Okay, so what did I mean when I said that:

I think people are becoming so subsumed under their signifiers that their signifiers are becoming more real than they are. This was a category of non-existence that was once reserved for nobility, but is now available, if not actively imposed, on every person dealing with modern society.

More specifically, what did I mean about it being reserved for nobility?

Well, first off, that is not really true, it was reserved for nobility, clergy, and other men of note (because, well, it was pretty much all men back then … apparently women hadn’t been invented yet or something).

What I mean by a category of non-existence reserved for nobility has to do with the nature of social roles in society. Everyone always has played (and presumably always will play) a role in society which labeled them as fitting that role. Historically, most of these roles directly related to the person and who they were: farmer, butcher, baker, beggar, highwayman. These roles described the person and who they were and were tightly integrated into the real being of the individual in a concrete way. A butcher does not represent butcher-ness, but rather is, simply, a butcher. The word butcher relates directly to a vocation. Same for many other social roles.

This was (and is) different for nobility and the clergy. A noble does not engage in in the vocation of nobility, rather they represent that which is noble. They are a signifier of which the signified is nobility. Whether they are an accurate signifier or a mockery of the signified, they are a signifier. They represent a concept. This is perhaps why commoners were named after professions, like John Carpenter, while nobility tended to be named after the place the represented, like the Duke of York (a title currently held by a man with four praenomina, but no nomen: Andrew Albert Christian Edward).

The same function as signifier applies to clergy, who signify, at least in Western culture, the word of god with a capital G. Once again their effectiveness as signifier does not change that this is what they are.

This is why, and how, nobility and religious orders could (and still do) stand above the common people. They are not people, they are signifiers of a higher, and purportedly better, state. This is where they metonymy comes in. The noble as person is subsumed under and replaced by the noble as signifier of nobility.

With the rise of the merchant class, and then the “middle” class, this notion of being subsumed under the signifier spread downward into the masses. More representations came, where people represented social concepts of worth. With the downward spread of the person as signifier, there also developed the increasing need for a clearly defined identity outside of the person through which to identify them.

With developing notions of human rights that accompanied the rise of the new social classes, it becomes imperative that all people be given a clear identity that is, ironically, defined by the state. Otherwise rights become unenforceable and are merely dependent on the notoriously fickle goodwill of others. Remember that government systems not driven by any special caste are for and of the people. But to be so, people need to be subsumed into a model where they are defined as participant citizens of the state.

Okay, yes, that glosses over a great deal and makes oversimplification look like a model of intricate delving, but the point is there.

With the development of the welfare state, the notion of state-sponsored identity that represented some ideal moved from the mark of a good citizen to a requirement for anyone who is subject to the system. At the same time, this took the idea of identity through social roles and threw it out the window in favor of a legal fiction, something contrived to allow more effective oversight of the citizenry. So not only an abstract identity, but an entirely arbitrary one as well.

This, of course, raises the question as to whether the modern quest for identity was as much driven by consumerism as people may suggest, or whether it was a pre-existing condition caused by social change that abstracted the person from a concrete identity. This includes the notion of universal human rights, since equality is incommensurable with solidly defined social roles, and industrialization, urbanization, and their impacts on older social patterns. It also creates the expectation that the average person has an identity that represents some ideal that is abstracted from the self.

As such consumerism merely filled the gap, and promised us we could all be nobility if we purchased the trappings of nobility. If we cannot achieve the abstract ideal we are expected to define ourselves through, perhaps we can buy it instead. Without concrete definitions of social order that were tied to the social context of the self, we had to create social order through the trappings thereof.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *