The Facile 'Empty Signifier' Catchall


The current issue of U.S. football players kneeling during the national anthem has brought to the fore the subject of relativism --whether the majority sees it in those terms or not. Beyond the widespread political polarization and deep-rooted enmities, Americans can't seem to agree on whether their flag, anthem, and other civic symbols and rituals mean something at all, and, if they do, what exactly do they mean. When one brushes aside the quasi-historical chest bumping vs. radical posturing, there is a single, solid issue: are the national symbols nothing but floating signifiers? And, if so, what glues a nation together?

It is possible that some have heard about semiotics, or the interpretation of signs, through references to the likes of Roland Barthes or Umberto Eco. However, it is much more likely that the majority has heard variations of the discipline through its politicized misuse in the hands of Derrida, Zizek, and Lacan. People who, in Camille Paglia's words, are not to be taken too seriously, i.e.

“Enough already of Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault poured like ketchup over everything. Lacan: the French fog machine; a grey-flannel worry-bone for toothless academic pups; a twerpy, cape-twirling Dracula dragging his flocking stooges to the crypt. Lacan is a Freud T-shirt shrunk down to the teeny-weeny Saussure torso. The entire school of Saussure, including Levi-Strauss, write their muffled prose of people with cotton wool wrapped around their heads; they're like walking Q-tips. Derrida: a Gloomy Gus one-trick pony, stuck on a rhetorical trope already available in the varied armory of New Criticism. Derrida's method: masturbating without pleasure. It's a birdbrain game for birdseed stakes. Neo-Foucaldian New Historicism: a high-wax bowling alley where you score points just by knockng down the pins.”

This is no accident, for sure. The postmodernist school, which nicely lubricates its nihilistic conclusions into a neomarxist worldview, is, first and foremost, a negation of meaning. As a response to modernism, which is all about the power of reason and the possibility of progress through cooperation, postmodernism is relativist and pivoted entirely on eternal power struggles among identity groups. It is that abuse of semiotics that gave the world, through Levi-Strauss, the concept of floating or empty signifiers, or signs that anyone can fill with whatever they wish in order to then use them as bridges to other concepts and their meanings. It is terribly convenient for those of a postmodernist proclivity, because the interpretation of signs can now serve any verbal sophistry conducive to describe the endless interpretation of everything --as long as they, of course, rest on criticism of Western binaries and confirm the oppression they ought to see everywhere they look.

That is why we can witness this (anti)intellectual device used so generously with concepts such as race or gender. Postmodernists (or cultural marxists as most of them are know by the portion of the USA that is quite fed up) are, through the artifice of empty signifiers, liberated from the shackles of search for meaning. And, as there is no meaning other than exposing ubiquitous relativism and oppression, all turns into an empty signifier or, for a lack of a better metaphor, clay in the hands of the apparatchik writing today's ethnography. Derrida, who is surprisingly still taken seriously in formerly respectable academic circles, even spoke of signifiers as fluid, always pointing to other signifiers in an indefinite manner. No wonder Paglia remembers him as akin to masturbation without pleasure.

It is within this universe that US society is broken in half. Neither position I will discuss here; first, because it has been and will continue to be written about ad nauseam somewhere else, and, second, because both sides have legitimate concerns that they base on a concrete meaning they assign to these symbols. What interests me the most are the meta-positions, and, particularly, those, left, center and right, who cynically imply that the symbols in discussion can be attributed with whatever meaning anyone wishes, any day, all day. These poor souls are everywhere (not only in the departments of gender studies across campuses all over the US) and they couldn't be more wrong. But what can you expect from people who deny or call subjects like chemistry, math or biology as "white cisgender tools of male oppression"?

Yes, I am aware that it is precisely a flag, and particularly the American one, the "encyclopedia concept" used to explain semiotics. But just because something is used ad nauseam doesn't mean that it is settled --and particularly in fields invaded by the relativists. You see, there is a history and a framework inside which a symbol has a meaning and such a meaning transcends masturbatory chats at a Parisian café in the 1960s. The modern state, particularly, is tremendously rich in background and has persisted conceptually from Greco-Roman times, through the Middle Ages, and to this day. In Roman times the idea of a collective person was pretty much tied up to the ability of actors to put on a mask and personify a role, and in that guise it was suspected that a group of people (and Romans did not consider everybody "full people" in the proper sense) could very well personify the role of a group by being together. Enter Christianity. The heavy duty theologians of the time were very well versed in the philosophers of the past, but there was also a tough reality around them. Europe was a loose Babel tower of bickering monarchs and fluid borders, and in the midst of it all was the Church, maintaining a super heavy, wide and thick bureaucratic apparatus, one that required a unifying logic. Christianity, however, has in itself seeds of destruction that are, at the same time, seeds of renewal. Jeffrey Burton Russell puts it brilliantly in his fantastic "Dissent and Reform in the Early Middle Ages":

“Christianity differs from Judaism and many other religions in being credal as well as moral. It has always been concerned with right belief as well as with right conduct. The Christians' interest in abstract truth led them to try to define it in a system of orthodoxy, and since no definition of truth ever goes unchallenged, the inevitable companion of orthodoxy is dissent.

Just let that pearl sink in for a sec. This is why the debate about the Eucharistic sacrament in the Middle Ages was such a big deal. Stay with me for a second because this is important, folks. Back then there was a debate between two clergymen, one of whom would later become Archbishop of Canterbury, about the body of Christ really, really, really being present when a priest consecrated the bread and wine during the mass. A dissenter insisted that it was a symbol and not really the body of Christ there, and he had many supporters. In order to keep the right belief, the Church theologians started to develop the idea of a natural body and a mystical body, with the double aim of stabilizing the belief on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist while the group of humans underneath was a mystical body, and each body animated and validated each other in parallel spiritual and earthly planes. The summa potestas was, yes, deposited in a person who exercised that authority but that authority emanated from the whole structure underneath, one that was "fenced" by the principles embodied by the sacraments. Sounds convoluted or outrightly empty? Think again. This theological, philosophical, and juridical triple jump flying trapeze act was performed by Pope Innocent IV and that guy was a walking, smashing legal intellectual. It is the scaffolding of the very same reasoning that made Europe develop the concept of sovereignty, and from it came the modern state, and later the money-making behemoths we now call multinational corporations. Therefore, it eventually pacified, unified and launched Europe as an unstoppable juggernaut which only now is starting to die, changing the world forever in deep ways. In conclusion: it worked. And when something works, my friend, in a purely evolutionary perspective we're in the presence of a functional truth. If something survives and gives abundant fruit, both literally and symbolically, then that something is as close as it gets to an ethical fact based on a pattern of behavior. Time-tested.

That is where symbols like flags, anthems, pledges of allegiance, and coats of arms come into play. They have the meaning of societal glue. They are shorthands, or corpus naturale, for the corpus mysticum of the state, and the latter is a territory and the people from whom the principle delegated into authorities emanates. Whenever one of those social constructionist lunatics tell you that there is no absolute truth, tell them to jump off a cliff. No, seriously, tell them. The thing with these folks is that common sense is not that common and, sadly, it takes common sense to know that reality is tridimensional, in the sense that there is the objective world, the social world, and the one as experiencing subject --and it follows logically that neither all is objectively determined nor socially constructed. Yeah, laugh, but all the social justice warriors you see picketing speeches at university campuses are actually taught to be heavily tilted in the nature/nurture thingy. They are consciously dumbed down and, thus, made incapable to grasp these ideas. There is meaning. And there are levels of reality interplaying with each other, throughout time, and there is no single bullet to explain such a complex world, inhabited by such complex creatures.

What should you do with this knowledge? Honestly, I won't tell you. And not because I'm a douchebag. It is because I don't know. What I do know is that when the shorthands that help a complex system stick together fall into chaos, everything comes crashing down, and there are two ways to avoid that: let it crumble or sit and talk. There may be no tomorrow after the former is allowed to happen, so I'd pick the latter. But do as you wish. The cultural war is real and the heart of the whole West is at stake. Do with that as you please.