People Have Their Preferences
November 19, 2009 7:03 PM   Subscribe

We Like Lists Because We Don't Want to Die — Umberto Eco "like[s] lists for the same reason other people like football or pedophilia"
posted by blasdelf (99 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
Well that's my one line snark for the next list-based post sorted then.
posted by Artw at 7:04 PM on November 19, 2009


Heh. I enjoyed his way of speaking; how he can quote the Iliad at length and a few questions later reference Dan Brown. As far as what he actually said, I feel like it's something I'll need to think about. Interesting find.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 7:06 PM on November 19, 2009


Cracked.com's Top 10 Italian Semioticians who like lists:

#10 Umberto Eco

---->Next
posted by empath at 7:08 PM on November 19, 2009 [31 favorites]


Now I have had the meaningfullness of my lists stripped away from me and am contemplating the bleak emptiness of death. Motherfucker!
posted by Artw at 7:10 PM on November 19, 2009 [11 favorites]


he 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.

I see he is familiar with Wikipedia.
posted by Artw at 7:12 PM on November 19, 2009


We like lists because we don't want to die.

Selection bias.
posted by pompomtom at 7:17 PM on November 19, 2009 [4 favorites]


That idea that there is a correct answer is a pretty good viewpoint for a lot of things, but I think what's lost is the concept of diversity of ideas providing redundancy (as a value) and fault tolerance. Most topics of any complexity have their facts and their conjecture, and the conjecture takes on a direction away from what's known. Demanding to pound all of it into some particular correctness is inflicting stupidity onto things. Maybe that has its political value, as you could maintain free thought under some other shelter.
posted by nervousfritz at 7:23 PM on November 19, 2009


If you interact with things in your life, everything is constantly changing. And if nothing changes, you're an idiot.
posted by b1tr0t at 7:23 PM on November 19, 2009 [5 favorites]


I'm going to get around to Foucault's Pendulum one of these days.
posted by GeekAnimator at 7:33 PM on November 19, 2009


I really love this post. Reasons:

1. The inherent paradoxical nature of the list. Especially how PAINFULLY OBVIOUS the statements are, and how incredibly insightful and deep they are.
2. Again, lists can cause anarchy (Baroque period) or maintain order (scientific naming conventions.)
3. He says that tools are only as useful as their users, giving humanity a pretty big "high fiver"
4. Read the first line of my post.

One million +'s for you, sire!
posted by Khazk at 7:35 PM on November 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


Was I the only one who didn't understand and was a little shocked as to why Eco decided to mention "pedophilia"?

Top 5 things you should not bring up casually in conversation:
1. Pedophilia
2. "Your mom"
3. Enemas
4. How to dispose of a dead body
5. Fight Club
posted by battlebison at 7:39 PM on November 19, 2009 [10 favorites]


battlebison: Guess how many of those I can fit in the same sentence!
posted by qvantamon at 7:45 PM on November 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


Eco does love lists. I'm pretty sure he spent at least a chapter listing the contents of the ship's hold in The Island of the Day Before.

I just started re-reading The Name of the Rose this morning (it's been years). Perfect timing.
posted by JaredSeth at 7:45 PM on November 19, 2009



1. Those that belong to the Emperor...
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 7:51 PM on November 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


That's one of my favourite lists, from Borges' Devil's Dictionary:

These ambiguities, redundances, and deficiences recall those attributed by Dr. Franz Kuhn to a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. On those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel's hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.
posted by turgid dahlia at 7:58 PM on November 19, 2009 [15 favorites]


5 things you should not bring up on Metafilter:

1. declawing cats
2. abortion
3. Sarah Palin
4. circumcision
5. Baptists
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:05 PM on November 19, 2009


Did Sarah Palin circumcise Trig? And why haven't we had a thread on that?

To avoid derailing, allow me to bring it back to lists: People like lists because they like simplicity that lists imply. A list breaks down and organizes complex information into a manageable, low stimulus list.

In short, they satisfy the death drive, if we're on the old fashioned psychoanalysis road.
posted by mccarty.tim at 8:10 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is one of the best posts I have ever seen.

Surprisingly, it is also one of the worst posts I ever seen, he said, completely ruining the subtle point he made in the first sentence.
posted by yhbc at 8:16 PM on November 19, 2009


Oh, that's ok. Posts with Eco in them are too few anyway. Plus, for some weird reason, I don't think I've ever seen a picture of him before. And certainly not at that age.
posted by sneebler at 8:23 PM on November 19, 2009


I like big lists 'cause I don't want to die.
All you other semioticians can't deny
posted by idiopath at 8:29 PM on November 19, 2009 [29 favorites]


One thing that often makes me jealous is seeing the way that serious ideas can be taken seriously in other countries. Der Spiegel is the most read magazine in Germany, right? Could you imagine a Borges interview in Time or Newsweek, or TV Guide, or Reader's Digest?
posted by idiopath at 8:38 PM on November 19, 2009


Why am I so interested in the subject? I can't really say. I like lists for the same reason other people like football or pedophilia. People have their preferences.

SPIEGEL: Still, you are famous for being able to explain your passions …

Eco: … but not by talking about myself.


Here's a list:
a) a generally harmless past time involving athletes and spectators
b) sexual violation of children

It's a very odd pairing. What would Freud say about such a list? Is it really as arbitrary as it's presumably meant to be? I mean if Eco had said "I like lists for the same reason other people like asparagus or rape," how would we be expected to interpret it? Is Eco's intention to show that "liking" the sexual violation of children is really no different than liking sports: that only the object of one's attention changes? If one asks a football fan and a convicted pedophile about why they like what they like, are we really supposed to think their answers will have no ultimately meaningful differences?
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 8:50 PM on November 19, 2009


I am a fan of lists because they are the minimum possible amount of structure. All that the presence of two things on the same lists means is that they were on that list (under heading X). I may be biased because I like Eco's writing, but in his defense I think he was emphasizing how little the list means, how bare bones a thing it is if it can contain football and pedophilia at the same time. And, minor quibble: pedophilia is not a crime, it is a kind of desire, one can be a pedophile without being a criminal or a sinner by simply not acting on your urges. People are not convicted of being attracted to prepubescent children (which is all pedophilia means), they are convicted for comiting sexual acts with prepubescent children, whether they were attracted or not. Given all that, I will grant that it was a tasteless example gratia.
posted by idiopath at 9:01 PM on November 19, 2009


Col. Gentleman likes lists the same way he likes Pederasty.
posted by Green With You at 9:03 PM on November 19, 2009


HP LaserJet, if you are trying to suggest that Eco is a pedophile merely because he used the word "pedophile", then you are off your rocker.
posted by ssg at 9:05 PM on November 19, 2009


I'm not sure anyone there's anyone who likes pedophilia.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:08 PM on November 19, 2009


ANYONE
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:09 PM on November 19, 2009


how little the list means, how bare bones a thing it is if it can contain football and pedophilia at the same time.

He wasn't actually talking about a list with these two things on it; he was talking about his inability to explain why he likes lists: he just likes them, the same way football fans and pedophiles like what they like.

in his defense

Please not that I'm not attacking him; I'm merely stating the obvious fact that it's an unusual pairing, and I'm applying some semiotic scrutiny to such a pairing: specifically I'm raising the question about whether or not the objects of one's desires are merely arbitrary things, and to what degree all "likes and dislikes" are equally psychologically enigmatic. To what degree are these two things (football and pedophilia) represent different kinds of compulsions? It seems really strange to imagine a football fan and a pedophile as subject to the same kind of desire. That's all.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 9:10 PM on November 19, 2009


I want to meet Umberto Eco someday - preferably before I die. I'm putting that on a list.
posted by The World Famous at 9:12 PM on November 19, 2009


if you are trying to suggest that Eco is a pedophile merely because he used the word "pedophile",

No of course I'm not trying to suggest that. I'm just making an inquiry (psycho-semiotic) about how one might categorize what seem at first glance to be two very different kinds of things. As a semiotician, Eco would probably be sympathetic to such a question.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 9:13 PM on November 19, 2009


5 things you should not bring up on Metafilter:

Don't forget 6) homeopathy. Anyway, I was thinking the other day that I make so many lists — the 118 movies I've seen so far in 2009, the 115 books I've read this year, the 2,145 U.S. counties I've visited over time, also the 238 units of the National Park Service — because I'm trying to convince myself that I've actually accomplished something before I do die.

No avoiding death, no matter how much stuff you catalogue, as Mr. Eco (age 77) might be contemplating these days. Anyway, my short list along the lines of those "Places to See Before You Die" books might include 1) doctor's office, 2) walk-in clinic, 3) emergency room, 4) infirmary, 5) hospital, 6) nursing home, 7) hospice.
posted by LeLiLo at 9:15 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


HP LaserJet P10006: "He wasn't actually talking about a list with these two things on it"

He is Umberto Fucking Eco talking about lists, of course he is conscious as he speaks that he is listing things. He is a renowned semiotician for fucks sake, I would be really shocked if he were not doing that self consciously.

And liking pedophilia is different from being a pedophile is different from pedarasty. The only pedophiles I have ever known were not really fond of pedophilia, they just had it. And at least one seemed pretty convincing in his claims of never having acted on the urge.
posted by idiopath at 9:17 PM on November 19, 2009


Umberto Eco saying that he felt like a character in a Dan Brown novel is, perhaps, the most awesome thing I have read in at least 5 years. I hope that Dan Brown reads that quote and recognizes it as a callout of epic proportion.
posted by The World Famous at 9:18 PM on November 19, 2009 [7 favorites]


And, minor quibble: pedophilia is not a crime, it is a kind of desire, one can be a pedophile without being a criminal or a sinner by simply not acting on your urges

Where did I say all pedophiles act on their urges or are criminals? I merely said "a convicted pedophile" b/c presumably he or she would be more willing to discuss those urges than one not so convicted. Again, I'm not moralizing anything here: I'm just engaging in some thought exercises about what such a pairing of terms (in reference to the arbitrariness of desire) might mean.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 9:20 PM on November 19, 2009


If you interact with things in your life, everything is constantly changing. And if nothing changes, you're an idiot.

Simple, and so damn true.

I was familiarized with Eco's work at a young age, when I saw "Name of the Rose." My father and I watched and read many mysteries when I was growing up, but that one really stuck with me. Sure the movie has it's problems, but what really hit me when I watched it was the loss of all that knowledge in that library when it burned. Even that fictional account still makes me angry to see that part of the film even now.

It bothered me more than any death or violent act I have ever seen on the screen since.

At that same time, I was probably about nine or ten, and voraciously learning everything I could get my hand on regarding history, I was learning about the fire(s) that destroyed the Library of Alexandria. Few things really made me as frustrated with humanity as that tragedy in Egypt did. Nothing like a 1200-year setback to get me all pissed off. We could have been on other planets by now, perhaps, if the best of human efforts throughout history were not repeatedly foiled by the worst of human idiocy and fear.

His books have shown me so many different ways to look at things in life. His stories are semiotics in action.
posted by chambers at 9:22 PM on November 19, 2009


HP LaserJet P10006: "merely said "a convicted pedophile""

I am not judging you for someone who judges, I assure you :)

The quibble was a semantic one, one cannot be convicted of desires, in most civilized places, and pedophilia only represents a desire. Given that, and the fact that Eco is not known for being careless for words, I think saying "someone who likes pedophilia" is a much more complicated statement than it appears.

Or he was clumsy with his words, and he said pedophilia when he meant pederasty and was just making a tasteless example that provided no content. But, as I said before, this is Umberto Fucking Eco we are talking about here, and he is not known for carelessness with words.
posted by idiopath at 9:25 PM on November 19, 2009


He is a renowned semiotician for fucks sake, I would be really shocked if he were not doing that self consciously.

Why are you being so defensive? If it was a conscious comment on his part, then that makes my own queries here even more meaningful: I'm just interested in what it means to think in terms of an object of desire as being neutral or unimportant. I'm not actually trying to make a moral, legal, or ethical point. I was just making a comment about the juxtaposition of these two things. Who does not think of it as a strange pairing to describe the arbitrariness of likes and dislikes? It's a strange pairing in part b/c the terms are also cultural.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 9:26 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


You may be misinterpreting what I meant to be a tone of frivolity for anger. If so I apologize.
posted by idiopath at 9:27 PM on November 19, 2009


.... apologize for presenting my frivolity in a way that appeared hostile, that is.
posted by idiopath at 9:28 PM on November 19, 2009


this is Umberto Fucking Eco we are talking about here, and he is not known for carelessness with words.

It's also probably worth considering that it's Der Spiegel, so the interview was translated from German, and it's Eco, so he might've been interviewed in Italian (though I'm sure his German is fine too).
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 9:29 PM on November 19, 2009


In the late 90s Umberto Eco came to my university to give a talk. After speaking at length on the nature of the text as a machine for generating interpretations, but prior to receiving our personal adorations in return for his autograph, it was announced that Mr. Eco needed a brief break. I wandered outside the building and ambled about. In the freezing Rhode Island cold, beside the relevant building, and all by himself stood Mr. Eco rolling his own cigarette from a cache of personal loose tobacco.

I just came in here to say that Umberto Eco rolls his own smokes.
posted by pelham at 9:34 PM on November 19, 2009 [8 favorites]


he is not known for carelessness with words.

No shit; hence my comments about what this juxtaposition of terms might tend to suggest if we think about them in the very way he tends to think about words. Again the pairing of...

a) desire to watch or participate in football
b) desire (whether wished or fulfilled) to bugger children

...is, in the context of semiotics and psychology (the context of Lacan), a fascinating juxtaposition, for it raises lots of questions:

a) are all desires (the desire to make lists, the desire to murder) effectively the same?
b) how does the "object" of desire change depending on culture, repression, etc?
c) can desires be atomized into sub-desires (liking football would seem to involve a whole set of qualities, while pedophilia might be a more "focused" desire)?
d) is it even sensible to describe certain things as desires?
e) is it true our desires in some sense remain unknowable, inscrutable, arbitrary, or enigmatic?
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 9:38 PM on November 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


Personally, I would differentiate desires not by the morality (or desirability, if you like) of their objects, but by their degree of abstraction from biology. The desire to no longer have a headache or to no longer be dehydrated is a different and more intense kind of desire (I think) than the desire for world peace or the desire to be stepped on by a hermaphrodite wearing a pillbox hat and snowboots.

The object of desire does not change as much as it is realized - here realize can mean create or discover or uncover.

Perhaps drives are unknowable, desires are the negative space that drives form around them, the tracks that let us know that they were there.
posted by idiopath at 9:45 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


The original German:
"Ich mag Listen genau aus dem Grund, wie andere Leute Fußball mögen oder die Pädophilie."

My German is not nearly good enough to figure out the original language of the interview.
posted by idiopath at 9:51 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think the juxtaposition is merely saying, in a reaction-provoking way*, of saying "from A to Z." He could picked anything, but I think he just did it to provoke interviewer and reader, and show how much you get worked up over a simple word. Is all this focusing on his word choice his problem, or is it trying to get you to see how people are trained by society to get the pitchforks and torches the moment they hear the word pedophilia**?

*cf. 80% of the comments in this thread

**He could have said any hot-button offensive act, like rape, murder or genocide. Same result.
posted by chambers at 9:57 PM on November 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


their degree of abstraction from biology

I'm not sure any human desires are ever truly natural the way non-human animal behavior is instinctually natural: even our seemingly primal sexual desires are filtered heavily early on in our upbringing through the ritual trappings of normative social custom, obligation and expectation, the taboo, etc. We're the only animals who wear clothes or use toilet paper, and human sexual psychology has an endless series of cultural layers wrapped around it. But I'm curious also about what the psychological difference is between compulsion and desire, or what seems involuntary to some degree vs. what is largely voluntary. A need, a want, an impulse, a vaguely intuited and barely perceptible wish: there seems to be layers of will here, and the "object" in each case is not necessarily, or even at all, irrelevant. Our desires are shaped by their objects, and a lot of "our" desires probably are not "ours" as much as we may believe (though certainly some are). Hence my desire to figure out how two things as disparate object-categories as football and pedophilia might even begin to inhabit the same psychological world.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 9:59 PM on November 19, 2009


HP LaserJet P10006: "I'm not sure any human desires are ever truly natural the way non-human animal behavior is instinctually natural"

A dog drools when a bell rings, a human gets wet when she hears a certain tone in her lover's voice. I think the mechanisms of association and conditioning are more similar than they are different.

We can desire more complex things because we can understand more complexity.

People underestimate how much our desires are "ours", if by "ours" you mean something we have a responsibility for and an ability to mold or negotiate with over time.

It could be that the watcher of "To Catch A Predator" has a desire for pedophilia that could be compared to the desire of the watcher of the World Cup Finals for soccer football.
posted by idiopath at 10:12 PM on November 19, 2009


I like big lists 'cause I don't want to die.
All you other semioticians can't deny.


You, my dear, made me laugh so hard that my neighbor (who, ironically, is also a semiotician) knocked on my door to see what was up.

Then she laughed really hard too. *Nerds*
posted by functionequalsform at 10:14 PM on November 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


A dog drools when a bell rings, a human gets wet when she hears a certain tone in her lover's voice. I think the mechanisms of association and conditioning are more similar than they are different.

A Pavlovian case merely shows that an animal can be conditioned to behave in certain ways; dogs are already domesticated anyway. Out on the savannah there are no bells and there is no "love" or "eros" as we understand them. We are acculturated down to the very fibers of our being: all of our problems and all of our achievements arise from the symbolic nature of our acculturation (language being the primary instance of that acculturation, and I am firmly in the camp that only humans have it). Anyway sorry for the derail.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 10:19 PM on November 19, 2009


Surprised to see the Strokes still at #1 here...
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:29 PM on November 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


I certainly hope dan brown feels like a character in an umberto eco novel.

Great post.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:36 PM on November 19, 2009


It's a very odd pairing. What would Freud say about such a list? Is it really as arbitrary as it's presumably meant to be?

I thought what he meant with the pedophilia thing was that both pedophila and lists are a way to stave off death. Pedophiles could be thought of as people unwilling to give up their own childhood, their own aging and cling to and want to stay connected to childhood.

Not sure how football fits into that rubric, though.
posted by delmoi at 10:43 PM on November 19, 2009


Having read Russell, I am reminded that a list of lists is itself a list.

More prosaically, lists can be fun, I rewrote one just today. They usually act as good conversation starters.
posted by Tube at 11:25 PM on November 19, 2009


No of course I'm not trying to suggest that. I'm just making an inquiry (psycho-semiotic) about how one might categorize what seem at first glance to be two very different kinds of things.

One's an obsession with a childish game, one's an obsession with children.

One's tied up with the Heysel stadium disaster, Dutch fans chanting "throw the Jews in the oven" when a traditionally Jewish club visits, Facist footballers in Italy (Di Cano and the Ultras), Facism in Spain (certain clubs were boosted or run down by Franco depending on their political history), rioting, murdering players who fail, match-fixing, and a whole host of other perversions of what should be an innocent passtime; pedophilia is a perversion of a natural care for children.

That wasn't so hard, was it?
posted by rodgerd at 11:34 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


from Borges' Devil's Dictionary

Not even close

It was famously quoted in the introduction to Foucault's Les Mots et les choses in 1966.
posted by Wolof at 11:39 PM on November 19, 2009


Now I'm not as smart as the majority of the people on MeFi, so please excuse my arrogance. But can we not take the two things that he lists simply as things that certain people like?

Certain people like football. Certain people like the concept of sex with children.

Surely he picked those words for the very reason that people here are strongly discussing their use. To provoke thought. Discussion. Argument. Passion?

Bravo!

As an aside, I was in the process of writing what I though would be a brilliant story about a female serial killer. One of of her vices was the use of steroids. I devoted an entire paragraph to a list of the steroids that she used.

A dear friend of mine thought the concept was good. I asked her to give me feedback on the story as I wrote it. She told me to throw out the list. Now I had seen lists in other works and thought that it was acceptable. She vehemently disagreed. This turned into an argument.

I never finished the story, honestly I just got bored with it. It was all shock value and no substance.

I would never compare myself to M. Eco. Please believe that. But in this article I feel a bit of vindication.

I must send it to her immediately. How often can one say, "But Umberto Eco is on my side."
posted by Splunge at 12:00 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Here's a list
a) a generally harmless past time involving athletes and spectators
b) sexual violation of children


What is Hellenic Civilization?
posted by kid ichorous at 12:57 AM on November 20, 2009 [7 favorites]


Having read Russell, I am reminded that a list of lists is itself a list.

We have axioms to deal with people like you.

(Also: Eco is on my list of people I greatly admire whose works I am ashamed not to have read yet.)
posted by Limiter at 1:33 AM on November 20, 2009


But is the list of lists that include themselves included in the list of lists that don't include themselves?
posted by idiopath at 1:37 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


(map
  (lambda (subject)
    (when (has-injokes-involving-lists? subject)
        (for-each (injoke subject) (make-injoke injoke))))
  (list 'scheme
        'category-theory
        'semiotics
        (songs-by "hall and oates")
        'bucket
        'Santa-Claus))

posted by idiopath at 1:46 AM on November 20, 2009 [4 favorites]


Yes that is runnable r6rs scheme code if you define the predicate "has-injokes-inolving-lists?" and the functions "make-injoke" and "songs-by".
posted by idiopath at 1:50 AM on November 20, 2009


Splunge has it. His lexical choices draw attention to and parallel the points he's making. There's an iconicity between the two. Here's the quote in context:

Why am I so interested in the subject? I can't really say. I like lists for the same reason other people like football or pedophilia. People have their preferences.
bold emphasis mine

Eco is talking about the arbitrariness of desire-driven mental organization, from one person to the next. To illustrate this point, he constructs an impromptu, almost whimsical list consisting of the minimal number to be recognized as such a thing, 2. The items in the list, and therefore the mental organization of thought, seem unrelated. We want to make sense of these two things, because that's what we do when we encounter a headless list. But this isn't our list. This is somebody else's list. And the header isn't 'what do these two things have in common in relation to desire', but rather 'a list of things people could desire, with desire being the common thread between these things (either within the same list, or in separate lists based on the same theme).' This is signaled with the use of 'or' instead of 'and'. It lets us know that while these two things constitute a list within the frame of the current discourse, they also belong to possibly separate lists within another frame of discourse, belonging to other people, and driven by their desires, which is all somewhat arbitrary. He's basically being semantically redundant, and therefore linguistically cohesive with this idea that 'people have their preferences'. You just wouldn't be alerted to all that nuance if he chose a socially 'unmarked' second list item.

He does this again with the Dan Brown quote, which is delightful. Something so accessible and unpretentious on many levels. It grabs our attention and forces us to connect with the emotion and experience that's driving what he's saying.

Now I'm super curious if this interview was originally conducted in English or not. Either way, the man is naturally brilliant with speech and expression of thought.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:51 AM on November 20, 2009


iamkimiam: I liked to the German version of the article above. I would guess that the article was likely originally in German or Italian? And yeah, Splunge is right about what that statement meant.
posted by idiopath at 1:56 AM on November 20, 2009


from Borges' Devil's Dictionary

Not even close

It was famously quoted in the introduction to Foucault's
Les Mots et les choses in 1966.

As opposed to the more modern Bierce work from 1911?
posted by turgid dahlia at 2:13 AM on November 20, 2009


Eco: I felt like a character in a Dan Brown novel.

That line caused me to gasp. What's going on there? Why didn't he say a me novel? I wonder what he really thinks of Dan Brown.

...OK, a little Googling reveals that all is well with the world:

INTERVIEWER

Have you read The Da Vinci Code?

ECO

Yes, I am guilty of that too.

INTERVIEWER

That novel seems like a bizarre little offshoot of Foucault’s Pendulum.

ECO

The author, Dan Brown, is a character from Foucault’s Pendulum! I invented him. He shares my characters’ fascinations—the world conspiracy of Rosicrucians, Masons, and Jesuits. The role of the Knights Templar. The hermetic secret. The principle that everything is connected. I suspect Dan Brown might not even exist.


Eco felt like a character in a Dan Brown novel, who is a character in his own novels. This explains why Eco can say that Dan Brown doesn't exist (Brown's fictional) and also why Eco has read the books (because he is part of that fiction). That all makes total sense.
posted by painquale at 2:28 AM on November 20, 2009 [10 favorites]


To what degree are these two things (football and pedophilia) represent different kinds of compulsions? It seems really strange to imagine a football fan and a pedophile as subject to the same kind of desire.

I think that chambers's comment is about right. Also, Eco isn't a football fan - there's a good essay about not liking sport in Travels in Hyperreality. So maybe paedophilia and football fandom are equally incomprehensible passions to him.
posted by Mocata at 3:27 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Apparently, linking to an Umberto Eco interview on a site where users regularly "overthink a plate of beans" is like throwing a steak to a pack of hungry dogs.
posted by JaredSeth at 4:06 AM on November 20, 2009


Murray: Two-man gang? Can you have that, David?
Dave: Well, that's a pretty small gang. I mean, technically, the smallest gang possible.

posted by wobh at 4:09 AM on November 20, 2009


As opposed to the more modern Bierce work from 1911?

I don't think anyone is going to take this comment as a Pierre Menard moment.
posted by Wolof at 4:52 AM on November 20, 2009


Although the more parsimonious explanation would be that someone is conflating Borges and Bierce. Which would be egregious, but worse happens at sea.
posted by Wolof at 5:19 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


JaredSeth: "Apparently, linking to an Umberto Eco interview on a site where users regularly "overthink a plate of beans" is like throwing a steak to a pack of hungry dogs."

Room in a mefi thread is hardly a limited resource.

It is more like going to the city pound, opening the doors to all the cages, and running out the door while shouting "ANYONE WANNA GO ON A WALK"?
posted by idiopath at 5:24 AM on November 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


But is the list of lists that include themselves included in the list of lists that don't include themselves?

Well, it would depend on whether or not they included themselves, if they did they would if they didn't they wouldn't.

Now, as for the list of lists that do not include themselves...
posted by delmoi at 5:25 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Or he was clumsy with his words, and he said pedophilia when he meant pederasty and was just making a tasteless example that provided no content.

Or, Eco does not subscribe to the pedophile=BADLIFE mania that causes people to get their panties in a bunch at the mere mention of it, way out of proportion to other things, and furthermore does not care if your personal set of mental third rails prevent you from understanding his meaning. Seriously, you people...

My own reading is this: given what I know of the European intelligentsia's attitude towards soccer, I think Eco is making a sort of self-effacing statement that his love of lists is a sort of embarrassing, ingrained, incorrigible, visceral thing that he just can't stifle despite his sense of societal norms. Pedophile is the punchline—his affinity for lists goes deeper than you know. The joke is really on soccer.
posted by fleacircus at 5:37 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Umberto Eco gave a little talk in one of the medium sized lecture halls at Brown University. The room was less than half full. This was way back when his only claim to fame in front of this group was his technical book, "Semiotics."

A student asked him, quite pointedly, if it was not in fact true that this whole pseudo-discipline of semiotics, that he was confabulating, was not actually just a bald-faced attempt to stake a claim in some intellectual pigeon hole so that he could acquire a tenured academic's reliable income.

His heavily accented answer went something like this: "I write this technical book, not easy or fun to write. I'm a very smart man, if I want instead to write a novel, this novel become best seller and I get much more rich that way."

This is why I will always love him.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:38 AM on November 20, 2009 [7 favorites]


I love this post enough to de-lurk and let you all know that I've got composition books full of lists. I used to compulsively make lists about everything. Top 10 cool cloud shapes I've ever seen. Top 5 favorite colors. Top 5 lego pieces.

This makes me feel not so crazy.
posted by d13t_p3ps1 at 5:45 AM on November 20, 2009


In other words, he's rehashing Earnest Becker's thoughts in The Denial of Death, and a more recent Terror Management Theory of psychology, based on Becker's work.
posted by tybeet at 5:53 AM on November 20, 2009


I do believe Umberto Eco chose his words in that lists quote very specifically so as to spark the kinds of conversations that have gone on in this thread.

He's a smart one, that Eco.
posted by Spatch at 6:15 AM on November 20, 2009


tybeet: "In other words, he's rehashing Earnest Becker's thoughts in The Denial of Death, and a more recent Terror Management Theory of psychology, based on Becker's work."

"Why do you like lists" was just one of the many diversions, where the main point was "lists are cool and everyone cool used lots of lists". Briefly referencing more than rehashing, I would say.

Lists are the basis of parataxis, which is the simplest kind of storytelling, the way toddlers first start telling stories.

Umberto Eco always somehow makes me feel smart when I read things he wrote. I would love to know exactly how he does it. It is like some very strange kind of populism, while not being pablum at all. I read something by him and suddenly I am magically one of the smart folks and it feels good to be smart and all is well in the world.

I once considered putting a personal ad in the newspaper, in order to attempt to meet a new girlfriend:

"I like reading Umberto Eco, do you?" would have been the entirety of the ad.
posted by idiopath at 6:17 AM on November 20, 2009


Although the more parsimonious explanation would be that someone is conflating Borges and Bierce.

Touché. You're right, and I did. Not that I get Borges and Bierce mixed up exactly, I just obviously wasn't paying attention to what I was typing. Apologies for misdirected snark.
posted by turgid dahlia at 6:43 AM on November 20, 2009


Metafilter: asparagus or rape
posted by slogger at 6:48 AM on November 20, 2009


Here are lists of most higher species and when they are expected to die. (select the link: Online Databases Longevity Records. Kannisto-Thatcher DB.)
posted by Brian B. at 6:54 AM on November 20, 2009


I'm going to get around to Foucault's Pendulum one of these days.

Well worth it. A stunning, and incredibly thoughtful piece of writing. One of my favourites.
posted by opsin at 7:25 AM on November 20, 2009


Maybe it is the translation doing the work here, but I really liked the direct, no nonsense questions from the Spiegel. Some of them aren't even questions but rather statements that Eco has to agree or disagree with. It's refreshing to see people being put on the spot to defend what they are doing (not to mention seeing Eco doing so admirably).

A good interview makes allows people to justify what they are doing rather than simply advertising it. In Eco's case (or for that matter in most art) I think the 'why' is much more interesting than the 'what'.
posted by slimepuppy at 7:51 AM on November 20, 2009


Mocata: Also, Eco isn't a football fan - there's a good essay about not liking sport in Travels in Hyperreality. So maybe paedophilia and football fandom are equally incomprehensible passions to him.

Fascinating read (this thread that is). If this were a football match, I'd have to say that Mocata wins, even if he did use his hand. And ...

I promise never the use the word pedophile gratuitously again.
I promise never the use the word pedophile gratuitously again.
I promise never the use the word pedophile gratuitously again.
I promise never the use the word pedophile gratuitously again.
I promise never the use the word pedophile gratuitously again.
I promise never the use the word pedophile gratuitously again.
I promise never the use the word pedophile gratuitously again.
posted by philip-random at 7:59 AM on November 20, 2009


What does he mean by the 'topos of the inexpressible'? An inability to express something being a specific category? Or a repeating feature, like a recurring hero across works etc? Not sure what he means with that. Any thoughts?
posted by Cantdosleepy at 8:21 AM on November 20, 2009


I love Eco's books. Love love love them. Well in general, although a recent re-reading of Foucault's Pendulum didn't really hold up as well as I'd thought it would. If all the classic conspiracy information he dumps in there is new, it's a gripping read. If not, it's pretty damn thin, actually.

But the point is, while I am a great fan of his writing, I absolutely hate the man's interviews. Every time I read an interview with him, I feel like he comes off as a nitwit. Like, exactly as pseudo-intellectual and fluffy as someone who was merely trying to do an insulting Umberto Eco parody would.

Maybe he just doesn't get enough of a chance to develop his ideas in this format, so they fall from his lips and flop there and die, like a fish. I really want to give him the benefit of the doubt. But this was a classic example of the genre. He says some arbitrary things about lists, because that's the subject of his exhibit. But if we judge the likely quality of the exhibit by this interview, it will be a pile of arbitrary crap that Eco happens to like. He says almost nothing about the larger message of the list, and the one thing he does say is wrong. There is no mention that every list implies a hidden totality. Every list conveys the message that hiding in the background, or lurking on the Platonic Ideal plane somewhere, is a Venn diagram representing "All things that belong in this list." What I'm getting at is that you really can't talk about lists without also talking about sets, and sets get into some very deep waters. Ask Mr. Gödel if you don't want to take my word for it.

Instead we get such piercing gems of insights as:

* I like lists.
* Culture likes order, except when it doesn't.
* Throughout history, people have made lists.
* My books have lists in them.
* Homer, James Joyce and Thomas Mann are not accountants.
* The Louvre is neat.
* Etc.

See, I made a list. Bravo. But I could have said "Eco here is merely demonstrating by example the set of half-baked ideas that sound intellectual to people who already expect your every pronouncement to be genius."

My biggest specific problem is with "That's why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It's a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don't want to die." This goes beyond the fluffy to the outright ill-considered and dumb. See above about sets -- my point being that lists imply sets, and sets are by definition limited. In fact, sets are so good at imposing limits that you can use them to prove that there are infinities that are larger than other infinities. The above quote is practically the only specific idea he comes out with here, and it's just wrong.

Now, surely, you say, Mr. Eco could argue his point and so forth. And sure, I'm not saying that there isn't an interesting disagreement to be had here, possibly. But he gives no hint at all that he sees any other view of this, or has even really thought about it. "Lists are infinite, infinity == death, people are afraid to die. Therefore we like lists because we fear death!" It's just pat pop-philosophical nonsense. It's a string of unrelated ideas that sound deep.

Ok. I saw this a few days ago, and I've managed to hold my rant until now. Sorry you all had to be on the receiving end of it.
posted by rusty at 8:25 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That's why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It's a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don't want to die.
You see, I'd disagree with this. Is he suggesting that lists are limitless, and so suggest a transcendence of death (or the possiblity of it)? Often lists operate in exactly the opposite fashion. See the previous thread about the 100 greatest albums of 2000-2009. There were a finite but vast and uncountable number of albums released across the globe across all formats across that decade. That lists acts very specifically as a limiting device, containing 100 items and discarding the rest.

Or does the process of filtering 'this blongs on the list', 'this does not belong on the list' suggest limitlessness, as there are an infinite amount of items to choose between? But I don't see how that necessarily pertains to death, expect to throw into relief that we don't have time to list everything.

Basically, what?
posted by Cantdosleepy at 8:29 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


(By "Gödel" I think I meant "Cantor." Sorry about that.)
posted by rusty at 9:14 AM on November 20, 2009


Cantdosleepy: Exactly. Lists imply limits. A list is precisely a limiting technique. Eco's idea about lists and death simply doesn't connect, unless, perhaps, you reverse it. Death is forever, we don't want to die, therefore we make lists to impose limits on, and master, what we secretly fear is infinite (like death).

I think it's nonsense either way, myself. Playing the "fear of death" card is rarely anything besides the easy way out, instead of actually thinking.
posted by rusty at 9:30 AM on November 20, 2009


We like lists because, deep down, we know we are lists (and are listed).
posted by wobh at 10:19 AM on November 20, 2009


> Eco is talking about the arbitrariness of desire-driven mental organization, from
> one person to the next. To illustrate this point, he constructs an impromptu, almost
> whimsical list consisting of the minimal number to be recognized as such a thing,
> 2. The items in the list, and therefore the mental organization of thought, seem
> unrelated. We want to make sense of these two things, because that's what we do when
> we encounter a headless list. But this isn't our list. This is somebody else's list.
> And the header isn't 'what do these two things have in common in relation to desire',
> but rather 'a list of things people could desire, with desire being the common thread
> between these things (either within the same list, or in separate lists based on the
> same theme).' This is signaled with the use of 'or' instead of 'and'. It lets us
> know that while these two things constitute a list within the frame of the current
> discourse, they also belong to possibly separate lists within another frame of
> discourse, belonging to other people, and driven by their desires, which is all
> somewhat arbitrary. He's basically being semantically redundant, and therefore
> linguistically cohesive with this idea that 'people have their preferences'. You
> just wouldn't be alerted to all that nuance if he chose a socially 'unmarked' second
> list item.

PLEASE! THE IMG TAG! MUST POST GIF OF BUNNY!
posted by jfuller at 1:10 PM on November 20, 2009


Good Eco quote on the size of his library:

“Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others - a very small minority - who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight read-estate market allows you to put there.

(Sadly, I think its from The Black Swan, of which I don't really approve, but there you go)
posted by shothotbot at 3:31 PM on November 20, 2009


my point being that lists imply sets, and sets are by definition limited.

Sets are by definition limited? What definition is that? Certainly not this one.
posted by delmoi at 5:53 PM on November 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


Top 5 favorite colors.
posted by d13t_p3ps1


Please share, hexadecimal preferred.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:59 PM on November 20, 2009


So that's why I keep a list of all the books, comic books, movies, music albums, and video games I finish.

I thought it was just because I'm a huge nerd.
posted by Target Practice at 10:11 PM on November 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


delmoi: I'm not seeing where that says sets are not limited. And I'm not confusing the words "finite" and "limited" here.
posted by rusty at 5:57 AM on November 22, 2009


To be maddeningly precise, lists are not only sets but enumerations, or

1. mappings
1a. from some index (such as the natural numbers 1,2,3..)
2. onto a set.

And since enumerable sets can still be infinite sets, I don't think lists possess the power to stave off infinities or death so much as to lay them neatly into cemetery rows.
posted by kid ichorous at 8:26 AM on November 22, 2009


kid ichorous: I grant your point, but what Eco actually said was "That's why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end." He's got it backward. The set can be infinite, but the literal list can't. The enumeration has to actually exist, to be a "list". So, given that time, space, and energy are finite, I'm gonna posit that an actual enumeration cannot be infinite, even if it is an attempt to enumerate an infinite set. I'm agreeing with you here: the list can't erase the infinity behind it, but it can tidy it up a bit and make it presentable for the funeral.

That's what I meant, that lists are comforting (if they are comforting -- I have no particular fuzzy feelings for them) because they actually do have a limit, not because we "assume they have no limits." Essentially, all this struggle to make what he said make sense is my larger point. His interviews are maddeningly fuzzy and half-ass.
posted by rusty at 9:28 PM on November 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


only the hand that erases can write the true thing
posted by philip-random at 9:42 PM on November 23, 2009


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