Postmodernism and The Trail of the Floating Signifier


From Mauss to Lévi-Strauss to Lacan, the Signifier Floated

The search for origins are always futile but the process often turns up interesting moments in time. For example, when did Postmodernism begin? The answer depends upon the place one looks. If one looks at art, one might ask did Postmodernism or the challenges to to the hegemony of Modernism being with Marcel Duchamp? With Neo-Dada? With Architecture? On the other hand, if one simples the search and asks something much more simple: when was the term first used, then it is possible to locate, not an artificial “beginning” but a gradual dawning that a shift had taken place. An idea is being expressed, a discourse is being formed when a term is coined. In 1998 Perry Anderson pointed out in The Origins of Postmodernism that the word “postmodernism” was coined, not in the cafés of Paris but in Spain, which, as he said, was also the origin of the term “modernism.” As Anderson wrote,

We owe the the coinage of “modernism” as an aesthetic moment to a Nicaraguan poet, writing in a Guatemalan journal, of a literary encounter in Peru. Rubén Darío’s initiation in 1890 of a self-conscious current that took the name of modernismo drew on successive French schools–romantic, parnassian, symbolist–for a “declaration of cultural independence” from Spain that set in motion an emancipation from the past of Spanish letters themselves, inthe chhort of the 1890s…So too the idea of a “postmodernism” first surfaced in the Hispanic inter-world of the 1930s, a generation before its appearance in England or America. It was..Frederico de Onis, who struck off the term postmodernismo. He used it to describe a conservative reflux within modernism, itself: one which sought refuge from its formidable lyrical challenge in a muted perfectionism of detail and ironic humour, whose most original feature was the newly authentic expression it afforded women..

The interesting detail in Anderson’s book is that the Spanish postmodernism was a reaction against the voices of women, for one of the major critiques of Postmodernism was the way in which the intellectuals pulled away from confronting authority except in the erudite world of theory. The fact that Postmodernism surfaced in the scholarly world as a word and as a practice at the same time as a political backlash against women and people of color and a marginalization of gays and lesbians broke out in America is a confluence that was probably entirely coincidental. As was pointed out in several of the earlier posts, the French and German writings that became part of “Postmodernism” were translated into English and were dispersed in a random fashion, often twenty years behind the original publication. That said, the impact of Postmodernism was to stop the forward motion of the arts, a movement that might have benefited women and other groups pushed to the edges and to bring back the canon of the great white males. So to play on the famous statement by Audra Lorde (1934-1992) “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”, the master’s tools were used to redirect attention towards the master’s house.

The pluralism celebrated in Postmodernism is not the pluralism of cultural expressions that were non-canonical; instead the Postmodern pluralism was more a cacophony of white male precursors in the arts and philosophy. The plural reiteration of the canon was inevitable, for, in order for one’s quote or appropriation cannot be understood if the borrowed motif is not recognized. Pushed to the sidelines, the works of the Other were also sidelined and were ineffective tools to undermine the older generation. Therefore, the Postmodern system of challenge and its condition of belatedness was self-defined as acknowledging the precursors–they had already thought it all, said it all, made it all–and there is now, in this post time, nothing left but muteness. In fact, lacking the engines of progress, Postmodern was very passive and resigned and like the politics of the eighties looked backwards.

Resigned to the idea that there was no way out of the prevailing capitalist system, accustomed to the work of art as being a commodity, Postmodernism made peace with the world of commodity fetishism and commercialism. Because of its proximity to mass culture and its acceptance of so-called low art, Postmodernism was a bridge between high art and life. Postmodernism erased hierarchies, opening the way for an acceptance of street art at the same level as, for example Robert Rauschenberg, who married art to life. The new ideal in Postmodernism was not elitism but difference–the free-floating signifiers, signifiers emancipated from the tyranny of the referent, both the sign and the signified. Signifiers become unconditioned by their supposed “place” in the structure. This pure play of difference is, as the Postmodern theorist, Richard Wolin, expressed it in his 1984-85 article in Telos, “Modernism vs. Postmodernism,” a liberation from the ideal of a rational and coherent ego, existing at the expense of the Other which it suppresses. Like Julia Kristeva, Wolin was interested in one of the two major elements that destabilized language: the subverting power of the semiotic or the unauthorized incursion of Otherness into language. But there is another destabilizing aspect to difference and that is the mobilized signifier which floats and in its arbitrary journeys also destabilized the structure.

In returning to the impossibility of finding origins, it is interesting to try to track back on terms and to revisit the mindset that gave rise to new ideas. Like the suppressed Other, the floating signifier is defined in terms of excess or surplus. The term “floating signifier” surfaced early in the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) in his work on Marcel Mauss (1872-1950). Mauss had written a significant book Essay sur le don (1923–24) which was not translated into English until 1954 and this book became the site where Lévi-Strauss would begin to rethink his approach to anthropology. The trail of the “floating signifiers” went back to the first part of the 20th century, a time where the concept of “primitivism” flourished and there was an avant-garde fascination for the exotic and Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) used sociology to examine tribal societies. While the Surrealists followed this Eurocentric trail of the apparently “irrational,” the nephew of Durkheim, Marcel Mauss amassed an unsurpassed body of knowledge about non-Western societies and cultures.

Mauss seems to have been a brilliant hoarder and collector and teacher who knew much but published little. However, his short essay, “The Gift,” would, thanks to the analysis of Lévi-Strauss, echo throughout French thought. According to Patrick Wilcken in Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Father of Modern Anthropology, it was Mauss who, after the death of his uncle, established the Institut d’enthnologie in 1926. Although in its time, this Institute was ahead of its time, by the 1940s, when Lévi-Strauss was lecturing there, French anthropology was sadly out of date. But Lévi-Stauss began to create a circle of French intellectuals who were working to rebuilt French scholarship after the war. He met Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) who was trying to recover from years of not writing in protest the the occupation. It is well established that it was Lévi-Stauss who introduced Lacan to the ideas of Jakobson, enabling Lacan to “return to Freud” through Ferdinand de Saussure and Structuralism. But first, how did Lévi-Stauss in the early 1940s ever put together Freud, Structuralism and Marcel Mauss?

The scholarly work of Lévi-Strauss had been interrupted by the Second World War and, being Jewish, he found safety in New York City in 1941. With his dissertation, “The Elementary Structures of Kinship” still undefended, he began teaching at the New School of Social Research where he was undoubtedly a colleague of the much more established scholar Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). But it would not be Arendt who would impact his later work; that individual would be Roman Jakobson (1896-1982), also an émigré from Russia via the Prague School. Jakobson, a far more senior and well-established scholar, taught at Columbia during those exile years and his theories on the structural analysis of language would have a foundational impact on Lévi-Strauss.

When Lévi-Strauss returned to Paris and resumed his scholarly life, he was able to both defend and to publish “The Elementary Structures of Kinship” in 1949, but already he could see that the methods he used to study kinship–organizational charts–were too limited and had reached a dead end. However, the book was a landmark and Jean-Paul Sartre made sure that it was introduced to the French intellectual scene in his journal, Les temps modernes. Simone de Beauvoir reviewed Les Structures élémenataires, opening with the famous line, “For a long time French sociology has been slumbering; Lévi-Strauss’s book, which marks it dazzling awakening must be hailed as a major event.” Lévi-Strauss had hoped that a man he considered to be his predecessor in this field, Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) would be his advisor, but when he had returned to Paris after the war, Mauss did not recognize him. The old scholar would leave behind a pile of unpublished works and apparently Lévi-Strauss felt some obligation to the legacy of a man who had once occupied a chair in the History of the Religions of Uncivilized Peoples.

Clearly, the unfinished rendezvous with Mauss and the ideas of Jakobson on Structuralism were on his mind when Lévi-Strauss was given the same (renamed) chair once occupied by Mauss at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, and it is a this point that Lévi-Strauss moved away from the study of kinship to the study of religion as anthropology. In 1950 this change of direction was announced as it were with his publication of Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss. Lévi-Strauss re-read Mauss through the lens of Structuralism and in so doing laid out some of the basic concepts of Postmodernism. In this book Lévi-Strauss laid out three key points in introducing the writings of Mauss, explained by Christopher Johnson in his 2003 book, Claude-Lévi-Strauss: The Formative Years. According to Johnson, “structuralism seems to emerge as the logical point of conclusion of Mauss’s work.” Lévi-Strauss made three points: first that society was to be defined as symbolic systems, and second that these symbolic systems were modes of representations which existed at “deep-level” structures of the mind and this unconscious is revealed by structural linguistics. The third conclusion that Lévi-Strauss came to was an unexpected one: an idea of surplus of signification and a “floating signifier.”

The slippery term, “floating signifier,” was inspired by another slippery term used by Marcel Mauss, “mana.” In a gift society, the giving of the gift generates mana also called “hau” which indicate the power of the gift. Pierre Bourdieu would take this idea and translate it as “symbolic capital.” Mana is the excess or surplus meaning of the gift, which is not simply an object or service exchanged, it is part of a complete or total presentation, an expression of the entire culture. Therefore, by expressing the entire society, the gift, as part of a whole, functions metonymically. The giver, through the gift, has the power–through the surplus meaning of mana to move and change society due to the rich surplus symbolization of the gift. As Lévi-Strauss explained it, “The nature of society is to express itself symbolically in its customs and its institutions; normal modes of individual behavior are, on the contrary, never symbolic in themselves: they are the elements out of which a symbolic system, which can only be collective, builds itself.” In other words, symbolic systems are definitionally overdetermined.

This overdetermination comes from the way in which Lévi-Strauss conceived of the unconscious of language: if human beings have always been endowed with the a priori ability to symbolize, then as he explained, “..language can only have arisen all at once. Things cannot have begun to signify gradually..a shift occurred from a stage where nothing had meaning to another stage where everything had meaning…that radical change has no counterpart in the field of knowledge, which develops slowly and progressively…So there is a fundamental opposition, in the history of the human mind, between symbolism, which is characteristically discontinuous, and knowledge, characterized by continuity.”

Knowledge, as Lévi-Strauss explained it is able to keep signifiers and signifieds in check: “the work of equalizing of the signifier to fit the signified,” but symbolism is part of a “signifier-totality”..“he is at a loss to know how to allocate to a signified..There is always a non-equivalence or ‘inadequation’ between the two, a non-fit and over spill..So, in man’s efforts to understand the world, he always disposes of a surplus of signification..” Lévi-Strauss explains this surplus as “Supplementary ration” and links this surplus to “mana type” of symbolic thinking, which “represent nothing more or less than that floating signifier which is the disability of all finite thought “ to “staunch” or “control” it. He states that mana is the expression of a semantic function, whose role is to enable symbolic thinking “to operate despite the contradiction inherent in it.” Mana is structure in terms of antinomies–the gift is concrete but the system in which is operates is abstract. As a result, mana “is all of those things” because “it is none of those things” and therefore exists as “a symbol in its pure state,” meaning that “it would just be a zero symbolic value..a sign marking the necessity of a supplementary symbolic content over and above that which the signified already contains..”

Lévi-Strauss had an ambivalent attitude towards Les Structures élémenataires, much like an seasoned scholar would look back on the effort that formed a life’s work: with great affection but with a clear eye to its deficiencies. However, there was a key element in his analysis of kinship that inspired further interest in Sigmund Freud: his critique of Freud’s assertion of the incest taboo. It would be Jacques Derrida who would take up Lévi-Strauss’s discussion and find its inherent contradictions, but Lévi-Strauss approached Freud not so much in terms of his theories of a “cure” but in terms of his theories of the mind. In doing so, Lévi-Strauss combined anthropology and psychology and structuralism in an effort to make the symbolic actions of human beings make sense. The son of Ferdinand de Saussure, Raymond de Saussure (1894-1971) was a close associate. Saussure’s book La méthode psychanalytique had a preface written by Freud himself in 1922. Obviously, Saussure was the bridge between linguistics and psychology and Lévi-Strauss began to study the power of symbolic narratives told by shamans, using Freudian ideas of unconscious structures. This stage of Lévi-Strauss’s work would mature into his seminal work, Mythologies, but it would profoundly shape the ideas of Lacan in his own re-reading of Freud through structuralism: “The Mirror Stage.” In his article “Sociology before Linguistics: Lacan’s Debt to Durkheim,” Stephen Michelman, in the 1996 book, Disseminating Lacan, wrote,

“..I will maintain that the French tradition of sociology and social anthropology play the determinative role in the development of Lacan’s mature thought that it is not a theory of the sign but a new picture of the social that constitutes one of Lacan’s major contributions to analytic theory..” Michelman pointed out that Lacan seemed to have a general knowledge of the anthropological and sociological ideas of Dukheim, Malinowski, Frazer and Mauss, “ is not until Lévi-Strauss’s programatic Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss (1950) that Lacan is able to appreciate–and begin to appropriate–the full scope and ambitions of the anthropologist’s approach. His passage from an “imaginary” to a “symbolic” conception of psychoanalytic action thus involves less any clinical or technical discovery than a gradual but momentous shift in perspective in regard to already established material: rather than any precise doctrine, Lévi-Strauss provides Lacan with a sociological framework…it is Lévi-Strauss’s polemical Introduction to Mauss that makes a lasting impression on Lacan.”

Lacan was able to appropriate Lévi-Strauss’s idea of the floating signifier as being a repository for the yet unnamed and un articulated and suggest that the floating signifier becomes a way for the child to control the entry into the symbolic order. For Lacan, the floating signifier is the “pure signifier” and in displacing the idea of mana as a pure signifier or as symbolic thinking itself, he is using the concept to explain that the child becomes socialized or enters the social through using language symbolically. Lacan, apparently concerned about these freely floating elements, stated that, at some point, they would have to fix themselves at some given points de capition, or signifying sites. Jacques Derrida, as discussed in another post, will have none of this idea of points de capition, and Jean-François Lyotard will also critique Lacan’s approach to the signifier. Indeed, Lacan introduced the bar to separate the signifier and the signified, putting the signifier on top to demonstrate its ascendency over that which is signified. Lacan completely destabilized the careful architecture of Structuralism, replacing it with some kind of mad math or algorithms.

The signifier floats to another signifier as the signified, below the bar slips and slides and floats below while the signifiers flow above. There is an endless relay or a chain of signifiers but there is no conceivable end to the activity of language. If the signifier and the signified merge–the flow is stopped–metaphor (sense) emerges (from non-sense) and meaning is fixed. However, the signified is metonymy and in contrast to the wholeness of the metaphor is the annihilating part, because, as Lacan asserted, going back to Lévi-Strauss, the signifier means nothing. As Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen explained in his 1991 book on Lacan, The Absolute Master, this kind of signifier is the symptom or the dream, not the prefabricated signifier already ready already in use. In layering the signifier and the signified, Lacan was also indebted to Saussure’s idea of the floating kingdoms of ideas and sounds that lie one on top of the other and produce signs. For Lacan, the signifiers and the signifieds, float and slide, and always, as Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy explained in their 1973 book, The Title of the Letter: A Reading of Lacan, the signifier is the victim. Since the points de capition is only mythical, the endless movement becomes that of the making of language itself.

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