Eero Tarasti: "The Emancipation of the Sign: On the Corporeal and Gestural Meanings in Music" (3/11)

The causality mentioned by Merleau-Ponty between the human body and its symbolic manifestations is just what was above indicated by its "iconicity". Merleau-Ponty's warning is quite reasonable: one can also think that the so-called gendered meanings reflect some more general human existence, they are themselves signifiers of something else and not definite signifieds. In any case, the problem is that when the emancipation of the sign has taken place, one can use semiotics to "prove" almost any thesis whatsoever, so that one's reasoning gives the overall impression of a convincingly cogent scholarly discourse - supposing that there is some social motivation making people listen to our "semiotician". The danger in semiotics is based upon the fact that its tools are neutral, that they can serve virtually any ethics and any ideology. What then is a good or evil ideology is outside its scope. Therefore, if semiotics endeavours toward the status of a universal method, which it clearly does, one cannot exclude ethics. This was realized as early as the great nineteenth century semioticians such as Charles Peirce as well as pre- or would-be-semioticians like Vladimir Soloviev.
One good illustration for the combination of semiology and musicology is offered by Marc A. Weiner's study, Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination. He scours Wagner's operas for various signs, for semiological qualities and their "concrete logic," like Lévi-Strauss, with undeniable success. His book has opened a new chapter in the semiotics of Wagner by scrutinizing the Wagnerian odours, colours, gestures, sounds and other signs. He even deals in passing with Mussorgsky, referring to the composer's "Nibelungen" in the form of Goldenberg and Schmuyle in Pictures at an Exhibition. Then what is involved are "sonic signs" (p. 144) or "speech patterns" (p. 146). In Parsifal, though, the olfactory signs play a significant role evoking compulsion, entrapment and sexual urgency (p. 229). In Weiner's reasoning the German body does not appear as iconico-indexical signs as such but as pure metaphor. Moreover he notices how "the foot has an iconic function in Wagner's works for the stage" (p. 264). But when he seeks the signifieds of these signs he can find only one: anti- semitism. So all the negative and dysphoric types on stage come to represent wagner's hatred for the Jews and concretize his racism.
The author claims that these signs were apparent, although implicit, for the entire nineteenth century audience. Only we, at the end of the twentieth century, have lost our ability to decode these signs, since we are blinded by the musical genius of Wagner. However one has to put the question: If Wagner's intentions in all his major operas where to pursue racist and anti- semitic distinctions and differences, why did he not express them overtly just in his operas but was satisfied to convey this aspect of his vision only through pamphlets? Why these immanent but according to Weiner so vital significations had to remain immanent, concealed? Would he not have exposed his ideology even more efficiently using artistic signs, a theatre man as he was from head to toe?

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AS/SA Nº4, Article 1 : Page 3 / 11

© 1997 by AS/SA

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