Music and “The Long Tail”



Amanda Campbell is not exactly a household name, but the singer has a loyal following and many fans like her mellow bluesy rock style, marked by a strong and self-assured piano, driven by Susan Ferrari, who writes all the songs. Based in Santa Monica, Campbell is the lead singer of The Strands, who label themselves as “alternative” in the world of contemporary music. Alternative means “none of the above” and refers to a kind of music that is more of a hybrid, a home grown mix of many forms of American music strained through the larger filters of popular music, anything from Pop to Rock to Jazz to Blues to techno and beyond. Fifty years after Elvis left the building, music can no longer remain pure as it wanted to be and “alternative” is part of a particular branch of contemporary music that excludes hip hop and rap, or spoken word, but incorporates narrative and story in a compelling melody. But the music of The Strands, however eclectic it may be, is not for everyone.

Teenagers will not appreciate the adult line of thought that threads its way through the songs, and, missing a heavy back beat and the thud of drums, heavy metal fans will simply tune out. For all its inclusivity and exclusivity, alternative music is more than a mere word, it is a stretchy genre that allows artists like The Strands to find their own voice and to make the sort of music that becomes their collective sensibilities, an off beat mixture of jazz and the Philadelphia Sound. But most importantly, “alternative” also means and refers to an alternative means of distributing music. In other words, ten years ago, it would have been difficult if not impossible for a mature woman with a great voice to have any kind of career in music. And yet, here are The Strands, playing in clubs in Southern California, selling CDs and watching people download their songs—all accomplished independently as part of the vast democratization of music. It wasn’t always this way.

When David Bowie died, his passing was a reminder that the generation of musical artists of the 1960s are fading away. We have lost two Beatles already and Syd Barrett passed too soon. These creative musicians and songwriters were the last of their kind: they worked hard, played the game, and were among the few survivors of a very brutal corporate system that made and unmade “Stars.” In his famous essay, “Ten Thousand Hour Rule,” Malcolm Gladwell, painted a compelling picture of the Beatles “working and practicing,” as Bob Seger sang, in the raw clubs of Hamburg. It was there, under less than optimal conditions, that John, Paul, George and Ringo, honed their craft, found their voices and created their mop-headed distinctive look as “mods” who rocked in their black leather jacket. The point is that the Beatles and Pink Floyd and David Bowie all paid their dues, staying true to their vision of a new kind of music that had roots in rock and in the blues but that was also experimental and new. Bowie was booed when he introduced his unique sound in a club in Jersey in the sixties. In Jersey they judged music according to the American Bandstand standard: can you dance to it? But Bowie persevered and steered his career onto the new path of glitter rock, his invention. We are left to wonder, in passing, if his famous song “Let’s Dance” was based on the memory of being rejected in Jersey. It should be noted that “Let’s Dance” is not very danceable and that much of what Bowie recorded is experimental and strange and, even today, unfamiliar.

We know the Thin White Duke through his “hits” because this is how the system allowed us to become “fans” of “Bowie.” There is a difference between an artist and someone who makes music for popular consumption. Bowie was an artist who was fortunate enough to “break through” into public consciousness. But what about all those unheard voices, silenced songs, all those sounds we never heard? For Bowie, those songs are enshrined on his albums of the past and we are told that there are more to come, as the artist provided for us from the future. For those of who wept to Blackstar, we wait patiently for his last words. But the question of all those unheard voices, silenced songs, all soundless sounds can be asked another way—where did they all go, those aspiring artists? The opera singers not quite good enough for the Met or not ambitious enough for Julliard; the excellent pianists too proud to be Billy Joel; the cute guy who played guitar in a high school band; the young singer working her way through college, dreaming of being Linda Ronstadt? There is an entire lost generation, post Elvis, after Patti Page, that was silenced by a corporate system of extinction, dedicated to fitting musical artists onto a sales chart. Where did they go? Church choirs? The world of music teachers?

These lost names and lost music make us happy to hear the sounds of The Strands, signing freely on the internet, selling on their own behalf, their own songs, was they create their own audiences. For those of us who love music, who have grown up as rock ‘n’ rollers our entire lives, the sounds of the Supremes and the Beach Boys are part of the warp and woof of how our brains have been musically woven since childhood. The sounds of Led Zepplin and Fleetwood Mac are the music and lyrics of a certain time, and, for some of us, “the day the music died,” was not the plane crash that took Buddy Holly but the day Kurt Cobain picked up that shotgun. We think we have heard it all, we assume we have heard a lot of music: our iPods are loaded with an entire history of personal taste, we even cherish our outmoded vinyl and guard our old CDs; but for years we received only a fraction of the music that was being made. There was a time when The Strands would have been separate musicians, some of whom sang in the shower, their dreams of being heard beyond the glass door going down the drain, others would have played guitar with Guitar Hero. Songs would be written, composed on a piano but never sung in public. But The Strands are part of a new kind of music makers—artists who make music out of love, who sing and play instruments because there are songs that must be sung. In short, The Strands are redefining “indie” music as independent music–independent of contracts and constraints. Fame would be nice, but it is unlikely; fortune will probably never come. Today, no one pays for music; everyone expects songs to be free. Musicians like The Strands will keep their day jobs, practice at night, and play gigs on weekends. This is music served up with courage and conviction, with no expectations of praise or recognition. It is enough to make the gesture—to put the song out there, send it to the universe and hope that other ears will find this gift. It is strange to think, in what we consider to be a competitive capitalistic economy that there are so many people willing to give the gifts of their talents, the poet who publishes the proverbial slim volume of poems on Lulu and the fan writer who is busily creating a parallel literary universe for Star Wars movies. These are the gift givers and we are richer for them.

There was a time when these talented giving people would have been dismissed as amateurs or scorned for not being “under contract” for a record label, but now we think of the artistic and creative freedom that Amanda Campbell enjoys–a range of possibilities rarely accorded to musicians in the past. If Love and Mercy taught us anything, it was about the sheer joy of unfettered of artists making art, musicians playing music for the sheer pleasure of putting sounds together in new ways. And yet Brian Wilson ran into a rejection of his vision from those closest to him. Wilson’s struggles remind us that Pet Sounds, like Dark Side of the Moon and Sgt. Pepper, were unique accomplishments that could never have been made inside the system. What happened? What changes in the world of music making has allowed, has given permission to The Strands to form a band and to drop their songs, their gifts, into our lives? For decades, musical artists have been discussed from the standpoint of their creativity and their singing, songwriting, skill and verve with their instruments. The mode of production that made music possible and therefore public was taken for granted. Hiding beneath the Top Forty and the albums and the concerts was a very restrictive means of distribution, controlled for the many by the few. Part of having a “hit” is someone else experiencing a “miss,” just as one person’s success was another person’s failure. The Game was Zero Sum. Pareto Optimality. This was the way traditional top down monopolistic capitalism worked, and with all restrictive economies it was only a matter of time before the breaking point arrives. If there is one thing that cannot be controlled, it is the urge to sing.

The consumer simply began to rebel. The great music rebellion may have begun with Napster and the immediate counterattack by the music industry upon the sharing communities, revealed the extent to which the corporate model had ceased to function. But In 2004, writing between Napster and iTunes, Chris Anderson introduced a new perspective—that of an economic analysis of the music business. Anderson’s now famous article, “The Long Tail,” was published in Wired magazine and then expanded into a book of the same name. The concept of the Long Tail can be applied to any distribution model that uses the Internet, and Anderson, then editor in chief of Wired, analyzed the music industry and analyzed how a very narrow corporate model, was based on the concept of “hits” and “stars.” Notice that this corporate model is not based upon music itself, or upon innovation, or experimentation, or even upon anything new. The model is about sales and profit. The peak of the Long Tail chart is the pile-up of the “hits” carefully constructed, not by musicians, but by sales formulas driven by the conventional wisdom concerning the lowest common denominator of public taste. The models must be optimized for the widest sales within the genre. Therefore, the tall part of the Tail, or rearing head of the musical body, is also based upon exclusion and “failure” be conform to the all important notion of what would be purchased in record stores, such as the now extinct Tower Records. As Anderson pointed out, the crucial feature that was always missing was what music lovers wanted to hear. The conversation was strictly one-way: the consumers were given what corporate wanted them to consume. In explaining to the reader how to read The Long Tail chart, Anderson said,


The term refers specifically to the orange part of the sales chart above, which shows a standard demand curve that could apply to any industry, from entertainment to hard goods. The vertical axis is sales; the horizontal is products. The red part of the curve is the hits, which have dominated our markets and culture for most of the last century. The orange part is the non-hits, or niches, which is where the new growth is coming from now and in the future.

The corporate model mirrored that of radio and television pre-Web—it was one way: we talk, you listen; we sell, you buy; our game, you play. With the Internet, conversation becomes two-way or multi-vocal, and Anderson spends most of his book on ends of the Long Tail itself. There are, he pointed out, many books written, many songs sung, many poems penned, but, until the Internet, these artistic efforts were hidden from the public because they were unavailable to consumers. Bands who did local concerts or singers in neighborhood clubs were forced to spend hard earned money to “make records” and then expend enormous amounts of time, trying to attract the favorable attention of a record producer. Some groups succeeded in being noticed; others devolved into obscurity. The old corporate system was one of pure chance, based, from the artist’s perspective, upon “getting discovered.” Considering the amount of money involved, the inefficiency of the music business is, in retrospect, astounding. What we heard on the radio was not necessarily the “best,” only the most randomly found. “Found Music”—incredibly that was the (hidden and unacknowledged) name of the game. Once “found,” all artistic control was lost to the creators, as the musicians and singers entered into the corporate maw.

As Pink Floyd echoed, “We’re going to ride the gravy train” and “By the way, which one’s ‘Pink?’” In one sentence out of Welcome to the Machine, Roger Waters summed up not only the absurdity but also the mismatch between a corporation and a creator. Pink Floyd was both stubborn and lucky but it was rare for a band to maintain control over its work product as the Beach Boys did for Pet Sounds. The music industry carved out a definite career path, you started out young and dumb, desperate and malleable. Under this model many a group was quickly used up and cast aside, victims of their own naïveté. And this was the likely fate of the supposedly tough rockers, all of whom were male. Outside of Berry Gordy and his “girl groups,” woman had little chance to break through this male wall. It should also be added that people of color were cordoned off in the African-American realm of the blues and jazz, increasingly restricted, now that whites had appropriated rock ‘n’ roll. In the recent film, Get on Up, Mick Jagger and the Stones are shown raptly watching James Brown’s stage show, and learning all of his moves. But women faced a double problem, race and gender.

The reason why women faced extreme difficulties in being heard in the music business, post Carol King, was the post-rock business model, which as Anderson pointed out can be exemplified by the “boy band,” NSYNC. Young female fans, full of dimly recognized sexual yearning, could project their erotic needs upon cute male singers, like Justin Timberlake. This fan based business model is the way Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley built their careers, and the mobs of young women hysterically greeting the Beatles when they landed in America in 1964 bewildered the Fab Four. Conversely, the idea of a mob of young men screaming in excitement at the sight of a female singer is, quite frankly, terrifying for any woman. And it is well known, in any creative genre, from the fine arts to the movies, that women will go to films about men but men will not purchase a painting done by a woman. Given that the music business was built by men for men, as entertainers and as consumers, the post-Elvis scene for women was quite simply brutal. Female musical stars were actually contradictions in terms or the exceptions that proved the rules—no girls allowed, even if she is Janis Joplin.

Chris Anderson does not directly discus the importance of the Internet for women in music. The music industry is typical in its reflexive rejection of all things women, refusing them meaningful roles beyond being consumers of objects provided for them by men. For women who sang, role models were few and far between after Diana Ross. Given the prejudice against women in the arts and the obstacles faced by any woman who wanted a career in music, the achievements of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and Heart were truly extraordinary. The phrase “women” and “rock ‘n’ roll” was an oxymoron unless, of course, it referred to groupies. Drummers, guitar players, lead singers—all roles reserved for men. Guitar heroes, such as Keith Richards and Pete Townsend, needed lead singers, playing off their macho attacks on the stringed instrument, like the pretty Roger Daltrey and the prancing pouting Mick Jagger. Ann Wilson sang and Nancy Wilson played—hard—and somehow “Heart” invaded the male precincts. Like Joan Jet’s “Cherry Bomb,“Crazy on You” really rocked, in other words, these were women working a male genre. The best place for women, however, was outside of the hyper-masculine precincts of rock ‘n’ roll: that place called “pop,” the residence of female singing stars, such as Beyoncé. Although the music business, such as it is today, continues to be segregated, according to race and gender and genre, is still as rigidly divided into categories as it was fifty years ago, it is possible, thanks to iTunes U and YouTube, for musical artists–even women–to span styles and to break arbitrary boundaries.

True, Amanda Campbell, the lead singer, and the rest of the band, the Strands, driven by Susan Ferrari, may reside on the far end of The Long Tail, but the group is there, on the Tail, making itself heard. Chris Anderson made a very important point about the Long Tail, and this insight explains both iTunes U and YouTube: ..the potential aggregate size of the many small markets in goods that don’t individually sell well enough for traditional retail and broadcast distribution may someday rival that of the existing large market in goods that do cross that economic bar. In other words, the skinny end of the Long Tail is indeed “long” and extends infinitely and indefinitely and its accumulated possibilities exceed what the music industry envisioned. There is a reason why the long (tail) title of the book is The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. True traditional economic theory has difficult accounting for Anderson’s concept, but traditional economic theories are based on nineteenth century models and are notoriously reluctant to take into account the passage of time or the changes in human behavior. Business models have difficulty making sense of The Strands; for them, the group does not exist in a statistically significant way.

But if you are an artist, The Strands, as determined artists, are your role model. As Anderson wrote, “Mass culture will not fall, it will simply get less mass. And niche culture will get less obscure.” We may have had an inkling of the possibilities of “making your own kind of music,” when we painstakingly made our own tapes or our own CDs, combining our self-crafted “mixtapes.” Thirty years ago, in our clumsy fashion, we made our own kind of music and stuck our songs into our tape or CD decks in our cars and drove along, singing along. And now The Strands can take the songs in their voice, on the strings of their guitar, under the keys of the piano and place it on the Long Tail, carefully set their songs in their own niche, where we find it. The gift of The Strands, of their music and their sounds, does not evaporate into the ethers of the Internet. Instead the gift, the don of Marcel Mauss, enters into the collectivity, marking out a cluster of a particular social collective, pausing at that precise point on the Tail and becoming what Michel Serres called the “luminous tracer.” This shining gift makes nonsense of the corporate capitalistic models of the music industry. The gift is why applying the idea of Pareto efficiency to creative people and their unique “economy” will never work, and the gift is why a Pareto analysis, which is based on the old fashioned idea that the ultimate efficiency is to allow one person to succeed without harming another person. But while efficiency may be optimal, Vilfredo Pareto died one hundred years ago, his model was based upon an assumption of constrictions and limited options. We are now living in an open economy that has broken the historical limits; we survive thanks to the “gig economy” and we leave our bright traces in the “gift economy,” all based upon a local or niche location that is both rooted and, thanks to the Internet, boundless. Rather than consume things, we now share each other.

The only and the best way to understand The Strands is to hear them, to listen to them, never as money makers but as gift-givers. It is with Serres, following in the footsteps of Mauss, who established the concept of the Gift in society in 1925, that we can find powerful and relevant observations about creative gifting. In 1997, in The Troubadour of Knowledge, arguably the best book written on creativity, Serres insightfully wrote,

Creation invents news by recounting today what it didn’t know yesterday—my vocation consists in writing and saying not what I know, boring, dead and past, more than perfect, pluperfect, but, on the contrary, what I don’t know and will astonish me—and the patron would run a dawn to the news, not towards the news that shouts every day at our broken ears of other murders that are really the same ones, of other scandals, wars, catastrophes, seizures of power, still and always the same, old monotonous repetitions of a world given over to iterative domination, but precisely towards the unforeseen of the artist, the unexpected and, strictly, the improbable.

The improbable, defined as the act of unexpected creation–this is what an artist does, create and present—a gift. We have come full technological circle: we are all traveling orators (bloggers) and wandering bards (websites) and traveling troubadours: The Strands of the Long Tail.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]



Postmodernism and Heteroglossia, Part One



Texts and Textuality

The phenomenon that would be known by the 1980s as Postmodern theory or “theory” consisted of servings of a French Potée from the 1950s and 1960s, full of different ingredients, a stew of linguistic theory, psychology, anthropology, history, sociology, literary theory, feminist theory, that simmered and served up first Structuralism and then Post-Structuralism. Structuralism and Post-Structuralism are imprecise and inexact terms that roughly coincide with the equally imprecise divide between Modernism and Postmodernism. Although it is possible to roughly retrace the intellectual steps of all the French scholars who were together in Paris and knew each other, it is more difficult to sort out the ways and means in which their ideas were taken up, sliced and diced, renamed and redirected by the next generation of scholars. The journey of the concept of a term discussed by Marcel Mauss, mana, from the significance of the exchange of gifts in a culture to a “floating signifier” in the interpretations of Claude Lévi-Strauss denoting a surplus which is then transformed by Pierre Bourdieu into symbolic capital while Jacques Lacan would reimagine this sliding signifier as the machinations of language making itself while Roland Barthes found this kind of empty signifier in the myths of popular culture, all of which would inspire Slavoj Zizek to realize that politics was nothing more than a fabula of floating signifiers. It is no wonder that American critics would cut through all this interweavings of community influence, seeking a more simple and general definition of Postmodernism.

In American academic circles, the complex mixture of French (and German) ideas were boiled down or reduced to their essence. According to this coulis, Postmodernism acknowledged disillusionment with the supposed transcendent state of the revered art object. Modernism was frowned upon as an uneasy mixture of mystification of the art and the artist and a meta-position of objectivity from the critic/observer. Like “French theory,” Postmodern art was impure, less a method of making and more a mode of making through synthesis that was indulgent, excluding and denying nothing and was tolerant of everything. Unlike Modernism which maintained a cool position of elitism, Postmodern art was concerned with inclusive context, making the map or the overall picture the emblem of Postmodernism. There were territories beyond the surface of the artwork and outside of “art” that needed to be considered. Attempts at staking out boundaries are as futile as the limits are arbitrary and in order to expand the viewpoint it is necessary to have a flexible perspective. Any kind of system is but a superimposition upon vernacular and local formations.

According to Kim Levin in the 1980s article “Farewell to Modernism,” if the grid was the emblem of Modernism, then the grid had gone back to nature allowing the artist to roam free. In America, freedom was seen almost exclusively as the fight to break the grip of Modernism, as exemplified by abstract art, i.e. purity and Abstract Expressionism. In addition, the American version of Postmodernism was a neat modernist compare and contrast. If Modernist art was abstract, then Postmodern art returned to representation. If Modernism was about the future and the teleology of progress, then Postmodernism had to be about the past and began to devour the history of Modernism. Now freed or exempted from the confines of Modernism, artistic “wandering” resulted in an obsession with the past, as artists borrowed from high and popular art and copied and cross-referenced among images. Appropriation replaced (Modernist) creativity. While Modernism excluded this past from its consciousness, Postmodernism used the old as source for the “new,” recognizing the power of the past or what Karl Marx had called the “dead hand of history” or at least trying to use the “dead hand” to some advantage.

American artists of the Eighties, who began to appropriate Postmodern theory as the basis for their art, were playing at second-hand with decades-old ideas developed in the post-war period by a small group of Continental thinkers. These borrowed ideas were put in the service of a small group of New York art critics and art historians who were interested in establishing their own not-Modernist and not-Greenberg turf, and they established an intellectual hegemony over American-style Postmodernism in New York. Out of or derived from complicated ideas, they developed their own ideas, turning heteroglossia into something far more simple and manageable: “double coding,” a term popularized by architectural critic Charles Jencks. A subtle theory of the relationship between language and human consciousness became a use of motifs from history. Both Structuralism and Post-Structuralism were critiques of the human subject and of the sentimental notion that the subject is a free intellectual agent, eternal and unaffected by history or culture. Post-Structuralists wanted to deconstruct the human “reality,” which, after all, was only a convenient fiction, a product of cultural and changeable signifying activities. Even the unconscious mind, once thought to be unreachable was deemed constructed and culturally specific.

Structuralism and Post-Structuralism also critiqued the possibility of a fixed and frozen set of linguistic relations, even within a structure. Ferdinand de Saussure had emphasized the distinction between the signifier, or the “sound image,” and the signified, the concept and stated that their relationship was arbitrary. His analysis suggested that the structural relationship between sign and signifier was conventional, and that meaning is known through common usage rather than through pre-figured necessity. Instead, given the instability of signifiers, each signifier acquired semantic value due to its differential position within the structure of the language. In other words, signifiers have no meaning in and of themselves and “mean” or signify only in terms of their differences and distinctions. It was Saussure who literally illustrated this process of differentiation, drawing (a literal drawing) a current of (wiggling) signifiers flowing above a stream of the “signifieds” below. The slipping signifiers were repositioned by Jacques Lacan, who placed them in a dominant position, demoting the once determining signified by placing it below the signifier. This flipping of the position of the linguistic algorithm is also the flip from Structuralism to Post-Structuralism, where the signified is demoted and the signifier is dominant: floating signifiers that defied the signified.

The instability of the structure of the linguistic system designed by Saussure was quickly exploited. Just six years after Saussure’s death, in The Dialogical Imagination (1919), Mikhail Bakhtin put forward a theory of everyday language called “dialogism.” Living and working in the Soviet Union, Bakhtin subtly opposed the prevailing powers under the guise of analyzing Western literature. Understandably, he would consider language as ideological. Without being precisely political, Bakhtin opposed two modes of literature, the monologic and the dialogic. Monologic language was the language of authority, speaking in tones of “truth” with the expectation of being believed. For example, a scientist writes and publishes monologically and reflects the accepted and expected modes of discourse and assumes that the received practices will not be challenged. On the other side of the monological coin is poetry, the highest of high art, uttered by a poet under the illusion that she is writing in a standard literary format which is supposed as “pure” as the words of the scientist are “transparent.” In addition, this ideological homogenizing language holds language together in a centripetal or oppositional force.

Bakhtin, as might be expected, had little use for the illusions of high art and saw fiction as a dialogic mode. The scientist and the poet speak above or transcendently (or so they believe) but the fiction writer must address a specific reader and audience. Bakhtin preferred the low art of make believe because it reflected the ordinary language of everyday people. In fact, Bakhtin pointed out that monologic speech was impossible, and its concept of a unity or plenitude is actually an illusion, covering up the actuality of excess or lack of fixed meaning. People use specific modes of discourse in order to communicate with each other. Language is inherently dialogic: a speaker must make himself understood to the listener and the interchange between the two participants means that language must always be dialogic. However, there are difficulties if the speaker and the listener are from different paradigms. And this is where ideology comes into play. On one hand, the speaker must achieve competence in communicating, and on the other hand, the listener must have the same or similar competence. But since meaning is not fixed, words only appear to have pre-existing meanings–meanings that are “already ready”–in one social paradigm, that, when it is received in another social paradigm, are often alien to the speaker’s intentions.

The discourses are appropriated in order to make one’s intentions clear, however, there will be interference from two sources: the social slippage between speaker and listener and the linguistic slippage in the language itself. Bakhtin understood all legitimation to be relative and that the “crisis” of legitimation is nothing less than the destruction of traditional notions of “society” and the “social subject.” Uninvolved in any nostalgia for the concept of the “original subject” or individual and unique human being, he used a Medieval concept of carivari or the “carnivalesque” as his critical strategy. With his concept of the “dialogic” in which writers and/or speakers create or intensify “hetroglossia,” Bakhtin seems to have understood the idea of “intertextuality” before this way of reading became well-established. There is a “social heteroglossia,” or a kind of natural language or way of communicating in which words do not exist only in formalized dictionaries but are created in and out of people’s inventive and ever flexible mouths. Bakhtin emphasized the carnival or the power of laughter to destroy pre-established hierarchies, not just of language but also of discourses themselves. Laughter, for Bakhtin, was the most radical form of language. It is the carnival of language that makes dialogue possible in its quest to undermine power.

The carnival is a theater of the absurd which reveals the constructed nature of social restrictions. Produced through the activities of the carnival, scornful and subversive laughter serves no higher cause and supports no existing social structures, and operates on the unofficial margins of popular or lower class life, and unfolds in unofficial and unsanctioned practices, and thus cannot be codified or controlled or raised to a higher and fixed level. Bhaktin’s critique of literature through the carnival reveals that all relations are social and human relations arbitrary; and that, despite the iron grip of totalitarianism, alternative political structures are possible. The carnival in history has been allowed by authorities, parceling out moments of freedom and sanctioning a momentary lapse of what is considered the “norm.” These momentary reversals of power and prestige produce a sense of spectacle that is not only seen or exhibited but can also be lived and experienced as “revival and renewal” through the flipping of received wisdom and through showing the verso of power. Mocking the ruling powers, the carnival speaks in parody with a double-voiced and double-coded language that challenges the single-voiced utterances or approved speech and discourses from the higher authorities. Today, we can witness and enjoy parody thorough the “spectacle” of mass media, whether one is viewing Saturday Night Live or reading the blogs of outsiders who become the contemporary player in a carnivalesque undreamed of but predicted by Bhaktin. On late night talk shows, such as the Jon Stewart Show, nothing is sacred–no person, idea or government— and all is fair game, because it is open season on pretentions of wisdom or sagacity. The carnival has come to town.


If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Postmodernism and The Trail of the Floating Signifier


From Mauss to Lévi-Strauss to Lacan, the Signifier Floated

The search for origins are always futile but the process often turns up interesting moments in time. For example, when did Postmodernism begin? The answer depends upon the place one looks. If one looks at art, one might ask did Postmodernism or the challenges to to the hegemony of Modernism being with Marcel Duchamp? With Neo-Dada? With Architecture? On the other hand, if one simples the search and asks something much more simple: when was the term first used, then it is possible to locate, not an artificial “beginning” but a gradual dawning that a shift had taken place. An idea is being expressed, a discourse is being formed when a term is coined. In 1998 Perry Anderson pointed out in The Origins of Postmodernism that the word “postmodernism” was coined, not in the cafés of Paris but in Spain, which, as he said, was also the origin of the term “modernism.” As Anderson wrote,

We owe the the coinage of “modernism” as an aesthetic moment to a Nicaraguan poet, writing in a Guatemalan journal, of a literary encounter in Peru. Rubén Darío’s initiation in 1890 of a self-conscious current that took the name of modernismo drew on successive French schools–romantic, parnassian, symbolist–for a “declaration of cultural independence” from Spain that set in motion an emancipation from the past of Spanish letters themselves, inthe chhort of the 1890s…So too the idea of a “postmodernism” first surfaced in the Hispanic inter-world of the 1930s, a generation before its appearance in England or America. It was..Frederico de Onis, who struck off the term postmodernismo. He used it to describe a conservative reflux within modernism, itself: one which sought refuge from its formidable lyrical challenge in a muted perfectionism of detail and ironic humour, whose most original feature was the newly authentic expression it afforded women..

The interesting detail in Anderson’s book is that the Spanish postmodernism was a reaction against the voices of women, for one of the major critiques of Postmodernism was the way in which the intellectuals pulled away from confronting authority except in the erudite world of theory. The fact that Postmodernism surfaced in the scholarly world as a word and as a practice at the same time as a political backlash against women and people of color and a marginalization of gays and lesbians broke out in America is a confluence that was probably entirely coincidental. As was pointed out in several of the earlier posts, the French and German writings that became part of “Postmodernism” were translated into English and were dispersed in a random fashion, often twenty years behind the original publication. That said, the impact of Postmodernism was to stop the forward motion of the arts, a movement that might have benefited women and other groups pushed to the edges and to bring back the canon of the great white males. So to play on the famous statement by Audra Lorde (1934-1992) “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”, the master’s tools were used to redirect attention towards the master’s house.

The pluralism celebrated in Postmodernism is not the pluralism of cultural expressions that were non-canonical; instead the Postmodern pluralism was more a cacophony of white male precursors in the arts and philosophy. The plural reiteration of the canon was inevitable, for, in order for one’s quote or appropriation cannot be understood if the borrowed motif is not recognized. Pushed to the sidelines, the works of the Other were also sidelined and were ineffective tools to undermine the older generation. Therefore, the Postmodern system of challenge and its condition of belatedness was self-defined as acknowledging the precursors–they had already thought it all, said it all, made it all–and there is now, in this post time, nothing left but muteness. In fact, lacking the engines of progress, Postmodern was very passive and resigned and like the politics of the eighties looked backwards.

Resigned to the idea that there was no way out of the prevailing capitalist system, accustomed to the work of art as being a commodity, Postmodernism made peace with the world of commodity fetishism and commercialism. Because of its proximity to mass culture and its acceptance of so-called low art, Postmodernism was a bridge between high art and life. Postmodernism erased hierarchies, opening the way for an acceptance of street art at the same level as, for example Robert Rauschenberg, who married art to life. The new ideal in Postmodernism was not elitism but difference–the free-floating signifiers, signifiers emancipated from the tyranny of the referent, both the sign and the signified. Signifiers become unconditioned by their supposed “place” in the structure. This pure play of difference is, as the Postmodern theorist, Richard Wolin, expressed it in his 1984-85 article in Telos, “Modernism vs. Postmodernism,” a liberation from the ideal of a rational and coherent ego, existing at the expense of the Other which it suppresses. Like Julia Kristeva, Wolin was interested in one of the two major elements that destabilized language: the subverting power of the semiotic or the unauthorized incursion of Otherness into language. But there is another destabilizing aspect to difference and that is the mobilized signifier which floats and in its arbitrary journeys also destabilized the structure.

In returning to the impossibility of finding origins, it is interesting to try to track back on terms and to revisit the mindset that gave rise to new ideas. Like the suppressed Other, the floating signifier is defined in terms of excess or surplus. The term “floating signifier” surfaced early in the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) in his work on Marcel Mauss (1872-1950). Mauss had written a significant book Essay sur le don (1923–24) which was not translated into English until 1954 and this book became the site where Lévi-Strauss would begin to rethink his approach to anthropology. The trail of the “floating signifiers” went back to the first part of the 20th century, a time where the concept of “primitivism” flourished and there was an avant-garde fascination for the exotic and Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) used sociology to examine tribal societies. While the Surrealists followed this Eurocentric trail of the apparently “irrational,” the nephew of Durkheim, Marcel Mauss amassed an unsurpassed body of knowledge about non-Western societies and cultures.

Mauss seems to have been a brilliant hoarder and collector and teacher who knew much but published little. However, his short essay, “The Gift,” would, thanks to the analysis of Lévi-Strauss, echo throughout French thought. According to Patrick Wilcken in Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Father of Modern Anthropology, it was Mauss who, after the death of his uncle, established the Institut d’enthnologie in 1926. Although in its time, this Institute was ahead of its time, by the 1940s, when Lévi-Strauss was lecturing there, French anthropology was sadly out of date. But Lévi-Stauss began to create a circle of French intellectuals who were working to rebuilt French scholarship after the war. He met Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) who was trying to recover from years of not writing in protest the the occupation. It is well established that it was Lévi-Stauss who introduced Lacan to the ideas of Jakobson, enabling Lacan to “return to Freud” through Ferdinand de Saussure and Structuralism. But first, how did Lévi-Stauss in the early 1940s ever put together Freud, Structuralism and Marcel Mauss?

The scholarly work of Lévi-Strauss had been interrupted by the Second World War and, being Jewish, he found safety in New York City in 1941. With his dissertation, “The Elementary Structures of Kinship” still undefended, he began teaching at the New School of Social Research where he was undoubtedly a colleague of the much more established scholar Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). But it would not be Arendt who would impact his later work; that individual would be Roman Jakobson (1896-1982), also an émigré from Russia via the Prague School. Jakobson, a far more senior and well-established scholar, taught at Columbia during those exile years and his theories on the structural analysis of language would have a foundational impact on Lévi-Strauss.

When Lévi-Strauss returned to Paris and resumed his scholarly life, he was able to both defend and to publish “The Elementary Structures of Kinship” in 1949, but already he could see that the methods he used to study kinship–organizational charts–were too limited and had reached a dead end. However, the book was a landmark and Jean-Paul Sartre made sure that it was introduced to the French intellectual scene in his journal, Les temps modernes. Simone de Beauvoir reviewed Les Structures élémenataires, opening with the famous line, “For a long time French sociology has been slumbering; Lévi-Strauss’s book, which marks it dazzling awakening must be hailed as a major event.” Lévi-Strauss had hoped that a man he considered to be his predecessor in this field, Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) would be his advisor, but when he had returned to Paris after the war, Mauss did not recognize him. The old scholar would leave behind a pile of unpublished works and apparently Lévi-Strauss felt some obligation to the legacy of a man who had once occupied a chair in the History of the Religions of Uncivilized Peoples.

Clearly, the unfinished rendezvous with Mauss and the ideas of Jakobson on Structuralism were on his mind when Lévi-Strauss was given the same (renamed) chair once occupied by Mauss at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, and it is a this point that Lévi-Strauss moved away from the study of kinship to the study of religion as anthropology. In 1950 this change of direction was announced as it were with his publication of Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss. Lévi-Strauss re-read Mauss through the lens of Structuralism and in so doing laid out some of the basic concepts of Postmodernism. In this book Lévi-Strauss laid out three key points in introducing the writings of Mauss, explained by Christopher Johnson in his 2003 book, Claude-Lévi-Strauss: The Formative Years. According to Johnson, “structuralism seems to emerge as the logical point of conclusion of Mauss’s work.” Lévi-Strauss made three points: first that society was to be defined as symbolic systems, and second that these symbolic systems were modes of representations which existed at “deep-level” structures of the mind and this unconscious is revealed by structural linguistics. The third conclusion that Lévi-Strauss came to was an unexpected one: an idea of surplus of signification and a “floating signifier.”

The slippery term, “floating signifier,” was inspired by another slippery term used by Marcel Mauss, “mana.” In a gift society, the giving of the gift generates mana also called “hau” which indicate the power of the gift. Pierre Bourdieu would take this idea and translate it as “symbolic capital.” Mana is the excess or surplus meaning of the gift, which is not simply an object or service exchanged, it is part of a complete or total presentation, an expression of the entire culture. Therefore, by expressing the entire society, the gift, as part of a whole, functions metonymically. The giver, through the gift, has the power–through the surplus meaning of mana to move and change society due to the rich surplus symbolization of the gift. As Lévi-Strauss explained it, “The nature of society is to express itself symbolically in its customs and its institutions; normal modes of individual behavior are, on the contrary, never symbolic in themselves: they are the elements out of which a symbolic system, which can only be collective, builds itself.” In other words, symbolic systems are definitionally overdetermined.

This overdetermination comes from the way in which Lévi-Strauss conceived of the unconscious of language: if human beings have always been endowed with the a priori ability to symbolize, then as he explained, “..language can only have arisen all at once. Things cannot have begun to signify gradually..a shift occurred from a stage where nothing had meaning to another stage where everything had meaning…that radical change has no counterpart in the field of knowledge, which develops slowly and progressively…So there is a fundamental opposition, in the history of the human mind, between symbolism, which is characteristically discontinuous, and knowledge, characterized by continuity.”

Knowledge, as Lévi-Strauss explained it is able to keep signifiers and signifieds in check: “the work of equalizing of the signifier to fit the signified,” but symbolism is part of a “signifier-totality”..“he is at a loss to know how to allocate to a signified..There is always a non-equivalence or ‘inadequation’ between the two, a non-fit and over spill..So, in man’s efforts to understand the world, he always disposes of a surplus of signification..” Lévi-Strauss explains this surplus as “Supplementary ration” and links this surplus to “mana type” of symbolic thinking, which “represent nothing more or less than that floating signifier which is the disability of all finite thought “ to “staunch” or “control” it. He states that mana is the expression of a semantic function, whose role is to enable symbolic thinking “to operate despite the contradiction inherent in it.” Mana is structure in terms of antinomies–the gift is concrete but the system in which is operates is abstract. As a result, mana “is all of those things” because “it is none of those things” and therefore exists as “a symbol in its pure state,” meaning that “it would just be a zero symbolic value..a sign marking the necessity of a supplementary symbolic content over and above that which the signified already contains..”

Lévi-Strauss had an ambivalent attitude towards Les Structures élémenataires, much like an seasoned scholar would look back on the effort that formed a life’s work: with great affection but with a clear eye to its deficiencies. However, there was a key element in his analysis of kinship that inspired further interest in Sigmund Freud: his critique of Freud’s assertion of the incest taboo. It would be Jacques Derrida who would take up Lévi-Strauss’s discussion and find its inherent contradictions, but Lévi-Strauss approached Freud not so much in terms of his theories of a “cure” but in terms of his theories of the mind. In doing so, Lévi-Strauss combined anthropology and psychology and structuralism in an effort to make the symbolic actions of human beings make sense. The son of Ferdinand de Saussure, Raymond de Saussure (1894-1971) was a close associate. Saussure’s book La méthode psychanalytique had a preface written by Freud himself in 1922. Obviously, Saussure was the bridge between linguistics and psychology and Lévi-Strauss began to study the power of symbolic narratives told by shamans, using Freudian ideas of unconscious structures. This stage of Lévi-Strauss’s work would mature into his seminal work, Mythologies, but it would profoundly shape the ideas of Lacan in his own re-reading of Freud through structuralism: “The Mirror Stage.” In his article “Sociology before Linguistics: Lacan’s Debt to Durkheim,” Stephen Michelman, in the 1996 book, Disseminating Lacan, wrote,

“..I will maintain that the French tradition of sociology and social anthropology play the determinative role in the development of Lacan’s mature thought that it is not a theory of the sign but a new picture of the social that constitutes one of Lacan’s major contributions to analytic theory..” Michelman pointed out that Lacan seemed to have a general knowledge of the anthropological and sociological ideas of Dukheim, Malinowski, Frazer and Mauss, “ is not until Lévi-Strauss’s programatic Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss (1950) that Lacan is able to appreciate–and begin to appropriate–the full scope and ambitions of the anthropologist’s approach. His passage from an “imaginary” to a “symbolic” conception of psychoanalytic action thus involves less any clinical or technical discovery than a gradual but momentous shift in perspective in regard to already established material: rather than any precise doctrine, Lévi-Strauss provides Lacan with a sociological framework…it is Lévi-Strauss’s polemical Introduction to Mauss that makes a lasting impression on Lacan.”

Lacan was able to appropriate Lévi-Strauss’s idea of the floating signifier as being a repository for the yet unnamed and un articulated and suggest that the floating signifier becomes a way for the child to control the entry into the symbolic order. For Lacan, the floating signifier is the “pure signifier” and in displacing the idea of mana as a pure signifier or as symbolic thinking itself, he is using the concept to explain that the child becomes socialized or enters the social through using language symbolically. Lacan, apparently concerned about these freely floating elements, stated that, at some point, they would have to fix themselves at some given points de capition, or signifying sites. Jacques Derrida, as discussed in another post, will have none of this idea of points de capition, and Jean-François Lyotard will also critique Lacan’s approach to the signifier. Indeed, Lacan introduced the bar to separate the signifier and the signified, putting the signifier on top to demonstrate its ascendency over that which is signified. Lacan completely destabilized the careful architecture of Structuralism, replacing it with some kind of mad math or algorithms.

The signifier floats to another signifier as the signified, below the bar slips and slides and floats below while the signifiers flow above. There is an endless relay or a chain of signifiers but there is no conceivable end to the activity of language. If the signifier and the signified merge–the flow is stopped–metaphor (sense) emerges (from non-sense) and meaning is fixed. However, the signified is metonymy and in contrast to the wholeness of the metaphor is the annihilating part, because, as Lacan asserted, going back to Lévi-Strauss, the signifier means nothing. As Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen explained in his 1991 book on Lacan, The Absolute Master, this kind of signifier is the symptom or the dream, not the prefabricated signifier already ready already in use. In layering the signifier and the signified, Lacan was also indebted to Saussure’s idea of the floating kingdoms of ideas and sounds that lie one on top of the other and produce signs. For Lacan, the signifiers and the signifieds, float and slide, and always, as Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy explained in their 1973 book, The Title of the Letter: A Reading of Lacan, the signifier is the victim. Since the points de capition is only mythical, the endless movement becomes that of the making of language itself.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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