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Meditations on terrorism and other signs of the times

Travels in Hyperreality, by Umberto Eco. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 307 pp. $15.95. Umberto Eco's best-selling novel, ``The Name of the Rose,'' takes place in a Franciscan abbey in 14th-century Italy. Now we have a collection of essays by Eco, essays written in the last 20 years for the popular press, and it turns out that his familiarity with medieval times helps him discover some illuminating and disturbing parallels with our own.

It should be noted first that Eco is by profession a semiologist, a student of signs. He teaches at the University of Milan. A semiologist studies not only language but cultural phenomena of all sorts -- social behavior, political acts, landscapes -- as part of a largely hidden system of significance. Naturally, the semiologist can in practice be a con artist, offering his explanations of what's going on to an audience only too willing to grasp at straws when it comes to the question, ``Where is it all heading?''

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Eco is no futurist. He is not interested in trends. He writes not out of a conviction that he has all the answers, but rather that as an intellectual, he has a moral obligation to tell others how he sees ``daily life, political events, the language of the mass media''; and there's a long essay on ``Casablanca'' as a cult film.

His charming humility has increased with time. In the late '60s, as he tells us in ``Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare,'' he thought that he and other semiologists could demystify the present by teaching us about, for example, the political significance of a TV ad. His eye was on the communication conglomerates, and his tone was shrill at times.

He rightly saw that we had entered into ``the Communications Era.'' As that era matured, Eco's historical sense did, too. He saw that communications happened on one level, national politics at another. As an Italian, he watched with interest the way the United States struggled with the Third World. He saw an analogy with medieval times, and wrote some essays on ``The Return of the Middle Ages.'' In comparing our own times to the Middle Ages, he wrote: ``At the collapse of a great Pax, crisis and insecurity ensue, different civilizations clash, and slowly the image of a new man is outlined.''

What this new man will be is problematic, of course. Who are the heroes who will show us?

Is the terrorist the new hero? Depends on who you ask. Clearly the terrorist is a hero to certain Palestinians and others. But as Eco cogently argues, with the breakdown of the political order, the terrorist has become an anachronism. The System is headless. When the Red Brigades kidnapped and murdered Aldo Moro, the Italian Prime Minister, they thought they had delivered a crippling blow to the state. No such thing. Moro was simply replaced.

Eco's meditations on terrorism extend the invaluable analysis done by Albert Camus in ``The Rebel,'' in which political murder was treated as a profound act. Eco considers it irrelevant to the situation at hand. What Eco takes seriously is the possibility that the terrorist will discover ways of faking his way into the communications microsystems that together constitute the System.

In a model essay called ``Falsification and Consensus,'' he gives small examples of this: the wiseacre who steals a company credit card and uses it to call his girlfriend halfway round the world; the crisis in publishing caused by photocopying. We can add the recent invasion of airspace on the HBO channel by a disgruntled subscriber. But he shows again that even this high-tech form of terrorism will fail to upset the system, which, as an organism, has an incredible ability to adapt: the phone company, for example, simply budgets ``a few thousand dollars'' to cover illicit calls and charges it annually in a fixed fee to clients.

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The fact is, as Eco shows, there will be no Revolution. The millenial dreams so inspiring to 19th-century revolutionaries and anarchists and 20th-century radicals have faded in the new Middle Ages. Indeed, the system that binds the international community will create conditions such that ``. . . the utopia of the revolution is transformed into a scheme of short-range, but permanent, harassment.''

The terrorist as romantic, the terrorist as a perpetual adolescent: Certainly the terrorist has had his day as the ``hero.'' Too often, the terrorist is just a criminal in disguise and merely exemplifies the ``quotient of evil'' that appears to be a part of earthly existence, as Eco argues in an essay on the ability of full-time revolutionaries to go from guerrilla to bureaucrat with a turn of the wheel of fortune.

Eco adds with characteristic charm: ``The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of being an honest coward like everybody else.''

That humility serves Eco well as an essayist. He can be very funny: ``Castro must be more familiar with Errol Flynn than with Marx.'' He writes well about any number of things: sports and violence, comedy and tragedy, ``the multiplication of the media,'' St. Thomas Aquinas, the American taste for imitations (the title essay on ``hyperreality'' takes us on a tour of wax museums, Disneylands, etc.), the cult film. And you'll love the one on his blue jeans.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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