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Seeing and Understanding

It is, at this point, a tired trope: the relative, usually an uncle, of at least embarrassing if not quite unsettling political opinions, a specimen of another time and place with thoughts on everything he's eager to share but you'd rather he didn't, at least while we're eating, please. I have one, and you probably do, too—not so bad as the guides springing up online assume, telling you how to handle him as holiday feasts approach, but a character who keeps family meals interesting.

At first blush, we are tempted to assume this awkward figure's opposite is a politely (or just sullenly) silent tablemate—perhaps your younger cousin. They say nothing, offend no one, eat what is before them, pass the butter and mumble about school when asked. But that is not quite right. The true counterpoise to the excruciations of a boor is not boring quiet but brilliance. We are not hurting for silence, but for pleasant and interesting conversation, for charitable understanding and winsome wit, for someone who will make us laugh and think and wonder. We are looking for someone like our problem, opinionated and quick to speak, who has things to say we'd like to hear. We are looking for Umberto Eco.

The late Italian novelist, critic, and professor died last February, but still speaks in a new collection of essays arriving as Chronicles of a Liquid Society, translated by Richard Dixon for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The title is a Zygmunt Bauman reference reflecting on post-modernity, but it works just as well as a reminder of the mercurial quickness and unpredictability of the author's thought. It can also play as a jocular riff on most of the essays' origins: a column Eco wrote for L'Espresso, an Italian weekly news magazine. Chronicles of a Liquid Society is certainly a caffeinated collection, jumping from subject to subject within loosely applied topical bounds from the editors, such as "Being Seen," "On Books Etc.," and "Online."

What unifies this collection is Eco's understanding. I do not mean primarily that he is knowledgeable, though he certainly is. No, by understanding I mean that Eco, back at our family meal, is concerned by what you have been getting up to since he saw you last, but understands why you might want to get up to it. As he, like you, navigates a still-melting, unsolid culture, his criticism both of it and of you comes from empathizing charity. He is a man who remembers Italy's fascists, their war, and all that followed, but is writing here at the turn and first decades of a new millenium. He is watching a new world come online, seeing the clocks turn. But, rather than submitting to the choice made by so many others his age, between reflexive recoil at the loss of the past and an empty but eager faith in progress, Eco accepts the present for what it is and seeks to understand it, even as he notes its illnesses and eccentricities.

While there's much of interest in Liquid Society—and no piece is long enough to be a snooze, most only a few pages—Eco's reflections on technology's mediation of identity stand out. Eco's preoccupation with the question is evident throughout the collection, making appearances in his many asides. In post-modernity's liquidity we find ourselves lost and alone, bonds dissolved between ourselves and God and fellow man. And so we look in our loneliness to be known and seen.

We have many tools in this quest for self-disclosure: Facebook, Twitter, and the other social media, cellphones, the internet at large, and the older media of television and print. All these are at our disposal, to dispose us for maximal observation in a panopticon increasingly of our own construction. "Those being spied upon think it's a good thing that their friends, their neighbors, and perhaps their enemies know their most intimate secrets, as this is the only way they feel themselves to be a living and active part of the social body," writes Eco.

The trouble is, now and going forward, "perhaps not even the schoolteacher, or those who take their place, will recall that in that bygone time there was a rigid distinction between being famous and being talked about." That we had lost or were losing that knowledge, the difference between honor and notoriety, struck Eco as obvious and worrying in 2002, looking just at the grotesqueries of reality television and headline hunting, with current social media barely an idea. That and other prescient observations made in Eco's older pieces are confirmed again and again by our present—"all press is good press!"—and in his later essays Eco faces the burden of being right, balancing that disappointment with his desire to understand his fellow man.

Not just lost personal contexts but also the loss of discernment and informational context turns all this technology into a danger and drug. "The internet provides a fantastic store of information but offers no filters, whereas education is about not only transmitting information but also teaching the criteria for selecting it." Eco is not asking us to put any of these tools back in the box, except perhaps landfilled plastics and nuclear warheads, but he does hope we'll discover better tools and learn to use well what we have. That information technology gives us easy access to near-limitless data is a gift, but, Eco reminds us, forgetting is necessary for activity of mind, and so in letting IT assist our own minds we run the risk of Funes the Memorious, who could not forget and lost his mind.

These concerns are not unique to Eco—C.S. Lewis says much similar in Abolition of Man—but this is just one of many, many topics Eco is noting here. We are not reading this book for novelty, but for conversation, for the personality and charitable understanding of an elder interested in everything, even the things he finds worrying. As Eco puts it, "Why have I told you all this? Because in my very first column, back in 1985, I told you I'd be talking about everything that came into my head, and this is what came into my head today."