Cliché, Singularities, and Infinite Echolalia

What’s up, people.
Miggy Torres here.

In the last article, we laid the Semiotic groundwork for a discussion on cliché. It’s been a little while, so to summarize:

  1. Perceptions of reality are generated in the mind by an interwoven web of symbols.
  2. These symbols give meaning to everything we experience. That is, for something to have meaning to someone it must be coded in their mind as a symbol. (There are echoes here of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. In many ways, this symbolic view of reality is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, but applied to any kind of sign—not just linguistic ones.) Moreover,
  3. these symbols can be generated by myth—windows into new realities that describe how things ought to be, how things ought not to be, what things have value, and what things even exist.
  4. All of art is myth abstracted. A work of art is a window into a new reality with its own system of symbols.
  5. When the reality of the work of art collides the reality of one’s everyday life, the two symbolic webs intersect and interact (interpretation), giving way to new truths and new perceptions of reality.
  6. Sign-webs are rhizomatic. They are non-linear and have no beginning and no end.
  7. Signs have no inherent meaning. Meaning is contextual. Meaning-nodes (signs) in a rhizomatic sign-web are defined by their relationships with other meaning-nodes—specifically in how they differ.
  8. Meaning-nodes are not only defined by their associated meaning-threads (relationships), they are the intersection points of those threads.
  9. The fewer the number of threads that intersect to form a symbol, the vaguer its meaning.
  10. A sign with very few meaning-threads—a floating signifier—has little to no meaning, or can have a widely variable meaning.
  11. A self-contextualized sign has meaning-threads that connect it back to itself and behaves similarly to a floating signifier.

Feel free to visit the previous article for a more detailed exploration of the above ideas! In any case, armed with this semiotic arsenal we may now dare to interrogate cliché—the dread imposter. But what do symbols, and rhizomes, and myths have to do with cliché?

• • •

Well, a cliché is a kind of symbol. And it’s a symbol that behaves in a very particular way. And that way is by referencing itself.

A cliché is a symbol that references itself.

Or in other words, a self-contextualized sign that signifies itself more so than it signifies whatever you’re trying to use it for.

It’s like a piece of tape that you’re trying to use to build a paper house but it keeps sticking to itself, sticking to you hand. This high tendency for self-reference, is brought on extrinsically by the symbol’s cultural context, the cultural baggage—memories of old lovers, artifacts, souvenirs, useless junk—it’s acquired due to its ubiquitous use within a particular canon. And no matter how hard the artist tries to point this symbol’s signifier in a different direction—toward some new signified—the rhizomatic meaning-threads of its cultural context bear it back ceaselessly into the past.1[Pithy note about this clichéd Great Gatsby reference].

I’ll give you an example. A literary one: Once upon a time.

Once upon a time: Memoir of a Semiotic Vortex

In literature, Once upon a time references Once upon a time. Once upon a time is a symbol for Once upon a time, and for all of the contexts2I keep wanting the plural of context to be contices. Alas! It ends with a T and not an X. and situations in which it normally appears. In fact, when we say “Once upon a time,” we don’t even think about it as four distinct words—once, upon, a, time—or the literal meaning they hold or how they might work together grammatically. We think about it as an idiom, an incantation, a single semantic object. A meaning-chunk. One single linguistic gesture: Onceuponatime!

Onceuponatime, we know, references fairy tales. And it references fairy tales not because the literal meaning of those four words says anything fantastic—aside from referring vaguely to some remote and unspecified “time”3For some reason, contemporary versions of these tales always always tend to be set during the Middle Ages. Perhaps it is because the phrase Onceuponatime dates back to tales of knights and kings (see note 5)? Who’s to say? A folklorist, perhaps. upon which something happened (equally vaguely) “once”4 The lack of specificity about when the events in a Onceuponatime story occurred, along with the remoteness of those events, does help contribute to the mythological, primordial feel that accompanies a fairy tale.—, but because over and over again in our collective cultural memory, Onceuponatime has occurred in a particular context, i.e. at the beginnings of fairy tales.

In the vast rhizomatic sign-web whose intersection points generate meaning in our minds, Onceuponatime exists at the nexus of every fairy tale ever to begin with Onceuponatime. And every time someone opens a new fairy tale with Onceuponatime, a new semiotic thread latches onto the whole bunch and pulls it even more tightly together.

Well, Onceuponatime has existed in one form or another in the English language since at least around 1380.5The OED cites the first known use of Onceuponatime as “Onys..oppon..a day..he slow kynges three.” from Sir Ferumbras, an anonymous late 14th-century version of the Fierabras knight-tale. The phrase was also used by Chaucer in his Knight’s Tale as “Thee ones on a tyme.” It wasn’t until closer to 1600 when it took its current form, “Once vppon a time there was a king…” in George Peele’s play The Old Wive’s Tale. Note that by the time Peele used the phrase, it already had accreted enough semiotic baggage to signal the beginning of a folk or fairy tale, having already been in use for over 200 years. So six-hundred and forty years of Onceuponatime-ing at the beginning of fairy tales has basically turned it into a semiotic singularity—it’s likely impossible to think of Onceuponatime and not think fairy tale. In fact, I would argue that it’s impossible to think about fairy tale and not think about Onceuponatime!

In any case, whenever one utters Onceuponatime today, one invokes all of those other instances when it was used—all those other contexts—to the point where Onceuponatime now points to (signifies) fairy tale and vice versa. The signifier loops back in on itself, a self-reflecting echo from a forgotten age, mise en abyme.

A memory of a memory of a memory.

• • •

When you think about it, it’s quite beguiling: this phonemic gesture has graced the lips of storytellers for almost 650 years, passed down through the collective memory of the English language through bards and bedtime balladeers until one evening (maybe it’s a Tuesday, maybe it’s unremarkably humid outside but otherwise somewhat breezy), /wʌnsəpɑnətaɪm/ pours out of your mouth, hangs briefly in the air, and then—in a mælstrom of self-referential semiotic feedback—spirals in on itself and pulls you six-hundred and fifty years into the past.

This is the power of cliché.

However, while this may sound romantic, for the artist looking to create something new, to imbue a work with their own artistic identity or communicate some new, personal truth, they must use gestures and symbols that point toward those new ideas and connections. Yet, the cliché forcibly redirects those symbols and gestures to point not toward new ideas, but back onto themselves, invoking the memories of all the other times they were encountered.6Including all the times they were remembered. A memory of a memory of a memory. And just as the use of another artist’s material as the structural substrate for one’s work places the composer at the mercy of the other artist’s æsthetic and structural choices, the use of such powerful signifiers often places the composer at the mercy of those symbols themselves.

To return to our literary example, nowadays no one would ever seriously start any kind of story—even a legend, myth, or actual fairy tale—with Onceuponatime.7Even a work as stylized as Star Wars begins on a variant: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” If you’re trying to create a window into a new reality—even one that exists in a distant, primordial, mythological temporality—Onceuponatime pulls the reader back into Fairytaleland. And not just any fairytaleland, but the flat, generic, paper-cutout Fairytaleland into which every fairy tale in the English language has amalgamated: a kind of averaged-out version of every fairy tale ever told, with all notable features smoothed out until they become indistinguishable from the Euclidian landscape.

Cliché: Living and Dreaming in Lower Dimensions.

This flattening-out, or reduction of dimensionality, is an extremely important feature of cliché, and occurs in works both spacial and temporal.8This division of artistic media into spacial and temporal is one that’s been around since Gotthold Lessing’s Laocoön (1766), and even well before. Ultimately, however, this distinction is an arbitrary one, as many works of art have properties of both space and time. A sculpture may be enjoyed and experienced over a certain period of time and a poem may be imagistic in nature—or in the words of Horace, ut pictura poesis (Ars Poetica, c. 19 BCE). For an in-depth study of transmedia comparative æsthetics with a focus on Modernist music, Daniel Albright’s Untwisting the Serpent (see note 9) is absolutely indispensable. In any case, for the sake of discussion we will observe this medial distinction.

Temporally, when you know what is going to happen before it happens, when a temporal work (music, a story, a play, a poem, a dance) immediately fulfills the expectations conferred upon it extrinsically by its cultural milieu (i.e. “it’s a choral piece, so we expect it to begin this way and do this”), it detemporalizes the æsthetic experience: you know what’s going to happen before it happens.9Daniel Albright, Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature, and Other Arts, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 17.

And then it does.

As composers, we play with expectations all the time. We set them up in our music, and then either deny them (tension) or fulfill them (release). Sometimes we even fulfill an expectation because we know that the audience expects us to deny it. If we deny a certain expectation, we fulfill the expectation that it was going to be denied. So instead, we fulfill the expectation, thus denying the expectation that the expectation was going to be denied!

It can be argued that this expectation game is the central pillar upon which all temporal art is buttressed. But if all of the extrinsic expectations are fulfilled—those conferred upon the work by the collective memory of a culture’s interactions with the medium (i.e. the repertoire)—, the intrinsic ones—the ones an artist sets up for themselves within the work—become meaningless, since we were expecting them before the piece even began.

For example, a professedly deceptive chord progression at a particular moment in a particular piece loses its subterfuge if the listener has heard that same progression at similar moments in other similar works. Within the context of the piece alone, the expectation game may very well hold together. But in the context of the repertoire—i.e. the cultural context in which the listener is preseumably10It’s possible, and even likely, that audiences may not have as broad a grasp of a certain repertoire as you or I do. For example, while I love English Literature, I certainly don’t know nearly as much about English Literature as an author who has spent their lives doing close reads of English literary works. Therefore, there may be certain tropes, or indeed, clichés, that I am unable to recognize. That said, I strongly do not recommend to any composer that they rely on the ignorance of their audience to keep their works compelling. inextricably embedded (day to day, as they’re listening, etc.)—the expectation game falls apart and the temporality of the whole piece collapses into something experienced all at once.

Rather than barreling head-first down a corkscrew twist, the audience simply observes the roller coaster’s track from afar.

Static.

By the same token, a cliché in visual art despacializes it. For example, a contemporary Impressionist landscape which serves only to recall Monet abdicates its spacial dimensionally. While we may visually perceive the painting as two- or, with impasto, perhaps three-dimensional, the metaphorical space—the æsthetic space—ceases to exist.

Just as we conceive Onceuponatime as a single linguistic gesture—its individual components emancipated from their grammatical function—, a contemporary rendition of Water Lilies does not exist as individual flowers, each occupying its own proprietary space on a canvas. Rather, such a work is perceived a single object, a one-dimensional singularity, an æsthetic cyclone that sucks you in and spits you out somewhere among the 250+ paintings of water lilies actually painted by Claude Monet.

The painting in question is no longer about up-down, left-right, foreground-background, light-dark, blurry-sharp. Perceived as a single object, the whole thing shrinks down and collapses in on itself. The individual components of the work lose their sense of juxtaposition, of intersection, of spacial interaction, or relationships of any kind. And as we recall from our earlier discussion of semiotics, the nodes in our rhizomatic meaning-web are not simply defined by their relationships to other nodes. They are the intersection points of those relationships, existing in a state of thread-node duality. In the absence of meaningful relationships, each water lily becomes a floating signifier, dimensionless and alone, doomed to be sucked down into a whirlpool of æsthetic oblivion.

Image of one of Monet's Water Lilies

Claude Monet, Water-Lilies, 1914-17.
Oil on Canvas, 180 x 146 cm, Legion of Honor Museum, Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco.
Don't fall in. 😉

Even if only particular objects within a painting are self-referential, as opposed to the work as a whole, those sections of canvas become despatialized: the eye passes over them as though the space between beginning and end did not exist.

Returning to our roller coaster metaphor, not only does the audience observe the frozen track from afar, but the track itself becomes flat. Up and down no longer exist, and loops and turns untwist themselves into a neat isotropic ellipse. Eventually, it too shrinks down into a single point. What was once an exhilarating thrill-ride has become completely reduced into a speck one may not even be sure ever existed in the first place.

But, for the artist trying to reference specific contexts and situations within the vast spatiotemporal collective memory of a particular cultural milieu, the riptide of an æsthetic black hole may prove to be a critical resource. And the collapse of dimensionality into singularity brings us briefly into contact with these powerful, relentless gravity wells.

Artist as Transdimensional Traveler: Breaking the Bounds of Time and Space

The exponential semiotic spiraling that occurs when invoking a cliché disrupts the reality of the parent work of art, tearing open a kind of memory-rift into the past. If we’re brave enough, we can use these portals to tunnel briefly into an alternate spatiotemporal plane and draw meaning from powerful symbols, moments, contexts—totems of collective memory. The cost of doing this, however, is that we can’t stay there.

A cliché draws open a window into another world that we can visit for a split second to harness its semiotic energy, but we are not meant to live there. To remain inside these static realities–with their paper moons, cardboard seas—keeps us from constructing our own. They do not exist in our time, in our space, or even in our imaginations, but are a product of collective memory. The artist comes from the world of individuality, but the other side of the memory-rift exists in a state of universality, and if we linger too long under those canvas skies, we become the muslin tree.

But for that instant that we are inside the memory-rift, we experience autoanamnesis: we remember remembering remembering a memory. The contexts and situations in which the original symbol has appeared throughout our collective memory superimpose in infinite echolalia. In communion with this surging current of memory-memories, one Augenblick is all we need to trigger intense autoanamnestic cascades and glean a taste of universality.

Remain any longer, however, and we begin to meld with the Lethean tides of the memory-rift: we forget who we are, why we’re there, what we wanted, where and when we came from, how to get back, and whether we even exist as anything more than a memory-echo of ourselves. One would think that remaining inside a room of mirrors would help one better grasp one’s own identity. In fact, the opposite is true. Just as any discreet signal convolved recursively tends toward a smooth Gaussian,11Steven W. Smith, The Scientist and Engineer’s Guide to Digital Signal Processing (San Diego, CA: California Technical Pub., 1999). our own ouroboric reflections within the memory-rift strip us of our identity and flatten us out in time and space.

Having tapped into the realm of collective memory, we must then spring back through the threshold into our own realities, where we can use that short, powerful autoanamnestic impulse to create and communicate individual artistic thought without losing dimensionality.

To be clear, however, we are not—æsthetically—going back in time.12I am, of course, in no uncertain terms, not describing literal time travel. Lmao. Whether invoking a cliché brazenly, haphazardly or doing so deftly, acutely—i.e. harnessing totems embedded in a culture’s collective memory through brief tunneling, as just described—, rather than transporting the observer back in time, such an invocation simply references the (figurative) time machine.

That is to say, in the case of cliché, the portal it creates to a particular time and place does not represent (nor does it take us to) that time and place. Rather, it represents a representation of that time and place: the portal represents the portal itself.

The street-sign represents the street-sign, not the destination.

When one invokes a cliché, one never reaches the destination. When we step through the memory-rift into Fairytaleland or Waterlilyland, there are no fairytales or waterlilies on the other side; it’s just more autoanamnestic memory-rift. Waterlilyland is not so-named because there are beautiful waterlilies there. It’s so-named because it’s the black hole that tears you to shreds if you start painting waterlilies. And thus, the semiotic energy one harnesses from it can never be in the form of waterlilies, but rather in the form of a piece of the black hole itself, the snake eating its own tail.

Just as cutting a magnet in half does not yield two half-magnets, but rather two magnets, this chunk of infinite self-reference can become a second singularity that can immediately suck the artist back in. We’ve entered the memory-rift, sheared off a slice, and immediately exited only to find ourselves at the mercy of that slice! So then, the question becomes: once we have this piece of infinity, what do we do with it? And, perhaps more importantly, how do we get rid of it? How do we keep it from swallowing up our meaning-threads, casting them into dimensionless oblivion?

There may very well be many strategies for dealing with this dilemma—strategies that will be the subject of the next article! In the mean time, I encourage the reader to think creatively about the problem for themselves! Our next installment will limit its scope to discussing two distinct methods for invoking cliché that allow the artist to retain agency over it, such that they don’t get swallowed up in its æsthetic undertow: the former of these processes involves immediately distancing yourself from the damn thing, and the second—a more subtle method—is to drain the cliché of all its semiotic energy by converting the black hole into a big bang.

Cheers.

• • •

Notes

1 [Pithy note about this clichéd Great Gatsby reference].

2 I keep wanting the plural of context to be contices. Alas! It ends with a T and not an X.

3 For some reason, contemporary versions of these tales always always tend to be set during the Middle Ages. Perhaps it is because the phrase Onceuponatime dates back to tales of knights and kings (see note 5)? Who’s to say? A folklorist, perhaps.

4 The lack of specificity about when the events in a Onceuponatime story occurred, along with the remoteness of those events, does help contribute to the mythological, primordial feel that accompanies a fairy tale.

5 The OED cites the first known use of Onceuponatime as “Onys..oppon..a day..he slow kynges three.” from Sir Ferumbras, an anonymous late 14th-century version of the Fierabras knight-tale. The phrase was also used by Chaucer in his Knight’s Tale as “Thee ones on a tyme.” It wasn’t until closer to 1600 when it took its current form, “Once vppon a time there was a king…” in George Peele’s play The Old Wive’s Tale. Note that by the time Peele used the phrase, it already had accreted enough semiotic baggage to signal the beginning of a folk or fairy tale, having already been in use for over 200 years.

6 Including all the times they were remembered. A memory of a memory of a memory.

7 Even a work as stylized as Star Wars begins on a variant: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”

8 This division of artistic media into spacial and temporal is one that’s been around since Gotthold Lessing’s Laocoön (1766), and even well before. Ultimately, however, this distinction is an arbitrary one, as many works of art have properties of both space and time. A sculpture may be enjoyed and experienced over a certain period of time and a poem may be imagistic in nature—or in the words of Horace, ut pictura poesis (Ars Poetica, c. 19 BCE). For an in-depth study of transmedia comparative æsthetics with a focus on Modernist music, Daniel Albright’s Untwisting the Serpent (see note 9) is absolutely indispensable. In any case, for the sake of discussion we will observe this medial distinction.

9 Daniel Albright, Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature, and Other Arts, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 17.

10 It’s possible, and even likely, that audiences may not have as broad a grasp of a certain repertoire as you or I do. For example, while I love English Literature, I certainly don’t know nearly as much about English Literature as an author who has spent their lives doing close reads of English literary works. Therefore, there may be certain tropes, or indeed, clichés, that I am unable to recognize. That said, I strongly do not recommend to any composer that they rely on the ignorance of their audience to keep their works compelling.

11 Steven W. Smith, The Scientist and Engineer’s Guide to Digital Signal Processing (San Diego, CA: California Technical Pub., 1999). dspguide.com/ch7/2.htm

12 I am, of course, in no uncertain terms, not describing literal time travel. Lmao.