Many of you will have seen Steven Ramey’s recent post on how nacho cheese is a floating signifier: it lacks a legal definition and, as such, its use is recreated on an ongoing basis by different social actors, many of whom profit from peddling their wares as “nacho cheese.”
Steven’s post was picked up and commented on by Timothy Michael Law at Marginalia. While reading, I noticed a provocative juxtaposition between the nacho cheese comments and an advertisement for other Marginalia content:
“Israel,” like “nacho cheese,” is a floating signifier subjected to ongoing recreation and contestation. In fact, the quotation from Steven’s post would be just as true if we swapped the terms:
“Israel” illustrates the ways names, really all symbols, have no inherent meaning. People, operating within society, place meanings on labels. Official definitions, when they exist, establish that meaning, though often people will contest the official definition, building their assertions on an alternative origins narrative or a standard that is broader or narrower than the official definition.
This is a perfect example of why the study of religion, when it is at its best, sheds light on workings of all forms of culture and society. There’s nothing unique about our subject matter; religion is not a rarefied realm distinct from profane matters. On the contrary, the modes of analysis we apply to “religion” help us understand the social world in general, whether we’re talking about the Buddha, the maintenance of nation states, or food services.