J. F. Martel: Sign City is a place where nothing new can ever happen

Sign City is a place where nothing new can ever happen —


Sign City is a place where nothing new can ever happen

How Symbols Matter

J. F. Martel
© 2016 & Richard Benari
“Nature, as man has always known it, he knows no more. Since he has learned to esteem signs above symbols, to suppress his emotional reactions in favour of practical ones and make use of nature instead of holding so much of it sacred, he has altered the face, if not the heart, of reality.”1
— Susanne Langer

Cover: Vincent van Gogh, The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Winter, 1884. (Detail)
Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Budapest

Symbols in art are most commonly defined as material objects representing abstract ideas. Examples aren’t hard to come by: skulls, “represent” death, serpents “symbolize” transformation, rainbows “stand for” hope, and so on. On this allegorical definition, once you’ve understood the meaning of a symbol, that symbol is in a sense exhausted: it has done its work. A subtler interpretation can be found in psychoanalysis, theology, and religious studies, where symbols are seen as special signs, distinguished by the fact that they have multiple meanings or point to transcendent or unconscious truths. While more sophisticated than the dictionary definition, this take is no less allegorical, as it retains the idea of the symbol as a sign pointing to something outside itself. The symbol remains “exhaustible” in that it exists in order to convey a meaning. The difference is that while ordinary signs have well-defined meanings, these archetypal signs have obscure or ineffable ones. Freud, for instance, saw symbols in art and dreams as symptoms pointing to repressed psychic material. Jung, for his part, understood them as communiqués from the collective unconscious, markers on the path of the self’s unfolding.

No one would argue that Hamlet’s skull doesn’t evoke the idea of death. The question is whether that’s really all it does. What insight is gained into Shakespeare’s play by reducing the skull of a dead clown to this rather banal signification? In this essay, I would like to explore an alternative take on the symbol, one that doesn’t so much conflict with the allegorical take as go deeper into the nature of imaginal expression. This “aesthetic” symbolism emerged in a philosophical tradition that Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) described as “vitalist,” although the term here relates only tangentially to what is called vitalism in the history of science. For Deleuze, vitalist thinkers are people for whom the entire universe is alive. He saw Heraclitus (c. 535-475 BCE) as the godfather of the tradition, whose eclectic lineage also includes Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), and the poet, actor, and playwright Antonin Artaud (1896-1948). But aside from Deleuze himself, the two “metaphysical vitalists” who will have a direct hand in what follows are the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) and the English writer D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930).

Against those who would stop at the allegorical definition of the symbol, Deleuze, Bergson, and Lawrence argued, each in his own way, that symbols are signs devoid of meaning—or more precisely, signs referring to nothing beyond themselves. “You can’t give a great symbol a ‘meaning,’ any more than you can give a cat a ‘meaning,’” D. H. Lawrence wrote.2 But while symbols may not mean anything for these thinkers, they do matter. This last word can be taken literally, since the symbol as understood here is not just an image or idea, but a material event in a material world.3 My sense is that delving into this notion of the symbol as event can help us conceptualize things that artists have been intuiting for millennia. Such an undertaking may not have seemed urgent in the past. But today, with aesthetic manipulation and spectacle having once again been made into powerful instruments of control, it may be helpful to bring certain old intuitions to conscious light.

For every object we encounter in life—natural or artificial, physical or imaginary—there is a sign. For instance, there is the actual stone, and then there is the sign, the word, “stone.” In the everyday, people have a tendency to give signs primacy over the objects they refer to. Walking on a pebble beach, it would be difficult (and probably unproductive) to experience each pebble as the unique and unrepeatable event that it is in reality. Signs are useful because they allow us to identify, classify, and prioritize things. They do this by making very different things appear sufficiently similar for us to overlook their differences.

A sign is like a label. And as Henri Bergson wrote, we humans largely “do not see the actual things themselves; in most cases we confine ourselves to reading the labels affixed to them.”4 When all you see are labels, the world appears as a familiar, fully knowable place. It’s a little like being in a giant department store where everything is tagged and neatly displayed. However, it makes little difference whether you’re in an actual department store or in the middle of a rain forest, because metaphysically speaking you’re always on solid ground, always within the perimeter of the culture that is implicit in your language and concepts, always inside the “city of signs.”

There is peace and security in Sign City. Thinking, there, is a matter of associating the right signs with the right things and then submitting these signs to the algorithm of your preferred ideology. But peace and security come at a price, which is invariably paid in potentiality, agency, and novelty. Sign City is a place where nothing truly new can ever happen. The New has no place there, because no sooner has it surged into our field of experience than we have stamped it with a sign.

In the last century, some philosophers argued that the raw stuff from which we build Sign City was just an amorphous and nonsensical blob. According to these postmodern thinkers, without signs (and especially without language), there would be no world, since we would lack the concepts we need to tell one thing from another and thereby “construct” our world. The vitalist tradition I’m building on here rejects this idea. For vitalist thinkers, the raw material we use to concoct our signs is the world itself. The real world is not made up of concepts but of real things that we turn into signs in our heads. According to Bergson, we do this because we are biological organisms that have evolved to survive; instinct counsels us to see in things only that which matters to our self-perpetuation.5 So while there is a real sensible world out there, the labels go on fast, and once on, they are very difficult to remove. Nevertheless, between our encounter with the real world and its translation into signs in our heads, there is always an interval during which we see reality directly. And what subsists in this interval is what Bergson, and Deleuze after him, called a percept.

There is peace and security in Sign City. Thinking, there, is a matter of associating the right signs with the right things and then submitting these signs to the algorithm of your preferred ideology. But peace and security come at a price…

A percept isn’t equivalent to a thing. It is a part of a thing, an aspect of it. Here’s an example. Say you come upon a skeletal dead tree in an abandoned field on a dreary December afternoon. Before thinking to yourself, “Gee, look, a dead tree,” there is an interval during which the tree appears to you as a percept. You see the tree, but it is not yet thought of as a mere instance of the concept “tree.” In the interval, the tree is an absolutely new event, unprecedented, regardless of how banal your mind will make it seem afterwards. But although the tree is a real sensory event, Deleuze stresses that it is not yet a perception. “Percepts aren’t perceptions, they’re packets of sensations and relations that live on independently of whoever experiences them.”6 The percept is the absolute form of the tree’s self-revelation to your sensory apparatus at the moment you encounter it. It isn’t the objective tree—the tree as it exists in itself—but a real “face” of the tree, a real aspect of something whose attributes have prompted us to come up with the very useful concept “tree.” If you were a housefly, the tree would take on vastly different proportions and display an entirely different set of attributes. But these alternative attributes would be equally real. Humans and houseflies both experience real trees in their own real way. Both experience actual faces of the tree; only, they are totally different faces, different percepts.

The percept is a pure image, neither subjective nor objective. Indeed, it is the creative event that produces both the tree as perceived object and you as perceiving subject at one and the same time. So the normal model of perception doesn’t quite work. It isn’t that there is (1) a fixed object called Dead Tree, and then (2) a fixed subject called You, and (3) a subject-object relation consisting of You perceiving Dead Tree. Rather, there is: you-see-a-dead-tree. At the level of the percept, you and the tree constitute a single slice of being, a single event.7

Metaphysical vitalism holds that there is a real world out there and that humans have direct access to it through the senses, but it adds that the intellect is constantly reducing this real sensory world to the signs we use to navigate it. As long as we remain unaware that this reduction is in truth a diminution, the world will seem to correspond to human perception; that is, it will appear as an external, fully knowable object that we, as thinking subjects, are able to observe objectively from the outside. Yet no sooner have we become aware that our signs do not capture the full reality of things, no sooner have we realized that our senses enable us to apprehend only a small part of an infinite reality, than the world loses its familiar character in order to become uncanny to our eyes.

No dead tree is just a dead tree. Just as the moon has a “dark side” that remains perpetually hidden from earthbound humans, so the “human” tree—the tree as perceived by us—has a dark side. For one, the “human” tree is also a “housefly” tree, a “squirrel” tree, a “beetle” tree. And if creatures equipped with sensory organs that we can’t even imagine were to come upon the leafless tree as it creaks lonesomely in the bleak afternoon, the tree would reveal to them qualities that are unimaginable to us. All of these virtual embodiments of the tree, however, are equally real. All of them are real faces of the tree. The dark side of the moon is no less real for remaining unseen by us.

Yet the moon, as we know, isn’t a flat disc but a sphere. And the thing about spheres is that they have no sides. Not to sound pedantic, but we’re mistaken when we talk about a “dark side of the moon.” The face of the moon that earthlings can see is curved: from its most visible point, it fades progressively towards the unseen regions, in such a way that we would be hard put to locate the exact spot at which we shift from the light side to the dark. The moon itself seems intent on reminding us of this with its phases, which see it pass in and out of shadow each month. Recall that Pink Floyd’s psychedelic opus The Dark Side of the Moon ends with a voice saying, over a human heartbeat, “There is no dark side of the moon, really. As a matter of fact it’s all dark.”

When we take actual things to be nothing more than the labels the intellect puts on them (“it’s just a dead tree and nothing more”), what we are doing is flattening spheres into discs. Because from a metaphysical point of view, the dead tree in the vacant lot is very much a sphere. Its intelligible face may correspond to what a dictionary would tell us all dead trees are. But this particular dead tree, the one that has made such an impression on us, inevitably exhibits qualities that make it sui generis. By reducing it to its sign, its label, we dismiss these singular qualities in favour of an abstract concept that exists only in our minds. In essence we are converting the spherical tree into a flat disc, a representation, instead of encountering it on its own ground as a creature in the universe. On the other hand, if we were to approach the tree knowing the limitations of artificial signs for apprehending a non-artificial world, we would experience more of the reality expressed in this particular thing that our intellect calls a dead tree. We would become able to see the curvature of its anthropocentric face. In the sight of the skeletal tree, we would glimpse the gradual darkening of the human into the un-human.

JF Martel /van-Gogh The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Winter
Vincent van Gogh, The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Winter, 1884, pen and brown ink, lead white on paper, 51.5 x 38 cm. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Budapest
Vincent van Gogh, The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Winter, 1884, pen and brown ink, lead white on paper, 51.5 x 38 cm
Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Budapest
Fair Use Disclaimer. This article includes unlicensed copyright-protected works for the purpose of criticism, research or comment.

Isn’t this what art does? Isn’t art precisely the mode of expression by which we can reveal things as they exist on the borderline between the conceptual world and the world in itself? According to the great novelist Marcel Proust, art is the only way we have of sharing those vast portions of experience that can’t be communicated in ordinary language. In a passage I cite in the preface of Reclaiming Art, he writes: “Through art alone are we able to emerge from ourselves, to know what another person sees of a universe which is not the same as our own and of which, without art, the landscapes would remain as unknown to us as those that may exist on the moon.”8 What Proust is saying in this sentence, strangely fitting for its lunar analogy, is that works of art offer a deeper knowledge of the sensible world, a kind of “gnosis” that is intransmissible in the subject-predicate code of Sign City. And art can do this because it deals not in signs, but in symbols. If ordinary words and concepts are “flat” in the sense that they effectuate a human reduction of the more-than-human world, then symbols can be described as spherical signs, meaning signs that include much that their semantic counterparts omit.

Looking at the above sketch by Vincent van Gogh, one can easily stop at the signs that make up the picture: “It’s just a couple of dead trees in a field with a building in the background.” But notice how this description flattens the image by omitting everything about it that makes it an artwork rather than a diagram. Notice how it negates the encounter we sense when we apprehend the image as a singular creation instead of a generic representation. Art does not represent reality; it captures it from an oblique angle from which the object of perception, the act of perceiving, and the power of the percept reveal their strange unicity. Through symbols, the work of art forces us to see the world imaginally—which is to say, not in terms of fixed representations illuminated by the blinding light of intellect, but rather of moving spheres shifting in and out of shadow, bioluminescent, illumined from within. Van Gogh’s image casts its own light. There’s movement and change in it. It doesn’t show us dead things in dead space, but living forces in a sentient field.

In the first chapter of Matter and Memory (1896), Henri Bergson describes reality as an infinite field of percepts, an infinite field of images acting upon one another. If we humans do not occupy a privileged place in this field, it’s because we too are images. We are images in a sea of images, every one of which interacts with every other one to form a universe. Since images act upon one another, it isn’t wrong to describe them as forces. There is an energetics of the percept that is incompatible with the mechanistic schema of cause-and-effect, subject-and-object that the intellect tends to project onto the matrix of the Real. This energetics of the percept is not of a rational but aesthetic nature. When you see the world as a mechanistic sequence of causes and effects, or as a forum in which subjects “experience” objects, you’re in Sign City. On the other hand, when you see the world as a play of forces whereby every thing acts upon every other thing, not mechanistically but creatively, you’re in the Real: the city of signs has given way to what Baudelaire called “a forest of symbols.”

If percepts are expressions of force, it follows that encounters between percepts are never neutral or inconsequential. Where forces are concerned, there is always a change. And this change is what Deleuze calls an affect. Here, however, the term doesn’t refer to subjective feelings. “Anger,” “joy,” and “grief” are labels like “stone” and “tree.” In the Real, every surge of affect is completely new, and no more reducible to the label we tag it with than was the dead tree as a percept. Feelings are fixed signs, whereas affects are anything but fixed. In fact Deleuze describes them as “becomings.” So, “affect” here refers to the impersonal change occurring in an encounter between two or more things, two or more percepts, two or more forces in the world.

At the subjective end of an encounter, affects take the form of impressions, changes that the percept precipitates within us. At the objective end, they manifest as expressions, in the sense that every affect brings about a real change in the universe. Imagine that the sight of the dead tree frightens you. Its barrenness, its lonely mien on the vacant lot beneath the autumnal sky—it all makes you feel rather uneasy. You sense this before you attribute words to the experience, before your intellect labels the tree and your reaction to the tree. It isn’t the intellect that determines the event; on the contrary, it is the event that, in its expressivity, forces the intellect to think. And it’s when you start thinking that the signs appear: “Get real, man, it’s just a dead tree,” or, “This place is cursed! I’m getting out of here.”

Affects, which we convert into “feelings” in Sign City, are therefore an integral part of the events that produce them. It’s not we who have feelings, but “feelings” that have us. The self, after all, does not exist as such apart from its encounter with things (physical ones and mental ones). The fright that the tree evokes, then, is attributable neither to you nor to the dead tree alone. There is the tree, plus you, plus the universe, plus your psyche, coming together to produce what is afterwards called a fright. If you were to see the same tree tomorrow, it would all go down differently, because the tree wouldn’t be the same tree, just as you wouldn’t be the same you. It would be the New all over again, since in the open space of the Real, there is only the New.

“The Real” is the world as a creative act. As such, it can only be known aesthetically, at the level of percepts and affects. This knowing, however, cannot be communicated using signs but only expressed in symbols. Now, in order to obtain a symbol from our encounter with the dead December tree, we need to think that encounter, and in order to think that encounter we need signs: words, concepts, memories, ideas, and so on. So the creation of a symbol doesn’t involve the extinction of thought; it requires only that we put thought in the service of a reality that exceeds it. Signs are used, but in a way that doesn’t end up substituting them for the objects they refer to. And that is how symbols emerge. An encounter that ordinary signification would have diminished into purely subjective perceptions and affections is conveyed in the form of impersonal percepts and affects. To transform signs into symbols means to give back to Nature all that humanity wants to claim for itself: agency, emotion, intelligence, will. The key lies in deploying the signs you need without substituting them for the real things that occasioned their deployment. Symbols are born when the mind thinks an event without subordinating it to the signs it needs to think it.

Signs are abstract and general, whereas real events are concrete and singular. No dead tree is just a dead tree. Every dead tree is a “tree” in its own vividly un-arborescent way, and “dead” in its own vibrantly living way. The similarities that have enabled us to develop the concept “dead tree” are substantial enough, but they are superficial when compared with the differences that make every dead tree a singular being. So if our goal is to apprehend a given event while remaining true to its singularity, the signs we utilize cannot remain conventional. They must be broken, twisted, rearranged, reconfigured, made translucent—they must enter into strange relations in order to bring forth a new image that corresponds aesthetically with the original event. And we can only do this with art.

As material events in a material world, symbols call on us to act, to make a decision.11 They move us, force us to think, change, become. Above all, they demand interpretation—they ask to be read…

Art transmutes signs into symbols. It raises signs out of the causal sequencing that the rational intellect imposes on experience to uncover the singular events that hide underneath. It follows that a great work of art will be entirely made up of symbols, even as it constitutes its own single “arch-symbol.”9 Since symbols are true to the Real, they too are singular events, percepts and affects in their own right. So a great poem, painting, or photograph cannot be read like a set of IKEA instructions that loses all purpose once its meaning has been deciphered. On the contrary, it demands an interpretation every time, because every encounter with it is a novel event. It is by virtue of their symbolic nature, then, that works of art have no inherent meaning. But by the same token, as aesthetic events, they force us to think in terms of meaning.

Lawrence wrote: “Symbols are organic units of consciousness with a life of their own, and you can never explain them away, because their value is dynamic, emotional, belonging to the sense-consciousness of the body and soul, and not simply mental.”10 Thought produces such “organic units of consciousness” by confronting the world without trying to own or judge it. And thought abstains from owning and judging only when it knows itself to be a part of the world rather than a transcendent viewpoint hovering above it. It’s when we allow our signs, our concepts and ideas, to be the contingent objects that they are instead of fixed and impregnable “facts” that humans acquire the power to produce art that is more than artifice; art that, instead of just talking about an all-too-human reality, is itself an expansion of the more-than-human Real.

As material events in a material world, symbols call on us to act, to make a decision. They move us, force us to think, change, become. Above all, they demand interpretation—they ask to be read, not in the way you read a notification from your bank, but in the way you scry a tarot spread, a portentous dream, a strange constellation, or a lonely tree in December.

Some could object that there’s nothing easier than to make something that means nothing. But in fact nothing is more difficult. You don’t create a symbol just by slapping stuff together willy-nilly or by making “nihilist” art. Works that elicit no searching or that communicate only meaninglessness fully belong to Sign City, since they are statements of opinion that take themselves to be definitive. Such works cannot help but be about something, they can’t help but allegorize and moralize, even if their message or moral is nonsensical or nihilistic. It takes vision and instinct, not to mention skill, to capture reality as it exists before it is wrapped up in concepts, judgements and opinions, and then preserve it in a self-existing work. This is all the more evident when we remember that even our most cherished opinions and beliefs are also part of the world, and need to be folded back into the work before us if it is to break out of what Shakespeare called our “little world of man.” Maybe there’s a reason why great artists are as rare as great athletes or great scientists.

There is some confusion today surrounding the nature and purpose of art. Much of the art being made now contains only signs and aims only at transmitting opinions or messages. In fact, if we were to conduct a survey, my guess is that most people in the West, artists included, would say that art has something to do with communication. But as Deleuze never tired of saying, art has nothing to do with communication. It expresses a deeper reality that includes yet exceeds (and transforms) the communicable. Since such a large part of our experience is impossible to convey through ordinary signs, a civilization that has forgotten what only art can do has forfeited its one means of sharing that deeper reality. It is a matter of time before such a civilization becomes little more than a vast department store where everything has been bagged, tagged, and numbered. The New can’t enter such a place. It can at best only be parodied, no doubt in the form of myriad “choices” and “options,” each of which seems to mean so much while not one really matters at all.

1Susanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (New American Library, 1948), 226.

2D.H. Lawrence, Apocalypse, and the Writings on Revelation, edited by Mara Kalnins (Cambridge University Press, 1980), 48.

3See the chapter entitled “The Force of Symbols: Deleuze and the Esoteric Sign,” in Joshua Ramey’s wonderful The Hermetic Deleuze: Philosophy and Spiritual Ordeal (Duke University Press, 2012), 82-111.

4Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, translated by Cloudesley Brereton (MacMillan, 1914), 153.

5Bergson, Laughter, 151.

6Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations, 1972-1990, translated by Martin Joughin (Columbia University Press, 1995), 137.

8Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, Volume VI: Time Regained, translated by Andreas Mayor and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D. J. Enright (Random House, 1993), 299.

9This notion of the work of art as forming a “symbol made of symbols” is central to the work of Susanne Langer. See Philosophy in a New Key, passim.

10Lawrence, Apocalypse, 48.

11See Deleuze’s commentary on D. H. Lawrence’s theory of the symbol in G. Deleuze, Essays Critical and Clinical, translated by Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco (University of Minneapolis, 1997), 48-49.


The real power of a work of art doesn’t lie in its subject matter but in the style in which that subject matter is delivered. It’s in an artist’s style, in her unique perspective, that mystery is disclosed and forces that transcend the human world are revealed…

Read: J. F. Martel in conversation with Jeremy D. Johnson. (Reality Sandwich, 3 June 2015)

J.F. Martel is a writer and filmmaker based in Ottawa, Canada. He is the author of Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice: A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action, published by North Atlantic Books. Follow him on Twitter: @JF_Martel

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