Macabre

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Ghost signs, as we have seen, haunt the margins of many zones. Here, fixed categories blur before our eyes. These faded imprints, inked or carved on shop face or wall, elide past, present, future, materiality, insubstantiality, presence and absence. To those that care to listen, they murmur of long-forgotten brands — cigarettes, flour, razors — or whisper stories of former use and occupancy: grocer, ironmonger, tripe dresser.

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In their susurration, half-heard above the squeal and thrum of brake and engine, we learn that all things must pass: brands, products, services, companies. For we are complacent in our organisations — comforted by the diurnal rhythm of the work we do. But ghost signs teach us that the firms and institutions (and the buildings that enclose them) rise and fall. Products and brands come and go. We are eternally poised on the limens — the threshold to oblivion.

The ghost sign reveals the past speaking in the present to remind us of our transience and disclosing the future to show the decay and dissolution that awaits us all. And such dialogues connect us to older dialogue and these signs to older signs. For these contemporary memento-mori have spectral ancestors who still walk silently beside us today.

What I am, they were, and they are, I will be

The admonitory advice of the ghost sign can be summarised in the words of St Bernard of Clairvaux, quoted by Paul Binski in Medieval death: ritual and representation (1996). Binski argues that the theme of the transience of the world was deeply rooted in Judaeo-Christian tradition and that the Christian notion of the body as a sign was implicated in the emergence of the macabre — a period of European art that lasted for 300 years between 14th and 16th centuries.

And there is one motif within the macabre that pre-figures later ghost signs and provides resonance and context for what was to follow. It too warns against complacency, emphasises the ineluctability of change, stresses the criticality of remedial action and, in its physical manifestations, materialises and embodies the rise and fall of organisations. Yet this sign is also ambiguous.

The motif is that of the Three Living and the Three Dead and the story is a simple one. Three young men, often depicted as kings, are out hunting, dressed in their finery (the splendour of which indicates their social status and importance). These Three Living then meet three cadavers in various stages of decomposition. A dialogue ensues in which the living express fear and mortification while the dead exhort them to improve their ways and to reflect on the transience of their lives and the foolishness of their behaviour.

So to explore further, let me take you to a remote Norfolk church. It is late on a smoky, damp Autumn afternoon. Saturday perhaps. Dusk is falling and the only sound is that of crow in yew and foot on gravel path. We open the wire-door to the porch and fumble with the lock on the centuries old door to the nave. We step inside and this is what we see.

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The encounter is a dialogue — and a dialogue by means of a doubled self. Mark Fisher, in The Weird and the Eerie, argues that the weird is the presence of something that should not be there. It is a ‘signal that the concepts and frameworks which we have previously employed are now obsolete’ (Fisher, 2016). And three decaying doppelgangers are not what our hunting kings expect to encounter.

And this unsettling, this disorientation, continues.

Binski explains how the image is ternary: it implicates us a viewer. We, as well as the three living are the recipients of the message. We are both inside and outside the scene, suspended in a hall of mirrors.

And this liminality proliferates. We see confusion of the animate and inanimate — and the reversal of initiative and agency as the regal hunters become the hunted.

We are also caught in a moment of instability between three temporal realms: as with ghost signs, the past imposes on the present to warn us of the future.

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The scene depicted is topographically liminal. The forest is represented by bare, lifeless, skeletal trees. This bleak landscape echoes to the past and to the future. Back to the ‘marches…heath…and the desolate’ fens in which the ‘grim demon’ Grendel dwelt in Beowulf.  And, in its withered starkness, forward perhaps to the shattered fields of Flanders. This is  ‘no-man’s land’: a contested geography inhabited by the both the living and the dead but to which neither can lay ultimate claim.

Even the wall painting’s physicality is liminal as time, concealment, damp and neglect ‘transform the qualities of matter’ (DeSilvey and Edensor 2013). Such processes of decay mock any compulsion for order (Edensor, 2001). Where does bare wall end and image begin? Corruption erodes the boundariness of objects: they become something else. Like all liminal artefacts, they are betwixt and between.

This wall painting also — though its very materiality — speaks of organisational change.

Many wall paintings were destroyed by puritan reformers or, as with Seething and Wickhampton, whitewashed over.

The zeal of the puritans is also visible in the rood panel scene of the Dance Macabre at nearby Sparham church. The eyes of the skeletal bride and bridegroom have been gouged out — a treatment usually afforded to icons of the saints.

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You could argue that this material disfigurement — like the effacement of the wall paintings — both embodies and reflects organisational transition. A mature and established market incumbent, the Church of Rome, has fallen victim to a hostile takeover by a brash young start-up: Reformation plc. The image’s vandalised materiality serves as a memento mori of the transience of organisational power and dominant market share.

But the message these ghosts bring is potentially more nuanced; more ambiguous.

This is an excerpt from the 15th century poem, The Three Kings — a retelling of the Three Living and the Three Dead — by John Audelay (translated by Giles Watson). The scene is vividly set:

And out of the grove, three men came into view:

Shadowy phantoms, fated to show,

With legs long and lean, and limbs all askew,

Their livers and lights all foetid…

The first king is cringing, his heart overcast,

For he recognises the cross on a rotting king’s shroud…

“Fiends? Demons? Nay! You’re mistaken!

We’re you’re fathers – salt of the earth – soon forgotten’

These dead are not just random ghosts. As the title suggests, they too were kings which makes them ancestors of the living Kings. And the first living king cringes because he recognises the heraldic sign on his ancestor’s rotting shroud. In a semiotic twist, the king’s identity has withered to a decaying sign. This connection is amplified by the second dead’s king assertion: we are not fiends, we are your fathers.

So, intertwined with the theme of transition and change is that of continuity. And the warning here, as Ashby Kinch identifies, is: do not ignore or debase one’s lineage (Kinch, 2008).

Consequently, dissolution may not prove inevitable. And, of course, some of the ghost signs we see relate to products and companies that have survived.

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This ghost is still very much alive – the lineal line persists (‘any time, any place, any where’ perhaps). And the message to its organisational descendants is ‘remember your brand legacy’. By paying heed and respect to tradition, corporate identity (‘the cross on a rotting king’s shroud’) may endure and survive. But to do so requires agency and intercessory action and, if we fail in our duties, then purgatory — or something worse —awaits.

So, the lesson the macabre teaches us is that ghosts (and the signs they haunt) speak not just of decay and negation but of continuity too. And, in this ambiguity, the ambivalence of the message, they are, of course, truly liminal.

(Adapted from a paper – ‘A warning to the curious: ghost signs as liminal memento-mori‘ presented at the Standing Conference on Organisational Symbolism 2019, held in York, 9-11 July)

Binski, P. (1996) Medieval death: ritual and representation. Cornell University Press

DeSilvey, C. and Edensor, T. (2013) ‘Reckoning with ruins’, Progress in Human Geography, 37(4), pp. 465–485.

Edensor, T. (2001) ‘Haunting in the ruins: matter and immateriality’, Space and Culture, 11/12, pp. 42-51.

Heaney, S. (translation) (1999) Beowulf. Faber and Faber.

Fisher, M. (2016) The weird and the eerie. Repeater.

Kinch, A. (2008) ‘Image, ideology, and form: the middle english“Three Dead Kings” in its iconographic context’, The Chaucer Review, 43(1), pp. 48-81.

Illustrations.

Rodwell, I. (2019) Sparham Church, Norfolk

Rodwell, I. (2019) York

Rodwell, I. (2019) Seething Church, Norfolk

Rodwell, I. (2019) Seething Church, Norfolk

Rodwell, I. (2019) Sparham Church, Norfolk

Rodwell, I. (2011) Bar-Sur-Loup, Nice, France

 

Ghost Sign

They are there. And you have seen them. Perhaps from a train as it lurches and jolts over the points and junctions outside a city terminus. A glance through the window and they emerge into view. Or, perhaps, on a busy street, you raise your eyes from pavement and shopfront to glimpse what you have never noticed before. Faded, translucent; pallid imprints on brick and stone. Maybe an advert, no longer shouting but whispering about a long-forgotten brand – clothing, cigarettes, flour, razors. Or a sign that tells of former use and occupancy: grocer, hostel, furrier. These are ‘vestiges of spaces and places, industries and individuals’ that tell stories of ‘history, identity, cultural memory, desire, nostalgia, and erasure’ (Shep, p.209).

The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps (Italo Calvino, quoted in Shep, p.210)

IMG_0974These signs – material and metaphoric – ‘both reveal and hide their identity’ (Shep, p.209). They exist in plain view yet their meaning has to be negotiated via erosion, neglect and decay. Like Baudelaire’s flaneur detective, we need to decipher and deduce (Benjamin, p.37). For these signs exist at the liminal convergence of topography, typography and temporality (Shep, p.210). They inhabit multiple margins; permeate many thresholds. And this very materiality is, of course, liminal. As scouring wind, rain and pollution ‘transform the qualities of matter’ (DeSilvey and Edensor, p.477), their journey of transition is constant: as ‘palimpsests, they register change over time’ (Shep, p.209).

These signs are also ghosts. And ghosts, we know, are spectres of the liminal. They are the ‘non-object, this non-present present, this being-there of an absent or departed one’ (Derrida, quoted in Orr, p.1055). They show us ‘that which appeared to be not there’ (Edensor, p.159). A brand of beer last drunk in the 1950s; a business whose final invoice predated the dot-matrix printer.

FullSizeRender 6And there is something both poignant and heroic about these ghost signs. Even though their purpose – their signified is absent – they continue to signify to an intended audience that, in all probability, are ghosts now too. It brings to mind an abandoned turntable endlessly playing the same track to a long-departed listener. For these ‘names and slogans…were not meant for our contemporary eyes’ (Roberts and Marshall, p.3). And this, maybe, is what captures our gaze from train and street. This prickling of curiosity; a glimpse of something we can’t immediately comprehend yet sense, in some way, to be important. The sudden sound of static that interrupts our car radio on a moonless country road: significant but unknowable.

IMG_0966Such ghosts ‘haunt the present in such a way as to suddenly animate the past’ (Edensor, p.159). As I walk up the lane towards the sign of the former Chequers pub, I am conscious that my steps echo those of villagers who, for many years, would have tramped the same route after a day working the fields. And their embodied practices and daily rituals are now re-enacted by those now drawn by the sign.  The past is reinvented and reimagined with each step. As Edensor notes, we ‘perform the past by putting our bodies into its flow’ and, in so doing, ‘it ceases to be pure memory; it is lived in the present’ (Edensor, pp. 150-151). And these experiences, these micro-narratives we co-create through such embodied empathy, although fragmentary and seemingly incoherent, ‘offer opportunities for constructing alternative versions of the past, and for recouping untold and marginalized stories’ (DeSilvey and Edensor, p.471). The ‘enigmatic traces’ of the Chequers pub invites me to ‘fill in the blanks’ (Edensor, p.162). My imagination – via stories – aims to ‘impose a formal coherence on what is otherwise a flowing soup’ (Weick, p.128).

And confronted by ghost signs, maybe we too become liminal.  In Stefan Schutt’s account of ghost sign hunting through the streets of Adelaide, he speaks of an ‘initial sense of estrangement and disconnection’ (Schutt, p.55). It as if, gently shifted from our usual, habitual way of perceiving the world we become more attentive to those ‘talking walls’ (Shep, p.209). And, in becoming attuned to these new frequencies, this unfamiliar language, we are, momentarily, disorientated. Our senses are truly betwixt and between. Schutt reflects that in searching for old signs, ‘elements of serendipity and arbitrariness break down invisible barriers formed by habits of use, letting the walker see their environment in new ways’ (Schutt, p.54). This quest on foot is also a ‘space of enunciation’ that ‘affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects, etc., the trajectories it ‘speaks”(de Certeau, p.99). Here we find estrangement, enlightenment and transgression: the liminal experiences that our search for ghost signs engenders.

As a final reflection, we should not forget that in reanimating the past, urban ephemera also serve ‘to illuminate and transform the present’ (Massey, quoted in Schutt, p.57). For these signs gift us a warning. We are complacent in our organisations – comforted by the demand for products we make and services we offer – yet, if we glance in the shadows, the memento mori gather. Edensor identifies the mirthless irony of ghost signs faded to indecipherability – a bitter way to  mock ‘the energy expended on fixed meaning through branding and advertising’ (Edensor, p.162). Like the ochre and yellow wall paintings of the three living and the three dead uncovered from the peeling plaster of a medieval church, our ghost signs have an admonitory message: such as I was you are, and such as I am you will be. Organisations and institutions rise and fall. Products and brands come and go. Are we any different?

But maybe dissolution is not inevitable. Yesterday, I went searching for a particular ghost sign in Clerkenwell. However, this sign advertising the now vanished Black Cat Cigarettes brand has, itself, vanished. Completely hidden by a new residential block which has erased it from view.  But perhaps not erased from existence. Although hidden, it merely sleeps: suspended between past, present and future; revelation and enclosure; communication and silence. And, as fashions change, perhaps the new apartments that conceal it will, in their turn, succumb to the demolition notice. Then, as the wrecking ball strikes, the Black Cat – a typographical Sleeping Beauty – will wake again. And just as some deceased brands – like East Anglian beers, Lacons and Bullards (but alas not Morgans) – have risen like Lazarus from their corporate graves, so others may emerge blinking in the light. For, in the final reckoning, our signs are indeed ghosts; but ghosts who speak not only of decay and negation but of resurrection too.

Benjamin, W. (1983). Charles Baudelaire: a lyric poet in the era of high capitalism.Verso

De Certeau, M. (1984), The practice of everyday life: University of California Press.

DeSilvey, C. and Edensor, T. (2013) ‘Reckoning with ruins’, Progress in Human Geography, 37(4), pp. 465–485.

Edensor, T. (2005). Industrial ruins: spaces, aesthetics and materiality. Berg.

Orr, K. (2014) ‘Local government chief executives’ everyday hauntings : towards a theory of organizational ghosts’, Organization Studies, 35(7), pp. 1041–1061.

Roberts, S. and Marshall, G. (2017) ‘What is a ghost sign?’, in Schutt, S., Roberts, S. and White, L. (eds.) Advertising and public memory: social, cultural and historical perspectives on ghost signs. Routledge.

Roberts, S. and Groes, S. (2007) ‘Ghost signs: London’s fading spectacle of history’, Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, 5(2). Available at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/september2007/robertsgroes.html (Accessed: 27 April, 2018)

 

Schutt, S. (2017) ‘Rewriting the book of the city: on old signs, new technologies, and reinventing Adelaide’, Urban Geography, 38(1), pp. 47–65.

Shep, S. J. (2015) ‘Urban palimpsests and contending signs’, Social Semiotics, 25(2), pp. 209–216.

Weick, K.E. (1995). Sense making in organisations. Sage.

Illustrations

Rodwell, I. (2018) Clerkenwell, London

Rodwell, I. (2018) Spitalfields, London

Rodwell, I. (2018) A loke, Norfolk