Saturday, February 25, 2012

Umberto Eco : Speaking Mahatma's Language

Umberto Eco is one of the finest novelists of our time.  He is also an important philosopher, a great scholar of semiotics and aesthetics of the medieval period. Some of his brilliant novels include “The Name of Rose”, “Baudolino”, “Foucault’s Pendulum” and “The Island of the Day Before”.   Although  an Italian, Umberto Eco represents represents rich European tradition and culture.

 “Turning Back the Clock” is his latest collection of fine essays on war, peace and media populism in our times. These   essays focus on the major world events that occurred between 2000 and 2005.  Eco sees in the pattern of these events something that is fundamentally new and   unprecedented.  So much so that he   wonders whether we are not going back in history and remarks, “Almost as if history, breathless after the leaps forward made in last two millennia, is drawing back into itself, returning to the comfortable splendours of tradition”.  This theme  returns and haunts his essays as he brilliantly takes up one topic after another.

Are we really going back in time? 

That things would go somewhat back, he argues, was indicated by the events that followed the fall of the Berlin wall. The return of  Afghanistan at the centre of the global prospects of peace after fifty years of   cold war, modern versions of traditional crusades, the resurgence  of anti-Darwinian polemics, reappearance of Christian fundamentalism, streaks of fascism here and there, Eco argues, may be signs of history being rewritten.  It is not possible to comment on all the essays here. It is, however, possible to list briefly the concerns  he addresses in his essays.  Eco appears to worry on three counts.

 First he draws attention to widening gulf between people’s aspirations and its understanding by politicians.  He is rightly worried about the increasing disconnect between people and their rulers and politicians. Especially he is worried about the unthinking wars that were launched by major democracies and their political leaders. That today’s politicians and statesmen rarely care to listen to  dialogue history holds with the present is one serious complaint he voices.  This is further exacerbated by their excessive dependence on experts and technocrats.

 He is further worried by the media populism that is generating lot of confusion in the minds of people by resorting to simplifying the terms of intelligent debates and converting important debates into Manichean “yes or no” polls.

And lastly he is worried by the increasing power of technology over science which he says may spell disaster for man. The universe of technology is encroaching on man’s sphere of autonomy, volition and reason. This is the fear he expresses in his important essay on science and technology.

Eco’s essays, brilliant and insightful, speak the language of truth and non-violence. They    examine many aspects of our existence and plead for more reason and more wisdom. Though erudite, his essays speak    universal language of peace and reason. I shall go further and say   that many essays in this collection speak the Gandhian language of Truth, Non-violence and Universal Peace. 

Magical world of technology : Are we jettisoning reason?
For constraint of space I shall mention only one essay, “Science, Technology and Magic”   that demonstrates how close he is to Gandhi. Eco argues in this essay that in our daily life and especially in mass media, the terms science and technology are interchangeably and wrongly used with the result that science and technology are often presented as magic in human life. Science and its investigations are more philosophical in nature and they underline the relationships between  cause and  effect.  Science tries to comprehend and understand the world.  Technology, on the other hand, gives power to human beings. This is the power of getting anything done by just pressing a button. An ordinary man does not care to understand the principles of science on which technology is based. He is more interested in getting things done quickly, by pressing a button and summoning at his fingertips great power and extra-ordinary intelligence. Technology encourages taking short cuts to  relationship between cause and effect and goes directly to harnessing power by pressing a button. We are so much used to  fast and instant results given by technology   that the whole thing resembles working of magic.

           Eco is very insightful on the issue of technology. And he perhaps voices concerns that were shown by a galaxy of great thinkers and activists that would include Tolstoy, Thoreau, Goethe and Mahatma Gandhi.    This attitude of the modern man of pressing a button for getting things done, and neglecting the processes of science   for attaining all kinds of pleasures and privileges and successes is abominable.   The philosophy of technology is to get maximum convenience and pleasure at no costs.  It is this that lies at the core of all evil: trying to get everything in the world without paying a price for it.    If this is what we do and if magic and its power is all the language we speak and understand, then somehow we are jettisoning reason from our social and human discourse---a serious matter with grave consequences for Man. Science is supposed to extirpate all magic and establish a Universe of Reason. But with complex technology and its instant, naked and brute power of pressing a button, the Universe of reason slowly gives way to the    Universe of Magic; and then this Universe of magic and power returns with all its dark portents and ranting soliloquies of triumph over the nature.

      Mahatma's language

            It is this universe of magic that Eco fears the most. And it is this fear of wielding unthinking power without ever trying to evolve spiritually that made Mahatma Gandhi and other traditionalists look to science and technology with suspicion. Mahatma Gandhi   hated lofty   technology for the simple reason that in course of time its magical and easily exercisable power would somehow dehumanize man’s relationship with himself and with the nature. Over years Gandhi may have slowly and perhaps carefully allowed some bare minimum technologies in his moral and ethical universe; however, his philosophical opposition to all technologies sprang from his fear of power flowing through science and technology and blindness it causes in human beings. Had I not read this powerful essay I would have never known how close Eco and Mahatma are on the issue of technology and power that flows from it.

The longish essay titled “The Return of the Great Game”, describes how Afghanistan has remained a thorny issue for about two centuries and how despite the world undergoing vast changes, it returns and occupies the centre place in the architecture of war and peace  of the world. And he does it through a number of anecdotes and stories of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson that have a reference to Afghan war and in which Dr. Watson had been wounded. This  essay is remarkable, both for its contents and its style.

 This volume has other essays on emerging fundamentalism, media populism, on war and on our dreams.  They are written with great style and poise and they sparkle with wit and humour. They present to us a gleam of the changing world and try to give meaning to the events that are unfolding around us. And I think that all intelligent and thinking people should read them.

 As to Eco’s fear, whether history will move backwards we cannot say anything.   However, the concerns he underlines are important and statesmen and decision makers should stop for a moment to ponder over them.  Every generation and its thinkers feel that they are living in unique times and amid great and mind blowing events that are set to bring great change. History does sometimes come back and sometimes plays out remaining parts; and, therefore, there is a need to learn lessons from history and gain some insights. Eco’s fear may be genuine but then history is perhaps the most wily and elusive discipline and proves mankind wrong every time something is predicted.  At least I do not think that history is going back or we should be pessimistic about our future unless we ourselves will that way, lose hope hand over  ourselves to the dark and retrograde  powers that wait for an opportunity.

 In the aftermath of the Berlin wall being pulled down Francis Fukuyama wrote  his celebrated piece “The End of the History…..” and majestically declared that  directional history has come to an end. Nobody, not even Fukuyama, really believed that   history has thus ceased to flow in   Hegelian or a Marxist sense. In the meanwhile   capitalism has undergone substantial changes and finds itself in a crisis; but the world has not ceased reading and studying Marx and Hegel. Eric Hobsbawm informs us that in   Marx’s birth centenary year, he was retained by a large American Airlines to write an article on “The Communist Manifesto” in the airline’s on-flight magazine. If  capitalism has gone that far, surely we  shouldn’t be afraid of history coming back and playing out remaining parts!

Although, therefore, Eco’s essays are very good I find his fears somewhat  unfounded!


Dinesh said...

Very True & Interesting + Alarming thoughts @ Science & Technology !!

Virat said...

I too believe that gandhi was totally true about science and technology taking over human relationship.