Umberto Eco Biography
Umberto Eco was born in Alessandria, in the Italian province of Piedmont. He is an author and semiotician. He works as a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna.
Umberto Eco's work on medieval aesthetics stressed the distinction between theory and practice. In the middle ages, he wrote, there was "a geometrically rational schema of what beauty ought to be, and on the other [hand] the unmediated life of art with its dialectic of forms and intentions" -- the two cut off from one another as if by a pane of glass.
Umberto Eco's work in literary theory has changed focus over time. Initially, he was one of the pioneers of "Reader Response." In Opera Aperta, Eco argued that literary texts are fields of meaning, rather than strings of meaning, that they are understood as open, internally dynamic and psychologically engaged, fields. Those works of literature that limit potential understanding to a single, unequivocal line are the least rewarding, while those that are most open, most active between mind and society and line, are the most lively (and, although valorizing terminology is not his business, best). Eco emphasizes the fact that words do not have meanings that are simply lexical, but rather operate in the context of utterance. So much had been said by I. A. Richards and others, but Eco draws out the implications for literature from this truth. He also extended the axis of meaning from the continually deferred meanings of words in an utterance to a play between expectation and fulfillment of meaning. Eco comes to these positions through a language study and from semiotics, rather than from psychology or historical analysis (as such theorists as Wolfgang Iser, on the one hand, and Hans-Robert Jauss, on the other hand, did). He has also influenced popular culture studies though without developing a full-scale theory in this field himself.
Eco employs his education as a medievalist in his novel The Name of the Rose, which was made into a movie starring Sean Connery as a monk who investigates a series of murders revolving around a monastery library. He is particularly good at translating medieval religious controversies and heresies into modern political and economic terms so that the reader can understand them without being a theologian. At the conclusion of that novel, we are left with a monk attempting to reconstruct a library based on scraps and attempting to create meaning by the combination of random pieces of information. This monk is fulfilling the role of a reader.
Although his novels often include references to arcane historical figures and texts and his dense, intricate plots tend to take dizzying turns, he has enjoyed a wide audience around the world, with good sales and many translations. Foucault's Pendulum, Eco's second novel, ("the thinking man's The Da Vinci Code") has also sold well. In Foucault's Pendulum, under-employed historians decide, as a joke, to weave together the juicy bits of all the conspiratorial histories. They pretend to have uncovered the master plot, the ultimate in nefarious schemes. However, their derisive joke is believed by their readers, and they find themselves caught in a reality made by their fiction. As in The Name of the Rose, characters are obsessed with hermeneutics, and in particular the consciously concealed truth. Also, characters are again dealing with the random or the unintended. Eco's characters partially enact literary theory, as they demonstrate the way that meaning is manufactured by consciousness, and how it may be impossible for any human reading to be without meaning. As in semiotics, it is possible that there is an order antecedent to even the consciously random and that any manufactured meaning is true or false only to the degree that it is believed.
Eco's work illustrates the postmodernist literary theory concept of hypertextuality, or the inter-connectedness of all literary works and their interpretation.
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