Eco, Umberto (b. 1932)

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ECO, UMBERTO (b. 1932)


Italian semiotician.

Umberto Eco's work on semiotics began in the 1960s, when his examination of mass culture in Apocalittici e integrati (1964; Apocalypse Postponed, 1994, a partial translation only) convinced him that a unified theory of signs was needed to study all cultural phenomena. In La struttura assente (1968; The absent structure), Eco provided an early formulation of such a theory. Elaborating on the insights of the two thinkers behind twentieth-century semiotics, the American pragmatic philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) and the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), Eco gives an overview of the fundamental concepts of semiotics: sign, code, message, sender, and addressee. Because La struttura assente is a work born of the debate with the ontological structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Jacques Lacan, however, Eco places a great deal of emphasis on the provisional and historical nature of systems of signs. He argues that semiotics studies the mechanisms governing closed, rigorously formalized systems but also analyzes the contextual variability and historical modifications to which these same systems are subjected. By doing so, Eco successfully integrates semiotics with a Marxist philosophical project whereby, "as in an ideal 'semiological' warfare" (Eco, 1968, p. 417), messages can be deciphered or encoded on the basis of oppositional, politically empowering codes.

Eco's semiotic reflection is pursued in Le forme del contenuto (1971; The forms of content) and especially in the monumental ATheoryofSemiotics (1976), where he develops a twofold formulation of semiotics as a theory of codes and as a theory of sign production. The theory of codes, which remains indebted to Saussure, entails a semiotics of "signification" that deals with the codes underlying and governing the functioning of a great variety of natural and artificial languages, that is, of closed systems such as zoosemiotics (animal communication); olfactory signs; tactile communication; kinesics and proxemics (ritualized gesture); music; aesthetics; and visual codes, among others. Yet, in theorizing a semiotics of "communication," Eco replaces the Saussurean notion of the sign as a twofold entity composed of a signifier (material form) and a signified (concept) with that of the sign-function, a mutable and transitory correlation whereby one or more units of expression can be associated with one or more semantic units of content. Moreover, following Charles Morris and especially Peirce, Eco describes the production of meaning as an inferential process dependent upon three entities: the sign; its object, that for which the sign stands; and its interpretant, the mental effect created by the relation between sign and object. Therefore, the meaning of a sign, or its interpretant , comes to reside in another sign in a process of unlimited semiosis (sign production) that is only partially related to the real world. Eco's definition of the sign as inference also facilitates his departure from a structuralist semantics of dictionary definitions or a semantics based upon one-to-one equivalences, and allows him to develop the notion of the encyclopedia: an archive of meanings that, through a process of abduction (a metalinguistic operation that enriches a code), activates an infinite number of associations in the course of interpretation. The process of abduction, however, does not imply semiotic drift or the endless deferral of signs. Not only does it remain teleologically oriented toward the creation of a better, more developed sign but its potential for drift is contained by the notion of ground and final interpretant, or definitions agreed upon by the habit of interpretive communities.

Eco's mature semiotic theory has been interpreted as a partial retreat from the political implications of La struttura assente. While the code theory tends to eliminate the referent and bracket intention, the sign-production theory, in an attempt to regulate the potentially unlimited openness of interpretation, places limits on the inferential notion of the sign and reduces the social import of semiosis.

While pursuing a general theory of signs, Eco continued his empirical research, writing a number of essays and book chapters where semiotic methods are applied in the practical analyses of the many forms of communication in human collective life, including the media and popular novels. Eco's extensive theoretical and empirical work by necessity also infiltrated his activity as an author of fiction. Novels such as The Name of the Rose (1983), Foucault's Pendulum (1989), The Island of the Day Before (1995), Baudolino (2002), and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2005) can be read as endorsements of semiotic creativity and invention but also as tales warning readers about the dangers of the unbounded semiotic regress allowed by the encyclopedia. For example, while The Name of the Rose exemplifies the process of semiotic abduction through the Franciscan William of Baskerville's investigation of the murders that have occurred in the northern Italian abbey, Foucault's Pendulum demonstrates the pitfalls of the unbridled, endless chain of semiotic production undertaken by the characters of Belbo, Diotallevi, and Casaubon. As such, Eco's fictional activity closely parallels the developments that have occurred in his theoretical and empirical work on signs.

See alsoLacan, Jacques; Lévi-Strauss, Claude; Saussure, Ferdinand de; Semiotics.


Primary Sources

Eco, Umberto. Apocalittici e integrati: Communicazioni di masse et teorie della cultura di massa. Milan, 1964.

——. La struttura assente. Milan, 1968.

——. A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington, Ind., 1976.

——. The Name of the Rose. Translated by William Weaver. New York, 1983.

——. Foucault's Pendulum. Translated by William Weaver. London, 1989.

——. Apocalypse Postponed. Edited by Robert Lumley. Bloomington, Ind., 1994. Partial translation of Apocalittici e integrati.

——. The Island of the Day Before. Translated by William Weaver. New York, 1995.

——. Baudolino. Translated by William Weaver. New York, 2002.

——. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana: An Illustrated Novel. Translated by Geoffrey Brock. New York, 2005.

Secondary Sources

Bal, Mieke. "The Predicament of Semiotics." Poetics Today 13, no. 2 (fall 1992): 543–552.

Bouchard, Norma, and Veronica Pravadelli, eds. Umberto Eco's Alternative: The Politics of Culture and the Ambiguities of Interpretation. New York, 1998.

Caesar, Michael. Umberto Eco: Philosophy, Semiotics, and the Work of Fiction. Cambridge, U.K., 1999.

Capozzi, Rocco, ed. Reading Eco: An Anthology. Bloomington, Ind., 1997.

De Lauretis, Teresa. Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema. Bloomington, Ind., 1984.

Robey, David. "Umberto Eco: Theory and Practice in the Analysis of the Media." In Culture and Conflict inPostwar Italy: Essays on Mass and Popular Culture, edited by Zygmunt G. Barański and Robert Lumley, 160–177. New York, 1990.

Norma Bouchard