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A Feature Review of
From the Tree to the Labyrinth: Historical Studies on the Sign and Interpretation
Translated by Anthony Oldcorn
Hardback: Harvard UP, 2014
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Review by Michial Farmer
The problem with reading a book written by a man of such superhuman erudition as Umberto Eco is that the reader needs a similarly Herculean level of learning in order to challenge and critique it. The rest of us can read Eco, learn from him, even enjoy the overwhelming nature of the experience—but we can’t argue with him the way good books call us to argue with them. We can only sit at his feet—our guru, our professor, we the devotees, we the students.
From the Tree to the Labyrinth, for example—a book that was published in Italian in 2007 but that has just been heroically translated into English by Harvard Professor of Italian Studies Anthony Oldcorn—discourses for nearly a hundred pages on Aristotle’s difficult logical and scientific treatises, not so much on what they themselves say as on what an even more difficult series of medieval commentators, philosophers, and scribes took them to say. (And that’s only about a sixth of the overall book.) It’s to Eco’s credit (and to Olcorn’s, whose accomplishment is only slightly less impressive than Eco’s) that this journey rarely feels tedious or perilous. He knows this material well, explains it skillfully, and mostly leaves his non-specialist reader feeling illiterate for not being familiar with, say, Scotus Eriugena.
The last paragraph of Eco’s introduction says, “I trust that even readers whose interests are not specifically semiotic (in the professional sense of the word) will be able to read these writings as contributions to a history of the various philosophies of language or languages.” I can’t speak for other readers, but as a specialist in neither semiotics nor the Middle Ages, I was nevertheless entranced by many of these essays, which purport to be about language and sign-systems but which are often about the broader machinations of meaning-making.
The aforementioned tour of Aristotle’s medieval explicators, for example, is prompted by a sentence from the Rhetoric that suggests that a metaphor “puts the thing before our eyes.” Eco’s argument is that this is fundamentally a cognitive claim—that a metaphor does more than make us rethink the two items at its poles (the world, let’s say, and a stage on which human beings act out their lives). Instead, a good metaphor also makes us see the way we see things in a new light. It disrupts us. Aristotle
suggests that a creative and original use of language obliges us to invent a new ontology—and therefore, we might add, to enrich to some degree our encyclopedia.
Naturally, the new ontology is only valid as far as the comprehension of the creative text that imposes it is concerned. But we are entitled to suppose that, once the creative text has imposed a new ontology, however local, somehow or other it leaves a trace in our encyclopedia.
Presumably, the weight of these weightless traces builds up eventually, and metaphors reshape our organizational organs; our understanding of knowledge itself—gradually, imperceptibly—changes. This is at its core an act of violence; Eco will later refer to the trace as “a fruitful wound.” The metaphor, in other words, destabilizes epistemology in order to bring something forth from it. It is the plowing before the sowing before the harvest. That the Middle Ages read Aristotle and yet did not see the metaphor this way confuses Eco, and he follows the rabbit down its hole.
While the eighteen essays (several of them treatise-length themselves) in this collection make occasional reference to one another, they are not connected in any strict sense of the word, and they were in fact written over the course of decades. This fact, along with the relative range of topics within the larger topic of semiotics, means that the book rewards dipping in and out as the reader is interested. Few readers will read every essay, let alone every word, in this book. And yet there is an underlying thread running through them—that of the encyclopedia as a model for human knowledge. The title essay, which opens the volume, lays out the theme, and perhaps the rest of the essays are (considered very loosely) explications of its importance.