open and closed work

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Umberto Eco (b. 1932) Italian novelist and semiotician



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Italian semiotician and novelist Umberto Eco proposed this binary in his 1959 essay ‘L'opera in movimento e la coscienza dell'epoca’, translated as ‘The poetics of the open work’, to describe works of art that, on the one hand, appear incomplete inasmuch as they appear to be given to the audience to make of them what they will, and on the other hand, seem finished and somehow unassailable, as though the audience's input was neither desired not needed. He refers to the former as open and the latter as closed and equates the first with freedom and the second with obedience and submission. Eco is aware that all texts, to a certain degree, can be regarded as co-productions between author and addressee, but he shows that what is at stake is in fact an issue of the world view of a text, or what Michel Foucault would later term the episteme. He gives examples of medieval allegories and argues that in their own time, no reader would have thought it possible not to read them for their Christian message. It is only now, in a secular age, that such a reading is possible.

Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies.

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