The essence of our current situation is estrangement of meaning. We see or hear one thing but are told its opposite. This disjunction creates profound distress, even a slight feeling of madness…
Melania’s jacket. Of all the confounding things that have come out of this administration, I find myself struck anew by Melania’s $39 parka, the one you’ve seen with the graffiti-style scrawl on the back: “I really don’t care, do u?” I’m almost disgusted with myself for caring about it. It’s a fucking jacket. Her spokeswoman even tweeted “#ItsJustAJacket” and told the media, “There was no hidden message.” As comedian Stephen Colbert pointed out, it’s technically true—the message wasn’t hidden, it was emblazoned. But. But. It’s still a message. It can’t not be a message.
That the semiotics of the First Lady’s clothing are interpreted on a level tantamount to foreign policy judgements should at this point not come as surprise, wrote Max Lakin in a 2016 essay on Racked, just as Melania was taking center stage. Since then, the First Lady’s sartorial choices—like her stilettos on a trip to visit after Hurricane Harvey in Texas—have made headlines. Her choices are seen by the left as gaffes that prove her to be clueless at best, and callous at worst. The right is all too happy to normalize her choices; her spokeswoman smartly chastised the media for paying too much attention to Melania’s “wardrobe,” appealing to a kind of feminist sensibility. I am inclined to agree, except that this message, displayed in this way, begs to be deciphered. This garment and the message inscribed on it is a signifier too uncanny, too strange, to be an accident.
I am not in the business of spinning such things in a way that demonizes her or the Trump administration. I’m much more interested in understanding what was signified. But that has become nearly impossible to do. As civic life in this country continues to fracture and political discourse continues to devolve, the only remedy, if there can be one, is mutual understanding. That requires a willingness to understand the other side, to give them the benefit of the doubt, and to engage in good faith. Demonizing the other side is the antithesis of that. But intentional obfuscation is just as destructive. This administration is obfuscation par excellence—not since 1984 has political messaging been so deliberately confounding. BBC News posted a short piece, ‘Melania Trump Jacket: Five Things ‘I Don’t Care’ Could Mean.’ All five possible explanations were plausible, yet none were believable. When taken together, they seem to indicate a sixth possibility: that Melania’s jacket intended to perplex, to confound, to proclaim and then erase—essentially to gaslight. To fuck with the media, and us, and the children forcibly separated from their parents, and perhaps even the President himself. Either way, the communiqué is chaos. It’s not that nothing means anything. It’s that everything means everything, even multiple and contradictory things. In such a semiotic clusterfuck, it is increasingly impossible to agree on any one interpretation. It’s hard, even, to sort out the difference between the meaningful and the meaningless, the signal and the noise.
In an excellent essay yesterday at The Cut, Rhonda Garelick explains,
We are being ripped away from the conventions of meaning just as surely as those children are being ripped out of their parents’ arms. But, she continues:
We must not accept an estrangement from meaning and feeling. We need to keep trying to make sense of all messages, no matter how painful or confusing. […] Yes, we do care.