Umberto Eco on lists

by on November 14, 2009 at 7:57 am in Education | Permalink

The list is the origin of culture. It's part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.

…At first, we think that a list is primitive and typical of very early cultures, which had no exact concept of the universe and were therefore limited to listing the characteristics they could name. But, in cultural history, the list has prevailed over and over again. It is by no means merely an expression of primitive cultures. A very clear image of the universe existed in the Middle Ages, and there were lists. A new worldview based on astronomy predominated in the Renaissance and the Baroque era. And there were lists. And the list is certainly prevalent in the postmodern age. It has an irresistible magic.

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

Here is much more.  Make sure you read the quotation under the photo; I don't want to reproduce it on a family blog. 

I wonder if this interview was translated from some other language, given the difference between "lists" and "enumeration."  Here is an important MR post: Jeffrey Lonsdale writes.

I thank Cardiff Garcia for the pointer.

anon November 14, 2009 at 9:17 am

I may be dense, but I’m not sure why this qualifies as insightful. Substitute “language” for “lists”.

And I’m not clear on his point about liking lists “for the same reason other people like football or pedophilia.”

Unless he’s saying that pedophiles are exactly like people who like soccer and lists. Huh?

And what’s the reluctance to quote “pedophilia” on a family blog when you quote the number of woman Don Juan allegedly slept with?

capitalistimperialistpig November 14, 2009 at 9:28 am

The list is a potent information processing tool – think about artificial intelligence oriented computer language LISP (name derives from List Processing).

I suppose that what Eco is driving at is that a written list is probably the original concrete realization of “memory.” A narrative or a story can be conceived as a list of events. What you write is a fragment of memory that has a chance of surviving you.

David Heigham November 14, 2009 at 10:27 am

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

That is at the end of the interview. It is the best quote I have ever seen from Umberto Eco.

Enumerations makes much more sense than lists. I agree that the interview is affected by problems of traslation. They may have been in Eco’s mind if thery were not introduced in publication.

anonymous November 14, 2009 at 2:45 pm

When European intellectuals open their mouths, what comes out is one part insight, six parts word games, and three parts outright bullshit. He flogs his metaphor like a dead horse.

Perhaps lists, at least the “top ten” variety, have their origins in the dominance hierarchies of social animals. It represented a need to know one’s place within the group and keep track of others’. Culture created a myriad of new ways to be superior, beyond mere physical or psychological strength, but in many of these endeavors a one-on-one contest isn’t really possible to define (what does it mean for one song to “defeat” another?), so such rankings are often vague, subjective, whimsical and largely meaningless. We have evolved a mental hammer and everything in the universe looks like a nail, as we seek to impose one-dimensional well-ordered rankings on an intricately interlocked multi-dimensional universe. In this sense, lists are indeed primitive.

Dan November 14, 2009 at 4:09 pm

I think his whole point is that lists are an intrinsic part of being human. However, I think he’s a bit simple minded in this regard as memory functions more properly as a web. Lists are non-cyclical paths through that web.

Eric H November 14, 2009 at 11:09 pm

Steve, are you saying that people with Asperger’s become less so with age? Or simply that Asperger’s is just a form of immaturity? Or is this just a swipe at someone?

capitalistimperialistpig November 15, 2009 at 12:17 am

Edo – The list is the origin of culture.

But culture is like a big river. It originates in a myriad of little trickles. Anybody know where I can find a list of all the tributaries to the Missippi?

John November 16, 2009 at 1:37 am

1. Continental
2. philosophastering.
3. Must
4.(gasp)
5. stay
6. awAKE!

Zamfir November 16, 2009 at 3:48 am

Why the hate? The guy says he likes list and the many ways you see them in history, and the response is that European intellectuals spout bullshit?

Liam November 16, 2009 at 6:49 am

Umberto Eco’s work (Name of the Rose) is a lot like Orhan Pamuk’s work (My Name is Red) and it’s funny that I came across this post and this one (http://www.kamilpasha.com/2009/11/14/to-notice-everything-is-to-care-for-it-orhan-pamuk/) in the span of a few minutes.

Both artists revive almost completely deceased cultures in their work, in addition to their “collecting” and “making lists”.

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