Umberto Eco has pursued scientific research to the limits of philosophy and semiology; he has also published many articles and reports destined for a wider public, in newspapers such as the Times Literary Supplement and L’Espresso and in collections.
More recently, he has also been tempted by novels and has found worldwide success with Il nome della rosa (1980; The Name of the Rose), Il pendolo di Foucault (1988;
Foucault’s Pendulum), and L’isola del giorno prima (1994; The Island of the Day Before).
He first became known with Opera aperta (1962.; The Open Work), a work in which he develops thoughts on the plural character of artistic productions in an intuitive semiological approach he would later expand thanks to his discovery of structuralist thinkers. From this point on, Eco’s work as an essayist oscillates between two issues: on the one hand, the founding of a general semiology sensitive to the questions of interpretation and reception, and on the other, shorter, more personal reflections on the little details of life that he feels illustrate signs of cultural phenomena.
The semiological subjects he focuses on belong to literature as well as to diverse manifestations of popular culture, particularly to the mass media. Thus, in Apocalittici e integrati (1964; Apocalyptic and integrated), Eco opposes both the believers of a superior elitist culture, nostalgic for the past, who keep their distance from the media (which they consider to be akin to bearers of the apocalypse), and the “integrated,” who are not only open to this mass culture but so fascinated by it that they submit to its power. Eco advises the consumer to adopt a critical standpoint, to confront actively this media explosion in which modern kitsch takes refuge. Here he develops his first thoughts on Superman and, later, James Bond and other heroes he will discuss in Il superuomo di massa (1976; The mass superman). He also analyzes the social importance of television and the beginning of its evolution, propositions he had already developed in The Open Work, where he questions the aesthetic possibilities of direct televiewing, and which he takes up again in Faith in Fakes (1986; also published as Travels in Hyperreality) and Il secondo diario minimo (1992,; How to Travel with a Salmon and Other Essays).
In the preface to Faith in Fakes, Eco describes the methods of composition for his articles, which are not semiological exercises but appeal to what Barthes called “semiological flair.” He clearly distinguishes between what is particular to scientific work and what is specific to essays: “At white heat, in the rush of an emotion, stimulated by an event, you write your reflections, hoping that someone will read them and then forget them. I don’t believe there is any gap between what I write in my ‘academic’ books and what I write in the papers.” Eco continues that “It is true there is a difference in tone, because in reading about daily events day after day…you don’t start with theoretical hypotheses to underscore concrete examples, you start with events to make them ‘talk’ without having to conclude in definite theoretical terms.” Eco then shows that this “mind wandering,” when faced with particular facts, may be the first necessary step in the elaboration of a scientific project. Thus Diario minimo (1963; Misreadings), published just after The Open Work, uses imitations, parodies, and anachronisms abundantly, and develops ideas on the war games children love or on the passion for football in Italy, but always based on Eco’s knowledge of rhetoric, Aristotelian philosophy, or Charles S.Peirce’s semiology.
The interpenetration between Eco’s journalistic entertainment and his fundamental theoretical reflection becomes clear when comparing these articles with his more rigorous fulllength works such as La struttura assente (1968; The absent structure), Lector in fabula (1979; Role of the Reader), or I limiti dell’interpretazione (1990; The Limits of Interpretation). He begins by reinserting structures in the written codes of a story, and thus strongly denies the structuralist negation of the story, with the aim of founding a social semiology that also rehabilitates the reader’s role. Eco works on the assumption that “the text is a lazy machine demanding strenuous cooperation from the reader to fill in the unspoken or already spoken blanks.” The interpretative adventure builds up, essentially with the help of three notions: the encyclopedia, the topic, and the possible world. The activity of the reader is especially “inferential,” which means that “reading signifies deducing, conjecturing, inferring from a text a possible context that the rest of the book must either confirm or correct.” Thus, while remaining loyal to the notion of sign, which is the basis of his treatise Il segno (1971; The sign) or Trattato di semiotica generale (1975; A Theory of Semiotics), he also gives an important place to what he calls the “Model Reader” and to the procedures of interpretation, in a constant dialectic between the injunctions of the textual sign and their acknowledgment. Even in essays on
literary theory, Eco’s choice of works he writes about is significant: serial novels by Dumas or Eugène Sue, spy novels, and comic books, all of which are objects of the popular culture ignored by traditional criticism and which appear as significant witnesses of an era, outside all ideological value judgments.
More recently, Eco’s role as denouncer of all the pretenses invented by mass culture seems to be softened by his fiction writing. But even then he feels the need to put his novels in perspective, for example in Postille a “Il nome della rosa” (1984; Reflections on “The Name of the Rose”), where he reveals his methods as an author by discussing again his conception of intertextuality and the reader’s role, all the while speaking of suspense novels or postmodernism, which he magnificently defines as the triumph of irony in an era of lost innocence. Thus, the creator cannot hide the fact that he is above all a lover of language—of all languages—and of comic books, television series, medieval philosophy, and science fiction. All these beckon to those who can interpret them. This is Eco’s quest.
Born 5 January 1932 in Alessandria. Also uses the pseudonym Dedalus. Studied at the University of Turin, Ph.D., 1954. Editor of cultural programs, RAI Italian Radio- Television, Milan, 1954–59; taught at the Universities of Turin, 1956–64, Milan, 1964– 65, Florence, 1965–69, and Bologna, from 1971 (chair of semiotics, from 1975), and at Milan Polytechnic, 1969–71. Served in the Italian Army, 1958–59. Senior editor of nonfiction, Bompiani publishers, Milan, 1959–75. Columnist of “Diario minimo” for Il Verri, 1959–61. Married Renate Ramge, 1962: one son and one daughter. Visiting professor at various American universities, 1969–84. Cofounder, Marcatré, 1961, and Quindici (Fifteen), 1967; editor, Versus, from 1971; member of editorial board, Semiotica, Poetics Today, Degrés, Structuralist Review, Text, Communication, Problemi dell’Informazione (Problems of information), and Alfabeta. Secretary-general, 1972–79, and vice president, from 1979, International Association for Semiotic Studies. Awards:
Strega Prize, 1981; Viareggio Prize, 1981; Anghiari Prize, 1981; Medicis Prize, 1982;
McLuhan Teleglobe Prize, 1985; honorary degrees from four universities.
Essays and Related Prose
Opera aperta, 1962; revised edition, 1967; as The Open Work, translated by Anna Cancogni, 1989
Diario minimo, 1963; as Misreadings, translated by William Weaver, 1993
Le forme del contenuto, 1971
Il costume di casa: Evidenze e misteri dell’ideologia italiano (articles), 1973
Dalla periferia dell’Impero (articles), 1976
Lector in fabula: La cooperazione interpretativa nei testi narrativi, 1979; as Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts, 1979
Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, 1984
Sugli specchi e altri saggi, 1985
Faith in Fakes, and as Travels in Hyperreality, translated by William Weaver, 1986
Il secondo diario minimo, 1992; as How to Travel with a Salmon and Other Essays, 1994
Interpretation and Overinterpretation, with others, edited by Stefan Collini, 1992
Six Walks in the Fictional Woods (Charles Eliot Norton lectures), 1994
Apocalypse Postponed (various translators), edited by Robert Lumley, 1994
Other writings: three novels (Il nome della rosa [The Name of the Rose], 1980; Il pendolo di Foucault [Foucault’s Pendulum], 1988; L’isola del giorno prima [The Island of the Day Before], 1994), poetry, and many books on semiotics, art, and culture.
Ganeri, Margherita, in Il “caso” Eco, Palermo: Palumbo, 1991: 159–216
Coletti, Theresa, Naming the Rose: Eco, Medieval Signs and Modern Theory, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1988
De Lauretis, Teresa, Umberto Eco, Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1981
Ganeri, Margherita, Il “caso” Eco, Palermo: Palumbo, 1991
Gritti, Jules, Umberto Eco, Paris: Éditions Universitaires, 1991
Magazine Littéraire issue on Eco, 262 (1989)
Pansa, Francesca, and Anna Vinci, Effetto Eco, Rome: Gallo, 1990
Robey, David, “Umberto Eco,” in Writers and Society in Contemporary Italy, edited by Michael Caesar and Peter Hainsworth, Leamington Spa: Berg, 1984
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