We are all Umberto Eco now

In 1985, Umberto Eco was at the peak of his power. A star academic of international fame, he had recently turned his talents to historical fiction with the enormously successful The Name of the Rose, of which the film adaptation, starring Sean Connery, was about to be released. It is at this time that L’Espresso, Italy’s bestselling current affairs magazine, offered him a weekly column on its coveted last page – one of the most prime pieces of publishing real estate at the time. He named it ‘La bustina di Minerva’ (‘The Minerva matchbook’). This is how it began:

I am starting a column. It happened to me before and I have always had the fortitude to stop within a year. The weekly deadline grinds you down. This time I may stop sooner, I am only attempting this in order to please the Editor, a very powerful and vengeful man, with a taste for novelty.

On the subject of the column’s peculiar name, he wrote:

I have chosen to name it ‘La bustina di Minerva’ not as a reference to the goddess of wisdom, but to the matchbooks that go by that name. On those occasions when the inside of the matchbook cover is devoid of advertising, thoughtful men use it to note down stray ideas, the telephone numbers of women one will be duty-bound to make love to some day, the titles of books to be purchased, or to be avoided.

More on the nature of those little notes:

I find it useful to note down ideas on matchbooks, and Husserl did something similar. In Lovanio they are still busy deciphering all the notes he wrote, and the chancellor of that university, who has to set aside funds for research into those cryptograms, was telling me half worriedly, half in jest that a man who wrote so many little notes (I think the number is one hundred thousand) could not possibly have written only meaningful things. Yet the things he published are full of meaning. This means that the thinking humanity comprises those who stop at the Minerva matchbook stage, and those who reorganise these notes into an organic argument. That is when the truth will out.

In the meantime, then, these matchbooks: on the latest book not read, on the flash of intuition that caught you on the motorway as you were breaking to avoid crashing into the back of a lorry, on being and nothingness, on the selected steps of Fred Astaire*. Then we shall see.

[*An untranslatable play on the word ‘passo’, which means both dance step and literary excerpt.]

Eco’s ‘matchbooks’ went on to become very popular, have been collected in several books and are still going thirty years later. But I am interested in those beginnings, which is why I quoted them at such length. Here we have a rare intellectual with mass appeal being given the opportunity to write about whatever takes his whim, spending an entire 800-word column to say so and effectively apologise, as well as blaming the editor for coming up with the idea and forcing his hand.

He felt, I think – or at least played at feeling – that he needed to justify being given such freedom in a medium that was perceived as being finite. For him to write on the last page of L’Espresso meant that somebody else could not. To devote that space to expound on idle musings was a self-indulgence that needed to be accounted for.

Now consider how similar this author-position is to online writing, and blogs in particular. I’m sure I’ve read dozens of debut blog posts setting out the author’s intentions to write about disparate topics, and that it might not last very long, but anyway, ‘we shall see’. It’s the same reader contract, which is another way of saying we’re all Umberto Eco now: everyone can start a column of idle musings, and publish it to a potentially wider audience than his – as large as everyone who speaks one’s language and has an internet connection. And sure, there is no money involved, but I can’t imagine money would have been too big a consideration for the author of The Name of the Rose. It was the opportunity to enter into that contract that would have appealed to him.

The other thing about blogs and personal pages or small, non-paying online magazines is that very few people might actually read them, but, on the other hand, you don’t have to feel you’re taking anyone’s space away. Which I think explains why – without my having researched the problem in any systematic way – online first posts are generally less apologetic than Eco’s first matchbook. There are, besides, entire social media platforms devoted to presenting and sharing one’s niche interests.

Eco’s column, as I’ve written in a book on his work published this year, was in many respects an early incarnation of the blog form, trading as it did in lists, word games, pastiche and curiosities. Yet, ironically, it lost its uniqueness and become a much more conventional print magazine column once the World Wide Web took off and actual blogs started to proliferate. In 2012, Eco wrote:

When I get tired once and for all of coming up every two weeks with topics that are somewhat current for this column, I would like to embark on a series of late reviews, in which I talked about books that were published a long time ago as if they were new and it were useful to reread them.

This is, in fact, a most common kind of exercise on the web, and the subject of many popular blogs. We review old books and old films as if new all the time, since not only space but also time has collapsed under the digital paradigm. But maybe Eco’s late misgivings suggest we should interrogate these practices.

This belief that online is ‘free’, that it doesn’t take anyone’s paid writing job away or stifle anyone’s voice – while unspoken and in most respects probably true – needs to be measured against the crisis of magazines and of formally edited selections of content more generally.

While the online edition of Overland is a magazine in a fairly traditional sense, The Huffington Post isn’t, just like Buzzfeed isn’t a newspaper. Looking at my own patterns of reading, I find that I consume individual posts and essays from a wide variety of sources, some of which I’m not even entirely conscious of, as I just happen to end there on somebody’s recommendation. On balance this has enriched my life immeasurably, exposing me to a far greater range of voices than was ever available to me before. These broader connections, in turn, greatly facilitate political articulation and organisation.

Yet the countervailing issues are not merely economic: my reading all of these disparate writings frays the contours of my social and cultural world, fracturing any sense of the topical and the local. Even as I engage on my own musings on obscure topics, reasoning that I am not limiting anyone’s time and space but in fact adding infinitesimally to the available store of knowledge, I must ask myself if this is entirely true, or if the shifts that occur under the surface entail the loss of something else, somewhere else.

I am not suggesting that people should write less, or justify why they write to anyone, let alone to me: but rather calling attention to material realities that are sometimes hidden by the sheen of the digital screen. Not just the mechanics of publishing but also the psychology of writing has changed. We should reflect not just on the economics of the profession, as we do often, but also on the economics of attention. It is, after all, always a valuable question to ask: why do I write?

Giovanni Tiso

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

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Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Great read.

    The metaphor may hold – bloggers are Eco – but it is fame without the echoing effect, so to speak. Which holds for prestigious magazines and newspapers still, but not blogging. (Didn’t the bottom fall out of blogging some time back, around 2005?)

    As an aside, I attended an Eco lecture once, in the early 1980s, where he attempted to prove, as opposed to his own reading, that Peirce got his notion of the sign wrong. Eco’s argument was totally tautological, and said the other way round, proved Peirce’s argument. Eco was unfazed when this was pointed out to him.

    When asked about Pasolini, he was totally dismissive, saying Pasolini’s fame should be reduced to that of his fans.

    Same goes for Eco now. I always preferred Pasolini – at least you knew where you stood with him.

  2. I enjoyed reading this piece, although I’m not sure if I agree with the writer’s final contentions.

    Am I right in thinking that the phrase (from the last paragraph) ‘the psychology of writing has changed’ contains an implied ‘for the worse’?

    Asking ourselves the question: ‘why do I write?’ is always valid, but if the writer is suggesting that there is or was ever a singular answer to this, then I’d like to hear more. Especially if that answer is somehow tied to a particular ‘psychology of writing’.

    I would love to read a more extensive discussion of the statements contained in the last paragraph . After all, this is the Internet. The articles we post there can take up as much space we like without taking any away from anyone else.

    1. Fair enough: although my preference is for everyone to take that conversation opening in the direction they prefer.

      But to expand a little bit, I don’t think the psychology of writing has changed for the worse – in fact, I view its having furnished us with a global rhetorical engine as the primary merit and value of the internet. That more people can write and do write is undoubtedly a good thing. That at the same time the per unit price of writing has come down is a challenge for our cultural infrastructure, which is rightly an intense subject of debate. I think it’s correct to say we don’t pay as much attention to the less material aspects, including how to value all the writing that is out there (as reflected for instance in the fact that until very recently very few efforts were made to preserve online writing). I could be wrong about that, but I wanted to remind myself of these issues as much as other people.

  3. Nice piece of writing; I like the psychology. I expect the psych of writing has changed, but then it has done so innumerable times in the past. Only priests wrote before, and for a long time after printed texts were available for the common person. Secular writing before the 19th C was mostly by men. The Jane Austins and George Elliots were relatively late on the scene, but presaged a change that we now take for granted. So there have been massive changes in the psychology of writing, embedded in the theological to secular, gender, the rise of science writing and so on. The psychology here is also perhaps representative of changing world views, or in Thomas Kuhn’s terms, changing paradigms. Most would admit that all these changes were for the better. So I’m not sure (yet) whether the current change is for better or worse than. It is still evolving.

    By the way, I’ve always thought Stephen J Gould was a polymath who wrote prolifically on many things. In some ways he is my “metaphor”.

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