Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars & Media Populism

Books are different things to different people – just like the movies. On a philosophical level, a good book holds the ability to instill in its readers a sense of purpose and meaning. You won’t need critics’ judgment; a good book will have you buzzing in the afterglow. Umberto Eco’s ‘Turning Back the Clock’ (2007, Harcourt books) left me basking in the similar afterglow. Eco, by profession, is a semiotician (a student of signs and symbols), philosopher and literary critic.

‘Turning Back the Clock’ is Umberto Eco’s hand-picked collection of his essays that mostly appeared in Italian newspapers la Repubblica and L’espresso. For discerning readers or philosophy aficionados, the multifarious topics could be an enticing aspect of the book whereas to the less discerning ones, this diversity might just come across as a gallimaufry of author’s opinionated notions. Predominantly, this book manifests Eco’s reflection on changes in societal landscape and the impact of mass media. In summation, ‘Turning Back the Clock’ is a peek into Umberto Eco’s mind; it sets a vantage point for others to evaluate and opine on various social and political issues.

Umberto Eco sets the tone for the rest of the book in the opening chapter called ‘Some Reflections on War and Peace’ – an astounding piece of literature on the evolution of war. Eco says that warfare has evolved from the Paleowars when the location and identity of enemy was certain and when the sole objective of the wars was the complete annihilation of enemy at a calculated expense of one’s own forces to the front-less Neowars based on the theory of ‘Maximum happiness, Minimum sacrifice’. Since the enemy is now mostly within, and its location being more uncertain than ever, Eco’s ominous prediction of a permanent Neowar with lots of peripheral paleowars doesn’t seem exaggerated. A sense of foreboding comes through from the following Eco quote: “I don’t believe that on this earth men, who are wolves preying on their fellow men, will attain global peace.”

Umberto Eco’s acute antipathy toward Silvio Berlusconi and the barrage of scathing attacks against his fellow Italian constitute roughly twenty percent of the book. As a matter of fact, if you happen to be the fan of the ex-Italian PM (and that’s a big IF), chances are you might have to skip a whole lot of chapters in this book. Admittedly, the amount of Berlusconi bashing seems to reach levels of redundancy after some chapters, so much so that you might wonder why Eco’s publisher didn’t recommend him a separate book on his critiques of the ex-PM. Nevertheless, that’s just a small chink in what is otherwise a solid literary armour.

Eco draws parallels between technology and magic, muses about the carnivalization of politics and sports, discusses various rhetorical devices, turns back the clock to the taking of Jerusalem and takes the reader through the gory details of the crusade. Eco sneers at mass media for having degenerated into a playground for exhibitionists. I am sure he is alluding to those morons on Jeremy Kyle Show, Jersey Shore, Big Brother and so on.  He also scoffs at the way politicians these days make a beeline for prime time TV and conduct their politics on TV like gladiatorial games. And then he also takes a well-deserved pop at media for inventing news. He quips that ‘inventing news’ doesn’t mean providing information about something that hasn’t happened; it’s making news out of something that wasn’t news in the first place. Like an Agent Provocateur of sorts, he asks some thought-provoking and hard-to-ignore questions. For example, if a private school adjusts to the level of culturally backward students who are subsidized by the state, how will the school maintain its elite status? Elsewhere, he sagely remarks that if you can’t justify and sympathize with Muslim fundamentalism, you must explain and understand the motives, arguments and drives that make it what it is.

“I don’t believe that on this earth men, who are wolves preying on their fellow men, will attain global peace.” – Umberto Eco

That you have a certain Umberto Eco hacking at various topics/essays is this book’s greatest strength. As he juggles with diverse topics in the book, two characteristics strongly underpin all his writings – first, his unpretentious historical erudition, and second, his straightforwardness in calling a spade a spade. Even with all the multiplicity in topics, it’s a riveting book. One that I would definitely recommend to the students of philosophy and sociology. On a personal note, at no point while reading the book did I look at the number of pages remaining. To risk an irrelevant analogy, it was like watching Die Hard; the action just won’t stop!