Umberto Eco and the Semiotics

Eco proceeds from the Peircean assumption of “unlimited semiosis.” Though unlimited semiosis indicates that signs always refer to other signs (and that a text is open to infinite interpretations), Eco seeks a middle ground between univocal meaning and infinite meanings. For Eco unlimited semiosis is meaning established with reference to conditions of possibility. A univocal type of code is one where one system of elements is translated into an other system. For instance the Morse, where a system of codes and dashes corresponds to the letters of the alphabet.

(i) Eco is interested in the langue-parole constitution of language. The “code” corresponds, in Eco to the structure of the language. It (the code) correlates the “expression plane” of the language with the “content plane.” This is Eco’s “S-code“—the equivalent of the organisation of the elements of parole. S-codes may be denotative (the literal “reading” of a statement or sentence) or connotative (when another code is detected underneath).

(ii) The meaning of a sign-vehicle (the word) must be treated as independent of a supposedly real object (the “referential fallacy”). Thus “table” refers not to any particular/single table but to all tables. Codes have a social and cultural context. The response of an individual to a particular sign-vehicle imparts information about the particular “cultural unit” (the context). Evidently, then, signs can take on a multiplicity of’ meanings; each derived from the competence of the user. A sign not only stands for something, but must also be interpreted. What this idea suggests is that langue as a code becomes equivalent to the competence of the language user. Thus Eco is here providing a dynamic understanding of codes.

(iii) Eco develops the Q-model of the code, which he suggests is a model of “linguistic creativity.” The Q-Model supposes that the system can be added to, and that further data may be inferred from incomplete data. The code is therefore modified in accordance with the competence of the language user rather than being defined or determined by the code itself.  Eco’s theory of sign production focuses on the “ratio facils” and the “ratio difficilis.”

  1. a) Ratio facilis refers to the elements that can be easily assimilated by the code, and corresponds to the Peircean symbol.
  2. b) Ratio difficilis refers to elements that cannot be easily assimilated by the code (the Peircean icon). In the second type the sign of the object is motivated by the nature of the object itself.

However, Eco argues that even the most motivated of signs have conventional elements. Any “outside” sign (that is an unconventional, unfamiliar sign, beyond the code) soon becomes conventionalised.

(iv) Eco’s typology of sign production is as follows:
1) Physical labour: effort required to produce the sign
(2) Recognition: object or event is identified as expressing a sign-content
(3) Ostension: an object or event is shown to be a symptom/exemplar of a whole class of objects or acts.
(4) Replica: describes the more difficult or “motivated” signs which eventually become conventionalised (mathematical signs and symbols, musical notations)
(5) Invention: a new sign, unavailable in the code or convention. This is also the basis of creativity.

Thus Eco’s model emphasises the creative and ever-adaptable nature of code and language itself.

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