By the late 1980’s, Umberto Eco (EHK-oh) had achieved a double fame: as one of the foremost theorists in the rarefied field of semiotics and as the author of two enormously successful and critically acclaimed novels. Born on January 5, 1932, in Alessandria, Italy, Eco began his career not as a semiotician but as a student of medieval philosophy, as cultural editor for Italian Television and Radio, and as lecturer in various subjects from aesthetics to architecture and visual communication at a number of Italian universities. The publication of his early books on medieval aesthetics (1956 and 1959) gave only partial indication of the direction Eco’s intellectual pursuits would take as his interest in aesthetics metamorphosed into a more expansive semiotic inquiry firmly grounded in cultural, and more especially literary, works.
Beginning with the Opera aperta, and extending through the studies that would establish his reputation among a wide range of literary scholars and Anglo-American semioticians, A Theory of Semiotics, The Role of the Reader, and Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, Eco managed a double feat, at once summarizing an entire field of study and subtly shifting its nature, direction, and purpose. Both theoretical and practical, academic and accessible, even playful, he manages to be comprehensive without even pretending to be definitive. It is an approach particularly well suited both to the subject of semiotics and to the semiotic process, as he defines them. Eco accepts, with certain refinements, the triadic definition of the sign first proposed by Charles Saunders Peirce at the turn of the twentieth century: “something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity.” Like Peirce, Eco concentrates neither on the sign as object (a view he rejects) nor on the possibility of a larger metaphysical reality that may govern the semiotic world (about such a reality Eco remains playfully noncommittal); instead, he stresses the process by which signs are produced and interpreted. The semiotic world posited by Eco is one that has neither fixed meanings nor hidden essences. It is instead a world of endless semiosis: open, indeterminate, and arbitrary, but not at all anarchic. Individual signs and the codes by which they come to be understood (made meaningful) do not exist in isolation. Rather, they exist in the form of a network—a maze or a labyrinth—of interconnected meanings, which the interpretive codes do not so much regulate as make possible. Because the semiotician must stand within the field of his inquiry—within, that is, the semiotic...
(The entire section is 1075 words.)