07 April 2002


Evaluate the Categories of Empty Signifiers and Floating Signifiers, and Their Relevance for Political Analysis

Daniel Hutagalung

Introduction: Empty Signifiers and Floating Signifiers

What is an empty signifier? This question has to delivers when this essay attempts to elaborate the conception of empty signifiers and floating signifiers in explain and analyse the socio-political phenomena, and emphasize both conception in explain Indonesian political transition during 1997 until 2000.

Ernesto Laclau (1996) introduces a concept of empty signifiers. He states that an empty signifier is “a signifier without a signified” and he continues by explains that “an empty signifier would be a sequence of sounds, and if the latter are deprived of any signifying function the term ‘signifier’ itself would become excessive” (Laclau 1996, p. 36). A question rises to clarify the statement: how a signifier is not attached to any signified? Laclau explains that the only possibility for a signifier without attached by a signified and still remains only if “through the subversion of the sign which the possibility of an empty signifier involves, something is achieved which is internal to signification as such” (Laclau, 1996, ibid).

To emphasize and elaborate the conception of empty signifiers, I would like briefly describing Saussure’s conception of language, which has strong relation between them. Generally, in his Course and General Linguistic (1974) Saussure introduces language as a system of differences, and he makes distinction between the concept (signified) and the speech sound (signifier). For instance the signifier that sounds like ‘dog’ refer to the concept of an animal with four legs which bark as the signified. The combination of the two linguistic is sign. The relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary, and the argument for the arbitrariness of the sign rests on the demonstration that neither the nature of signifier, signified or their relationship is fixed or determined (Potter and Wetherell, 1987, p. 25).

However, the principle key of Saussure’s theory to the arbitrary nature of the sign has means that there is no natural relationship between signifier and signified (Howarth, 2000, p. 19). For Saussure arbitrariness means that meaning is exclusively constituted through the relational differences that obtain within a language. The linguistic sign has no positivy in isolation from the linguistic system, therefore meaning is constructed exclusively in terms of differences between itself an the other signs in the system,

“In language there are only differences without positive terms. Whether we take the signified or the signifier, language neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system” (Saussure, 1974, p. 120)

Back to Laclau’s conception of empty signifier, it should be related with he and Mouffe criticise Saussure’s analysis of language. They argue that Saussure’s analysis considers a system of differences without positive terms, in which the meaning of a term is “purely relational and determined only by its opposition to all others” (Laclau and Mouffe, 2001, pp. 112-113).

The conception of empty signifiers is fully explained within the conception of discourse. For Laclau and Mouffe, articulation is defined as any practice establishing a relation among elements which their identity is modified as a result of the articulatory practice, and “the structured totally resulting from the articulatory practice” they call it as discourse. They also explain about differential positions, which if they appear articulated within a discourse is they call it ‘moments’; in contrast, any difference that is not discursively articulated they call it ‘element’ (Laclau and Mouffe, 2001, p. 105). For them, any discourse is constituted as an attempt to dominate the field of discursivity. Consequently, the transition from ‘elements’ to ‘moment’ can never be complete if all identity is relational and all discourses is subverted by a field of discursivity which overflows it. Furthermore, the status of ‘elements’ is that of floating signifier cannot articulate to a discursive chain (Laclau and Mouffe, ibid, p. 113). Therefore, Laclau and Mouffe explain about the notion of nodal points (empty signifier)[1] as the privilege discursive in applying the moment into discourse, and to fix meaning of floating signifier,

“The practice of articulation, therefore, consists in the constitution of nodal points which partially fix meaning; and the partial character of this fixation proceeds from the openness of the social, a result, in its turn of the constant overflowing of every discourse by the infinitude of the field of discursivity” (Laclau and Mouffe, 2000, 113)

Refers to Laclau’s explanations of the possibility of empty signifier, he argues that: first, the same signifier can be attached to different signifieds in different contexts, which the signifier would not be empty but equivocal: the function of signification in each context would be full realised. Secondly, the signifier is not equivocal but ambiguous: either an overdetermination or and underdetermination of signified prevents it from being fully fixed (Laclau, 1996, p. 36). Moreover, Laclau stressed that,

“An empty signifier can, consequently, only emerge if there is a structural impossibility in signification as such, and only if this impossibility can signify itself as an interruption (subversion, distortion, etc) of the structure of sign”. (Laclau, ibid, p. 37)

Laclau argues that each signifier constitutes a sign by attaching itself to a particular signified. However, in signifying something not difference, but radical exclusion, as the ground and condition of all differences, there is no production of one more difference can do it. There is, therefore, only if the signifiers empty themselves of their attachment to particular signifieds, the signification became possible (Laclau, ibid, p. 39). The totally of signifying is precisely a system of differences in essentially divided into two, which it means the limit between the two cannot became the limit of the system. This true limit always antagonistic, but these limitation has a necessary effects into the emergence of empty signifiers or master signifiers and quilting together the floating signifiers, and also has function as the condition which possible for the construction of ideological formation, as Laclau has mentions,

“there can be empty signifiers within the field of signification because any system of signification is structured around an empty place resulting from the impossibility of producing an object which, none the less, is required by the systematicity of the system. So, we are not dealing with an impossibility without location, as in the case of logical contradiction, but with a positive impossibility, with a real one to which the x of the empty signifier points” (Laclau, 1996, p.40)

For Laclau, every discourse must be constituted and has an attempts to dominate the field of discurvity by expanding signifying chains which partially fix the meaning of floating signifiers (Torfing, 1999, p. 98). Laclau explains about the ambiguity of the floating signifiers. He gives an example about a signifier ‘democracy’ which is “essentially ambiguous by dint of its widespread political circulation: it acquires one possible meaning when articulated with ‘anti-fascism’ and a completely different one when articulated with ‘anti-communism’” (Laclau, 1990, p. 28). Laclau then, concludes that to hegemonize a content, would amount to fixing its meaning around the empty signifier.

In addition, empty signifier has a role to account for the unity of society within chain of equivalence (Howarth, 2000, p.119). Zizek says that, “what is at stake in the ideological struggle is which of the ‘nodal points’, points de caption, will totalise, include in it series of equivalencies these free-floating elements” (Zizek, 1999, p.88). Moreover, Zizek argues about floating signifiers as,

“If we ‘quilt’ the floating signifiers through ‘Communism’, for example, ‘class struggle’ confers a precise and fixed signification to all other elements: to democracy (so called ‘real democracy as opposed to ‘bourgeois formal democracy’ as a legal form of exploitation); to feminism (the exploitation of women as resulting from the class-conditioned division of labour); to ecologism (the destruction of natural resources as a logical consequences of profit-oriented capitalist production); to the peace movement (the principal danger to peace is adventuristic imperialism), and so on”.

For Zizek, the point is the emergence of ‘subject’ is strictly correlative to the positing of the central signifier as ‘empty’. For example if someone become a ‘subject’ when the universal signifier to which s/he refers (in Zizek case sample is ecology) is no longer connected to some particular content, but “is experienced as an empty space to be filled out by the particular (feminist, ecologist, socialist, ect.) content” (Zizek, 1996, p. 131). Zizek points out that “the empty signifier which positive content is the ‘stake’ of the ideologico-political struggle ‘represent the subject for the other signifiers’, for the signifiers which stand for its positive content” (Zizek, ibid).

Furthermore, how to explain socio-political phenomena within the notion of empty signifier is the aim of this essay. This essay has attempts to elaborate the conception of empty and floating signifiers and their relevance to political analysis. In addition to applying those conceptions, I would like to analyse Indonesian political transition after the fall down of New Order military regime, which has ruled in Indonesia for 32 years. During the transition period between 1997-2000, there are social production of empty signifiers, which can be seen as interesting example in explaining the notion of empty and floating signifiers.

The plan of this essay is as follows; firstly, to elaborate the conception of empty signifiers and floating signifiers; secondly, describes the background of Indonesian politics under the rule of military regime until the rose of people resistance and the collapse of military regime; thirdly, the role of ‘Reformation’ as an empty signifiers playing in the hegemonic struggle; finally, an evaluation of the whole of this essay ideas.

Indonesia 1966-1997: The Reign of Terrors

After the military coup de’etat in 1965 which was supported by United States to overthrow Soekarno’s regime -- the Indonesian’s first president, there was a mass killing between 1966-1971 followed that coup de’etat, toward the real or alleged communists. The slaughter during those years was killed more than one million people, and also set the stage for Soeharto’s 32-year dictatorship. After he took over the power from previous regime, Soeharto started to established a military regime, with strong supported by US Government, and blamed the Indonesian Communist Party which was trying to make a rebellion and over throw Soekarno’s government with killed six army generals.[2] Since seized the power Soeharto banned Indonesian Communist Party as a political party and any subject or idea related to the Communist-Marxist-Leninist ideology was prohibited, and can be accused as subversion act and can be prosecute at least 20 years jailed or maximally drawn to capital punishment. At least – according to official report – more than 500.000 people were killed or disappeared during the transition period from 1966 to 1971 (Anderson, 1999, p.15)

Soeharto’s military regime then given the name to his regime was New Order while the previous regime was Old Order. After five year seized the power, he liquidated the political party from ten political parties to become three political parties, and his party was the single majority. He was ruled the country with ‘iron hand’, centralizes the state power into presidential body and regional authority was controlled by the military, issued many laws which supported the regime politics and established a systematically repressive regime. New Order regime also produced a discourse of the latent dangerously of communist in order to eliminate any opposite movement and effectively establishes self censored among society to deny any ideas or terms which can be accuse has a relation into communist or socialist movement. For example, if there are any worker strikes or peasant protests, or also student movements, the government officer or military officer will announce that there are communist movement behind those movements, or indicated have strong relation to the communist, slowly but sure these movement will stop, and then military will arrest the leader of the movement and sentences them the into jail and prosecuted as subversive crime.[3]

The discourse of ‘the dangerous of communist’ was very effective muffled any movements or activities which directly against the regime. In legitimised their policy in banned any social movements, the New Order regime produced some discourses such as ‘development’, ‘stability and unity’, and also ‘Pancasila democracy’.[4] Any activities which attempt to decline government authorities, will be categorised as “an anti-development” or “anti Pancasila” as national ideology and that mean are subversive crimes. Moreover, the New Order regime systematically also eliminates any word which had been using during Old Order which indicates has indication or relation to socialist-communist terms. The direct effect is people avoid using any term or terminology which has relation which left term such as: comradeship, equality, revolution, people, worker and replace those words with any words which have more soft meaning. Euphemism is a symptom during New Order regime.

The discourse of “stability and unity” has means that the country needs economic and political stability. Moreover, economic and political stability can be achieved if economic growth remain stable every year, and also at the same time there is no political upheaval which can gives direct and depth impact to economic growth. Consequently, every kind of protests such as worker strike, student demonstration, peasant protest, always handled and faced with repressive ways.

However, during this time, there were some number of insurgences was raised. Those movements rose merely because of some reasons. Firstly, there were unbalanced and unequal economic distribution between centre and regions. Second, they resist to regime’s political policy, which is high repressive, and caused many people died or disappeared.[5]

In the early of 1990’s is the beginning of student resurrection. They brought some issues such as “democracy”, “human rights”, “freedom of expression” and “academic freedom”. This movement gave impact to the worker movement, peasant movement and women movement. Some NGO’s also produced the discourse of “human rights” and “democracy” in public opinion through the media.

However, in 1997, when there was a huge economic crisis which swept almost all of Southeast Asian countries especially Indonesia, made some multinational company in Indonesia was collapse, and extremely increased of US dollar exchange rate to Indonesian rate, and the price of people daily basic needs was increased, affected to the public trust toward the regime. People become restlessness, and was leaded by student movements there was a massive and wide resistance, demanding resignation of government and produced a discourse of “reformation”.[6]

In undemocratic economic and political system “democracy” has no content, because it only exist in the various forms which it can actually realized, and “democracy” is presents as that which is absent. “Democracy” becomes an empty signifier, as the signifier of that absence.[7] This also means that ‘democracy’ requires the social productions of empty signifier and equavalential relations (Laclau, 2001, p.12). The absence of ‘democracy’ produced an empty signifier that is “reformation”, as a condition to fixing the meaning of ‘democracy’, ‘stability and unity’ and also ‘the dangerous of communist’ as floating signifiers.

The Role of “Reformation” as an Empty Signifier Playing in Hegemony

Laclau sees that society is a plurality and particular groups if demands, that is why if want to be a subject of a certain global emancipation, Laclau emphasizes that “it can only be politically constructed through the equivalence of a plurality of demands” (Laclau, 2001, p. 10).

Refer to the explanation above, the function of empty signifiers consequently negative and opposite to a common enemy. This is important for the signifier became empty and because its makes the different identities more closely. The role of empty signifiers is to fix the signification of hegemonic identity in a manner conforming to the chain of equivalence in order for the unity the society in the different identities in different discourse; an empty signifier draws the antagonistic relations. Antagonism has an important role in building identity and hegemony, and the negation of identity tends to give rise to social antagonism.

In the end of 1997, during the economic crisis, when student movement was rose steadily, the discourse of ‘reformation’ had related to the demands of: first, presidential changes; secondly, issues in corruption, collusion, and nepotism; thirdly, political and economic reform; and fourthly, abolish the military role from political field and economic sector.

Afterwards, the discourse of ‘reformation’ from particular discourse among student became a universal discourse and spreading broader among all elements within society. At this level ‘Reformation’ became an empty signifier and people who are support or agree with this discourse identify themselves as a ‘Reformist’ and they identify other people who still support the government policy as an ‘Anti-Reformist’.

On this stage, an antagonism plays an important role in building identity and hegemony. Social antagonism makes every social meaning is contested, and then political frontiers emerge: every subject of politics understands their identities through the antagonistic relations, because an antagonism identifies their enemies. Antagonism reveals the boundaries or political frontiers of a social formation, which identity is no longer stabilised in a meaningful system of differences, moreover it is contested (Howarth, 2000, p. 106)

In explaining the construction of antagonism, Laclau and Mouffe introduce the conception of logic of equivalence and the logic difference. The logic of equivalence consists of the creation of close relation of the particular identity of actors within a discourse by create of negative identity as their enemy (Laclau and Mouffe, 2000, p. 127). In explain Indonesian case, the logic of equivalence has make distinguish between ‘the reformist’ on one side and ‘the anti-reformist’ on the opposite side as an equivalential identity which consists of the alliance of status quo elements.

On the other hand, the logic of difference is tends to expand the syntagmatic relations, and expansion of discursive order break the existing chain of equivalence. As Laclau and Mouffe have say, “the differential demand which segregated them from their chain of equivalence in the popular chain and transformed them into objective differences within the system, transformed them into ‘positivities’ and thus displaced the frontier of antagonism to the periphery of social” (Laclau and Mouffe, ibid, p. 130)

The notion of ‘Reformation’ as an empty signifier can unify the different identities into one discourse which is ‘economic and political reformation’. ‘Reformation’ also conditioning the fixation of floating signifier such as ‘stability and unity’ or ‘the dangerous of communism’. These floating signifiers can be changes in meaning within different discourses, which under the discourse of purely democracy, the floating signifier ‘stability and unity’ is not a kind of any legitimate repressive actions.


To sump up there are some points which I can conclude as my conclusion. The conception of empty signifiers obviously can explains the hegemony project, which has based on empty signifiers, such as “reformation” as an antagonism against the repressive, exploitative form of military regime in Indonesia as a case study. However, in general, applying the categories of empty and floating signifiers and their relevance to political analysis seems to be more abstract. For instance, Laclau and Mouffe argue about the subject emerges as the empty place of a lack within a dislocated structure, seems to me to abstract, because here the development of subject is not unnecessary but contingent, and then constitute itself as a fully achieved identity within a recomposed social totality.

Finally, those notions – such as empty signifiers, floating signifiers, logic of difference and equivalence, antagonism, frontiers, etc – are helpful for me to understand the political construction of the institutional or in society, e.g. state, society, etc, and also their role in explains the struggle of hegemonic project.


Anderson, Benedict (1999), “Indonesian Nationalism Today and in the Future” in New Left Review No. 235, May-June 1999

Howarth, David (2000), Discourse. Buckingham: Open University Press

Laclau, Ernesto (1990), New Reflections on The Revolution of Our Time. London: Verso

Laclau, Ernesto (1996), Emancipation(s). London: Verso

Laclau, Ernesto (2001), “Democracy and the Question of Power” in Constellations Volume 8, No. 1, 2001

Laclau, Ernesto and Chantal Mouffe (2000), Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. London: Verso

Mulder, Niels (1998), Mysticism in Java: Ideology in Indonesia. Amsterdam: The Pepin Press

Potter, Jonathan and Margaret Wetherell (1987), Discourse and Social Psychology: Beyond Attitudes and Behaviour. London: Sage

Saussure, Ferdinand de (1974), Course in General Linguistics. London: Fontana

Smith, Anna Marie (1998), Laclau and Mouffe: The Radical Democratic Imaginary. London: Routledge

Torfing, Jacob (1999), New Theories of Discourse: Laclau, Mouffe and Zizek.Oxford: Blackwell

Zizek, Slavoj (1996), The Indivisible Remainder: An Essay on Schelling and Related Matters. London: Verso

Zizek, Slavoj (1999), The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso

[1] According to Torfing, the notion of nodal points is an empty signifier that is capable of fixing the content of range of floating signifiers by articulating them within a chain of equivalence. See Jacob Torfing, New Theories of Discourse: Laclau, Mouffe and Zizek (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), p.303

[2] On September 30, a group of middle-ranking army officers, attempted a coup de etat in Jakarta, the capital city of Indonesia. They claimed that a Council of Generals was planning to seize power from Soekarno, the first President of Indonesia since independence. They killed six top generals in Jakarta, and proclaimed a revolutionary council. For brief and general explanation, see Benedict Anderson, “Indonesian Nationalism Today and in the Future” in New Left Review No. 235 (May-June) 1999, pp. 3-17.

[3] For example, there are three students whose have some novels written by a novelist who accused involves in communist movement in 1965, was arrested and sentenced into jail for 8 years. They were accused in spreading the Marxist-Leninist-Communist ideology, even though the court failed to prove that they are guilty.

[4] Pancasila was a national ideology of the Republic Indonesia which has five basic principles. However, the New Order regime always made their own interpretation about everything which are appropriate or not to the Pancasila ideology. For brief introduction about Pancasila, see Niels Mulder, Mysticism in Java: Ideology in Indonesia (Amsterdam: Pepin Press, 1988), pp. 99-128.

[5] At least with minimalist prediction, if we simply try to estimate the total number of people who died violently or unnaturally during the New Order regime – and leave aside the maimed, the psychologically broken, the orphaned, and so on, a list might be make as follows: 1965-1971 at least 500,000; East Timor 200,000; Petrus (is an acronym for the organized slaughter of petty hoodlums, often previously agents of the regime) 7,000; Aceh (accused as separatist movement), perhaps 3,000; Irian (also accused as separatist movement), perhaps, 7,000. See, Benedict Anderson, op. cit., p. 15

[6] As I mentioned above, the notion of “reformation” had been chosen because the meaning of reformation is more softly than for example: revolution. During the flaming periods the discourse of ‘reformation’ is effectively had strong supported from any social groups, such as white collar middle class workers, workers, politicians, intellectuals, peasants, professionals such as doctor, lawyer, etc, and also some of businessman.

[7] Laclau gives an example about the notion of ‘order’ from Hobbes’ state of nature which “in such condition people need an order, and the actual content of it becomes a secondary consideration”, see Ernesto Laclau, Emancipation(s), London: Verso, 1996, p. 44.

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