Imploding Signs: deconstructing positivist and essentialist notions inherent in dominant modes of signification

by Eli Namay

                     1. Teasing Out Contradiction: framing the problem and reflections on visceral deconstruction through Alex Grimes’ piece An Object that is Not Oriented.

While interacting with the notation of An Object that is Not Oriented, a process of rupture is set in motion, opening up a barrier in my mind. I am faced with what has previously been totally unconscious. I am faced with a concrete image of the desire that, for so long, has functioned as an unconscious force fueling my practice. It is the desire for socioeconomic validation through the acquisition of technique and idiomatic understanding -- dexterity in symbolic reproduction.

Bolstered by post-modern spiritual practices, productivity-flow is fetishized as a key component in the creative person’s brand of the “bootstraps” narrative. It is goal oriented meditation used to ease the friction felt when entering into economic competition with one another. It is faux zen proverbs echoing from the Human Potential Movement and later from people like Werner Erhard that were made to help us distance ourselves from socioeconomic relations and material realities. [1][2] This pseudo morality functions as a management tool to help us function within the structures of a world shaped by exploitative power systems. Its moral weight rests on the assumption that creativity is an inherently benevolent activity. It helps us feel good about simply bettering ourselves and our practices, often without any critical regard for how our practice may sit historically or how its symbols are functioning currently. However, we should not only look at the question as “which symbols and in what way?” We should also examine how signification has historically been constructed, and how that shapes dominant modes of signification.

As musicians, our desire for social capital is satiated when we feel we are interpreting ‘correctly.’ With this piece my desire is denied and the myth of a one-to-one ratio between the signifier and the signified is blown apart, forcing us to accept the potential for a multiplicity of outcomes. This sensation engenders from the dense and vague nature of the decoupled notation: a staff for the bow placement, a staff for the bow speed and pressure, and a staff for the location and pressure of the left hand. I am forced to sit with my anxiety over my lack of control and so is the composer. We are torn apart by the absurd conclusion of unchecked instrumental reason born out of scribe culture. The picture of the composer as the rational, in-control scientist is traded for that of a madman, and the musician as a calm zen master is traded for that of a seizing body. We still desire certain dreams that came from the enlightenment, but we must first face certain contradictions. We must first articulate areas where, from the start, these dreams were wedded to domination.

This type of hyper specific notation does not automatically give rise to critique, but if we use it as a mode of active discovery it can function as an avenue to examine and critique how we broadly relate to symbols. What is the problem specifically? The ways the arts and sciences have developed in the Western world has shaped our relationship with symbols where there is a tendency to confound a given object with its dominant way of being signified. It is a subtle rhetorical construction that permeates interactions (i.e. confusing sonic phenomena with theoretical symbols or confusing physical phenomena with mathematical descriptors -- “thanks physics!”), but it carries with it both a positivistic and essentializing tendency that philosophically underpins violence that is normalized under imperialist/white-supremacist/capitalist/patriarchy. This does not mean we should discount the insights of the sciences, but we must not shy away from working through the problems of instrumental signification. They must be teased out.

An Object that is Not Oriented (2014),  Alex Grimes

An Object that is Not Oriented (2014),  Alex Grimes

  1. (starting at 31:20) For example, in the third installment of Adam Curtis’ documentary on the rise of consumer culture titled Century of the Self Warner Erhard describes how his human potential program, Erhard Seminars Training (EST), piggybacked off of the fascination with eastern spirituality that was present in the counterculture and protest movements of the 60s.

Warner Erhard: “The real point to the EST training was to go down through layer after layer… until you got to the last layer and peeled it off where the recognition was that it’s really all meaningless and empty…. That’s Existentialism's endpoint. EST went a step further in that people began to recognize that it was not only meaningless and empty, but that it was empty and meaningless that it was empty and meaningless. And, in that there’s an enormous freedom. All the constrictions, all the rules that you placed on yourself are gone and what you’re left with is nothing and nothing is an extraordinarily powerful place to stand because it is only from nothing that you can create and from this nothing is where people were able to invent a life…”

Jesse Kornbluth (NY times): “What Erhard did was to say that only the individual matters. That there is no societal concern. That you living a fulfilled life is all you need be concerned about. EST people came out of those trainings feeling that it wasn’t selfish to think about yourself, that it was your highest duty.”

    Adam Curtis: “... in the process the political ideas that had begun the movement for personal transformation began to disappear. The original vision had been that through discovering and expressing yourself a new culture would be born one that would challange the power of the state… what was now emerging was the idea that people could simply be happy within themselves, that there was no need for societal transformation.”

Stew Albert (founding member of Yippie Party): “basically the politics were lost and totally replaced by this lifestyle, and the desire to go deeper and deeper within the self. And, my good friend Jerry Rubin… definitely moved in that direction. I think he was beginning to buy into the notion that he could be happy and fully self developed on his own. Socialism in one person.... although that of course is capitalism.”

2. Rami Gabriel also does a lot of work on this connection between consumerism and egoism particularly in his book titled Why I Buy.


This is the first of several parts of an essay series, titled Imploding Signs, that will examine and critique personal and social relationships with symbolic orders that are pertinent to music