11 (2008), Nr.1/March



Umberto Eco’s „The Problem of the Open Work“ <1958> annotated. 16758 Zeichen.


The following is an annotated translation of Umberto Eco’s paper “Il problema dell’opera aperta” as printed in Atti del XII Congresso Internazionale di Filosofia (Venezia, 12-18 Settembre 1958), Actes du XIIème Congrès International de Philosophie. Proceedings of the XIIth International Congress of Philosophy, Volume settimo: Filosofia dei valori, etica, estetica; Philosophie des valeurs, morale, esthétique; Philosophy of Values, Ethics, Aesthetics, Firenze: Sansoni 1961, pp. 139-145 (again included in: U. E., La definizione dell’arte, Milano: Mursia 1968, with no English and German translations as far as I know).  For a more detailed occupation with this nucleus the remarks here will throw some light on what has become known as Eco’s full length account “Opera aperta” in 1962.


To begin with, it is obvious that Eco shares the recent change from an aesthetics of production to one of reception, albeit one without the traditional apparatus of the superior faculty of judgment: “1. This communication is intended to show some phenomena of art that may appear as misshapen when considered with the traditional concept of the ‘art work’ as valid in contemporary western world. A view of a new kind is supposed here oriented at the relationship to the work and its enjoyment on the part of the audience. One does not need to deal with which changes in aesthetic sensibility or even in cultural sensibility generally could be borne by similar phenomena and to which extent aesthetic categories would bring relief if in use today. It will also be noticed that the examples are not intended to describe the ‘essential’ nature of the works mentioned produced from it. Finally there will be a discussion of poems without giving aesthetic judgements.”


Already early on, enjoyment becomes one of the main points of reference for his new theory showing a feel for one more transformation of philosophy to the science of art, more precisely the science of signs or communication as will be developed in Eco’s Opera Aperta’s (1964) chapter “Aperture, Information, communication”: “<new paragraph:>In general two aspects are contained in the notion of the ‘art work’. A) The author relies on a closed object and determines that it be reinterpreted as conceived and intended by the author following a certain intention and with pursuit to enjoyment. B) In the act of enjoyment the object is enjoyed by a multiplicity of persons all of whom carry with them their own psychological and physiological characteristics, the respective education in the certain surrouding and culture and the specifications of their sensibility through immediate contingency and historical situation. For this reason any enjoyment is unavoidably personal - as honestly and completely the committment of fidelity to the work may be - and reproduces the work with one of its possible aspects. Usually the author does not ignore the condition of the situation of enjoyment. But he produces the work as an aperture for this possibility which is nevertheless not directed at the possibility in the sense of causing different answers but fits to a stimulus defined in itself. The dissolution of this dialectics of ‘definedness’ and ‘aperture’ seems to be essential for a concept of art as communicative fact and interpersonal dialogue.” To the latter sentence that introduces definitezza as an aesthetic category see footnote 16 of Opera Aperta’s chapter “The open work in the visual arts”. Also, a lot of discussions of the time can be felt: Hegelianism, the turn to cultural studies, the culturally radicalized maintenance of the contingency of enjoyment, semiology with medieval theory as the following paragraph bears witness:


“<new paragraph:>Now, with the old concept of art the emphasis was implicitly given to the pole of ‘definedness’. An answer of the unequivocal kind is required with the type of poetic communication aimed at by Dante’s poetry. The poet says something and hopes that it be met by the reader as he had hoped to tell in consent with him or her. Even though provided by the theory of the four senses of writing, Dante does not proceed from this order of ideas. Poetry may be interpreted in four modes because it aims at a stimulation of an understanding of the four orders of significates. But there are four significates and not more. And yet all four of them are provided by an author who attempts to guide the reader to their precise understanding.”


Eco shares the coinage of sensibility as a cultural dimension of his time as does Susan Sontag in that period of time: “<new paragraph:>Contrary to this, the development of contemporary sensibility put increasingly the accent upon a pursuit of a kind of art work - ever more conscious of the perspectivity of ‘reading’ - offered as a stimulus for free interpretation only designed in essential traits. Already in the poems of second half of past century French symbolism we recognize that the intention of the poet may well have consisted of producing a work defined in itself, but also in exciting a maximum of aperture, freedom and unforeseen enjoyment. The ‘symbolist’ proposal does not aim so much at receiving of a precise significate, but at a general scheme of the significate, a halo of possible significates all of them being as imprecise as valid and that according to the extent of acuteness, hypersensibility and the emotional constitution of the reader.” Of course, this diagnosis is in debt to the aestheticism of  late 19th century practically and theoretically as French symbolism will have left its traces in post-'45 Latin-language debates and culture.


This diagnosis may be plausibly extended: “<new paragraph:>This intention becomes clearer in works of the open, symbolic key at which we arrive with correspondence to the example of Kafka’s work. While the classical allegory defined a fairly precise referent for every picture, the modern and ‘open’ symbolism aspires to be communication of the undefined or the ambiguous. The symbol of literature and modern poetry tends to suggest a field of emotive and conceptual answers with leaving the determination of the ‘field’ to the reader’s sensibility. This call upon the autonomy of prospective enjoyments does not just exist since orphic-symbolic poetry which we could define as irrationalist by and large. We also got the call that is conscious of the aperture of enjoyment in a rationalist poetics like Brecht’s. In order to construe drama with pedagogical intention this author wants to explicitly operate in a way - according to the communication of fairly precise ideology - of which drama does not give any ideas for explicit conclusions. His technical explanation of ‘epic recitation’ tends to provoke an autonomous and critical judgment about life’s reality. The actor presents it as something alienated in itself without trying to act on the spectator, and leaves it open to conclude autonomously in front of the demostrations delivered. Works like Das Leben des Galileo manifest precisely this dialectical ambiguity of two obviously contradictory claims not forming a final synthesis.” Obviously this remark is mingled already here with scepticism that will turn out as scratching only a few lines below.


In 1958 aesthetician Eco is still capable of drawing a variety of examples from many of the arts into his argument arriving at Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake that will be the object of the long final chapter of Opera Aperta in 1962, based on: Poetica and estetica in J. Joyce published like L’esperienza televisiva e l’estetica in Rivista di estetica, vol.2, 1957 and Problemi di estetica indiana in vol.3/1958 of the same journal, all of which included in Opera Aperta in some way or the other: “<new paragraph:>Requiring very free interpreting responses by the enjoying person in one way or the other these works side with other works that have the potential of a certain mobility to make suggestions to the eyes of the enjoying person like something new, kaleidoscopic, something equipped with different perspectives. An easy example, yet therefore not to be omitted, are certain objects between gallery sculptures and design objects, like the Mobiles of Calder, plastic entities that constantly transform and so offer themselves under ever new perspectives. Additionally we have literary works to an extreme extent that tend, with the intention of an author, to conduct an own life according to the complexity of its structure, its correlations of narritive levels, linguistic values, semantic relais, phonetic references, mythical conjurations and cultural references. They do so with permanently renewing the own significates and offering them to unexhausted possibilities of reading with thereby proliferating the own perspectives and finally striving for forming a surrogate of the world. The maximal realization of this poetics is reached by the work of Joyce and in particular with his Finnegan’s Wake. Here the work could really be assimilated to a monstruous electronic brain that produces stimuli and responses by virtue of a series of complex circuits that reveals to impossibly control all of its possibilities.” The latter of which may have become real with today’s computer.


As if the allusions were not enough, Eco puts the physical notion of the field to the test - a notion taken up again by Pierre Bourdieu for sociology -: “<new paragraph:>Independently from diverse ideological and moral terrain fostering all that poetry, the insight is needed that the work is dissolved not already in the multiplicity of enjoyments because the author stabilizes always just one basic orientation. Moreover the definedness of an ‘object’ is replaced by the more spacious definedness of a ‘field’ of interpretive possibilities. Kafka’s work expects from the reader an ambiguous hermeneutic response. But the scheme of the significates suggested is penetrated with a vision of the world that is possible to be individuated and defined by means of the historical and cultural components. - This is the case Kafka counted to the representative of a literature of crisis, ambiguity or sorrow in a way that even the teleological interpretations of his work cannot get beyond this problematic area. - Brecht demands the free critical answer of the spectator, yet directs him or her in a way that the given samples stimulate an answer of the revolutionary type. And as a multiplicity of its theoretical aspects manifest, he ideally supposes to the spectator logical habitudes penetrated by the dialectical Marxist method. Also a Mobile changes within the recognized and foreseen limits of its structure. And a literary work like Finnegan’s may well exhaust anything possible like a devine omniscient spirit, yet certainly but a complex network of possibility not foreseen by the author in its entirety. The ‘field’ of possible response granted by the stimuli is vast, and yet one has got to do with a ‘field’ whose limits are determined by the nature and organization of its stimuli. All of these works share one feature for the sake of which they can be identified with the art work of the classical type. The part of ‘aperture’, contingency and possibility remains on the side of interpretation. Yet the work is offered to an interpretation already produced.”


What follows in section 2 are examples that fit better for a demonstration of a structural aperture of the work, note: opera, not (yet or anymore?) opera d’arte. The decisice feature is the intrinsicality of the productive aspect within enjoyment: “2<new section:>. The singular circumstance suggested by this communication here is given in different areas by the phenomenon of works whose ‘undefinedness’ and aperture may be realized by the enjoying person under a productive aspect. At stake are works that present themselves to the enjoying person as not produced completely or conclusively. Enjoyment for that person consists of a productive completion of the work during which the act of interpretation is fulfilled simultaneously. Namely, the mode of manifest completion yields the particular vision received by the enjoying person from the work.” Enjoyment cannot be reached but by active engagement in the very process of enjoyment. This is, pedagogically, well shown with an example by an open architecture built by Carlos R. Villanueva from 1944 through 1970, by the very art form that seems to strongly resist to an opera aperta:


“<new paragraph:>An example to be cited first appears to be the recent construction of the faculty of architecture of the University Caracas. This school of architecture was declared as ‘a school for the invention of every day’ and so constitutes a remarkable example for the so called ‘architecture in movement’. The lecture rooms of this school are formed by mobile panels in a way that professors and students construe the environment of a studio according to the architectonic or urbanist problems in discussion and thereby change the arrangement and aesthetic physiognomy of the location. In this case a kind of the design of the school determines the field of formative possibilities. That provides for a certain series of elaborations on the basis of a permanently given structure. Considered from the effects the work reveals to be not as a form determined once and for all, but as a ‘field of formativity’.” Of course the neologism formativity is coined here according to the notion of formatività as developed by Eco’s teacher Luigi Pareyson in his “Teoria della formatività” in 1954.


That the opera aperta is largely due to artistics tendencies of the 1950ies again becomes obvious by Eco’s almost journalist report of then very recent pieces of music like Klavierstück XI of 1956: “<new paragraph:>Suggesting analogous observations, another example among others is given by one of the productions of post-Webernian music. Let us quote above all Klavierstück XI of Karlheinz Stockhausen. In this work, with any performance of the piece the author assigns a different result by trusting the selection of the performing person the piece. In fact the score unusually shows like a big sheet of paper that makes appear groups of notes within a special frame as many musical sentences neatly seperated from each other. ‘The interpreter’, says the author, ‘needs to look at the sheet without preconceived intention and to start performing the piece by luck with the first group encountered by his or her gaze. Then he or she needs to decide upon the speed, the dynamic level and the type of the second intonation used for articulating this group. After finishing the first group the interpreter needs to read the specifications about speed, dynamics and intonation as noted at the end. Then he or she needs to look, as it comes, at another group and to bring it in accordance with those three specifications ... Any group can be connected with any of the other eighteen in a way that any group can be executed in any of the six speeds, six intensities and six forms of intonations.’ In this musical ars combinatoria it becomes evident that the contingency of selection enables for an infinity of different performances and it does so after many groups may have appeared several times in the same performance and other groups in the course of additional performances not at all. Yet these groups are these and different ones. Composing them the author tacitly directed and determined the liberty of the interpreter.”


The same with Pousseur’s Scambi (Exchanges) of 1957 : “<new paragraph:>An analogous composition is that of Henri Pousseur, another representative of new music who expresses himself in his composition Scambi somehow in the same way. Scambi is a composition realized with registering sounds on a tape caused by electronic apparatus. ‘Scambi constitute not so much a piece, moreover a field of possibilities, an invitation to select. They are formed by sixteen sections. Any of them may be connected with two other ones without risking the logical continuity of the acoustic becoming. Effectively, two sections are introduced by similar characters with departure from them  a development takes place consecutively in different manners. Otherwise two other sections may lead to the same point. While you may start and finish with any given section, a big number of chronological structures is disclosed. Finally both of the sections departing from the same point can be synchronized and act as place for a complex structural polyphony ... It is not forbidden to imagine these formal suggestions recorded on magnetic tape as put in an exchange. Disposing of a relatively expensive acoustic installation the audience itself could practice at home musical imagination not published, a new collective sensibility of sonic material and time.’”


The ground seems to be ready for drawing conclusions: “<new section:>3. The theoretical questions raised by these phenomena are many and involve further questions of aesthetics, philosophy, an analysis of morals and sociology. The answers trangress the pure limits of the problematics of contemporary communication. However some observations may be risked under the premises of mere orientation.”


As with other manifestos Eco touches similar developments in science including psychology, something that resurfaces in Opera Aperta’s chapter chapter “Aperture, Information, communication”, section 3, with respect to the psychology of transaction: “<new paragraph:>More than anything else this progressing tendency toward the aperture of the work in today’s sensibility takes place in parallel to an analogue developing in logic and science, e.g. to replace unambiguous modules by polyvalent ones. Polyvalent logic, the majority of geometric explanations, the relativity of temporal-spatial measures, even the psycho-phenomenological exploration of perceptual ambiguity as positive element of consciousness, all these phenomena offer the explanatory background for the need for ‘works with multiple results’. In the field of artistic communication they replace the tendency toward non-equivocality with the tendency toward the possibility as is typical for contemporary culture.”


“<new paragraph:>Certain experiments of the work as open for a vague enjoyment reveal a sensibility of the decadent type and a need for making art as an instrument for theoretically privileged communication. Contrary to this, the examples given of a productive completion of open works express a radical development of aesthetic sensibility. Examples of the „architecture in movement“ manifest a new sense for the relation between work and enjoyment, for an active integration of production and consumption and for an overcoming of a purely theoretical relation presentation-contemplation as contained in the active process of melting intellectual and emotional as well as theoretical and practical motives. Phenomena of interior design that are now produced in series - lamps and fauteuils in different shape and settings etc. – are examples of industrial design that represent a permanent invitation to styling and progressing adaptation of our environment to the requirements of utility and aestheticity. In the same area phenomena like those musical ones of time demand an active enjoyment, phenomena tied to the typical relationship presentation-contemplation in the concert hall. They demand a co-formation that again resolves into an education of taste and renovation of perceptual sensibility at the same time. One of the motives of aesthetic miseducation of the audience and hence of the break between militant art and current taste may be given with the sense for stylistic inertness, that means by the fact that the enjoying person is lead to enjoyment only with those stimuli that satisfy her or his sense for formal probability, an appreciation soleley of usual melodies lines, of structures of the most ordinary things and of stories with the familiar ‘happy’ end. In this case however one has to admit that the open work of the new kind could achieve a contribution to an aesthetic education of the common audience, given sociologically favorable circumstances.”


Peter Mahr © 2008

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