“New Corona Cases”: the Ultimate Floating Signifier

If there is one thing that Saussure’s revolution in linguistic thinking taught us it is that all semantic meaning is relational, that is, that words or terms seldom have a fixed meaning. Rather, they gather their meaning in any given moment through their relationship with the other words or terms with which they are deployed. Even- Zohar, among others, has taken these  insights into the broader field of culture and taught us  to observe the perpetual  dynamics of symbolic repertoires  in a similar way.

For example, while most of us today presume, given our cultural training, that Shakespeare is a transcendent genius who will always be recognized as such, we have to be open to the idea that at some point in the future, the contextual armature that makes this appear self-evident to us might not be there for others, and that they may, in fact,  cast him aside in their canonizing efforts for, say,  Erica Jong.

The key term here is “contextual armature”, that is the set of relations, implied or explicit, that give a word or term meaning in any given moment.

When we speak of floating or empty signifiers we are referring to words or terms whose contextual armature is so vague or unclear as to deprive us of the ability to derive any stable sense of meaning from them.

In recent decades, political leaders and the press that works to pimp the population on their behalf have come to see the enormous value that semantically empty, if at the same time,  emotionally evocative signifiers can  have in mobilizing  the populations they lead to act in one form or another.

“Weapons of Mass Destruction” is a classic example in this regard. What is particularly meant here is vague. But that’s just it. They really don’t want us to have a conversation aimed  at actually regressing the chain (or lack thereof) of relations undergirding the term. They  imply that it is something really bad and leave it at that, so as to incite  vague sense of dread inside our brains. And all too many of us are content to leave it there without further relational exploration

Today we are inundated with daily reports about new “corona cases”  which we are clearly meant to be seen as a bad thing in and of themselves. But do we really have the relational information needed to jump to that conclusion?

First of all there is the question of testing, and the fact that the number of infected people might be much larger than we know and that the vast majority of them may have already had and overcome the disease and are effectively immune to it. There is also the apparent fact that the vast majority of “cases” do not require hospitalization nor do, according to Italian and Spanish statistics, result in death. Indeed, if one believes in the idea of herd immunity, which has been the way the human organism in its collectivity has defeated viruses again and again over history, the rise in “cases” could be seen as a  good thing. In short, “new corona cases” may in fact “mean” a lot less clear things than our media regularly suggest to us it does.

The same could be said about the term “corona deaths”. Hold the tomatoes please. The ability to tease out the exact cause of death in people with multiple pathologies  is notoriously difficult and the methods for assigning  a definitive viral cause in such matters  differ greatly  from place to place.

It would seem that the only non-floating signifier we have at this point—given the lack of widespread testing and the questions about whether  infection is per se  is bad—for judging the magnitude of what we are up against as a mortal threat is to measure the number of “excess deaths” (this years as a opposed to recent non-corona years)  in places where the virus has hit hard.

Strange, isn’t it  how this  relationally  solid measure,  at least in relative terms, is almost wholly lacking in our conversations at a time when  largely empty,  and highly emotionally evocative signifiers like “new corona cases” inundate our news and our consciousness?

Thomas S. Harrington is a professor of Iberian Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of the recently released  A Citizen’s Democracy in Authoritarian Times: An American View on the Catalan Drive for Independence  (University of Valencia Press, 2018).