Hearing God in Music: A Christian Critique of Semiological Analysis of Music

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The similarity between Nattiez’s words and Newman’s is striking.  Both encourage us to  understand everything we encounter in relationship to everything else we know.   The ideal Christian following Nattiez’s program would place each new experience in relation to everything else, contiuously appreciating more and more the role each part plays in what Newman calls the “universal system,” ultimately seeing the complex whole as testimony to the power, wisdom, and goodness of the Creator.  The semiotic view that all phenomena are received as signs is also fully compatible with the scriptural teaching that Nature speaks.  (Ps. 19:1-4; Ps. 42:7; Ps. 148; etc.)  We might remember here Bonaventure’s teaching that “for every creature, . . . it is one and the same thing to exist and to praise the Lord.”

It may come as no surprise, however, that the field of semiotics offers some ideas that Christians will not be able to embrace.  For instance, while Bonaventure speaks of creation as the communication of God’s glory, Nattiez tells us that signs do not communicate, that they do not transmit content from an author to an audience, and that semiotics only studies the production, structure, and reception of signs, and the continual reconstruction of meaning.8

Going further, some semioticians deny the existence of meaning.  Bonaventure tells us God is the “transcendent finality,” in Gilson’s words again, “the law which defines the creature’s structure.”  Similarly, semioticians speak of the hypothetical “transcendent signified,” absolute, stable, and timeless.  In author Daniel Chandler’s words, “All other signifieds within that signifying system are subordinate to the dominant central signified which is the final meaning to which they point.”9 Jacques Derrida, however, argues that the transcendent signified is only a tool of dominant ideology, and is he not alone in denying the actual pertinence or accessibility of the transcendental.10

Going further yet, some flatly deny the existence of God.  Recall that Bonaventure characterized God as the Author of the book known as Creation.  In his famous essay, “Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes makes the same connection between God and author, world and text, but argues that no text (including the world) has inherent meaning, that no author and no God exist.  “Literature, by refusing to assign a ‘secret’, an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases-reason, science, law.”11

Most introductory discussions of semiotics (also known as semiology in some European scholarship) will trace the field back to Cours de linguistique générale, an influential book compiled from notes of lectures by the early twentieth-century Swiss linguistics professor Ferdinand de Saussure.  Saussure described a sign as a combination of a signifier and a signified.  According to Saussure, both signifier and signified are ideas, mental phenomena: a sign does not connect the word “tree” and a real-world object with branches and leaves, but rather the sound-image of the word “tree” and our mental concept of “tree.”  Important to Saussure’s system is the notion that this relationship is totally arbitrary.  For us the sound “tree” calls to mind the concept, but experience could condition us just as easily to associate the sound “arbre” with the concept, or the sound “sproink,” for that matter.  If the relationship between signifier and signified is conventional, the sign’s real significance must lie elsewhere: Saussure teaches that a sign’s significance is determined by its systemic relationship to signs that come before and after it and to other signs that could replace it.  What words could precede “tree”?  “The” perhaps, or “tall,” but not “want.”  In the sentence “I see a tree,” what words could replace “tree”?  “Dog” would work, but not “red.”

Author John K. Sheriff offers an important critique of the ramifications of Saussure’s view, ramifications that come to light in a history he outlines as follows. Adopting the Saussurean view of the sign, structuralists such as anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss  posit the claim that the meaning of anything we do or say comes not from someone speaking, writing, acting, composing, or performing-not from a person but from a system: from cultural conventions or from language and from the structures these systems make possible.  Taking meaning as a given, structuralist theorists try to codify the systems that make meaning possible, and structuralist critics such as literary critic Monroe Beardsley seek to determine the meaning of individual works according to the structure of the given text alone, without reference to the author.