Umberto Eco is an Italian medievalist, semiotician, cultural commentator, and novelist. He is world-renowned as the author of the huge bestseller, Il nome della rosa (1980), translated as The Name of the Rose (983), which was made into a film starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater (director, Annaud, 1987). However, before that, he was already highly regarded as a scholar, initially for his work on medieval aesthetics, but then more generally for his contributions to semiotics.
Eco was born in the northern city of Alessandria in the Piedmont region of Italy. His father was an accountant, but his grandfather was a foundling (hence the name Eco, which is an acronym derived from ex caelis oblatus, which roughly translates as ‘gift from heaven’). His father wanted him to be a lawyer, but he chose to study medieval literature and philosophy instead of at the University of Turin. He graduated with a Ph.D. in 1954 and took a job with the state broadcasting station, Radiotelevisione Italiana (RA), working as a cultural editor. From 1956, following the publication of his first book Aesthetic Problems in St Thomas Aquinas, he also lectured part-time at the University of Turin. He did compulsory military service in 1958-9 but did not return to his old job at RAI. Instead took a job as a non-fiction acquisitions editor at Casa Editrice Bompiani in Milan.
It was the publication in 1959 of Lopera in movimento e la coscienza dell’epoca, translated as “The poetics of the open work’, which is presenting a new debate of the “open and closed work first drew international attention to Eco’s work. Anticipating by more than a decade fellow semiotician Roland Barthes’s distinction between the readerly and writerly text, Eco argues that works of art are fields of possibilities which to a greater or lesser degree invite and require the audience to contribute to the production of meaning. Works that try to constrict the range of meanings the audience can produce are naturally enough called ‘closed works (examples would include religious doctrines, political manifestoes, textbooks, and user’s manuals), while those works which compel the audience to produce multiple meanings are called open works. Eco does not thereby agree with the empty claim that the reader is free to produce whatever meaning they like in response to a text. He sees it, instead, as a creative collaboration.
Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, Eco was preoccupied with the problem of how readers do produce meanings and what part the text plays in that production of meaning. Although not formally a part of the reader-response school, his work was nevertheless congruent with it on several levels. This work is best exemplified by the collection of essays spanning the period from 1959 to 1977 published in English as The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (1981). The collection contains his essays on James Bond and Superman, which have a virtual canonical status in genre studies as examples of the advantages of the structuralist approach to narrative analysis. His two key theoretical works, both written in English, A Theory of Semiotics (1976) and Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (1984), stem from this period as well. Drawing extensively on the work of the American semiotician C. S. Peirce, Eco sought to develop a theory of unlimited semiosis.
Following a series of trips to America in the early 1960s and 1970s, taking in the sights in California and Las Vegas, Eco wrote a series of essays for Italian newspapers and magazines that in 1986 were translated and edited as a single collection titled Faith in Fakes for the US edition and Travels in Hyperreality tor the UK edition. Both titles apply equally well and can be regarded as corollaries-to travel in hyperreality is in effect to have faith in fakes. What Eco found intriguing, but also confounding, about the hyperreal world he encountered in places like Disneyland is the fact that not only do these places replicate the real, somehow they seem to replace it as well. It’s as though the unreal is more real than the real. Although Eco doesn’t use the word postmodern, the phenomenon he describes is a staple concern of postmodern theorists like Jean Baudrillard.
Since the publication of The Name of the Rose, Eco has more or less abandoned his technical semiotic work and returned to his roots as a medievalist. He has written significant books on ugliness, beauty, and the Knights Templar as well as several more novels and collections of journalisms.
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