R.I.P. Umberto Eco: life cubed


A personal micro-history

I remember going to see “The Name of the Rose” at King’s Theatre in Annapolis Royal (Nova Scotia), back in 1986, me 16 years old and probably one of the first times I drove to the movies. I’m not sure it clicked that the movie was based on a book by semiologist Umberto Eco, but later I recall reading a few articles in the New York Review of Books about him. Then I ran into him again six years ago, over Christmas in 2010. I had retreated to a small port in Alicante, meditating life, and bought three books at a second hand bookstore; Anna Karenina, Broadsides (Mordecai Richler), and Travels in Hyper-reality (Umberto Eco). I purposely chose authors I had been meaning to read for a long time. I started with Tolstoy though.

Three years later…. January  2013, I finally picked up Travels and landed on page 159, to find a short essay (4 pages) entitled “Sports Chatter“, which I have since read over and over again. I’ve been thinking about it now for over three years, it comes up in conversations and has helped me to organize my thoughts in several fields. (see a previous blog about Eco’s love of lists)

This morning I woke up to hear that Eco died at his house, last night, at 22h30, 84 years old. So, I thought that I would go back and summarize what that essay meant/means to me. It deals with the structure of our society and the “inconsistencies of man as a social animal”. I take it that sport can be used to mean any activity that is a “recreational waste”, not too useful in a material sense but healthy for the mind and body. Sport frees us from the “tyranny of indispensable work”.

Sports squared and cubed 

Eco paints a nice picture regarding the evolution of sports. One person decides to fling a stone and then another comes along and tries to throw it further away. Recreation becomes contest and the race improves competition. However, competition reduces innate aggressiveness and the players also have to think, so intelligence comes in to provide rules for the game. Contest also reduces excess action in participants and in the end neutralizes action. Game over.

Problems arise, however, when we start to dehumanize this nice story. We work harder to compete, ending up with athletes who hypertrophy one organ, play all the time and become “instrumentalized”.

Ok so far, but then Eco introduces the observers (sports squared). Professional athletes put on a show, and voyeurs get excited. However, voyeurs don’t get tired from just watching and their emotions regarding winning or losing are not checked by exhaustion. So it can get out of control, they can become quite emotional, especially in a crowd, and are removed from the sport.

Finally, there is a third level, or sports cubed (sports3), where observers discuss among themselves, inventing “sports chatter”. Commentators are not playing, but they have strong opinions (he should have done that, so-and-so is great). This idle talk is twice removed from game and comes to represent, for Eco, a glorification of waste.

Science cubed

After reading this for the first time, I saw direct parallels with science. First there are professional scientists working in the lab, then people, often other scientists, who observe the first scientists’ work, and then, on a third level, scientists and society at large who participate in science chatter, which is twice removed from the actual data. In those forums, it often seems like evidence is secondary.

I’m sorry Umberto had to die but I’m so happy he lived. Most of the obituaries I’ve read have concentrated on his life and personality, but he may have preferred we just stick with his work, read his opus, without too much chitter-chatter. .




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