restricted access Umberto Eco: Philosophy, Semiotics and the Work of Fiction (review)
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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.2 (2001) 528-530



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Book Review

Umberto Eco: Philosophy, Semiotics and the Work of Fiction


Michael Caesar. Umberto Eco: Philosophy, Semiotics and the Work of Fiction. Cambridge: Polity, 1999. viii + 198 pp.

Caesar's book is a lucid, comprehensive account of Eco's extensive production in the fields of aesthetics, popular culture, semiotics, philosophy, and narrative. Organized chronologically, it consists of eight chapters that follow the development of Eco's thought from the 1950s to the 1990s. It emphasizes the interconnectedness of Eco's prolific activity while at the same time provides insightful descriptions of the wider cultural context against which Eco's work is situated.

Chapter 1, "Form, Interpretation and the Open Work," begins with a description of Eco's formative years. Influenced by the theory of aesthetic "formativity" of his teacher and mentor, Luigi Pareyson, Eco challenges the neo-idealism of Benedetto Croce, while reflecting upon a "rationalist view of art," that is to say, a view capable of accounting for both the production and the reception of the artwork. An in-depth discussion of The Open Work follows and includes a detailed analysis of the concept of openness, the relationship between art and ideology, and the political and social responsibility of art. A broadening of this last issue is the focus of chapter 2, "A Critical View of Culture." Here Caesar not only discusses Eco's understanding of the social role of avant-gardism and of various forms of mass communication, but also addresses what will become one of the defining qualities of Eco's work, notably the "oscillation [. . .] between the demands of interpretative freedom [. . .] and the need to secure statements about culture and communication in [End Page 528] general [. . .]." It is this "oscillation" that is widely responsible, in Caesar's view, for Eco's polemic against the extremes of absolute structures and their denial in several sections of the 1968 La struttura assente. Caesar reminds us, however, that the importance of this work also rests in the definition of semiology that it provides. It is to a discussion of this discipline that Caesar then turns. His third chapter, "Introducing the Study of Signs," describes Eco's understanding of the sign as relational and conventional and also provides a useful description of basic semiological concepts: signal, as opposed to sense, code and lexicon, referent and reference. Two subsequent chapters, "A Theory of Semiotics," and "Semiotics Bounded and Unbound," expand the discussion of Eco's semiotic inquiry. While Caesar argues that in A Theory of Semiotics Eco can establish a general theory of culture only by excluding the subject and its referents, he nonetheless praises those sections of the work that reveal a move towards the area of text pragmatics. This area is the focus of such publications from the 1980s as Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language and The Sign of Three. It is illustrated by Caesar through a description of the concepts of unlimited semiosis and habit, sign and inference, dictionary and encyclopedia, and abduction. Chapter 6, "Theory and Fiction," provides an in-depth reading of Eco's theory of reception as illustrated in Lector in fabula (1979). Caesar concludes that, in Eco's model, the relation between texts and readers is not so much one of interaction, as is the case in Iser's reception theory, but more of actualizing the set of instructions foreseen by the author. The chapter closes with an analysis--regrettably rather short--of Eco's fictional work. While The Name of the Rose, Foucault's Pendulum, and The Island of the Day Before foreground the paradoxes of fiction, they also seem to undermine the possibility of the novel as genre to the point that Caesar wonders, "From what position, for Eco, can any future narrative be ventured?" Chapter 7, "Secrets, Paranoia and Critical Reading," addresses Eco's increased concern, from the early 1990s onwards, with establishing limits to the process of interpretation. Yet, after incisive discussions of The Limits of Interpretation and Interpretation and Overinterpretation, Caesar correctly questions the implications that such limits have...


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