Eko Echo Eco

A section of the Notre Dane Cathedral, photo by Benh Lieu Song

In a 1996 lecture presented at Columbia University, The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America,  Umberto Eco said:

The story of Notre Dame de Paris takes place in the XVth century, a little later than the invention of printing. Before that, manuscripts were reserved to a restricted elite of literate persons, but the only means to teach the masses about the stories of the Bible, the life of Christ and of the Saints, the moral principles, even the deeds of the national history or the most elementary notions of  geography and natural sciences (the nature of unknown peoples and the virtues of herbs or stones), was provided by the images of the cathedral. A medieval cathedral was a sort of permanent and unchangeable TV program that was supposed to tell people everything indispensable for their everyday lives as well as for their eternal salvation. The book would have distracted people from their most important values, encouraging unnecessary information, free interpretation of the Scriptures, insane curiosity.

During the sixties, Marshall McLuhan wrote his The Gutenberg Galaxy, where he announced that the linear way of thinking instaured by the invention of the press, was on the verge of being substituted by a more global way of perceiving and understanding through the TV images or other kinds of electronic devices. If not Mc Luhan, certainly many of his readers pointed their finger first to a Manhattan Discotheque and then to a printed book by saying “this will kill that.” Before the invention of the computer, poets and narrators have dreamt of a totally open text that the readers could infinitely re-write in different ways. Such was the idea of Le Livre, as extolled by Mallarmé; Joyce thought of his Finnegans Wake as a text that could be read by an ideal reader affected by an ideal insomnia. In the sixties Max Saporta wrote and published a novel whose pages could be displaced so as to compose different stories. Nanni Balestrini gave one of the early computers a disconnected list of verses that the machine put together in different ways so to compose different poems; Raymond Queneau invented a combinatorial algorithm by virtue of which it was possible to compose, from a finite set of lines, billions of poems. Many contemporary musicians have produced musical movable scores, and by manipulating them one can compose different musical performances.

Read the complete text of Umberto Eco’s presentation, From Internet to Gutenberg 1996

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