Umberto Eco: Texts, sign systems and the risks of over-interpretation

Umberto Eco died in 2016, and as the obituaries made clear, his death marked the passing of a hugely influential polymath. Yet few of the newspaper obituarists seemed to know quite what he had done. He had been involved in something that had changed the way texts are interpreted; but it was not really clear why that was so Earth-shattering. Much of what he achieved was a result of “the esoteric theory of semiotics” (the Scotsman): an “arcane field” (the New York Times) or “abstruse branch of literary theory” (the Guardian and the Telegraph), which the Washington Post hardly elucidated: “the study of signs, symbols and hidden messages”. Eco had been the author of a number of high-profile novels, some of which make for challenging reading. He was also a medievalist, a most otherworldly pursuit in the contemporary environment. On the other hand, he was a champion of the popular, an academic and journalistic writer on media and communications since the 1960s.

Born in 1932 in Piedmont, the son of an accountant and an office worker in an iron works, Eco was steeped in popular culture from an early age, flipping through magazines at home and going to the cinema to watch movies. Although he became an atheist in his twenties, he received a strongly Catholic education and entered the University of Turin where he studied medieval philosophy and literature. He wrote his thesis on the aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, publishing a version of it as a book in 1956; he followed that in 1959 with a book on medieval aesthetics. At this time, he was working for the Italian state broadcaster RAI, as a “cultural editor”, leaving in the early 1960s to work as an editor for the publishing house Bompiani in Milan. Eco also joined a number of avant-garde artists as a founding member of Group 63 (named after the year in which they first assembled). Two of his books, in particular, are associated with this work: Opera aperta (1962) which seems to have grown out of his acute interest in James Joyce and which laid out a theory of the “open” and “closed” text; and La Struttura assente (1968), the latter being one of a small number of Eco’s books which have not been translated in their entirety into English. La Struttura assente is a milestone because it contains some of Eco’s first essays on media as well as evincing a semiotic perspective. Yet a small book published in 1964 exemplifies the kind of strategy with which Eco perplexed mainstream critics, even in 2016. Apocalittici e integrati (partly translated into English in the 1994 volume Apocalypse Postponed) features analyses of popular texts, including the Peanuts and Superman comic strips, mainly from the perspective of Aristotle’s Poetics. With a great deal of humour and self-consciousness which second-guesses his critics, and without a tortuous theoretical framework, Eco shows how Peanuts enacts the reduction of adult myths to childhood myths. Peanuts does this in such a way as to appeal to different readers: both the innocent and the sophisticated. The children’s articulation of adult neuroses, while monstrous, can “sift out the detritus, and give us back a world that is still and always very sweet and soft, tasting of milk and cleanliness”. In this way, Peanuts pulls off the rare trick, Eco argues, of appealing both to jaded adults and not yet disillusioned children. In other words, its text is characterized by different levels of narrative and allusion and these levels are discerned by differently disposed readers…[ ]

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