The Life of Signs...

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turinoI have recently been reading Thomas Turino's book Music in Social Life - which is much to be recommended as a pretty much optimal balance between intelligence and accessibility, by the way. You can tell he is both an experienced researcher and has spent lots of time framing concepts so as to make sense to non-specialist undergraduates.

One of the things I have been finding quite striking about it is the way he uses Peircean semiotics. I'm aware, by the way, that this post is going to get rather niche for a few paragraphs, but it might open out again into more generalist territory towards the end. We'll see.

I usually describe my own musicological interests in terms of being about 'music and its social meanings', which encompasses both my PhD on music and gender in historical repertories and my increasingly ethnomusicological trajectory through my two books. But right at the start of this interest lies an undergraduate dissertation on music and semiotics, that in many ways underpins everything I've done since, but which rarely shows its theoretical colours directly in what I write.

So, it was interesting to see an actual ethnomusicologist using this kind of framework, and also to see how he used it. The literature of the 1970s and 1980s that was available to me as a student in some ways foreshadowed the shifts of perspective in the musicology of the 1990s that started to consider music as a socially-embedded system that only made sense in terms of its context, but it was still unremittingly focused on a concept of 'Music' that was based in the written score of the western classical tradition.

Indeed, ethnomusicology was a significant contributor to the changes in how we think about music - as a discipline with its own distinct methods and theoretical assumptions adopted from anthropology, it had the wherewithal to undertaken a clear critique of the blinkered concept of 'Music' assumed by most mainstream musicology.

And you can see that shift happening in musical semiotics within the work of Jean-Jacques Nattiez. In 1975, in Fondements d'une Sémiologie de la Musique he was proposing exhaustive distributional analyses of the musical text, yet by Music and Discourse in 1990 he was talking about how some cultures don't have a word that translates directly as our concept of 'music', even while they do things that we would recognise as musical.

But still, it seemed to me that most people who made explicit use of semiotic theory for music - as in they liked to talk about signs - still tended to be quite transactional about it. That is, a sign still had that sense of being a token that was created to communicate something, based on prototypically linguistic models that could be notated. Music was conceived as a created text that contained communicable meaning.

But Turino's reading of Peirce is much wider. For him, musical icons are not merely the kind of sonic onomatapoeia that traditional musicology looks down on as cheap tricks (e.g. Bottom's eeyoring in A Midsummer Night's Dream), but are about how people who share a musical tradition's body language experience their practical kinship. If iconicity is meaning emerging from likeness, sharing a groove counts as an icon.

That is, Turino considers signs much more in the sense of how people read the environment (both physical and cultural) they inhabit, rather than as media for exchange. I guess, in Nattiez/Molino terms, he is more concerned with the esthesic than the neutral or poietic levels. Except, of course, to fit it into that theoretical box, underplays the dramatic extent of his shift of perspectives. Molino's tripartition is based on a concept of communication as telephony, essentially linear, whereas Turino is much more interested in communication as simultaneity, as social synchrony.

Now, one of the ambitions of semiotics, in both the European and Peircean traditions was to understand meaning in wider contexts; to move away from language as the primary way of understanding meaning. Saussure talked about 'the life of signs within society'; Barthes got interested in cinema, fashion and vocal timbre as systems of meaning; Derrida took it all to a logical conclusion with the pronouncement 'il n'y a pas de hors-texte' that removed the distinction between thing-to-be-interpreted and outside world.

But still, all these people were looking at signs as nouns. Which, actually, given the term 'sign' is not unreasonable. Turino's conception is much more focused on meaning as process. Indexicality is no longer just a pointed finger, or smoke as a sign of fire, but is how we read emotional state from tone of voice.

I don't know if I am communicating how brain-bending I find this. The social embeddedness of musical meanings I am used to thinking about; the theoretical typology of signs I am also comfortable with. I am just not used to thinking about the former in terms of the latter like this. It is a much bigger, and more naturalised approach to semiotics than you usually see; it treats semiosis as something quite normal that people do in everyday life rather than an esoteric thing only to be written about by experts. It has that ethnomusicological feeling of actually rather liking people, which you don't always get in 'mainstream' academic writing about music (ahem).

The thing I find myself questioning, though, is the extent of this naturalisation of meaning through the primacy of icons and indexes over symbols. One of the things I have always loved about Saussure was the idea that it's not just the signifier end of a sign (its perceptible token) that is arbitrary, generated from within the system, but that the signified (the mental effect it produces - rather akin to Peirce's interpretant) is also. Meanings, in this sense are not natural - that is, they are not universally transparent - but only work for those who have the cultural background to get them.

The inherent connection between sign and intepretant posited by this focus on icon and index seems to underplay the extent to which reading that connection is still a learned, culturally-specific understanding. I am reminded of the way that Lakoff and Johnson root meaning in lived experience, but also show how bodily metaphors hide aspects of the objects they compare as part of the process of making the comparison. Pitch is measured as high/low or young/old depending on the icons and indexes your culture uses.

Of course, Turino is an ethnomusicologist, and is probably one of the best placed people in the world to understand both cultural difference and shared humanity. I'm just trying to get my head round the extent to which this intriguing use of semiotics articulates both ends of the equation.

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