On Foucault's Pendulum

essay, literature

Foucault’s Pendulum by Italian philosopher and author Umberto Eco has been on my ever-growing to-read list for quite a while. I picked up his most well known book, The Name of the Rose, from a thrift shop a few years ago based on name recognition (The Name of the Rose was featured on one of the endless lists of author-title pairings I memorized during my stint on the high school quiz bowl team). The first few chapters were almost excruciating to read; after a lengthy and seemingly irrelevant fictional foreword, we meet our main characters who do nothing but pontificate endlessly on medieval history and Aristotelian logic. It was clear to me why someone had decided to discard it alongside ragged copies of great literary classics like Jimmy Buffett’s Tales From Margaritaville. But thankfully, I was stuck on a plane and had nothing better to do than to power through. Soon, I was completely immersed in Eco’s 14th century world of monastic intrigue, religious power struggles, and heady debates on philosophy and theology. I couldn’t get enough of it, and it launched my interest in philosophy and Serious Literary Studies (™).

Now, two literature classes and a disappointingly small number of theory books later, I thought that I was ready to tackle Foucault’s Pendulum, Eco’s magnum opus (according to some people on Reddit, that is). It’s a door stopper of a book, clocking in at 623 pages, dense with untranslated Latin and French, obscure references to Renaissance history, and even more obscure references to occult traditions. It has a reputation for being borderline unreadable. “One of those books where the author tediously says next to nothing, and all the semi-litterati can’t figure out what he’s trying to say, so they conclude he must be brilliant”, rants a reviewer on Goodreads. I suspect I am precisely the semi-litterati being referred to here.

Set against the political tumult of 70’s and 80’s Italy, Foucault’s Pendulum follows the misadventures of the overeducated Casaubon, who works as a sort of scholarly detective. He becomes involved in the machinations of the academic press Garamond and its vanity alter-ego, Manutius. Garamond/Manutius has discovered that occult literature (both scholarly and pseudo-scholarly) is a vast untapped market, and has decided to begin publishing a series of books dealing with the esoteric. Casaubon along with his coworkers Diotallevi and Belbo are tasked with sorting through the manuscripts and deciding which are fit for Garamond, and which will be pushed to Manutius. The trio quickly become bored of their work, and decide to create the Plan, an all encompassing conspiracy theory that links the Templars to every significant event in the Western world since the middle ages. As the trio sinks deeper into the conspiracy of their own making, their scholarly joke begins to have real life consequences.

It’s quite easy to find contemporary analogues to the novel. Just replace “Templars” with “Jews” or “Deep State”, and you cover a whole slew of modern internet conspiracies. The Initiate and the Mystic have been replaced by the Youtuber and the Anonymous 4Chan Poster. Followers of these new occult traditions do not submit their work to vanity presses, but instead post them on blogs and make three-hour-long videos complete with innocuous photos of celebrities marked up with arcane symbols.

This is only to be expected, as Foucault’s Pendulum is, through its exploration of those who believe in conspiracies, a projection of the epistemic trajectories of postmodernity. If there is no Absolute, no center from which to suspend the pendulum of the world, then there is no reason not to rearrange and connect knowledge in any way you so choose. “When men stop believing in God, it isn’t that they then believe in nothing: they believe in everything”, muses Casaubon. Perhaps this sense of centerless-ness is felt especially acutely in the age of the internet. Wildly different conceptions of the Absolute, whether in religion, philosophy, or political ideology, are forced to exist side by side in hyperspace. In this kind of environment, it is only natural that the breaking down of metanarratives is no longer just an exercise of academia, but an exercise of the connected masses. One can interpret the recent surge in conspiratorial thought as a reactionary force against this; the postmodern subject searches desperately for a center from which their conditions can be understood.

This is not to say that conspiracy theories are benign. In Foucault’s Pendulum, the driving force of the occultists is not existential ennui but lust for power. They are focused on obtaining control of the Umbilicus Telluris, the Navel of the World, from which they can bring any government to its knees. The occultists buy wholesale into The Plan and pursue it relentlessly, with disastrous consequences for the trio of main characters. Modern conspiracy theorists likewise are focused on finding loci of power. As mentioned before, the Jews and the Deep State are common culprits, as are the Rothschilds, the Bilderberg Group, the Illuminati, Satanists, the New World Order, and of course we can’t forget the Lizard People. However, In contrast to the occultists of the novel, internet conspiracy theorists are mostly limited to the confines of cyberspace (though the Comet Ping Pong events of 2016 suggest this may be changing). And in recent years, internet conspiracies have taken a decidedly nastier bent; it seems the majority of conspiracies now are targeted towards marginalized groups rather than the elites (though again, Jews have always been a ubiquitous target). You can blame this on the sinister workings of patriarchy, racist social structures, or capital.

But maybe there is a silver lining, however slim it may be. In contrast to the occultists of Foucault’s Pendulum, real-life conspiracy theorists for the most part seek not to seize power, but instead to destroy it. However malicious or misguided their identification of power centers, as a whole, the collective impulse is to destabilize and destroy power and return the world to a “freer”, more democratic state. I might be overly optimistic here, and more than a bit naive, but the common desire for democracy is perhaps something we still might believe in, a worthy Absolute that we still might hang the world from.