Understanding, Harnessing, and Annihilating Cliché

What’s up, people.
Miggy Torres here.
Today I want to talk about the C-Word.
Wait—
Not that C-Word. The choral C-Word.
I guess there are a lot of choral C-Words because the word “Choral” starts with the letter C.

Anyway.

Cliché. I want to talk about Cliché.

This is a pretty broad topic, but I wanted to share some foundational ideas about cliché, since it’s something that I think about a lot—thoughts which, at the end of the day, are what this article series is all about.

The obvious kind of thing for me to tell you is,

Avoid cliché!

But, of course, that doesn’t mean anything. That’s like standing in front of a choir and telling them,

Sing better!

Not helpful in the slightest. If we could we would. I think most artists generally try to avoid cliché whenever possible. Unfortunately, if this vague goal is approached head-on, it can become extremely distracting and lead to insane amounts of creative anxiety. Instead of simply writing their piece, the composer just becomes focused on “avoiding cliché.” They may succeed in this endeavor, in fact, but when examining the final work of art, may realize it says nothing other than,

I am a work of art that avoids cliché.1A similar phenomenon occurs when a composer embarks on a piece with the main goal of “being accessible”: one way ticket to Shitsville. More on the dreaded A-Word in an upcoming article.

In many ways, the problem of “avoiding cliché” is one of reverse psychology. If I ask you to avoid thinking of a green platypus playing baseball on Mars, you’ll immediately begin thinking of a green platypus playing baseball on Mars (you may even begin to envisage a whole team of Martian platypi). Moreover, if I ask you to draw a picture of an animal that’s not a dog, you’ll not only think of a dog, you’ll probably also think of a cat (this not-a-dog-but-a relationship will become extremely important in a bit). When approached directly, the Grail Quest of avoiding cliché is really not a fruitful one, and is absolutely useless to the artist.

When approached indirectly, however, cliché’s relentless undertow gives way to tidal waves of originality, creativity, and authenticity.

Therefore, the focal point of this article will not be avoiding cliché.

The focal point of this article will be understanding cliché. Harnessing it. Using it. Controlling it. Climbing inside it. Inhabiting it and pressing the self-destruct button. Infecting it. Seducing it. Gaslighting it. Zombifying it and cannibalizing it. Inducing in it a semiotic allergic reaction. Turning it against itself, then standing back, and watching it explode.

Unlike the brush-cloaked tiger, bounding on wild boar to feed her young, cliché has absolutely no business dragging perfectly wonderful artists into the underthicket of mediocrity. And together, you and I are not only going to stop it: we’re going to make it wish it had never been born.

• • •

C’est quoi un cliché?

To understand how cliché functions, we’ll begin by examining what a cliché is. To do this, we’ll need to zoom way out and talk about the phenomenology of reality (like I said, we’re zooming waaaay out).2Phenomenology is a fancy word meaning the study or description of a phenomenon based on one’s experience of it. This stands in contrast with ontology, which describes a phenomenon’s essence with little regard for how it’s experienced. Here, I’d like to invoke the work of anthropologist Clifford Geertz. Geertz was well known for his definition of religion. What does religion have to do with cliché? Hear me out.

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.3Geertz, 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; precolonial religions of the Americas; etc.), belief-systems that are maybe less recognizable as religions (e.g., less theistic forms of Buddhism; Confucianism, which focuses greatly on prescribing a sociopolitical order; etc.), and social constructs that exist as religions in disguise (e.g. Consumerism, personality cults, etc.).

Suddenly we realize that this definition can be abstracted to encompass not only religions, but foundational systems of experiencing the world. That is to say, we experience the world symbolically: our basic worldviews are simply dense, deeply interconnected systems of symbols that together generate meaning. That is, for something to have meaning to someone it must be coded in the mind as a symbol. These symbolic webs can be spun in a variety of ways. But one particularly interesting way that these symbols are established is through myth.

Using religion again as a model for generic worldviews concerning the structure of reality, we can turn to Romanian anthropologist Mircea Eliade.4[ˈmir t͡ʃe̯a eliˈade].

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 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.
For 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 article,5b e y o n d t h e s c o p e but in a nutshell, the symbols in a myth are prototypical.

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 so-called 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 what things even exist. Eliade termed these manifestations of the divine hierophanies, and, according to him, everything that someone experiences only holds value insofar as it relates to these original symbols. When someone takes part in a ritual6E.g. a nativity scene, a purification ritual, communion, a performance of Beethoven 9, a football game. that re-enacts mythical events, they are re-invoking the original event and re-generating all the symbols it produces, effectively updating the symbolic firmware of their own reality. 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.

In a religious context, these rituals are generally re-enactments of the myths of that religion. But even in a secular environment, we do these sorts of re-invocations of symbols through theatre and storytelling in general. Myth, re-enacting, storytelling, theatre, dance, sports, art, and music are all ways of presenting people with new hierophanies—symbols of the sacred that arrive from new, perhaps alien, realities7Which, again, are just systems of symbols.—against which they can measure themselves, their values, and the way that they understand the world around them.

• • •

Alright.
That was a lot.
Let’s take a breath and summarize this hypothesis:

  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 semiotic sign — not just linguistic ones.8The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis states that our perceptions of reality are determined by the structure of the language we speak. If we can’t represent a thing linguistically, our minds have no way of perceiving it. The “hard” form of the SWH (as exemplified by the 2016 film Arrival ) is generally considered fallacious. Its “soft” form, however, is widely accepted. ) 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 with 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.

This, in essence, is how—I believe—art works.

Under this hypothesis, we can conclude that if we want a work of art to convey a certain idea, then, as artists and creators, we need to structure its inner reality in a way that optimizes the communication of that idea when the work of art intersects with the reality of an observer. This means, to communicate most effectively, we must attempt to cultivate an understanding of 1) how the individual symbols that make up the artwork are constructed and interrelated, and 2) how the symbols that—on a general level—constitute the realities of a community of observers (i.e., their culture) are constructed and interrelated.

Here, we find ourselves spirited away into the realm of Semiotics.

• • •

Untangling Meaning from the Symbol: a Semiotic Denouement

Simply put, Semiotics is the study of things that communicate meaning: signs, symbols, metaphors, words, analogies, indicators, etc. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to be invoking Saussurean semiotics.9Saussurean semiotics describes signs as dyadic, while the semiotic theory of Charles Sanders Peirce uses a triadic approach. Peirce’s ideas, while perfectly valid (and, in many ways, more nuanced than Saussure’s) are much more of a mindfuck, and don’t lend themselves as readily to the Post-Structuralist ideas we’ll be discussing later on. If you’re interested, however, I do recommend checking out the Peirce school of thought as well.

According to Ferdinand de Saussure, a sign is made up of a signifier and a signified. The signifier is the thing we perceive—an image, a word, a sound—whereas the signified is the conceptual, abstract underlying meaning—the bare idea of the thing. So, for example, the written word tree, the sound of the word tree, and the image of a tree are all signifiers pointing toward the abstract idea of a tree. We soon realize, however, that this reference-meaning chain isn’t so simple, since the idea of a tree itself can be a symbol for other things: life, the environment, plants, leaves, wood, the woods, the forest, evergreens, fruits, graphs, charts, etc. The more we travel along this associative web, the more we realize two things:

  1. each signified is itself a signifier to more signifieds, and
  2. the web of signifiers and signifieds is not linear. It doesn’t have a starting point that leads you neatly from node to node until you reach a finite point of understanding. Rather, each signified can become the signifier for an infinite multiplicity of more signs.

The result is a so-called rhizomatic view of the relationships between different signs, a term coined by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari who compare this structure to that of botanical decentralized root systems. Contrary to an arborescent model—which has a hierarchical structure branching out from a centralized point of origin—a rhizome “has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.”10Heckman, Davin.“‘Gotta Catch 'Em All’: Capitalism, the War Machine, and the Pokémon Trainer,” Glossary, 2002.

To put this in more concrete terms, the classic example is a dictionary.

• • •

You want to look up a word in a dictionary.

You open it up, turn to the proper section (A, B, C, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, or Y. Potentially even Z!), flip through it with attention to the guide words on the upper corners of the pages—which designate the first and last words on each left-right page pair—until they bound the word you’re searching for. Then you scan down each page until you arrive at the proper entry with the word-in-question neatly spelled out and syllabically parsed. Skimming over the obligatory part-of-speech designator and IPA (God willing) pronunciation guide, you finally arrive at the actual definition of the word you’ve been looking for. Much to your dismay, however, upon gazing at the definition, all you find are:

more words!

This doesn’t present a huge problem if you have a sufficient understanding of the words used to define the original word. But if you don’t, then you need to go look up those words. And then look up the words that define those words, and so on and so forth, forever. There’s no beginning to this process and there’s no end. The first word you picked served only as an arbitrary entry point into the rhizome. Moreover, each node in this web of signs is defined in terms of its relationship to all of the other signs.

We’ve arrived at one of the most important ideas I wanted to talk about, namely:

a sign doesn’t have inherent meaning, rather its meaning is derived from the differences and similarities it has with other signs, i.e. its context.

• • •

Context as the Generator of Meaning

The differences between signs were especially important to Saussure, who used the phrase binary opposition to describe a pair of terms that were opposites of one another (e.g. up/down, hot/cold). According to Saussure,

the binary opposition is the means by which the units of language have value or meaning; each unit is defined in reciprocal determination with another term, as in binary code. It is not a contradictory relation but a structural, complementary one.11Wikipedia, s.v. “Binary Opposition.”

In other words, it’s not possible to understand up without down. Something is only hot insofar as it is not cold.

This model is works well for concepts that have that kind of simple, one-to-one, polar relationship with their binary pair. But it can be extrapolated to encompass concepts for which opposing ideas are less clear. For example, what is the opposite of a tree? Is a shrub the opposite? A rock? A flame? A person? The sky? While none of these concepts (shrub, rock, flame, sky, etc.) is the consummate anti-tree, all of them have properties that exist in opposition to properties of tree. A tree is tall, a shrub is short. A tree is alive, a rock inanimate. A tree turns CO2 into wood, a flame turns wood into CO2. The tree is on the ground, the sky is—well, you get the idea.

In this way, we can see how even complex concepts are given meaning by their relationships with related concepts—relationships that can be reduced to oppositions between polar properties.12Saussure applied this idea to linguistic semiotics, but it can be generalized to non-linguistic signs as well. Similarities between concepts or properties are also important, of course, but what gives something distinct meaning, what helps it carve out its own meaning-space, are the differences.13Going further, one could perhaps argue that two concepts are only similar insofar as they share the same differences with opposing concepts.

• • •

Let’s take another step back now, and see how this idea fits in with our rhizomatic view of the sign-webs that give meaning to our realities (and, microcosmically, to the artworks we create). If the nodes on this web are signs—regions of perceptible meaning—, then the threads are the relationships between signs that give them that meaning. Moreover—and this is where things get a little crazy—a node can become a thread if it’s used to mediate the relationship between two other nodes, and a thread can become a node insofar as a relationship can be conceptualized.

This thread-node duality bears whispers of both the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and wave-particle duality in quantum mechanics, as well as the time vs. frequency Gabor limit in Fourier analysis (three sides of the same coin, so to speak).

But wait.
It gets better.

• • •

Ceci n’est pas un signe

While concepts can be said to be defined by their relationships to other concepts, we can take this idea even further, transcending into Post-Structuralist bliss. I would argue that a sign isn’t just defined by its differences and similarities among other signs—it is the intersection point of these distinctions.

In other words, a sign is just the intersection point of the relationships between other signs, which are themselves intersection points of relationships between other intersection points of relationships between other intersection points of relationships between other intersection points, et cetera, et cetera, until the cows come home.

The more we gaze at them, the more we realize that the meaning-nodes in our rhizomatic web are just an illusion conjured by the threads, which are themselves illusions of more illusory threads. As this mirage begins to evanesce, it gives way to the understanding that a symbol can not have meaning on its own. Meaning is emergent from an interconnected omniauxanotropic14An archegogenic† protologism meaning “to grow from everywhere at once in all directions.” The author humbly bids the reader to forgive the intermingling of Greek and Latin word roots—panauxanotropic simply doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Another archegogenic protologism meaning, “created by the author,” the lexical rootstock of which—the reader may be reassured—has been unearthed, brushed off, washed, peeled, cut, mashed, and blended exclusively from the loamy topsoil of Ancient Greek.
system of relationships. Moreover, this system can only exist as a deeply interconnected network because it is the interconnectedness that generates (the illusion of) meaning. Stopping here to generalize about symbols, context, and meaning, we may postulate:

  1. The more relationships (differences, similarities, references, connections, significations, recollections, implications, etc.) a sign has with other signs, the more clear its meaning. Conversely,
  2. the fewer relationships sign has with other signs, the more nebulous its meaning.15Nebulosity, or vagueness, should not be confused with ambiguity. An ambiguous sign has many—contradictory or complementary—discernible meanings; a vague sign has no discernible meanings.

Focusing for a minute on the second of the above premises, we may ask a question that takes it to the extreme: what of a symbol that has little to no connections with other ideas, a symbol that doesn’t reference anything, a so-called floating signifier?16Wikipedia, s.v. “Floating Signifier.” For Semiotician, Daniel Chandler, a floating signifier points toward “a vague, highly variable, unspecifiable, or non-existent signified.” Far from floating, a signifier detached from its signified exists in a state of Semiotic free fall!17Admittedly, however, devoid of context, there is no difference between floating and free fall; i.e. if you were free-falling though empty space it would feel like floating from your reference frame. Disoriented and alone, with no solid ground or fixed celestial reference points, it plummets through the blind dark of our psyche, desperately latching—weakly, haphazardly—onto whatever semblance of meaning it can find. Appending the third out of four generalizations to the two listed above:

  1. An isolated symbol — if it can be said to exist — has little to no meaning at all.

• • •

Self-Contextualization and the Degradation of Emergent Meaning

Here we are.
End of the road.
In true Modernist fashion, we’ve eliminated the distinction between node and thread, subject and object, high art and low art. But we still have one more step in our line of thinking before we can apply these ideas to the concept of cliché: self-contextualization.

What if a sign is only contextualized by other versions of itself? What if the only connections, the only referents it has are identical versions of itself? Remember, meaning exists at the nexus of differences between signs. If a Semiotic rhizome is composed only of similarities between identical signs, parallel lines in divergent space, then there aren’t enough relationships between the signs to confer upon them distinct meaning.

This idea is easily illustrated in the real world: Pick a word. Any word. Pick the word word. Now say word out loud to yourself over and over again. Go ahead. Pick up some speed. After a minute or two, you’ll begin feel the gossamer threads of meaning loosen and unravel as word dissociates into its constituent phonemes, and then, finally, dissolves into pure meaningless sound.

Word is not a word anymore. Word is just a funny thing you do with your face.

This phenomenon can be heard in a musical context in works that feature exact repetition of words (or other sounds) such as Steve Reich’s Come Out, in which a ceaselessly repeating phrase loops itself into oblivion.18The sonic layering from the phasing technique used in this piece also helps separate the sound of the text from its meaning. Still, the speech begins to lose its semantic qualities before things get too densely layered, simply due to the repetition. Similar, non-linguistic, examples of this phenomenon can be found in the works of Igor Stravinsky, Dimitri Shostakovich, and especially Erik Satie, where parts of the music loop in on themselves, recursively draining themselves of meaning.

In Steve Reich’s Come Out, a ceaselessly repeating phrase loops itself into oblivion.

This fourth and final generalization on symbols, context, and meaning—

  1. A self-contextualized symbol behaves like a floating signifier

—is key. With this axiom, as well as our other descriptions and explorations of signs and symbols firmly in hand, we can now re-examine how they fit into our understanding of art, and—finally—how that helps us understand cliché.

Join me for Part 2 of this series where we’ll apply what we know about signs, symbols, art, and the nature of reality to temper the maverick, the mustang, l’enfant terrible, the untamed creature at the bottom of the deep, the everpresent absence lurking in the corner of your eye, the wide-mouthed figure standing right behind you in the bathroom mirror, waiting to drag you with muffled screams into the depths of mediocrity, before you get the chance to turn on the light.

Cheers.

• • •

Notes

1 A similar phenomenon occurs when a composer embarks on a piece with the main goal of “being accessible”: one way ticket to Shitsville. More on the dreaded A-Word in an upcoming article.

2 Phenomenology is a fancy word meaning the study or description of a phenomenon based on one’s experience of it. This stands in contrast with ontology, which describes a phenomenon’s essence with little regard for how it’s experienced.

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

4 [ˈmir t͡ʃe̯a eliˈade].

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 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.

5 b e y o n d t h e s c o p e

6 E.g. a nativity scene, a purification ritual, communion, a performance of Beethoven 9, a football game.

7 Which, again, are just systems of symbols.

8 The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis states that our perceptions of reality are determined by the structure of the language we speak. If we can’t represent a thing linguistically, our minds have no way of perceiving it. The “hard” form of the SWH (as exemplified by the 2016 film Arrival ) is generally considered fallacious. Its “soft” form, however, is widely accepted.

9 Saussurean semiotics describes signs as dyadic, while the semiotic theory of Charles Sanders Peirce uses a triadic approach. Peirce’s ideas, while perfectly valid (and, in many ways, more nuanced than Saussure’s) are much more of a mindfuck, and don’t lend themselves as readily to the Post-Structuralist ideas we’ll be discussing later on. If you’re interested, however, I do recommend checking out the Peirce school of thought as well.

10 Heckman, Davin.“‘Gotta Catch 'Em All’: Capitalism, the War Machine, and the Pokémon Trainer,” Glossary, 2002, http://www.rhizomes.net/issue5/poke/glossary.html.

11 Wikipedia, s.v. “Binary Opposition.”

12 Saussure applied this idea to linguistic semiotics, but it can be generalized to non-linguistic signs as well.

13 Going further, one could perhaps argue that two concepts are only similar insofar as they share the same differences with opposing concepts.

14 An archegogenic† protologism meaning “to grow from everywhere at once in all directions.” The author humbly bids the reader to forgive the intermingling of Greek and Latin word roots—panauxanotropic simply doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Another archegogenic protologism meaning, “created by the author,” the lexical rootstock of which—the reader may be reassured—has been unearthed, brushed off, washed, peeled, cut, mashed, and blended exclusively from the loamy topsoil of Ancient Greek.

15 Nebulosity, or vagueness, should not be confused with ambiguity. An ambiguous sign has many—contradictory or complementary—discernible meanings; a vague sign has no discernible meanings.

16 Wikipedia, s.v. “Floating Signifier.”

17 Admittedly, however, devoid of context, there is no difference between floating and free fall; i.e. if you were free-falling though empty space it would feel like floating from your reference frame.

18 The sonic layering from the phasing technique used in this piece also helps separate the sound of the text from its meaning. Still, the speech begins to lose its semantic qualities before things get too densely layered, simply due to the repetition.