Umberto Eco is one of the few internationally known
contemporary Italian writers. He is also a careful analyst
and critic of the media environment and he writes frequently
on that subject. In the May 22 issue of LEspresso
his comments were about the mixture of information and show
business that he calls carnivalization of
society, culture and media.
Humor and satire, of course, have always been used to
address serious problems. As Shakespeare said, many a true
word is spoke in jest. But something has changed.
There are two venerable institutions Eco says
the court jester and carnival. The court jester could say the
most atrocious things, in his role at the resident critic,
and be immune from punishment. And during carnival all was
permitted, as in those carnivalesque events that were the
triumphs Roman legionaries could call Julius Caesar
queen openly playing on his alleged occasional
homosexuality. The difference, however, is that the jester
could say whatever he wanted only at court, but would have
been hanged if he had done so in the town square. Carnival
licentiousness lasted only a few days and for
the rest of the year such behavior was not allowed.
Freedom of opinion and satire in all places and all year
round is, of course, a good thing. But if its an everyday
reality it doesnt need to be in carnival disguise or bear
the jesters uniform. What happens today, says Umberto Eco,
is «a typical phenomenon of our time, the constant
carnivalization of life».
Its carnivalization of life to be able to watch a comic
movie or show on television every day, several times a day,
to the point of losing track of what is news and what is
supposed to be funny. Its carnivalization of life when in a
political convention everyone, including the candidate, is
dressed and behaves as in a Broadway show. Its
carnivalization when in a talk show a politician says
presumably serious things sitting beside a starlet with e
deep cleavage talking about her latest nude calendar. Its
carnivalization when comedians fool around with senior
politicians, our prime minister indulges publicly in silly
pranks , the head of opposition talks about his sailboat and
his shoes, the mayor of Milan appears in a fashion show in
underpants. Its carnivalization when a venerable old pope
attends a rock concert where the spotlights focus on the
singers belly button and she is (un)dressed in a way that
would not be allowed in a Vatican reception. Carnivalization
of life is the loss of a distinction between what is
serious and what is show business.
There may be less of it in other countries, but Italy
isnt the only place where almost everything (manly on
television, but also in other media) has turned into
vaudeville or burlesque. The deluge of female (also male)
déshabillé, in which we are submerged in all
contexts... is not, per se, immoral or shocking. As there is
nothing wrong with having fun or a good laugh. But when the
display of sex is everywhere and all the time it becomes
boring and meaningless. When everything is a show, people who
are supposed to be serious, or should do so, can
easily get away with a play on words. Showmanship replaces
meaning, appearance prevails on reality. «If it isnt in
television or in the news many say or think
it hasnt happened.» To make things worse,
lots of thing that are on tv or in the news havent happened,
or are irrelevant, or are distorted. Where everything is supposed
to be funny, hardly anything is amusing or interesting. When
everything is mixed and muddled, nothing is relevant. Everything
becomes vague, confused and meaningless.
A few weeks ago I was interviewed on television. It was a
late show with a small audience, but several people I meet
say that they saw me. When I ask them for their opinion on
what was being discussed, in most cases I find that they
dont know or they cant remember. «Im
not sure what it was all about they say but I noticed
that you were there,» This is only one of countless examples.
Is being there what matters, regardless of what one (if anything) has to say?
This condition of a massmedia society, as
Umberto Eco calls it, is getting more and more boring, artificial
and uninteresting. We are getting lost in a messy molasses
where everything becomes contused and indistinct.
When Michael Crichton wrote
in 1993, it was quite obvious that mainstream media were in trouble, that there
was a need for the evolution of new species to replace the dinosaurs and
that the internet was one of the most interesting resources in the new evolution.
The situation hasnt changed much in the last ten or
twenty years. The internet is, indeed, doing part of what was
expected. But the prevailing culture is unable (or unwilling)
to understand and its trying to carnivalize
the net like the rest of the environment.
They tell us every day, as often as they can, on
television (and also in the newspapers) that the net can be
used to find more pictures of the same undressed starlet or
something else that has been already repeated ad nauseam in
mainstream media. Of course that can be done though its
hard to understand why anyone should go online to look for
the same pictures, or the same gossip, that are overcrowding
broadcast and print. If thats what some people want to do,
of course they are (and must be) free to do as they wish. But
there are much more interesting things to be found in the
Carnival was invented a long time ago, when people spent
most of their lives in a restricted environment, in poverty
and oppression, there were few opportunities to get together
and have fun. A week of freedom and festivity, once a year,
was an exceptional opportunity to break habits, change the
rules, reverse the hierarchies. But if its carnival all year
long, where is the fun? Perennial, compulsory entertainment
isnt amusing. When reality is treated as fiction, and vice
versa, perceptions are confused. If everything and everyone
is in disguise all the time, the mockery becomes deception.
Jesters can say wise things, but that isnt a good reason
to turn everything into a joke.
The internet, of course, can also be fun. Thats a jolly
good thing. But to have fun with the net we dont need to
turn it into an amusement park. A sense of humor is vitally
important, online and off. But that doesnt mean that
everything must become a show. The net isnt television. Its
roots are in substance, not appearance.
The net isnt a masquerade. Its made of people, not
puppets. Its dialogue, not acting. Content, not
I am reading, here and there, articles that talk about a
new and surprising trend. Simple, practical,
plain websites with no frills, easy access and well organized
content. Its no surprise that they are the winners. Thats
the way the net (or the best part of it) has always been.
There seems to be no way out of the
carnivalization of mainstream media. Or, if there
is, nobody knows how to find it. There was an intense, but
hopeless, debate on this matter,
in October, 1999, between Umberto Eco and Eugenio Scalfari (a well known
journalist, editor and publisher). They were aware of the problem, but
couldnt find a solution. And they still dont have a clue.
But that is not whats happening with the internet.
In spite of the glitch and the clutter, the net is alive with
content, dialogue, human relationships. So lets concentrate
on its vitality and let the jurassic media worry about
their crumbling mausoleums.
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