Saturday, October 3, 2009

The representational politics of the AFC

Dr Randy Persaud: A favourite adage of linguists is “Dogs bark. But the concept of “dog” cannot bark or bite” (Hall 2007, 17). Linguists, of course, are interested in how effective communication happens. The Swiss linguist F. Saussure was one of the first people to explain this disjunction between the empirical instance (in this case dog), and the system that allows for this real dog to be grasped in language. It is important to understand that neither the word dog (in its written form), nor the sound dog when uttered in speech, has any necessary relation with the idea of dogs in general. Saussure argued that the relationship between the object and the concept is entirely arbitrary.

This thing is a little complicated so please be patient with me. Keep in mind I will demonstrate how activists are trying to make the AFC a multiracial party through linguistic gymnastics, or what I would later on explain as the manipulation of signs.

Saussure made an important distinction between langue and parole. Langue refers to the “underlying rule-governed structure of language, which enables us to produce well-formed sentences” (Hall, 33). Parole refers to an actual speaker or writer and/or to particular acts of speaking or writing (Hall, 33).

Saussure simplified this further. He made a distinction between the signifier and the signified. The signifier refers to the form of something – i.e. a word, photo, or sound. The signified is the concept to which to signifier refers. ‘Green’ at a set traffic of lights is the signifier, and ‘go’ is the concept. You will no doubt recognise that there is no necessary relationship between ‘green’ and ‘go’.

When the signifier and signified are fused they form a sign. Language is essentially a system of signs. For communication to occur signs are sutured, that is, they are joined together in sentences or images so that they produce a smooth surface of meaning.

Constructivists argue that meaning is always relational. Thus, using the same traffic light illustration noted above, they may argue that red, amber, and green only have meaning in relation to each other within a particular field of meaning. The same colours used elsewhere, independently of each other, do not have the same meaning. What, for instance, is the meaning of red, when the colour hangs by itself? Danger? Communism? Love?

We have now established that the relationship between signifiers and signifieds do not have any necessary meaning. How then do signifiers acquire the meaning that they take on? To make this straightforward we can say that signs are constituted by constantly bringing into relation signifiers and signifieds and through practices of representation. This has significance for Guyanese politics.

I specifically want to argue here that AFC supporters are hard at work trying to constitute the party as a multiracial sign. They are doing this through a number of practices and through a number of media.

You should recognise that the AFC does not have anything so particular about it that makes it different from the PPP regarding ‘race’. As Rohanie Persaud recently observed, both the PPP and AFC have Indians and Africans in their top leadership.

Both parties have disavowed any interest in championing the interest of any racial group. Both parties are committed to the rule of law and to democratic governance. Both parties want a Guyana where men and women are ‘judged’ by the content of their character rather than by the source of their ancestry. Both parties have received multiracial support. Both parties are critical of those who appeal to race for purposes of political mobilisation, something that is actually illegal in Guyana. This can go on and on but you get the point.

Given the above, the question is – what specifically makes the AFC a multiracial party? The answer is simple – nothing! The claim of multiracialism is not about an empirical condition. Rather, it is part of a language game in which the AFC is desperately attempting to exploit some aspects of historical conflicts in Guyana to constitute its own political specificity. Another way of saying this is that the AFC is using its claim of multiracialism as tool of political mobilisation, something that fundamentally invalidates the original claim. Read more..

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