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Habitual Symbol Manipulator
by Louise Jolly| Brighton, UK
Monday, 11 July 2011
tags: culture, europe, making sense, semiotics, sequencing, uncategorized
When I saw techno producer Tony Child (DJ Surgeon) describe himself on his blog as a Habitual Symbol Manipulator, I was surprised.
To me, the phrase sounded better suited to the semiotician than to the musician. Why was Tony comparing music, which I’d always considered both more abstract and more concrete than the ‘symbol’, to something so semiotic-sounding?
I asked him about the phrase, and he told me that it came from the following passage in Aldous Huxley’s novel The Island:
“A talent for manipulating symbols tempts its possessors into habitual symbol manipulation, and habitual symbol manipulation is an obstacle in the way of concrete experiencing and the reception of gratuitous graces."
Most semioticians would instantly want to deconstruct Huxley’s Romantic belief in immediacy here, proving themselves Habitual Symbol Manipulators beyond all hope of cure. But I still wondered why Tony, as a musician, called himself that. His reflections offer food for thought for semiotics, rhetoric and creative communications in general.
Tony Child: “You’re surprised that I call myself a Habitual Symbol Manipulator? Well, I think that Huxley wants everyone to see themselves in the phrase. The idea behind the novel is to get everyone to recognise themselves as the foreigner or analyst [the main character in the novel is an analytically-minded visitor to a remote island community].
“So Habitual Symbol Manipulation is something maybe many people recognise in themselves. It sounds really specific, but actually it’s a much bigger truth.
“A DJ set is Habitual Symbol Manipulation from start to finish. I manipulate the codes and symbols of music to produce particular effects on people – not creating music but arranging it, squishing it, filtering it, opening it up, smudging it with echoes and reverbs, bringing it in and out of focus.
“In fact, a DJ set is a piece of communication just like an ad or text. I use techniques all the time to catch people – playing with their expectations and subverting them.
“Take repetition. I play a track my friend made which is purely repetitious. Whenever I play it, the audience goes through a similar journey. First, they’re excited – the track is new and it catches them. Then, they get bored, because of the repetition. But if I’m brave and persist with the repetition, taking them further and further into boredom and frustration, eventually they come out the other side and go crazy! I haven’t changed a thing – and it always happens. Then I catch the wave of excitement and introduce something new.
“You don’t need any tricks. If you’re brave enough to break through a certain barrier of boredom, then you can reach people on a deeper level.
“Another way I manipulate the symbols of music is by not giving people what they want all the time. I use frustration as a tool, and work with a model of tension and release. For instance, I play something that’s deliberately difficult and unfamiliar – so people won’t like it. And then I give them a reward or resolution, moving on to something they’ll like. It’s not sadism – it’s a balance of pleasure and pain that makes the whole thing work.
“But Habitual Symbol Manipulation can also be a gateway to something else. Huxley was maybe wrong to oppose it to ‘gratuitous grace’. I think Habitual Symbol Manipulation can be a prison, or it can be liberation. If you use it in the right way, and know when to let go of the method, it can lead beyond the symbolic mode – certainly in music.
“For the communication to really work and reach people, the Habitual Symbol Manipulator can’t be too fixed or stuck in an intellectual process. They have to be open. And I also feel it’s important to love and respect the people I’m communicating with. If I don’t, it becomes sadism, which is not fun for me personally. Even if there are parts of my set which are harsh or difficult, I always provide some resolution.”
Picture credit: Marek Petraszek
© Louise Jolly 2011