Under Discussion: O Absent Signifier!

Sherlock Holmes
~ A guest post by Jacqui Donlon ~

If you have been cruising around the Forum lately watching the home page videos or participating with the visiting scholars, you would have heard this phrase quite a lot. Absent signifier.

I first heard this term in the HeroesX discussion board posts from Lenny Mueller. Now that I have started reading more of Douglas Frame’s work, I see it there. It is a great phrase but if someone were to ask me what it means, defining it might be a little tricky. How does one define something that is not there? Perhaps I would say it means that the known can also define the unknown, thereby making the unknown known. But there are other more entertaining ways to define this term.

Let us look at positive and negative space. Can we see negative space? Sure: take a look at the sculpture photo below.

bronze sculpture cropped

Pieces of metal have been assembled together to form a design. However, the juxtaposition of the tangible now joined together has created an intangible, the negative space where there is no metal – the squiggle thing in the center that shows the wall. It is part of the sculpture’s design but it has no metal, no mass; it has no anything. So the known shapes have defined the unknown. Shift any of the metal pieces in any other direction and that specific negative squiggle shape will cease to exist. So it is a defined shape even though it is empty space.

metal washer

Let’s take it another step further. In this photo the shape of the metal washer is a circle. However the negative space created by cutting away the metal is a square. It is an easily recognized shape, but in this case it is recognizable only by its absence of matter. What is more, the absence of matter is now clueing us as to function. This negative space is telling us that the round washer is to be placed over a square bolt. So the negative space is providing new data, providing another known.

It is rather elementary, no? And that is what’s coming up because I am moving on to another favorite subject – Sherlock Holmes.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story “Silver Blaze” a wonderful example of absent signifier occurs. Here in this passage, Sherlock is as usual, leap years ahead of Victorian era Scotland Yard in detection.

Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

Perhaps in The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet, Sherlock is using the “metal washer” method — the known leads to unknown, which then in turn, provides a new known. What do you think?

It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

Logic is key to all of this signifying, absent or otherwise, and I bet there are those of you out there who can present a mathematical proof illustrating an absent signifier, or draw a map of one. I would love to hear about your examples. Just follow this trail to the forum and don’t forget your deerstalker hat!


Jacqui Donlon is a freelance Design Director for K-12 educational publishing, a participant in Hour 25, and was a Community TA for HeroesX.v2. Jacqui is grateful to the HeroesX and CHS community for providing the portal into this beautiful new world of ancient poetry.

Image credits

Bronze sculpture by Yo (Propia), via Wikimedia Commons.
All other photos via Wikimedia Commons.