary on the ultimately destructive and inhumane nature of "progress" and nationalism. And his image of a baboon in evening dress singing "Give me detumescence" will follow (and amuse me, creepily) for a long time. In my head she sounds like Marianne Faithful. Thanks, Al....more