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Faith in Fakes by Umberto Eco

Faith In Fakes by Umberto Eco is a highly entertaining beginner’s guide to semiotics. For what? Semiotics is the study and interpretation of symbols. In our increasingly iconic age, science has much to say, and to do so it must dig deeper and wider into sociology, philosophy, and psychology. In this excellent collection of essays, Umberto Eco discusses widely discussed topics such as jeans, the movie Casablanca, ancient monuments, and amusement parks. Communicating intensely difficult ideas with ease throughout, Faith In Fakes is a truly educational read that provides both theoretical knowledge and entertainment for the everyday.

However, the reader should be prepared to delve partially into the discipline, with particular attention to specific authors and rare vocabulary. While names like McLuhan, Foucault, and Barthes won’t put off most readers, words like oneiric, corybantismus, synecdoche, mytonymy, eversive, and anthopophage can be off-putting. However, there aren’t many of these jargons, because Umberto Eco’s overall style is beautifully communicative and easy to read.

Eco’s analysis of the film Casablanca and its cult status was particularly pleasing. He contrasts Casablanca with other films that can be described as “works of art”. He then makes the distinction not because these films are inherently “better”, but because they aim higher, being more focused and intellectually structured. Basically, they have potential meaning or significance, and are well written, well acted, and well characterized, though most of them fail to achieve any of their goals. Therefore, they are not necessarily better films.

Casablanca, on the other hand, describes it as a trap (bricolage) of ideas, poorly characterised, poorly written and ultimately unbelievable, either as a film or as a reflection of any reality. (I’m sure that Eco would argue that this last point is completely valid, since the film uses realism both in its style and in its specific historical setting.)

But the bottom line is that the almost random juxtaposition of elements eventually becomes an independent art form that can make a statement on its own terms. Copying from one learned text is called plagiarism, copying from fifty is called research. Use a cliché and it’s guilty. Use a hundred and it’s called Gaudi. This is a brilliant point.

As a film, Casablanca never lives in any one genre, never conveys just one message. It is presented as a series of almost unrelated tableaus where the characters do as the passing script demands. So it becomes a pastiche, where there is something for everyone, where it can be more fun to notice, categorize, recognize, and then discuss the loosely related stickers than to evaluate the whole, because there is no whole to evaluate.

McLuhan advised us that the medium became the message. Eco takes us further, showing that the mass media are no longer the mediators of ideology, because they themselves have become ideology. So now, when we watch television news that focuses on celebrities and the entertainment industry, we have to be very aware of the motives and interests at play. Come to think of it, when was the last time you heard a completely negative movie review? So where is the line drawn between reviewer and advertiser?

According to Eco’s logic, we seem to be confusing three similar, related, but different concepts – popular, populist and democratic. What we call populist should really be labeled populist culture. Popularity is the goal, not yet achieved. The July 2008 reports on music downloaded via the Internet state that more than eighty percent of musicians earn less than five thousand British pounds per year in royalties. And remember, they actually have the recording contract!

So what do we call this not-so-popular popular music? I would argue that we should refer to populist music and populist culture because it aims to achieve popularity, although few ever do. But what happens if or when it does? At this point, its success becomes the primary platform for further promotion. It now carries the illusion that it is demotic, that it is both derived from and owned by ordinary people, rather than obviously a commodity designed to achieve a status that promotes this illusion. His followers trot to this day as proof that he can attract and as proof that he is worth it. The medium thus became the ideology, the mechanism by which a commercial enterprise seeking popularity from a narrow section could gain popularity and then use its results to earn even more.

Finally, the demotic currency afforded by success suggests that we should make aesthetic judgments based on it. Success becomes proof of worth, as if the winner had run for office. Success then becomes the only basis for aesthetic judgments, denying the validity of other judgments because they lack democratic legitimacy and must therefore be based on snobbery or elitism or both. Ideology thus rejects any basis for aesthetic judgment, except what is determined by its own ideology. Aesthetics, by the way, tend to re-emerge when the advocate is reminded of the success and therefore aesthetic value of The Bridies’ Song or Remember You’re A Womble!

Umberto Eco’s Faith In Fakes essays are stimulating, eye-opening, and enlightening. They make you think rather than writing a simple review. I apologize for that.

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