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Umberto Eco and His Theories and Practices

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Umberto Eco was a voluminous writer; the covers of his volumes could fan out almost like a full deck of cards. In an earlier article posted on this site, I spent some time analyzing the hidden intricacies of his most famous book, The Name of the Rose, which has sold upward of 50 million copies. Despite Eco’s acclaim and his stanchless productivity, it is the only one of his works that most readers are familiar with. But there is much more to Eco than a blockbuster novel. For Eco was not only a novelist; he was also a university professor, an art historian, and a well-known semiotician—one who studies the nature of signs, representation, and communication within interlocking systems of linguistic and cultural reference.

He was, to cite one of his titles, a traveler in hyperreality, accompanied, as it may be, with a salmon —every domain of existence was worth exploring. “The problem,” said Eco in a lecture delivered at Brown University a few years back, “is not to keep everyone a prisoner of his own ghetto—it is to allow everyone to also understand other experiences.” Eco was expounding on his Encyclomedia program, a vast cross-referencing of different cultures, periods, ideologies and religions, and in general the many different ways of constructing, viewing or “writing” reality in a parallel series of lateral worlds. Like the Encyclomedia, Eco’s fiction may be understood as an unfolding of his semiotic preoccupations, that is, as a narrative illustration of how meanings are arrived at, modified, transformed, latticed and correlated. 

Eco develops this notion in his theory of the “Model Q” code (named after University of California semanticist M. Ross Quillian), a theory of how types and tokens, classes and items, words and symbols combine and interconnect by ultimately unspecifiable profusions of associative links. The Q-Code is probably best considered as the antagonist of our regulatory “s-code” (or code as system) defined in Eco’s A Theory of Semiotics as a “reductive network superimposed on the infinite array of events…in order to isolate a few pertinent events.” 

The s-code arranges the inventory of items which constitute the standard semantic universe in linguistically determined classes or as “structured wholes” in which “each unit is different from others,” as if every word could be rigidly trunklined to its object. This is how we normally consider the function of language. Model Q takes issue with the binary exclusions of ordinary language and legitimizes an alternative nexus of meaningful couplings and articulations –or “slack designators,” Eco’s verbal play on logician Saul Kripke’s notion of “rigid designators” in the latter’s Naming and Necessity. Slack designators operate far more freely and randomly, introducing an element of fuzziness and variation into our staple system of reference. To press an analogy, the s-code might be compared to single-strand DNA and Model Q to messenger RNA going astray to introduce anomalies and deviations into the syntheses it orchestrates—in contemporary terms, generating variants, though benign ones. And obviously, it is the source of humor as well, of puns and punch lines, double-entendres, hidden allusions, ramifications of meaning, ingenious insults, surprising connections, imaginative voyages on the Starship Enterprise of language at its most daring—all the bane of the joyless puritan.

Related: The Name of the Rose Is Laughter, or Let’s Go, Brandon

Put simply, the distinction Eco is working with is that between rigidity and tolerance, equivalence and ambiguity, which latter Eco in his typical manner characterizes as “pluri-isotopicity”. Words are not only exclusionary denotative markers; they also suggest an indefinite train of other words latent within them. In the same way, fictive worlds are braided together within the more lackluster chronicle of everyday life and these internalized fictions themselves enclose a proliferating sequence of interior stories—imaginative life as a narrative polymer, an Encyclomedia.  

One thinks of Star Trek’s whimsical and mischievous Q who, emerging from the Q Continuum, can manifest as anything he likes anywhere within the world whose forces he appears to control from some privileged Archimedean point beyond it, playing havoc with our conventional notions of meaning, reference, unity, time, space, coherence and probability. One recalls as well James Bond’s Q, whose gadgetry is wickedly destabilizing, and Virginia Woolf’s Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse who could not think past Q—though getting that far is a notable achievement. As still another Q figure, logician Willard Quine, whom Eco has read closely, wrote in Word and Object, “reference is nonsense except relative to a coordinate system.” Quine argued that if individual elements of a theory of reality cannot be separately and uniquely related to corresponding parts of the universe, then the universe of human sense-making remains open to new practices of meaning and theories of imaginative mutation whose effect is to keep a playful, antimimetic world pulsing with novelty—and novels.

Thus, Model Q allows for continual innovation unforeseen by the existing code of conventional sign production, FedExing messages to nowhere and no one in particular—messages that, by some peculiar pseudo-Einsteinian curvature in communication space, return to sender packed with “fresh information.” Model Q enables us to escape a tight, univocal system of expression, designation and allusion, of established rules and signals, in order to diversify and expand our possible worlds of significant experience. It is, in effect, the devil’s disciple of the meaning codes, resisting suppression, refuting the normative grid of sense-making linkages, constantly grafting new shoots onto the branching tree of knowledge, creating an Encyclomedia. Let’s have fun with words and names. As the White Knight explains in Alice Through the Looking Glass, The name of the song is called ‘Haddocks’ Eyes’…That’s what the name is called. The name really is ‘An Aged Aged Man’…The song is called ‘Ways and Means’…The song really is ‘A-sitting On A Gate’: and the tune’s my own invention.”

Like the White Knight, Eco loves to play with words and names, with multiple texts and linguistic variants, and does so with his own surname, an acronym for ex coelis oblatus (eco) derived from a foundling grandfather who was received by his foster parents as a “gift from heaven,” and touched on facetiously in the later novel Baudolino, where the holy grail is called lapis ex coelis, stone from the sky. One character in the novel speculates that the lapis might have “even arrived from another universe, crossing totally empty spaces.” Strange creatures, objects and manuscripts keep popping up unexpectedly—as items occupying a phantom queue of weird, unanticipated associations and liaisons.

The name of the Rose, for example, is an obvious gloss on Sherlock Holmes—hence his protagonist William of Baskerville. In Foucault’s Pendulum, with its emphasis on underground passageways and currents, one of the hidden “files” in the story, as Eco explained in an online conversation with Erica Goode, is “a novel written by Benito Mussolini, not literally quoted but interwoven with the whole damn thing.” Another novel, The Island of the Day Before, is chock full of allusions to Balzac, Melville and Donne, and has as one of its many nested texts Eco’s own The Name of the Rose. The theme of Island is that it is the stories we tell inside the stories we tell which permit us to survive and prosper in an otherwise linearly reduced or depleted world. Experience is replenished by the dimly intuited immensities of the possible improbable that do not necessarily conform to the topological properties of everyday life. 

The Name of the Rose is undoubtedly Eco’s master-fiction, but Baudolino is a close second. Also set in the medieval period that has governed Eco’s sensibility at least from the time of his early treatise Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, it is vintage Eco. Baudolino is a glorious book thronging with weird intersecting narratives, unlikely adventures, phrases and passages excerpted from other texts (e.g., Gulliver’s Travels), large doses of fantasy and legend, bibliographic minutiae, provocative ideas, the by-now obligatory internal allusions to The Name of The Rose, and of course the overriding semiotic theme of the relation between a strict “grammatical” parsing of reality and the complex network of subcodes. These, to quote again from A Theory of Semiotics, gather together “various systems, some strong and stable…others weak and transient (such as a lot of semantic fields and axes),” signifying an expanding universe of imaginative life. 

“Bare reality,” according to the narrator in an earlier novel that Eco certainly knew, Robert Walser’s Jakob Von Guten, is often only a “crook. It steals things, and afterwards it has no idea what to do with them.” But Reality, properly conceived, is potentially magical and infinitely rich—for all of Reality, Q-miotically conceived, is a species of Magic Realism, a continuous and evolving transcript of Mission Impossible, if only we are prepared to lie truthfully. Or to put it in figurative terms, to act as quixotic (Q-uixotic) and visionary messengers like William in Rose and the young trickster Baudolino travelling into unknown territory where resides the king of the imagination, and thus to prepare a throne for him in this world. Reduced to its essence, Eco’s semiotics and the fiction that stems from it are a testament to imaginative productivity and visionary freedom, a First Amendment of the brash and vibrant sensibility as opposed to uninspired orthodoxy and philistine literalism. Eco’s watchword might have been: Let there be the light of Model Q in order to generate both the beyond and whatever comes after.