Thoughts on Umberto Eco’s Inventing the Enemy

As James Gleick argues in The Information, filtering and search are now more important than the actual information, given the explosion of data. To this point, my filters seem to be off, as I completely missed the announcement of Umberto Eco’s new collection of essays, Inventing the Enemy. I say “new”, but in fact, they were released in September 2012.

This collection is mix of contemporary and historical reflections. For the new reader of Eco, this collection is a good introduction and for the student of Eco, he touches on and expands themes from his other novels.

Here I will just briefly summarize and comment on some of the more interesting essays:

    • Inventing the Enemy. In the title essay, Eco explores the idea that we (as a nation, or as an organization) are better defined by our enemies than our friends. He continues to show that throughout European history, the enemy is described in more or less the same way, being hideously ugly. In fact, Eco has written at length On Ugliness.
    • No Embryos in Paradise. Eco makes the argument that Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica did not believe embryos to have a soul. He is upfront about his motivation for such an expose:

My approach is purely historical and seeks to examine what Saint Thomas Aquinas thought about such matters. At most, the fact that the church of today thinks differently makes my reconstruction particularly curious.

By that he means:

It is curious, however, that the church, which is always quoting the teachings of Thomas Aquinas, has decided on this point to distance itself tacitly from his position.

    • Hugo, alas!: The Poetics of Excess. This article is surely to be enjoyed by a fan of Victor Hugo, but for those who have not read any of his works, as I have not, Eco includes plenty of background to help us out. In Hugo’s Ninety-Three, a character goes on for eight pages enumerating details that a messenger is to remember without error and then carry-out. Why then does Hugo include so much detail when surely the reader won’t even remember the first line pages latter? Well, when Eco was resident at the Louvre, he chose the theme “the vertigo of lists.” Captured in book form, The Infinity of Lists explains why it’s sometimes not enough to say “there are infinite amounts of starts.” To get the point across at this grandness, one has to start cataloging, classifying and listing all the stars to the reader for them to grasp just how enormous infinity is.
    • Censorship and Silence. In one of the contemporary essays, Eco identifies a surprising form of censorship. He classifies censorship into two kinds: silence and noise. Silence, is an active form of censorship where the state bans the publication of certain ideas. But the noise form is a more subtle kind. By producing so much noise, like celebrity scandals, the minutia of the President’s life, etc…, this noise effectively censors any real signal.
    • I am Edmond Dantes!. In one of my favorite essays, Eco shows why anagnorisis continues to be a powerful narrative device. Quoting Eco:

Anagnorisis is the “change from ignorance to knowledge,” and in particular the recognition of one person by another, as when a character unexpectedly discovers (by another person’s revealing it, or by discovering a necklace or a scar) that someone else is his father or son or worse still, as when Oedipus realizes that Jocasta, the woman he has married, is his mother.

Readers enjoy anagnorisis, since they anticipate the revelation of the character. This is basically the technique that Soap operas (over)-use. Not that I watch them…  This essay concludes with a gripping montage of anagnorisis in literature including the likes of Dumas and Hugo.  I’m not sure Eco thought about this as a remix, but it is a good example of supporting Remix Culture.  Lawrence Lessig would be proud.

  • Thoughts on WikiLeaks. Eco claims that WikiLeaks revealed a “false scandal.” Essentially, everybody already knew that embassies were spying on everybody, so revealing that information wasn’t scandalous. A researcher of secret societies and conspiracy theories, he has stated that a good conspiracy theory only states what everybody already knows to be true. An idea explored in more detail in Foucault’s Pendulum and most recently, The Prague Cemetery. But more notably, WikiLeaks is the Big Brother for the Big Brother. Eco argues that the Orwellian dystopia, where the state watches everything, is check-mated by an outside watcher.

There are also essays on the history of fire, relativism, cheese, and utopian islands. In this case, the mixed bag of essays works quite well and made for very enjoyable reading.