Thursday, November 5, 2015


Mme. de Saint-Exupéry, 1937, by Man Ray, apparently sitting on the floor, or at a bizarrely tall table. Everything about her from the African hat to the enormous cup seems to be a symbol of something, but what?
Saw a terrific example of a floating signifier the other morning: an advertising billboard reading "It's not a phone—it's a Galaxy".

By "signifier" we mean, in this case, the string of letters, or the sounds you hear in your head when you read them, the physical stuff that does the work of communicating. The other side of the sign, that which is communicated, the "signified", is in this case missing altogether; the expression wipes out its own meaning, by the overwhelming character of its falsity.

That is, not only do we know the Galaxy is a phone, but we know they're not even trying to fool us; they don't in any way expect us to think it's not a phone. In fact if we bought one and it somehow turned out not to be a phone we would be justly enraged. "Mr. Samsung, I am sorry to say that my new phone has turned out to be a European Ford minivan, or a vast cluster of stars, I am sending it back."

What the copywriters want us to do with this self-evidently false statement isn't to understand it the way we normally understand a sentence, by assuming their meaning, but to tether it to an unexpressed meaning of our own, out of emotion, I imagine in particular our grief and disappointment with whatever phone we are currently running, They want us to think, "The Galaxy is not my hateful, troublesome phone, but something categorically different."

It's a great example in particular because it ties in so explicitly with surrealism, the artistic movement built out of floating signifiers from which the vocabulary of postmodern advertising is largely derived (does everybody know that the American surrealist Man Ray became one of the first big-star commercial fashion photographers?). Indeed it could be directly derived from a masterpiece of the surrealist canon, René Magritte's famous 1929 pipe painting, labeled, "This is not a pipe."

It really isn't a pipe, of course, because it's a representation of a pipe, made of paint on canvas, something like two feet wide and two-dimensional, and obviously unsmokable. But even though that was Magritte's own answer, it's pretty boring, and it doesn't go anywhere toward explaining the painting's haunting character. It also doesn't relate to the painting's title, which is La Trahison des Images, the treachery of images; if the sentence is simply true, an annoying nerd joke, who's being treacherous?

What I think is that the sentence isn't really a sentence, either, but a picture of a sentence in the same plane with the picture of a pipe, and in the (imaginary) world where the sentence exists, the pipe is a pipe and the sentence is false. It's only true if you think the painting is talking to you, and it isn't talking at all, any more than Mona Lisa is smiling at you, unless that's what the painter means (but surely Leonardo thinks she's smiling at him, not me, or more likely at some private thought from which both of us are walled out). In the long run, it oscillates between true and false, and in the space in which it fails to mean one thing or the other, there grows a gnawing sense of meaningfulness that can't be pinned down. The whole painting, image, motto, and title, is a floating signifier, which won't give you a meaning; you have to dredge that out of your own unconscious, and you can't even verbalize it.

The idea of the floating or empty signifier was something that the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss came up with, through an extremely complex process I am not anxious to summarize here (I might try if I were more confident I understood it myself), but he illustrated it with examples that are easy enough to deal with, the French nouns machin and truc, both meaning something like "thingy" or "whatsit"—"Can you pass me the thingy over there?"—which are available to mean whatever you want, like the rônin of early Edo-period Japan, masterless samurai, ready for whatevs. Another example might be the adjective "fuckin" in the speech of the family Eighteen-Year-Old, who uses it to refer to practically any quality that can be discerned in any object, except, thank goodness, anything related to the subject of sexual intercourse ("Ew, Dad!").

How this interesting but humble concept got tied in with the large issues of art (symbolism and surrealism) and propaganda (marketing and politics), as adverted to above, is a pretty interesting thing to write about, but I'm not doing it right here. I just popped in to say that when Ross Douthat (Apostolic Nuncio to 42nd Street), as I was mentioning the other day, worries that under the threats posed by Pope Francis and the Synod,
the ancient Catholic teaching that marriage is “indissoluble” would become an empty signifier
he is not grounded in any understanding of what that expression means.

In the sense that the word "indissoluble" has a perfectly clear and specific meaning. It is not a PR word waiting for the congregation to fill it with feeling. What he wants, but also fears, to do is to say that the Church is lying, or will be lying, because Catholic marriage may end up not being as indissoluble as it's cracked up to be, although as a point of historical fact which we already covered on Tuesday, it has always been less than totally indissoluble, and although defending the concept of the absolute indissolubility of marriage is obviously defending a fiction, as well as an issue that is of virtually no interest to anybody except the 11 million divorced Catholics in the US and the 12 or 13 crabbed theologians who can't stop fretting about it and the horrifying possibility that these definitional adulterers (who are in no way adulterous from the standpoint of the 83% of the world's population that is not Catholic) might sneak in to partake of the Host along with the normal adulterers, liars, murderers, priestly altar boy–rapers, and other sinners who partake of the Host every day.

But but but: He's terrified to suggest that the Pope is a liar, especially when he'd be lying himself, so instead he tosses around that expression ("empty signifier") whose meaning he has literally no understanding of, but well aware of its sulfurous (to the conservative) whiff of postmodernism and relativism. Douthat is attempting to deploy an empty signifier out of the expression itself, in the propaganda mode, in a particularly slimy and stupid way, but at the same time it's a really remarkable trick, or truc (in the non-floating sense), after all.

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