In overwhelmingly empty news to hand, the image-sharing app Instagram has taken a moral stand on eggplant. The stand against this fruit has not been taken on Paleo grounds but, apparently, for the way it is newly used as a search term by those fluent in emoji.

These pictograms, whose use was locally legitimised by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, are now in frequent enough exchange that they have begun to function as a sort of language. Just like words in English, icons in emoji can refer to things other than the literal object they represent and so, apparently, eggplant now means penis.

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This is a great shock to me and, I imagine, the entire emoji-illiterate community, who would have naturally supposed that the male organ was already signified on smartphones by a more visually verbatim dick. Probably a bright yellow one with a single happy winking eye.

Surely there must be greater use for a cartoon penis in an emerging language than a cartoon aubergine. Then again, scholars who have given their lives to the study of the phallus in language remind us that this threshold signifier only holds its power by remaining symbolically veiled.

As Jacques Lacan might have said if he lived into the era of emoji, “LOL OMFG Aubergine Clapping Hands Doughnut”.

That anyone but a linguist should give any work at all to emoji penis analysis might seem silly and if you are already impatient with the matter, you are probably quite sane.

Nonetheless, emoji has begun to function as a Rosetta Stone for the complex exchanges of meaning in our time, and to ignore its frequent discussion in traditional and social media is, possibly, to ignore the radically changing nature of representation itself.

For some months, a campaign to add racially diverse face symbols to emoji built and ended in recent and widely reported success. This seems kind of nice and inclusive until you consider that the initial emoji faces were not representative of whiteness but formed from an obviously synthetic school-bus yellow.

This cuneiform was as racially charged as Hello Kitty, which is to say, not at all. To presume that the original emoji had as its referent some sort of Caucasian hegemon instead of any mobile device user is some really weird humanism.

To be tediously clear, saying that emoji had no racist undertones is not at all the same thing as saying that the world is not racist. The world is clearly racist. But hexadecimal diversity will do nothing to promote material diversity in institutions outside text message.

In fact, there is an argument that the imposition of racial categories into a language where there were previously none — not even the dominant culture’s presumed whiteness but just a canary-yellow blob — is self-defeating identity politics.

Yes, I am quite aware that a discussion of cultural and social identity in the context of text messages seems like a stupid excess, but it wasn’t me who started it and it certainly wouldn’t have been my preference to see, as we did, last week, a discussion of drug abuse and emoji.

Actual adult human journalists reported on a study that revealed that Australians use more beer and drug pictograms than the 15 other nations surveyed.

Let’s set aside the concern that our emoji data is being retained and just ask: WTF. There are more reliable data on Australian drug consumption available than how many beer icons we send to our friends.

If we want to know about the problems of racism, drugs or dick pics, there are more dependable studies than emoji. But in this era of hashtags and inert thinking, we look increasingly to an absolutely symbolic register of meaning in order to fix the real.

To call our time post-material hardly begins to do justice to the blank idiocy of such discussion.

I understand that people want to be nice and that these moments of symbolic inclusion, or, as in the case of the eggplant penis, exclusion, are intended morally and well. But if we believe, and we increasingly do, that everything bad in the world can be fixed by recourse to representation, we necessarily forget the real those symbols purport to represent.

It’s not just a case of not having time to address both the materiality of real-life problems like racism, drug abuse or abusive amateur porn and their representation. It’s a case of representation eclipsing the real itself.

In a world where an eggplant is permitted to represent a penis or a beer is seen as genuine evidence of a social problem, the scope for material change closes to a point that focuses entirely on the symbolic.

We see this not only in discussion around emoji but in questions on the nature of discourse itself. The way to fix social problems is increasingly seen as a discursive one, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the great demand for better “role models” in media or the use of the self, and the selfie, as a route to social change.

The deaths of Chan and Sukumaran stand as brutal and heartbreaking reminders of the biopower of the modern state. But some of the real-life emoji protest against these acts are disturbing.

For all its good intentions, the I Stand For Mercy video released two days ago, and alternately critiqued and commended, is a document of our emerging blankness and disdain for the real.

Here we see actors and celebrities empty not only of the most basic understanding of realpolitik — “The time for diplomacy is over” urges one naive militarist — but of the existence of the real.

This is not to say that the several people who held out their selfie-sticks and filmed themselves saying emotional things at the peak of their weepy sincerity did not mean well. But the belief in the use of the symbol, the celebrity or the role model as something that can truly effect material change is almost complete.

Again. They mean very well and have devoted time and tears to what they believe to be action. That their aims are good is not in question. That they could do anything beyond expressing public grief is not in question. There was, in the case of the recent executions, very little that could be practically done.

But Brendan Cowell’s explanation — you can see him in the video, he’s the guy who asks our Prime Minister to show some eggplants — that he was heartbroken doesn’t really excuse this latest celebrity outpouring. Cowell and all the others in the video, despite their noble aims, are really only serving their own interests as functioning symbols in the language of celebrity hieroglyph.

That these people, like so many others, believe that “standing for” and representing a concept can lead beyond representation itself is peculiar. But entirely forgivable, I guess, in a world where a penis is also an eggplant.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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