Obama & Hillary: “Signifying is worse than lying!”

Anyone even remotely interested in the 2008 presidential election is probably well aware of the ongoing linguistic jabs against certain presidential hopefuls. Sure, verbal acts that work to both obscure and obfuscate a candidate’s political platform come with the territory. However, the presence of gendered and raced bodies seems to have problematically broadened the boundaries of both colloquial and conventional public discourse in the 2008 election.

As opposed to critiquing Senators Clinton and Obama for their politics, presidential candidates, political pundits et al. have desperately resorted to age-old rudimentary significations based solely on sex and race (or both). While Clinton has been in the hot seat for being both emotional and unemotional, Obama has been criticized for not being black or masculine enough. Read: neither is fit to be President of the United States—an assessment based on sex and race, not political platform.

Read again: they are unfit because the presidency is not in their “nature.”

To be sure, this type of bigotry comes as no surprise. After all, we do live in a society that is structurally sexist, racist, classist, heterosexist, etc. Nonetheless, this does not assuage my discontent. The linguistic jabs at Clinton and Obama are beyond the usual boundaries of commonplace verbal digs often evidenced in political arenas. However, let’s face it—there is a reason for this. Both Clinton and Obama are signified. Ideas about them by way of race and sex (or both) are already determined—thus, they are, as revolutionary psychoanalyst, Frantz Fanon, would suggest, already overdetermined.

This sort of overdetermination opens both Obama and Clinton up to all sorts of racist and sexist significations, none of which are innocuous, by the way. Religion scholar Charles Long argued that “signifying” is worse than lying. Signifying is a verbal act where names are given to realities through processes of objectification. In english, people give meaning to people and things based on their ideas of themselves (and others). This act then works to overdetermine the other (or the phenomenon) through discourse. Problematically, meaning most often conceptualizes and categorizes the other as “Other,” thus setting up power relations in which language is the instrument of subordination.

In other words, recent attacks against Clinton and Obama such as this, this and this, along with Foucauldian suggestions of Clinton’s supposed hysteria and Obama’s supposed, well, take your pick, are signifying acts which have changed the rules of the discourse, thus emphasizing racist and sexist stereotypes, not politics, as reasons for supposed incompetency.

Worse yet, Clinton and Obama have remained relatively silent about these attacks (against themselves and each other). God forbid they say anything. If they do, they will be criticized for pulling the race or sex “card.” But, they should say something! In fact, they must say something. How are we to envision their hopeful ideas of "change" (or here) if they don’t call the structural, institutional, individual, sexism, racism, and other “isms” embedded within the fabric of American culture on the carpet once and for all? Shouldn’t their ideas of “change” include a critique of the bigoted signifying acts, which seek to put both candidates (Obama and Clinton) in their “place” and keep them there?

I certainly think it should. I think the candidates (all) are missing an opportunity here. Nothing would speak more to “change” than the acknowledgment of real acts (both verbal and physical) of racism and sexism and the implications of each in the lives of everyday Americans. What better way to show one’s real concern for humanity, including their own? And just think of the humanizing possibilities. If they took me up on this suggestion, Hillary might be able to become human without the help of Bill and Obama might be able to not only silence those attempting to coerce him into the false confines of race and gender constructs, but also concomitantly disrupt some of the injurious significations of each.

Now that’s change!