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[xmca] Sensing and Signifying, or, The Eye's Detachment

It's the lunar new year over here. That doesn't actually mean very much for my wife and I since we don't have family in Korea; it just means that the Chinese operas we always watch over breakfast are newer and more interesting, and as a result our breakfasts are a little longer.
Now, Chinese operas are not like Western operas. In Western operas, there isn't much redundancy. For example, when things get straightened out at the end (e.g. when Cavaradossi has to explain to Tosca that he was hiding a political refugee and not a lover) there isn't much reported speech, not even indirect reported speech. That would be redundant, and also emotionally somewhat dampening (because reported speech and indirect reported speech always lose a little emotion). Above all, it would interfere with the action.
But Chinese opera LOVES redundancy (partly because Chinese operas are designed to last for hours, so you can go out and go to the toilet and get some melon seeds and have an argument with the seller and come back and then fall asleep and wake up and still not lose the plot).
Chinese opera also LOVES reported speech, and especially indirectly reported speech, because each time you retell the story you set it to a different tune with a somewhat different feeling. Some of these tunes are shared with other operas, and there is a system of inter-textual references built in. Others are simply well known folk tunes thrown in as crowd pleasers (just as John Gay did in the "Beggar's Opera). 
Some of them are bravura arias, full of passion and feeling that could not be expressed when the actual events first happened for reasons of propriety. Some of them are more distant and dispassionate, full of the objective insight and reflection which are quite impossible in the heat of the action (this is particularly true of the way in which battle scenes are recounted). 
There is really only ONE form of this kind of objectification of feeling in speech that we are familiar with in Western opera, and that is, of course, soliloquy, which we became familiar with in Hamlet. Soliloquy in opera is, of course, a kind of egocentric speech, and it has the effect of making feelings a good deal more precise, focussed, and as a result intense than they actually are.
But NOBODY in Western opera loves egocentric speech as much as people do in Chinese opera. Here, for example, is Li Xiuying, having a fight with her husband on her wedding night. He has refused to go to bed with her (he suspects her of loose behavior, and there is also some suggestion that he is gay) and fallen asleep at the table. 
She tries to decide if she should cover him up or just let  him freeze. The soliloquy (in which she goes to cover him up and then falters at the last moment three times) takes a full ten minutes. See how much of you can stand--and  how much of it you can understand WITHOUT any Chinese!)
Brecht loved Chinese opera for its "A-effect" (alienation effect). He and Chinese opera were both quite wrongly accused of lack of feeling. I think that the truth is that they both considered feeling such an important part of theatre that it had to be studied objectively, and you can't do that when you are trying to empathize with it. 
The fact that great Chinese opera singers like Mei Lanfang (who Brecht knew in Moscow) used characters as masks, and used words to distance themselves from action, and used music to distance theselves from words was profoundly significant to him. It was the DISTANCING that transformed actions into gestures, gestures into indications, and indications into significations. It was in this way that the eye could be detached, and the mind could see the concept.
I think it was very significant for Vygotsky too, despite Vygotsky's usual association with Stanislavsky (who really held opposite views). There is an important sense in which building a true symbol out of a mere sign has to do with precisely this process of objectification; that is, decontextualization and recontextualization. It is really a process of  de-dialogization and narrativization similar to soliloquy, to egocentric speech, to "internalization" and ""vraschevaniye", or "intra-revolution", the civil war by which speech becomes verbal thinking. 
And there is an important sense in which what Werner and Kaplan call "symbol formation"is really not about "organismic" processes at all. It is all about building "signification" out of "sense", or "znachenie" (which has the connotation of "to mean or to intend" in Russian) and "smysl" (which has the connotation of "in mind" in Russian). 
Signification is the signifying function; it is what Andy means when he says that a word meaning "stands for" a concept. As Martin has pointed out, that can't always be true, since if it were true the child would have to grasp concepts at roughly age two. 
But as Andy has pointed out, that must always be becoming true, else the child's heaps, and complexes would not tend in the direction of academic, yea, philosophical concepts.
 In "Thinking and Speech", Vygotsky speaks of three moments in this process: the indicating function, the naming function, and the signifying function. Indicating is just holding or pointing (that is, a material process and then a mediating A-effect). 
Naming is what you do when you have to point to something that isn't actually there. And signifing is what you do when you have to name something that doesn't materially exist, whose existence is purely ideal rather than real.
Yes, of course, it's a gross simplification, just as the revolutionary bandit in a Chinese opera who holds up a tasseled stick (which once suggested a horse whip, but which now "stands for" the act of riding a horse) is indulging in a gross simplification. In fact, it's the same simplification, the metonymic seizure of the endpoint of a process of simplying to indicate the process as whole. 
This is Scene Five of the 1970 opera "Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy", which is based on a historical incident in the 1946 Civil War. It shows Yang Zirong, which is the real name of a Communist guerilla leader, riding to infiltrate a group of bandits on Tiger Mountain--also referred to by their real names and singing the aria "Spring Comes to Change Colors for Nature and for Man". 
Now, to a Western eye, Yang's entrance, singing of how human progress is as inevitable as seasonal change, is a little bathetic, since he despite the neighing sound track he is manifestly waving a stick instead of riding a horse. Of course, that isn't the way that a whole generation of little boys and girls--including my wife--responded to this scene! Or is it?
David Kellogg
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
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