The Meaning of Cities   /   Summer 2017   /    Signifiers


Wilfred M. McClay

Universal Composition, 1937, Joaquín Torres-García (1874–1949); photograph: Philippe Migeat; Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; © CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY; © copyright Alejandra, Aurelio, and Claudio Torres 2017.

Populism as false-bottomed box.

It is sometimes said that the history of ideas is the history of words, because what we are able to think is conditioned by what we are able to say. But this claim seems a bit presumptuous. It might be more accurate to say that the history of ideas is a history of compelling but poorly defined words, the sort of words that people sling around all the time, words that they assume they fully understand, that they serve up as incantations, even build their lives around, even fight to the death for, until they are called upon to give a more fine-grained account of what such words actually mean.

Then, under cross-examination, their responses become hesitant and defensive, or angrily dismissive, as hidden presuppositions wobble, sway, and then collapse. Plato’s Socrates was the all-time champion of this sport, exposing those with a penchant for using such words sloppily and unthinkingly as pompous fools venturing onto exceedingly thin ice. But as you may have noticed, the Great Gadfly himself rarely offered definitions of his own. Freedom, justice, dignity, equality, democracy, community, the market, the public, the people: Such grand notions form an essential part of our discourse, yet none of them are very well understood. We live our lives suspended in just such tenuous webs of signification.

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