Vicissitudes of the Sign

The distinction between premodern, modern, and postmodern cultures can be expressed semiotically in terms of the “naturalness” of the sign in each semiotic regime. As long as tradition regulates knowledge, the sign is stable and, as postmodernists would resentfully say, naturalized. When the authority of tradition starts to break down, there is a modern interregnum that discovers the constructedness of signs and delights in their willful abstraction and rearticulation as constructions, which in visual art is most pointedly evident in Cubism and the work that descends from it. We could refer to this semiotic phase as the neurotic or hysteric phase of the sign. The sign appears to gain a wealth of connotations that make its meaning vague but also intimate depth. It is no coincidence that psychoanalysis is born at the moment that the sign is beginning to take on the mysterious qualities of the symptom.

Postmodernity marks the full disintegration of the sign, a semiotic psychosis. In Lacanian terms, this is the phase when the name/no of the father has been foreclosed and unmoored signifiers slide past each other in chaotic confusion. In Nietzschean terms, this is the moment of deicide that empties the world of meaning and inaugurates the era of nihilism. The sign is reduced to the concrete signifier, to the psychotic floating signifier, detached from any signified, simultaneously hyperreal and mesmerizing but like the glittering mirrored panels that clad postmodern buildings void of meaning, a surface that merely reflects other surfaces. As Frederic Jameson has noted, the floating signifier absorbs rather than bestows meaning. It is stupefyingly blank, brazen in its banality, unsettling in its aggressive superficiality.

One can think of the rise of identity politics as an attempt to escape the total relativization of values. Against the prospect of the complete flattening out of discrimination, identity politics preserves a semblance of difference by elevating the enervated deferral of sexuation to the status of a refusal of (a phantasmic) patriarchy. Yet, it is precisely the problematization of sexuation that signals the encroachment of an excrementalizing homogenization. Proliferating queerness does not signify greater diversity but the collapse of the cultural distinctions that constitute difference.

The disintegration of the sign is irreversible. It is the terminal phase of the scientific revolution, whose epistemic “advance” was paid for by a loss of contact with reality even though it was supposed to yield greater purchase on it. For what science defines as real is pure abstraction, a set of “laws” expressed as mathematical formulas, an implacably indifferent and empty real. When this scientific real displaces the symbolic order constituted by myth, the gain in instrumental knowledge comes at the price of exile from the godly order that formerly shielded us from the radically inhuman contingency of the entropic universe. It would take a new Dark Age to rid us of this curse. Covertly, this is what we dream of.

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