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Critical Semiotics

Instructor: Scott Simpkins

Lecture Four: The "problem" of controlling the decoder.

Assigned Reading:

Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979).


"A responsible collaboration is demanded of the addressee."
Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics

Key for Chapter References in Assigned Reading:

R - "Introduction: The Role of the Reader" (1979)
P - "The Poetics of the Open Work" (1959)
S - "The Semantics of Metaphor" (1971)
G - "On the Possibility of Generating Aesthetic Messages in an Edenic Language" (1971)
M - "The Myth of Superman" (1962)
I - "Rhetoric and Ideology in Sue's Les Mystères de Paris" (1965)
N - "Narrative Structures in Fleming" (1965)
F - "Peirce and the Semiotic Foundations of Openness: Signs as Texts and Texts as Signs" (1976)
L - "Lector in Fabula: Pragmatic Strategy in a Metanarrative Text" (1977)

The Threat of the Decoder

Like the "code", the "decoder" has garnered considerable attention in the discussion of semiotics, although in a fashion that also unfortunately mirrors the shortcomings of code theory. To focus this examination, I will explore only one extensive illustration of commentary on the decoder here. I have selected a prominent example of the Indiana Group (discussed in Lecture One) primarily because Umberto Eco not only considers the decoder at length, but he does so in a way that highlights a common view as well. For Eco, like many other semioticians, the decoder seriously threatens a systemic comprehension of semiosis. The only way to quell this challenge to the authority of the text, and to a far lesser extent (at least for Eco), the encoder, is to call for the contained behavior of the "possible" or "Model Reader."

(An indication of Eco's continued prominence among the IG is the recent appearance of the substantial Reading Eco: An Anthology, which features essays by Eco and critical essays on his fiction and writings about semiotics. For much of the secondary commentary on Eco I will cite essays from this collection for the sake of ease as well as to demonstrate this point.)

Michael Riffaterre identifies the two extremes of positioning the decoder that are common in both semiotics and reader-response theory. One position emphasizes the ceaseless play of "unlimited semiosis" which would evidently challenge the static function of a Model Reader. Maria Corti identifies a potential consequence of this orientation of opinion about the decoder when she avers that "the universe of the addressees of a literary work is the product of ongoing and often uncontrollable relations with the text" (33). The other orientation considers "the definition of text as a set of constraints imposing uniform reader responses and consistent interpretations that endure despite changes in esthetic or ideological fashions" (184). This latter pole is approximately consistent with Eco's conception. As a means of curtailing the actual decoder's behavior, Eco establishes the Model Reader as voluntary acceptance of guidance. For semiosis to take place in an orderly and systemically regulated fashion, Eco opines, it is absolutely necessary to receive "the interpretive cooperation of the addressee" (vii). However, it is difficult to speak precisely about Eco's reader for, as Susan Petrilli notes, while the Model Reader "recurs again and again in Eco's writings,... it remains indefinite" (413). Furthermore, she remarks, "it fluctuates between being the author's construct, the text's device, a set of felicity conditions and the personified 'competent' judge of interpretations." Petrilli situates the Model Reader as Eco's contribution to the thriving market of readers offered by the various reader-reception theories. But Eco cannot quite decide what to do with this superfluous entity, and so his Model Reader remains suspended midway between the eminence grise of the Konstanz school and the actual reader whose reading practices are amenable to empirical study. In the end, Eco, now a Model Author, treats the Model Reader with some irony, having discovered that he/she/it will not read and interpret as expected.

Anna Longoni reflects the widespread uneasiness in semiotics toward the decoder by praising Eco for showing "wise caution" in his position regarding this presumably troublesome component of sign activity (214). Lubomir Dolezel is similarly representative of those who fear that decoders will run amuck if given a sign entirely under their own jurisdiction. "One of the potential dangers that the introduction of the reader (and any other pragmatic concept into literary theory) brings, is a radical relativization of the literary work's meaning and of the procedures of interpretation," Dolezel contends (114). "Indeed, if the reader coproducts the literary work's meaning, then there is no limit to the coproductions." Once the decoder has been sanctioned to freely interact with the sign, "no criteria of interpretation, no distinction between interpretation and misinterpretation can be postulated."

Corti raises an important distinction neglected by Eco when she distinguishes between the Model Reader as a function of the actual reader, as opposed to the "internal addressee" of the text whose "relation is internal to the text" (34). (The silent auditor character commonly used in dramatic monologues would be an apt illustration of this positioning of a decoder situated "inside" the text.) Corti notes further that "this class of addressees, internal to the text, differs in its semiological nature from the class of generic readers; the internal addressee is known on the basis of a precise relation created or hypothesized by the sender." But Eco collapses this distinction by importing the actual reader into the text as one of its structurally determined components.

Yet, perhaps this distinction should remain. While accounting for the presuppositions aligned with semiosis, V. N. Volosinov suggests that the existence of any sign activity necessarily dictates the contribution of the decoder. "Utterance... is constructed between two socially organized persons, and in the absence of a real addressee, an addressee is presupposed in the person, so to speak, of a normal representative of the social group to which the speaker belongs," he observes (85). "The word is oriented toward an addressee, toward who that addressee might be... "

Concern for the impact of the decoder has long been an issue for Eco. In his retrospective Preface to The Role, Eco acknowledges that he subsequently "realize[d]" that the chapters written prior to 1976 are "dominated by the problem of the role of the reader in interpreting texts" (vii). (The Introduction, the first and the last two chapters were written between 1976-1979.) Yet Eco views this limitation as merely the result of obsolete "technical terminology" (viii), rather than a conceptual shortcoming. "It might be argued that the analyses made between 1959 and 1971 should be rewritten in a more up-to-date jargon," he observes. "But afterwit is everybody's wit; it is better that the earlier essays remain as witnesses to a constant exploration into textuality made during twenty years of prehistorical attempts" (vii).

In this discussion, I will divide my analysis of The Role into two groups, exploring chronologically first the earlier chapters as one group (1959-1971), and then the later ones as another (1976-1979). It should be clear from this approach that, despite Eco's own assessment, the later chapters fall prey to the same positioning of the decoder as the earlier ones. Eco's self-proclaimed revision of his earlier stance, in other words, belies his leeriness of an unfettered decoder. This is ironic in that Eco aligns his later commentary within "state of the art" semiotics (Role viii). He goes so far as to bemoan the rapid maturation of "text semiotics" which, "having grown up incredibly during the last decade [ca. 1979], has reached a dreadful level of sophistication." Lecture One has already addressed this strategy among the IG discussion of semiotics, but this assertion by Eco merits closer attention by virtue of the extensive ethos-building agenda it enacts for semiotics as a discipline.

(It should be noted that Eco segments his chapters differently than I have. The first three are in a section titled "Open," the second three are in "Closed," and the final two are in "Open/Closed." The rationale behind my own grouping of Eco's chapters is explained above.)

Obeisant Decoders: The Early Chapters

The first of the early chapters, "The Poetics of the Open Work," appeared originally in Opera aperta (in English, The Open Work). It focuses in part on "recent [ca. 1959] pieces of instrumental music" in which there is "considerable autonomy left to the individual performer in the way he chooses to play the work" (47). A "classical composition," Eco sugggests, reveals a "macroscopic divergence" from this kind of music in that it "posits an assemblage of sound units which the composer arranged in a closed, well-defined manner before presenting it to the listener" (48). A composition of this nature is arranged into "conventional symbols which more or less oblige the eventual performer to reproduce the format devised by the composer himself." "The new musical works" (such as those by Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio, Henri Pousseur, and Stockhausen) "reject the definitive, concluded message and multiply the formal possibilities of the distribution of their elements." In this respect, the recent pieces operate as "'open' works, which are brought to their conclusion by the performer at the same time as he experiences them on an aesthetic plane" (48-49). This schema introduces a fundamental component of Eco's depiction of proper decoder function. For, the decoder cooperates with the encoder and the text (hereafter: encoder/text) rather than presuming to function as an entity equal or - even worse - superior to them in autonomy.

Significantly, almost immediately in the discussion, Eco configures this "openness" in a decidedly peculiar fashion. The work, in Eco's view, stands as "the end product of an author's effort to arrange a sequence of communicative effects in such a way that each individual addressee can refashion the original composition devised by the author" (P 49). "The addressee," he continues, "is bound to enter into an interplay of stimulus and response which depends on his unique capacity for sensitive reception of the piece." Look at the way Eco phrases these descriptions. The encoder, within this scenario, authorizes this openness (the "addressee can refashion the original"). Given this arguably meager allowance, the "addressee" is correspondingly "bound" to participate only along these closely prescribed lines of decoding. The decoder's behavior is further circumscribed as an "interplay" which is limited to an exclusively "sensitive reception" of the work. This oddly parental freedom is reminiscent of child psychology strategies for duping a child into believing he or she has some degree of autonomy or empowerment. A form of openness cast in this manner places the decoder in the position of the consumer of what Roland Barthes called the "readerly" text or what Julio Cortàzar, in an unfortunate choice of words, called the "female-reader" (see Lecture Three and Simpkins, "'The Infinite Game''"). The decoder is allowed only the freedom sanctioned by the encoder/text - a decidedly mediated form of freedom indeed. Eco continues in this vein:

In this sense the author presents a finished product with the intention that this particular composition should be appreciated and received in the same form as he devised it. As he reacts to the play of stimuli and his own response to their patterning, the individual addressee is bound to supply his own existential credentials, the sense conditioning which is peculiarily his own, a defined culture, a set of tastes, personal inclinations, and prejudices. Thus his comprehension of the original artifact is always modified by his particular and individual perspective. In fact, the form of the work of art gains its aesthetic validity precisely in proportion to the number of different perspectives from which it can be viewed and understood. These give it a wealth of different resonances and echoes without impairing its original essence...

Note, again, that here Eco privileges the authority of the encoder to control a "valid" act of semiosis. As the source of a message's closure, the encoder's presence hovers over the text like a spectral figure in loco parentis, overseeing and invisibly directing the decoder's respectful, appreciative practices. The decoder is "bound" once more, through the agency of the encoder and a host of protective buttresses that could be accurately grouped under the rubric of "competence", not to "impair" the message's "original essence." (Good examples of related commentary on reader competence can be found in Culler and Fish, "Literature".)

While Eco constantly restates "openness" as a reduction of encoder/text control, he begs the question of the possibility of such control to begin with. For instance, he claims that the encoder of the open work constructs it in such a way "so as to expose it to the maximum possible 'opening'" (P 50). The clear implication is that the encoder can actually wield substantial enforcement over the decoder's interaction with the message. For example, he discusses Plato's commentary in the Sophist on painting and the extent to which perspective was used "in order to ensure that [the observer] looked at the figure in the only possible right way" (50-51). "That is," he adds, "the way the author of the work had devised various visual devices to oblige the observer's attention to converge on." The open work might not impose that much constraint on the decoder, but it would still impose it to a far lesser (but still not entirely free) extent.

Perspective Imposition

Eco cites as another example allegorical readings of the Scriptures during the Middle Ages which presuppose a text "undoubtedly endowed with a measure of 'openness'" (P 51). "The reader of the text knows that every sentence and every trope is 'open' to a multiplicity of meanings which he must hunt for and find," Eco asserts. "Indeed, according to how he feels at one particular moment, the reader might choose a possible interpretative key which strikes him as exemplary of [a given] spiritual state." Significantly, Eco positions the decoder's interaction with this "open" form of semiosis as always regimented by twin control exercised by the encoder/text. Thus, the decoder is essentially restrained, authorized only to "find" something that is there (placed there, decidedly there) in the text. This allows the decoder to making a "choice", in Eco's words, which is limited to the choices offered (by the encoder/text). Like the restrictions of the "code" discussed in Lecture Three, textual "openness" is simply a wider array of predetermined, predeterminable options. Decoders, accordingly, cannot do whatever they want with a text; they can choose only from among the items dictated to them. "In this type of operation," Eco contends, "'openness' is far removed from meaning 'indefiniteness' of communication, 'infinite' possibilities of form, and complete freedom of reception." He adds: "What in fact is made available is a range of rigidly preestablished and ordained interpretative solutions, and these never allow the reader to move outside the strict control of the author." It is difficult to be charitable toward such a model of semiosis, considering that it is based on a flimsy, conservative view that is unabashedly motivated by a desire for semiotic "power" at the expense of the decoder's autonomy. Even when he goes so far as to entertain the concept of "infinite semiosis," he qualifies it as a phenomenon that is "virtually unlimited" (63). In the end, Eco can never acknowledge alternative views of the decoder that grant any greater power than the acquiescent, slavish one he promotes here.

And why? Clearly, the presumed logic - or what he calls elsewhere a "specific sense" (P 54) - subtending semiosis is otherwise vulnerable. In his insistence that "the reader... must always follow rules that entail a rigid univocality" (51), Eco reveals the motive behind models of this nature in the discussion of semiotics. For, the only way that multivocality, or openness, or infinite semiosis, can be conceived of systemically, is to base them on a necessarily domesticated decoder who willingly adheres to prescribed rules. Additionally, the imperative bullying that Eco uses to emphatically support this condition reveals, as well, an underlying uneasiness with alternative models. This is especially revealing in relation to those models that try to account for an empowered decoder whose interaction within semiosis is not characterized fearfully as an insurrectionary act against the transcendental signified.

When Eco goes to what is, at least for him, the outer limits of openness, he continues to maintain this grudging adherence to a semiosic logic. In the social order (evidently the one he perceived taking shape at the end of the 1950s) in which there is "a general breakdown in the concept of causation," different forms of logic still exist, he argues (58). "Multivalent logics are now [circa 1959] gaining currency, and these are quite capable of incorporating indeterminacy as a valid stepping-stone in the cognitive process," he declares. Open works, he adds, are "art stripped of necessary and foreseeable conclusions, works in which the performer's freedom functions as part of the discontinuity which contemporary physics recognizes, not as an element of disorientation, but as an essential stage in all scientific verification procedures... " Eco's vocabulary choices here reveal his interests in this position once again. This type of openness, he suggests, tames "indeterminacy" into a "valid" simulacrum or tool. It produces "discontinuity," not "disorientation." And, predictably, it's "verifiable"!

To be entirely fair, Eco is attempting in the discussion of allegory (cited above) to historicize a specific view of semiosis, one based on an assumed "conception of the universe as a hierarchy of fixed, preordained orders" (P 57). Yet, the pervasiveness of Eco's depiction of the decoder in "a number of cursory historical glimpses" (52) throughout this chapter is suggestive, as is seen in his observations on semiosis in the present time.

Throughout The Role, he endeavors to situate the decoder as a largely powerless participant in semiosis. This aspect of his commentary suggests that his description is much more accurately considered a universal model, rather than one tailored particularly toward select historical moments. For instance, his depiction of James Joyce's immensely polysemous novel, Finnegans Wake, reveals a great deal about Eco's own investment in hobbling the decoder in this vein. Longoni reflects a parallel historicizing assertion by arguing that works of modern writers such as Kafka and Joyce "impose on the reader a plurality of interpretations, because for them there no longer exists a unique interpretation of the world. Reality itself is fragmented, and it is represented in the literary text by fragments that can be endlessly reassembled" (215). Eco does the same thing when he argues that because Joyce crafts portmanteau words out of numerous languages and puns ("slipping beauty," "reamalgamerge," "anagrim," "lavastories," "passencore," etc.), his text must be read in the following way: "According to the semantic voice which we make in the case of one unit [of the novel] so goes the way we interpret all the other units in the text." Of course, "this does not mean that the book lacks specific sense," Eco contends (54). "If Joyce does introduce some keys into the text, it is precisely because he wants the work to be read in a certain sense" (54-55). By this, Eco evidently means that Joyce wants his work read in a certain way. That he wants the decoder, in other words, to make choices only among those of the author's own designation as evidenced by textual directives. Despite his historicizing claims, then, for Eco, what was true about semiosis in the Middle Ages was still true in the 1930s.

This orientation is reflected in Eco's concluding comments in the "Open Work" chapter as he stresses (using the example of music by the composers mentioned earlier) that "the possibilities which the work's openness makes available always work within a given field of relations" (62). Even though "we may well deny that there is a single prescribed point of view," he adds, "this does not mean complete chaos in [a work's] internal relations." Again, for Eco, openness is directed by "an organizing rule which governs these relations" for the decoder. Textual decoding is thus never "an amorphous invitation to indiscriminate participation." The decoder, in effect, is offered "an oriented insertion into something which always remains the world intended by the author." (Note: while Eco in this illustration is referring to performers of musical compositions, and not explicitly to "decoders", the substitution is apt considering the numerous parallels between the two. This substitution of "decoder" for "addressee", "reader", etc. will be employed throughout this lecture.)

"The Myth of Superman" (1962) seems like an odd selection to include in The Role of the Reader (which may account for its location in the "Closed" section of the book). It addresses the ostensibly "closed" weltanschauung of the Superman comic and the extent to which its openness is actually a form of necessary redundancy. Eco uses this analysis to steadily reinforce his belief that the openness of a textual exchange (a synecdoche for "semiosis") can, in fact, rest entirely on the encoder's input vis-à-vis the text. The decoder is portrayed throughout as merely a non-participatory spectator in the Superman saga. By structuring this discussion accordingly, Eco establishes a detailed description of a semiotic infinitude that seemingly rises above significant impact by the decoder and, as such, is therefore eminently systematic, controlled, and logically framed. These attributes are cherished values in Eco's schema of a controlled open semiosis that is shared by many others in the discussion of semiotics. For, these perspectives combine to yield a coherent, intelligible operational model of sign activity that is undeniably attractive. If signs actually worked this way, or if decoders agreed en masse to interact with them like this, semiotics would have a considerably stable ground on which to establish itself as an empirical discipline. But the uncooperative decoder always looms as a challenge to this desire for semiosic containment.

Eco tries to naturalize a desire for this type of containment by contending that the Superman narratives satisfy a common "hunger for redundance" (M 120) among decoders who do not want a new, and thus eventually concluded, story or development. Rather, this specific decoder wants ceaseless "iteration" through "a series of events repeated according to a set scheme" (117). This produces a text that cannot be exhausted because it endlessly covers the same narrative ground by positing each time "a virtual beginning, ignoring where the preceding event left off." The consumable text, on the contrary, implies a progressive signification, instead of a consistently encoder-based production of more and more signs. The encoder thereby becomes the sole contributing source of the event of semiosis which the decoder, then, is continually dependent upon for the production of new signs. This is a technically ingenious explanation of the Superman narrative on Eco's part. But, its ostensibly incongruous appearance in The Role effectively, because quietly, legitimizes the "myth" of encoder-enforcement of control over the decoder that he introduces in the beginning. (Tellingly suggested, perhaps, by the final line of the chapter - the last footnote - which states merely: "See Chapter 1 of this book.")

Superman is, of course, an ideal model for this discussion. "By definition the character whom nothing can impede," he "finds himself in the worrisome narrative situation of being a hero without an adversary and therefore without the possibility of any development" (M 110). This stasis is accentuated by the comic medium which is greatly limited by individual strip size and length. In this respect, Superman is both "aesthetically and commercially deprived of the possibility of narrative development." As a consequence, Eco argues, "there is nothing left to do except to put Superman to the test of several obstacles which are intriguing because they are unforseen but which are, however, surmountable by the hero" (111). Superman can thus remain perpetually "inconsumable" as a result. He can go on continuously, solving new problems as they arise, without ever being forced to proceed toward an otherwise unavoidable conclusion. His semiotic universe, accordingly, is non-entropic. This would contrast, as Eco notes, with a genre such a detective fiction in which the whole point of the story is to solve an enigma and thereby create a completion.

The Superman writers can further manipulate this universe by assuming total control of fabricating its narration. This supersedes any attempt by the decoder to begin to master, and powerfully co-create, the series, as would occur in a text in which linear extrapolation by the decoder is possible. "The stories develop in a kind of oneiric climate - of which the reader is not aware at all - where what has happened before and what has happened after appear extremely hazy," Eco observes. "The narrator picks up the strand of the event again and again, as if he had forgotten to say something and wanted to add details to what had already been said" (114). Positioned by this strategy, the decoder has no choice other than to go along with the story, as opposed to eventually assuming at least partial mastery over a narrative constrained by a consumptive logic. Eco calls upon the Superman narrative, it appears, to frame this textual scenario as yet another instance of successful encoder/text imposition over the decoder.

Decoder Incontinence

The two chapters from the mid-1960s - "Rhetoric and Ideology in Sue's Les Mystères de Paris" and "Narrative Structures in Fleming" - continue to flesh out the consistent stance that Eco assumes regarding the activity of the decoder.

Eco's analysis of the ideological aspect of a text (one by Sue in this instance) harks back to the discussion of "overcoding" from Lecture Three. The extra-precise establishment of a code functions directly as a means to substantially diminish the impact of the decoder on semiosis. Undeniably, to engage in an analysis which reveals how a text is "ideologically overcoded," the notion of textual control has to be accepted (I 126). Overcoding, in this sense, essentially presupposes an even greater extent of decoding enforcement by positing a high-level form of "conventional" code work. For this undertaking to presume the empirical claim of objectivity, Eco implies, the analyst has to accept that what is being "reveal[ed]" are "structures that exist within the work." This process, additionally, serves "to correct as far as possible the distortion produced by the angle of perspective and to take the greatest possible advantage of such distortion as cannot be corrected."

A drive of this nature is evidently fueled by a desire for authentification (or possession of the capacity to be authenticatible). Longoni expresses this sentiment when she asks: "How far can the interpretation of the reader, who interacts with the text, legitimately go? What is the legitimacy of interpretation?" (211). To produce a decoding based on a verifiable evidentiary concluson, she suggests, "a hypothesis, in order to become a legitimate interpretation, must be built upon clear proofs given to the reader" (213). "The mark of legitimacy" can be established through context, Longoni adds. "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)." Ultimately, she concludes, this process will ground itself upon an analysis of what are then viewed as confirmable "objective constraints on the interpretation of a text" (214). In "Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language," Eco presents a similar rendition of this contention by asserting that

When it is well-constructed, a specific semiotics attains a scientific status, or close to it - to the extent to which this is possible for human sciences. These grammars are descriptive, frequently also are prescriptive and to some extent they can be predictive, at least in a statistical sense, in so far as they are supposedly to successfully predict how a user of a given sign system, under normal circumstances, will generate or interpret messages produced according to that system's rules. (3)

Obviously, though, both proposals by Eco and Longoni are vulnerable due to numerous assumptions that are, at the very least, extremely shaky from an epistemological standpoint. Riddled by questionable assertions like "objectivity," "well-constructed," "close to," "scientific status," "normal circumstances," "legitimate," and "clear proofs," these naively essentialistic claims do little to establish a compelling argument about encoder/text autonomy.

A three-part approach to Sue's Les Mystères de Paris is used to enforce this demotion of the decoder as Eco considers only: the ideological stance of the author, the commerical situation under which the novel was written and published, and the system of narratology. The impact of the decoder is nowhere to be seen here. Consequently, the text is viewed solely as a systemic construct. It's only affective concern is that the encoder's "intention" is conveyed most successfully. Eco imagines Sue asking himself: "What sort of problems must I solve in order to write a narrative which I intend will appeal to a large public and arouse both the concern of the masses and the curiosity of the well-to-do?" (I 130). Essentially, Eco posits the control of the resulting decoder's interpretant in the hands of the encoder. The encoder assumes the function of an automaton (as will be seen in Eco's desire expressed later for just such an entity) who mechanically responds to a programmed series of semiosic prompts. Acceptance of this assumption evidently is designed to reinforce the belief that signs operate according to eminently describable/prescribable pathways.

This planning extends throughout Eco's discussion, as when he proposes: "The element of reality... and the element of fantasy... must strike the reader at each step, gripping his attention and torturing his sensibilities. The plot must be so arranged, therefore, so as to present climaxes of disclosure, that is, surprises" (132). Here, Eco imagines a model of semiosis that the encoder always controls via the message. The decoder, as a result, is merely a respondent, an addressee. Eco's uneasiness in the face of a decoder who rejects this oversight faculty by the encoder/text is also reflected in the title of this collection. The Role of the Reader - as if to imply that the encoder/text position is comfortably ensconced throughout institutionalization (and maybe it is!) and it's the decoder who needs chastisement in light of habitually unruly, "aberrant" decoding behavior. To borrow a concept from Corti: if the problematic interaction between the work and the addressee can be seen as "a scuffle between reader and text" (38), maybe Eco's proposal is a way to resolve such a conflict.

As with the Superman myth, when Sue first published the novel in serial form he engaged in strategies for prolonging narrative "life" by way of continuous extension. Through "tension, resolution, renewed tension, further resolution, and so on," Sue is able to maintain a reader's interest in the story without giving in to the threat of its eventual conclusion, Eco avers (I 132). Eco views this as a market constraint prompting an encoder to continuously present new message variations, despite ever-increasing implausibility. "New episodes are invented one after another, because the public claims that it cannot bear to say good-bye to its characters," he argues. "A dialectic is established between market demands, and the plot's structure is so important that at a certain point even fundamental laws of plot construction, which might have been thought inviolate for any commercial novel, are trangressed" (133). Assertions along these lines also reinforce Eco's contention about the decoder's desire for repetition of rewarding semiosic experiences under the direction of the encoder/text. This is a surprisingly plausible account from a political angle critical of consumeristic, mass-culture drives. Yet it in no way serves to explicate the much broader phenomenon of general semiosis as a whole.

The early chapter on Fleming's James Bond novels similarly depicts its semiotic field as closed and determinate according to "a general plan" (159) in relation to the decoder. Eco contends that Fleming's novels are "built on a series of oppositions which allow a limited number of permutations and interactions" (N 147). From this angle, he assesses the perimeters of the Bond novels as constituting a "narrative machine" (146). Subsequently, the novels as a whole operate as "a machine that functions basically on a set of precise units governed by rigorous combinational rules." Furthermore, Eco proposes assessing the limitations imposed on the decoder by "evaluating for each structural element the probable incidence upon the reader's sensitivity." Even though Eco posits 14 "dichotomies [that] constitute invariant features around which minor couples rotate as free variants" (such as Bond-M, Bond-Villain, etc.), he returns again to the argument that these pairings substantially limit the decoder's interpretive operation (147). "Toward the end of the book," he declares, the decoder options eventually constrict and "the algebra [of their selection] has to follow a prearranged pattern" (155). He concludes that "the novel, given the rules of combination of oppositional couples, is fixed as a sequence of 'moves' inspired by the code and constituted according to a perfectly prearranged [invariable] scheme" (156). Again, while these schemes can be organized in substantially different orders, he suggests, these orders are delimited by the "fundamental moves" (157) of the field that constitutes the system of the Bond novels.

As with the Superman narratives Eco locates in this containment of the decoder's options the source of enjoyment to be derived from reading the Bond novels. "The reader finds himself immersed in a game of which he knows the pieces and the rules - and perhaps the outcome - and draws pleasure," he maintains, "simply from following the minimal variations by which the victor realizes his objective" (160). This is a very minimal pleasure, indeed, for the decoder once more is given short shrift in this scenario. In a lock-step manner, the decoder cannot deviate beyond sanctioned options and, to extend Eco's metaphor, when the victor is revealed, it's no surprise that it won't be the decoder.

Curiously, however, Eco ends this chapter with an observation wholly inconsistent with his discussion up to that point. He had been concluding with some speculations about Fleming's status as a popular writer when he abruptly shifts direction and proposes a consensual model of decoder response:

Since the decoding of a message cannot be established by its author, but depends on the concrete circumstances of reception, it is difficult to guess what Fleming is or will be for his readers. When an act of communication provokes a response in public opinion, the definitive verification will take place not within the ambit of the book but in that of the society that reads it. (172)

The strange appearance of this assertion merits consideration. To spend an entire chapter discussing the ways in which the field of the Bond novels positions a reader's acquiescence (the necessary operation of a popular culture text, Eco declares) and then assert that this response is the result of an active undertaking is indeed peculiar. Yet, note the way that Eco formulates this position. In keeping with Saussure's insistence on the communal establishment of linguistic norms, he states that the individual decoder cannot enact this powerful control over a "final" (i.e., read) rendition of the text. This rendition, rather, is a social establishment, something that yields "definitive verification" through "concrete circumstances of reception." With this selective emphasis, Eco's apparent rationale for this concluding remark can be proposed as simply another means for placing the decoder in a lesser power position in semiosis.

Eco offers a related explanation in The Limits of Interpretation by contending that too much "infinitude" is undesirable:

An open text is always a text, and a text can elicit infinite readings without allowing any possible reading. It is impossible to say what is the best interpretation of a text, but it is possible to say which ones are wrong... Texts frequently say more than their authors intended to say, but less than what many incontinent readers would like them to say. (148)

"Incontinence" is precisely the fear Eco wants to instill, for empowering the individual decoder is tantamount to embarrassing loss of communal order. Eco also remarks that, "from the moment in which the community is pulled to agree with a given interpretation, there is, if not an objective, at least an intersubjective meaning which acquires a privilege over any other possible interpretation spelled out without the agreement of the community" (40). Between these two passages, it becomes easy to pinpoint key dichotomies that Eco employs to frame his position. Right/wrong, possible/impossible, agreement/disagreement, allowable/unallowable - all of these implied oppositions lead to the same premise: the decoder is a potential challenge to the presumed stability associated with group harmony.

For some commentators on semiotics, granting power to the communal "mob" is still too risky. Longoni, for instance, expresses alarm over this issue by declaring that "the consequence of placing legitimacy within the consensus of the readers is a weakening of the bond represented by the literal meaning, by the coherence of the text, and by the will of the author" (214). But, it's difficult to agree with Eco on the matter of decoder consensus because it does appear that a form of acceptance is granted to multiple reporting of shared responses. As Corti observes, in addition to the two frequently cited "relations of the addressee" (relations "with the sender" and "with the work"), a third one has to be considered: relations "with the other addressees" (35). Corti adds that "in this last case it is the group that creates relations with the work."

This procedure is configured not unlike the verification strategies of Aborigine fringe dwellers in Darwin, Australia studied by Basil Samson. Following an event, witness "recruitment" (128) is employed to "check up la all that detail" (or what Hodge and Kress call "general opinion or rumour" [147]) to sort through multiple perspectives and "get all that detail right" (128). This process of cross-referencing is eventually superseded by a "straight story" or "the word" (or, again, from Hodge and Kress, "the accepted truth, the official verson of reality" [147]). In their commentary on Samson, Hodge and Kress note that once "a version acquires this status, it becomes forbidden to tell a different version, or to seem to act on the basis of a different version." "Getting it straight is manufacture" (129), Samson notes, after which a narrated event is thereby transformed into "a finished happening" (128). For the Aborigines, "truth is a final product and in the beginning truth has yet to be fashioned out of raw material relevancies" (129). After this takes place, the "final version... is not a 'version' at all but the story that has been righted in detail and straightened into complete and final shape" (130). "In the end," he observes, "a story belongs to a whole set of people who as equal witnesses constitute the jurisdiction of a now fully fashioned story to the making of which they have each contributed assent and more" (131).

This phenomenom practiced by Aborigines is closely aligned with the communal decoder elevation that Eco attempts to establish through his closing remarks. He endeavors, in other words, to hand the decoder considerable power in one moment, and then takes it away just as quickly the next. This can be demonstrated from the illustration cited by Samson once again. He notes that this process of story fabrication was used, in a particular instance, to produce a consensual version of a story specifically geared toward one individual. When the accused man was presented with the community interpretation, "he 'took' his verbal beating with not a word of protest, without any attempt to enter a defence," Samson reports (132). "To be silent in the face of the delivery of a group's determinations is to profess submission, to concede that currently one can do nothing but accept the definition of a situation so weightily forced upon one." The upshot of this endeavor, he concludes, is that "to deliver a charge of blame, people work to achieve the patent social isolation of a subject who is actively made lonely." In the parallel instance Eco describes, while the encoder seems to suffer diminished authority in this scenario, exactly the opposite occurs. For, the informed encoder - as Eco contends - can manipulate the communal reception of the text by anticipating response through a calculus of formulaic patterns. In the Bond novels (Eco uses Casino Royale as an example), "characters and situations" are positioned not psychologically, but instead on "the level of an objective structural strategy," Eco argues (146). As a result, the decoder again is included only to contribute to a majority opinion of semoisic response, and all individual decodings are unified to fit into one larger, synthesized whole.

Encoding the Decoder

The two 1971 chapters - "The Semantics of Metaphor" and "On the Possibility of Generating Aesthetic Messages in an Edenic Language" - predictably reveal more of the same from Eco on the prospects of the decoder's potential empowerment.

Eco's chapter on Edenic Language is misnamed in some respects, since he focuses on code and system manipulation more than aesthetic language per se. In fact, it is in his discussion of metaphor (following Jakobson) rather than the "experiment" he outlines afterward, where most of his substantial observations take place. In these two pages he outlines a position on sign usage (with verbal language as his example) in which "creative" usage of the "ambiguity [of] the message" is viewed "in relation to the acknowledged possibilities of the code" (G 91). To Eco, for a message to be rendered "aesthetic", there must be ambiguity beyond "content-form." "Inside the formal symmetry of metonymic relationships," he suggests, "metaphorical replacements are operated, enforcing a fresh conception of the semantic system and the universe of meanings coordinated by it." To effect the aesthetic, the message must also be assessed in light of "the message itself as a physical entity," as a "mode of expression."

Eco proposes "an extremely simple language/code" which, he contends, would "demonstrate the rules by which aesthetic messages can be generated" (G 91). In the course of establishing these "rules", Eco posits a system that allows decoder input only in order to constrain it. "These rules will have to rise from inside the code itself, but then be capable of generating an alteration of the code, both in its form of expression and its form of content," he claims. Eco's experiment postulates Adam and Eve's rudimentary use of language and the impact of the fruit-prohibition from God. The model of combination Adam and Eve are said to employ (X, nY, X) is disrupted by God's interdiction which conflicts with their prior experience. They are initially baffled when they were told that apples (or at least certain apples, anyway), which they had found to be "good", were in fact "bad". The prohibition thereby "posits a new type of connotative pairing between semantic units which had previously been coupled together differently" (95).

Adam and Eve then use this alteration in their previous semiotic system to create new forms of code and message. But their "aestheticizing" of a basic informational system is always directed by the previously established rules relating both to form and content. However, for Eco, this new conceptual model is a "grave error" on God's part since he essentially "provid[ed] those elements which could throw the whole code out of joint" through "a subversion in the presumed natural order of things" (G 95). This is where Eco once again returns to an essentialistic projection of semiosis which situates the decoder always as an outsider who should respect the integrity of an established semiotic order. (Obviously, the Edenic story would be fitting here since Adam and Eve purportedly violated that order and were banished from Paradise.)

Eco concedes that the decoder has some freedom when interacting with signs, but he constantly gives that freedom a restraint imposed by the dual entities of the encoder and the message/code. Once something possessing the status of God's prohibition is introduced, the decoder can only be a respondent, and no longer an initiator of semiosis. "It is perfectly true that certain habits of perception entitle us to go on referring to the apple" as we had before the prohibition, "even when we are quite consciously assimilated" to the new meaning God has assigned it, he allows (96). Still, Eco portrays this allowance on the part of the decoder more as a petty - and decidedly impotent - idiosyncracy than a substantial challenge to the hegemonic entitlement of the encoder and the message/code. At best, it is an aberrant empowerment on the part of the decoder, a form of defiance that is merely, and finally, symbolic. It has no effective impact on the universe created and ruled by the God of the encoder who wields "the rigid generative law of the code" (101).

As the above illustration and Lecture Three suggest, the "code" can be effectively conceptualized as a means of control imposition. This notion is extended in Eco's final entry in the early group of chapters. Significantly, he casts this discussion as though the decoder could actually possess the capacity to exert considerable control over the message during semiosis. "If a code allowed us only to generate semiotic judgments, all linguistic systems would serve to enunciate exclusively that which has already been determined by the system's conventions," he begins. "On the contrary, however, codes allow us to enunciate events that the code did not anticipate as well as metasemiotic judgments that call into question the legitimacy of the code itself" (S 67). This is an illusory generation of free intervention by the decoder, though, because it is limited to a solely combinative operation.

But, it is this seeming capacity to generate new, adaptive codes in response to developing semiotic circumstances that Eco identifies as the presumably enabling agent for the decoder. "The code, in referring to predictable cultural entities, nonetheless allows us to assign new semiotic marks to them" (S 67) through a "rule-governed creativity" (68), he argues. (Note that Eco can never grant the decoder so much as a modicum of autonomy without yoking a restraining order to it at the same time.) He adds that, through "rule-changing creativity," "factual judgments can be integrated into the code in such a way as to create new possibilities for semiotic judgment."

To illustrate this phenomenon, Eco cites the development of new tropes. The controlling agent behind this activity nevertheless (in Eco's conception) continues to exert a systemic hold on the decoder's behavior. For, he argues, "each metaphor can be traced back to a subjacent chain of metonymic connections which constitute the framework of the code and upon which is based the constitution of any semantic field, whether partial or (in theory) global" (68). What this connective association will produce, he suggests, is an "explanation of the creativity of language (presupposed by the existence of metaphors)... based on metonymic chains based in turn on identifiable semantic structures" (69). This assumption, then, will "bring the problem of creativity back to a description of language which depends upon a model susceptible to translation in binary terms." Ultimately, he concludes, such a conceptualization will allow him to "construct an automaton capable of generating and understanding metaphors." This simulacrum of a decoder behaving dutifully in accordance with the wishes of the encoder/text is probably the most radical component of The Role. For Eco proposes a decoder-system that supersedes the unpredictable activity of the actual decoder through the installation of a model based on actions depicting how the encoder/text want that decoder to behave. An organized, predictable, stable decoder is the result. What this means, is that a structured decoder can then be integrated into the structured models of the encoder/text. And a "scientific" semiotics is under way.

Eco's machine, unfortunately, operates primarily as a quasi-etymological apparatus for tracing "the origin of the metaphoric 'vehicle'" (S 71) after discerning its "key" (72). (He uses sample portmanteau words from Finnegans Wake as examples that can be explained logically along these lines. For instance: "sang plus sans plus glorians plus riant makes 'Sanglorians'.") This procedure can be extended to the entire text, Eco declares. "We should be able to show that each metaphor produced in FW is, in the last analysis, comprehensible because the entire book, read in different directions, actually furnishes the metonymic chains that justify it."

But, this grid application is extremely reductive and furthermore proposes the concomitant diminution of the decoder's ability to interact freely with the signs of an entity. As an illustration, consider Eco's elaborate discussion of the semiosic trail that leads from the common word "Neanderthal" to Joyce's construction: "meandertale". Eco somewhat naively conjectures about the "original components" (S 74) of the word and conceives a semiotic web of associations that, he argues, derive from "Neanderthal". While Eco points out that "Neanderthal" is literally "not found as such in the text," he hazards an outline of the echoes of "association" of "Neanderthal" that, from a systemic standpoint, evidently demonstrates how the word could be said to "appear" in the text. It is "there" in the sense that the associative system logically, or discernibly, or even naturally, leads the decoder (Eco, in this case) to it through the attempt to "deduce" its "component words." While, again, Eco models these linkages on the spatial concept of the web as opposed to a rigidly deterministic linear, causal plane, his model hardly avoids the pitfalls of a reductively associative claim that "each term is explained by other terms." He acknowledges this, though, noting that his diagram "has a purely orientative value, in the sense that it impoverishes the associations in terms of both number and dimension" (76). Still, this acknowledgement functions as a strategy like the one he uses in his Preface. It appears to make only a provisional, tentative claim, while it simultaneoulsly reinforces his declarations about encoder/text authority over the decoder.

At this juncture Eco makes his pitch for textual restraint. Because "all the lexemes" he associates with "meandertale" "are only those which are to be found in the text of FW," he accords this evidence the status of decoder regimentation (S 76). "The reader of FW," he asserts, "controlled by the text, is... led into a game of associations that were previously suggested to him by the co-text". (While he doesn't elaborate on the concept of the "co-text," he appears to mean a text consisting of an "associative series" [76] dependent on "the text in front of us" [85].) The implications he derives from this are that "every text, however 'open' it is, is constituted, not as the place of all possibilities, but rather as the field of oriented possibilities." So, while the decoder is at liberty to generate individual combinations of these "possibilities", they always remain "oriented" by the encoder/text.

A Sophisticated Perspective: The Later Chapters

As is the case with all of the later chapters, "Peirce and the Semiotic Foundations of Openness: Signs as Texts and Texts as Signs" outlines only another version of the semiosic curtailment Eco presented earlier. Eco notes early on that from the standpoint of "compositional analysis," "semiotic expression (be it a verbal item or any type of physical utterance) conveys, according to linguistic conventions, an organized and analyzable content, formed by the aggregation (or hierarchy) of semantic features" (176).

Eco, while discussing Peirce's commentary on the "ground", cites one instance in which the involvement of the decoder (or "interpreter") isn't necessary at all to establish semiosis. Eco's reading of Peirce on this issue is that "the interpretant," at least in selected passages such as 1.339 from his Collected Papers, "is the idea to which the sign gives rise in the mind of the interpreter (even if the real presence of an interpreter is not required)" (F 183). Eco doesn't explain this addendum (and, in fact, cites 1.338 instead of 1.339, a choice which doesn't make sense), but it appears that he is trying to situate the decoder as something supererogatory to the process of semiosis itself. In effect, Eco asserts that sign activity is not materially affected by the impact of the decoder.

Let's look closely at 1.339, in which Peirce writes: "A sign stands for something to the idea which it produces, or modifies. Or, it is a vehicle conveying into the mind something from without." The decoder isn't explictly referred to here, thus seemingly confirming Eco's argument. But consider the decoder's implied presence. Somebody has to be present to generate "the idea which [the sign] produces." It is the same conscious entity that the sign is "conveying into the mind" of. Eco would have us accept his automaton model under these circumstances to eliminate any active participation - and potential freedom - by the decoder, but clearly Peirce's passage suggests otherwise. Peirce, in fact, much more frequently is inclined to explicitly identify the decoder as a functional agent of semiosis, as in this famous passage: "A sign, or representamen, is something that stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, it creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign" (2.228).

A figurative eviction of the decoder is fully effected at the conclusion of this chapter as Eco "perform[s] a sort of surgical operation" on the many and conflicting definitions of the interpretant offered by Peirce (F 198). Ultimately, Eco "retain[s] only a precise aspect" of it that, not surprisingly, serves his purposes. He tries to accomplish this by focusing specifically on the materiality of the interpretant (i.e., its "content") as opposed to Peirce's view which, in some definitions, situates the interpretant as "mental events." Moreover, this substance of the interpretant is established through a paradigm of consensus derived from habituated sign interaction. This approach saves the interpretant from a fate that would otherwise configure it as "an ungraspable platonic abstraction or an undetectable mental event," Eco maintains (197).

Somewhat ironically, this corroboration is derived from a given interpretant's establishment through its relation to other signs. "Once the interpretant is equated with any coded intentional property of the content," he contends, "since these properties cannot be isolated but under the form of the other signs (that is, other representamens), the element of the content becomes something physically testable." "Testability" has the status of a confirmation apparatus in Eco's configuration of semiosis. A legacy of the scientific method, it can be employed - as Eco uses it here - to suggest a form of corroboration that consequently raises hypotheses about the Model Reader to a higher level of proof beyond that of mere conjecture or the recorded experience of one reader (as in Barthes' S/Z) or as many as five (as in Norman Holland's 5 Readers Reading). Like I. A. Richards' survey of numerous actual readers (as recounted in Practical Criticism), The Role is presented as an empirically informed accounting of systematic decoder practice.

Eco posits the establishment of a storehouse of these mutually validating correlations that serves to socially maintain semiotic consensus. "A given culture displays, in any of its activities, accepted correlations between representamens (or expressions), each becoming in turn the interpretant of the other" (F 197). Through the example of an interpretation of a literary text, Eco proposes the corroboration - with such cross-confirmation - of its "internal structure" derived from the "testable critical statements" that confirm its signifying status. The specific text, then, "is recognized as the interpretant of the statements [about it] by force of concrete and testable correlations, just as we know that a given portrait interprets the content of the word 'Napoleon' because of the label put on the framework by the author, accepted by the museums, and reproduced as a caption in innumerable books on art history." This institutionalized group confirmation "frees" the intepretant "from any psychological misunderstanding" (198). Eco thus attempts to portray interpretants as "the testable and describable correspondents associated by public agreement to another." Accordingly, potential assignment of a given interpretant is wrested from the decoder. "The analysis of content becomes," instead, "a cultural operation which works only on physically testable cultural products, that is, other signs and their reciprocal correlations." I have cited Eco's repetitive claims excessively here to make a point. Notice the extent to which, in the course of a few closing paragraphs of this chapter, he repeatedly resorts to confirmability via a community of decoders in order to, in a seemingly desperate fashion of reiterated protestation, declare the individual sign user essentially impotent in the face of the majority, or the status quo. (For additional commentary on communal establishment of a decoder's actions in a literary context, see Fish, "Interpreting," and Abrams.)

Duping the Decoder

In "Lector in Fabula: Pragmatic Strategy in a Metanarrative Text," Eco projects the decoding responses of a "Model Reader" to a challenging "metatext" (256), Alphonse Allais' Un drame bien parisien. Allais' story leaves the reader "completely jammed," Eco contends, because it encourages specific decoder anticipations which are then frustrated at the end (205). "It lures its Model Reader into an excess of cooperation," he argues, "and then punishes him for having overdone it" (256).

This story is chosen, of course, because it explicitly embodies the forms of decoder restraint that Eco champions throughout The Role, in the early as well as the later chapters. While it seems to draw upon "the cooperative principle in narrativity," it simultaneously ends up "challenging our yearning for cooperation by gracefully punishing our pushiness" (L 256). As such, Drame seems particularly well suited for Eco's argument in that it appears to encourage the decoder "to extrapolate from it the rules of the textual discipline it suggests." But, since it violates those rules at the same time - or rather, incorporates violation as one of its rules - the decoder is left chagrined over imagined narrative competence that was, indeed, only imagined.

The "Lector" chapter is a fitting conclusion for The Role in that it not only extensively outlines the purported control of the decoder, but it also appears to substantiate the claims Eco makes about his own methodology through an accompanying empirical "corroboration". Attached is an appendix which, Eco declares, "present[s] the results of an empirical test which validates the above extrapolation" (257). I want to return to this appendix in a moment, but first will pause to outline his reiterative positioning of the Model Reader's significantly curtailed practices.

Throughout his account of the Model Reader's response to Drame, Eco consistently frames these responses in the imperative: "the reader must," "the reader is obliged," "the readership here is summoned," "the reader is supposed to think," etc. As with some of the reductive assertions about code application discussed in Lecture Three, Eco evidently uses this strategy as a means of shoring up his position on the necessity of viable textual regulation. In other words, the text (or any message or sign in general) is granted the ability to restrict the reader's operations through inviolable restrictive apparatuses. This assumption is employed to presumably validate Eco's claim about the hoodwinking of the decoder who is led into a specific "kind of reading" which "was more or less the one foreseen by Allais when he prepared his textual trap" (L 206). In fact, "the text postulates the presumptuous reader as one of its constitutive elements." Indeed, the reader is chastised by the story's conclusion for making "a wrong hypothesis without being authorized to do so," Eco maintains. He adds, however, that the reader "has been more than authorized to make such a hypothesis," and this is the very contradiction, or decoding dissonance, that Allais is attempting to dramatize. Eco uses this example to suggest that the text does have the capacity to control the decoder at least to a certain extent.

Eco contends that the decoder confliction in Drame demonstrates that "every text is made of two components": those "provided" (L 206) by the encoder/text, and those imported by the reader, "with various rates of freedom and necessity." In the case of Allais' story, the reader ostensibly cannot anticipate that the cues from the text are designed to be misleading. Like the red herring, information is provided that appears to direct the decoder in one direction. But, at the conclusion, the decoder realizes that something else has taken place.

Eco's point here is that the reader can intrude on the text only to a decidedly limited degree. In the Drame, this is emphasized through the encouragement of decoder second-guessing that will be frustrated. And, Eco's claim is compelling regarding this illustration because, to a very real extent, the decoder is indeed at the mercy of the encoder/text. Yet, this hardly implies that the decoder could not have created other decoding possibilities. Common social interaction experience demonstrates that an equal - or perhaps even greater - power lies in the decoder's subsequent re-articulation of the text/message in the course of the decoding process. As long as there is a respectful "cooperation implemented by the reader," as Eco contends, then obviously the decoder is placed in a position of lesser power. The disrespectful, uncooperative decoder, on the other hand, is under no such obligation, and certainly no such control. Moreover, there's no reason to believe that actual decoders are prevented from operating either way at the same time. For example, while reading a work by an author famous for using trick endings, the decoder could anticipate wildly unanticipatible endings that would run contrary to the logic of the narrative. Or, if the decoder is at a loss to anticipate the ending, the unanticipated ending is at least recognizable as unanticipatible. The decoder can thus anticipate that the ending could not have been anticipated.

I'd like to return to Eco's attempts to establish a form of "scientific" status for his claims in this chapter through his appendix in which he recounts a "more empirical approach" to his speculation on the decoding responses of his proposed Model Reader (L 261). Presumably, this is one of the components of the later chapters that Eco proclaims as evidence of the semiotic maturity that distinguishes them from the earlier ones. In any event, this "experiment," he suggests, "supports the hypotheses made previously at a purely theoretical level and thus proves that it is possible to rely upon the notion of Model Reader as a textual construct."

In the first phase of the experiment, he asked students at two Italian universities to summarize the first five chapters of Drame, and then the final two which subvert the expectations supposedly engendered in the earlier chapters. The summaries were guided by questions designed to elicit whether these actual readers responded the way Eco proposed that they would (e.g., "Is the solution of chapter 6 in any way anticipated by some subjects before they read it?").

In the second phase, a similar group of students "trained in semiotics" (L 262) was asked more specifically about their attempts to sort out the confusion that results at the end of Drame (e.g., "perplexity," "awareness of a tricking textual strategy," etc.).

Unfortunately, Eco's conclusions drawn from the student reactions are puzzling and vague. "Our subjects proved that even a cultivated reader gives at first reading a typically naive response" (262), he reports. How does he come to this conclusion? Most of the students went along with the story, following the narrative up to the point where it becomes illogical and then applying whatever decoding competence seemed warranted or useful to them as additional information was provided. Clearly, all this proves is what Eco claims about the process of "undercoding" described in Lecture Three. That is, when faced with an alien semiotic system, the decoder will utilize experience and inference, gradually piecing together an increasingly "intelligible" grasp of the sign under construction. This by no means confirms his contention that the decoder has to participate in the directives dictated by the encoder/text. After all, what else does the decoder have to go on? Perhaps the main conclusion to be drawn from Eco's commentary on the Model Reader and the control established by Drame is that a text can make suggestions that the decoder can choose to follow or ignore.

Finally, the "Introduction," the chapter written at the latest date and therefore presumably the one most reflective of the new and improved semiotics Eco touts in his Preface. Unfortunately, despite the later composition of this chapter, it arguably demonstrates no significant "maturation" beyond the earlier entries in terms of the decoder's range of influence over semiosis. For instance, the reader's "cooperation" with the encoder/text is mentioned at least 17 times (including thrice in one paragraph) in the course of the chapter. In the very first sentence, Eco announces that he will be discussing texts "that can not only be freely interpreted but also cooperatively generated by the addressee" (3). Even in the case of the "open" text, the encoder has calculated a "foreseen interpretation [as] a part of its generative process." Moreover, he argues, "an 'open' text cannot be described as a communicative strategy if the role of its addressee (the reader, in the case of verbal texts) has not been envisaged at the moment of its generation qua text."

Eco offers reassurance that his sense of "openness" is not an endorsement of semiotic anarchy. As he recounts the response in the mid-1960s to "The Poetics of the Open Work," he notes: "in a structuralistically oriented milieu, the idea of taking into account the role of the addressee looked like a disturbing intrusion, disquietly jeopardizing the notion of a semiotic texture to be analyzed in itself and for the sake of itself" (I 3). This is exactly what he turns the reader into, however - a textual function that has the same ontologically fixed, even "material" status that the notion of textual structure presupposes. The reader (or decoder, overall), in this scenario, is no longer a human agent, but rather, an agency delimited by the two-prong contingency of the encoder/text relation. Significantly, when Eco finally consults actual reader accounts, he does so in a manner that homogenizes them into a group which, in terms of percentages, appears to disregard (or perhaps overrule) the dissonance of the minority idiosyncratic decodings. These "lesser" readings are the result of "aberrant presuppositions and deviating circumstances," he argues, which generate "mere states of indeterminacy" instead of regulated openness (5-7).

Those who may propose the decoder's impotence are chided by Eco for not allowing a bare minimum of its necessity. "Now, it is absolutely impossible to speak apropros of the anaphorical role of an expression without invoking, if not a precise and empirical reader, at least the 'addressee' as an abstract and constitutive element in the process of actualization of a text," he allows (I 4). Through this contention, Eco proposes the addressee as an encoded function, as opposed to an active co-participant in semiosis. "To postulate the cooperation of the reader," he concludes, "does not mean to pollute the structural analysis with extratextual elements." After all, he adds, "the reader as an active principle of interpretation is a part of the picture of the generative process of the text."

The entire textual model of semiosis Eco proposes is based, once more even in this latest version, on a paradigm of loose, but decided, regimentation. He suggests, for instance, that "to organize a text, its author has to rely upon a series of codes that assign given contents to the expressions he uses" (I 7). This extends the "shared" code assumption discussed in Lecture Three, a hardly tenable yearning which does at least provide a useful restraining order for those who believe in it. Eco's concept of the Model Reader also derives from this belief, in keeping with similar proposals by reader-response critics for Ideal Readers, Implied Readers, Mock Readers, and so on. (See Iser; Fish, "Literature"; and Gibson for related commentary on different reader positions.) Eco's project allows that in order to imagine control over the reader, "the author has... to foresee a model of the possible reader... supposedly able to deal interpretatively with the expressions in the same way as the author deals generatively with them." Such a proviso is absolutely essential for the assumptions Eco develops throughout The Role as he establishes a prerequisite of "competence" for the reader to successfully produce one or more of the "correct" versions of the open work. Through this allowance, the reader is viewed as a decoder "programmed" to respond to a text in specified ways (21).

The Too-Open Work

The "closed" text hasn't been addressed here yet, in part because it's not explained clearly in The Role. But it seems to suggest a promiscuous openness compared with the controlled semiosic flow that the open text authorizes (as discussed above). Eco acknowledges that "in the process of communication, a text is frequently interpreted against the background of codes different from those intended by the author" (I 8). (Let's set aside the immensely problematic issue of "intention" here for the sake of continuing to address the immediate discussion at hand.) This failure to match codes can come about in particular, Eco suggests, when authors don't inscribe their readers into their texts. Rather than constructing an obeisant Model Reader, they leave their texts vulnerable to what Eco calls an "actual reader." "Nobody can say what happens when the actual reader is different from the 'average' reader," he argues. This is precisely the dilemma that Eco is attempting to avoid by positing a specific type of "average'" reader (i.e., the Model Reader he depicts here).

By trying to lead the "reader along a predetermined path" and "carefully displaying their effects" at calculated moments, writers of "closed" texts inevitably fail, Eco argues (I 9). This is because, he suggests, texts that "seem to be structured according to an inflexible project" neglect to account for the one element that cannot be "'inflexibly' planned": the reader. Such texts are "immoderately 'open' to every possible interpretation." "They can be read in various ways," he adds, "each way being independent from the others." How this situation is a "closed" form of semiosis is never fully explored in The Role. What Eco does explain, however, is that "this cannot happen" to "open" texts. "They work at their peak revolutions per minute," he asserts, "only when each interpretation is reechoed by the others, and vice versa." This is accomplished, he claims, when "an open text outlines a 'closed' project of its Model Reader as a component of its structural strategy." Accordingly, in this instance, "you cannot use the text as you want, but only as the text wants you to use it," he declares. "An open text, however 'open' it can be, cannot afford whatever interpretation."

To the contrary, the open text "produc[es] all the paths of its 'good' reading" (I 10) while offering "the widest possible range of interpretative proposals" (33). "Even the more 'open' among experimental texts direct their own free interpretation and preestablish the movement of their Model Reader," he maintains (24). Eco certainly is using the word "free" in an unusual sense in the numerous passages cited here, although this strategy demonstrates his endeavor to reduce the decoder's seemingly undeniable autonomy through a form of coercive alliance with communal, consensual limitation authorized by the encoder/text. A sentiment of this nature appears in Eco's formulation of the decoder's rights: "The reader finds his freedom (i) in deciding how to activate one or another of the textual levels and (ii) in choosing which codes to apply" (39). Eco essentially posits two kinds of this "freedom": "the free interpretative choices elicited by a purposeful strategy of openness" versus "the freedom taken by a reader with a text assumed as a mere stimulus" (40). It should be clear by now which one of these liberties Eco prefers.

While the issue of "open" texts will be explored further in Lecture Six ("Finite Infinite Semiosis"), I'll focus briefly here on the way that the decoder's actions are circumscribed by this assumption on Eco's part. Eco constructs a certain kind of decoder whose actions can be described and even predicted. (Remember, he asserts that the actual reader's behavior cannot be predicted; presumably, though, the behavior of a reader of one's own construction is another matter.) The "text itself" contains the profile of its "good" reader, Eco asserts, "because the pragmatic process of interpretation is not an empirical accident independent of the text qua text, but is a structural element of its generative process" (I 9). (Elsewhere in this chapter he calls this considerate individual "the sensitive reader" [26] who agrees that the sender possesses "the rights of his own text" [34].) Because "the reader is strictly defined by the lexical and the syntactical organization of the text," Eco suggests, "the text is nothing else but the semantic-pragmatic production of its own Model Reader" (10).

Even when the Model Reader is obliged to engage in far-ranging interpretation, or what Eco refers to as "inferential walks" away from the text, constant respect for the text is to be maintained in his conception of a semiotic universe firmly controlled by the encoder/text. These "walks," he says, "are not mere whimsical intiatives on the part of the reader, but are elicited by discursive structures and foreseen by the whole textual strategy as indispensable components of the fabula" (I 32). An "unsuitable reader," on the contrary, is "unable to do the job he has... been postulated to do" (9). This disrespectful decoder will "read a given text in the light of 'aberrant' codes," Eco argues, referring to codes that are "different from the ones envisaged by the sender" (22). The encoder/text lose all semblance of enforcement over the decoder when this kind of decoding is tolerated. They are stripped of whatever authority and restraint they are otherwise granted in Eco's closed sense of "openness", which is why he characterizes unrestricted "open" decoding as, paradoxically, "closed".

Volosinov raises this issue in a manner that is less vexed. "What does being the speaker mean?," he asks. "Even if a word is not entirely his, constituting, as it were, the border zone between himself and his addressee - still, it does in part belong to him" (86). The problem with this consideration lies in the tentativity Volosinov expresses: what exactly constitutes possession "in part"? Eco, unable to tolerate ambiguity like this, attempts to take possession of this vagueness and turn it into something systemically concrete.

In A Theory of Semiotics, Eco asserts that when interacting with a text and conjecturing between assessing authorial intention and exploring "new interpretive possibilities upon the text the author has set out before him," the decoder "never wants to completely betray the author's intentions." Instead, the respectful decoder establishes "a dialectic between fidelity and inventive freedom." He accepts - perhaps celebrates - that "the addressee seeks to draw excitement from the ambiguity of the message and to fill out an ambiguous text with suitable codes." Nonetheless, he ultimately holds that the decoder is "induced by contextual relationships to see the message exactly as it was intended, in an act of fidelity to the author and to the historical environment in which the messge was emitted" (276). Unlike Volosinov, Eco returns repeatedly to "possession" of the sign by the encoder. Failing this control (as it finds "recognizable" [S 80] status through confirmation by a semiotic community), the decoder is at liberty to produce signs entirely at random. A "reliable reading" (82), in contrast, is based on "reasonable" (85) association choices that are consonant with a consensual agreement.

"Servants of Semiosis"

Eco is frequently cited as arguing for unfettered sign interaction by the decoder back in The Open Work, as is reflected in the chapter on "Analysis of Poetic Language." (Rocco Capozzi reflects on Eco's recent work: "some see Eco betraying his original spirit of 'openness' presented in The Open Work" [221].) On the surface, this appears valid. Eco argues that "a work of art is never really 'closed,' because even the most definitive exterior always encloses an infinity of possible 'readings'" (Open 24). Presumably, Eco has progressed beyond this position in later works by reconsidering the need for limitations imposed on the decoder. But he had already expressed his yearning for decoder containment in that early work, as when he argued that "openness manifests itself structurally" and a "cognitive relationship... binds" the decoder and the text (24). As these entities relate to each other, he continues, "the object, consisting of stimuli organized according to a precise aesthetic intention, generates and directs various kinds of openness" (39). The decoder is, indeed, "bound" within such a relationship.

Approximately 20 years later, on the first page of Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, Eco addresses the Model Reader of his own study. There, he proposes a compromise model of semiotic orientation between the view that "every text... can be interpreted in one, and only one, way, according to the intention of its author," and that of those "who assume that a text supports every interpretation" (3). This is not much of a compromise, though. Nobody would argue that in the latter example, the wholly open text serves as a form of "support". Something that initiates in some way a semiosic response, maybe; but "support" is not at issue. Intention, again, isn't worth bringing up either. Evidently, what Eco is doing is returning over and over to the notion that if the decoder is going to be analyzed systemically, an accompanying assumption of restrainable "decodification" (Elam) has to be accepted. And accepted first.

This stable ground is constituted as "a recorded thesaurus of encyclopedic competence" (Semiotics 3). Such a "social storage of world knowledge" is the "only" way, Eco contends, that "any interpretation can be both implemented and legitimated - even in the the case of the most 'open' instances" (3). Eco can only make this claim because he's referring to the decoder's activities in a markedly restricted "open" manner. Even by the mid-1980s Eco was still operating on the same depiction of the decoder's province that he had touted at the beginning of his career.

Half-a-dozen years later: The Limits of Interpretation. The title says it all. Eco establishes his position on decoder regimentation at the beginning through an anecdote from a text by John Wilkins, Mercury; or, The Secret and Swift Messenger (1641). Wilkins told of an "Indian Slave" who was sent by his "Master" carrying a basket of figs and a note to an addressee about them. In this example, he asserts the potential dilemma for the addressee who read that message and found a conflict in the reported number of figs versus the actual number that arrived (the slave ate some of the figs on the way). Faced with how to account for the difference between the message and the number of figs, "the interpreter" is not "entitled to say that the message can mean everything" (5) but instead is limited to its "definite, original, final authorized meaning" (3). Eco goes to the extreme of relying on the concept of a restraining "literal meaning" and argues that "no reader-oriented theory can avoid such a constraint" (5). He allows, though, that "any act of freedom on the part of the reader can come after, not before, the acceptance of that constraint" (6).

In The Limits, Eco mentions the recent (1989) appearance of the English version of Opera aperta (a somewhat different version of what appeared as The Open Work) and notes that there, he had "advocated the active role of the interpreter in the reading of texts endowed with aesthetic value" (6). He asserts his authority as the encoder involved, and like his address to the Model Reader in the opening of Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, he endeavors to control the reception of that earlier work:

When those pages were written, my readers focused mainly on the "open" side of the whole business, underestimating the fact that the open-ended reading I supported was an activity elicited by (and aimed at interpreting) a work. In other words, I was studying the dialectics between the rights of texts and the rights of their interpreters. I have the impression that, in the course of the last few decades, the rights of the interpreters have been overstressed. In the present essays I stress the limits of the act of interpretation. (6)
Elsewhere, in "An Author and His Interpreters," Eco maneuvers to characterize the adherence to this restriction as a refined, epicurean version of the more hedonistic pleasure of the text. "There are certain rules of the game," he says, "and the Model Reader is someone eager to play such a game" (61). Returning to the opening example of the slave and the figs, Eco appallingly suggests that in "a world dominated by "Übermensch-Readers, let us first rank with the slave" (7). He implores decoders to respect the encoder/text by not attempting to make more of a message than it condones. They, instead, should be happy to serve as "the respectfully free Servants of Semiosis."

Interpretation and Overinterpretation? More than thirty years after "The Poetics of the Open Work" Eco continues to declare that his current work is, in part, his attempt "to reassert the rights of the text" (84). While arguing the case for "the intention of the reader" versus "the intention of the text," "we have to respect the text... " (65), he concludes. After all, "a text is a device conceived in order to produce its model reader." It even "can foresee a model reader entitled to try infinite conjectures" (64), he declares. Accordingly, in the same way that one can propose the intention of the encoder or the decoder, there can be "an intention of the text" (25)

A number of related commentators on the issues raised above may provide some helpful suggestions for how a critical semiotics might proceed beyond Eco's considerable uneasiness regarding the decoder. While remarking upon the title of Eco's study on James Joyce, The Aesthetics of Chaosmos, David Seed notes that "This title strikes just the right note of tension between order and disorder which is implicit in Eco's notion of the open work" (81). This tension surfaces throughout Eco's writings on the decoder, as the many illustrations cited here attest. As a means of reducing, or eliminating, this tension, Eco tries to cast the decoder's function as a static, mechanical undertaking. "Eco's semiotics views interpretation as an interplay between the addressee and the work as an objective fact," Dolezel notes. "As a signification system, the text restricts the range of its possible interpretations" (115). Longoni adds that "considerations on the relationship between reader and text convince Eco that it is necessary to deny an excessive interpretative freedom, as the text itself sets some limits" (214).

This desire leads to a perspective on semiosis that seems to have jettisoned many arguably integral components in an effort to produce a seamlessly homogeneous system. Petrilli refers to this view as a "semiotics of equal exchange" and contends that a more subtle accounting is needed:

meaning is not simply a message that has been expressed intentionally by the sender according to a precise communicative will, and consequently the work of the interpretant sign is not limited to the very basic operations of identification, mechanical substitution, or mere recognition of the interpreted sign... signs at high levels of signness, of semioticity, cannot be interpreted by simply referring to a fixed and pre-established code, through mere decoding processes. (126)

Victorino Tejera reiterates this position by offering a responsive consideration of the semiosic process that manages to retain some of the cautions that Eco voices:

Interpreters are free to do or say whatever they like; but if they are to speak to the work and the experience it informs, rather than about other things, and if they are to verbalize that informed experience, they must speak out of, or according to, the interpretants determined by the work-as-the-literary-sign that it is. These interpretants arise in the interaction or transaction between the reader's literary competence and the (complex) design of the (composed) work. When readers assent to a proposed interpretation it is because they share interpretants with its propounder: their responses, including their aesthetic responses, will be differential and not quite verbalized in the same way. (150)

A related model of semiosis is articulated by Volosinov who also views sign exchange as "a two-sided act." "Word", as he refers to it, "is determined equally by whose word it is and for whom it is meant." Accordingly, semiosis in this way "is precisely the product of the reciprocal relationship between speaker and listener, addresser and addressee" (86). This can be extended to Michael Riffaterre's observations about the temporal effects on reading qua re-reading. "Within the text's closure," he argues, there is an "instability of closure" created by a "repeated inability to stop and be content with a reductive reading." Nevertheless, this "does not threaten the text's monumentality," he adds. "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).

Those who perceive the decoder as necessarily positioned right in the middle of the freedom/closure scale articulate a related standpoint. Robert Scholes contends that readers, as social constructs, stand as "divided psyches traversed by codes" and, as a result, "leaving the reader 'free' to interpret is an impossibility" (14). In effect, "the 'free' reader is simply at the mercy of the cultural codes that constitute each person as a reader, and of the manipulative features of the text, the classroom, and the whole reading situation as well" (14).

In a pair of distinctly clinical descriptions, Thomas Sebeok may point to one of the more persuasive articulations of this "balanced" account of the impact of both the encoder and the decoder. Encoding, he contends, entails "transformation, whereby, by operation of code rules, a source alters a message from one representation to another" (465). Decoding, to contrary, is conceived as "a transformation, whereby, by operating of code rules, a destination alters an incoming message from one representation to another." Perhaps this accounts for much of the discomfort that semioticians such as Eco reveal in their attempts to reduce the impact of the decoder's "transformations" of this nature. But, given the seemingly undeniable inclination of human sign users to assert their own autonomy, if not their creativity, it's difficult to accept the assignment of a fate that places the decoder significantly at the mercy of the encoder/text. Barthes begins S/Z by addressing this issue:

Our literature is characterized by the pitiless divorce which the literary institution maintains between the producer of the text and its user, between its owner and its customer, between its author and its reader. This reader is thereby plunged into a kind of idleness - he is intransitive; he is, in short, serious: instead of functioning himself, instead of gaining access to the magic of the signifier, to the pleasure of writing, he is left with no more than the poor freedom either to accept or reject the text: reading is nothing more than a referendum. (4)

Within this limitation, it is easy to see why the encoder, as the one-time possessor of the sign, would want to retain a vestige of control over it, even while it's disseminating in semiosis. It's just as easy to see, however, why the decoder would want to take a turn with it as well.


Abrams, M. H. "Rationality and Imagination in Cultural History: A Reply to Wayne Booth," Critical Inquiry 2,3 (Spring 1976): 447-464.

Barthes, Roland. S/Z: An Essay, Trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974).

Capozzi, Rocco. "Interpretation and Overinterpretation: The Rights of Texts, Readers, and Implied Authors," Reading Eco: An Anthology, Ed. Rocco Capozzi (Indiana: University of Indiana Press, 1997), 217-234.

Corti, Maria. An Introduction to Literary Semiotics, Trans. Margherita Bogat and Allen Mandelbaum (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978).

Culler, Jonathan. "Literary Competence," Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism, Ed. Jane Tompkins (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980),

Dolezel, Lubomir. "The Themata of Eco's Semiotics of Literature," Reading Eco, 111-120.

Eco, Umberto. "An Author and His Interpreters", Reading Eco, 59-70.

---. Interpretation and Overinterpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

---. The Limits of Interpretation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990).

---. The Open Work, Trans. Anna Cancogni (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989).

---. Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984).

---. "Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language," Reading Eco, 1-13.

---. A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976).

Elam, Keir. The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama (London: Metheun, 1980).

Fish, Stanley. "Interpreting the Variorum," Reader-Response Criticism, 164-184.

---. "Literature in the Reader: Effective Stylistics," Reader-Response Criticism, 70-100.

Gibson, Walker. "Authors, Speakers, Readers, and Mock Readers," Reader-Response Criticism, 1-6.

Hodge, Robert and Gunther Kress, Social Semiotics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988).

Holland, Norman. 5 Readers Reading (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975).

Iser, Wolfgang. "The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach," Reader-Response Criticism, 50-69.

Longoni, Anna. "Esoteric Conspiracies and the Interpretative Strategy," Reading Eco, 210-216.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. Collected Papers, vol.s I-VI, ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1931).

Petrilli, Susan. "Towards Interpretation Semiotics," Reading Eco, 121- 136.

Richards, I. A. Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1968)

Riffaterre, Michael. "The Interpretant in Literary Semiotics," in Reading Eco, 173-184.

Samson, Basil. The Camp at Wallaby Cross: Aboriginal Fringe Dwellers in Darwin (Caberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1980).

Scholes, Robert. Semiotics and Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982).

Sebeok, Thomas. "Pandora's Box: How and Why to Communicate 10,000 Years into the Future," On Signs, Ed. Marshall Blonsky (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985): 448- 466.

Seed, David. "The Open Work in Theory and Practice," Reading Eco, 73-81.

Simpkins, Scott. "'The Infinite Game': Cortàzar's Hopscotch," The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, 23.1 (Spring, 1990): 61-74.

Tejera, Victorino. "Eco, Peirce and the Necessity of Interpretation," Reading Eco, 147-162.

Volosinov, V. N. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, Trans. Ladislav Matejka and I. R. Titunik (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973).

Next Lecture:
The limits of "system" and the authority of the encoder.


Umberto Eco, The Limits of Interpretation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990); Michel Foucault, "What is an Author?"; Roland Barthes, "Textual Analysis: Poe's 'Valdemar'" and "From Work to Text."
copyright Scott Simpkins 1997
Send comment or question to Scott Simpkins: scotts@unt.edu
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