So as skeptical as I usually am of symbolic victories, I can't help but feel like the South's recent gestures to roll back Confederate iconography indicates a substantive sea change in American politics. This should not be overstated -- many also thought the same thing about the election of a black president -- but the question remains: what did these signifiers actually signify?
As remote from actual politics as he often is, I think Lacan actually gives us a good way to think about this.
Lacan begins with the foundational and uncontroversial insight that symbolism is potentially arbitrary: any symbol can be used to represent anything. This is just as true of the shapes that we use to represent sounds (letters) as it is of the patterns we use to represent semantic/pragmatic meaning (words) as it is of the geometric arrangements we use to represent concepts (flags, for example). All that matter is that everyone is able to "communicate" (in some sense) using the symbols.
That point introduces an important consideration in our understanding of symbols: how they relate to society. Intuitively, it seems like we would just use symbols as a direct representation of the world. But because the symbols we use are arbitrary, we can actually use them in any way we like. We can even use them to misrepresent the world, and nothing about the way symbolism works can prevent this.
For that reason, what actually determines symbolism is power. Lacan's insight was to explain how power does this: by pinning down meaning.
Specifically, power takes the network of symbolism that already exists -- the definitional relationships between different words, for example --maps it onto the world in the way that it finds most convenient, and then holds it there. So for example, power cannot easily change the relationship between words like "freedom" and "good" -- but it can adjust what in this world "freedom" applies to, and then the chain of associations will drag "good" along with it. The crucial point here is that power only needs to control certain symbols and certain words to reconfigure the entire world of meaning. If it just relentlessly polices and dictates the meaning of certain representations - what Lacan called points de capiton -- an entire epistemelogical shift can follow.
This perspective, I think, becomes useful when we're thinking about Confederate symbolism. Some symbolic victories are just that -- completely symbolic, because they just involve trading out one arbitrary signifier for another. It is for example not a particularly compelling step forward if racists just start using "thug" in place of other racial slurs that we've successfully vilified. But when what is at stake is a point de capiton, the situation changes, because power has structured its entire world of meaning around it. Imagine, for example, how radically our entire political discourse would have to change if the Left successfully seized control of the word "freedom". This is unlikely to happen precisely because of its importance to the powerful -- the right would throw everything it has into preventing you from doing it. But if this did happen, it wouldn't just be a symbolic victory; it would signify an enormous shift in power and in the way we think about things.
Is the Confederate flag a point de capiton? For over a century it has certainly been ruthlessly fought over like one. And it would seem that in American political discourse, the flag's function has been to redefine racism as things like "tradition" and "independence". If it is compromised, the entire legacy of the Confederacy is compromised, and with it the discourse of states rights, of noble heritage, and so on.
Three takeaways here if we take Lacan seriously (and I think that we should). The first is that symbolic victories should be understood as faits accomplis of underlying power shifts; they are never significant in and of themselves, but they can mark something significant that has happened. The second is that not all symbolic victories are equal; most will be completely trivial. And the third, I think, is that we can probably learn a lot about power by paying attention to the symbolism that it is most vested in policing. The strongest case for the Confederate flag's significance is the very ferocity with which it was defended.