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Textual Cooperation

By Lucie Guillemette and Josiane Cossette

Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières

1. Abstract


Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco's theory of textual cooperation gives the reader an essential role in the process of making meaning. The text creates a Model Reader capable of actualising the various meaning-contents in order to decode the possible worlds of the narrative. This reader fills in the many gaps in the text, which is never completely explicit, using anything from simple linguistic inference to a more complex deductive reasoning that applies to the entire narrative.

This text may be reproduced for non-commercial purposes, provided the complete reference is given:
Lucie Guillemette and Josiane Cossette (2006), « Textual Cooperation », in Louis Hébert (dir.), Signo [online], Rimouski (Quebec),



The theory of the Model Reader is based on the concept of unlimited semiosis developed by C. S. Peirce: "The interpretant of a sign becomes in turn a sign, and so on ad infinitum" (Peirce, 1931, 35-6) (see the chapter on Peirce's Semiotics).


The text is a fabric woven from signs. It is open and interpretable, but it must be viewed as a coherent whole. It creates its Model Reader, and it is more than the sum of the author's words and the reader's meaning. The text is essentially "a lazy machine that demands the bold cooperation of the reader to fill in a whole series of gaps" of unsaid or already said missing elements (translation of Eco, 1985, 29).

By its coherence, a text may reduce the possibility of arriving at certain interpretations. Within the system of linguistic conventions, if someone writes "Mary is eating a ....... right now", we deduce that the missing word will be a noun, and that this noun will certainly not be "truck". The reader – or receiver – must exercise semiotic judgment, meaning that "in order to 'understand' the meaning of a text, especially if it is indirect, the receiver has to apply processes of interpretive cooperation" (translation of Eco, 1988, 71).


Eco starts from the notion that the relationship between signifier and signified (between the form of the sign and its content) is not frozen, and that "[i]f the sign can be known only through the signifier and if the signified emerges only through an active perpetual substitution of the signifier, the semiotic chain appears to be just a 'chain of signifiers' " (Eco, 1984, 24). From this, he formulates a theory advancing the idea that textual interpretation is polyvocal. He also states that the "signifying chain produces texts which carry with them the recollection of the intertextuality which nourishes them" (1984, 24).

However, the text is not a possible world. It is a part of the real world and a machine for producing possible worlds (Eco, 1979, chapter 8), including that of the fabula (the story being told), that of its characters, and that of the reader's expectations.


In linguistic philosophy, the theory of possible worlds was originally developed in order to demonstrate the formal properties of systems of modal logic, which examine the logical relationships between utterances containing operators such as "necessity" and "possibility". In the semantics of possible worlds, as described by Saul Kripke, a linguistic expression is interpreted relative to a possible world; For example, one would not say (by this interpretation) that a linguistic utterance is simply true or false, but that it is true or false relative to or within a possible world. For instance, "the cat is green" would be true or false relative to a possible world, such as that of a fantasy story or a realist novel.

A text is therefore open: All interpretations of it are potentially unlimited, but not every act of interpretation has a happy end. By interpretation we mean "the semantic actualisation of everything that the text means, as a strategy, with the cooperation of its Model Reader" (translation of Eco 1985, 237).


According to Eco, situations arise where "the reader, in identifying the deep structures, elicits something that the author could not have meant, and which the text nonetheless seems to evince with absolute clarity" (translation of Eco, 1985, 235). In this case, the reader's intention (what the reader interprets from the text) stands in opposition to the text's intention (what the internal mechanisms of the text allow us to say about it) and the author's intention (the meanings the author wanted to instil into his text).

For example, the ideological competence of the Model Reader intervenes in selecting the actantial structure (see the chapter on the actantial model) and the main ideological oppositions. If the reader's ideological competence includes the opposition of Spiritual Values (connoted as "good") and Material Values ("bad"), he or she will be inclined to actualise the textual content in this manner. But the text may foresee this competence and lead the Model Reader to establish more complex structures than this simple opposition. The text has rights, and aberrant decodings do occur – for instance, if proletarian readers actualise a discourse produced from a reformist or counter-revolutionary point of view (the author's intention) according to their own revolutionary ideology (the readers' intention). The text may, however, convey (actualisable) elements of which the author was unaware, and still result in interpretive cooperation that has a happy end (Eco, 1985, 73-74).



The empirical reader is the "concrete subject of acts of [textual] cooperation"; he "deduces a model image of something that has previously been verified as an act of utterance and which is textually present as an utterance." (translation of Eco, 1985, 80-81). Briefly, he is the one who views the text pragmatically.

For example, some readers of Foucault's Pendulum, a novel by Umberto Eco, have made a project of tracing the main character's path through the streets of Paris. They actually recognized a bar described in the story; however, the bar was in fact an invention of the author.


Although the text is a cloth woven from signs and gaps, the Model Reader, using his encyclopaedia, has the ability to fill in the gaps to the best of his knowledge, using his social baggage, his encyclopaedia and cultural conventions. The author has in fact foreseen a Model Reader who is able to cooperate in the text's actualisation in a specific manner, and who is also "able to deal interpretively with the text in the same way as the author deals generatively [in producing the text, that is]" (Eco, 1979, 7).

This Model Reader is created by the text, but he is not the one who has the only right interpretation. A text may foresee a Model Reader who is capable of trying out several interpretations where he is confronted with several fabula or possible worlds. The Model Reader, in essence, is "a textually established set of felicity conditions [...] to be met in order to have a macro-speech act (such as a text is) fully actualized" (Eco, 1979, 11). The Model Reader actualises the meaning of everything that the textual strategy intends to say.


Eco is opposed to textual interpretations in which anything goes. His position is to limit the range of acceptable interpretations, and to view some readings as overinterpretations. Overinterpretation may be due to overestimating the importance of the indices, which results from a propensity to consider the most obvious elements as significant. To illustrate, he gives the example of a doctor who examines three patients with cirrhosis of the liver. The first says that he drinks whisky with soda; the second drinks gin with soda; the third, cognac with soda. Attributing too much importance to the obvious elements pins the cause of the disease on the soda, rather than the alcohol.

The possibility of correct interpretations is increased if the empirical reader positions himself as a Model Reader. If he discovers the text's intention by doing this, he will thereby discover the model author's intention. Conversely, the possibility of overinterpretation is increased when the reader approaches the text with an intention of his own; with this attitude he can find traces of his hypothesis in almost any text (for example, finding subliminal messages in a piece of music played backwards).

Although Eco rejects the relevance of consulting the empirical author in order to discover his or her intention, he does say that there is one instance where this can prove to be fruitful: if the author is still living and the sole intention (a theoretical, not a critical goal) is "to show the discrepancies between the author's intention and the intention of the text" (1992, 73); this is not a matter of using the author's words to validate our interpretations, in other words.



* * *

Excerpted from No Tomorrow
Vivant Denon (1812)

"Propriety, however, brought M. de T— to the carriage door. I was introduced, he gave me his hand, and I followed, musing over my role, past, present, and to come. I passed through rooms decorated with as much taste as magnificence. The master of the house was particularly attuned to all the refinement of luxury, for he was endeavouring to replenish the resources of his worn-body with images of sensual pleasure" [p. 734].

* * *

An empirical, "decontextualized" reading of this excerpt would not allow one to adequately grasp the deeper meaning of the text. This excerpt means very little to a reader not versed in the philosophy of the 18th century. Written in 1812 (an initial version came out in 1777), thus right at the beginning of the 19th century, No Tomorrow by Vivant Denon dramatizes the issue of sensualist aesthetics, which purported that knowledge is attained through the medium of sensory experience. In writing this passage, the author has created a Model Reader able to actualise each expression in the context of 18th-century philosophy.

We will put ourselves in the position of the Model Reader in order to actualise the possible meanings, that is, fill in the gaps and decode what is left unsaid.

First of all, the Model Reader would understand why the narrator is musing over his "role". Being well educated, he knows that according to 18th century thought, no foreign body must be interposed between knowledge and reality, since theories are verified through sensory experience. It follows that since everything originates in the senses, the more they are aroused by the environment, the greater the chance of attaining understanding. Since the environment in which we evolve directly influences the ideas and perceptions we can have, artifice is the order of the day, used to arouse the senses as much as possible. With this encyclopaedic knowledge as a prerequisite, the Model Reader is able to establish a connection between artifice and theatrical strategy, and can understand why the narrator imagines himself to be in a "role".

The Model Reader would also grasp the entire thought process involved in the relationship between Monsieur de T— and the paintings. Monsieur de T— , who is well versed in both sensualist theory and the notion of man as a machine as expounded by La Mettrie, has consciously decided to surround himself with "images of sensual pleasure", a direct reference to the idea of engaging the senses. The Model Reader would therefore be in a position to understand the importance of aesthetics in this passage.

The "images of sensual pleasure", in which artifice is developed become objects that, when perceived, give rise to sensation. The objects displayed before our pathetic Monsieur de T— (that is, suggestive, sensual paintings) are apparently supposed to arouse his erotic sensibilities and the corresponding ideas. Since the paintings are already representations, there is a dual mirroring here, a work within a work. Monsieur de T— has no need to personally witness the lascivious scene with flesh-and-blood characters. It should suffice just to perceive the image, since it evokes sensual pleasure and eroticism, and brings these ideas into the awareness of this somewhat physically "fatigued" man. (The Model Reader would certainly be able to decode the meaning of "his worn-body", which probably refers to erectile problems.) The importance of aesthetics, that is, familiarity with the perceptible, is highlighted, since these canvases, which are already reflections of reality, were hung on the wall with the single intention of arousing Monsieur de T—. They will be transformed into ideas and will quite likely come back into his awareness through memory (another mental faculty by which he increases his understanding of things) even when he is no longer looking at the images.

The fact that the non-model reader does not actualise all of the meaning-content will not hinder his understanding of the story, but the reader who has the required encyclopaedic knowledge will delight in it, because a full understanding of each sign in the excerpt will allow him to grasp the intellectual and philosophical depth of a short passage that, on the surface, seems trivial.


* * *

Translated excerpt from Cassiopée ou l’été polonais
Michèle Marineau (1996 [1988])

As with all of Jean-Claude's letters, there were all kinds of fun things to be found inside. A postcard. A drawing. A newspaper article on the Titanic. (He knows I'm interested in that.) And then this, which I don't know what to call, which I'm not even sure I understand, but it triggered a lot of mental pirouettes:

Textual Cooperation, by Eco

* * *

Cassiopeia or Polish Summer was published as part of the "14+" collection by Québec/Amérique and targets an audience of about 14 to 17 years of age. The novel tells the story of Cassiopeia Bérubé-Allard, who, escaping from a summer camp chosen by her parents, runs off to New York, which leads her to Marek and her "Polish summer".

Although the target audience is the 14- to 17-year-old reader, the text is replete with signs and gaps that are interpretable - actualisable - for a reader who has followed the same sort of intellectual path as the author (art history, etc.). In all probability, only a Model Reader could actualise the knowledge contained in this passage, and not an empirical reader like Cassiopeia with this letter in hand, or a young reader of the book.

The empirical reader (such as Cassiopeia reading Jean-Claude's letter or the adolescent reader of our reality) cannot actualise all of the meaning-content, since he or she does not have the encyclopaedic knowledge to do so. The author is drawing a parallel here between the myth of Icarus (Ovid) and Avoir l’apprenti dans le soleil [Having the apprentice in the sun], a drawing on music paper by Marcel Duchamp (1913). Icarus has wings held together with wax, made by his father, Daedalus. He is intoxicated with freedom. Despite his father's warnings, he becomes carried away with his ability to fly, and flies too close to the sun. This causes his wings to melt and he consequently falls. The drawing Avoir l’apprenti dans le soleil by Duchamp illustrates the same sort of freedom, probably followed by a fall, given the abrupt end of the penciled line. The Model Reader would know that this drawing is based on the idea of "delay" that Duchamp proposed in 1914.

As for Stephen Green Park, it is located in Dublin, Ireland, and contains various statues of famous Irish people, including James Joyce, to whom Marineau often refers. The Model Reader knows that Joyce rewrote Ulysses, which is set in the maze of Dublin's streets, and which contains a character named Stephen Daedalus.

The fact that the non-model reader does not actualise all of this meaning-content will not hinder his understanding the story, but the reader who has the required encyclopaedic knowledge will be delighted, because he will be able to interpret this passage and relate it to Cassiopeia's story. Cassiopeia is planning a long bicycle trip, during which she plans to make love to Marek. But what promised to be wonderful, soft, warm, and as fascinating as the solar orb ends in failure, and the disillusioned Cassiopeia falls from soaring heights.

4. list of works cited

DENON, Vivant, No Tomorrow, trans. Lydia Davis, in Michel Feher, ed., The Libertine Reader. Eroticism and Enlightenment in Eighteeenth-Century France, New York: Zone Books, 1997, p. 732-747.
DUMAS, Alexandre: Marguerite de Valois, New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1910 [1847].
MARINEAU, Michèle, Cassiopée ou l’été polonais, Montreal: Québec/Amérique, 1988.
ECO, Umberto, The Open Work, trans. Anna Cangogni, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.
ECO, Umberto, The Role of the Reader: Explorations In the Semiotics of Texts, ed. Thomas Sebeok, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979.
ECO, Umberto, Lector in fabula, Paris: Grasset, 1985 [1979]. (Translated from the above, with additions.)
ECO, Umberto, Lector in fabula, Paris: Le livre de poche, 2001 [1979].
ECO, Umberto, Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.
ECO, Umberto, Sémiotique et philosophie du langage, Paris: PUF, 1988 [1984]. (Translated from the above, with additions.)
ECO, Umberto, Interpretation and Overinterpretation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
PEIRCE, Charles S., Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce (Volumes I-VI, ed. by Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, 1931-1935, Volumes VII-VIII, ed. by Arthur W. Burks, 1958). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP.


A. For each of the following sentences, find two interpretations: one from the perspective of the empirical reader, and one from the perspective of the Model Reader. The first three sentences are quotes from Mark Twain.
  1. When I reflect upon the number of disagreeable people who I know have gone to a better world, I am moved to lead a different life.
  2. In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.
  3. In America – as elsewhere – free speech is confined to the dead.
  4. For a gallant man, finding a mistress is easier than finding a wife.
  5. Who's afraid of Marguerite Duras?
  6. What will Robinson Crusoe do when Saturday comes?
  7. Zut! Z’ai délacé ma saussure. [For the francophile]
B. What sort of competence would the empirical reader need to position himself as a Model Reader for the following excerpt?

On Monday, the 18th of August, 1572, there was a splendid fête at the Louvre.

The windows of the ancient royal residence were brilliantly illuminated, and the squares and streets adjacent, usually so solitary after the clock of Saint-Germain l’Auxerois had tolled nine, were now crowded with people, although it was past midnight. […]

The court was celebrating the marriage of Madame Marguerite de Valois, daughter of Henry II and sister of King Charles IX, with Henry of Bourbon, King of Navarre; and that same morning the Cardinal de Bourbon had united the young couple with the usual ceremonial observed at the marriages of the royal daughters of France, on a stage erected at the entrance to Notre Dame.

Alexandre Dumas, Marguerite de Valois (1910).

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