Political fashion statements, or Re-evaluating the postmodern critique on language in the era of Trump

I started reading Michiko Kakutani’s The Death of Truth while I was still reading Laurent Binet’s The 7th Function of Language. The first of these is an elegant critique of Trump’s assault on truth, which tracks the development of a sort of nihilistic epistemology through the literature of the past seventy odd years. The second is a work of fiction which re-animates a number of key figures from late twentieth century intellectual life in order to play out a fable about the power of language. The two books are very different in terms of both genre and intent. But they share a notable common focus: the characters and characteristics of postmodernism, and the influence these have had on our understanding of the relationship between language and reality. As such, together they offer an interesting if unexpected jumping-off point for looking at our current struggle to make sense of the times in which we’re living.

In Kakutani’s case, the more dogmatic aspects of postmodernist thought – and particularly what it preached about the dissociation between language and meaning – are presented as one of the contributing factors to today’s post-truth environment. Postmodernism is presented as the antecedent for the mixture of nihilistic relativism and ironic provocation that’s practiced by the alt-right. The splintering of the grand narratives of the modernist era, she argues, have led to a culture in which my truth has replaced the truth. And while this tradition of thought had (and continues to have) an emancipatory effect when applied to specific battles and used for pragmatic or progressive purposes, it’s now also become a tool used by the already-powerful as a way of further exercising that power.

Laurent Binet’s novel is a very different type of text. It’s a satire on the heyday of the superstar poststructuralists, when Roland Barthes was dining with François Mitterrand, and Jacques Derrida and John Searle were squaring off over the felicity of speech acts (a relationship which, in the novel, results in one of them being mauled to death by attack dogs). As Nicholas Dames puts it in his New York Times review, the book is part policier, part Kingsley Amis campus novel, all stitched together by the occasional authorial intervention about the challenges of the writing process. At the heart of the story is the elusive search for a theoretical formula about language (the ‘seventh function’) which would grant its user supernatural rhetorical powers. This operates both as a MacGuffin-like narrative device for driving the plot forward, as well as a symbol for the power that language has in shaping our understanding of both real and fictional worlds.

Despite featuring presidents Mitterrand and Giscard in prominent roles, and the plot involving various diplomatic machinations and secret service capers, the novel isn’t, in fact, that explicitly political. Yet its playful exploitation of ideas from literary and linguistic theory – and the convoluted burlesque it imagines for the theorists responsible for these ideas – makes it an excellent companion piece for a political era dominated by memes and ‘fake news’.

Both of these books then, in their own way, are contemplations about the power of language in society, and about the ways in which that power is dependent on dominant trends of thought. They’re both about politics and the way that language is manipulated by those who have the authority to regulate (or at least influence) the relationship between words and meaning.

There are countless examples from the last year and a half which suggest we’re living in a world which could have been written as a thought experiment for postmodern language philosophy. But the one which perhaps exemplifies this most concisely is the muddled controversy over Melania Trump’s coat.

It was Barthes who popularised the idea that fashion is a type of language. That the choices we make when assembling an outfit are an expression of our identity, mood and purpose. The ‘meaning’ of this language is as much in the interpretation as the intent of course – and in the age of social media, this interpretation has become a free-flowing creative sport.

A prime example is the ironic conspiracy theory started by someone on Twitter last month that the Queen had been trolling Donald Trump through her choice of brooches. On the first day of his visit to the UK she apparently chose a brooch given to her by Barack and Michelle Obama. She then followed this with one which was a gift from Canada and which resembled, from a certain angle, a snowflake. Given his antagonistic stance to both these parties, the speculation was that the Queen was covertly indicating her political affiliations through her choice of accessories.

As interpretations go, this seems rather fanciful. The incident with Melania Trump’s coat, on the other hand, is more of a genuine conundrum. Whereas there’s little concrete evidence to suggest that the Queen was purposefully using her jewellery as an act of political symbolism, it’s very difficult to see how Melania’s coat wouldn’t be interpreted as some sort of political intervention. Yet what it was actually intended to mean still seems to be anyone’s guess.

The incident occurred when she made a visit to some of the migrant children who’d been forcefully separated from their parents at the Mexico-Texas border as per her husband’s policy, and who were now being confined in ‘tender age’ shelters. On her journey there and back she was photographed wearing a green jacket with the slogan ‘I really don’t care, do u?’ emblazoned on the back. Unsurprisingly, the significance of this message provoked a great deal of speculation on social media.

A brief timeline of how the interpretation of this event unfolded goes something like this. Attempting to clarify matters following the storm on social media, the First Lady’s spokesperson quickly tweeted that the message was a red herring. ‘Today’s visit w the children in Texas impacted @flotus greatly. If media would spend their time & energy on her actions & efforts to help kids – rather than speculate & focus on her wardrobe – we could get so much accomplished on behalf of children. #SheCares #ItsJustAJacket’.

Less than two and a half hours later, however, her husband was offering a different interpretation: ‘“I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?” written on the back of Melania’s jacket, refers to the Fake News Media,’ he tweeted. ‘Melania has learned how dishonest they are, and she truly no longer cares!’.

By this time the coat’s slogan had already been turned into a meme, with one Twitter user replacing the ‘REALLY DON’T CARE’ text with ‘VOTE IN NOV’, and another one setting up a funding page http://ireallydocare.com where people could donate to a variety of different immigrant-support groups.

By the end of the day news organisations such as the BBC were running features offering a variety of different possible interpretations, ranging from ‘she really doesn’t care’ to ‘it’s just a jacket’. Other outlets were posting pieces on ‘What We Know About How Melania Trump Decides What to Wear’, which consisted mostly of a list of designers who’d refused to dress her. Meanwhile, at a Stop Separation rally at a border town in Texas, a reworking of the jacket’s slogan had become the most popular protest sign.

Political historians were also weighing in on the debate by now. For instance, Giovanni Tiso considered possible historical parallels for the ‘I really don’t care’ phrase, linking it to the Italian slogan ‘me ne frego’ which was adopted by Mussolini and came to operate as ‘an explicit character trait of Fascism’. While Troy Patterson in the New Yorker, argued that the coat constituted one of ‘the most significant conjunction[s] of clothing and incipient fascism’ of the last century.

And it has continued as a political meme since. For example, Patricia Okoumou, the woman who scaled the Statue of Liberty on the Fourth of July as a protest against the policy of confining immigrant children, wears a design based on this as her signature outfit. Her version has the slogan ‘I really care, why won’t u?’ on both its front and back.

Yet despite all this uptake and speculation, there was no consensus about its original intended meaning – or indeed, whether it actually had a meaning at all. And while this sort of indeterminacy might be something to celebrate when discussing the relationship between language and reality in abstract terms, the concrete issues here are clearly highly serious.

As fashion statements go then this couldn’t be much more literal. Yet without the back-and-forth of query, explanation and clarification that plays a vital part in the determination of any expression of meaning, the phrase is simply a provocation to open interpretation. And what’s perhaps most noteworthy is that this same pattern of inflammatory remark followed by angry free-for-all over its interpretation has become a regular strategy in political communication. Boris Johnson’s burka comments are the most recent example. The intention, it seems, is to exploit rather than contain the protean nature of linguistic meaning.