It’s sort of interesting to see how an apparently counter-intuitive model of identity uncontroversially (and probably unintentionally) finds its way into everyday life.
Consider, for example, the above church sign that I snapped on my way back from walking my dog this past weekend.
Suspending for the moment any commentary on just how some values are identified as “godly”–i.e., asking such questions as: by whom, according to what criteria, for what purposes, etc. (akin to those “destabilizing and irreverent questions” Bruce Lincoln advises, in Thesis 4, that scholars consider posing far more often than we do when we study so-called religious behaviors and texts)–and bracketing the idealist notion that sentiments called values somehow drive subsequent actions (I’m much more inclined to talk about social interests, though it can be a thorny technical term too), this church sign nicely captures that identity (in this case the particular one that we call meaning) is not an inherent quality of objects that is only later expressed or manifested in some public setting but, instead, is a subsequent attribute of generic things in the world that results from their having been situated within a prior system.
“Godly values give meaning to our actions.”
Of course, should we opt to complicate some of the sign’s message, e.g., reading “Godly” in a Durkheimian fashion and thus seeing those prior environments as historical and social through and through (much like a prior grammatical structure that we’ve each interiorized and which makes patterns of light and dark on computer screens or on that sign appear to us as language), then the meaning that results from an item’s relationship to other elements within any medium can now be understood as an entirely public and thus social and always political effect rather than an apolitical, inherent trait already lurking somewhere within the world. Historicizing that signifier “Godly” therefore allows us to see the deferral of meaning‘s source as being rather more complex than the sign might at first suggest.
Since signifiers that are said to be meaningful are all around us, our alternate approach to studying identification should be rather easy to apply in countless seemingly routine situations–such as a church sign, up the street, that unwittingly gives new relevance to Marshall McLuhan’s oft-quoted line that the medium is the message.