Saturday, 13 October 2012

A crisis of semiosis (part iii)

This post is just to clarify some of the concepts of semiotics so I'm just posting passages from wikipedia on Umberto Eco that I think will clarify what it is I'm actually referring to in this three part post on A crisis of semiosis.

Eco began seriously developing his ideas on the "open" text and on semiotics, writing many essays on these subjects, and in 1962 he published Opera aperta (translated into English as "The Open Work"). In it, 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. Literature which limits one's potential understanding to a single, unequivocal line, the closed text, remains the least rewarding, while texts that are the most active between mind and society and life (open texts) are the most lively and best—although valuation terminology is not his primary area of focus. Eco emphasizes the fact that words do not have meanings that are simply lexical, but rather, they operate in the context of utterance. I. A. Richards and others said as much, but Eco draws out the implications for literature from this idea. He also extended the axis of meaning from the continually deferred meanings of words in an utterance to a play between expectation and fulfilment of meaning. Eco comes to these positions through study of language and from semiotics, rather than from psychology or historical analysis (as did theorists such as Wolfgang Iser, on the one hand, and Hans-Robert Jauss, on the other). (Wikipedia entry on Umberto Eco)

From the late '50s till the late '60s, before his semiotic turn, Eco engaged in studies on mass media and mass culture, which were published in various newspapers and journals. According to some these studies were influential although he did not develop a full-scale theory in this field. (ibid)

Eco's fiction has enjoyed a wide audience around the world, with many translations. His novels are full of subtle, often multilingual, references to literature and history and his dense, intricate plots tend to take dizzying turns. Eco's work illustrates the concept of intertextuality, or the inter-connectedness of all literary works. Eco cites James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges as the two modern authors who have influenced his work the most.

Eco employed his education as a medievalist in his first novel The Name of the Rose (1980), a historical mystery set in a 14th century monastery. Franciscan friar William of Baskerville, aided by his assistant Adso, a Benedictine novice, investigates a series of murders at a monastery that is to host an important religious debate. The novel contains many direct or indirect metatextual references to other sources, requiring the detective work of the reader to 'solve'. The title is unexplained in the book. As a symbol, the rose is ubiquitous enough to not confer any single meaning. There is a tribute to Jorge Luis Borges, a major influence on Eco, in the blind monk and librarian Jorge of Burgos: Borges, like Jorge, lived a celibate life consecrated to his passion for books, and also went blind in later life. William of Baskerville is a logically-minded Englishman who is a monk and a detective, and his name evokes both Willim of Ockham and Sherlock Holmes (by way of The Hound of the Baskervilles). Several passages describing him are strongly reminiscent of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's description of Sherlock Holmes.The underlying mystery of the murder is borrowed from the "Arabian Nights". The Name of the Rose was later made into a motion picture starring Sean Connery, F. Murray Abraham, Christain Slater and Ron Perlman which employs the plot rather than the philosophical and historical themes from the novel.

In Foucault's Pendulum (1988), three under-employed editors who work for a minor publishing house decide to amuse themselves by inventing a conspiracy theory. Their conspiracy, which they call "The Plan", is about an immense and intricate plot to take over the world by a secret order descended from the Knights Templar. As the game goes on, the three slowly become obsessed with the details of this plan. The game turns dangerous when outsiders learn of The Plan, and believe that the men have really discovered the secret to regaining the lost treasure of the Templars.

The Island of the Day Before (1994) was Eco's third novel. The book, set in the seventeenth century, is about a man marooned on a ship within sight of an island which he believes is on the other side of the international date-line. The main character is trapped by his inability to swim and instead spends the bulk of the book reminiscing on his life and the adventures that brought him to be marooned.

Baudolino was published in 2000. Baudolino is a knight who saves the Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates during the sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade. Claiming to be an accomplished liar, he confides his history, from his childhood as a peasant lad endowed with a vivid imagination, through his role as adopted son of Emperor Frederic Barbarossa, to his mission to visit the mythical realm of Prester John. Throughout his retelling, Baudolino brags of his ability to swindle and tell tall tales, leaving the historian (and the reader) unsure of just how much of his story was a lie.

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2005) is about Giambattista Bodoni, an old bookseller specializing in antiques who emerges from a coma with only some memories to recover his past.

The Prague Cemetery, Eco's 6th novel, was published in 2010. It is the story of a secret agent who "weaves plots, conspiracies, intrigues and attacks, and helps determine the historical and political fate of the European Continent." The book is a narrative of the rise of Modern-day antisemitism, by way of the Dreyfus Affair, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other important 19th century events which gave rise to hatred and hostility toward the Jewish people. (ibid)

-The commonality of Eco's novels above is the constructed (but very real) realities built around the moral, ethical, archetypal, cultural and historical landmarks within which the characters exist. Some chracters do well, some collapse under the weight of the logical extremis of their worlds. Eco's writings explore what it is to human inside the human world.


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