Travels in Hyperreality, by Umberto Eco

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I picked this up at the library, because I really liked Foucault’s Pendulum and the snippet I read of the title essay intrigued me. The book is a set of essays by Eco, obviously. Eco is a well known semioticist, where semiotics is the study of signs. These essays were written for a variety of outlets on a variety of subjects. I think the most interesting ones where he applied his knowledge of semiotics

The title essay is a good example. Eco takes a tour of America, but an America of “hyper-reality”, where we re-make things to be better or more than the real thing. He starts off with wax museums, where, as he puts it, “We are giving you the reproduction so you will no longer feel any need for the original” (I was particularly amused by his description of the no less than seven wax museums which had reproductions of The Last Supper, all of which had a low quality copy of the painting nearby to make the wax reproduction look better in comparison). He points out how such reproduction is a trend of America, with parks like Disneyland, which reproduce Main Street USA, etc. His insights into how we experience such reproductions were really interesting.

Another essay I liked was “Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare”. He takes on McLuhan’s claim that the media is the message, by deconstructing what media really is. “The Communication chain assumes a Source that, through a Transmitter, emits a Signal via a Channel. At the end of the Channel, the Signal, through a Receiver, is transformed into a Message for the Addressee… the other fundamental requirement of this chain is a Code, shared by the Source and the Addressee.” He claims that McLuhan confuses all of these different links in the chain – that the alphabet (a Code) and a suit of clothes (a Message) are being used in different ways, and neither one is the totality of media in the sense McLuhan claims. “The message becomes what the receiver makes of it, applying to it his own codes of reception, which are neither those of the sender nor those of the scholar of communications.” This leads into a prescient observation for an essay written in 1969: “The battle for the survival of man as a responsible being in the Communications Era is not to be won where the communication originates, but where it arrives.” It’s controlling what codes people use to decipher the message. To use Lakoff’s terminology, it’s controlling the frame. Eco points out that if you control the frame, you don’t need to control the source of the message, and we now see how the integrated conservative movement has successfully constructed a frame for its followers such that all media they view is immediately filtered to convey the message that the conservatives want.

I also liked “The Multiplication of the Media”, about how messages get passed around the media in an incestuous manner, where “A firm produces polo shirts with an alligator on them and it advertises them… Each consumer of the polo shirt advertises, via the alligator on his chest, this brand of polo shirt… A TV broadcast, to be faithful to reality, shows some yong people wearing the alligator polo shirt. The young (and the old) see the TV broadcast and buy more alligar polo shirts because they have ‘the young look.'”

I liked this quote in a review of Casablanca as a cult movie: “When all the archetypes burst out shamelessly, we plumb Homeric profundity. Two cliches make us laugh but a hundred cliches move us because we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, celebrating a reunion…the extreme of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the Sublime.”

There were a bunch of essays that I ended up skimming through, due to lack of familiarity with the subject matter (anything written about Italian politics), or lack of interest (meditations on the Middle Ages). But the essays where he deconstructed media in various forms were worth the read. I’ll probably never re-read it, so it’s good I got it from the library, but I’m glad I read it.