“Semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth: it cannot in fact be used “to tell” at all.”
Art allows for the subjective aspect of our lives to exist outside us, which is to say that in art, the subjective becomes objective. For the most part, however, a “sign” is some unit of communication that stands for something else, while a symbol is a unit of communication imbued with deeper and more complex meaning.
A sign is simply something that stands for something else. For example, the word “cactus” directly correlates with the idea of a spiny desert plant, so the word is a sign signifying the plant. Signs are not limited to a single meaning. The sign “cactus” might refer to a specific prickly pear plant or to an entire species. The word still correlates directly, or stands for, something else. The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.
Symbols are best understood as signs that have deeper and more complex meaning. Signs translate directly to objects or ideas, and have something of a life of their own. The Christian cross or the Star of David, for example, do not have a direct translation. Rather, they carry symbolic meaning that can differ in different contexts. Worn on a chain around the neck, the cross might be a symbol that a person is Christian. To the person wearing it, however, the cross might be a reminder of personal faith or a means of identifying with a particular sect. This deeper meaning distinguishes the cross as a symbol instead of a sign.
“the difference between poets and mystics . . . The mystic nails a symbol to one meaning that was true for a moment but soon becomes false. The poet, on the other hand, sees that truth while it’s true but understands that symbols are always in flux and that their meanings are fleeting.”
Symbols cannot change without also changing their meanings. This is because symbols point us to unseen regions of the Real. They are not signs of this world so much as signals from elsewhere. In a sense, the symbol is itself the thing it refers to, even though in its self-reference it shoots out to a myriad of other things. The moon as a symbol might correspond with femininity (through its connection with the menstrual cycle), silver (its luminescence), dreams (its connection with sleep), the ocean (its influence on the tides)
Symbols belong to a non-temporal space in which all things are interconnected, not causally but imaginally. The term symbol compounds two Greek words, syn- and bole, which combined mean “thrown together” The symbol is a partial object, the only sensible part of something real yet invisible. It is like the mushroom, which in reality is just the sex organ of the sex organs of the psyche. The word symbol is closer to a neural network or dynamic process than to a static thing. The moon itself, the night, the sea are symbolic images reaching down to a living organism.
Symbols are lenses for observing the imaginal world beyond the range of normal awareness. Moby Dick tells us about Ahab’s decline, as a warning sign that he missed his one and only chance to beat the white whale because of it. The task of art is to get the symbol across in a way that allows it to be preserved and passed on. There is only potentiality for something to be, until the right situation presents itself.
WHEEL, PLOW, ALPHABET
We’re so busy holding onto signals that have been carried to us by symbol systems that you could say we are being ruled by the inventors of the wheel, the plow or the alphabet. Muscle memory is a thing for musicians. You forget by which processes you learned some stuff and vice versa. At the sub-symbolic level as there’s definitely atrophy with respect of prosody, meter, rhythm.
It makes you think if it’s all the symbol-mediated the ones that are gumming up the works. Symbols, signs and icons protect an image of reality, at the expense of reality itself. They fail to represent forces and flows correctly or use a variety for when they talk about the same hyper object. They bind us to narrativium whose function is to make us legible
It’s the bravery of being out of range culturally that instead of using planes to explore the unconscious, or even using planes to fight other planes (signifiers/signifieds/signs) we’re just designing flaps, spoilers and ailerons.
According to Swiss linguist and semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure, there are two main parts to any sign:
- Signifier: This connotes any material thing that is signified, be it an object, words on a page, or an image.
- Signified: The concept which the signifier refers to. This would be the meaning that is drawn by the receiver of the sign.
The example below shows how this can be understood.
A great example of effective use of semiotics is found in the use of metaphors. These commonly understood concepts tend to resonate easily with your target audiences. For example, “a glass half full” is perceived as a sign of optimism.
COMMUNICATION VS EXPRESSION
Communication consists of reducing things to signs. It assumes a universe of transmissible data from which the depth dimension of the Imaginal is absent. Only expression allows the symbol to occur in the guise of an aesthetic event. It is the frame drawn around the signs, and not the signs themselves, that begins the process of symbol formation.
The original appearance of the symbol that prompted the creation of a work of art was a unique and unrepeatable occurrence, so each encounter with that symbol within the work will be unique. The painter was possessed of a kind of second sight that allowed him to perceive the excess of meaning in a given situation. Only expression allows the symbol to occur in the guise of an aesthetic event, The process of symbol formation is the frame, not the signs themselves, that begins the process of expression.
The Imaginal can lead to truths that don’t jibe with conventional expectations, sound reason, and common sense. Wilde’s warning on this is clear: “Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril” Wilde: “The symbols that come our way have a secret purpose, it is to reveal to us what we need to see — and so are most afraid to see. The Imaginal is infinitely older than civilization, older even than humanity itself.
In 1978, the original “Good Vibrations,” sung by the Beach Boys, was used to introduce consumers to “The Sunkist Soda Taste Sensation.” In 1981, Sunkist Orange Soda became one of the ten best selling carbonated soft drinks in the United States. Today, the tradition continues; Sunkist and Diet Sunkist, sold by Cadbury Schweppes Americas Beverages.
For this ad, a strong message is effectively communicated without the use of much words. Music is different to the spoken language in many ways, but possibly the most important way is that it can communicate without pointing to something in the real world or having a precise meaning. In other words, it has a degree of non-conceptuality.
VC does not find signifieds in which to invest. Instead, it offers the equivalence of all signifiers, thereby deterring them from signifying anything. The system of interpreting signifiers overgrows its referents. It develops with no relation to whatever it signifies.
REIFICATION OF SYMBOLS
To reify something means to make something that is abstract seem real and concrete. Marxians use the term reification to refer to situations in which people see qualities of social relations as being qualities of abstract objects derived from those relations.
Of all the terms that have arisen to explain the impact of capitalism, none is more vivid or readily grasped than “reification”-the process of transforming men and women into objects, things. The principle of reification, emerging from Marx’s account of commodity fetishism, provides an unrivaled method for understanding the real effects of capital’s impact on consciousness itself.
Our point is that contemporary perceptions of sense and reality have been reified, and that aesthetics can express why this is the case, with major consequences for understanding the role of music. If you can harness the trappings of a style — taking its surface level idioms and cliches, while deliberately leaving behind any emotional authenticity to be a backing track that helps someone sell something, you’re probably half the way there.
Reification signs are proliferating around us-from the branding of products and services to ethnic and sexual stereotypes, all manifestations of religious faith, the rise of nationalism, and recent concepts such as ‘spin’ and ‘globalization.’
Reification of religious symbols enables a person to hold a religious identity that is at odds with their everyday life practices, values, and beliefs. Money is a concept independent from the economic transactions from which it derives. Is a diploma or degree more important than the education it is supposed to represent? Which would a student work harder for? In the military which matters more: expertise or rank? How can a credential be more important that the thing it is intended to indicate? It seems our culture is one that values, it seems, the credential over the education, he writes. The religion of reified symbols is another form of tribal totem, he says. It is a tendency for formal religious institutions to see their religious symbols per se to be sacred. At its extreme this becomes idol worship: the belief that the symbol is itself a god.
REIFICATION: HOW LICENSING KILLED ROCK’N’ROLL
Songs carry emotional information and some transport us back to a poignant time, place or event in our lives. Twenty years ago, licensing a rock song in a TV commercial would be met with immediate cries of “sell out.” It’s no wonder a corporation would want to hitch a ride on the spell these songs cast and encourage you to buy soft drinks, underwear or automobiles while you’re in the trance.
Within the last decade, commercial syncs are providing an additional source of income as record sales continue to slump — so it’s no surprise that the number of classic rock songs in advertisements has increased. As AC/DC (whose music is now in an Applebee’s commercial) once pointed out, “Money Talks.”
Classic rock songs are being used in more and more commercials. Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” and Springsteen’s “Born In the U.S.A.” are used in adverts. John Fogerty’s “Fortunate Son” is a biting critique about the privilege and hypocrisy of rabidly patriotic politicians. “Welcome to the Jungle” is about selling your soul to make it in Los Angeles and “Viva Las Vegas” by Elvis Presley vs. Viagra. The Western canon’s aura makes it just the thing for pitching luxury car brands like Mercedes-Benz with the 2017 holiday ad unfolded over a track of Shostakovich’s swoony Waltz 2.2.1. Capital uses music to carry out its teleological purpose.
SIGNIFIER, SIGNIFIED, SIGN: AGAIN
Reification is the mental process of transforming the non-concrete into something concrete, a ‘fact’ The US national anthem will be a perfect example of a reified piece of music. Music can provoke vague and difficult to define emotions. It can exist without communicating anything specific and can mean different things to different people. Many say that the allure of music is that you can say things with it that you never could with spoken language. The mind does not go off on an interpretive journey when we hear it — this music means USA, we know it is the national anthem, and this is the only way we can really understand it. The word itself is reified to construct an approximation of experience to work around the limitations of our senses and leave out a whole world of information in doing so.
So, if you’re wondering where I’m going with this — here it is. A shorthand description: When music is reified, it behaves a lot more like a spoken language. It means something specific. It can be described easily. It is unable to change because its meaning (or for semiotics people, its signifier) is fixed. The melody of the US National anthem doesn’t require me to engage with the non-conceptual. I know what it is.
So one good way of telling whether a piece of music is overly reified or not is if you’re able to describe it easily in words. They have all in different ways become a thing. A known musical object. This is of concern to composers because we recognize the value of the abstract nature of music, which allows us to communicate in a way that the spoken language is often unable to do.
If you have problems wrapping your head around this how the iconic banjo duel scene in the movie ‘Deliverance’ caused a powerful association with his instrument that has overpowered how audiences listen to it ever since. In this case, it’s not any particular melody or song that’s reified but the instrument itself and it’s also worth noting that it’s happening against the musician’s will. In the example of the banjo — it is no longer free to communicate musically — instead becoming a humorous shorthand for backwardness.
And the US national anthem represents its country so strongly that it can’t be mistaken for anything else. In all these examples, interpretation is resisted and the music is unable to change.
There are so many other ways that music can be reified: rules for example can lead to reification — for example the idea that chorus must always follow verse or that the opening movement of a symphony must use sonata form. Over-reliance on rules or patterns may create repetitive musical artifacts that do not engage the listener but merely remind them of what they’ve heard before. Especially in music, lyrics are a kind of reification by people like Taylor Swift who use them to convey to the listener what they should feel, in case they turn their brains on to perceive meaning for more than five seconds.
LETS ROCK — CREATIVE PROBLEMS
No matter where you stand on this, it’s obvious that all facets Rock’n’Roll, be it prog, Metal, blues, indie, etc face a mounting artistic problem: that almost everything about it is a foregone conclusion: from the intro riffs to the choruses all the way down to the lyrics. Getting new is harder and harder because there’s too much desire to be the same.
There are riffs and there are bridges and there are choruses And this wouldn’t be so bad if was in service of a larger musical idea. But no. But all we get is well worn references linked together with forgettable filler. A greatest hits medley of what the philosopher Theodor Adorno calls ‘the handed-down musical materials of history’ — which are the genres, tonalities, structures and other musical traditions that we all grow up with.
Things that already have meanings, rules and associations tied to them. So music is always reified to a certain degree. While writing the music for their albums, The Black keys or QOTSA or the Foo Fighters draw from a large range of well known sources. There’s heavy referencing of Led Zeppelin, Canned Heat, Jim Kimborough, Bachman Turner Overdrive etc. While Patrick Carney grew up on punk groups like The Clash and the Cramps, Dan Auerbach came up on bluesmen like Junior Kimbrough and southern rockers like Lynyrd Skynyrd. Throw in Steppenwolf, T. Rex, and Captain Beefheart/.
I’m not saying that Black Keys or QOTSA are plagiarists or hacks because the artistry in their music is in combining musical ideas with pre-existing meanings to form new meaning, breathing life into the original genres and conjuring a sense of otherworldliness and fantastical adventure. Like all music, there is a certain degree of reification going on, but it’s creative.
So the problem then is one of degrees. In other words, there comes a point where a piece of music is so reified that it’s glued up completely; where its meaning is so obvious that there’s no room for maneuver. This can be illustrated by looking at the newer albums QUOTSA, FOO FIGHTERS — which for me sit here on the reification-o-metre (pretty reified,-very reified).
Since so many big moments rely on pre-existing material. And the problem with reusing pre-existing material is one of diminishing returns. At its worst, rehashed music can descend into meaninglessness. To give an example of what I mean, let’s look at the use of Wagner's ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ in film.
When used in Apocalypse now it was a deliberate artistic juxtaposition — drawing from the original meaning of the music to provide a subtext of false glory and horror. It was done to make us think. Now let’s look at it’s reuse in the film ‘Watchmen’ directed by Zack Snyder.
The music here isn’t appropriate at all because the intention of this part of the story, written by Alan Moore, was to illustrate the complicated inner struggles and regrets of one of the main characters. But Snyder, as always, employs the lowest common denominator approach: ‘since Apocalypse Now takes place in Vietnam and this scene takes place in Vietnam let’s just use the Apocalypse Now music.
The music is now super-reified. Ride of the Valkyries isn’t being used for any deeper meaning — it just means ‘Vietnam — but also, remember Apocalypse Now?’ And it’s this meaninglessness that Rock’n’Roll is in danger of going towards with most bands lifting well worn constructs we’ve heard a million times and placed them at strategic moments to achieve maximum cliche.
Keith Richards proposes that Chuck Berry developed his brand of rock and roll by transposing the familiar two-note lead line of jump blues piano directly to the electric guitar. Country boogie and Chicago electric blues supplied many of the elements that would be seen as characteristic of Rock and Roll. Perhaps it’s time to consider organizing rock’n’ roll in a different way. It doesn’t have to be based on guitars. It could be a different think.
65 years later and there is never a moment when I feel it is being used as a storytelling device as much as a dog whistle. Music that stands for Late Stage Capitalism. Pretending to be something a human would write. No matter how hard it tries, it just can’t help but reflect the banality and inauthenticity of the corporation that uses it .It doesn’t provide any kind of deeper meaning or allow me to ponder or interpret what is going on. Its sole function is to point out when something rock related is happening, which I already knew about because I’m listening to the album. This is extreme reification and it hurts the songs, it hurts the bands and it hurts the fans.
The music is now telling you what to feel. It isn’t earned. It’s cashing in that cheque written by the original generation. Eventually, this theme will lose its potency completely, it will become a known artefact that disallows interpretation. Being different is dangerous but it’s the only way to achieve new heights. What’s left of the music industry is too afraid to deviate from customer expectation and choosing bands who are happy to churn out very similar material over and over again but what about Indie?
It is up to you to decide to what extent this is happening but it seems to me pretty obvious that it is, at least, happening.
Perhaps it’s time to consider organizing rock’n’ roll in a different way. It doesn’t have to be based on guitars. Or it could be different guitars. Think King Gizzard and the Lizzard Wizard microtonal guitars.
Tchaikovsky was working on the first movement of his 4th symphony in 1877 when he was suffering from depression and alienation. He wanted to express his emotions in a way that didn’t sit well with some Romantic composers at the time. We should not as audiences expect to be pandered to by relentless reference to stuff we know. The original tunes were, well, original. That’s the only thing that has any hope of delivering a truly breathtaking new Rock’n-Roll experience.