A posthumous collection of essays by the great novelist, essayist, literary critic, and philosopher Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco was an international cultural superstar. In this, his last collection, the celebrated essayist and novelist observes the changing world around him with irrepressible curiosity and profound wisdom. He sees with fresh eyes the upheaval in ideological values, the crises in politics, and the unbridled individualism that have become the backdrop of our lives—a “liquid” society in which it’s not easy to find a polestar, though stars and starlets abound.
In these pieces, written for his regular column in L’Espresso magazine, Eco brings his dazzling erudition and keen sense of the everyday to bear on topics such as popular culture and politics, being seen, conspiracies, the old and the young, new technologies, mass media, racism, and good manners. It is a final gift to his readers—astute, witty, and illuminating.
“A swan song from one of Europe’s great intellectuals . . . [Eco] entertains with his intellect, humor, and insatiable curiosity.” — Kirkus Reviews
“An intelligent, intriguing, and often hilariously incisive set of observations on contemporary follies and changing mores.” — Publishers Weekly
“Chronicles of a Liquid Society is a wonderful reminder of a great writer, thinker, and human being.” — Toronto Star
The Liquid Society
The idea of “liquid” modernity or society comes from Zygmunt Bauman. Those who want to understand the various implications of this concept may find it helpful to read State of Crisis, where Bauman and Carlo Bordoni discuss this and other topics.
The liquid society begins to take shape with the movement known as postmodernism, an umbrella term that brings together a great variety of phenomena, from architecture to philosophy to literature, not always in a coherent fashion. Postmodernism signaled the crisis of “grand narratives,” each of which had claimed that one model of order could be superimposed on the world; it devoted itself to a playful or ironic reconsideration of the past, and was woven in various ways with nihilistic tendencies. But postmodernism, according to Bordoni, is also on the way out. It was temporary in character, we have passed through it without noticing, and it will be studied one day like pre-Romanticism. It served to point out an event that was happening and represented a sort of ferry from modernity to a present that still has no name.
Among the characteristics of this nascent present Bauman includes the crisis facing the state: what freedom do nation-states retain when faced with the power of supranational entities? We are witnessing the disappearance of something that used to ensure that individuals could resolve the various problems of our time in a homogeneous fashion. This crisis has led to a collapse of ideologies, and therefore of political parties, and to a general call for a sharing of values that allowed individuals to feel part of something that understood their needs.
The crisis in the concept of community gives rise to unbridled individualism: people are no longer fellow citizens, but rivals to beware of. This “subjectivism” has threatened the foundations of modernity, has made it fragile, producing a situation with no points of reference, where everything dissolves into a sort of liquidity. The certainty of the law is lost, the judiciary is regarded as an enemy, and the only solutions for individuals who have no points of reference are to make themselves conspicuous at all costs, to treat conspicuousness as a value, and to follow consumerism. Yet this is not a consumerism aimed at the possession of desirable objects that produce satisfaction, but one that immediately makes such objects obsolete. People move from one act of consumption to another in a sort of purposeless bulimia: the new cell phone is no better than the old one, but the old one has to be discarded in order to indulge in this orgy of desire.
The collapse of ideologies and political parties: it has been suggested that political parties have become like taxis taken by vote-controlling mob leaders or Mafia bosses, who choose them casually, according to what is on offer ?— ?politicians can change party allegiance without creating any scandal. It’s not just people: society itself is living in an increasingly precarious condition.
What can replace this liquefaction? We don’t yet know, and the interregnum will last for quite a long time. Bauman notes that a typical feature of the interregnum, once the faith in salvation from above, from the state, or from revolution is gone, is indignation. Such indignation knows what it doesn’t want, but not what it does. And I’d like to mention that one of the problems the police raise in relation to Black Bloc protest movements is that they can no longer be labeled, as used to be the case with anarchists, Fascists, or the Red Brigades. Such movements act, but no one knows when they will act, or in what direction. Not even they know.
Is there any way of coming to terms with liquidity? There is, and it involves an awareness that we live in a liquid society that, to be understood and perhaps overcome, requires new instruments. But the trouble is that politicians and a large part of the intelligentsia haven’t yet understood the implications of this phenomenon. For the moment, Bauman is still a “voice of one crying in the wilderness.”
Freestyle Catholics and sanctimonious secularists
When people refer to the great spiritual transformations that marked the end of the twentieth century, they immediately start talking about the collapse of ideologies, which is undeniable, and has blurred traditional distinctions between right and left. But the question remains whether the fall of the Berlin Wall was the cause of this collapse or just one of its consequences.
Think of science. People wanted science to be a neutral territory, ideal for progress shared by both liberals and socialists: the only difference was how this progress was to be managed and in whose favor ?— ?still exemplified by the Communist Manifesto of 1848, which lauded capitalist triumphs only to conclude, more or less, that “we too now want these things.” A liberal was someone who believed in technological advance, whereas a reactionary preached the return to tradition and the unspoiled nature of once upon a time. The cases of “revolution back to the past,” like that of the Luddites who sought to destroy machinery, were marginal ?— ?they had no real influence on the net division between the two positions.
This division began to go wrong in 1968, a time that mixed together Stalinists in love with steel, flower power, workerism (which expected automation to bring about the destruction of employment), and prophets of liberation through the drugs of Don Juan. It fell apart at a time when third-world populism became a common standard for both the far left and the far right, and now we find ourselves confronted with a movement like that of Seattle, a meeting point for neo-Luddites, radical environmentalists, ex-workerists, lumpen and spearhead workers, in the rejection of cloning, of the Big Mac, of transgenic and nuclear technologies.
A significant transformation came about in the opposition between the religious and the secular worlds. For thousands of years, the spirit of religion was associated with a distrust of progress, rejection of the world, doctrinal intransigence. The secular world, on the other hand, looked optimistically upon the transformation of nature, the flexibility of ethical principles, the fond rediscovery of “other” forms of religion and of primitive thought.
There were, of course, those believers, such as Teilhard de Chardin, who appealed to “worldly realities,” to history as a march toward redemption, while there were plenty of secular doom merchants, with the negative utopias of Orwell and Huxley, or the kind of science fiction that offered us the horrors of a future dominated by hideous scientific rationality. But it was the task of religion to call to us at the final moment, and the task of secularism to sing hymns in praise of the locomotive.
The recent gathering of enthusiastic young papal groupies shows us the transformation that has taken place under the reign of Pope John Paul II. A mass of youngsters who accept the Catholic faith but, judging from the answers they recently gave in interviews, are far distant from neurotic fundamentalism are willing to make compromises over premarital relationships, contraceptives, even drugs, and certainly when it comes to clubbing; meanwhile, the secular world moans about noise pollution and a New Age spirit that seems to unite neo-revolutionaries, followers of Monsignor Milingo, and sybarites devoted to Oriental massage.
This is just the start. We ...
“A swan song from one of Europe’s great intellectuals. After publishing numerous novels, criticism, essays, and so much more, Eco died in 2016 at the age of 84. Like a few others before him, including Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling, among others, Eco proved that one could write for many audiences...There’s a distinct Italian lean to these pieces, so some travel better than others, but it’s not so much the information they convey as much as the intellect and thought processes of the conveyor...Eco entertains with his intellect, humor, and insatiable curiosity...There’s much here to enjoy and ponder.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Eco’s writing reveals a humanist in every sense of the word, well acquainted with the classics of Western civilization and able to take a broad, often amused view of human affairs...Dixon’s translation is seamless, capturing Eco’s erudite style...This volume’s primary reward lies in the pleasure of watching a finely calibrated, expansive, and logical mind build an argument or deconstruct cant. Eco has left us an intelligent, intriguing, and often hilariously incisive set of observations on contemporary follies and changing mores.”—Publishers Weekly
“Endless material for conversation.”—Library Journal
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