Strategies of Lying by Umberto Eco

I thought I might take a different tact over the next month, and present a written summary/review of some of the essays and books I have enjoyed over the years.

I hope that you will enjoy these summaries/reviews and get something useful from them.

The essay I want to review today is called Strategies of Lying and was written by Umberto Eco in 1973, and appeared in an anthology of essays, I bought some years ago, called On Signs.
The book On Signs was first published by Blackwell in 1985 and includes essays by Eco, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Roman Jakobson, Frederic Jameson, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Lacan amongst others.

The book On Signs is intended to introduce semiotics – the science of signs – to a broad non – specialised audience. A useful definition of semiotics is provided in the blurb from the back of the book:

‘Thirty years ago Roland Barthes and others first perceived the power of unassertive objects as “signs,” bearers of accepted opinion and of ideological manipulation. In the three decades since, there has developed a new science of signs, called semiotics. Its practitioners include advertisers, politicians, media pundits, and cultural mandarins, all of whom send signals – a product, an image, a service, an idea – to those who will “buy” only if they recognise themselves in the message.’

Eco’s essay Strategies of Lying begins by a consideration of a short treatise called Politician’s Breviary, which was issued in Latin in 1684 and was thought to have been written by a Cardinal Mazarin. The treatise is an attempt at providing the reader with workable and effective methods for the manufacture, or rather, the simulation of a self. Eco clarifies further:

‘For what emerges from a superficial reading of the book is a …hack Machiavellian who continues to arrange his outer appearance and his reception, his words and actions in such a way as to ingratiate himself with his patrons and embroils his enemies, while concealing the hand that casts the stone.’

Politician’s Breviary is a do it yourself handbook on how to transform your self into a series of images; a locus of signs and a mannequin of surfaces ‘…it is a manual for the total theatricalisation of the “self”’

The whole purpose of rendering the self as image, or as a simulation, is to acquire and to hold onto power, by being seen to be exactly who is required, at exactly the right time and place, as required by a particular audience.

Politician’s Breviary goes into some detail, regarding the practical strategies to be employed. All of the following are addressed, and more:
• You never use violence directly, but rather through an intermediary.
• Power is obtained through the manipulation of consensus.
• Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.
• How to please your superiors and your friends.
• How to find out if someone is a liar.
• How to find out if someone loves or hates someone else.
• How to be serious, if necessary.
• How to make sure that your adversary does what you want willingly.

The list goes on and on, but the basic approach is as follows:

‘There is not…a single maxim that does not contain a verb having to do with appearance: to show signs, to give the impression, to reveal, to look, to observe, to pass for.”

Having analysed Politician’s Breviary, Eco now fast forwards to the televised speech of 30 April 1973, in which Richard Nixon tries to justify himself, before the general public, with regards to Watergate. There are two concerns, which Eco wishes to address in relation to Nixon’s speech:

1. How is Nixon’s speech constructed?
2. Why did the speech fail to convince the majority of the general public?

According to Eco, Nixon’s speech is underpinned by a basic narrative structure, which has been pulled straight out of the narrative unconscious of his audience. The story, created by the mass media, who are reporting on Watergate, is also underpinned by the same basic narrative structure as Nixon’s speech.

The difference between Nixon’s speech and the story created by the mass media is that each is creating a different story, but each is building a story, which is compatible with the internal logic of the basic narrative structure and its constituent parts, but which adorns or elaborates the basic narrative structure and its constituent parts in differing ways, and as a result offers a differing picture of the world, or of “reality.”

Here’s how this particular basic narrative structure looks, as a list of functions:

Violation of Interdiction
Value re – established
Evaluation of Facts

The basic unadorned narrative structure above works in the following way, according to Eco:

‘…there is a “hero” who asserts a “value” to be pursued; in order to secure and protect this value, an “interdiction” must be respected; the interdiction is violated, either by the hero under the influence of a “villain,” or by the villain himself to the detriment of the hero, and a “misfortune” results; at this point a “rescuer” intervenes and engages in a struggle with the villain until victory is attained; the defeat of the villain re-establishes the compromised value.’

Here’s how the basic narrative structure looks, adorned as Little Red Riding Hood:

Hero – Little Red Riding Hood
Value – Security
Interdiction – Do not stop in the woods
Villain – The Wolf
Violation of Interdiction – Little Red Riding Hoods talks to wolf
Misfortune – Little Red Riding Hood is devoured
Rescuer – The Woodcutter
Struggle – Pursuit of wolf
Victory – The wolf is killed
Value re – established – Security
Evaluation of facts – The hero was imprudent, but someone saved him.

Here’s how the basic narrative structure looks, adorned as the mass media’s Watergate story:

Hero – The American people
Value – Controllable government
Interdiction – Do not corrupt; do not spy
Villain – The President
Violation of Interdiction – Watergate
Misfortune – Abuse of power
Rescuer – The press and the courts
Struggle – Investigation and reporting
Victory – White house under investigation
Value re – established – Controllable government
Evaluation of facts – The villain attempted to lie to the community, but the community’s heroes punished him.

Here’s how the basic narrative structure looks, adorned as Nixon’s speech of 30 April 1973:

Hero – The President
Value – The American way of life
Interdiction – Supervise one’s collaborators
Villain – Careless collaborators
Violation of Interdiction – Distractions in China and Vietnam
Misfortune – Loss of credibility
Rescuer - The President
Struggle – Governmental investigation
Victory – Bad collaborators fired
Value re – established – The American way of life
Evaluation of facts – The hero was imprudent, but managed to redeem himself on his own.

Eco states that Nixon’s speech failed. The majority of the public did not buy into the particular story which Nixon built. Why didn’t the majority of the public believe Nixon’s story? Because, according to Eco, Nixon did not employ the lessons of Politician’s Breviary or did not employ them well. Eco states:

‘The narrative construction would have been perfect had the discourse been a written text. But it was “spoken.” And every muscle in Nixon’s face betrayed embarrassment, fear, tension. Such a fine story, with the benefit of a happy ending was told by a frightened man.’

If one could pull a number of these basic narrative structures from the unconscious and carefully examine and study them. And then employ the right narrative, at the right time, with the right elements, to create the right story for the right audience than one may be able to promote ones rational self – interest quite well, in my opinion.

There are a number of considerations, outlined in more detail below, which may be useful:

1. The user of the narrative, should ensure, that the basic narrative structure used to create the story and the story itself is appropriate for the situation. It may not be prudent to work with a basic narrative structure, which may normally be used to pick up a girl or guy in a bar, when you’re going for an important job interview. Certainly, it may be best, that the story itself should be appropriate to the situation.
2. Ideally the choice of narrative and the story which results should be tailored to, and, should appeal to people in positions of power, particularly those people, who are themselves in a position to form and mould audience perceptions and opinions. VIP’s in the audience should be catered to if possible.
3. The user of the narrative should ensure that their story is carefully and deliberately constructed, so that it conforms to the basic structure and its elements and will continue to perpetuate belief in the basic narrative structure.
4. The user of the narrative should carefully and consciously simulate and present a self, for an audience, if one wishes to maximise the chance for success. This simulated self should act and speak in accordance with the story and the intended effects of the story. One should appear to actually believe in the story for best results. The lessons of Political Breviary are useful here.
5. It may not be best practice to mix or alter basic narrative structures, without prior careful study of the effect on individuals.

The audience’s responses are entirely programmable, in my opinion, and can be objectively measured.

The basic narrative structure may induce the audience to believe, according to moral and/or religious and/or political belief systems etc.

The audience can be programmed to believe, react, perceive, think and feel in specific ways and at specific points in time, as a result of the individual elements in the narrative chain, and the way the elements are combined to build the basic narrative structure, and due to the story built, according to that basic narrative structure and its elements.

Some basic narrative structures and functions may access and induce nationalism, or fear, lust, anger or other responses etc.

If an individual has a sceptical nature, then that may mean, that the narrative and the story may need to be repeated a number of times, or else time may need to be given to allow the story to sink in, or the story may need to be somehow backed up by forms of evidence.

Semiotics, may be a useful study and it may produce a useful tool or two for the dark magician.