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Umberto Eco, The Open Work, trans. Anna Cancogni (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989).
"Semiosis is not an objectless process."
Hanna Buczynska-Garewicz (166)
This "essential" characteristic bears more weight than might appear at first. For, the entire order of a semiosis based on productive, rational assumptions has to ground itself on just such an arguably desperate leap of faith. Buczynska-Garewicz is a revealing example of this tendency as she portrays semiosis, significantly, as "a process of continuous self-reproduction of signs" (168). Note that this rendition anchors the process within the sign itself, so that rather than depleting the sign's meaning in the course of signification, semiosis actually reinforces it.
In many models of signification in the discussion of semiotics, the process of semiosis is considered relatively ceaseless. The key element of that conception, however, is relatively ceaseless. This is significant in that the stress on containment is imported into the concept of semiosis, and needlessly so. For, "unlimited semiosis," to employ Eco's term for Peirce's concept, in no way requires a finite, constraining perimeter. Rather, this apparently has been brought into the discussion solely to quell the fears of semioticians (like those in the Indiana Group) unwilling -- or unable -- to accept the implications of ceaseless sign deferral.
This distinction is an important facet of such an inclination in semiotics as it attempts to distinguish itself as a discipline that yields progressive accumulations of "knowledge", as opposed to meaningless sign slippage, displacement, and deferral. The latter orientation, of course, is typically aligned (and unjustly so) with deconstruction, an enterprise portrayed as decidedly opposed to a "scientific" agenda. Buczynska-Garewicz again illustrates this effectively by declaring that "semiosis is a process of logical implications, while dissemination is an accidental play of traces and differentiations" (169). From this perspective, semiotics yields a rational, systematic product of understanding, while deconstruction generates mere "noise".
Since the IG has so strongly influenced literary semiotics, I will explore here a manifestation of this view of a shackled semiosis on a specific topic: critical commentary on James Joyce's novel, Finnegans Wake (hereafter: (FW) . Eco's readers will recall his frequent references to this novel as an illustration of a purportedly extreme instance of literary openness. But, before I enter into that commentary (an extension of my earlier essay on the subject), I would like to address some implications of the open/closed issue and Eco's writings related to, specifically, The Open Work.
The Open Work differs from the version in Italian (Opera aperta) published in 1962, which apparently also changed in composition in the course of subsequent editions. The Open Work actually consists of essays derived from Opera aperta (chapters 1-6) and five other sources.
The Introduction by David Robey provides a revealing frame for The Open Work that situates Eco's commentary (circa 1960s) as substantially different from his later, semiotic work. Robey argues that all but two of the essays in the English volume are representative of "Eco's major 'pre-semiotic' writings" (vii). Producing these essays, he relates from Eco's own admission, spurred Eco's move into a focus on semiotics. A careful examination of Eco's assertions in The Open Work reveals otherwise, however, in that his so-called "pre-semiotic" concerns are remarkably similar to those he raises in his "semiotic" phase. Robey's observation is typical of the narratives generated about the trajectory of Eco's career, though. Consider Lubomir Dolezel's suggestion that "ever since A Theory of Semiotics Eco has been staking out a reasoned position between the postulate of a single interpretation and unlimited semiotic drift" (115). Rocco Capozzi likewise notes that, in light of Eco's later works on semiotics and his fiction, "critics have started to (re)examine the author's theories on 'open works,' interpretation, and 'unlimited semiosis' in relation to his earlier observations on the 'rights' of texts and readers" (217). In fact, "some [critics] see Eco betraying his original spirit of 'openness' presented in The Open Work" (221). Despite this apparent consensus about Eco's career, The Open Work tells a different story.
Susan Petrilli likewise contends that there has been a seemingly natural development of Eco's emphasis on semiosic limitation. "Considering sign processes as open chains formed by the unending deferral of interpretants leads, sooner or later," she maintains, "to a need to consider the terms and sense of the opening" (133). Yet, Eco has been doing this throughout his semiotic commentary.
Moreover, this consideration in itself is central to Eco's sententious interest in asserting that the decoder's practices must adhere to a negotiated, contractural agreement. Without this understanding, the decoder is at liberty to use the sign-vehicle indiscriminately. This stance is not unlike the one Eco frequently assumes as he attempts to qualify yet another term in order to make it adhere to his beliefs. In this case, it's the concept of freedom. In The Role of the Reader, he asserts that "Everything can become open as well as closed in the universe of unlimited semiosis" (40). But he confesses his belief that "it is possible to distinguish between the free interpretative choices elicited by a purposeful strategy of openness and the freedom taken by a reader with a text assumed as a mere stimulus."
Elsewhere (as was cited earlier), Eco had relied upon the invocation of rule-bound behavior by the decoder regarding this issue. In The Limits of Interpretation he proposes that the text itself establishes an effective boundary on the decoder's practices. "A text is a placed where the irreducible polysemy of symbols is in fact reduced because in a text symbols are anchored to their context" (21). This anchoring has considerable authority for Eco. For one thing, the text then contains its own procedures for decoding it. "One should look for the rules which allow a contextual disambiguation of the exaggerated fecundity of symbols," he insists. "Many modern theories are unable to recognize that symbols are paradigmatically open to infinite meanings but syntagmatically, that is, textually open only to the indefinite, but by no means infinite, interpretations allowed by the context." What Eco is trying to accomplish here is to essentially continue the enforcement of rule-bound openness that he had established much earlier in works such as The Open Work.
Characteristically, even though Eco is talking about openness, he situates it as a prescribed freedom that is directed on several fronts. "Any act of interpretation is a dialectic between openness and form, initative on the part of the interpreter and contextual pressure" (Limits 21). This dynamic pits three entities against one, with openness surrounded. As a result, the decoder faces three limitations when dealing with the sign-vehicle -- hardly a form of open decoding.
It is important to note, too, that Eco relies upon a fundamental distinction in his commentary on opennesss and control. It's one thing to emit a meaningless, or extremely open, utterance; but it's another to do so in a manner that conveys significance to a decoder. This is essential for the complemental emphasis he makes on distinguishing the artistic use of signs from instrumental uses. This opposition -- similar to the "normal" use of language versus the "poetic" use proposition -- seemingly allows Eco to make a stronger case for inherent multivalency. Of course, the artistic register of a sign is, to follow this argument, going to be more inclined toward openness than a non-artistic one is (as can be seen in an apparently monosemous statement such as: "I have forgotten my umbrella."). (This specific issue will be pursued at length in Lecture 7.)
On the other hand, Eco also distinguishes between an act of communication and non-communication (what Tejera refers to as "communication" versus "signification" ). His commentary on action painting is revealing on this point. Even though it is an "art of chance and vitality," it is nonetheless "still dependent on the most basic categories of communication (since it bases its informativeness on its formativity)" (Open 103). Yet, he adds, "it also offers us, along with all the connotations of formal organization, the conditions for aesthetic appreciation." Eco endeavors to grant the sign-vehicle the capacity to set the rules by which the decoder is obliged to draw upon in order to assess what it communicates. Its elements of chance and vitality are truly limited, accordingly. After all, if the work signified a genuine sense of disorder and semiosic exhuberance, then the decoder would be unable to intelligibly say anything about it that could be confirmable.
This schema is related to Michael Riffaterre's efforts to propose a model of controlled decoder activity. Employing the rationalistic premise used by so many semioticians, Riffaterre contends that "the very logic of language controls [the reader's] response" (174). Clearly, Riffaterre's plan outlined here is designed to install the encoder as the "God" of semiosis. By placing the interpretant into a suitable vehicle, the encoder would effectively establish constraint over the decoder who then abides by this semiotic agreement. Semiosis is thus logically confined.
Riffaterre offers a decidedly mechanistic explanation of how semiosis can be directed by the encoder in this fashion:
The only difference between the mental interpretant, as we experience it in producing our own messages, and the recorded interpretant of the literary text is that, in reading such a text, we reverse the sequence of mental events that resulted in its being written. As the derivation from the intertext-interpretant opens enough textual space to allow lexical feedback from the interpretant to modify the direct derivation from the sign, the interpretant itself is partially inscribed in the verbal sequence -- a monument to the semiosis that took place in the author's mind. A monument, but also a set of constraints on the reader's freedom, a model for his interpretation, that programs him to retrieve the original semiosis by decoding upstream from the genesis sequence. (183-184)Even better, Riffaterre finds a means for accommodating unlimited semiosis into this paradigm as well. Like Eco's portrayal of aesthetically "open" texts, Riffaterre's rendition of the workings of the sign-vehicle allows for a certain amount of decoder lattitude, but casts it as an impoverished form of play, essentially. "The circularity created by feedback from the interpretant to the text suggests a compatibility between two concepts that appear at first to be mutually exclusive" (184). These concepts are unlimited semiosis and "the definition of text as a set of constraints imposing uniform reader responses and consistent interpretation that endure despite changes in esthetic or ideological fashions." Riffaterre goes so far as to cast this phenomenon in the same terms that opponents of truly unlimited semiosis use to condemn it, namely "circularity". Yet Riffaterre is able to rearticulate this concept in a manner that brings it back into accord with the views of control-oriented semioticians. As a result, the flow of semiosis is transformed into a processual entity like the food chain, organically whole and ultimately logically discernible as such.
This logic is reinforced by Riffaterre's notion of "retroactive reading." The decoder, in effect, can stand as a locatable origin that can be recovered by engaging in the equivalent of retracing one's "work" while doing a mathematics problem to be certain of having achieved the "correct" sum. The decoder is ever mindful of "the awareness of a semiotic transformation peculiar to the text" and this caution "causes him to re-read, to double-check."
Each re-reading forces him to work at retrieving the elusive significance. This alternation is therefore a form of unlimited semiosis, but one taking place within the text's closure. Paradoxically, this instability of the decoding, this repeated inability to stop and be content with a reductive reading does not threaten the text's monumentality. In fact, the best evidence we have for this universal is that it manifests itself in the endless instability of reading, but one that, remaining circular, cannot escape the orbit of the text. (184)This presumption of the sign-vehicle's status as something akin to that of a planet allows Riffaterre to situate decoders as moons or satellites that are always limited to moving only in accordance with its gravitational allowance.
It's easy to see where assumptions like those by Buczynska-Garewicz, Tejera, and Riffaterre are headed. In a different context, Anna Longoni reveals their goal succinctly: "A hypothesis, in order to become a legitimate interpretation, must be built upon clear proofs given to the reader" (213). A proposition of this nature, based on hypotheses and proofs, establishes the sign-vehicle as operating according to a logic derived from the paradigms of systematic reasoning. (A related component of this proposal appears under the guise of context assessment. "The context must give the reader a guideline that will set the boundaries within which to move in the oscillation of interpretation [which becomes wider the more complex the interpreted text is]" [Longoni 213].)
Tellingly, Longoni resorts to presuming that semiosic activity can be restricted, as is reflected in the distinction between works that "oscillate" a lot, or only a little. Certain types of works (she cites FW as one example) actually can "impose on the reader a plurality of interpretations" and "can be endlessly reassembled" by decoders (215). And where is this mechanism located? In what Eco refers to as text intention. Accordingly, "the intentio of [Dante's] Commedia is not that of a never-ending reading, while this is (but always within certain limits) the intentio of Finnegans Wake " (Longoni 215). A component associated with encoder intention is brought into this scenario, too. "In fact Joyce imagines a reader who is able to arrange units of sense, to discover endless potential messages by interpreting the ambiguity of the meaning..." (215-6).
The goal behind this web of interrelated assumptions is puzzling. They seem oriented toward a scenario in which the encoder has the capacity to take charge of semiosis, yet the sign-vehicle is described as generating a finite array of decoder responses. This assumption is widespread in semiotics. David Seed reveals his investment in it when he notes that "the writers which Eco highlights as pursuing multiple and indeterminate meaning are characteristically those whose works resist closure or who pursue diverse systems of signification" (79). Dolezel also suggests that "Eco's semiotics views interpretation as an interplay between the addressee and the work as an objective fact. As a signification system, the text restricts the range of its possible interpretations" (115).
Consistent with the orientation revealed by Longoni and Dolezel, Capozzi identifies Eco's belief that "the author's intentions are inherent in the linguistic and textual strategies that a reading must keep in mind when interpreting a text" (221). In the course of his assessment of Eco's orientation on this position, Capozzi reveals a noticeable and sympathetic longing for certitude. For instance, Capozzi remarks that Eco "is fully aware that the internal coherence of a text is constructed with the different strategies (semantic, stylistic, psychological, semiotic, structural, etc.) that an author plans, very carefully, for his readers" (224). Eco, he says, asserts that unlimited semiosis "does not give a reader the license to practice unlimited interpretation through an endless series of connotations that words and names elicit" (227). And, finally, "if signs, as Peirce tells us, are signs which stand for other signs which in turn stand for something in some capacity for someone, doesn't the something go beyond the endless chain of unlimited semiosis?" (231). This returns to my opening discussion and the semiotic theology implict in this conception of a limited semiosis. There simply has to be a goal to semiosis from this perspective, for if there isn't, the undertaking of semiotics collapses. Additionally, this goal has to be somehow present in the sign-vehicle in order for the decoder to be said to be decoding something, and directed by that something at the same time. This can be constructed out of boundary and craft metaphors, as is seen in Cappozzi's remarks on internal coherence, the encoder's careful planning and construction, inherent intentions, and -- most importantly -- the possibility of a semiosic "end".
Eco shares these assumptions and relies upon institutions of empistemological consensus for incarcerating semiosis. While he appears to inhabit a middle ground on this issue, a careful examination of his self-positioning reveals that he is aligned with those who favor a view of sign movement that has a domesticating agenda. This medium perspective in his orientation is suggested by his dismissal of either of the two "extremes" related to Peirce's conception of semiosis (i.e., eventual finitude versus infinitude) (Philosophy of Language 3). "At most," he argues about this notion, "it provides a theoretical tool for identifying, according to different semiosic processes, a continuum of intermediate positions" between the two poles. Between the two ends of Peirce's continuum "stands a recorded thesaurus of encyclopedic competence, a social storage of world knowledge, and on these grounds, and only on these grounds, any interpretation can be both implemented and legitimated -- even in the case of the most 'open' instances." With his emphasis on legitimation, it should become apparent that Eco reflects the majority opinion on semoisis as a controllable operation. (In fact, he bears no small responsibility for contributing to the creation of this opinion.) This orientation can be found in his discussion of interpretation and overinterpretation which similarly relies upon the presumption of programmable control of the decoder. As Capozzi suggests, for Eco, overinterpretation is the "result of a free-wheeling application of associations, similarities, sympathy, connotations, infinite chains of signifiers, and uncontrolled unlimited semiosis" (218).
Again, though, isn't this a case of overreaction? Tejera notes that Eco displays "unnecessary panic" when faced with the possibility of genuine semiotic openness that is found in contentions like: all language is metaphorical (157). (See Gary Genosko's related commentary on "panic semiurgy" in the "Massage and Semiury" lecture of his course on McLuhan, Baudrillard and Cultural Theory sponsored by the Cyber Semiotic Institute.) This is certainly the case when Eco's conception of The Open Work, for he is employing the term in a manner that is undeniably, and evidently "unintentionally", ironic. This frequently goes unnoticed, however. Seed demonstrates this well when he asserts that in The Open Work, "Eco gradually maximizes the connotations of the term 'open' as suggesting flexibility, intellectual receptivity, and potential" (76). For Eco, openness "always carries connotations of heuristic freshness, freedom from prescription, and so on" (78). It's hard to believe that this take on Eco's obvious manipulation of "openness" to suggest "closedness" doesn't come across as somewhat peculiar.
As was seen with contentions like those raised by Eco and Tejera, the belief in communication is difficult to refute. In fact, this issue is often raised as a means of denigrating the emphasis on play in some deconstructionist viewpoints. The evident conclusion derived from the assertion that indeterminacy is the dominant operation in semiosis is that nothing can be said with certainty about communication. "The notion of value is based on comprehension and without this potential, communication is a hopeless venture. Belief in sign stoppage provides support for the contention of logical coherence, with the implication that satisfactory information exchange is possible, if not probable" (R 154). A situation not unlike that which fuels the motives for systemics develops as a consequence of this acceptance. For, if a semiotically meaningful exchange "does take place with regularity, then it can be analyzed and schematized and consequently better understood through semiotic analysis." Charles Ruhl, for one, "reflects this notion when he concedes that 'monosemy is theoretically preferable to polysemy' in that it provides a stronger ground, a systematic stability, for semiotic analysis" (154).
The one facet of semiosis that is especially troubling to those uneasy with infinite signification is that this phenomenon seems essential to the creation of meaning. The plastic, generative quality of sign oscillation, in other words, is required for the construction and use of signs. Signs that are static and unmalleable couldn't be manipulated for communicative purposes by individual encoders. Out of necessity, signs have to be permanently subject to alteration as they reverberate in the larger arena of semiosis. What this means, then, is that "although signs never stop signifying, they are by no means useless. On the contrary, it is exactly this potential that allows them to signify" (R 156).
Peirce bears a significant portion of responsibility for the anxiety associated with unlimited semiosis, as depicted in his description of ongoing signification:
The meaning of a representation, can be nothing but a representation. In fact, it is nothing but the representation itself conceived as stripped of irrelevant clothing. But this clothing never can be completely stripped off; it is only changed for something more diaphanous. So there is an infinite regression here. Finally, the interpretant is nothing but another representation to which the torch of truth is handed along; and as a representation, it has its interpretant again. Lo, another infinite series. (c.1875: 1.339)This "nothing but..." has been the source of a lot of hand-wringing about Peirce's contention, although it can be taken in ways that alleviate this uneasiness. After all, "nothing but a representation" is not nothing; a representation just has a status that is different from that of entities inhabiting the material realm. (John Stewart, it may be recalled from Lecture 2, attacks this perspective for its presumption of a two-worlds view.)
Still, the knee-jerk reaction to this assertion always seems to predominate. A representative instance of this can be found in John Boler's diction as he suggests that "Peirce makes the sign relation a sort of breeding ground for infinite series" (382). What could be conceived of as a source of limitless growth is, instead, given a modality aligned with pestilence through Boler's frame. In a typical follow up to this negative presentation of semiosis, Peirce adds this sentence to the quote above: "But an endless series of representations, each representing the one behind it, may be conceived to have an absolute object at its limit" (c.1875: 1.339).
As this addition attests, Peirce, like semioticians such as Boler, cannot satisfactorily accept a semiosic landscape grounded by a presumed groundlessness. Nonetheless, at least "from Peirce's perspective, this 'absolute object' is ultimately only another representation. While he allows for the conceptualization of the end of semiosis, he does so only under the condition that such a 'limit' is extremely fleeting. Accordingly, once this conclusion is reached, it itself becomes a representation which finds its meaning in another representation and so on all over again" (R 160).
To reiterate a point made above, semioticians who argue for a constrained sense of semiotics are in effect refusing to accept the consequences of an arguably fundamental component of signification. To many, though, the potential destruction of semiotics goes hand in hand with this acknowledgement. "After all, if signs never halt in their progression of semiosis, how can they be studied and analyzed with any degree of finality?" (R 168). Boler echoes Peirce's depiction of ongoing semiosis when he asserts that it "raises the spectre of infinite regress and, what I think is more important, creates the suspicion that all signs are somehow shoddy or incomplete" because "a sign is always open to further interpretants" (382). "The acceptance of this condition often appears as a type of defeat, an admission of futility for the semiotic project: if signs and signification cannot be conceptually accepted as describable (due to their fluidity), then a subject is lacking for semiotic inquiry" (R 158). One can hardly blame those who are willing to concede "a modicum of stasis" within the concept of semiosis in order to prevent this from happening. Eco supports this view, although somewhat vaguely, when he concedes that "semiosis is potentially unlimited, but our cognitive purpose organizes, frames and reduces such an undetermined and infinite series of possibilities" ["Unlimited" 5]. The nature of our "cognitive purpose" is something this current lecture explores.
In fact, Andrew R. Smith offers a plausible explanation in his discussion of the "the ideology of communication exchange" (202). This orientation, he suggests, is "built on the creation and satisfaction of the dominant need for property and propriety" (203). Additionally, it hinges on the notion that things can be "explained according to rational lights" (202). As a result, within this paradigm, "the reality of the unverifiable or indeterminate is denied or suppressed" (203). Smith compellingly traces the origin of this drive to the tradition of Platonic rhetoric and its quest for knowledge and truth. The Platonists, he observes, were "determined to get the better of signs, to show that the truth of the referent could be revealed through proper dialectical methods that would not allow the weaker argument to prevail over the stronger" (203). (Presumably, with the weaker aligned with the false, and vice versa. Lectures 7 and 8 will extend this distinction in terms of the implications of favoring the "weaker" orientation of this nature.)
The situation Smith describes certainly accords with Longoni's apparent goal. Using, again, the familiar expression Eco employs for this distinction, she asserts that a "legitimate interpretation" is problematically discernible while "it is easier to say what a misreading is" (216). "Therefore," she concludes, "although in decoding the literary text it is not possible to find the true interpretation, it is the duty of the interpreter to look for a pertinent one: his aim is to grasp a fragment of the truth." (Perhaps what Peirce had in mind with passing on "the torch of truth.") To Longoni, the consequence of this maneuver is that "research will not then be an illusive combinatorial game, but the positive answer to the challenge the author and the text issue to us to discover in the narrative universe the cipher-key of Existence." (It should be evident that the semiotic "game" Longoni decries is that what deconstructionists are assumed to be playing.)
A willingness to accept shaky limitational formulae can be found in Ruhl's identification of what he labels as "bogus polysemy." This is derived, he asserts, not from the inherent multivalency of semoisis, but rather, from the vagaries of the individual decoder's subjective importation of meaning into the semiosic event. Significantly, his argument is directly related to the one Eco uses to disempower the decoder, for the source of "true" (read "finite") polysemy is founded on a belief that the sign-vehicle and the encoder have the power to enforce semiosic boundaries. Of course, Eco takes this further by placing a related form of this constraint on the decoder who engages the sign-vehicle by voluntarily adhering to normative practices.
Extrapolating from Peirce's point, Eco argues that semiosis is a process where "each term is explained by other terms and where each one is, through an infinite chain of interpretants, potentially explainable by all the others" (Role 74). Eco also is embracing a yearning for truth with this contention, basing his model on the premise that analysis of signification will eventually lead to a type of epistemological illumination. "As a result of this development, signs would indeed continue to shift and mutate, yet they would do so in a determinate manner with a goal, an end which in its finitude reveals a logic. To posit this coherent blueprint enables semioticians such as Eco to justify their analysis of semiotic systems because, again, they would actually operate according to a highly complex, but nonetheless distinctive order" (R 167). Eco suggests moreover that "the imagination would be incapable of inventing (or recognizing) a metaphor if culture, under the form of a possible structure of the global Semantic System, did not provide it with the subjacent network of arbitrarily stipulated contiguities" (Role 78). This social semiotic agreement is essential to Eco's argument since it is the basis on which his conception of finite infinitude rests. He contends, for example, that metaphors are made possible "because language, in its process of unlimited semiosis, constitutes a multidimensional network of metonymies, each of which is explained by a cultural convention rather than by an original resemblance." This is how Eco resolves the paradox behind his notion of closed openness. Semiosis is ongoing and indeterminate -- but not perpeptually ongoing and not fully indeterminate.
Eco clings to a residue of logic within semiosis and, in turn, implies that it is a discernible element of signification. One of the attractions of this strategy is that this makes a great deal of sense, as the concepts of feedback refinement and overdetermination suggest. Vincent Colapietro accommodates a logic within sign movement in a related manner that relies upon this type of progress as a necessary consequence of semiosis. "Precisely because semiosis is unlimited -- that is, because the series of interpretants potentially stretches to infinity -- the system of signs can become self-critical and self-corrective" (35). In 1990, I suggested that, in keeping with this position, "the endless referentiality which might pose a threat on the surface can thus be seen more fruitfully as a source of infinite potential and growth" and "unlimited semiosis, as a result, is the key factor behind the success of signification" (R 169). Now, upon reflection, I would argue otherwise. That is, that this sense of development is illusory and paves the way for the gratuitous importation of finitude discussed above.
A good illustration of this development can be located in Eco's depiction of the process of signification once signs are set in motion:
At this point there begins a process of unlimited semiosis, which, paradoxical as it may be, is the only guarantee for the foundation of a semiotic system capable of checking itself entirely by its own means. Language would then be an auto-clarificatory system, or rather one which is clarified by successive systems of conventions that explain each other. Therefore a sign is [in Peirce's words] "anything which determines something else (its interpretant) to refer to an object to which itself refers (its object) in the same way, the interpretant becoming in turn a sign, and so on ad infinitum." (Theory 69)Although this passage begins and ends on a note of infinitude, this openness is closed substantially in between these points. Essentially, Eco incorporates the kind of self-monitoring like that which Colapietro discusses so that he can maintain the paradox of a limited infinitude based on an underpinning of logical constraint.
Another vantage point to this situation exists, however. While Eco seems to accurately describe the necessity of unlimited semiosis when he suggests that metaphors can't be conceived without it, this does not imply that semiosic constraint has to accompany it. To the contrary, semiosic flow doesn't have to rely upon an explanatory capacity in order to produce intelligible signification. As Boler remarks, "Peirce knows perfectly well that being indeterminate is not a flaw in a sign but just the way it ought to be" (394). "As a matter of fact, it is the indeterminateness of a sign that allows it to signify," he adds. "An absolutely determinate sign is no more desirable than an absolutely frictionless surface." But, consistent with Eco's desire for a finality in all this, Boler is compelled to retreat to an emphasis on determinacy. In the very next sentence he concludes: "To say that a sign can be clarified or specified indefinitely need be nothing more than a way of calling attention to this feature of signs..." Clarification and indefinite specificity are radically opposed concepts, though, and it's apparent that Boler can't have it both ways. In effect, he apparently incorporates the latter to lessen the rigidity of the former. Likewise, Eco relies upon this acceptance of infinitude only as a means for introducing the accumulation of knowledge into this scenario. As a consequence, he can depict the richness of semiosis as nonetheless always constrained by concern for semiosic economy in order to avoid the overabundance associated with "noise".
To make semiosis safe for the human sciences, Eco is representative of those who have to drag epistemological progress into the picture. He utilizes Peirce's commentary on the "habit" as a means of asserting that "change of habit" impacts the semiotic arena inhabited by the decoder (Role 194). "This means that, after having received a series of signs and having variously interpreted them, our way of acting within the world is either transitorily or permanently changed." An experience of this nature stands for Eco's rendition of "the final interpretant" -- the site where semiosis halts. "At this point," he suggests, "the unlimited semiosis stops (and this stopping is not final in a chronological sense, since our daily life is interwoven with those habit mutations). The exchange of signs produces modifications of the experience."
Boler echoes this orientation when he exclaims that Peirce's account of semiosis doesn't presuppose "an endless parade of interpretants" (389). Like Eco, Boler asserts that a developmental accretion takes place for the decoder in the process of undergoing a semiosic experience.
Peirce's talk of infinite series does not imply that thought cannot be completed or that signs are essentially inadequate. Infinite divisibility shows the presence of a habit. The would-be (for all its futurism) reflects the power, not the inadequacy, of signs. And even that extendibility which allows sign processes to enter into more inclusive processes does not build upon the inadequacy of signs: that I could do something more does not mean that I have not finished this. (394)Ever attempting to heighten paradox in his semiotic conceptualizations, Eco returns to Peirce's admission of this finality serving only as a temporary way station before semiosis oscillates again. "The final interpretant is not final in a chronological sense. Semiosis dies at every moment," he declares. "But, as soon as it dies, it arises again like the Phoenix" (Role 195). No wonder that Eco's reliance upon closure-oriented paradigms so seldom receives comment, in light of these frequent problematic vacillations in his own orientation. Depending upon which pole of this schematic that one prefers to emphasize, Eco could either come across as a champion of unlimited semiosis, or equally as one of its sternest guardians. An alternative means to approaching this situation positively without these compromises can be found in Floyd Merrell's emphasis on the decoder's experience and temporal effects. "Every sign, every statement, every text, however fundamental it may be, always changes, with successive readings and under different circumstances, to become something other than what it was or could otherwise have been" (Foundations 146). "In light of the oscillatory nature of sign and text perception, with each transition from 'inside' to 'outside' there has been a time differential, and accompanying this time differential is a degree of change in space, no matter how small," he says. "After each successive oscillation a sign (or text) never remains identical with itself, it is never exactly what it previously was." Someone like Ruhl would be quick to point out, however, that this polysemy is of the "bogus" kind. Still, Merrell is insightfully emphasizing an aspect of the entire process of semiosis that has to be taken into account if one hopes to generate what might constitute a responsive model of signification
Responsiveness appears to be a viable means for avoiding becoming mired in what Merrell describes as "the muck of a relativistic epistemology that can only culminate in nihilism" (Foundations 148). This view of unlimited semiosis, in fact, "allows us to maintain the idea that any particular system and any particular theory constitutes only an approximation, only a relative truth, along with the optimistic vision of there perpetually existing the possibility of discovering [or] inventing newer and more broadly based portions of truth ad infinitum."
This fluid sense of the "truth" generated by semiosis conflicts significantly with the stance of those like Eco, for whom a sign can't communicate unless its signifying field has a limit of some kind. Without this limit, only noise takes place. This constraint can assume substantially different forms. For example, it can manifest itself as an acquired literary competence coupled with cultural discernment. "In a field of aesthetic stimuli, signs are bound by a necessity that is rooted in the perceptual habits of the addressee (otherwise known as his taste): rhyme, meter, a more of less conventional sense of proportion, the need for versimilitude, other stylistic concerns" (Open 36). Or, it can reside in a material manifestation. "Form is perceived as a necessary, justified whole that cannot be broken. Unable to isolate referents, the addressee must then rely on his capacity to apprehend the complex signification which the entire expression imposes on him" (36-37). Either way (among the two illustrations given here), this reining in of the decoder is conceived as a necessity for meaningful semiosis to occur. Eco even celebrates the voluntary acceptance of this subservience (recall his comment from Lecture 4 that decoders should be happy as "respectful servants of semiosis"). "The result" of this interaction directed by the aesthetic sign-vehicle "is a multiform, plurivocal signified that leaves us at once satisfied and disappointed with the first phase of comprehension precisely because of its variety, its indefiniteness" (37). This is where "openness" arises as the deocder is thereby authorized to participate in semiosis, albeit only somewhat freely.
Eco actually considers this form of polysemy as one that is valid only insofar as it is sanctioned by the twin controlling effects of the encoder and the sign-vehicle. "By setting the speakers free to establish an immense number of connections, the process of unlimited semiosis permits them to create a text" (Limits148). Without this semiosic permit, the decoder cannot, according to Eco, claim to be decoding responsibly.
This limited autonomy is always mediated by Eco's claims of eventual finitude that underlies -- and actually could be said to constitute -- successful, because intelligible, semiosis. Eco says that "open works reveal a "contemporary poetics [that] merely reflects our culture's attraction for the 'indeterminate'" (Open 44). This can witnessed in "all those processes which, instead of relying on a univocal necessary sequence of events, prefer to disclose a field of possibilities, to create 'ambiguous' situations open to all sorts of operative choices and interpretations." Yet, the existence of a restricting "field" belies the suggestion of limitlessness that arises when terms such as "unlimited" and "open" are employed the way Eco uses them. A genuinely unlimited semiosis, to the contrary, stands as nothing but chaos, as is reflected in Tejera's remark about Eco's inclination to "panic" when faced with a freedom that is a little too free for his taste.
In his commentary on information theory, Eco identifies "a certain amount of disorder" or "communication consumption" as something inherent to "messages as organized systems" (Open 50). This entropy in its advanced form constitutes "noise" which threatens stable, logical semiosis. "If the meaning of a message depends on its organization according to certain laws of probability (that is, laws pertaining to the linguistic system), then 'dis-order' is a constant threat to the message itself" (50-51). To Eco, the "constant threat" to semiosis is that it could lapse into "white noise." He depicts this development as "the undifferentiated sum of all frequencies -- a noise which, logically speaking, should give us the greatest possible amount of information, but which in fact gives us none at all" (96). "Deprived of all indication, all direction, the listener's ear is no longer capable even of choosing; all it can do is remain passive and impotent in the face of the original chaos," he says. "For there is a limit beyond which wealth of information becomes mere noise."
In a related vein, Eco likens this noise to the chaotic disorder of gravel crushed into a pavement:
Whoever looks at the surface of a road can detect in it the presence of innumberable elements disposed in a nearly random fashion. There is no recognizable order in their disposition. Their configuration is extremely open and, as such, contains a maximum amount of information. We are free to connect the dots with as many lines as we please without feeling compelled to follow any particular direction. (Open 98)This would be the form of openness that Eco would align with the "closed". "An excess of equiprobability does not increase the potential for information but completely denies it," he claims. "Or rather, this potential remains at a mathematical level and does not exist at the level of communication. The eye no longer receives any direction." Without this "direction", the decoder of pavement can not be said to be decoding a work. Instead, the pavement is a concrete manifestation of noise.
Eco leaves the discernment of semiotic direction to the decoder who has been trained to detect evidence of such guidance and can thereby identify potential communicability in a given entity. "Only a critical act can determine whether and to what extent the 'openness' of a particular work to various readings is the result of an intentional organization of its field of possibilities," he argues (Open 100). "Only then can the message be considered an act of communication and not just an absurd dialogue between a signal that is, in fact, mere noise, and a reception that is nothing more than solipsistic ranting."
Eco's use of "dis-order" is a strategy his readers have seen before. For, it allows him to embrace an enlightened -- if somewhat hopeless -- view of semiosis as necessarily infinite, while at the same time characterizing this situation as, oddly enough, not hopeless at all. Unless the communicative instance breaks down into noise, he asserts, entropy isn't a real threat to semiosis. It can be accommodated successfully, in other words. "If entropy is disorder to the highest degree, containing within itself all probabilities and none," he maintains, "then the information carried by a message (whether poetic or not) that has been intentionally organized will appear only as a very particular form of disorder" (Open 55). This would be "a 'dis-order' that is such only in relation to a preexisting order."
Here, Eco raises the issue of semiotic economy as a requisite measure to prevent total sign "consumption". When he distinguishes between information and meaning, he argues that the former can contract or expand, but the latter basically stays the same. Information, he says, refers to "the wealth of aesthetic meaning contained in a given message" (59). Thus, unlimited semiosis -- as long as it is under control -- is a restrained expenditure of significant communication. To the extent that this "wealth" is "contained", noise is forestalled and meaningful communication is possible. Put this wealth into the hands of a spendthrift decoder, however, and it can be paradoxically depleted through its unchecked proliferation.
This containment requires an immense amount of cooperation by the decoder. Not only is a form of "faith" in the possibility of successful semiosis needed, but an extensive system of enforcement is necessary as well. (Literary "competence" would be a good instance of this latter notion.) "A constellation is itself a kind of order;" Eco says, "for although the poetics of openness seeks to make use of a dis-ordered source of possible messages, it tries to do this without renouncing the transmission of an organized message" (Open 63). The outcome of this ordering is "a continuous oscillation between the institutionalized system of probability and sheer disorder," or what could be called "an original organization of disorder." To Eco, this oscillation is not necessarily any less chaotic than disorder. But, as a dis-order, it can be salvaged and domesticated through what Eco proposes as a form of "dialectic". His concept of this exchange is model more like that found in Plato's dialogues than something like "normal" conversation, in that a stable direction, a logic, and ultimately, a meaningful act of communicative synthesis will take place.
In relation to the new music and "the ambiguous message," which he defines as one which is "at once particularly rich in information and yet very difficult to decode," a problem arises (Open 63). "The highest level of unpredictability depends on the highest level of disorder, where not only the most common meanings but every possible meaning remains essentially unorganizable" (64). Thus, the difficulties involving "comprehensibility" and "probability" when one attempts to create a "dialectic between form and openness, between free multipolarity and permanence." Similarly, information theory situates this as consistent with the principle that "the most difficult message to communicate is the one that, relying on a wider range of sensibility on the part of the receiver, will avail itself of a larger channel." The problem with this widening is that it produces a channel "more likely to allow the passage of numerous elements without filtering them -- that is, a channel capable of conveying a great deal of information but with the risk of limited intelligibility." Evidently, the concept of finite semiosis will serve as a "filter" of this nature to avoid the danger attendant with too much openness.
In an effort to maximize this "risk", Eco posits a delicate balance between dis-order and disorder, while begging the question in the process by not addressing whether any degree of imposed order is at all possible when it comes to semiosis. "The distance between a plurality of formal worlds and undifferentiated chaos, totally devoid of all possibility of aesthetic pleasure, is minimal," he declares (Open 65). "Only a dialectics of oscillation can save the composer of an open work." Significantly, this semiotic salvation can come only as a consequence of the boundaries erected through the process of a dialectic.
This is where the final stage of semiosis begins. But Eco situates this a simultaneous reinstigation of semiosis, rather than an acquiescent reception. The decoder, he argues,
should be seen as the first step of a new chain of communication, since the message he has received is in itself another source of possible information, albeit a source of information that is yet to be filtered, interpreted, out of an initial disorder -- not absolute disorder but nonetheless disorder in relation to the order that has preceded it. As a new source of information, the aesthetic message possesses all the characteristics proper to the source of a normal informative chain. (Open 67)Eco attempts to turn his view of semiotic control into a moral responsibility in which the decoder should shun "the lures of vitality" (101). While considerable pleasure can be derived from untethered semosis, Eco portrays this experience as negatively onanistic. "The viewer [of a painting] can either work toward the recognition of an intentional message or abandon himself to the vital and unchecked flux of his most unpredictable reactions." Consistent with using "open" in a negative way, he similarly frames "vitality" as a bacchanalian indulgence of sensation without measure. Eco repeatedly insists that a decoder who disregards any caution is not actually functioning as a legitimate decoder. But this is a sensible assertion only insofar as the decoder is considered as a relatively acquiescent recipient of a message who makes no essential contribution to the overall production of meaning. To enact control over the uncooperative decoder, on the other hand, Eco constructs a procedure by which even this delinquent can still be mediated by the message and its concomitantly imposed limits.
If the viewer of the "new" painting "abandons himself to the free play of reactions," this freedom is mediated by the work which "provokes" it (Open 103). This is only another instance of happiness through semiosic restriction as the viewer immediately "goes back to the work to seek in it the origin of the suggestion and the virtuosity behind the stimulus." The viewer, accordingly, is "not only enjoying his own personal experience" within this scenario, "but is also appreciating the value of the work itself, its aesthetic quality." Given the encoder and sign-vehicle control over this process, the viewer's enjoyment is derivative, not creative. For, Eco proposes that this direction by the text somehow incorporates unlimited semiosis into the sphere of the text, so that the viewer's ostensibly autonomous actions are actually constrained by it:
the free play of associations, once it is recognized as originating from the disposition of the signs, becomes an integral part of the work, one of the components that the work has fused into its own unity and, with them, a source of the creative dynamism that it exudes. At this point, the viewer can savor...the very quality of the form, the value of a work that is open precisely because it is a work.This can be taken to the extreme so that "even an art that upholds the values of vitality, action, movement, brute matter, and chance rests on the dialectics between the work itself and the 'openness' of the 'readings' it invites" (100). If a text is not granted this status, Eco declares, then it has experienced a systemic condition of exit and is outside the arena of an aesthetic sign-vehicle (i.e., a work). This distinction allows Eco to reinforce his ordinary/aesthetic sign division. "A work of art can be open only insofar as it remains a work;" he says, "beyond a certain boundary, it becomes mere noise" (100). Barthes's "From Work to Text" sheds light on Eco's strategy here: Eco is essentially arguing that, what for Barthes is a Text, becomes constrained, intelligibly open, only if it is granted the status of a Work. Thus, the exhilarating infinitude of the Barthesian Text is an instance of noise for Eco.
Moreover, Eco's view of the work configures it as possessing what he calls "aesthetic information" (Open 103). "Quantitative information," he says, "consists in drawing as many suggestions as possible out of a totality of signs -- that is, in charging these signs with all the personal reactions that might be compatible with the intentions of the author." Aesthetic information, on the other hand,
consists in referring the results drawn from [quantitative nformation] back to their original organic qualities, in seizing, behind the suggestive wealth we exploit, a conscious organization, a formative intention, and in enjoying this new awareness. This awareness of the project that underlies the work will, in turn, be another inexhaustible source of pleasure and surprise, since it will lead us to an ever-growing knowledge of the personal world and cultural background of the artist. (104)Eco identifies this dynamic as enforcing a controlled semiosic environment in which "the dialectics between work and openness, the very persistence of the work is itself a guarantee of both communication and aesthetic pleasure." This is certainly a peculiarly austere form of "guaranteed" pleasure and nothing like the jouissance that Barthes and other proponents of the Dionysian form of unlimited semiosis imagine.
A good example of Eco's portrayal of the satisfaction derived from this type of semiosic finitude can be found in his commentary on "the system of rhyme" (Open 137). Eco asserts that rhyme encompasses "a number of stylistic patterns and conventions." This voluntary restriction is accepted "not out of masochism," he suggests, "but because it was generally assumed that only discipline could stimulate invention and force one to choose the association of sounds that would be most agreeable to the ear." By adhering to these "conventions", the rhymer "is no longer the victim or the prisoner of his enthusiasms and emotions." This freedom is paradoxically acomplished as "the rules of rhyme restrain him but at the same time liberate him, the way an Ace bandage restrains the movement of an ankle or a knee while allowing the runner to run without fearing a torn ligament." Eco's comparison is striking: he portrays a harnessed semiosis that protects giddy, intoxicated sign users from themselves, and for their own good. Not to be trusted with entirely self-directed semiosis (if this is possible, of course), the decoder is carefully guided through a truly modest interaction with signs, chaperoned by the combined preparatory guidance of the encoder and the sign-vehicle itself. The implications of this scenario are clear: in order to propose semiotics as a systemically logical discipline, it has to appear to consist of enforceable controlling agents and agencies. As Eco declares insightfully in Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, "one cannot match a theory of semiosis as indefinite interpretation with a 'doctrine of signs'" (1).
As with his observation about rhyme dominating the rhymer, Eco conceives of the aesthetic sign as possessing a similarly parental capacity of mediation over the decoder. "Every work of art...is open to a variety of readings" (24). And, it is open "not only because it inevitably lends itself to the whims of any subjectivity in search of a mirror for its moods, but also because it wants to be an inexhaustible source of experiences which, focusing on it from different points of view, keep bringing new aspects out of it." To Eco, this type of sign can actually save the decoder from falling victim to her own worse desires -- a narcissistically oriented semiosis that is far removed from the purport "contained" in or by the text. Even though he contends that "the message (the sentence) opens up to a series of connotations that go far beyond its most immediate denotations," Eco always returns to an accompanying form of closure to buttress this openness (31). Furthermore, this restraint is viewed by Eco as imminent to the text itself, as is seen in his comparison of the textual fields of two different authors. Consider his discussion of Dante and Joyce.
A lengthy overview of his comparison isn't necessary. It should suffice to note that Eco's observations here derive from his belief in differing degrees of polysemy in the passages from these two writers that demonstrate what he calls "two kinds of openness" (Open 39). Dante's apostrophe to the Trinity is offered as openness that is created by using "only words with very precise referents" (40):
O Light Eternal, who alone abidest in Thyself,In contrast to Dante, Joyce's openness, as created by his aforementioned portmanteau words that pun in numerous languages, produces a "polylingual chaosmos" characterized by "polyvalence" and "multi-interpretability" (41). Eco cites as an illustration this passage from FW describing a letter:
alone knowest Thyself, and known to Thyself
and knowing, lovest and smilest on Thyself!
From quiqui quinet to michemiche chelet and a jambebatiste to a brulobrulo! It is told in sounds in utter that, in signs so adds to, in universal, in polygluttural, in each ausiliary netural idiom, sordomutics, florilingua, sheltafocal, flayflutter, a con's cubane, a pro's tutute, strassarab, ereperse and anythongue athall.Both texts are rendered finite to a certain extent because in each case the decoder is "bound" by "the field of aesthetic stimuli" (36). This process of initiating aesthetic semiosis sets off a "chain reaction that characterizes every conscious organization of stimuli, commonly known as 'form'" (37). Eco places a great deal of emphasis on formal binding that is both responsible for aesthetic pleasure (by virtue of its directivity) and plural because of allowances sanctified by its so-called context.
This distinction, additionally, allows him to emphasize the function of the decoder as fabricator of the work. In a reflection on Luigi Pareyson's writings on aesthetics, Eco notes that a "polarity between the concrete personality of the artist and that of the interpreter allows Pareyson to situate the potential for permanence of a work of art in the very infinity of the interpretations it opens itself to" (Open 165). Once more, if it weren't for the initiator of this polar oscillation, the decoder would have nothing to work with and from. Eco goes so far as to elevate the encoder to the position of functioning as the generative source of semiosis. "By giving life to a form, the artist makes it accessible to an infinite number of possible interpretations." He qualifies "possible" by citing Pareyson's contention that "the work lives only in the interpretations that are given of it." Similarly, the work is "infinite" due to "the characteristic fecundity of the form itself." While "this fecundity will inevitably be confronted with an infinity of interpreting personalities, each with its own way of seeking, thinking, and being," the first distinction carries more weight (165). For, between these two latter distinctions rests Eco's strategy for giving the former the upperhand over the latter. Although at the end of this passage he appears to acknowledge a presumably equal mix of the two, the formal constraint always prevails in his schema of semiosic movement.
This dynamic is relevant for Eco's comparison of the different ranges of signification in Dante's and Joyce's texts. Both texts are open in different ways, while their openness remains fixed, but also to different degrees, by the semiosic dynamic between the sign-vehicle and the decoder. In this way, Eco craftily identifies an "internal" control over the decoder that is within the text cognitively, rather than materially. Eco attempts to make the case for unlimited semiosis as a mirage that disappears upon close scrutiny. "The impression of endless depth, of all-inclusive totality -- in short, of openness -- that we receive from every work of art is based on both the double nature of the communicative organization of the aesthetic form and the transactional nature of the process of comprehension" (Open 39). In part, Eco endeavors to substantiate this claim through a reliance upon a form of internal materiality that is also immaterial. "Neither openness nor totality is inherent in the objective stimulus, which is in itself materially determined, or in the subject, who is himself available to all sorts of openness and none," he contends. Instead, these effects "lie in the cognitive relationship that binds them, and in the course of which the object, consisting of stimuli organized according to a precise aesthetic intention, generates and directs various kinds of openness."
This "binding", then, is the mechanism that establishes -- for Eco -- semiosic closure. Eco proposes that the source of pleasure from an artistic experience is directed openly, and it is the decoder's participation in following this direction that produces it. Because "the openness of a work of art is the very condition of aesthetic pleasure," it follows then that "each form whose aesthetic value is capable of producing such pleasure is, by definition, open" (Open 39). This is the case even when "its author may have aimed at a univocal, unambiguous communication." But Eco argues for the possibility of establishing intentional openness as well.
Apparently, Eco is maintaining that this plurality is discernible, as opposed to an equally discernible monosemy. In other words, there must be a means for deciding between multiple decoding possibilities of a sign and merely single possibilities. And it is the former that constitutes the "open" work. Eco allows that "semantic plurality" is one operative criterion for assessing that a text has an "aesthetic" register (Open 41). Using a linguistic example, he proposes that "it is precisely the multiplicity of the roots that gives daring and suggestive power to the phonemes."
One means for detecting these different significations entails violation of literality which indicates an aesthetic -- as opposed to "normal" -- use of language. Eco attributes this assessment to the case of symbolic elements of a sign-vehicle. "The symbolic mode is...instantiated when a text describes behaviors, objects and events that make sense literally but when, nevertheless, the reader feels them to be pragmatically inexplicable because the context does not succeed in justifying their intrusion" (Limits 138-139). Yet, this relies upon a rather tenuous presumption of discernibility between the literal and the figurative, which furthermore he conceives of as a normative practice. "The standard reaction to any instantiation of the symbolic mode," he says, "is a sort of uneasiness felt by the reader when witnessing a sort of semantic waste." Employing his criterion of semiosic economy, Eco describes this plurality as "a surplus of possible and still imprecise significations conveyed by something that -- in terms of conversational or narrative economy -- should not be there."
From this perspective, the encoder is viewed as a selector of the strategic violations of linguistic/communicative norms that signal an aesthetic register. "Aesthetic discourse," Eco says, "involves to some extent a rupture with (or a departure from) the linguistic system of probability, which serves to convey established meanings, in order to increase the signifying potential of the message" (Open 58). Additionally, this would be consistent with "the basic openness of all works of art." The supposition underlying this contention is that the encoder can enforce openness through code-breaking moves. In effect, the text contains in some way a key that prevents closure-oriented decodings. For instance, this is seen in the "new music" which draws upon "new discursive structures that will remain open to all sorts of possible conclusions" (62).
Eco illustrates the semiotic effects of aesthetic language by citing the poet Paul Eluard as an example of a composer of open works. Eluard employs figurative language not because he desires to "reassert received ideas and conventional language by lending them a more beautiful or pleasant form" (Open 94-5). To the contrary, "he wants to break with the conventions of accepted language and the usual ways of linking thoughts together." This is accomplished, Eco proposes, by providing decoders with "a range of possible interpretations and a web of suggestions that are quite different from the kind of meaning conveyed by the communication of a univocal message." The artistic use of language essentially entails programmed polysemy. Additionally, the decoder is obliged within this model to adhere to the "suggestions" of oscillations that are rendered "possible" by the text. Another instance of this procedure, Eco observes, can be found in poetry by Petrarch that reveals, "through the elaboration of a message that violates the rules of the code...elements of disorder in dialectical tension with the order that supports them" (58). In other words, Eco says, "the message challenges the code." (Remember that he is talking about an aesthetic message here.)
Finally, it appears that openness from Eco's perspective is established by specifically prescribed decoder participation. While he posits a respectful, cooperative decoder within this scenario, in keeping with his stress on plurality he accords this decoder a certain degree of uniqueness in the process. "Interpretation is an exercise in 'congeniality,' based on the fundamental unity of human behaviour, and presuming both an act of fidelity toward the work and one of openness to the personality of the artist" (Open 165-6) These are, he concedes, "a fidelity and an openness which are, however, manifested by another personality, with its own dislikes and preferences, its sensibilities and inhibitions" (166). But, as was seen above, this contribution is persistently directed by the aforementioned "form" of the Work. "Since form is nothing but the organization of an entire personal world...in such a way that it offers itself as a single whole in a thousand different perspectives, the personal situations of the interpreters, far from precluding any access to the work, become occasions for this access" (166). Ostensibly, form can be used to guide an otherwise completely open act of decoding, precisely because its very acknowledgement is required before the decoder can be said to have something to decode. Without this possession, semiosis cannot be said to be taking place since it lacks an object. And, as we know, semiosis is not an objectless process.
Eco goes to extremes to reinforce the belief in controllability. He repeatedly makes assertions like: "the freedom of the reader's choices must be 'directed' by the text itself" (Aesthetics 67). Evidently, this is meant seriously, despite the founding of freedom on constraint. Yet, in this example, Eco's talking about open works in particular and how to construct this openness according to which "the free interplay of ambiguities always presumes a rule of ambiguation." "To create the impression of a total lack of structure, a work of art must possess a strong underlying structure," he contends. "The possibility of switching from one level to another could be effected only by a cunningly organized network of mutual relationships." It is important to note that Eco's point is based on a notion that is almost buried in this observation, namely that this is what constitutes a work. (Keep in mind that the English title of the main study under discussion in this lecture is The Open Work, not The Open Text.) As was mentioned in the earlier commentary on this point, Eco is building this entire concept on the presumption that aesthetic texts have strong connections with the tradition they derive from and, more importantly, with their encoder as a source of controlling origin. (Recall such declarations as: "A work consists of the interpretive reactions it elicits, and these manifest themselves as a retracing of its inner genetic process..." [Open 166].)
Related to his acknowledgement regarding decoder input for the production of metaphor is his commentary on the function of ambiguity. "Ambiguity is not an accessory to the message: it is its fundamental feature" (Open 196). In effect, ambiguity is the very element which the aesthetic work is said to authorize as it "forces the addressee to approach the message in a different fashion, not to use it as a mere vehicle...but rather to see it as a constant source of continually shifting meanings." (The sign-vehicle becomes "totally irrelevant once he [the decoder] has grasped the content it is carrying.") Moreover, the "typical structure" of the sign-vehicle is conceived, in a bizarre use of anthropomorphism, as "begging relentlessly to be decoded." It is, Eco says, "organized so as to coordinate all the addressee's possible decodings and force him to repeatedly question the validity of their interpretations by referring them back to the structure of the message."
The assumption of organizational integrity and cohesion allows Eco to talk about systemic components of something as seemingly unsystemic as modern music which has "no privileged direction and no univocality" (Open 96). In this genre, "what is missing is a rule, a tonal center, that would allow the listener to predict the development of the composition in a particular direction." Implied within this assertion, however, is the belief in privileged multi-direction and limited multi-vocality, for without these restrictions, one would be faced with a "closed" work (in Eco's sense of the term). From this perspective, "contemporary open works" reveal that "in most cases, their openness is intentional, explicit, and extreme" (39). Additionally, this criterion of the "open" is internal, as it is "based not merely on the nature of the aesthetic object and on its composition but on the very elements that are combined in it" (39-40).
As his position on ambiguity reveals, Eco's stress on openness reflects what Robey identifies as his manifest "urge to system and order" (Open xvi). This yearning for control is revealed in Eco's insistence that semiosis can be reined in by "intentional 'openness'," as is indicated by the rule of ambiguation (24). While Eco positions this as a hypothesis, it is clear that he believes such containment is obtainable through the construction of "an oriented production of open possibilities" (218). This, then, allows for loose -- but firm and decisive -- containment of the decoder. "A text can foresee a Model Reader entitled to try infinite conjectures," Eco says (Limits 148). "But infinite conjecture does not mean any possible conjecture."
This positioning is strategic, for Eco says that in The Open Work he wants to analyze "how every work of art can be said to be 'open,' how this openness manifests itself structurally, and to what extent structural differences entail different levels of openness" (24). And undeniably Eco has a lot of sympathizers with this position. After all, most commentators on even an "open" perspective of literary semiotics, for example, tend to happily accept the notion that some degree of semiosic enforcement is capable of being obtained, not to mention desirable. Typically, this view is pitted against a hopelessly bleak alternative of communication rendered entirely impossible otherwise. Eco has, admittedly, crafted his perspective on textual control in a manner that seems to inhabit the far end of openness. For instance, in his observations about personalized decoding, he notes: "the referential diversity of the proposition (and, therefore, of its conceptual value) resides not in the proposition itself but in the addressee. And yet the capacity to vary is not totally extraneous to the proposition" (31). Actually, his believe in the impact of internal constraint is far greater than Eco admits here. Later on, this is evident when he asserts that "the desire to produce an open, ambiguous communication affects the total organization of the discourse and determines both the density of its resonance and its provocative power" (41).
Eco says that in a speech situation, "each addressee will automatically complicate -- that is to say, personalize -- his or her understanding of a strictly referential proposition with a variety of conceptual or emotive references culled from his or her experience" (Open 30). But, "whatever the number of 'pragmatic' reactions that such a plurality of understandings can entail, it is still possible to keep a referential proposition under control by reducing the understanding of different receivers to a single pattern" (30). He cites as an example the sentence: "The train for Rome leaves from Central Station at 5:45 P.M., Platform 7." While it could "produce different reactions in ten different people...it still relies on a single, basic, and pragmatically verifiable pattern of understanding whereby all ten passengers will be on the same train at the same hour." This occurs despite "the halo of openness that radiates out of every proposition, no matter how strictly referential,...that accompanies all human communication."
The success of the train schedule as a "collective reaction" constitutes "proof", for Eco, of a "common frame of reference" for mutually assured semiosis which results from accepting limited decoder freedom. "If all the listeners belong to the same, or a similar, cultural (and psychological) context, the speaker will succeed in constructing a communication whose effect is at once undefined and yet limited to a particular 'field of suggestivity'," he contends (Open 31-2). "The time and place of his utterance, as well as the audience to which he addresses it, are enough to guarantee a fairly unified range of interpretation" (32). Indeed, the encoder is granted a capacity of exerting "suggestive power" over the decoder in such a scenario (34). This power is successful, again, only if the decoder cooperates instead of allowing himself to spin off solipsistically into an anarchic universe of endless sign deferral. For successful creation of this effect, "the communication must have a definite impact on the spectator so that the suggestion, once made, will not exhaust itself in the game of references to which the spectator has been invited to participate" (34).
Eco proposes the encoder's ability to ensure this communicative success (this "impact") through semiotic strategies like overdetermination. "To protect the message against consumption so that no matter how much noise interferes with its reception the gist of its meaning (of its order) will not be altered, it is necessary to 'wrap' it in a number of conventional reiterations [i.e., "redundancy"] that will increase the probability of its survival" (Open 51). And, of course, the individual responsible for the "wrapping" can help to guarantee the protection of the message's openness. ("The quantity of information conveyed by a message also depends on its source" .) Eco's concept of "consumption" seems imprecise here, however, because the message wouldn't be depleted through multiplied associations. It would seem, in fact, that it would become infinitely richer. Tor Eco, though, this richness violates the principle of semiosic economy. The "message" is thereby "consumed" in the sense that it loses its encoder-constructed monosemy in the course of polysemous expansion. "All...linguistic elements tend to enrich the organization of a message and make its communication more probable" (51).
A distinction regarding openness is also related to the two different sign systems that concern Eco in The Open Work. In the case of aesthetic language, obviously openness would be a desirable orientation because it would elicit the constrained richness that Eco celebrates. "Normal" language, however, would seek the greatest amount of containment possible. Thus, the closed work would be associated with strategies creating greater closure. "How can one facilitate the communication of a certain bit of information?", Eco asks (Open 56). "By reducing the number of the elements and possible choices in question: by introducing a code, a system of rules that would involve a fixed number of elements and that would exclude some combinations while allowing others."
Later, Eco shifts metaphors of semiosic confinement from swaddling to an internal constraint imminent in the sign-vehicle itself, as was discussed earlier. This also raises the "text intention" issue, a belief that an encoder (via a text, for example) can curtail the decoder's activity. As an illustration, Eco cites the lines from another poet that "violate all linguistic probability" (Open 59). But, "despite its lack of any conventional kind of meaning," these lines "still [convey] an immense amount of information." "At every new reading," he continues, "this amount of information increases, endlessly expanding the message of the poem and opening up new and different perspectives." Nonetheless, this takes place "in perfect accordance with the intention of the poet who, while writing, was well aware of all the associations that an uncommon juxtaposition would provoke in the mind of the reader." Of course, Eco explains at length elsewhere how an author, in this case, could enforce this restriction (via a Model Author), yet again this argument carries with it a considerable amount of faith in its execution. Admittedly, "intention" does serve usefully to base speculation on the system of aesthetic semiosis. Without this allowance, conjecture about the ways in which an author can be said to have constructed something that somehow manages the decoder could not even begin.
Eco, in fact, uses intention to this end. Like the insertion of finite semiosis into the sign-vehicle, "at times...intention may assume a much more complex form, intrinsic to the configuration itself" (Open 99). Here, Eco employs the encoder's intention in a manner not unlike Foucault's depiction of the author-function (or what I referred to earlier as the author-system). In the case of the "new painting," he asserts that "obviously because the painting organizes crude matter, underlining its crudeness while at the same time defining it as a field of possibilities; the painting, even before becoming a field of actualizable choices, is already a field of actualized choices" (101). Eco maintains that this should be the focus of the decoder's engagement, as opposed to what the decoder brings to semiosis. "This is why, before launching into a hymn to vitality, the critic celebrates the painter and what he proposes," he adds. This is essential if someone wants to claim to be discussing an act of semiosis that is directly related to a given sign-vehicle and its creator. "Only after his sensibility has been thus directed does he feel ready to move on to unchecked associations prompted by the presence of signs which, however free and casual, are nevertheless the products of an intention and, therefore, the marks of a work of art."
Using Jackson Pollock's paintings on this point, Eco contends that "the disorder of the signs, the disintegration of the outlines, the explosion of the figures incite the viewer to create his own network of connections" (Open 103). Despite all this openness, constraint remains. "The original gesture, fixed by and in the sign, is in itself a direction that will eventually lead us to the discovery of the author's intention." To return to the disorder/dis-order distinction, it is apparent that this assumption is being employed to naturalize the neutralizing operation that attends Eco's sense of openness. To reiterate an earlier point: the truly open work would be a form of disorder. (In fact, it would not qualify as a "work" precisely for this reason.)
This chaos can be rendered intelligible, though, by imagining a semiosic scenario in which both the encoder and (more importantly, perhaps) the decoder, are equally as informed about, and competent in, engaging sign systems characterized by controllable openness. And even more importantly, the decoder has to gracefully agree to adhere to the relevant, applicable systemic rules. In a broader sense than that specifically raised in his illustration, Eco argues that semiosis is bound by a "measurable threshold" of intelligibility that "represents an insurmountable limit" (Open 64). That is what provides Eco with a criterion of intelligibility within this distinction. "A disorder which is not specifically aimed at subjects accustomed to moving among systems of probability will not convey any information" (65). "This tendency toward disorder, characteristic of the poetics of openness," he says, "must be understood as a tendency toward controlled disorder, toward a circumscribed potential, toward a freedom that is constantly curtailed by the germ of formativity present in any form that wants to remain open to the free choice of the addressee" (65).
Every move by the decoder is circumscribed by Eco's network of constraints imposed, with no little irony, by conditions of "openness". And, once more, this responsibility falls upon the mechanics of intention. "The author of a message with aesthetic aspirations will intentionally structure it in as ambiguous a fashion as possible precisely in order to violate that system of laws and determinations which makes up the code," Eco adds (Open 66). "We then confront a message that deliberately violates or, at least, questions that very system, the very order -- order as system of probability -- to which it refers."
Nor is the encoder spared from this systemic incarceration. In order for the encoder to viably produce the desired open effect, Eco argues, the likely responses of competent decoders (again, Model Readers) have to be taken into account and likewise serve as a restraint. If the new musician, for example, "aims at both maximum dis-order and maximum information, he will have to sacrifice some of his freedom and introduce a few modules of order into his work, which will help his listeners find their way through noise that they will automatically interpret as a signal because they know it has been chosen and, to some extent, organized" (Open 65). And, if the encoder wants to produce aesthetic openness, then a degree of closedness must be accepted as a necessary sacrifice to systemic indeterminacy. But Eco cloaks this sacrifice in terms suggesting autonomy based on rationality ("free choice," "organization," etc.), a voluntary acceptance of a semiotically civilized confinement. It is necessary, accordingly in Eco's view, "to give a direction to the freedom" of the decoder (99).
While grudgingly accepting this minor obeisance to the decoder by the encoder, Eco portrays this calculation as a form of mental projection like that explained by Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin in "The Purloined Letter." But, rather than configuring the encoder as a master abductor, Eco describes him in terms of Godlike generation. Unfortunately, despite his extensive efforts to make a convincing argument for the encoder-as-deity, it becomes apparent that real encoders face a semiosic co-option of their "intentions" (wherever they might reside) that puts them more in the situation of Mary Shelley's Victor Frankenstein, unable to control his rampaging creation, than the situation faced by God in John Milton's Paradise Lost who knows exactly what choices his race of "free" humans will make in their decoding practices. As with explanations of the system of fate and prophecy in classical literature (Homer, Virgil, Sophocles, etc.), this analysis of encoder and anticipation of the decoder's likely selection amid an array of "open" choices is, quite frankly, not very plausible. Pretending that it is, however, provides numerous participants in the IG discussion of semiotics with the material to erect an enormous edifice of sign theory and practice.
Although the transmission of signs conceived according to a rigorous code, based on conventional values, can be explained without having to depend on the interpretive intervention of the receiver, the transmission of a sequence of signals with little redundancy and a high ratio of improbability demands that we take into consideration both the attitudes and the mental structures by which the receiver, of his own free will, selects a message and endows it with a probability that is certainly already there but only one probability among many. (Open 70)This "free will" commentary is extended further. Even action painting, Eco asserts, "tries to retain the freedom of nature, but of a nature whose signs still reveal the hand of a creator, a pictorial nature that, like the nature of medieval metaphysics, is a constant reminder of the original act of Creation" (102).
Eco gives lip service to the openness of ongoing semiosis when he asserts: "the model of unlimited semiosis...for experimental reasons, is the only one which can explain how language is produced and understood" (Limits 143). One way that this model can be visualized, he concludes, is "the format of a labyrinth" which functions as a "regulative hypothesis" (Philosophy of Language 2). This labyrinth is "a network of interpretants" whose conceptual embodiments serve to viably limit semiosis in Eco's account (Limits 83). Semiosis is culturally mutable, he suggests: it is "virtually infinite because it takes into account multiple interpretations realized by different cultures" (84). This also can apply to a specific culture: "a given expression can be interpreted as many times, and in as many ways, as it has been actually interpreted in a given cultural framework." And, even from the standpoint of the "encyclopedia" of posited cultural knowledge, semiosis can be "infinite because every discourse about the encyclopedia casts in doubts the previous structure of the encyclopedia itself." "Such a semantic encyclopedia is never accomplished and exists only as a regulative idea;" he adds. "It is only on the basis of such a regulative idea that one is able actually to isolate a given portion of the social encyclopedia so far as it appears useful in order to interpret certain portions of actual discourses (and texts)."
However, Eco maintains that in practice, this concept of infinitude has to be "duly tamed and reduced to local manageable formats." In many respects, it could be construed as a semiotic tonic, a type of mental hygiene that allows for a comfortable coping with the otherwise threatening specter of endless signification. Look at Eco's rationalization of this: "Every human being lives within a determinate cultural pattern and interprets his or her experience according to a set of acquired forms," he remarks. "The stability of this world is what allows us to move rationally amid the constant provocations of the environment and to organize external events into a coherent ensemble of organic experiences," he says (Open 78). "The safeguarding of our assumptions against all incoherent mutations is one of the basic conditions of our existence as rational beings" (79). Indeed, this is a "rational" move, one that would be charitably understandable if it didn't create so many reductive blind alleys for semiotics.
A good illustration of this is seen in Eco's criterion for according an entity the status of an "open work." Is the entity in some way identifiably "legible"? "If so," he adds, "what are the conditions of their communicability and what are the guarantees that they will not suddenly lapse into either silence or chaos?" (Open 86-7). Legibility is based on the assumption that we are able to "define the tension between the mass of information intentionally offered to the reader and the assurance of a minimal amount of comprehensibility" (87). And, on a related note, we can ask if there exists "a possible agreement between the intention of the author and the viewer's response?"
Note, though, that Eco bases the concomitant criteria on issues that betray his (nevertheless wholly understandable) leeriness over the alternative to semiosic restraint. This legibility establishes comprehensibility and communicability that is guaranteed. Its significative tension is definable. Intention is present. And, finally, the encoder and decoder agree on the work's "acceptable", as opposed to "right", meaning (Limits 148). The sole means of establishing this acceptability is "to check it upon the text as a coherent whole" (148-9). "Any interpretation given of a certain portion of a text can be accepted if it is confirmed, and must be rejected if it is challenged, by another portion of the same text," he argues. "In this sense the internal textual coherence controls the otherwise uncontrollable drift of the reader" (149). The consensual corroboration of allowable meaning that Eco proposes simplifies a far more complex situation than he is willing to admit here. Yet the happy community of decoders that he imagines undeniably carries with it an attractive, if somewhat acquiescent, placidity for those threatened by the alternative.
Eco cites an instance of just such an alternative that he posits as a semiotic horror story. For, without this constraining order, the decoder can -- to Eco -- say nothing concrete about the sign-vehicle (silence) or say anything about it with equal validity (chaos). Eco cites an example of a impressionistic response by Jacques Audiberti to Camille Bryen's paintings. "Half of his reactions have nothing to do with an aesthetic effect, and are merely personal divagations induced by the view of certain signs," Eco charges (Open 93). Audiberti engages in a form of "emotional panegyrics" that reveals "the enthusiasm with which it hails the new unexpected freedom that such an open field of stimuli has brought to our imagination" (90). This is the work of an antic, aberrant decoder running amuck with the encoder's sign-vehicle. Nothing keeps him in check. He believes he can do whatever he wants while engaging in semiosis and in no way acknowledges the respect due to either the sign-vehicle or the encoder who created it. He asks, then, if what we're presented with by a response of this nature isn't actually "a limitation of this particular 'reader'"? (93). Is Audiberti "more involved with the games of his own imagination than with the work, or is it a limitation of the work that it should play a role similar to that of mescaline?" Either way, Eco concludes, this decoder response "gives us a clear example of the kind of exultation that can be derived from conjectural freedom, from the unlimited discovery of contrasts and oppositions that keep multiplying with every new look."
It's important to note here Eco's denigration of a vitalistic response to a text, because, significantly, this is exactly what he's condemning about Audiberti's reaction. And why? This really isn't reading the work. Within this scenario, "the reader eventually escapes the control of the work" (Open 93). If this is allowed to continue without some authority to appeal to, "the work eventually escapes everybody's control, including that of the author, and starts blabbing away like a crazed computer." The result of this development, predictably, is anarchy for Eco. "What remains then is no longer a field of possibilities but rather the indistinct, the primary, the indeterminate at its wildest -- at once everything and nothing."
The only way to prevent this vision of semiotic meaninglessness (i.e., either every discerned meaning is valid, or none is) from becoming a nightmarish reality is to posit firm belief in the capacity of the encoder to guide and restrict the decoder of the sign-vehicle. "To avoid unnecessary semantic dispersion, the more allusive speaker will have to give his audience a particular direction" (Open 32). "This would be quite easy if his proposition had a strictly denotative value," Eco says. "But when it is meant to provoke a response that is at once undefined and yet circumscribed within a particular frame of reference, he will have to put more emphasis on a certain kind of suggestion, so as to reiterate the desired stimulus by means of analogous references."
Eco imagines a scenario in which the dramatist Jean Racine was capable of doing this in his Phaedra. Eco uses the genealogy of the titular character as an illustration of this suggestivity that Eco claims is the distinguishing characteristic of guidance capable through the use of "poetic" language. This results in a situation in which "I will be able to appreciate not just the indefinite reference but also the way in which this indefiniteness is produced, the very clear and calculated way in which it is suggested to me, the very precision of the mechanism that charms me with imprecision" (Open 34). While Eco is portraying himself as a model decoder who cheerfully accepts his disempowerment in this scenario, he also outlines the limited pleasure that other similarly restrained decoders will have to adopt if they are to aquire this status.
One requirement for this posture entails purposeful withholding of interpretive power, as in an instance where, confronted by "a message containing little information," the decoder may accidently "read [it] in the light of an arbitrary code" which can result in making the text "appear much richer than it was meant to be" (Open 199). The opposite situation applies to Racine's play. It reveals, to Eco, that following the initial point of contact, it undergoes yet another "transaction" as the decoder utilizes a reservoir of cultural associations that yields a "new system of meanings" which somehow "enriches the meaning of the original message" (37). This original message, "far from being exhausted by this process, appears all the more fertile (in its own material constitution) and open to new readings as our understanding of it gets more and more complex."
Racine accomplishes this richness in part by selecting Phaedra, the daughter of Minos and Pasiphaë, as a character who is known to be "evil because her race is damned" (Open 33). A contextual component also comes into play here for, her name, "uttered in front of a civil servant,...would have a strictly referential value." However, "uttered in front of a theater audience, its effect will be much more powerful if undefined. Minos and Pasiphaë are two awful beings: their very names are enough to conjure up the reasons for their repulsiveness." Yet, the name "Phaedra" is further charged with significance which elicits numerous connotations beyond Racine's initial meaning. "At the beginning of the tragedy, Phaedra is just a cipher, but the names of her parents are already enough to evoke the myth and create a halo of odiousness around her." In Racine's spare description of Phaedra as "the daughter of Minos and of Parsiphaë," "the mere mention of the two mythical characters opens up a whole new field of suggestions for the imagination." This restriction, Eco argues, does not semiosically impoverish Racine's text, rendering a richly polysemous sign-vehicle into a thinly monosemous one. To the contrary, for Eco this guarantees that it could elicit any richness at all. Without this guiding light, the decoder would never be able to move out of the dark predicament Eco imagines as otherwise inevitable.
Racine is capable of generating "the suggestive effect he seeks" through indirect reference to Phaedra's parents (Open 33). The response of Racine's decoder follows a related path. Prompted by the associations elicited by the characters' names, "the emotion (the simple pragmatic reaction that the sheer power of the two names would have provoked) now increases and defines itself" (35). This oscillation "assumes a certain order and identifies with the form that has generated it and in which it rests, but it does not limit itself to it." In fact, "it includes all the individual emotions it produces and directs as possible connotations of the line -- here understood as the articulated form of signifiers signifying, above all, their structural articulation."
Still, despite this whirl of open association, Racine also is able to avoid falling prey to the "haphazard emotions that their suggestive power will evoke in the audience" (Open 34). This is accomplished, Eco suggests, because the auditor can always "return to the proposed expression as often as he wishes" and there possibly "find in it a stimulus for new suggestions" (34). Eco resorts to using the vague language of supernatural phenomena to describe the mechanics of this procedure: this stimulus is always kept in check through "a miracle of balance and economy" (34). Furthermore, Racine's fields of "suggestions" by the reference to Minos and Pasiphaë are "intentional, provoked, and explicitly reiterated, but always within the limits fixed by the author, or, better, by the aesthetic machine he has set in motion," he contends (35). "This aesthetic machine does not ignore the audience's capacities for response; on the contrary, it brings them into play and turns them into the necessary condition for its subsistence and its success, while directing them and controlling them."
Finally, once the decoder has had a reasonable amount of this clearly mediated pleasure, signification stops to prevent an embarrassment of overabundance, a cloying that would dangerously totter on the brink of uncontainable sign flux. Eco portrays this moment of semiosic satiation as akin to physical exhaustion. "Theoretically, this reaction" by the decoder when confronting the sign-vehicle "is endless, ceasing only when the form ceases to stimulate the aesthetic sensibility of the addressee" (Open 37). This movement reaches "a sort of saturation point" after which our "overexercised sensibility can now rest."
Another way that Eco establishes the necessity of a recognizable formation for creating The Open Work is that of pavement. Our conceptual recognition of pavement "is again evidence that the richest form of communication -- richest because most open -- requires a delicate balance permitting the merest order within the maximum disorder," he argues (Open 98). "This balance marks the limit between the undifferentiated realm of utter potential and a field of possibilities." This economy of balance and miracles is merely symptomatic of the need for rationality that Eco contends is characteristic of Western cultures. In the West, he contends, "our desire to abandon ourselves to the free pursuit of visual and imaginative associations must be artificially induced by means of an intentionally suggestive construct" (100). In other words, Eco is suggesting through a peculiar form of Orientalism that those who can find forms of semiosic pleasure without the guidance of the Work are somehow undergoing an inferior form of experience. "Our civilization is still far from accepting the unconditional abandonment to vital forces advocated by the Zen sage," he remarks. "He can sit and blissfully contemplate the unchecked potential of the surrounding world...And to him everything is a confirmation of the endless, polymorphous triumph of the All."
This is not the case for the guidance-dependent Westerner, however. "Not only do we have to be pushed to enjoy our freedom to enjoy, but we are also asked to evaluate our enjoyment, and its object, at the very moment of its occurrence...to judge it as a means to an end," he argues, "at once process and result, the fulfillment or the frustration of certain expectations and certain goals" (Open 100). In a strange conclusion to this scenario, Eco insists on a judgmental drive which is responsible for registering this "superior" form of the pleasure of the work. "For the only criterion I can use in my evaluation of the work derives from the degree of coincidence between my capacity for aesthetic pleasure and the intentions to which the artist has implicitly given form in his work."
Despite its prevalence in semiotics, this compromise really isn't necessary. Alternative approaches -- like the "Eastern" one fostered by Floyd Merrell in Signs Grow: Semiosis and Life Processes -- appear to offer possibilities for development a more responsive protrait of semiosis that isn't hampered by the fears and ideologies of those who propose them. (Of course, Merrell undeniably has his own fears and ideological investments -- it's just that they don't have to entail the Pyrrhic victory acceptable to those in the IG discussion.) The potentially fruitful element of Merrell's accommodating agenda is just that: rather than endeavoring to eliminate facets of semiosis that are contradictory or seemingly non-systematic, he attempts to add them to an overall sense of it as a heterogeneously inclusive process.
Merrell's diction in Semiosis in the Postmodern Age reveals his stance toward semoisis, as he views it as "creative" and "evolutionary" (44). To Merrell, semiosis "provides a fruitful vision of ongoing sign generativity."
This vision aids in bridging the gap between postmodern free-wheeling play and modern purpose, between chance and design, disorder and order, anarachy (or heterarchy) and hierarchy, absence and presence, mediacy and immediacy...Those cherished dichotomies of reason, which are occasionally employed even by the staunchest propagators of the postmodern perspective, are thus deflated, perhaps beyond repair.Merrell frequently uses nature-oriented depictions of sign movement when conceptualizing signification, most often casting it in river concepts such as "the stream of semiosis" (Signs Grow 4). But he doesn't propose a naïvely nurturing sense of semiosis that would be just as limited as the alarmist perspective on it. Instead, he portrays this environment as potentially threatening and dangerous, as well as fructive and energetic. "Neither signs nor consciousness can hope to arrest the semiosic flow within which they are caught," he says (5). "They are swept along by the current, in spite of their feeble and futile efforts to bring permanence to the hustle-bustle of signs incessantly becoming other signs." This "eventually becomes the flow of signs Peirce dubbed semiosis -- which at times twists and turns into whitewater, and on occasion even appears chaotic, an infinitely complex maelstrom" (6).
While Merrell acknowledges the decided human desire for closure and epistemological security, he remains unwilling to embrace the quietism that accompanies the employment of needless manacles in order to produce a plausibly rational model of semiosis. We yearn for a semiosic "finish line where Truth, in all its plenitude, lies in wait," he admits (Signs Grow 6). Its lack, however, "is still a rather frightening conclusion for those who continue to nurture modernity's dream of closure" (27). Merrell argues that we need "somehow to cope with these Peircean infinite regress tactics" (27). "In spite of Peirce's notion that there is neither any original sign nor final sign, for us mere mortals at least, and furthermore, that we cannot know precisely where we are in the semiosic stream, assume the existence of some unfathomable sign somewhere, sometime" (27-28). This coping, however, doesn't have to be as extreme and as desperate as it usually is. Rather, it can be a hopeful assumption that embraces the indeterminacy of semiosis, as well as its uncontrollability, as an informed acknowledgement of the limitations of the very mechanism the constitutes signification.
Furthermore, as I have done repeatedly in this lecture, I could point as well to the emotionally charged, alarmed vocabulary that Eco uses to make his point sound compelling. Remove these strident components from his contention and his argument comes across as not only far less convincing, but also as far more puritanical in his desire to deny the pleasure of a flexible engagement with semiosic play. The same thing happens with criticism about Finnegans Wake.
the work is finite in one sense, but in another sense it is unlimited. Each occurrence, each word stands in a series of possible relations with all the others in the text. According to the semantic choice which we make in the case of one unit so goes the way we interpret all the other units in the text. This does not mean that the book lacks specific sense. If Joyce does introduce some keys into the text, it is precisely because he wants the work to be read in a certain sense. But this particular 'sense' has all the richness of the cosmos itself. (Role 54-55)The "key" is deployed in the same way that "codes" are. In both cases, these concepts delimit a given arena and domesticate it in the process, with significant consequences. "Those decoders who attempt to 'tame' such a work accordingly have to posit a schematization that in some manner appears to freeze the work's fluid signifying power, stopping its flow in order to obtain a static object to analyze" (R 161). This inclination can be seen in Eco's avowed belief that FW is "more open to interconnections than are many other texts and thus [it is] more fit for experimentation" (Role 76, emphasis added). For this reason, the novel "offers a very good example of the shortcomings of literary semiotics since it has spawned a Joyce industry geared toward providing a type of control or mastery over a decidedly slippery text" (R 161).
Consistent with his belief in calculatable semiosic controllability, Eco maintains that FW is "more open to interconnections than are many other texts" as it consists of "a world of infinite semiosis" (Limits 142, 146). In fact, he adds, "the whole Joycean opus is a living example of a cultural universe ruled by the laws of Unlimited Semiosis" (142). Once more, look a the way he phrases this. The laws of unlimited semiosis. And, he makes it Unlimited Semiosis, using the same monumentalizing typography that is demonstrated in capitalizing words like Nature, God, and -- curiously, in English -- I. Unlimited Semiosis, he suggests through this strategy, is a grand entity that is rule-governed and systemic. (Lecture 5 outlines why this would be such a useful move for his purposes in attempting to promote and legitimate a closed sense of semiosis.)
Eco essentially uses FW as a means for achieving this effect. He argues, for instance, that "Finnegans Wake is itself a metaphor for the process of unlimited semiosis" (Role 69-70). It "produces sufficiently violent metaphors without interruption or reservation; at the same time, in proposing itself as a model of language in general, it focuses our attention specifically on semantic values" (70). For those unfamiliar with the novel, it may help to briefly outline how Eco could make such a claim.
A good example is found in the ways that the characters' names change like identities do in dreams. "The permutations of the characters' names illustrate the novel's constantly shifting nature as, for instance, one of the main characters appears throughout under the guise of words containing his initials: HCE. Thus, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker's identity (if this is the correct version of his name) is reinscribed in manifestations such as 'Here Comes Everybody' (32), 'Hunkalus Childared Easterheld' (480), 'He'll Cheat E'erawan' (46), 'Hump cumps Ebblybally' (612), and 'Howth Castle and Environs' (3). His name, in effect, never stops; it melts into new variations in a virtually infinite chain of manifestations. In a novel whose characters consistently shift forms of identity, it is easy to recognize its parallel to the serialization of significations which constitutes any sign activity -- an effect heightened when the reader reaches the 'conclusion' of the novel only to find that the 'final' sentence breaks off, inviting the reader to begin again, perhaps, at the 'beginning' which conveniently begins in mid-sentence" (R 160-1). Clearly, then, "If unlimited semiosis needed a model, Finnegans Wake would indeed be it" (R 161).
In part, Eco endeavors to use Joyce's novel as a means of attacking those who prefer a free-form version of semiosis (his sense of deconstructionists, for example). In the course of discussing what could be called a moderate view of the novel, he constrasts it with that of a group of commentators he refers to as "deconstructionists" who deny the notion of semiosic finitude. As unrestrained and disrespectful decoders, deconstructionists merely play with the text without adding to a collective understanding of its "nature" as a sign-vehicle. In his commentary on "The Temptation of Deconstruction," Eco asserts that "it seems that the ideal Joycean reader affected by an ideal insomnia is a paramount model of a deconstructionist reader for whom any text is an inexhaustible nightmare" (Limits 148). Significantly, Eco imagines that this reader is perpetually frustrated by a lack of certifiable, concrete meaning. "For such a reader any true interpretation is a creative misprision, every reading of a text cannot but be a truly creative one." Accordingly, for this reader "there will be no critical interpretation of Finnegans Wake but, rather, an infinite series of original re-creations." This creativity is an undisciplined, abusive handling of the text that is in no way restricted by textual control. The consequences of this reading process are predictably dire in Eco's eyes. "As we all know," he concludes with an embracing acknowledgement of those who share this common assumption, "some interpretations of Finnegans Wake risk being more interesting, informative, and entertaining than the work itself" (171).
As opposed to these outlaw decoders, Eco offers an approach to FW that is respectful and text-dependent. The novel, he says in an especially revealing observation, is "a satisfactory image of the universe of unlimited semiosis" (Limits 148). The importance of "satisfactory" in this passage bears further scrutiny. For, Eco is, in fact, attempting to render Joyce's challenging novel in a way that is consistent with his view of controllable semiosis. "An open text...can elicit infinite readings without allowing any possible reading," he claims. "In the process of unlimited semiosis it is certainly possible to go from any one node to every other node, but the passages are controlled by rules of connection that our cultural history has in some way legitimated." In a predictable move, Eco characterizes FW as an open work precisely because of its containment. Its orchestrated polysemy demonstrates, he argues, that finite semiosis in no way depletes the semiosic reserve of a sign-vehicle. In FW, Joyce created a textual field that "demanded the aesthetic organization of a complex of signifiers that were already, in themselves, open and ambiguous" (Open 40).
Given a decoder's capacity to work in accordance with the complex arrangement of moderated plurality, the text can be rendered "understandable" in a manner that Eco likens to a viewer's response to classical architecture. Its "entire structural design can itself be enjoyed as a complex and well-calibrated organism, which, when understood, can release the same imaginative mechanisms, the same schemes of intelligence, that presided over the contemplation of the harmonic forms of a Greek temple" (Open 176). However, Eco continues to portray this enjoyment only in terms suggestive of austerity.
While he extends his commentary on Joyce to his "whole opus" which he depicts as "a paramount playground for semiotic research" (Open 138), this is clearly a playground in the strict sense. In fact, a playground is the perfect model for the arena of contained semiosis semioticians like Eco prefer, for its economy of play is monitored, prescribed, and rigidly pre-established. It sanctions only a rule-governed form of activity. It is regimented, boundaried, and intentionally organized. The sandboxes, slides, seesaws, and swings have all been designed by someone to direct play in very specific ways. And, any unruly children are vulnerable to ejection if they don't adhere to the institutional rules that the good children gladly play by, if perhaps solemnly so.
Anyone who has read even a small portion of FW should be amazed at Eco's use of it in this way. (Although they would not be surprised if they were familiar with the larger body of criticism that typically espouses the same view.) After all, the novel draws upon approximately 100 languages for incredibly complex and challenging puns and portmanteau neologisms. Yet, by way of finite semiosis, Eco has found a means for systemically reducing FW. "All the puns of Finnegans Wake are metaplasm with a metasememic effect, where the structure of the linguistic expression is acted upon in order to produce alterations also at the level of content, similar to those which operate in metaphors," he contends (Limits 139). "A metaphor substitutes one expression for another in order to produce an expansion (or a 'condensation') of knowledge at the semantic level."
Joyce's pun create "analogous effects" through two processes. "Each metaphor" generated by FW is "comprehensible because the entire book, read in different directions, actually furnishes the metonymic chains that justify it" (Limits 40). This metaphorical system, he argues, consists of "subjacent chains of metonymies." "Such a chain of metonymies is presupposed by the text as a form of background knowledge based on a network of previously posited cultural contiguities or psychological associations," he argues. "But at the same time it is the text itself which, by a network of interconnected puns, makes the cultural background recognizable." Accordingly, Eco views FW as "a contracted model of the global semantic field." As a point of illustration Eco cites scherzarade. One modification procedure entails changing "the very structure of the expression" (Limits 139). This alteration "produces a word which did not previously exist in the English lexicon" (140). The other procedure "produces a metaphor in praesentia because it does not annul one term, substituting it with another, but unites three preexisting words (scherzo, charade, and Scheherazade) , in a sort of lexical monstruum (metaplasm)." Furthermore, this procedure also "obliges us to see similarities and semantic connections between the joke (scherzo) , the enigma (charade) , and the narrative activity (Scheherazade) ."
As this extensive citation demonstrates, it is undeniable that Eco's analysis of this one word does a great deal to help readers grasp a sense of how FW could be said to "work". What Eco says about "scherzarade" makes a lot of sense. It's just that this approach carries with it a tendency to tout such an explanation as the explanation. In other words, this is how FW is designed to signify and, armed with this procedure, the decoder can correctly discern the meaning that Joyce has somehow planted into the text. What Eco has discovered through this procedure is something distinctly similar to notions like T. S. Eliot's "objective correlative." (Eliot proposes that "the only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an "objective correlative, in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion" . The mechanism behind this phenomenon is "such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.")
But, Eco's mechanistic and simplistic view of semiosis is clearly inadequate as a means of accounting for the workings of semiosis. For instance, it supposes that a decoder can somehow verify or justify his practice based on intentionally constructed evidence in the sign-vehicle. A given meaning is thus confirmed and confirmable by simply pointing to sign-vehicle corroboration. And, if other similarly trained decoders come up with the same results, then something like empirical confirmation through this "test" is established as a result of this consensus. (This is essentially what has happened in FW criticism.) But, given a skillful decoder's application of this decoding model, it can reveal very convincing explanations of the operations of select sign-vehicles.
This systemic approach can also be illuminated by Eco's commentary on "meandertale" discussed earlier in Lecture 4. He points out that although Neanderthal is "not found as such in the text" (Limits 140), "associations...of either a phonetic or a semantic type" can be justified because "all the lexemes [he identifies] are only those which are to be found in the text" (141).
The same psycholinguistic test might have generated, in another subject, other equally plausible responses. Here we have limited ourselves to this type of response, not only because it is the Joycean one (in which case the experiment would seek to understand only how the pun is born, not how it is read), but also for reasons of economy and, in addition, because the reader of FW, controlled by the text, is in fact led into a game of associations that were previously suggested by the co-text (which means that every text, however 'open' it is, is constituted, not as the place of all possibilities, but rather as a field of oriented possibilities). (141-142)Eco's reference to orientation is hardly insignificant, for it highlights the concern here for stability in a semiotic universe that otherwise seems alarmingly chaotic. Again, the need for believing in semiosic limitation appears to be motivated by a frightening alternative. "It may seem that Ulysses violates the techniques of the novel beyond all limit, but Finnegans Wake passes even this limit," Eco says (Aesthetics 61). "It may seem that Ulysses demonstrates all the possibilities of language, but Finnegans Wake takes language beyond any boundary of communicability...[FW] constitutes the most terrifying document of formal instability and semantic ambiguity that we possess." Although it's apparent that Eco isn't emphasizing the last word in this observation, it does point to the necessity for obtainment that accompanies this belief. A faith that the sign, in other words, is capable of being possessed in some fashion by the astute decoder.
As I mentioned earlier, Eco is hardly alone in this endeavor to keep FW under wraps. Uwe Multhaup reflects this position by asserting that
The danger imminent [in Finnegans Wake] is the breakdown of communication, because the reader who finds himself confronted with unexpected and unconventional uses of words must try and reconstruct the imaginative or associative process by which, through Joyce's blending of the particular uses to which he has put words with their conventional meaning, a new meaning potential of these same words is created. (68)Multhaup resorts to the same alarmist vocabulary that Eco uses so frequently to portray various elements of unlimited semiosis as a threat to the possibility of meaningful signification (i.e., communication). "Joyce gets dangerously close to the esoteric point where his readers are taken out of their depth and can no longer follow his acts of sense constitution, or can only do so with the aid of industriously compiled concordances of all kinds," Multhaup asserts. Consistent with the belief in the possibility of encoding semiosic control, he adds that Joyce had been capable earlier of avoiding this potential crisis. "In A Portrait and Ulysses," he maintains, "the reader is carefully prepared or conditioned to understand the meaning of Joyce's poetic or linguistic adventures." It is necessary to note here that Multhaup relies upon the same communication emphasis that Eco employs, and for the same apparent goals. This can be seen as well in Northrop Frye's depiction of the novel as a global field of whirling signifiers that can be perceived intelligibly -- that is, again, communicatively -- by using proper framing devices.
But, even Frye, who recognizes the contribution that the decoder makes to semiosis, nevertheless resorts to mastery metaphors in the process. "Eventually it dawns on us" in the course of reading the novel, "that it is the reader who achieves the quest, the reader who, to the extent that he masters [Finnegans Wake], is able to look down on its rotation, and see its form as something more than rotation" (323-4). In other words, this "rotation" is not unlike the infinite view of unlimited semiosis; it takes limited unlimited semiosis to turn semiosis into something "more than" the noise of unsystemically colliding signifiers. Thus, to return to Eco's distinction, the disorder of FW becomes, finally, a recognizable dis-order.
A useful instance of belief in controllability can also be found in Jacob Korg's assertion that "Joyce's idiom in Finnegans Wake impinges upon conventional language" (221). Joyce's use of language "emancipates the word from its traditional service to a focused, localized meaning, and develops the potentialities that have always been inherent in words for conveying multiple ideas and forming elaborate, many-tiered structures," he contends. "It shows that the possibilities of verbal expression are far greater than they seem, that they are, if not unlimited, at least inexhaustible." By now, it should be evident that these paradoxical formulations of finite infinitude evidently are thought to gain increasing credibility simply through repetition. Like a semiotic version of "the big lie," this conventionalized assumption carries with it a vestige of authority simply because few can allow themselves to seriously question it. "Obviously words cannot be bound in this type of 'traditional service' due to the uncontrollable factors that influence decoding practices. Moreover, as was mentioned earlier, a sender in a textual transmission is no more capable of 'emancipating' a text than 'enslaving' it. Korg illustrates a final element of the anxiety regarding unlimited semiosis when he qualifies his closing assertion by offering 'inexhaustible' in place of 'unlimited' and thereby reveals an underlying fear of infinitude in signification" (R 164). (See Simpkins, "'The Infinite Game,'" on this point.)
With the exception of Eco, perhaps nobody writing on semiotics and FW takes the desire to constrain semiosis as far as Lorraine Weir does in Writing Joyce: A Semiotics of the Joyce System." From the emphasis on 'system' in her title onward, Weir constantly endeavors to arrest semiosis in Joyce's work in order to produce a simulacrum of stasis for her analysis. Weir's strategy for accomplishing this goal simply involves denying the decoder/reader and privileging the text as an autotelic, closed heuristic" (R 165). Weir's approach involves a heavy emphasis on systemics. Through this form of analysis, she contends, "we learn to configure the system by achieving facility in its maneuvers" (6). "In processing the system, in following its encoded programs according to text-directives, we acquire competence in its operation/s," she suggests. "Ironically, Weir claims to be engaging in a counteroffensive to subvert the critical 'domestication' of Joyce's work through her own emphasis on its system" (R 165). Such a technique offers considerable allure, however. By endeavoring to comprehend the entire system of literary semiosis, Weir provides a mechanism for imposing constraint on all literary texts, not just FW. In this way, she is admittedly eschewing the domesticating force so prevalent in FW criticism, but simultaneously promoting a much larger domestication that is characteristic of prevalent orientations in literary semiotics.
Since this systemic urge is patently flawed, a desire of this nature can be fulfilled only through consensual discussion that treats certain presuppositions as given. Joseph Buttigieg reveals this development when he proclaims that "Joyce's texts have themselves become familiar [to even the semi-initiate;] they have been tamed and neutralized to a very significant degree" (117). "Once the Joyce text has been domesticated," he notes, "it serves the purpose of a guidebook through which one can look at the world -- not the world teeming with difference and characterized by change, but the world as a centered text apprehended safely and indifferently from the vantage point of aesthetic distance." Despite his awareness of this tendency, Buttigieg displays his own complicity in this development when he identifies as Joyce's "last manageable work" his novel, Ulysses. FW, on the other hand, doesn't possess this capacity for manageability to Buttigieg. "A work has to be managed, grasped, possessed;" he argues, "i.e. the critic must be habitualized . . . to it before he can 'place' it and determine its position in the literary canon" (147). (The earlier discussion regarding Eco's use of Peirce's "habit" also applies here.) In a revealing development, Buttigieg embraces a position repeatedly found in the concerted efforts among semioticians to agree upon certain key systemic constraints, and for the very goal that Buttigieg desires. The only way, in other words, to get a grasp on semiosis is to agree that it is graspable in nature. Because this inclination is so widespread, though, it may be fruitful to undertake the opposite strategy to see what that might yield.
Theorists of "noise" -- I'll use Jacques Attali as a convenient example -- have shown one alternative way of conceptualizing this phenomenon in a positive sense. (Remember Eco's representative depiction of "noise" as an instance of communication breakdown.) Attali defines "noise" as "a resonance that interferes with the audition of a message in the process of emission" (26). "Interference" would certainly be in keeping with the control-oriented stance in semiotics, except that here it is seen merely as a competitive force. Like an interruptive participant in a dialogue, noise merely adds to the overall skein of intersecting messages. And, furthermore, like unlimited semiosis, noise can be seen as a rich site of meaning exchanges, as opposed to the source of a "crisis of proliferation" (Attali 130).
Attali asserts that "noise does in fact create a meaning," and in two ways (33). On the one hand, "the interruption of a message signifies the interdiction of the transmitted meaning, signifies censorship and rarity." On the other hand,
because the very absence of meaning in pure noise or in the meaningless repetition of a message, by unchanneling auditory sensations, frees the listener's imagination. The absence of meaning is in this case the presence of all meanings, absolute ambiguity, a construction outside meaning. The presence of noise makes sense, makes meaning. It makes possible the creation of a new order on another level of organization, of a new code in another network.This is precisely what worries those who favor harnessing semiosis because they seem to be motivated by power when they promote this cause. In accordance with "laws of political economy," Attali observes, the control -- or "channelization" -- of messages, art, and noise is a basic component of social hegemony. "Everywhere we look, the monopolization of the broadcast of messages, the control of noise, and the institutionalization of the silence of others assure the durability of power" (8). Additionally, he contends, "power reduces the noise made by others and adds sound prevention to its arsenal" (122).
The IG conceptualization of semiosis consists of a similar channelization effect, prompted by similar motives. "The monologue of power" that Attali sees as resulting from this regimentation could be altered to fit the present discussion as the "monosemy of power" (9). Or, in keeping with Eco's peculiar use of terms like "openness", this could be rendered: the polysemy of power -- in the sense of "polysemy" as a limited, manageable -- and managed -- polyvalence. Attali posits this relationship as a criterion for assessing the degree of hegemony within a given social system. "It is possible to judge the strength of political power by its legislation on noise and the effectiveness of its control over it" (122). Indeed, "sound prevention" in semiotics has experienced a comparable form of widespread efforts to tame semiosis.
In an indirectly related account, Attali traces the historical development of socially organized noise control. "Before the Industrial Revolution, there existed no legislation for the suppression of noise and commotion," he notes. "The right to make noise was a natural right, an affirmation of each individual's autonomy" (122-3). Then came the "campaign against noise" under the guise of doing so "for the protection of the public peace" (123). Attali relates the first appearance of such an undertaking in France which was sponsored by a group whose motto was: "The silence of each assures rest for all." In order to curb the cancer of unlimited semiosis, normative agreements along these lines have been established as well (like the "basics" of semiotics discussed in Lecture 1). This also parallels what Attali describes as the reactionary response to wild, unchecked growth of messages which seemingly necessitates the establishment of semiosic "norms" and "the stockpiling of signs" (131).
The widespread paternalism apparent in the discussion of semiotics suggests that this -- as opposed to an unbinding of semiosis -- is more likely to continue as long as current preferences remain firmly entrenched. Eco reflects this when he notes that one of his motives for qualifying Peirce's commentary on infinite semiosis is to "protect the reading of Peirce, instead of opening it too much" ("Unlimited" 13). Echoing Peirce, he allows that while "symbols grow," this by no means has to suggest that "they never remain empty." While recounting the etiology of this yearning, Eco recalls that "in many recent studies I have remarked a general tendency to take unlimited semiosis in the sense of a free reading in which the will of the interpreters, to use [Richard] Rorty's metaphor, beats the texts into a shape which will serve their own purposes" (18). This leads to Eco's efforts at "beating (respectfully)" Peirce's concept. "If it is difficult to decide if a given interpretation is a good one, it is easier to recognize the bad ones," he observes. "Thus my purpose was not so much to say what unlimited semiosis is, but at least what it is not and cannot be" (19).
Yet, Eco (and most of the other commentators on FW is not always reductive in his characterization of the novel's polysemy. He says, for instance, "it is not necessary that the reader understand the exact meaning of every word and phrase" of it (Aesthetics 67). "The force of the text resides in its permanent ambiguity and the continuous resounding of numerous meanings which seem to permit selection but in fact eliminate nothing." This sounds like a different rendition of FW altogether, except that Eco's reliance upon exact meaning and semiosic permission reveals his desire for relative restraint.
In fact, a better illustration of Eco's stance on controlling the novel can be found in his peculiar description of a critical exchange between several Joyce critics who concocted what came across to him as far-fetched, and indeed impossible, readings of several puns. (Actually, it's not his description of the dialogue that is peculiar so much as is his emotional response to it.) One critic proposes a reading that identifies an intriguingly prophetic association in one of Joyce's puns that he could not have known about because it was connected with a future historical event.
A year later, a second critic found a defendable and historically plausible explanation for the pun which is granted legitimacy, Eco suggests, because it is based on credible "context" (Limits 150). "I love that discussion" between these critics, Eco confesses in an uncharacteristically emotional moment. "All the participants proved to be smart enough to invent acrobatic interpretations, but...in the end, were prudent enough to recognize that their brilliant innuendoes were not supported by the context. They won the game because they let Finnegans Wake win" (150-151). Eco applauds this as "an example of respect of the text as a system ruled by an internal coherence" (151).
As this sententious observation suggests, an orientation along these lines, finally, can be reduced to a semiotic morality. Eco recounts that Peirce declared "we shall, or should, ultimately reach a Sign of itself, containing its own explanation and those of all its significant parts; and according to this explanation each such part has some other part as its Object" (cited in Theory, 69). But, it could be argued that Peirce's own qualification reveals the sleight of hand necessary in order to convincingly portray semiotics in this light. By first suggesting we "shall" accomplish this concretization, and then changing it to "should", Peirce dramatizes an awareness of the desperate juggling of concepts that is going here.
"Unlimited semiosis" is typical of the handful of such concepts that Eco attempts to reconfigure to create the illusion of a dynamic, fluid view of semiotics. Yet, as is seen throughout his considerable and influential work on sign theory and practice, he consistently stresses a conservative perspective that sacrifices organicity for systemicity, progress for play. From the standpoint of specifically literary semiotics, the ambit he introduces with assertions like -- "the notion of unlimited semiosis does not lead to the conclusion that interpretation has no criteria" -- assumes a well-worn contour (Limits 6). Predictably, he follows up this assertion with a stream metaphor for semiosis that is strategically the opposite of those Merrell employs positively. "To say that interpretation (as the basic feature of semiosis) is potentially unlimited does not mean that interpretation has no object and that it 'riverruns' for the mere sake of itself," he maintains. "To say that a text potentially has no end does not mean that every act of interpretation can have a happy ending." Readers unfamiliar with Eco's subject in this instance would probably not realize the significance of his choice of "riverrun" in relation to this contention and his overall perspective on semiosis.
It is the first word of Finnegans Wake.
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Semiotics Based on Radical Polysemy, Structuration, and Play
Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author"; Jean-François Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993).
Jacques Derrida, "'I have forgotten my umbrella'"