The Universe of Interpretations

Hilary Clark

The Limits of Interpretation. By Umberto Eco. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. 295 pp. ISBN 0-253-31852-1

Universe of the Mind. By Yuri M. Lotman, translated by Ann Shukman. Bloomington: Indiana University Press,1990.288 pp. ISBN 0-253-33608-2

Umberto Eco and Yuri Lotman have been central figures in the development of semiotics, particularly text-semiotics. Eco has written on the dynamics of the open work (Opera aperta, 1962); in the last 15 years, his A Theory of Semiotics (1976) The Role of the Reader (1979) and Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (1984) have traced a project in which systematic semiotic theory has opened onto problems of cultural phenomena, interpretation and memory, and the nature of human knowledge and artificial intelligence. The semiotic project of Yuri Lotman, founder of the Moscow-Tartu School of semiotics, has also been widely inclusive, ranging from the semiotics of literature (The Structure of the Artistic Text 1970, 1977, and The Analysis of the Poetic Text, 1972, 1976) and cinema (The Semiotics of the Cinema, 1973 to the typology of culture, and historiography. [See endnote.]

In fact, both Eco and Lotman have traced a widening and ever-more inclusive project, centred in language and the semiotics of literary texts, and moving out to the study of mind and intelligence, and to cultural objects such as popular an, cinema, and religious ritual. Indeed, this spiralling or expanding project seems to characterize the enterprise of semiotics as a whole: while on one level semiotics may seek to describe and explain specific signifying phenomena, on a "higher' or more comprehensive level it seeks to unify, to "forge alliances" (Kennedy 1991:1) or connections, via general theories of semiosis between seemingly disparate areas. As Eco in his introduction to Lotman's Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture, says of the structural or semiotic method: "It is not possible to distinguish the rule system appropriate to a given communication phenomenon without at the same time postulating a structural homology with the rule systems which apply to all other communicative phenomena" (ix). This drive toward establishing homologies, correspondences between diverse phenomena -- a totalizing project "postulat(ing) a universal field of communication phenomena" (ix) -- seeks to reduce indeterminacy through the activity of explanation. Yet semiotics also confirms indeterminacy in placing the activity of interpretation at the core of semiosis. Eco's and Lotman's texts prompt us to examine this dual nature (this "asymmetry" as Lotman would say) in the semiotic project as a whole.

Eco and Lotman actually have quite different aims in writing their books, which are correspondingly different in form. The Limits of Interpretation is a collection of fifteen essays, some dating back to the sixties, which are loosely grouped around the theme of interpretation and the thesis that this activity is ultimately limited, constrained by the dialectic of text and reader. Certain "modern interpretive theories of deconstruction, pulsional interpretive drift, misprision, libidinal reading, free jouissance" (11-12), Eco claims, have gone too far in allowing the reader infinite freedom to impose any interpretive associations upon a text Eco's aim in Limits is polemical: proclaiming himself a "moderate" (45) in interpretation theory, that would "us(e) a text as a playground" (41) while ignoring its integrity, the readings it imposes, Eco is not so much concerned with building a unified theory of interpretation as with taking shots at deconstructive readings and the spectre of "infinite interpretive drift"' (28).

Lotman's aim in Universe of the Mind, on the other hand, is precisely to build a unified theory, a semiotic theory of culture or "the single intellectual fife of humanity" (273). He takes a comprehensive view, in his three Parts focussing successively upon Text, Culture and History, covering such diverse material as brain impulses, Russian literature, modern cinema, religious symbols and historical epochs. In a recent review of Universe in the TLS, John Sturrock suggests that "(n)o academic author in the West would think any longer to offer a finished theory of culture"; however, he finds Lotman's "presumption (to be) refreshing" (9). We may find some aspects of Lotman's system to be obscure, but there is no doubt that his theoretical achievement is significant. Lotman's view of the world presupposes a "pansemiotic metaphysics (Eco 9), a belief, especially exemplified in medieval theories of cosmic sympathies and similitudes, in the connectedness and significance of everything. It is no accident, in fact, that in working out his theory of the semiosphere or the total semiotic space enveloping intelligent life, Lotman turns his attention to the semiotics of Dante's system in the Divine Comedy. He asserts that this system is a "vast architectural complex, a construction of the universal which assumes that the universe is a "semiotic text whose meaning is to be deciphered" (177). Lotman could be referring, here, to his own system in Universe of the Mind. His project of building a theoretical edifice explaining the human universe would seem to be driven by the assumption that ultimately, everything in this universe can be interpreted as meaningful.

Before exploring Lotman's semiotic architecture at more length it will be useful to look more closely at Eco's points on text and interpretation and the nature of semiosis.

Eco's initial newer essays in the Limits of Interpretation -- "Two Models of Interpretation, " "Unlimited Semiosis and Drift," and "Intentio Lectoris: The State of the Art," all from the 1980s -- form the core of the book and hammer home his position on interpretation again and again. When the reader gets beyond these position-essays, however, he or she encounters quite diverse speculations, often witty and laced with popular examples, on TV serials, the semiotics of theatre and humour, fakes in the art world, and intelligent computers. Along with this colourful material the reader finds some fairly technical pieces on Possible World Semantics, Peirce's notion of abduction, the semantics of presuppositions, and pragmatics and its place in text semiotics. Readers familiar with Eco's work will recognize such leaps from popular to specialized subjects and language as being characteristic of his work and his style as a whole.

One of Eco's key themes in Limits is the idea of unlimited semiosis, as formulated by C.S. Peirce. As Eco quotes Peirce from the Collected Papers: "The meaning of a representation can be nothing but a representation ... the interpretant is nothing but another representation ... and as representation, it has its interpretant again. Lo, another infinite series" (28). The interpretant of a sign "becom(es) in turn a sign, and so on ad infinitum ..." (35-6). Peirce's idea of unlimited semiosis has been crucial for semiotics, emphasising the connectedness of signs and the centrality of interpretation in semiosis. It underpins any theory, like Lotman's, that would seek to establish the structural and functional relations drawing together into a network -- or in Lotman's case, into a sphere -- the most diverse signifying systems.

Eco points out however that the idea of unlimited semiosis has also proven to be fertile ground for deconstructive speculations on the nature of meaning as unauthorized and nonreferential abandoned to differance or infinite deferral. He summarizes the assumptions of deconstruction (as based on his reading of Derrida) as follows: "...there is no transcendental signified; the signifier is never co-present with a signified which is continually deferred and delayed; and ... every signifier is related to another signifier so that there is nothing outside the significant chain, which goes on ad infinitum" (33). Such assumptions on the nature of signification as an infinite slippage from signifier to signifier, Eco argues, lead to a particular (and in his view untenable) view of the nature of interpretation. When the play of signification is set adrift from a context and a referent (even leaving aside authorial intention), then the reader is free to pursue his or her own designs, creating "overinterpetations" ("Some Paranoid Readings" 705) and merely using the text with no concern for its integrity (57-8). In fact, Eco is at great pains to absolve Peirce's theory of unlimited semiosis of any connection with such readings, arguing that 'In the process of semiosis it is certainly possible to go from any one node to every other node, but the passages are controlled by rules of connection that our cultural history has in some way legimated" (148). Further, the process of semiosis must finally "stop -- at least for some time -- outside language" (40); this beyond-language serves as the ultimate ground for interpretive agreement.

In line with his cautions regarding the theory of unlimited semiosis, Eco asserts the primacy of a "common-sense" reading based on a text's literal meaning: "the interpreter must first of all take for granted a zero-degree meaning, the one authorized by the dullest and the simplest of the existing dictionaries, ... the one that every member of a community of healthy native speakers cannot deny" (36). (How might "unhealthy" native speakers read? Perhaps like Derrida's wilder followers, as Eco characterizes them). A respect for this level of literal meaning, plus a belief in the principle of 'internal textual coherence" the belief tha any portion of a text can be used to conform or reject an interpretation of any other portion), can guide the interpreter along the straight and narrow path, and give him or her the tools for deciding, if not which inpretation is the best, then at least which are bad ones, mere "hallucinatory response(s) on the part of the addressee" (21).

Thus, despite an obvious fascination with theories of infinite interpretive drift or "Hermetic semiosis" (such theories being important for his recent novel Foucault;s Pendulum), Eco argues for the possibility of interpretive agreement based on a view of interpretation as involving "a dialectics between fidelity and freedom" (50), between respecting the text's "intentional and opening up new readings (37). As a reader interested in issues of interpretation, I found myself wishing that Eco had included, in Limits, more new material elaborating his views on interpretation. As well some new reading of literary texts or, at the very least, more examples of actual interpretive controversy and the dangers of "drift" (in the vein of his cverage of a Finnegans Wake controversy in Chapter 9) would have helped support his claim for interpretive moderation. As it stands, The Limits of Interpretation is only loosely unified, reading like an Eco omnibus; it is highly interesting but does not offer a completely fleshed-out theory of interpretation.

For those interested in theory-building, Lotman offers much more. His aim in Universe of the Mind is "to demonstrate the working of the semiotic space or intellectual world in which humanity and human society are enfolded and which is in constant interaction with the individual intellectual world of human beings" (3). In his three Parts, Lotman builds up a picture of this semiotic space or "semiosphere," and analyzes homologous mechanisms at its different levels: the human brain and intelligence, texts and communication, and culture examined synchronically and diachronically. Lotman's diachronic approach, seeking to understand the role of the "accidental unstable, (and) extrasystematic" (6) at all levels of the semiosphere, is a necessary correction to the synchronic emphasis traditional in semiotic or structural thinking. Semiotics cannot do without studying the input of the "extra-systematic" in the functioning of the system. Indeed, this interaction is basic to Lotman's definition of any "minimally functioning semiotic structure", or "thinking structure" (2). Human intelligence -- the most basic such structure, and the foundation for the more all encompassing levels of text and culture and historical process -- must be "set in motion" from outside, must like a machine, be switched on to function: "It cannot switch itself on by itself." (2) Likewise, communication depends on input from other cultures in order to change and develop. Finally, even the seemingly anonymous or unconscious unfolding of history is shaped by the input of individuals and accidental or unpredictable events.

Let us look at some more key terms in Universe. For Lotman, semiotic objects must be understood as "binary" structures, presupposing "not one artificially isolated language or text ..., but ... a parallel pair of mutually untranslatable languages which are, however, connected by a 'pulley,' which is translation" (2). It is the dialectic between an intelligence (or a language or a text) and an other that characterizes semiosis -- and particularly creativity, the generating of new information. Lotman's term for this dialectical situation is "bipolar asymmetry": two aspects make up any semiotic phenomenon, neither of which can be fully translated into the other, yet these demand to be translated if the semiotic structure is to function. What are we to make of this seeming paradox, this emphasis on untranslatability yet, a the same time, translation?

In his insistence that asymmetry and untranslatability are at the basis of the semiosphere, Lotman is indebted to information theory. Intelligence presupposes three basic functions: the transmission, preservation and creation of information (2). However, Lotman is particularly interested in creativity, how new information is generated. Here the principle of "bipolar asymmetry" is crucial. Whether we are looking at the two halves of the human brain, the two ends of the communicative circuit, the two faces of a poetic trope such as metaphor, the two sides in the text reader interaction, or two cultures in a situation of influence and exchange -- in all these signifying situations, translation between one and the other is essential and yet ultimately impossible, resulting in the creation of "approximate equivalences." "This kind of 'illegitimate,' imprecise, but approximate translation," Lotman says, "is one of the most important features of any creative thinking," forging "new semantic connections" (37). If the two sides of a semiotic structure were perfectly mutually translatable -- if for example, a text were to perfectly fulfil a reader's expectations, or if one culture were to completely assimilate another -- then no new information would be created. It is the lack of fit, between texts, languages, and cultures that creates the conditions for semantic enrichment, the creation of new meaning.

Here we are moving onto ground Lotman shares with Eco. In Part One, Chapter Four of Universe, Lotman explores, as Eco does, the dynamics of the texbreader interaction. The reader alone cannot be the generator of new information, just as a machine, in Lotman's basic metaphor, canot switch itself on by itself. But Lotman's purpose is descriptive rather than polemical: he analyzes the text reader interaction as one mechanism within a system of homologous translating mechanisms linking brain to culture. "A text and its readership are in a relationship of mutual activation" -- each "switching the other on" each seeking to translate the other into its own language: "a text strives ... to force on (its readers) its own system of codes, and the readers respond in the same way" (63). The interpreter's "coding systems" (79) are always asymmetrical with respect to those of the text; there is always a lack of fit, which creates a "surplus of meaning" (in Ricoeur's term). Lotman spells it out in basic terms: the text reader interaction presupposes a "situation of understanding and a situation of not understanding" (79), the interplay between these two situations yielding the most new information.

Lotman is interested in describing the functional asymmetries characterizing all aspects of texts and their role in communication. In Chapter Two, he proposes that communication in general involves two channels -- "I-s/he" and "I-I". The first involves a linear transmission of "discrete" information; the second channel, that of autocommunication," involves a global or "iconic" reviewing of information, which becomes new information under a more marked formal organization (21-2; 36). Between these two systems, as between text and reader, translation is ongoing yet imperfect. The poetic text, Lotman suggests, is "a kind of pendulum" (33) oscillating between these two systems. In a great leap, Lotman then moves from text to culture (and one might assume that the "I-s/he" and "I-I" systems characterize the brain as well, the left and right hemispheres, respectively): "The laws of construction of the artistic text are very largely the laws of culture as a whole. Hence culture itself can be treated both as the sum of messages articulated by various addressers (the "I-s/he" axis) ... and as one message transmitted by the collective "I" of humanity to itself ("I-I")" (33). In culture as in the text an imperfect translation between these cultural systems contributes to new information -- and hence to the development of culture.

In Part Two, ascending to the next level of his semiotic architecture -- the level of culture, the "semiosphere" or thinking structure that surrounds us -- Lotman makes some wide ranging assertions about how semiosis is always already at work within and outside us. Characterizing the semiosphere by analogy with the biosphere, which determines everything without exception that happens within it" (125), Lotman asserts that "(o)utside the semiosphere there can be neither communication, nor language" (124). This semiotic space both determines us and is in turn modified by us: "Thought is within us, but we are within thought ... a vast intellectual mechanism ... (a) universum" (273t Drawing out his spherical analogy, Lotman at one point compares the semiosphere with the sun: "It seethes like the sun, centres of activity boil(ing) up in different places ... But unlike that of the sun, the energy of the semiosphere is the energy of information, the energy of Thought" (150).

Lotman's main point about the semiosphere is that, as the ultimate and most all-encompasing semiotic structure, it is marked by the same functional asymmetry that characterizes the semiotic structures enclosed within it. It is heterogeneous, crowded with diverse languages and mechanisms which run "the spectrum ... from complete mutual translatability to ... complete mutual untranslatability" (125). From the centre to the periphery of the semiosphere, this untranslatability increases. The centre, monological, the locus of meta-language and theory, attempts to regulate the entire semiosphere, translate it into its own language; however, the periphery, dialogical, is the "area of semiotic dynamism ... where new languages come into being " (134). The periphery is the "filter" through which a culture comes into contact with other cultures, translating them. Any synchronic section of a culture will reveal a dialectic between centre and periphery, inside and outside, canonic norms and intrusions of alien texts and cultures.

Lotman's speculations on semiotic boundaries form some of the most interesting material in Universe. The boundary is the semiotic "hot spot" (136); new information is generated in this zone of "semiotic polyglotism" (194) which "both separates and unites" (136) languages, genres, cultures. A tension between "us" and "them," inside and outside, maintains the semiosphere in a state of creative ferment and, at points, conflict: "the entire space of the semiosphere is transected by boundaries of different levels, ... languages and even ... texts" (138), boundaries both inviting translation and creating indeterminacy, the need for interpretation.

In Part Three, arriving at the final level of his system -- that of History -- Lotman speculates on what the object of an historical semiotics might be. On this question, Lotman looks again to his fundamental definition of a semiotic structure as a thinking structure characterized by the generative interplay of two mutually untranslatable languages or systems. History can also be seen as involving this dialectic between two mutually untranslatable systems, in this case between unconscious or anonymous forces and the unpredictable, conscious input of individuals. In other words, history studied from a semiotic perspective must be seen as "a process ... tak(ing) place 'with interference from a thinking being'; history is shaped by human intelligence. Like the text, like culture, history "cannot switch itself on by itself' (2). Historical processes, then, can be seen as being both monological -- unfolding according to determinate laws, therefore to some extent predictable -- and dialogical -- marked by indeterminacy and unpredictability. Lotman turns to natural science for an analogy for this dialectic, looking to chaos theory as a way of understanding the interplay of predictability and unpredictability in history, focusing especially on "those critical points ('bifurcation points') at which the predictable course of (historical) processes breaks off" (231).

In characterizing the task of historical semiotics, then, Lotman emphasizes the human, conscious factor, the role of accident and unpredictability in history. Whereas the tractional emphasis in semiotics has been on the system and its description in a state of equilibrium or synchrony (the system quickly setting back into this state upon intrusions and unpredictable chances Lotman's emphasis is here on the extra-systematic, the critical points at which events cannot be predicted. This emphasis on "nodal points" (233) foregrounds, in history, "times of revolution or other dramatic historical shifts" (233). Writing this review at the time of the failed coup in the Soviet Union, Lotman's homeland, and the sweeping political changes following upon this event, I have been struck by the rightness and prescience of Lotman's insights on the dialectic of accident and necessity in history.

In fact, the virtue of Universe of the Mind in general for me, lies in the way one can find many examples to furnish the theoretical edifice Lotman has built. And not only can the reader find examples: Lotman himself provides many incorporating detached studies of literary texts (especially Russian literature) and analyses of other "texts', such as painting and theatre, and historical epochs. Admirably, Lotman's book encompases both architectural synthesis and encyclopedic detail.

Both Eco's Limits of Interpretation and Lotman's Universe of the Mind are of interest for semioticians in that they show how crucial the problem of interpretation is for semiotics. In arguing for interpretive moderation based on an understanding of the text-reader interaction, Eco focuses on the primacy of the text's coding as both "actualiz(ing) certain possible connections and narcotiz(ing) others" (Eco 148). Other essays in Limits -- interpreting serials and artistic fakes, reading the theatrical sign, for instance -- show how the work of semiotics is dually analytical and interpretive, seeking to ascertain both how signifying phenomena work and what they mean.

Lotman also, in foregrounding the concept of translation, is emphasizing how interpretation is the process driving symbioses and the semiosphere in general. A translation is always to some extent an interpretation, a "supplement" to the original in which expression only loosely fits content (Benjamin 75, 79). Two languages or systems that cannot be mutually translated are divided by a boundary, an area of indeterminacy which invites the work of interpretation, work which both crosses this boundary and maintains it.

Thus, the semiotic "universum" is marked by indeterminacy, one sign interpreting another and so on to infinity. Beyond this sphere of ceaseless interpretive activity, Eco argues, semiosis must ultimately stop (40). As Charles Sanders Personal, his talking computer, argues in "On Truth. A Fiction," the last essay in Limits, the point is not "to mix up software with hardware. Interpreting expressions is a matter of software ... The fact that all this works is a matter of hardware, and (we) cannot explain it. (We are)only ... semiotic machine(s)" (273). We must acknowledge the limits of the play of interpretation, of signification, the limits of our "Global Encyclopedic Competence" (Eco 267), the final boundary of the Semiosphere.

Within this boundary, however, we are complete; nothing signifies beyond the intelligent universe that thinks us. Bounded by this "nutshell" we are (as Hamlet says) "king(s) of infinite space" (Hamlet II, ii, 259) -- and seldom have "bad dreams" of a beyond. It is within these limits, paradoxically, that the totalizing gesture of semiotics -- its drive to establish homologies or correspondences across a wide range a signifying phenomena, its need to reduce diverse phenomena to fundamental mechanisms -- makes sense. Eco's and Lotman's new books remind us how much semiotics involves both a "rage for order" (in Wallace Stevens' phrase) for total knowledge and yet at the same time a recognition of the limits of our knowledge and the fragility, the provisional nature, of our theories as interpretations of our world.


1. For earlier material by Soviet semioticians, including Lotman, see Daniel P. Lucid, ed. and transl. Soviet Semiotics: An Anthology (Baltimore: John Hopkins UniversAy Press, 1977.)


Benjamin, Walter (1969 "The Task of the Translator" Illustrations. New York: Schocken Books.

Eco, Umberto (1962) Opera aperta. Milan: Bompiani.

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

---. (1979) The Role of the Reader. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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

---. (1989) Foucault's Pendulum. New York: Ballantine Books.

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

---. (1990) "Some Paranoid Readings." TES June 29-July 5: 705-6.

Kennedy, John M. 0991) "Analogies and Confluence." Editorial. The Semiotic Review of Books Vol 2.2 (May):l.

Lotman, Yuri (1973) Semiotika kino i problemy kinoestetiki (The Semiotics of Cinema) Tallinn: Eesti Raamat.

---. (1976) The Analysis of the Poetic Text. Ann Arbor: Ardis.

---. (1977) The Structure of the Artistic Text. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Ricoeur, Paul (1976) Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press.

Sturrock, John (1991) "Inside the Semiosphere." TLS May 3:9-10.

Hilary Clark is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Saskatchewan. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of British Columbia. Her book The Fictional Encyclopedia: Joyce, Pound, Sollers was published in 1990 by Garland Press. She has articles on Joyce and Bunting in the James Joyce Quarterly and Sagetrieb and has articles forthcoming on the infinite text and the memonics of autobiography in The Canadian Review of Comparative Literature and Biography.

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