Improvisation in Jazz Writing
2003 SAMLA Panel
Atlanta, GA
14-16 November

Paul G. Beidler
Lenoir-Rhyne College

Jazz, Amiri Baraka, and the Arbitrariness of the Sign

Do not cite without permission of the author.

In January 2003, Amiri Baraka came to speak at our small college in Hickory, NC. The occasion was MLK day-Mr. Baraka spoke in the morning, to kick off the annual MLK Day peace march, and that evening he read from his work. Baraka made it clear from the beginning that he had been more a supporter of Malcom than of Martin, and so the atmosphere was charged from the beginning. In fact, hate mail had already begun to arrive at the college, and extra security extra security had been arranged to protect the speaker. In the days following the reading, a spate of editorials in the local paper condemned Baraka, the College for inviting him, and the paper for reporting accurately what he had said.

I'll begin with a letter I sent to our local newspaper much later, this past August, when we learned of the murder of the poet's daughter. The letter was my belated response to what I perceived as the community's hostile reception of the poet and the general feeling on campus that such infelicities should be prevented in the future. (Doesn't the Patriot Act cover things like this?) I wrote to my neighbors:

As we mourn with Amiri Baraka the recent murder of his daughter Shani Baraka, I feel called to reflect on the significance of the poet's visit here this past January. I like writers like Baraka because the energy and violence of their words cuts through the ignorance and complacency that characterize most current discussions of race. Let me explain.

This morning, a friend showed me an article called "What's Different about Being a Black Leader." It reviews a recent book on the pressures and anxieties experienced by black managers in corporate America.

One response to the article could be this: people should be less prejudiced and see blacks not as blacks but as individuals-they should be "color-blind." Managers and executives, especially, should be objective, seeing not race but accomplishments and contribution, because that would make the work place more fair. This, I think, is the way most people that I know would probably respond to the article.

This response, while understandable, is inadequate to the point of being dangerous. Here's why.

1) It gives whites the message that they are ethically obliged to ignore race. Whites wind up deciding that they must proceed as if the race problem has been solved. If we all act as if the race problem has been solved already, it will be solved, right? Wrong. Whites get the impression that blindness is a virtue, which enhances their already formidable ignorance and discomfort about race. Race becomes something to which the only response is repression. The effect is that the repressed hatred (which is really just fear) becomes less easily to control and therefore more powerful.

2) At the same time, it gives blacks the message that race and heritage don't matter. They are to be left at the corporate door. Race, like religion, is something you only have or do in the evenings and on weekends; you're to pretend it's not a part of your life. Separating race, religion, or any other core part of your self from your career path is unhealthy and dangerous. Blacks are often treated as if their race is invisible (except when it becomes profitable for the corporation to advertise its "diversity"), but they must deal daily with well-meaning but ignorant whites who, though they remain fearful and ignorant, feel they cannot address the issue.

Most people can handle this kind of pressure, but why should they have to?

Amiri Baraka's art cuts through all this guilt, fear, and ignorance. He gives our anger and fear a voice. His poetry gets it all out in the open: you listen to him, and you stop repressing. You start to feel. Poetry hurts no one, and its violence frees us from the kind of anxiety that everyone these days seems to think is the correct way of dealing with race. Baraka says, hey, I'm angry, people are angry, there's a lot to be angry about-and then he cracks a joke. He says, hey, they want you to go to Iraq to shoot Muslims, but you don't have to. He says hey, they tell you everything's okay now, that the playing field is level now, but you know it's not. He says hey, it's okay to rant and rave-he shows you how to weave an intricate fabric of your rage. The world around you is real, and real things happen in it. Don't swallow it all-the world is not some bitter medicine you have to take every day. Don't believe the hype that makes you into the tool of the government and the corporations. Baraka says, your anger is beautiful, your anger is sacred.

And he doesn't just say it. With his jazz-poetry, he shows you that beauty. He lets you feel it.

Mourn with me this week Amiri Barka's loss of a daughter, and remember his gift to the Hickory community. Anger is not bad. Violence is not bad. Murder and vandalism are illegal, but anger about things any reasonable person would be angry about is good. It's precious. I think Baraka is the greatest writer we've had through LR in the past four years. Baraka showed me the beauty of literature as I had never been shown it before. I have been studying, teaching, and writing about literature for fifteen years, but Baraka taught me my craft. All grad school did was prepare me to appreciate people like Baraka when they come along, and they don't come along often.

The paper did not print my letter.

I'll play a little of Baraka's performance at our college. Baraka has written several books on jazz, but his performances show that he is a jazz poet-he references jazz, even alluding to specific melodies, but more than that, he is a jazz performer, bringing jazz to the word.

<CD, track four: Baraka's jazz low-ku sequence>

Many members of the public made clear their disdain for Baraka's performance in the newspaper (one man suggesting that Baraka move to Iraq), as did many students in class discussions. The first complaint to emerge was that Baraka's refusal to take President Bush seriously was not to be tolerated. And they didn't appreciate his portrayal of North Carolina as a politically backward state. Further discussion revealed, however, that to many, Baraka was racist: by which they meant that he's an angry black man who talks about race. The logic, I think, was as follows: Baraka's poems and remarks were racist because they seemed designed to make white people feel bad.

I don't mean to imply that everyone present responded this way. But the only other interpretation I heard was the defense that it's important that students at a liberal arts college be exposed occasionally to that sort of unpleasantness-which, since it assumes and tolerates Baraka's alleged racism, is just a defense of racism and cannot be taken seriously. It certainly felt as though our community was not ready to talk about Baraka as an artist. The question of his political incorrectness seemed to dominate the discussion.

I'd like to bring a certain tradition of thinking about the structure of the sign to bear, both on the form of Baraka's performance and on its reception. The two seem related. In doing so I will sometimes use the term "arbitrariness" in this paper to designate all three of what are clearly essential qualities of the sign:

1) it is arbitrary: there is no natural connection between signifier and signified (Saussure);

2) it is differential, existing only as the network of its differences to other signs (Saussure); and

3) it is iterable: it only is to the extent to which, and by virtue of the fact that, it can be copied, quoted, cited, or repeated (Derrida).

I suggest that what we witnessed during Baraka's visit to campus was an interesting reversal of Saussure's familiar diagram of the structure of the sign, and I'd diagram what happened this way:


Baraka signified racism. Recall that in Saussure's diagram, of course, the signifier, "arbor," is on the bottom, and the signifier, the concept "tree" on the top:

I want to suggest that in Hickory, the man was the signifier, the poorly-defined concept the signified. It's not that the term "racist" connotes some concept of people like Baraka, because it doesn't at all. No one, prior to his visit, would have concretized the term "racist" that way. (Things are not that bad yet, though there is no reason why the term "racist" could not come to simply denote a black person.) Rather, at least in Hickory this past January, as in New Jersey months earlier, when Baraka first read "Somebody Blew Up America," the word-signifies-thing structure reversed: the image of Baraka was the signifier, and "racist" the signified concept. This association seemed to be quite general, despite the obvious fact that Baraka's purpose was to fight racism, as he has been doing in America for 40 years.

At first glance, it might seem that a more ironic demonstration of the arbitrariness of the sign would be difficult to find. The bar in this diagram is of course meant by Saussure to signify the arbitrariness of the signifier-signified association, but in this case the bar was crossed: people followed the lead of New Jersey Governor James E. McGreevey and insisted that Baraka was a racist and would not back down. In "The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious," Jacques Lacan identifies this "crossing of the bar" (Ecrits 164) as the structure of metaphor:

f(S'/S)S ? S(+)s

He explains the formula as follows:

It is in the substitution of signifier for signifier that an effect of signification is produced that is creative or poetic, in other words, which is the advent of the signification in question. The sign + between ( ) represents here the crossing of the bar - and the constitutive value of this crossing for the emergence of signification. (164)

The bar, or arbitrariness, is crossed, and the association becomes almost an identity:


The symptom is a metaphor, Lacan says (175). This metaphor, angry black man ? racist, seems to me a symptom of something deeply wrong with our society. Behind the rhetorical "why can't we all just get along?", the crossed bar signifies a lingering lie, the lie of white guilt, white resentment, white aggression. I color this response white, though some blacks present seem to have felt it, too.

What does all this have to do with jazz? As we've seen, Baraka weaves his poems together in performance by singing jazz tunes. Baraka's own semiotics of jazz has always been pretty simple. The harmonies and rhythms of jazz and the blues hearken back to the slave plantations and thence back to Africa, and presumably his invocations of jazz melodies and motifs in performance are meant to ground his own work in that tradition by association. There is no sense of arbitrariness in this conception of the jazz sign-in fact, Baraka's purpose in writing Blues People and other early works was to downplay the perceived arbitrariness of the sign that seemed to allow white musicians to play jazz and write critics to judge it. So instead of the arbitrariness, should we be talking about the whiteness of the sign? I think so. The arbitrariness of the sign makes the signifier always separable from the signified (i.e. there's nothing essentially African about it), and iterabity, which constitutes all being, therefore authorizes any and all repetition. Arbitrariness, therefore, comes to signify whiteness, and Baraka's continuing project of grounding his semiosis in Black history would then be not a backward denial of Saussurian linguistics but a savvy forestalling of arbitrary and politically motivated interpretation and exploitation of black art. Interpretation divides: one can base one's interpretation on structure or history. In a white supremacist world largely devoid of cultural meaning, white musicians would tap into traditions of expression still laden with all the history of slavery and imperialism, capitalizing on their energy. Conversely, in a world in which, thanks to iterability, minority meaning is co-opted by the majority, it would naturally seem necessary for the black artist to ground that meaning in the historical provenance of the sign.

The sign is arbitrary-arbitrariness is the most basic quality of the sign. (Did Saussure choose the word "arbor" as his mnemonic example precisely to make that point?) But to understand Baraka, we need to separate the arbitrariness of the sign from the fact that arbitrariness can itself be a sign. Whether as assimilation or as parody, arbitrariness has characterized and even produced most American popular music for decades. The American popular music scene has been and continues to be a site of cultural exchange, of an artistic bricolage that the structure of the sign makes inevitable and that Judith Butler shows also structures gender:

There is no self that is prior to the convergence or who maintains "integrity" prior to the entrance into this conflicted cultural field. There is only a taking up of the tools where they lie, where the very "taking up" is enabled by the tool lying there. (145)

But when most of the producers and consumers of this bricolage are white Americans, the arbitrariness at play in the industry comes to signify whiteness. Then one appeals to history. Black art must then define itself against this arbitrariness-not denying arbitrariness as the most basic fact of the sign, but distancing itself from arbitrariness as the most basic paradigm of the arts in white America. The paradigm of Baraka's black art, then, is not bricolage but philology-he emphasizes not the arbitrariness of signs but the historical trajectories that produce them. Baraka's fluid transitions from poem to jazz riff to gospel standard to political satire seems at first like pastiche, but his pastiche is grounded in an argument about the history of signs, not a performance of their structure. One consequence is a disabling of the arbitrariness/whiteness association.

My spouse often remembers how, when she first moved to the United States, at age 25, there were few signifiers for her: every signifier was to her a signified. She could speak fluent English, but she could not joke, laugh, or dream because she didn't know what things meant. This has been my experience in our travels to her native country, Greece: it is difficult to tell the rich from the poor, the liberals from the conservatives, the happy from the angry, etc. It was also, I think, the experience of many in the audience at Baraka's reading: who is this guy, what's he doing, why am I being made to feel this way? A world of meaningless signifieds is intolerable, so they, like sovereign foreigners in their own country, (naturally?) converted Baraka into a signifier, a metaphor for the first idea to enter their heads: racism.

As Lacan shows, "the symptom is a metaphor" (Ecrits 175), "a crossing of the bar" between signifier and signified in which "the signifier enters the signified" (151). This is what happened on our campus and up in New Jersey. The metaphor of Baraka as a racist is a symptom of the psychosis that is American race relations.

Conversely, if symptom is metaphor, "desire is metonymy" (175)-desire is "the maintenance of the bar" (164):

f (S . . . S') ? S(-)s

What this means is that

The signifier installs the lack-of-being in the object relation, using the value of 'reference back' possessed by signification to invest it with the desire aimed at the very lack it supports. The sign - placed between the ( ) represents the maintenance of the bar - which . . . marked the irreducibility in which, in the relations between signifier and signified, the resistance of signification is constituted. (164)

In Baraka, the bar separating signifier (jazz) from signified (black history) is crossed. Though symptom is metaphor, not all metaphor is symptom, and in Baraka, poetry becomes black art and black history. The bar separating arbitrariness from whiteness is metonymically maintained, protecting black art from a reduction to parody.

Semiotics reveals a world of signifiers in which even the signifieds are themselves other signifiers (Colapietro 81-83), an endless web of signification. This is the world of Amiri Baraka, and of any serious artist-a world awash with truth and significance, a world of language liberated from bondage by the arbitrariness of the sign. But it happens also to be a world in which that same liberating arbitrariness itself signifies whiteness. Meaning is a consequence of the splitting of the sign, and Baraka severs arbitrariness and whiteness, making a place in the world for black art.

I would argue further that the three major periods of Baraka's life correspond to the three Lacanian phases of development. The early angry poems illustrate what Lacan calls the need for satisfaction. Those of the middle, Marxist period illustrate the demand for love: here Baraka complicates the race picture by introducing the dynamics of social class and envisioning a just world, a world in which justice is both demanded of the phallic other and is itself the phallic Other. Baraka's later work, and in particular his jazz-poetry performances, like the one I showed you, manifest desire, which is medial in Lacan's structural topography but developmentally final (Feminine Sexuality 81). Desire is when the splitting begun in the mirror phase is complete and the subject is fully spoken by language.

Works Cited:

Baraka, Amiri. The LeRoi Jones/ Amiri Baraka Reader. Ed. William J. Harris. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1991.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Colapietro , Vincent M. Glossary of Semiotics. New York: Paragon, 1993.

Derrida, Jacques. Limited Inc. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988.

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.

--. Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the École Freudienne. Ed. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose. Trans. Jacqueline Rose. New York: Norton, 1982.

de Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics. Ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. Trans. Roy Harris. La Salle: Open Court, 1972.