Faith in Fakes by Umberto Eco

Faith in Fakes by Umberto Eco

Faith In Fakes by Umberto Eco is a superbly entertaining beginner’s guide to semiotics. To what? Semiotics is the study and interpretation of symbols. In our increasingly iconic age, the discipline has much to say, and to do so must delve deeper and wider, into sociology, philosophy and psychology. In this superb selection of essays, Umberto Eco discusses topics as widely spaced as blue jeans, the film Casablanca, ancient monuments and theme parks. Throughout, he manages to communicate intensely difficult ideas with ease, making Faith In Fakes a truly enlightening read that both informs on theory and entertains via the mundane.

The reader must be prepared to go part-way into the discipline, however, especially in relation to specific authors and rarefied vocabulary. While names such as McLuhan, Foucault and Barthes might not deter most readers, words such as oneiric, corybantism, synecdoche, mytonymy, eversive and anthopophagy could prove to be stumbling blocks. There aren’t many of these specialist words, however, because overall Umberto Eco’s style is beautifully communicative and easy to read.

A particularly pleasing piece was Eco’s analysis of the film Casablanca and its cult status. He contrasts Casablanca with other films, ones that might be cited as “works of art”. He then makes a distinction not because these other films are intrinsically “better”, but because they aim higher in that they are better focused and constructed, intellectually. Basically they have potential meaning or significance, have been well written, well acted and well characterised, though most of them might not achieve any of their targets. Hence they are not necessarily better films.

Casablanca, on the other hand, Eco describes as a hodgepodge (bricolage) of ideas, badly characterised, poorly written and ultimately incredible, either as a film or as a reflection of any kind of reality. (Eco, I am sure, would also argue here that this latter point is wholly valid since the film employs realism both in its style and in its definite historical setting.)

But the point is that a near random juxtaposition of elements eventually becomes an art form of its own, able to make statements in its own terms. Copying from one learned text is called plagiarism, Copy from fifty and it’s called research. Use one cliché and it’s culpable. Use a hundred and it’s called Gaudi. It’s a brilliant point.

As a film, Casablanca, he argues, never inhabits a single genre, never communicates merely a single message. It is presented almost as a series of unrelated tableaux, where the characters do as required by the passing scenario. It thus becomes a pastiche where there’s something for everyone, where it can become more entertaining to spot, categorise, recognise and then discuss the loosely-related vignettes than to appreciate the whole, because there is no whole to appreciate.

McLuhan advised us that the medium had become the message. Eco takes us further, illustrating how mass media are no longer conduits for ideology because they themselves have become the ideology. So now, when we watch television news that concentrates on celebrity and the entertainment industry, we ought to be rendered keenly aware of the motives and interests at play. When, come to think of it, did you last hear a wholly negative film review? So where lies the line between reviewer and promoter?

We seem, according to Eco’s logic, to confuse three similar, related, but different concepts – popular, populist and demotic. What we call popular culture should really be labelled populist culture. Popularity is its aim, not yet its achievement. In a row over music downloaded via the internet, reports in July 2008 claim that over eighty per cent of musicians earn less than five thousand British pounds a year in royalties. And remember that they are the ones that actually have the recording contracts!

So what should we call this not so popular popular music? I argue we should refer to populist music and populist culture, because it aims to achieve popularity, though little of it ever will. But what happens if or when it does? At that point its very success becomes its prime platform for further promotion. Now it carries the illusion of being demotic, that it both stemmed from and is the property of ordinary people, rather than, obviously, a marketed commodity aiming to achieve a status that will foster that illusion. Its adherents to date can now be trotted out as evidence of its potential to attract and as proof of its worthiness to do so. The medium has thus become the ideology, the mechanism by which a commercial enterprise that aspires to popularity from a narrow sectional origin might achieve popularity and then use its achievement to seek more of the same.

Finally, it is the demotic currency provided by success that then suggests we should make aesthetic judgments on that basis. Success becomes proof of worth, almost as if the winner has run for election to that office. Success then becomes the only basis for aesthetic judgments, thus denying the validity of those made an any other basis, because they lack demotic legitimacy and must therefore be based on snobbery or elitism or both. The ideology thus rejects any basis for aesthetic judgment except that which its own ideology defines. Aesthetics, incidentally, tend to resurface when the advocate is reminded of the success, and hence aesthetic worth, of The Bridies’ Song or Remember You’re A Womble!

The essays in Faith In Fakes by Umberto Eco are stimulating, eye-opening and enlightening. They provoke thought rather than the desire to write a simple review. For that, I apologise.