The Emancipation of the Sign:
On the Corporeal and Gestural Meanings in Music


Eero Tarasti

University of Helsinki






Anglo-american musicology is at the moment quite obviously embracing a semiotic approach. The fact that so many scholars are now writing about the Otherness in music, differences and how they emerge, and the construction of social reality, as well as about the implicit meanings hidden in musical institutions, about body as a social and ideological product, gendering etc. is, after all, a consequence not only of the assumption of post-structuralist, sociologist, post-modern and feminist premises but of one aspect without which none of these approaches would have been possible. This phenomenon could be termed the emancipation of the sign.
What is involved here is that scholars have recognised that music always has a content, and that this content has a conventional, arbitrary relationship to its signifier, the aural physical embodiment of the musical sign. Since this relationship is arbitrary, one might exclaim: "Let us find other kinds of agreement! Un nouveau contrat sémio-social in the manner of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Let us no longer accept conventional traditions." For surely we want to make a new start which is no longer ideological, essentialist, racist or secretly nationalistic. In other words, a new beginning which is inherently neither consciously nor unconsciously making differences and evaluations. As extreme examples we may consider certain feminist analyses like Susan McClary's famous image of Beethoven as a rapist in the Ninth Symphony finale's recapitulation. In such analyses, the cards of the musicological play have been dealt again, as it were, and the game is played from new starting-points on - but whether it is also played with new rules is not so certain, I suspect.
In this light feminism could be even interpreted as a new form of racism. Yet it is true that feminist scholars have been able to reveal the centuries-long oppression of women in our music culture as well as the immanent masculine patriarchal systems of signification in the musical discourse itself. But when at the same time one attempts to raise the concealed, rejected "feminines" as hidden musical traits, one has to ask: Where do they find their origin? Are they only Hegelian negations of the dominant being or masculine culture, negations which now have their turn to emanate in the dialectics of becoming? Then one has to ask, where are the categories of men's culture or "being" originally from? Are they due to his corporeal qualities? Is, as Freud said, anatomy destiny? If this is true, then the negation is itself bound with the essentialist assumption on the corporeality of masculine culture. From a man's body one can iconically infer, if you will, all symbolic forms in Western culture. In this way we can never exceed the corporeality thesis and consequently the feminine culture always would carry in it the negation of men's culture, and would thus remain altogether dependent on it (before genetic engineering technology clones new types of men).

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AS/SA Nº4, Article 1 : Page 1 / 11


© 1997 by AS/SA

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21.12.1997