Sunday, May 17, 2009

Umberto Eco, The Open Work and its Constraints

Eco’s notion of “The Open Work” is an attempt to understand modern artworks which can be rendered open by their author, and further completed by the performer, viewer, reader or audience. This notion legitimates the variety of interpretations one work may give us. But despite how we may never know which interpretation is the correct one, we cannot have unlimited interpretations of a work either. I will explain how Eco’s concept of openness relates to Interpretation and to modern aesthetics. Once this is explained, I will point to the consequences that the concept of “openness,” understood also as “unfinished work” or “work in movement,” give raise to. Most of these consequences have to do with the limits of interpretation constrained by the intentionality of the author and the constraints of history. I am also including a few responses to Eco’s notion of Interpretation as to show some of the problems it may have.
In “Open Work,” Eco uses Stockhausen as an example of a modern musical piece rendered open by its own author. The work created rejects the definitive, concluded message and rather multiplies the formal possibilities of distribution and performances. A single music sheet with a series of groupings is presented, and the performer is given the freedom to mount the sequence of musical units in the order he chooses. So Stockhausen’s piece can have a variety of forms given by different composers. We could say that it can have unlimited interpretations, depending on each individual performer who mounts it together. But although no individual interpretation of Stockhausen’s work can be like the other, this does not mean that they are all that different, as if they suddenly rose out of chaos. What is important to note is that Stockhausen, who remains the author of the piece, created the work with the series of musical groupings to be mounted at chance. So with this intent in mind, he also gave the work its openness. To Eco, this idea of “openness” is essential to contemporary art. In “The Open Work” he explains that this idea of “openness” is far removed from meaning “infinite possibilities” and complete freedom of reception (pp.6.) What in fact is available is a rage of rigidly pre-established and ordained interpretative solutions, and these never allow the reader, the performer or the viewer to move outside the strict control of the author. With the example of Stockhausen’s musical piece, it is evident that the performer can re-invent the work in a psychological collaboration with the author itself.
I find it important to stop and expand how important the author’s intentions and authority are according to Eco. He argues that the author offers the interpreter with a work to be completed. But the author is aware that once completed by a third party, the work in question will still be his own. It will not be a different work because a form which belongs to him will be assembled complete, even though he permits this assemblage to be done by a third party. It is the author who proposes a number of possibilities which have already been rationally organized and endowed with specifications for a proper development. So the premises to the work, despite its “openness” or incompleteness, are finitely rendered in the original data provided by the author. Authorial intention is so important to Eco because this is what guarantees that the work will be a work. Without authorial intent, we would only have a mere conglomeration of random components ready to emerge from chaos, in his view.
So what Eco notices about the “openness” in Stockhausen’s piece is that it invites us to identify inside the old category of “open works” (one with indefinite interpretations) a more restricted classification. He calls this new category of contemporary works, “works in movement” because they consists of unplanned or physically incomplete structural units which need to be completed with an ongoing dialectic between the author’s intentions and the performers choices among those options he is given. The “work in movement” is the possibility of numerous different personal inventions, but it is not an invitation to indiscriminate participation. This invitation offers the performer with opportunities to insert himself as oriented by the author, into something which will always belong to the world invented by the author.
I want to point the reason why an “Open Work” does not lend itself to infinite interpretations. It is because there is a closure to this unfinished process, and it is given by the performer, reader, viewer or audience, depending on each case. To show how this “closure” works, I will use the example of Stockhausen again. The composer delivers a work with certain characteristics that give it its “openness,” (in this case the musical groupings on the sheet, the incompleteness of the piece which gives room to chance etc.) Once the individual performer receives it and gives it form through his personal selection of notes the unfinished work is completed. I write completed and not closed because there is a fundamental difference between these two. The work is completed by one performer, but it is not closed because there are hundreds of other performers who will give it different closures, selecting from Stockhousen’s options provided by his work. Eco writes in “The Open Work”:
“Every performance exploits the composition, but it does not exhaust it. Every performance makes the work an actuality, but is itself only complementary to all other performances of the work.” (pp.15)

Another way we could think about this inexhaustibility-about why the work is never closed is by acknowledging the observations of phenomenologist writers such as Merleau-Ponty and Husserl. Eco states that both philosophers are aware of the unperceived side in our perceptions. Husserl observed that in each external perception the sides of the objects perceived suggest to the viewer the unperceived side. This side is grasped in a non-intuitive manner and is expected to become an element of the succeeding perception. Merleau-Ponty observed that the contradiction which we feel exists between the world’s reality and its incompleteness is identical to the one that exists between the ambiguity of consciousness and its commitment to a field of presence.
I am not referring to these thinkers randomly. Their understanding of phenomenology is similar to Eco’s understanding of what an “Open Work” renders. It becomes essential for the work to present itself as open and as always promising future perceptions. This ambiguity found between the work’s openness (granted by the author) and its completeness (given by the performer) that can complete it, but never close it, does not represent an imperfection. To Eco, it appears to be its very definition. In “Two Hypothesis About the Death of Art” he states that when we interpret a work, there is no contradiction in assuming that A) One must appreciate the whole structure of the work as a declaration of poetics. B) That such a work can be considered fully realized only when its poetic project can be appreciated as the concrete, material and perceptible result of the its underlying project. (pp.176)
This move away from necessity and a fundamental reality, towards indeterminacy is seen as positive to Eco. Not only is it a historical event, it also matches the advances of science which started out assuming there was a center and moved away from this idea through discoveries about relativity and physics. History is an important factor in the process of interpretation to Eco. It would have not allowed us certain interpretations in the past that we hold today about the same work. But also, works couldn’t have been created with this authorial idea of “openness” in mind until now. Taking this example to a conventional level, we wouldn’t be able to have medieval flight insurance for example. We need a history that will allow planes to fly first and flight insurance to be created afterwards. This is to say that Stockhausen couldn’t have written the piece earlier than he did, and as a response to other works which did not have a notion of “openness” to them. But what is important to understand is that Eco’s notion of “openness” is one which lets the work be completed by its variety of interpretations which appear linearly through history. So Aesthetics should pay attention to the modern notion of openness and sought to expand it.
Eco understands openness as something intended to be that way by the author of the work. He also understands “the open work” as one with limited possibilities of interpretation. I would now like to place his thought through a more negative lens, and point that Eco’s notion of interpretation is one that may have too many constraints for some critics. Philosophers such as Richard Rorty and Jaques Derrida would, I believe, see this “openness” which renders a variety of interpretations as one which is extremely limited. One reason is due to the authorial intent of the work which regulates it and gives legitimacy to its possible interpretations. Thinkers like Rorty would argue that this sort of “legitimacy” is not of the right kind, that it is too elitist for example. The debates between Eco, Culler and Rorty found in the Tanner lecture focused on textual interpretation. With his defense on authorial intent, Eco suggests that the aim of the text is to produce (through the author) a model reader; one who reads it as it is designated to be read. This reading may include the possibility of being read so as to yield multiple interpretations. The problem with authorial intent seems to rest here: Whoever surpasses the limits of interpretation that the work is supposed to have (as rendered by the author) is over-interpreting. Without necessarily being able to prove that one interpretation is the right one, Eco still places constraints on the interpretation of the work, as to avoid over-interpretation.
Richard Rorty argues against the idea of a limited and legitimate variety of interpretations, he also argues against the authority of the author being essential to the work. He permits the possibility of unlimited interpretations given that the authorial intent is not fundamental for interpreting. Against Eco’s claim that the work has a “nature” and that legitimate interpretation would, in a way, illuminate this nature (even if its nature is “openness”) Rorty urges us to forget the idea of discovering what a text really is. Culler is another scholar who debates against Eco, following Derrida’s notion of “unlimited semiosis.” To Culler, over-interpretation is unavoidable and even necessary. The authorial intention would be unnecessary to interpret a text, given that the author can be considered “dead,” and so can his intentions.
These debates seem to center, among other things, on the validity or legitimacy of the author’s intent to give the work its “openness.” This authorial legitimacy is explored better as a problem in the analytic field, and it has to do with the author’s intentionality towards the work. Monroe Beardsley, an analytic aesthetician wrote an article called “The Intentional Fallacy.” There, he argued against the view that a work of art means what an artist says it means or what he intends it to mean. Briefly, Eco and other romantics would argue that: 1) The artist intended x to be p in a wok y.
2) x means p in a wok y.
Beardsley on the other side, argues that the intentions of the artist are not relevant to the interpretation of the work because 1 does not entail 2, and it does not provide direct evidential support for 2. Given that the intentions of the author are not always available, and that, according to Beardsley, we can have a correct interpretation of a work with little knowledge of its author, this entails that the intentions of the author are neither available nor desirable. In other words, the intentional fallacy is what tells us that, if we ask the author for the meaning of the work, the author may ask us to go to the work to find its meaning, but if we want to know about the meaning of the work we will have to return to the author.
So some of the arguments against Eco’s notion seem to ask this question: “What is wrong with over interpretation?! Why do we need constraints? Why do we need an author to legitimize our interpretations?” Most of these arguments circle around the acceptance or denial of authorial intent. And the main problem regarding authorial intent is that either it cannot be empirically proved, like Beardsley states, or it leads us to circularity. I think Eco would argue that history will sooner or later provide us with empirical proof of the author’s intentionality, through the work. Regarding the negative value given to his notion of interpretation understood as one with constraints, there may also be a response. We are still allowed to have a variety of interpretations of a work, just like we phenomenologically experience a variety of limited perceptions through our visual field. Authorial intent is not a constraint to Eco, it is what prevents us from completing a work out of random conglomerated elements, out of chaos. It is what gives us the unfinished elements to finish the work with our individual reading of it. In this essay, I have tried showing how this notion works as related to modern aesthetics and the problem of interpretation, and I have explained the problem it may present, as related to authorial intent. In the end, the circularity posed earlier may not be a problem to Eco, who does not grant us unlimited interpretations of a work, and yet manages to leave the work “open” and accessible to future readings.


1) Eco, Umberto. “The Open Work.” Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA.1989
2) Eco Umberto, “Two Hypotheses About the Death of Art.” The Open Work. Harvard University Press. Cambridge. MA.1989.
3) Umberto Eco, “ On Interpretation and Overinterpretation (The Tanner Lectures on Human Values)” Edited by Stefan Collini. Cambridge University Press. 1992.
4) Wreen, Michael, "Beardsley's Aesthetics, Intentional Fallacy.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .

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