Blocked Signification

By Kalling Heck

In “Kid Orientalism: How a Global Future for Child Sexuality is Now Surfacing,” Kathryn Bond Stockton’s keynote at the Midwest Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference (MIGC), she discussed—amongst other topics—how signifiers at times coalesce to block sight.  Discussing how the trope of “the-child-in-peril-in-the-third-world” restores the lost innocence in the now-sexualized images of the western child, Stockton offers the example of a magazine cover with a child staring directly into the lens of the camera so as to elicit a particular response.  For Stockton, the child here becomes invisible, and all that can be seen is the social message.  This started me thinking about how signifiers can present meanings that conflict with the very images that carry them.

I would not venture to say that for Stockton there is some kind of unmediated access to the child as a non-signifying object available—I don’t believe that she thinks of this as a possibility.  I wonder, though, what other meanings could the image of this child hope to represent?  That is, is there a way to unlock an image such as this so as to present something else?  Something “authentic”?  Perhaps even the child itself, whose presence is both there and absent?

I likewise wonder about the role of affect here.  This image seems to rely on pathos.  That is, this cover makes its appeal by signifying the needs that this child represents, and the responsibility of the viewer towards these needs.  But, for Stockton, the emotional response requested here is denied by virtue of the fact that the child is invisible.  Instead, there is only the signifying block, a kind of lacuna that, while clearly presenting a cause, fails to convey the real presence of this child as a suffering being.

This makes me further wonder: how can affect be effective?  If the blocked signification here disrupts affective response, what then is the relationship between signification and affect?  It seems to me that, at least in this model, there needs to be some loosening of signification for affect to take hold, some indirectness of sorts, that allows for a more effective affective response.  But, given this loosening of meaning, how can affect be controlled?

[Kalling Heck is a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.  His research interests revolve around questions of aesthetics as they pertain to International Art House Cinema and as informed by continental philosophy.]

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