Philosophy / Politics

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

One thought on “Semiotics and Political Legitimacy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s