what is a 'master signifier'?

The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek (SLA-voy JEE-jeck) has shown how the psychological theories of Jacques Lacan apply to situations in art, popular culture, politics, and life in general. Lacan was never an easy read. Early translations had to contend with Lacan's idiosyncratic way of speaking and writing French. Almost as much as James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, Lacan depended on double-entendres, puns, and newly minted terms. Nonetheless, Zizek has shown many patterns in Lacan's thinking that show that the psychologist indeed recovered a more authentic version of Freudian psychoanalysis by using a topological idea of consciousness.

Boundary language is a toy kit in comparison to Zizek's and Lacan's theoretical edifaces. Zizek's committment to cultural and political theory is a more demanding obligation, one which he supplies with an impressive bibliography of books, articles, and lectures. As a thoroughgoing Hegelian, he brings to Lacan an unflinching account of the "downward dialectic" that thought creates in its attempts to reconcile desire with the poles of the subject and its others. The resulting picture of the self as radically divided is not popular in our culture of ego-psychology (reinforcing the self-esteem of the psychiatric subject), but it is true to the "perverse" topology of the human mind and its history.

The short-hand figure, in itself a kind of toy, for the relationship of boundary language to Lacanian-Zizekian psychotherapy is the Möbius band. This strip of paper, twisted once before being joined at the ends to form a continuous loop, summarizes the situation of the subject who, in the effort to create various "external realities" to satisfy the demands of desire, structures an "inside-out" device that pulls the issue of paradox into the center of human being. A few facts about the Möbius band should be noted. The appearance that the band has two sides and two edges and, in fact, a twist are all alien to the real topology of the band. For the band itself (imagine yourself as an inhabitant of its surface), there is no twist. Travel is continuous. Only with ingenious tests would the traveler on the surface of a Möbius band highway suspect that the inverse of his highway was also a travel surface s/he will eventually visit or has already visited. The twist is visible only from a position outside the band and its internal topology. We visually locate the twist, but we can manipulate the band to place the "twist" anywhere along its circumference. The twist exists only for us as outsiders. The phenomenon of the twist is experience in a variety of ways from "inside" the Möbius band. The twist is like a fractal. It is a "part of itself," popping up at any and every scale and location.

Curiously, the "disqualification" of the exterior point of view is comparable to the implicit inclusion of a dimension of viewing in works of art. The viewing dimension of a painting, play or film, for example, is "written into" the idea of a painting, play or film. Moving to the outside of this, as does Dürer in his famous engraving of the artist and model, is implicitly ironic.


This looks like the opposite of a Möbius band, but it's actually the same
once we realize the relation between our point of view and the artist's.


master signfiers

In Lacan's theories, how meaning arises is a complex issue. We do not arbitrarily select words to designate things and "call it a day." Language uses/appropriates sounds to form words, and it is primarily the distinctions sounds can make with other sounds ("cat" versus "kit," for example) that insures that we can say what we mean to say. But, because linguistic representation creates and requires "artifacts" of unintended associations and physicalities, signifiers "slide across" one another, creating unstable relationships. Lacan saw this as an ongoing process that could be halted only by "quilting" terms to stop the sliding process. Such a quilting is accomplished through the creation of "master signifiers," signifiers that regulate and limit the meaning of other terms and also involve "ideological ideas" of how society is or should be structure. Master signifiers are similar to the "myths" that, although unprovable, nonetheless sustain and justify our behavior.

This account of the master signifer is abbreviated to an absolute minimum. The reader is referred to Zizek's work, Interrogating the Real (2005). This approach begins with feminists theory's popular idea of the 'marked term' to show how marking terms involves the presence of a self-cancelling ("double negating") silent middle term to connect the subject (= human subject) with the "mandates" of culture. This example uses Spencer-Brown's calculus to create a "syllogism" — the classical three-part logical statement that uses two premises to reach a conclusion. In the syllogism, there are two premises, major and minor. The major relates the particular of the conclusion (whatever is to be characterized or defined) to a "middle term." The same middle term is used, in the second premise, as a "subset" of a larger entity that will also contain the original subject. The middle term, used twice but in opposite roles (once as a "container," once as a "contained"), does not appear in the conlcusion and is therefore called the "silent middle." Both the qualities of silence and being in the middle are crucial for boundary language, because they relate to the material development of the work of art.

You might want to read the essay on "marked terms" (in the page on marks) before taking up the issue of the Marlboro Man.


the example of the 'Marlboro Man'

Philip Morris tobacco company had a problem with their filtered cigarette. Marketed to women and sophisticated opera-goers, the brand was in a slump. Smokers were becoming leary of the dangers of smoking, but filtered cigarettes were perceived as dainty, effeminate. Leo Burnett's Chicago ad agency was given a challenge and countered the weak image with the invention of the "Marlboro Man," a tough guy who hunted, fished, repaired cars, and sported tattoos. Eventually the figure settled into his cowboy costume. Along with the stable identity came the idea of "Marlboro Country," a place away from the constraints of civilization. The Marlboro Man lived by a code of the frontier. Although connection to the American west was clear, the cigarette was successfuly marketed worldwide; the western landscape translated well into other cultures' notion of wild, uncivilized spaces without being readjusted for different geographies.

How did the Marlboro Man serve as a "master signifier"? The key lies in the circularity of the reasoning behind his location. Where is the Marlboro Man? —In Marlboro Country. Where is Marlboro Country? —Wherever the Marlboro Man is. The more generic the idea, the more the fictional landscape becomes a real presence. It serves as a "universal" (the man is in the landscape) and a "particular" (the landscape is wherever the man happens to be).

Like the "marked term," the master signifier of the Marlboro Man occupies a central ground that functions as a connector between various other ideas. This means that the Marlboro Man is not a "symbol" in the usual sense. Subtly, it is a way of sustaining an ideology, a network among ideas that have a vague but important relationship. This was significant for men returning from World War II, who were stuck with boring desk jobs in the 50s. Remembering or fantasizing about their life as soldiers, this group longed for the freedom of their past adventure. Supressing the pain and reporting pleasure is characteristic of human sexual experience. In this, it is the mirror of hysteria, where pain is reported but pleasure actually felt.

The Marlboro Man works through double negation, this has to do with the ostensible fictionality of the character, clearly an advertising invention. The second negation places this invention within the larger scope of experience of World War II vets, their own ambiguous relation to the laws that sent them to war and now give them less to do.

There is also a logic of this silent/suspended middle that has a reverse action making its logic both idiotic and bullet-proof:

  1. The qualities 'a', 'b', and 'c' are "called" 'Y'.
  2. 'Y' has the qualities 'a', 'b', and 'c'.

This bullet-proof, idiotic combination makes a statement like

'X' is a 'Y'.

… irrefutable because you can't tell exactly what it means. Does it relate to 'Y' as a "name" of the qualties 'a', 'b', and 'c' ? Or does it mean that 'X' is one of the class called 'Y' ? As with all of the political uses of name-calling, qualities are reified into formal structures that have a history, motives, and value as something to be hated or loved. Because the ambigous middle term points both to qualities that are not completely enumerable and to specific concrete examples, you don't know whether to use the example as a result or a cause.

The Marlboro Man is thus a way of producing an irrefutable logical operator that, like all other mythic figures, relates to both a territory (Marlboro Country) and a set of practices (resistance to civilization, individualism, ruggedness, etc.).

For further study: the Italian scholar Andrea Battistini (La degnità della retorica, 1975) has coined a phrase for this "idiotic middle" — "reversed antinomasia." The rhetorical term "antinomasia" is the substitution of qualities for a person's name: "Chairman of the Board" was the nickname for Frank Sinatra, "Old Hickory" for Andrew Jackson, etc. When the process is reversed, the effect is stronger. "Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy!" (Lloyd Bentsen to Dan Quale, vice-presidential debate, 1988). When the particular becomes the universal, we have a strangely resilient form of symbolization. The person is both a member of a class and the class at the same time!

© 2012, Donald Kunze, all rights reserved