Umberto Eco, semiotician and novelist, was born in Alessandria, Italy in 1932. Eco graduated from the University of Turin with a thesis on Thomas Aquinas's aesthetics under the supervision of the Italian philosopher Luigi Pareyson, whose theory of interpretation and formativity influenced Eco's early works. After a few years at RAI, Italian national television, where he worked in cultural and artistic production, Eco started his academic career and in 1971 he was appointed to the University of Bologna, where he has worked ever since. From his early book, Opera aperta (1962; The Open Work, 1989), Eco has shown interest in the study of signs, in the creation of a theory of semiotics and in theoretical problems of interpretation.
Opera aperta moved away from the influential aesthetics of Benedetto Croce, who had considered the work of art as the artist's expression of an intuition. This approach excluded, among other things, the analysis of the processes of conceptualization, reception, and consumption. Eco's aesthetics, on the other hand, sees the work of art more as a product of the artist's poetics to which the reader, listener, or viewer responds through an act of interpretation. Indeed, the work of art generates multicoded messages whose actualization largely depends on the receivers’ activity of interpretation. The receivers therefore lose their passive role as simple recipients. In this first work Eco introduces the term “abduction” that he borrows from the philosopher Charles Peirce, a term that indicates the various hypotheses that the receiver proposes as an attempt to understand the author's message. Opera aperta was conceived within the milieu of artistic experimentation with which Eco worked closely: the neo-avant-garde Group 63.
Eco's next book Apocalittici e integrati (1964; Apocalypse Postponed, 1994a), investigates contemporary mass cultural phenomena and the intellectuals’ reaction to these: the “apocalyptic” intellectuals consider contemporary art and mass communications as the ruin of culture as they knew it, whereas the “integrated” ones accept and embrace the changes. Eco's attitude is closer to that of the integrated intellectuals, even though he retains some degree of criticism and detachment towards it.
The collections of essays published between 1968 and 1978 work toward the creation of a systematic semiotic theory through which all cultural phenomena can be explained: La struttura assente [The absent structure] (1968), Il segno [The Sign] (1973), Trattato di semiotica generale (1975; A Theory of Semiotics, 1976) are the most significant. Many of these essays are collected in The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (1979). His semiotic concerns overlap with his interests in the modes of interpretation of the text on which works such as Lector in fabula (1979), I limiti dell'interpretazione (1990; The Limits of Interpretation, 1990), Interpretation and Overinterpretation (1992), Six Walks in the Fictional Woods (1994b) focus. In these 1990s collections the ideas expressed in Opera aperta are further explored. Eco's concern here is to make clear that the range of interpretations that a text offers the reader is not unlimited, despite the fact that potentially there is no end to the numbers of connections that can be made from one sign to the next. This process of “unlimited semiosis,” a term that Eco borrows once more from Peirce, simply leads to overinterpretation, ignoring the constraints created within the text itself by the textual and stylistic strategies of the “model” author - which does not coincide with the “empirical” or the “real” one. These strategies form the “aesthetic idiolect” specific to that text and are directed to an ideal readership, the “model” reader different, of course, from the “empirical” or “real” reader - who knows how to decode and interpret them. Therefore, the reader's response is constrained by the intentio operis expressed through the “aesthetic idiolect” despite the principle of “unlimited semiotics.” The limitations, though, stem also from the intellectual, cultural, and political background of the readers. Therefore the polysemy and ambiguity of a message, a text in this specific case, are limited by both internal and external context and circumstances.
For some critics, one of Eco's most original contributions to the founding of semiotics is his critique of iconism. He challenged the idea that a visual and iconic sign differs from a written sign by losing the conventional connection with the object to which it refers as a natural representation of it. For Eco, the conventionality of signs applies to icons too, which therefore do not reproduce the properties of the object but rather recall some aspects of it. This applies to any form of visual art, including cinema.
Eco's preoccupations have been translated into fiction. In 1980, he published one of the most important Italian novels of the past 30 years. Il nome della rosa [ The Name of the Rose] was the first bestseller of what has been described as a new phase of Italian literature, characterized by the rejection of the straitjacket of ideology and experimentalism which had burdened Italian narrative production since the 1950s. Moreover, Il nome della rosa and the “reflections” attached to it, mark the beginning of the Italian debate about postmodern literature. The “reflections” clearly reinforce Eco's rejection of the distinction between high and low culture and offer an account of postmodernism. This is not an historical category but rather - Eco suggests - an ideal one, a “way of operating” which can belong to any historical period. Moreover, Eco points out that postmodernism is a reaction against modernism and the way in which it had used the past to make something new. Instead of destroying it, for its destruction would result in silence, the past must be revisited ironically, in a way which is not innocent.
Eco has also been highly active as a social commentator for magazines such as L'espresso, where he has a weekly and popular column: “Le bustine di minerva.” Eco has been linked to one of the bestsellers of the 1990s, Q, by the collective group of writers Luther Blissett, since Q is a novel that shares Eco's narrative strategies developed in his theoretical as well as his narrative work.
SEE ALSO: Narratology and Structuralism; Semiotics
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