Eco Gets Digital, And Yet Still Believes in the Meaning of the Book
Umberto Eco on vegetal memory:
The first one is organic, which is the memory made of flesh and blood and the one administrated by our brain. The second is mineral, and in this sense mankind has known two kinds of mineral memory: millennia ago, this was the memory represented by clay tablets and obelisks, pretty well known in this country, on which people carved their texts. However, this second type is also the electronic memory of today's computers, based upon silicon. We have also known another kind of memory, the vegetal one, the one represented by the first papyruses, again well known in this country, and then on books, made of paper.
...Before the invention of computers, poets and narrators dreamt of a totally open text that readers could infinitely re-compose in different ways. Such was the idea of Le Livre, as extolled by Mallarmé. Raymond Queneau also invented a combinatorial algorithm by virtue of which it was possible to compose, from a finite set of lines, millions of poems. In the early sixties, Max Saporta wrote and published a novel whose pages could be displaced to compose different stories, and Nanni Balestrini gave a computer a disconnected list of verses that the machine combined in different ways to compose different poems.
...Yet, with hypertext instead I can navigate through the whole net-cyclopaedia. I can connect an event registered at the beginning with a series of similar events disseminated throughout the text; I can compare the beginning with the end; I can ask for a list of all words beginning by A; I can ask for all the cases in which the name of Napoleon is linked with the one of Kant; I can compare the dates of their births and deaths -- in short, I can do my job in a few seconds or a few minutes.
Hypertexts will certainly render encyclopaedias and handbooks obsolete. Yesterday, it was possible to have a whole encyclopaedia on a CD-ROM; today, it is possible to have it on line with the advantage that this permits cross references and the non-linear retrieval of information.
...AT THIS POINT one can raise a question about the survival of the very notion of authorship and of the work of art, as an organic whole. I want simply to inform my audience that this has already happened in the past without disturbing either authorship or organic wholes. The first example is that of the Italian Commedia dell'arte, in which upon a canovaccio, that is, a summary of the basic story, every performance, depending on the mood and fantasy of the actors, was different from every other so that we cannot identify any single work by a single author called Arlecchino servo di due padroni and can only record an uninterrupted series of performances, most of them definitely lost and all certainly different one from another.
...That is what every great book tells us, that God passed there, and He passed for the believer as well as for the sceptic. There are books that we cannot re-write because their function is to teach us about necessity, and only if they are respected such as they are can they provide us with such wisdom. Their repressive lesson is indispensable for reaching a higher state of intellectual and moral freedom.
I hope and I wish that the Bibliotheca Alexandrina will continue to store this (sic) kind of books, in order to provide new readers with the irreplaceable experience of reading them. Long life to this temple of vegetal memory.
(All bold emphasis mine.)
It is a theorist's view of authorship, but it addresses the digital medium and is worth reading in full if you have the time.
Posted by Mary Hodder at November 30, 2003 01:42 PM