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SPIEGEL: “…But why does Homer list all of those warriors and their ships if he knows that he can never name them all?… Why do we waste so much time trying to complete things that can’t be realistically completed?”

Eco: “We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It’s a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don’t want to die.”

This very insightful (and relatively short) interview with Umberto Eco was conducted in the lead up to the opening of an exhibit that he curated at the Louvre, an exhibit studying the nature of lists, and the places that they show up in literature and the visual arts.  They cover a lot of concepts, and many of them are beyond the theoretical scope of our class, but it’s still very interesting.  First, he discusses how making lists is one of our fundamental cultural impulses — as with all art, it’s a way of trying to impose order upon infinity, or chaos.  He segues into that point which I included up top there, that we do it to try to escape our thought about death.  Whee!

But then, near the end, they move on to discuss lists as a form of filtering, which strikes closer to some of the issues we’ve discussed in this class.  We’ve talked about how our modern, networked culture provides us with access to more content than we can ever possibly process; the idea of “publish, then filter”.  And we talked about how we all rely on certain sources, whether they be websites or people or whatever, to help us choose what culture we want to consume.  And often, this comes down to listmaking, whether implicitly or explicitly.  We LOVE lists in our culture!  There’s countless lists of the “best ___s of the year” published at the end of every year.  Personally I have kind of a guilty feeling about this (I feel it sort of goes against the artistic spirit when I listen to music throughout the year thinking about where it will fall in my year-end list), but I also think there’s a necessity to it, now, and it’s also kind of fun.

And they even touch on Google in the Eco interview.  He thinks it might be a bit dangerous because it gives us the illusion that we don’t have to be discriminating when searching for information, that Google will do all of that for us.  Eco says, “…in school when dealing with the Internet, the teacher should say: ‘Choose any old subject, whether it be German history or the life of ants. Search 25 different Web pages and, by comparing them, try to figure out which one has good information.’ If 10 pages describe the same thing, it can be a sign that the information printed there is correct. But it can also be a sign that some sites merely copied the others’ mistakes.”

I absolutely agree with this sentiment, and that’s why it has always annoyed me when teachers preach against Wikipedia; one just has to learn to be a discerning reader of Wikipedia.  I think learning to be discerning should be more emphasized.  And it’s a subset of media literacy in general, which obviously needs to be more emphasized.

Finally, I’ll close with one of Eco’s little wisdoms that he says near the end of the interview.  In discussing his giant personal library, he says: “Culture isn’t knowing when Napoleon died. Culture means knowing how I can find out in two minutes.”

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