What exactly are floating signifiers? In this article we unravel this concept.
In recent months, as a result of the emergence of Podemos, the “ floating signifiers ” have been spoken on numerous occasions to explain the ideological triumph that has shaken the Spanish political landscape. What are floating signifiers? What theory do they refer us to?
Theoretical framework of floating signifiers
The theory of floating signifiers and equivalences comes from the works of Jacques Lacan and Ernesto Laclau and is part of the tradition of psychoanalysis. The premise from which it starts is that the ideological space is made of unbound, unbound elements, whose identity is open, overdetermined by their articulation in a chain with other elements, that is, their “literal” meaning depends on its metaphorical significance plus.
At this point it is very important to remember that for Lacan there is always a primacy of the signifier over the signified (on language and psychoanalysis you can consult the article I wrote for Psychology and Mind a few weeks ago by clicking here ).
Those elements that are unbound, that “float” in the significant chain, can be such things as “corruption”, “rich”, “big businessmen”, “people”. The ideological struggle then resides in what Lacan calls ” Points de capiton” (nodal points) that will be able to totalize and include all those “free”, “floating” elements, in a single series of equivalences. In this way, each of these floating signifiers will be part of a series of equivalences. Through the metaphorical plus, they will connect with all the other elements of a signifying chain, thus determining their identity. For example, for a communist, fighting corruption is fighting the capitalist order.
But, as Slavoj Zizek reminds us in The Sublime Object of Ideology: “The chain is possible only on the condition that a certain signifier, the Lacanian One,“ cushions ”the entire field, and, by encompassing it, effects its identity. ”. The crucial point to understand both the success of Podemos and that of any hegemonic ideology is precisely this: knowing how to determine which Lacanian one is capable of cushioning the rest of the floating signifiers.
Floating Signifiers: Practical Examples
It is common, when debating with an orthodox communist, to end up running into walls that prevent the discussion from moving forward. These walls are the materialization of the ideological nodal point of communism that is usually the capitalist order. In this way, the war will be the result only of imperialist expansion of private capitalist interests. The equivalence here is as follows: to fight for peace is to fight against the capitalist order. Another classic is that of patriarchy and machismo: capitalism is a masculinized system, made by and for men, to fight against machismo is to fight against capitalism. If we adjust our peephole well, we will see that the pattern is eternally reproduced, since the nodal point that quilts communist theory and that endows it with identity is the capitalist order. All the free elements, all the floating signifiers, can be reduced to the explanation of the contemporary capitalist order and the fight against it will give us the answers and the solutions. Herein lies the success of a hegemonic ideology.
But obviously ideology is everywhere. For a neoliberal, for example, floating signifiers such as “freedom”, “property”, “individual”, always tuck under the nodal point of private property as they understand it. In this way, the concept of “freedom” will be inscribed in the chain of metaphorical significance plus private property. Examples: “There is only freedom in the private space, there is only freedom where there is private property or its reverse: there is no freedom in the public space. ” One of the greatest successes of neoliberal ideology is, for example, convincing us that there are no ideologies. A neoliberal will tell us, most likely, that we are little machines of marginalist calculation that is guided by selfish and individual interests and that maximizes its utility. The curious thing about this phenomenon is that we are never just utilitarians, but we must pretend to be utilitarians. In this way, I will plan for the day, a well-marked schedule or organize the space in my house in order to get the most out of everything. That is to say, I am at a meta-utilitarian level in which I must not be utilitarian, but impose a utilitarian vision of my life and tell myself: “how productive and practical I am when ordering this in such and such a way.”
Floating Signifiers and Ideology
Ideology is not a veil that prevents us from seeing behind things, ideology is the very foundation of our daily realities. And this goes hand in hand with the fact that an ideology triumphs when even the facts that at first glance contradict it begin to function as arguments in its favor. If I am a neoliberal who has defended austerity to the death as the best way to face the economic crisis and who, currently, in view of the catastrophic consequences that it has entailed both at the macro-economic level and the standard of living of the people, I continue determined that the problem is public spending is when ideology has triumphed.
We very often find that “the deficit has not been sufficiently adjusted” or “the resistance of the Welfare State is still too important to be able to apply normally the wonderful adjustment program that will solve everything.” This is the materialization of the success of a certain ideology. Everything is under suspicion and every element that contradicts my first premise is positively picked up to reinforce it.
Podemos is the rearticulation and construction of a new nodal point to pad floating signifiers that could have been padded under a different nodal point. In most European countries, elements such as “corruption”, “loss of national sovereignty”, “unemployment”, “poverty” have been collected and padded under the nodal point of the national struggle against globalization as well as under the point of the liberal-bourgeois decadence of contemporary capitalism. In other words, the chaining has been carried out under neo-fascism (the National Front is a terrible example of this).
Podemos has padded those unbound elements under the chain of “democracy” and “people against caste.” And it has worked wonderfully well as it has generated a new hegemony.
Don’t miss the interview with the author of this article: Alejandro Pérez Polo