Unknotting Symbols
from the Strands of Reality

Preface

The following meditation on the semiotics of reality was written in Paris the end of June 2018, upon my completion of a a 30-day intensive on Electronic Music Creation + Critique at through the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) in partnership with IRCAM. The program occurred concurrently with ManiFeste 2018, which was centered around the theme Code/DeCode.

As a way to organize the thoughts around the work I did during this time—and to synthesize those thoughts with æsthetic explorations and the overall experience of living in Paris for a month—I wrote this short reflection. The piece includes references to works performed at ManiFeste such as George Aperghis’s Thinking Things and installations such as code-verse by Ryoji Ikeda—to which I’ve included links for reference.

Cheers!

• • •

Unknotting Symbols from the Strands of Reality


During the moments of artistic creation, artists fulfill the fundamental human instinct for transcendence.... Momentarily tasting transcendence, artists break the iron band of individuality and experience universality. They are freed not only from the limitations of human individuality and fallibility but also from human frailty and, precisely the most powerful form of that frailty, death. Artistic creation suspends Time.

—Diane Apostolos-Cappadona on the
writings of Mircea Eliade

Throughout my time in Paris and the CIEE program, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the overarching theme Code/Decode. Taking part in the events of Manifeste 2018—as well as the “extra-curricular” exhibitions—has gotten me to think deeply about the very basic idea of coding and decoding, as well as its implications in the development of æsthetic ideas and subsequent creation of music. In this paper, I will discuss some of these thoughts, but—due to the breadth of the theme Code/Decode—a full discussion of all the intersections of these ideas would go beyond the scope of this paper, so some sections may be somewhat brief.

Starting at the beginning, I asked myself, “What does it mean to code something?” Coding seems to me to be the act of taking information and representing it using a certain system of symbols. Of course, if one is going to take information and transpose it into a different symbolic framework, the information must already be encoded in a way the transposer can understand. Therefore, much of the time, the act of encoding is actually the act of recoding, or translating information from one system of symbols into another. Therefore, (re)coding involves chiefly two things: 1) two systems of symbols, and 2) the act of translation.

Coded Hierophanies and the Ultimate Reality

When we begin to discuss systems of symbols, a discussion of the phenomenology of reality is only a short metro-ride away, so to speak. Here, I’ll draw upon the ideas of two anthropologists: Clifford Geertz and Mircea Eliade. Geertz is well known for his definition of religion. Geetrz defines religion broadly, such that it can be used to describe many diverse belief systems. According to Geertz, religion is,

(1) a system of symbols which acts to
(2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men [sic] by
(3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and
(4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that
(5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.1Geertz, Clifford. "Religion as a Cultural System." The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, 87-125. New York: Basic Books, 1973.

By this definition, we can describe familiar belief-systems (e.g., theistic, Abrahamic religions; various forms of Hinduism; religions of the Americas; etc.), belief-systems that are maybe less recognizable as religions (e.g., forms of Buddhism that are less theistic; Confucianism, which focuses greatly on prescribing a sociopolitical order; etc.), and social constructs that exist as religions in disguise (e.g. Consumerism, Western European culture, etc.).

These systems of symbols are established in a variety of ways. But one particularly interesting way that these symbols are established is through myth. For Romanian anthropologist Mircea Eliade, myths establish symbols that signify the way the world works on a primordial and authoritative level. Eliade’s ideas about Myth and Reality go beyond the scope of this paper, but in a nutshell, the symbols in a myth are prototypical.2It needs to be said that while Eliade had many incredible insights into the way we experience reality, he was also—like many anthropologists of the mid-20th Century, and indeed, today—a white dude guilty of academic colonialism, often overgeneralizing about non-Western religions and engaging in Orientalist discourse. To make matters worse, Eliade also harbored extremely problematic ethnopolitical views, including ties to fascist and antisemitic groups in the 1930s.

This should all evoke a whole-hearted yikes from the reader, as it does for me. Suffice it to say, it’s important to take Eliade’s ideas about cultures not his own with a coarse grain of salt. This said, Eliade’s ideas on Hierophany and Eternal Return—paraphrased and elaborated below—say quite a lot about Western perceptions of reality and are extremely compelling ideas as long as one understands that they are broad hypotheses that only represent one limited view of human phenomenology.


Myths give us examples of some original event which generates symbols that define a community’s relationship with reality. These symbols are intersections of the divine world into the profane world that provide someone with fixed reference points of things that are sacred. That is, they are symbols that describe how things ought to be, how things ought not to be, what things have value, and even what things even exist. Eliade termed these manifestations of the divine hierophanies, and, according to him, everything that someone does only holds value insofar as it relates to these original symbols.3 There are echoes here of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. In many ways, Eliade’s ideas are the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, but applied to symbols generated by myth instead of symbols that exist in language.

When someone takes part in a ritual that re-enacts mythical events, they are re-invoking the original event and all the symbols it generates. Moreover, just as leaving a street and entering a cathedral transposes one from profane space to sacred space, participants in a ritual are transposed from profane time to sacred time—and not just sacred time in general, but the sacred time: the original time when the hierophanies that underpin the participant’s notion of reality first exploded into being.4Eliade, Mircea. Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries: the Encounter between Contemporary Faiths and Archaic Realities (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1960), p. 44.

In a religious context, these rituals are generally re-enactments of the myths of that religion. But even in a secular context we do these sorts of re-invocations of symbols through theatre and storytelling in general. Myth, re-enacting, storytelling, theatre, dance, art, and music are all ways of presenting people with new hierophanies—symbols of the sacred that arrive from new, perhaps alien, realities—against which they can measure themselves and the way that they understand the world around them.

Aperghis’s Thinking Things: Pidgin Languages from the Uncanny Valley

In Thinking Things, Georges Aperghis presented the audience with new hierophanies that redefined the nature of humanity. In the work, Aperghis conflated the symbols that signify humans and robots by recoding human behavior to appear more like robotic behavior and vice versa. The gestures of the human performers were robotic while the gestures of the robot figures were human-like. The way the human performers spoke was very mechanical and repetitive, almost like a text-to-speech converter, while the robots spoke in coherent and inflected sentences. In this way, Aperghis approached the Uncanny Valley from both sides, constructing, at the bottom of the chasm, a new reality on stage where human and robot are signified by the same thing and are therefore virtually indistinguishable.

In fact, the only way we know that they’re not the same thing is because one looks different from the other. We can see the flesh of the human performers and distinguish it against the hollow metallic exoskeletons of the robotic performers. Moreover, because as audience members we enter the world of Thinking Things with memories of our day-to-day symbolic reality (in which there is generally a huge difference between the behavior of humans and robots), we are primed to be acutely aware of any subtle differences between the two.

In the end, Thinking Things reveals the artificial nature of human instinct, and highlights the bio-mechanical nature of the human body and brain. It achieves this through the re-coding of gestures and sounds that represent both human and robotic behavior into symbols that exist in the Uncanny Valley. It is a double translation of symbolic frameworks into a third: a pidginization, wherein “two disparate languages are amalgamated into one, lacking formalized grammar, and having a small, utilitarian vocabulary, and no native speakers.”5 Paraphrase from Wiktionary.

Ezra Pound and Lossy Translation

Being in France, and not speaking very much French, I think a lot about translation. Translation is essentially the same thing as re-coding, taking information and re-presenting it using a new set of symbols. In many ways, listening to a piece by Ryoji Ikeda that remaps computer data into sounds is the same as listening to Marie-Louise Dioede providing the Academie with a live translation of the seminars presented in Salle Stravinsky. But of course, in each of these cases information is lost in the process. The question is “why?” There are many ways of encoding computer data that are “lossless,” allowing one to reconstruct encoded information completely. A simple answer to this question is that computer data is a lot simpler than the sinewy and sinuous latticework of symbols embedded into our lives by language. A deeper exploration of this question can be found, however, by turning to one of the most virtuosic translators in Western Literature: Ezra Pound.

Pound was well known for his translations into Modern English from Old English, various Romance languages, and Chinese. According to Pound scholar, Michael Alexander, however, Pound couldn’t actually understand Chinese himself, and many criticize his translations as having many mistakes.6 Alexander, Michael. (1979). The Poetic Achievement of Ezra Pound. Berkeley: University of California Press. Pound did, however, cultivate very interesting æsthetic ideas which developed into Imagism through his encounter with Chinese and Japanese language, especially after learning about the work of Ernest Fenollosa. After his death, Pound edited and published Fenollosa’s The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry. This text puts forth Pound and Fenollosa’s ideas about the Imagistic, detemporalized nature of Chinese writing. While these musings are hardly taken seriously by Chinese language scholars today, they give us insight into some of the æsthetic ideas Pound was thinking about in his development of Imagism (even if they were based on false premises):

A true noun, an isolated thing, does not exist in nature. Things are only the terminal points, or rather the meeting points, of actions, cross-sections cut through action, snap-shots. Neither can a pure verb, an abstract motion, exist in nature. The eye sees noun and verb as one: things in motion, motion in things….

…Green is only a certain rapidity of vibration, hardness a degree of tenseness in cohering….

…No full sentence really completes a thought… The truth is that acts are successive, even continuous; one causes or passes into another. And though we may string ever so many clauses into a single compound sentence, motion leaks everywhere, like electricity from an exposed wire. All processes in nature are interrelated; and thus there could be no complete sentence (according to this definition) save one which it would take all of time to pronounce.
7 Fenollosa, Ernest, and Ezra Pound. (2008). The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry: A Critical Edition. Edited by Haun Saussy et al., Fordham University.

It seems Pound and Fenollosa see words—or any information coded into symbols—as wound up strands of a continuous reality. In this view, all symbols are pieces of a reality-continuum coiled into knots of discrete symbolic units. The location of the centroids of these units along the reality-continuum, how tightly the units are wound, and how they connect to other units give each symbol its meaning—which includes how they relate to other symbols, as well as how specific the symbol is or any connotations the symbol holds. Because these parameters vary in words from language to language—even in cognates—information will be lost in translation between languages: no two symbolic coils will exactly overlap.

Tight-Knottedness and the Spectrum of Specificity

Taking this idea further, one can see symbols lying upon a spectrum of specificity, of tightly-windedness. A piece of reality that’s wound up quite loosely might be quite multivalent and open to interpretation. It might be an abstract sound or a shape that evokes powerful complex moods or feelings. But these evocations may be difficult to pin down or describe linguistically. One would need a great mosaic of more tightly-wound symbols. Wound tighter, a symbol can become a concrete image or word (as described by Pound). At this level, a symbol might have a somewhat specific meaning, but have a wide range of connotations and associations that keep it open to interpretation. Concatenating or juxtaposing these bits of knotted reality (i.e. contextualization) gives symbols even more specific meaning. The greater the specificity, however, the more energy it takes to understand—interpret, paraphrase, decode—a symbol. For example, to understand words in French, I need to know French. Yet, I don’t need to know what Rothko meant by red to interpret red (even though contextualization may give me a deeper or more precise understanding).

Now imagine a segment of reality that is wound so tightly, it becomes a semiotic black hole—a singularity, representing only a single thing. This knot of reality is coiled up so tightly that it can’t be comprehended concretely. It becomes symbolically microscopic. It’s so precise that it becomes unintelligible, and we have no way of understanding it except by projecting a more loosely-wound symbol onto it to describe it (e.g. the words “black hole” or “singularity”).

Is a symbol like this even still a symbol? The answer is yes. A symbol like this is like a transistor. It says one thing:

On.
1.

And through the concatenation of these symbols we can represent ideas not by winding up a continuous reality, but by mosaic-ing a million microscopically wound “bits” until they represent what we want.

Here, at the opposite end of the spectrum from loosely-wound abstractions and tighter-wound words, lies the language of computers. Simple bits of information. When dealing with low-level computer code, we use high-level computer languages—such as C, Java, or even Max—as intermediary languages to map our thoughts onto the tightly-wound system of symbols computers use. We use highly-sophisticated intermediary languages as mediators between the symbols of humans and the symbols of robots—we speak in the language of Thinking Things.

At this point we can take a step back and make an observation and generalization: loosely-wound pieces of reality are more readily interpreted by our brains than tightly-wound pieces, while more tightly-wound pieces are more precisely interpreted by our brains than loosely-wound pieces. We can illustrate this generalization through a graph like the one below.

Graph of Spectrum of Specificity

A True Noun Does Not Exist

In many ways, this spectrum of specificity exhibits many parallels with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which has its roots in the frequency-time duality exhibited by the Fourier Transform. Through the Fourier Transform, a section of a wave represented as amplitude over time can be expressed as amplitude over instantaneous frequency. In phase vocoding, when applying the Fourier Transform to a long signal, the resolution in the frequency domain increases, but the temporal resolution goes down. That is, you can tell which frequencies make up a certain sound, but you can’t tell when they are played. Conversely, if you choose many consecutive small windows of sound to transform (taken from a longer signal), you can tell when frequencies are played, but you may not be able to tell exactly which ones. The greater the window, the more detemporalized the sound.

It is possible to take a sample of human speech and shatter it into a mosaic of detemporalized units through the use of the Fourier Transform. These frames of static sound can then be concatenated to resynthesize the sound. When each frame is played back consecutively at the speed of the original sample, one essentially hears the unshattered recording, with normal speech made from knotted coils of reality. Yet, however, as the playback speed is reduced, we are able to unravel these coils of meaning:

Words become distorted versions of themselves.
Distorted words become phonemes.
Phonemes become phones, still human-sounding.
Phones becomes musical sound.

A True Noun Does Not Exist is based on this principle. Since spoken language is time-dependent, the knotting of reality into spoken linguistic symbols must also be time-dependent. These coils of meaning can only form if the sounds that make them are spoken quickly enough, one after the other. As we detemporalize a piece of text, slowing it down, we inhibit the strands of symbolic coils from cohering. We explore the regions of perception in which sounds become coded into linguistic symbols by our brains—in which the endless continuum of reality condenses into clots of meaning.

Paris and Detemporalization

Finally, in addition to exploring ideas about coding and decoding, my piece is also related to my experience in the city of Paris itself. Coming here, it’s clear Parisians are obsessed with symbolism (e.g. protesters who set fire only to symbols of Globalization). It also seems to me that Paris is a city that is constantly reinventing itself, in which the old and the new intersect. Old morgues have been repurposed into art spaces. Old dumps have been transformed into parks. The 17th Century Église Saint-Merri stands only meters away from the Postmodern Centre Georges Pompidou. Some metro lines are automatic while others look like old trolleys. The city itself is detemporalized—as though someone has applied an architectural Fourier Transform from Montmartre to Montparnasse, compressing the city into an Imagistic twilight of present and past.

Footnotes

1 Geertz, Clifford. “Religion as a Cultural System.” The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, 87-125. New York: Basic Books, 1973.

2 It needs to be said that while Eliade had many incredible insights into the way we experience reality, he was also—like many anthropologists of the mid-20th Century, and indeed, today—a white dude guilty of academic colonialism, often overgeneralizing about non-Western religions and engaging in Orientalist discourse. To make matters worse, Eliade also harbored extremely problematic ethnopolitical views, including ties to fascist and antisemitic groups in the 1930s.

This should all evoke a whole-hearted yikes from the reader, as it does for me. Suffice it to say, it’s important to take Eliade’s ideas about cultures not his own with a coarse grain of salt. This said, Eliade’s ideas on Hierophany and Eternal Return—paraphrased and elaborated above—say quite a lot about Western perceptions of reality, and are extremely compelling ideas as long as one understands that they are broad hypotheses that only represent one limited view of human phenomenology.

3 There are echoes here of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. In many ways, Eliade’s ideas are the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, but applied to symbols generated by myth instead of symbols that exist in language.

4 Eliade, Mircea. Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries: the Encounter between Contemporary Faiths and Archaic Realities (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1960), p. 44.

5 Paraphrase from Wiktionary.

6 Alexander, Michael. (1979). The Poetic Achievement of Ezra Pound. Berkeley: University of California Press.

7 Fenollosa, Ernest, and Ezra Pound. (2008). The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry: A Critical Edition. Edited by Haun Saussy et al., Fordham University.