October 12, 2018
INTENSIFYING THE FLOATING SIGNIFIER
Yesterday at noon in the White House, surrounding by Jim Brown, Monique Brown, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, and a crowd of reporters and camera people, Kanye West spoke for ten minutes straight, a monologue patched together with passages such as this:
“I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I was connected with a neuropsychologist that works with the athletes in the NBA and NFL. He looked at my brain, it’s equal on three parts. I’m gonna go ahead, drop some bombs for you. 98 percentile IQ test, I had a 75 percentile of all human beings when it was counting eight numbers backwards, so I’m gonna work on that one. The other ones, 98 percent, Tesla, Freud. So, he said that I actually wasn’t bipolar, I had sleep deprivation, which could cause dementia 10-20 years from now, where I wouldn’t even remember my son’s name. So, all this power that I’ve got, and I’m taking my son to the Sox game and all that, I wouldn’t be able to remember his name, from a misdiagnosis. What we need is, we can empower the pharmaceuticals and make more money.”
When West stopped talking, Oval Office protocol required Donald Trump to speak. He said, “I’ll tell you what, that was pretty impressive. That was quite something.”
Discourse analysts might call “something” a floating signifier, a word or phrase that directs the audience to no specific object. But what does it mean to intensify an empty word with the modifier “quite”? One meaning is that the speaker doesn’t know how to describe “something” but wants the audience to think he does (“quite impressive”). Compare “That was mighty fine,” “That’s really it,” “That’s pretty OK.”
Afterward, West talked to supporters on the White House steps and passed around Donald’s “Make America Great Again” hat, Ivanka’s “Make Earth Great Again” hat, and Jared’s “Travel Space Again” hat—three more floating signifiers.
At the same time, people in Florida were picking their way through the neighborhoods leveled by Hurricane Michael and resorting to a floating signifier of their own: “unbelievable.”