Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

The meaning of inversion

Probably some clever semiotician has written about this, but the recent bizarre affair of La Quenelle got me to wondering: “When is an inversion not a significant inversion?” Or rather, when does a physical inversion not invert the signification?

The lewd gesture, invented by the French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala (described by The Independent as a “black French comedian”, for some reason)  is described by The Independent thus

An arm with an outstretched finger is pointed at the ground. The other arm is folded across the chest. The hand is placed on the first arm, showing how far up your enemy’s backside you wish to slide your “quenelle”. This hand is sometimes moved suggestively upwards.

Anyway, the gesture has been described as anti-semitic, and the above-linked article describes how a footballer has been punished for performing the gesture on the field. How can a gesture be anti-semitic? one wonders. Is this like the joke about the woman who calls the police to complain about the man who whistles bawdy tunes when he walks past her house?

It starts with the inventor, who has repeatedly been convicted of racial incitement for anti-semitic remarks. But then it takes a turn to the surreal: Some people describe the gesture as an “inverted Nazi salute”. Which brings me back to my original question: Is an inverted Nazi salute also a Nazi salute, or is it the opposite of a Nazi salute? Certainly when Satanists display an inverted cross, they mean it to cancel out the symbolism of the Christian cross; on the other hand, when the Pope (following St Peter) uses an inverted cross, it is an intensification of same. A flag flying from a ship’s mast is a sign of command; inverting the flag inverts the symbol to one of distress, and I think most people would otherwise naturally see an inverted flag as a sign of disrespect for the country, not as a show of support. It would be interesting to know how people would interpret an inverted Star of David; it is, alas, a mathematical impossibility… (There must be a joke in there, about an Israeli fisherman whose motor and radio breaks down, and he is baffled as to why his upside-down flag doesn’t attract assistance.)

The other part of the argument is that some people have made the gesture at Jewish targets:

 Alain Soral, an openly anti-semitic French writer and self-described “national socialist” political activist, recently posted an image of himself “doing the quenelle” at Auschwitz. He is a close friend and adviser of Dieudonne.

Imagine if Benjamin Netanyahu were filmed making a lewd gesture at Auschwitz. People would naturally interpret it as an anti-Nazi statement, expressing hatred for the crimes committed there. So this Soral made a lewd gesture that is the opposite of a Nazi salute at Auschwitz, and this is interpreted as a show of support for Nazis and the crimes committed at Auschwitz. I don’t mean to say that is not what he meant — it plausibly was. But this highlights the problem with speech codes and all attempts to ban expressive behaviour: You end up tangled in ambiguity, and ultimately you ban people rather than actions. Dieudonné’s gesture is anti-semitic because Dieudonné is anti-semitic. Of course, there are other crimes that depend for their definition on the perpetrator’s intention, for which character and personal history may be relevant. But delving into the meaning of a symbolic gesture is problematic ground for a law court.

I am reminded of the story of Abbie Hoffman being arrested in 1968 for wearing a shirt with a US flag design. He pointed out that the figure of Uncle Sam (in pictures and portrayed by actors) wears an American flag, and that a comedian had recently appeared on national television with a flag-design miniskirt. Only leftists are judged to be desecrating the flag by wearing it; “patriots’ are showing support for the flag by wearing.

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