Obituary: Umberto Eco (1932-2016)

By Marcel Danesi

On February 19, 2016, one of the greatest contemporary semioticians, writers and intellectuals passed away, leaving behind both an enormous legacy and a void that will be hard to fill. One cannot mention semiotics without mentioning his name in the same breath. With the late Thomas A. Sebeok, with whom he collaborated closely, Umberto Eco shaped the goals and development of semiotic theory and practice since at least the mid-1970s.

Umberto was born in Alessandria in the region of Piedmont, Italy in 1932. He graduated in 1954 in medieval philosophy and literature at the University of Turin. His first book, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas (1956), was a brilliant overview of the importance of scholasticism to modern philosophy and semiotics. He taught at his alma mater, while working in Milan at Italy’s state broadcaster, RAI, as a cultural commentator. Shortly after, he became part of a group of avant-garde intellectuals and writers, developing a penchant for Joyce, the music of Stockhausen, and the poetry of Mallarmé. He also worked as an editor for the publishing house, Bompiani. Before his death he founded a new Italian publishing house, La Nave di Teseo. His many writings on semiotics, such as The Open Work (1962), The Absent Structure (1968), the Theory of Semiotics (1975), Lector in fabula (1979), The Role of the Reader (1979), The Limits of Interpretation (1990), Interpretation and Overinterpretation (1990), Six Walks in the Fictional Woods (1994), and Kant and the Platypus (1997) have become central reference works for the whole field, shaping it and providing a framework for its current methods. Eco was also one of the founding members of Semiotica, which included Sebeok (the journal’s first editor), Roland Barthes, Juri M. Lotman, Nicolas Ruwet, Meyer Shapiro, and Hansjakob Seiler.

Eco’s first novel, The Name of the Rose, published in 1980, became an international bestseller. He always claimed that it was his foray into semiotic fiction. Indeed, I myself used it as a textbook in a first-year course introducing semiotics at the University of Toronto over 30 years ago. It was enjoyable for both myself and the students, and it worked! It made semiotics understandable to a new generation through the lens of detective fiction. Since that novel, it has been impossible to separate Eco the scholar from Eco the writer. Indeed, it is this blurring of the line that defined him as an intellectual and coloring the field of semiotics itself. It is no exaggeration to claim that writers and artists became interested in semiotics after the novel was published. In fact, many of the meetings in the SSA in the mid-1980s attracted leading writers and artists. The “echo effect” (pun intended) had taken place.

I met Umberto in the late 1970s at one of the seminars of the International Summer Institute of Semiotic and Structural Studies held at Victoria College of the University of Toronto. As a linguist, at the time I was skeptical of semiotics as a discipline. He changed my mind, not only with his brilliant arguments, but also with his humility and kindness. I realized that intellect without humility is likely to be useless. We remained friends right to the end. I would invite him to Toronto often, and early on, he would come gladly, not to be heard as a scholar, but to meet my students, whom he loved. He understood that semiotics could only gain ground only if young people understood its power to penetrate everyday life. He also taught me that meaning cannot be studied with the kind of objectivity claimed by rational logicians and linguists. He also taught me the importance of the ideas of Charles Peirce, reinforced later by my good and late colleague, David Savan, who taught in Toronto. He also showed me that semiotics was indeed a scientific discipline, since it had standardized methodological tools that allow us to seek answers to specific kinds of questions and then to generate hypotheses and theories about meaning phenomena, from written texts to visual artifacts such as paintings and ads. This connectivity of domains of investigation, relegated to disciplinary territories traditionally, is what makes semiotics the science of all sciences.

There is little doubt to my mind that Sebeok and Eco were instrumental in bringing the Peircean purview of the sign into the mainstream of semiotics, without, however, marginalizing the Saussurean approach and all the insights that it too brings to the semiotic table. Sign systems are built on perception and thus abduction. Eco thus brought the relativistic perspective of Wilhelm von Humboldt, Franz Boas, and Edward Sapir in linguistics to semiotics. It is still today the dominant perspective.

I have always found his distinction between open and closed texts as extremely useful. A closed text is one that implies a fairly limited range of interpretations. Recipes are about food, closing all other paths of interpretation, even though the ways in which they are organized and the kind of foods treated still open up avenues of culture and history that cannot be eliminated. A closed text is, thus, also open on many counts. A primarily open work, on the other hand, impels us to make up our own minds as to what it means. It requires a particular kind of reader, as he argued about Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. A closed text sets “limitations” on the reader’s potential range of interpretations—a map is a map, unless it is part of a treasure hunt with its own range of meanings. An open work implies freedom of interpretive choice. He often used the example of composers like Luciano Berio and Karlheinz Stockhausen, who gave musicians free rein to play (or sing them) their compositions as they wished. He claimed that this was also characteristic of Baroque music and of jazz. Openness is, for Eco, a semiotic condition that leads to a free imaginative play of interpretations which, in turn, leads to a powerful form of aesthetics.

Umberto Eco’s legacy has been enormous. He will be missed, not only as a scholar and brilliant writer, but also as a humane person, who cared for people. He even established a scholarship at the University of Toronto with Marshall McLuhan (called the McLuhan-Eco scholarship), which for a decade allowed his precious students to come to Toronto to study semiotics. He cared. Arrivederci Umberto, non ti dimenticheremo mai!

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About Farouk Seif

Professor Emeritus, Antioch University Seattle, Washington, a registered architect, an artist, a Fellow of the International Communicology Institute, and the former Executive Director of the Semiotic Society of America.