Semiotics and Political Legitimacy

In the Book of Matthew, the disciples question why Jesus spoke to the people in parables, for which he responded with, “Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given… Therefore I speak to them in parables: because they seeing, see not; and hearing, they hear not, neither do they understand.” Let us assume for a moment that since the kingdom of heaven is the location for those morally worthy (the loving and virtuous) and awareness of these mysteries of the kingdom of heaven is moral consciousness that enables access to subjectively  understand love and virtue, indirect communication using parables or stories that illustrate moral lessons enable us to digest and gradually form a narrative that articulates this moral consciousness. For us to ‘see’ the value of morality without feeling confronted or overwhelmed as one would when our own personal actions of wrongdoing are directly demonstrated. A parable is a story that contains a symbol that prompts our imagination to find meaning of this symbol vis-à-vis our own interpretations of the external world, the choices we make, the perceptions we have; it is an internal process that validates the motivation and the will to conduct ourselves parallel to this symbol.

Unlike Hermeneutics that is concerned with the methodological application of interpreting text, discourse and art, Semiotics captures the complex relationship between our interpretation of a sign and the meaning and significance this interpretation has to the structure of our representations. A sign is the medium that enables us to attach significance as we interpret certain features and mediate an effect that vehicles our understanding. Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason discusses a concept known as Transcendental Idealism, whereby objects are merely appearances in relation to our temporal and spatial experience of the external world and that we can “only cognize that we, in principle, only intuit.”[1] When a person looks at an object, how is meaning constructed? For linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, the most sophisticated interpretive tool we have is language, however syntax and semantics are a part of a broader system that examines meaning and form. Accordingly, the fundamental basis of a sign requires a signifier or the object and the signified or what it represents[2] and it cannot be a sign without one or the other. A red rose is a flower, but it can also signify romance and love. An image of an apple can also signify health, or temptation to evil, or even an iPhone or iPad. The combination between a signifier and the signified (though arbitrarily linked) is psychological rather than a substance that illustrates a recognisable association predisposed by an assortment of sociocultural and religious connotations and denotations. A logo of a brand such as Mercedes-Benz promotes an abstract intension of prestige and wealth; however the process for which this occurs is not formless, but rather linked through an association of mental constructs and sensory linguistic impressions that indirectly identify concepts or content to real-world referents. A number of anthropological, psychological, sociological, and political stimuli relationally contained within a linguistic structure motivate how we feel and perceive.

One intriguing aspect to structuralist theory is the view of negative differentiation, whereby, “[I]n a language, as in every other semiological system, what distinguishes a sign is what constitutes it.”[3] What this purports is that meaningful contrasts in relational identity of signs is explained by oppositional combinations between what one is and what one is not; two negatives that form a positive result. For instance, we differentiate through this opposition the letters of the alphabet against one another and the result is forming a word. The differences between the signifier and signified are either syntagmatic – define meaning through the narrative structure or flow – or paradigmatic – define meaning through a thematic structure or an interrelation with other subgroups – that organise our vocabulary.[4] There is no word BBBBBB and conveys how meaning is formed because of the arbitrariness of language in contrast and opposition between combinations rather than an acquisition of predefined structural categories. The question here is whether language reflects reality or whether it constructs it? Is there a fundamental unity between the signifier and the signified, or is one an authority over the other making language autonomous to reality?

Unlike Saussure, Charles Pierce divided this communication into a tripartite between the representament (signifier), object (signified) and interpretant (the sign), whereby the latter sign is utilised as a tool to translate the representament. Communication between the three is interdependent and contingent on social conventions that enable one to form order and structure to the narrative flow, with the signs themselves being symbolic, iconic or indexical. An index is representative of causally identifiable fact, while an icon is reliant on a shared quality defined by a sensory feature, but a symbolic sign contains no anchor or clear relationship with the signified and while it holds no substance or value until the subject can form such complex combinations, meaning is given to a symbol via an associative process of signification between sign and object. The broad characteristics of symbols are not identified but constructed by capturing a rather narrow and general logic consisting of social convention and other general features as well as singular variables like habits; a public speech – such as those given by Adolf Hitler – exemplify how power and legitimacy is asserted in the symbolism of the effectiveness of the display rather than the logic of the speech itself and the motivation that gives meaning to this symbol is a combination of a number of social and political conventions. As said by Erich Fromm in the Fear of Freedom:

We forget that, although freedom of speech constitutes an important victory in the battle against old restraints, modern man is in a position where much of what “he” thinks and says are the things that everybody else thinks and says; that he has not acquired the ability to think originally – that is, for himself – which alone gives meaning to his claim that nobody can interfere with the expression of his thoughts.

In an exploration of Freudian psychoanalytic thought, the relationship between the unconscious and conscious similarly engages in a discourse where the subject is confronted by the psychic processes, namely the Ego – the identification of the ‘self’ or the conscious realm – and the by the Id – the instinctual unaffected by reality or the unconscious realm. The Supergo or the identification of an ideal and moral person formed by this communication between the two psychic processes vis-à-vis the relationship a person has between their subjective experience and their experience with the external world. The structure of this narrative remains arbitrary to capture a continuum that provides the versatility that make the complex system functional, developing meaningful contrasts using negative differentiation to form a positive result, namely a morally conscious person. Jacques Lacan purports that the signifier is master over the signified[5] whereby the latter is determined by the former and governed by mental correlations with its environment. He identified a triptych of human experience between the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real: “’Imaginary’ is the deceptive universe of fascinating images and the subject’s identification with them: ‘Symbolic’ is the differential structure which organizes our experience of meaning; ‘Real’ is the point of resistance, the traumatic ‘indivisible remainder’ that resists symbolization.”[6] Lacan viewed the unconscious as having a language, but symbols contain a number of characteristics including the individual subjectivity and their identification within their social environment and structure that inevitably asserts an influence over the formation of any realistic narrative. This begins during childhood, whereby the lack of cognitive sophistication in children where motor and linguistic skills mature as a result of identifying and learning by mirroring, their development can potentially be thwarted where they channel the imaginative – which is a part of the structure of subjectivity and the unconscious – as a coping mechanism to articulate an identification with the external world or Other (they imagine what the other person or object is). An individual’ singular variables could be distorted by childhood experiences where they become caught in the symbolic and imaginative realm that relies on social convention, distinguishing him/herself by contrasting a relational identity with the Other and forming negative differentiation to solidify a self-identity. Discourse is thus saturated by the unconscious, the symbolic, the imaginative.

Comparatively, capitalism is only constructed by the supporting notion of the ideological position it holds and it is not a reflection of reality, but rather its reality is determined because of the legitimacy the superstructure contributes to it. Slavoj Žižek utilizes Lacanian psychoanalysis to examine ideology as a political discourse that secures public consent, however this consent must appear to be an independent expression; it is not about enslaving an ideological position, but rather enabling a distance to the portal of this identification with political life, where ideological rituals saturate social and political values and ideals that shapes the identification to the Lacanian master signifier. It is a decisive penetration of values implemented by the signifier that utilises the vulnerabilities of the unconscious or imaginative through a symbolic identification. “We make our individual contribution like the soccer fan who supports his team in front of a TV screen at home, shouting and jumping from his seat, in the belief that this will somehow influence the game’s outcome.”[7] The arbitrariness of political and ideological positions that enable political change are not necessarily an outcome of sharply changing views from A to B, but rather a type of disillusionment or disenchantment that establishes a cynicism due to a lack of credibility; when the soccer team is year after year losing games. Democracy can thus camouflage existing ideological positions and Žižek’ thought experiment on The Fisher King paints a picture of what a person, politics and indeed society would actually be should this subjective, symbolic or imaginative domain no longer dominate our identification with the external world. Following a Foucauldian view of power (see my article here) that enables a productive social matrix vis-à-vis this negative differential with the Other, legitimacy or authority is narrated through claims of individual capacity to act as an authority or ruler; a person cannot just label themselves as a ruler but must articulate why they are capable above all else to be a ruler.[8] Hitler, notwithstanding his clear methods of cutting any opposition was nevertheless democratically elected as he narrated an Aryan struggle of the Germanic people – a highly imaginative symbol – together with his position to transform this condition by coherently proving why they are the key person or key political party to enable this.

We identify and understand formal categories under the structure similar to Kant’ transcendental object, namely that we intuit representations of objects through the thing-in-itself or the pure concept as interpreted a priori. That is, ideology can function in a way that makes sense of and enables subjects to believe and accept outcomes despite these outcomes being potentially irrational and even extremely violent as legitimacy in these decisions are communicated and represented to be a part of an indivisible pure concept or a transcendental object. In paternalistic, male-dominated or misogynistic environments, all women are categorized as the same and symbolise the necessary Other, the negative association that forms positive self-identification. Power in Hitler’ legitimacy was primarily sourced by the Jew, the Roma gypsies, people with disabilities; Othering enables a distinction and the ideology is fundamental foundation that signifies legitimacy to this identification without necessarily being subject to the signified or what Kant referred to as transcendental illusions. What this means is that ontologically power in ideology is afforded legitimacy by the presupposition that we, “[t]ake a subjective necessity of a connection of our concepts…for an objective necessity in the determination of things in themselves,”[9] and tricks reason rather than the senses. Laws that bind ideological communities cannot be questions, they just are, necessary and thus legitimacy is given power when entrenched with imaginative ideological symbols grounded in the assumption that it is a part of an unquestionable, transcendent or higher plane of authority. Political legitimacy is constructed in the same way as language, forming a narrative that motivates an associative process of signification between sign and object that establishes meaning to a symbol.

Kant’ dialectic is to expose these illusions (or perhaps I should say this illusion) and the identification of legitimacy in political and social discourse predicates how the architecture of power is constructed. Power can be symbolised in many ways and does not need to be pronounced, for instance propaganda and the use of imagery as a symbolic technique that can reinforce a belief in this power. The question thus formed is what exactly makes people susceptible to conform and confidently articulate a devotion to a potentially hegemonic power with a deadly agenda? Semiotics can be used to translate this method of mobilisation and ascertain how communication within this sphere of influence can frame the construction of a political and social will. At an epistemic level, consciousness is wedged into the dominion of our imagination where the symbolic message is so powerful that it can enable conformity without the individual even being aware of why. On the contrary, real power is afforded when the individual assumes that they are the ones effectively making this decision.


[1] Critique of Pure Reason (A239)
[2] Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics (trans. Roy Harris), Duckworth (1983) 66
[3] Ibid., 119
[4] Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics (trans. Roy Harris), Duckworth (1983) 121
[5] Jacques  Lacan, Écrits (trans. Alan Sheridan), Routledge (1977) 149
[6] Slavoj Zizek, Jacques Lacan: Critical Evaluations in Cultural Theory, Psychology Press (2002) 2
[7] Slavoj Žižek, ‘O Earth Pale Mother!’ In These Times (2010)
[8] See
[9] Paul Guyer, The Cambridge Companion to Kant, Cambridge University Press (1992) 251

Copycat: Social Imitation and Reciprocal Determinism

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

~ W. Shakespeare

What would you say to the possibility that the very fabric of our learning and cognition, of how we perceive and identify the external world, our opinions, our world view and ultimately our identity is actually determined solely by our social and environmental conditioning? That what you consider to be your ‘individuality’ is really an integration of a number of learned behavioural patterns that you have spatially identified and assimilated into a cohesive language which you alone understand and refine into a framework assuming it to be your own? Indeed, Carl Jung spoke of a Collective Unconscious where people share common experiences and emotions and form archetypes or characters and personalities that we shape and mould and pretend to be ours. “The mirror does not flatter, it faithfully shows whatever looks into it; namely, the face we never show to the world because we cover it with the persona, the mask of the actor.” [1] It is not difficult to believe that societal processes can appear to be nothing more than a simulation of reality. Indeed, the idolisation of celebrities such as the Kardashians – an empire built on the incredibly intelligent and effective marketing ploy and PA for what is essentially a rubbish family of senseless people – has provided the social instrument to form a continuum for millions who attempt the same effective marketing ploy and PA for themselves, covering themselves in a thick layer of make-up, spending thousands of dollars on breast augmentation or injecting fillers into their lips as they dishonestly present this archetype of normality to others. Psycho-social interaction and masquerading a false identity puts a question mark around whether we are capable of introspection and honest self-reflective examination and whether we have the cognitive capacity to transcend the determinism of our social environment.

There was a moment several days ago that resulted in an epiphany for me as I sat on the train on my way to work and in my sleepiness looked out at the cold scenery through the window covered in speckled rain. Briefly stopping at a local station to collect new passengers, across the platform another train had arrived to go the opposite direction and I saw a woman attempting to board the that train, albeit with a great deal of difficulty. My attention was first drawn to her feet, my concern immediate as she wore a mangled pair of flip-flops on such a cold day and I thought ‘goodness, you should be wearing a thick pair of socks and boots!’ She was incredibly thin under her tattered clothing, had tattoos on her gaunt face as she flicked her cigarette when someone finally helped her open the door. My thoughts, however, were drawn momentarily away from my concern for her well-being as I suddenly imagined this woman a young child, pretending to myself that for a moment I knew her mother and father who themselves were repeating a history of abuse and they raised this young girl in an environment that made her feel worthless, her existence valueless that she had grown to believe the same in herself. She could not find the will to take care of herself until one day she encounters some drug-dealer who deceptively made her feel significant for his own benefit and trapped her into a vicious cycle that, over time, the light within her completely diminished to the state that she had now found herself in.

This set condition then shattered into a matrix of an interconnected set of imagery, where I remembered an overweight man sitting at a bus stop eating from one of three large containers of fried chips smothered in gravy, or that girl who defensively boasted about having sex with the same number of men as her age and in one night for a birthday gift to herself, or that middle-aged man that aimlessly sat outside the local shopping center chain smoking. They contained the same root problem; each of them appeared to lack any sense of dignity as though they eventually became disillusioned to point of becoming truly lost. I could see this pedigree or continuity of abuse beginning from others before extending to the self as though persisting in this maltreatment somehow justified the former. Indeed, a woman who experiences the oppression from a violent husband who in turn creates the right conditions – keeping her away from her family, from friends, from an education or employment – enables him to gaslight her through psychological manipulation and make her believe that she is at fault enough for her to begin to believe it herself. The social and environmental conditions facilitate this failure for many to perceive objectively the overall wrong in their experiences that they finally stop caring for themselves as a coping mechanism for the initial mistreatment that they experienced.

Violence is not strictly physical, whereby vicious or cruel words, threatening behaviour and persistent harassment can be just as violent as physical harm. “Battering is not merely physical violence but a range of coercive behaviours that often consists of physical, sexual, psychological, verbal, and economic abuse. These behaviours serve to undermine the victim’s self-esteem and independence.” A marijuana addict or an alcoholic, those that eat too much or starve or smoke among a litany of other concerns are just as violent to themselves as physical self-harm can be. The causes of aggressive behaviour can be a direct result of learned responses, whereby according to Albert Bandura’ theory of Triadic Reciprocal Causation, there are three factors that play a determinative role during the process of imitation where people model themselves to their social environment as part of an identification process. This includes learned conditioning through the continuous interaction between personal, environmental and behavioural influences, whereby interplay of psychosocial processes enables an individual to simulate prominent role models that ultimately expand and become included into ones self-regulatory mechanisms and behavioural patterns. While mirroring such behaviour from others has been attributed to violence or aggression against others, it is clear that person who harms themselves in some way may be reproducing the same harm they experienced, only back to themselves.

Mapping the reciprocal interactivity and cognitive functioning that enables an individual to simulate and imitate their environment, whereby the construction of an individual’ reality is based on the adaptation and modelling of external behaviour, has been used to understand a number of internalisation and self-regulatory processes. This includes the mechanics of motivation, values and models of self-guidance and indeed the complexity of this development continues into adulthood where individuals may encounter new experiences that can result in a alteration of cognitive processes and perspectives and in turn shed light into the possibility of whether we are cognitively capable of self-reflective determination.

Globalisation itself is an ambiguous term but reflects the continuous discourse on the ever-changing and complex social structure of contemporary western society. The socially constructed idea of beauty or the concept of masculinity for instance has played a major role in developing the right conditions that provide the landscape for widespread abuse by external parties. Just as our immediate environment – such as family and friends – can impact on the structure of our personal identity, the broader social configuration causally influenced by economics and engendered by profit additionally influences behaviour that subliminally networks into this influence and shapes our view of ourselves. Like how some men or women, or drug-dealers, or even sales agents can calculate an opportunity to use the vulnerabilities of others for their own advantage, parties of globalisation have opportunistically captured the right tools through commercial and consumer marketing to diminish any resilience against this disregard to oneself. Cosmetic surgery for the purpose of being ‘beautiful’ is a form of self-harm normalised by the disillusioned as a number of social and environmental factors have enabled the right conditions that tolerate the absorption and consumption of an image, a symbol of something better then they are. It is a form of social violence that imperceptibly tells others to copy and paste an identity that is not their own. A way of making one feel unworthy until they reach a state where who they are becomes truly lost, just like a drug addict. Indeed, the construction of masculinity is no different; conceptions of physical power and violence as determining the identity of a ‘man’ can be considered a form of violence by society against the identity of men.

Cosmetic changes for the purpose of being ‘beautiful’ is a form of self-harm normalised by the disillusioned as a number of social and environmental factors have enabled the right conditions that tolerate the absorption and consumption of an image, a symbol of something better then they are. It is a form of social violence that imperceptibly tells others to copy and paste an identity that is not their own. A way of making one feel unworthy until they reach a state where who they are becomes truly lost, just like a drug addict.

The question that inevitably comes to the fore is whether we are enabled with the cognitive tools that would allow us to transcend learned social behaviour. Indeed, but perhaps a post for another time. It is moral consciousness in my opinion, the state or capacity of genuine love that will enable one to take the necessary steps toward reaching an actual state of authenticity. The evil here is the subtle hatred that infects the person who desires to be loved and so appealing is this need that it causally disconnects them from the ability reach a state of self-determination, making one believe that yielding to the whims of society and receiving accolades for a false image is better than the harsh reality of the Desert of the Real.

[1]C.G. Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Routledge (2014) 20
[2] Lee Ann Hoff, Violence and Abuse Issues: Cross-Cultural Perspectives for Health and Social Services, Routledge (2009) 152
[3] See Albert Bandura, Social foundations of thought and action: a social cognitive theory, Prentice-Hall, (1986)

Can Anybody Hear Me?

“Can anybody hear me?”
I turn and peer into the darkness,
My mind a little weary.
The altitude kaleidoscope the chorus
Of a formless song. Sing,
“I’m here. I’m here.”

The volcanic light beneath my feet,
Erupting smoke pirouettes over me.
A gentle hand, a stroke across the cheek.
“Mother? Is that you?” Succumbed to ennui.
I choke, the fumes sting as I sing,
“I’m here. Can you see me?”

“Stay outside,” she left. I waited,
The sun a yellow frog for hours
Licked my skin, how I hated
This freckled disease. My fingers
Make shapes in the dust. Sing,
“I’m waiting. I’m waiting.”

A painting of colours, a golden heart
Beating blood of gemstones. Love,
So much love. So much love. Discard.
Suffocate the turtledove.
In the darkness I cry,
“Can anyone see me? Can anyone see?”

“I’m here. I’m here. Can anybody hear me?”
“I can hear you,” he said. Blue eyes
That whispered in the silent debris.
A heartless man in disguise.
“Where are you?” I cried. Please sing,
“I’m here. I’m here.”

Black laughter echo into the shadows,
The devil eats the flesh of love, and the
Drumming feet of the gestapo
Tap slowly towards my frightened heart.
Beat. Beat. Beat. I curl my lips. “Shhh.
Stay silent. Stay silent.”

“I should be happy with what I have.”
Following, copying, tricking the truth.
An ornament of love put on display.
A decoration on the mantel, a ruse.
“Where are you?” I whisper, with a tear.
“I’m here. I’m here.”