Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Umberto Eco, Starsky & Hutch, and the "Shiver of Innovation"

I was handing over a dollar at a used bookstore for a Starky & Hutch paperback from 1978 (for Marz), and I made some sarcastic comment about it being a classic.

The clerk replied, 
"The Italian scholar Umberto Eco said Starsky & Hutch was one of his favorite TV shows."

"You're kidding!" I said.

"It's online, you can look it up," he said.

So I did.
From a Paris Review interview in 2008:
Columbo's dog & Umberto Eco share an interest:
Eco liking Starsky and Hutch cracked me up, partly because this blog has tags for both, but mostly I was amazed because while Starsky and Hutch (Glaser & Soul) generate a lot of erotic chemistry and are great at running and jumping, the rest of the show itself--its plots, characterization, etc.--is terrible.
Of course, that doesn't matter to a fan who doesn't care much about the story (which they already basically know anyway)--they are watching for exactly that eroticism or action or whatever it is that interests or pleases them. 

And it turns out, that seems to be what Eco's getting at in his essay I just read, which I found googling Eco and S&H:"Interpreting Serials" in the Limits of Interpretation: Advances in Semiotics (1990). 
Eco wrote, "Seriality in cinema or television is motivated less by narrative than by the nature of the actor himself," 
and, "Even the most banal narrative product allows the reader to become by an autonomous decision a critical reader…".

That's modern fandom! 
An engaged fan (what Eco calls a "smart reader" of culture, as opposed to a "naive" one) of a pop-culture product like Starsky & Hutch chooses to become a critical reader of what is a banal, repetitive product. She is, Eco say, "not a victim of the strategies of the author" [e.g. media producers] but "evaluates the work as an aesthetic product and enjoys the strategies implemented..." 

Engaged fans are well aware they are doing this re-evaluation--they may say simple things such as, "I know the show is terrible, that's part of the fun", and many have a sophisticated understanding of how mass-media production and manipulation works.

And Eco goes on,
"We know very well that in certain examples of non-Western art, where we always see the same thing, the natives recognize infinitesimal variations and they feel the shiver of innovation." 

LOL! Yes!
The media "native" combs the text of a repetitive, seemingly almost meaningless show like Starsky & Hutch for infinitesimal variations and reads meaning in them--or into them (they "innovate" meaning--very shivery)--quite consciously. 

Eco asks--this is 1990,
"What should we think about the birth of a new public that, indifferent to the stories told (which are in any case already known), only values the repetition and its own microscopic variations? … Ought we to expect for the near future a true and real genetic mutation?"

Why, yes. Buckle your seatbelt, it's going to be a Tumblr.

He ends "Interpreting Serials" with this fun thought experiment: What would people in the future make of Columbo, if they had only one surviving episode,  as we now have only a few surviving Greek plays?

His description of Columbo is so fun--I have copied the last paragraphs:


Michael Leddy said...

Wow! — this news is on a par with Ludwig W. and Carmen M.

If you don't know the piece already, Eco’s analysis of Casablanca is great fun. It’s on the Internets. (Forgive me if I’ve mentioned it somewhere before.)

I like the Colombo experiment. When I taught Sappho, I used to ask students to imagine, say, the work of the Beatles from two or three complete songs and dozens of tiny fragments: “Lucy,” “diamonds,” “taxis appear.”

Fresca said...

MICHAEL: Yeah, I love those intersections between "high" and "low" art too.

Eco's essay on Casablanca is fun--thanks! I didn't know it, but please never hesitate to tell me something again--I like [need!] reminders.

Sappho: "Someone in some future time will think of us."
Great teaching device--what if only fragments of our culture survived?
Quite likely too, eh? since e-formats are so fragile. We can't even access info stored electronically a few years ago.

Fresca said...

P.S. I turned in mss on floppy disks just fifteen years ago...

bink said...

I wonder what Eco considers trash shows? Oh, wait, Italian TV...