So I was reading Umberto Eco at a bar the other night.… Hmmm, no. Let me back up.
A new posthumous collection of Eco’s essays was just published in the United States. The Italian philosopher, critic and author, who gained international fame in 1980 with his medieval murder mystery, “The Name of the Rose,” died in February 2016. His last writings were published in Italy a few weeks later. He was a youthful 84.
Since 1985, Eco had penned a weekly, then biweekly, topical column for the Italian news magazine L’Espresso. But as he wryly notes in the preface to the new volume, “I regarded it as topical that one evening I had decided, maybe, to reread a page of Herodotus, a Grimms’ fairy tale, or a Popeye comic.”
Anyway, I was reading Eco the other night as I was slurping onion soup and devouring a savory buffalo meatloaf, scrolling through my Facebook feed, thinking about the sexual apocalypse currently underway and wondering how in the world Gov. Jerry Brown could “hate everything” when I have it on excellent authority that his aura smiles and never frowns.
The title of Eco’s last collection is “Chronicles of a Liquid Society,” which is a riff on the ideas of an obscure European philosopher named Zygmunt Bauman, who coined the term “liquid modernity” or society.
The concept of “liquid” society is a bit hard to grasp – sort of like eating soup with a fork. But put as simply as possible, the era in which we live has made fragile the foundations of everything: state, church, business, even reality. Nothing is certain, which produces “a situation with no points of reference,” Eco wrote.
Friedrich Nietzsche famously declared that God is dead. Nietzsche didn’t do the deed, but he played the role of forensic pathologist, and people have been trying to come to terms with the news ever since.
Eco himself was an atheist, but he understood what happens when society becomes godless. We become our own lame gods. As he wrote in a 2010 essay: “Once this all-seeing Witness has gone, has been taken away, what remains? All that’s left is the eye of society, the eye of the Other, before whom you must reveal yourself so as not to disappear into the black hole of anonymity, into the vortex of oblivion, even at the cost of choosing the role of village idiot who strips down to his underpants and dances on the pub table.”
Cheery stuff, no?
The implications are disturbing. In a liquid society, Eco writes, “people are no longer fellow citizens, but rivals to beware of.” We’re left with unbridled individualism, conspicuous consumption and cultish behavior. Sound familiar?
Good Lord, California is about as liquid as it gets.
How are we supposed to come to terms with living in a liquid society? Eco’s answer is unsatisfying. To be “understood and perhaps overcome,” he writes, it “requires new instruments.” What are those “instruments”? He doesn’t say. His skepticism didn’t allow him to articulate the answer that was staring him right in the face. And, of course, he can’t say anything now.
When nothing is fixed, everything is precarious. When nothing is transcendent, everything is transient. We have no shortage of religion. Unfortunately, it’s the wrong kind: money worship, power worship, body worship, Earth worship. Maybe the “new instrument” we need is some old-time religion.
Ben Boychuk is managing editor of American Greatness. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @benboychuk.