In his essay "Lumbar Thought," Eco deals most immediately with his individual context. He begins by considering how uncomfortable his blue jeans are, and finishes by showing the way that clothes present a semiotic coding by forcing physical behavior. To explain this concept, Eco starts with an extremely personal and individual idea--that his jeans hurt his crotch--and works outward to a new type of thinking about clothing. In doing so, he also considers how the clothing of past thinkers must have influenced their thought (or how these thinkers dressed to allow freedom of thought). For example, Balzac's thinking was aided by his loose clothing. As Eco says, "Thought abhors tights."1 By revealing the ties between his own clothing and work, Eco opens a path to think about possible unconsidered influences on past thinkers.
We must ask ourselves in this analysis if Eco's framing of his essay is substantial to its content, or if it is just a rhetorical device. Did Eco really need (and really have) the experience of wearing tight jeans to make his point? Has Eco ever even worn jeans? At some level, these questions are unnecessary, because Eco's points about clothing remain the same. However, if we wish to analyze the relationship between actual individual context and academic output, these questions become central to our explorations. One could make the point that the Eco of the essay is simply the implied author, and functions much like a narrator in a fictional story. In this case the "real" Umberto Eco remains hidden from us, and we cannot know whether his wearing jeans has ever affected his scholarship. On these lines, it would be a poor effort for us to examine the relationship between the implied Eco and the essay. That Eco clearly has ties between his pants and his writing, but that Eco is also a construct.
One way to solve the problem, perhaps, would be to search Eco's journals for information relating to his 1970s experience with his jeans. We could email Eco and ask him, but his answer (if it would be forthcoming) would not necessarily be accurate--it would be restricted by his memory and perhaps his current attitudes. Or he could lie.
I point these problems out not because I have a solution to them, but because they reveal the problem of analyzing the context of other writers. The Eco essay, whether based on his actual experiences or not, does point to an interesting means of entry into the discussion. "Lumbar Thought" first appeared in 1976. I'm writing this essay in 2001. Jeans have changed quite a bit in the past fifteen years. The most important difference, at least for this conversation, is that jeans have gotten baggier and less restrictive. That point leads me to question whether or not Eco could have developed the same ideas at a later moment. I suspect not, unless he would have found other types of clothing so uncomfortable as to determine his physical movements. I,too, find slacks more comfortable than jeans, but not so much so that I would suspect my thinking and behavior are modified by my trousers. This difference of opinion between Eco and I has not been wholly determined--we disagree in ways probably unrelated to clothes, but the opinion has been influenced by the style of our pants. Eco compares language to clothing and explains, "The syntactic structures of fashions also influence our view of the world."2 What we wear, and how we conceptualize what we wear, affects how we think, and developing a self-consciousness of this type of context can enable us to take new approaches in our thinking.
In considering our contexts, we run the risk of conceiving ourselves in a position to realize what it is we already wish to say. Using this new methodology, we may be drawn into reductive thinking, in which we unscrupulously read into all our texts what we already want to see. We could lazily make reductive readings by ignoring the text as it stands. However, a reliance on individual context, when practiced effectively, should prevent just such behavior. The heightened self-consciousness should make us focus on why we make the readings we do, and should help us realize when we are being reductive and closing--rather than opening--texts.