Interpretation and Overinterpretation – Umberto Eco

When a theory is important, everyone gets around to using (and misusing) it to their own ends. This explains why charlatans go on about relativity when they know nothing about it, or what it all means. However, when a theory isn’t terribly important, people merely hear about it, shrug their shoulders, accept it, and then the whole process just kind of stops there. This is what happened to Roland Barthes notion of The Death of the Author – most people don’t even know that it exists, while those that know of it simply take it as an accepted and proven theory (Until it is no longer convenient for them – then they drop it immediately to tell you that you are wrong – but that is a complaint for another day). If you try to tell them that there is more to it – or that there are people working to expand the understanding of what we are meant to infer from literature – they look at you like you are trying to debate the fluffiness of clouds.

Umberto Eco did continue the work of trying to understand how we interpret that which we read. He helped the more contentious opinion that there are limits to how something is (and should be) interpreted. In Interpretation and Overinterpretation, he gives three lectures (turned into essays) stating the case for the limits of interpretation, and three prominent literary scholars of the time (Richard Rorty, Johnathan Culler and Christine Brooke-Rose) offer rebuttals to his points. The collective nature of this book makes it a bit of a mixed bag. There are good ideas in this book and good rebuttals to those ideas, but some pieces are stronger than others.

The question of how we should read things is obviously not answered in this one text, and may actually never be at all. That idea does bump its nose against the implied question of any review – should I read this book. To a certain extent, this book is very much for those people who not only like to read, but like to read about reading. These meta-textual readers are a pretty rare bunch. But if someone were wanting to dip their toes into that topic, this might be a more accessible piece to do it with. As a man obsessed with the written word, Eco’s unique brand of semiotic analysis and philosophy often revolved around that topic. Some of his books, while certainly more in depth, are famously unintelligible 1. This one thankfully is not, perhaps owing to the fact that it began as a lecture and not a philosophical tome. This is about as gentle as semiotics will ever get without losing any of its flavor.

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While in university I would often here an anecdote attributed to Eco. To paraphrase “If you don’t understand semiotics, rip it from the book, roll it into a joint, and smoke it.”

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Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

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