Echo effect

I admit to a very undignified love of Umberto Eco. My shame is a result of my love’s pedestrian origin: a confrontation with Foucault’s Pendulum in my mid-20s. I’ll likely never read the book again for fear of discovering how aspirational my tastes were at that age.

In any event, this friendliness lead me to a der Spiegel interview with Eco, presumably about his exhibition at the Louvre. The interview focuses on Eco’s love of lists, of which he says:

The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries.

The idea is a lovely one, just like all such simple explanations of complex systems. But it turns out to be imprecise and unrevealing. First, Eco conflates two kinds of lists: what I’d call pedestrian lists and conceptual lists. Pedestrian lists reveal nothing, but guide ordinary action. Think of a grocery list, or a list of those to whom you will send Holiday cards.

The conceptual list is the kind he’s really interested in, because he claims these lists enhance our “grasp” of “the incomprehensible.” The lists that work this was are those that group attributes of things:

How would a mother describe a tiger to her child? Probably by using a list of characteristics: The tiger is big, a cat, yellow, striped and strong.

Okay, fine. I would have h’tipped Saussure or some other structural linguist (or even developmental psychologist): our concept of things is built from bundles of other, known concepts. The concept “tiger” is accumulated through a list of attributes with which we are familiar—we know what a cat is, and recognize the color yellow and so forth, so then to know an unknown thing “tiger” we get cat plus yellow plus etc.  I would not argue, as Eco does, that an unknown tiger is incomprehensible, just heretofore unknown, but that’s not my main quibble.

I think that it is woefully inadequate to define structure (as categorical comparison) as culture, in the form of lists. Actually, that’s not quite right–I do agree with that claim, but I think the extension of it…

The list is the mark of a highly advanced, cultivated society because a list allows us to question the essential definitions. The essential definition is primitive compared with the list.

…goes off a cliff. This cultural structure (?? Okay, that’s dumb too, but stay with me)–of knowing the world through assembling points of comparison and categories from these comparisons, seems not at all a function of cultivation or a “highly advanced society” nor does it at all necessitate the “question[ing of]…essential definitions.” Quite accurate assessments of the world lead to incorrect lists that are not questioned by the listers (er, Culture of Poverty anyone? What about racial categories?).

The interviewer does quite a good job next, pointing out that lists are both anarchic and ordered. Seeing that the world undergoes constant classification and re-classification by a multitude of peoples means that we spent a lot of our time quibbling about the coherence of concepts and those quibbles produce enhanced understandings, without producing consensus.

But Eco ends with an appeal to consensus. Of Google (as a classifying agent), he says:

These lists can be dangerous — not for old people like me, who have acquired their knowledge in another way, but for young people, for whom Google is a tragedy. Schools ought to teach the high art of how to be discriminating.

Education should return to the way it was in the workshops of the Renaissance. There, the masters may not necessarily have been able to explain to their students why a painting was good in theoretical terms, but they did so in more practical ways. Look, this is what your finger can look like, and this is what it has to look like. Look, this is a good mixing of colors. The same approach should be used in school when dealing with the Internet. The teacher should say: “Choose any old subject, whether it be German history or the life of ants. Search 25 different Web pages and, by comparing them, try to figure out which one has good information.” If 10 pages describe the same thing, it can be a sign that the information printed there is correct. But it can also be a sign that some sites merely copied the others’ mistakes.

What?!? Google somehow discourages people from being discriminating (a falsehood, I believe), but it also is somehow the case that Renaissance teachers of art were being “practical” when teaching aesthetics and artistic craftsmanship? And when he applies this to the google example, there’s a big FAIL. A set of good resources and a set of bad resources actually look exactly the same, because the internet perpetuates both truths and falsities.

I don’t have one of those Times codas to wrap this up, except to suggest that Eco read a little structural linguistics and get back to me on that list thing.



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