Why do Empty Signifiers Matter

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

Ch. 3. "Why do Empty Signifiers Matter to Politics?", Pp. 36-46.
An empty signifier is, strictly speaking, a signifier without a signified. This definition is also, however, the enunciation of a problem. For how would it be possible that a signifier is not attached to any signified and remains, nevertheless, an integral part of a system of signification? ... The only possibility for a stream of sounds being detached from any particular signified while still remaining a signifier is 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. What is this possibility? (Laclau 1996: 36)
Here we are in my opinion veering off from semiotics and entering the realm of philosophy wherein the sign does not compose of the the interrelationship of the signifier and signified but rather of the signififer and it's "possibility" to function as a signifier, detached from any "particular" signified. In a sense, though, every signifier is detached from a "particular" signified, because when we enter the Peircean semiotics then the hallmark of symbols is that they are "general".
An empty signifier can, consequently, only emerge if there is a structural impossibility of signification as such, and only if this impossibility can signify itself as an interruption (subversion, distortion, etcetera) of the structure of the sign. That is, the limits of signification can only announce themselves as the impossibility of realizing what is within those limits - if the limits could be signified in a direct way, they would be internal to signification and, ergo, would not be limits at all. (Laclau 1996: 37)
And we have a conundrum. It is initself despicable of me that I have to resort to quoting Greimas only hours after reading his dictionary, but here we have an "implicit philosophical doctrine" which states that there are "limits of signification". Does this contention "conform to empirical principles"? The case ultimately rests on me not having read de Saussure thus being unfamiliar with the implicit philosophical doctrines in Laclau. Personally, I would like to believe that there are no such "limits" to signification for there is, after all - and now I have to resort to Bakhtinian lingo - "an infinity and eternity of meaning".
An initial and purely formal consideration can help to clarify the point. We know, from Saussure, that language (and by extension, all signifying systems) is a system of differences, that linguistic identities - values - are purely relational and that, as a result, the totality of language is involved in each single act of signification. (Laclau 1996: 37)
Today [13.11.2012] is also the day that I decided on one of the key terms in my bachelor's thesis: concourse. Decidedly ignoring B. L. Whorf's and one of Roman Jakobson's reviewer's use of the term, I am going to define it in line with Nauta and some buddhists; that is, generally, as "an act or process of coming together and merging". Thus if discourse is "a system of differences" then concourse is "a system of similarities". I'm going to appropriate an under-used concept and invest it with my own "difference". [This is where I left this text to go work on my article about concursivity, returning a month later] The problematic part about concursivity is bringing similarities to the fore - e.g. explaining how actual bodily behaviour and the semantic content of verbal descriptions coincide.
The condition, of course, for this operation [the pure cancellation of all difference] to be possible is that what is beyond the frontier of exclusion is reduced to pure negativity - that is to the pure threat that what is beyond poses to the system (constituting it that way). If the exclusionary dimension was eliminated, or even weakened, what would happen is that the differential character of the 'beyond' would impose itself and, as a result, the limits of the system would be blurred. Only if the beyond becomes the signifier of pure threat, of pure negativity, of the simply excluded, can there be limits and system (that is an objective order). But in order to be the signifiers of the excluded (or, simply of exclusion, various excluded categories have to cancel their differences through the formation of a chain of equivalences to that which the system demonizes in order to signify itself. Again, we see here the possibility of an empty signifier announcing itself through this logic in which differences collapse into equivalential chains. (Laclau 1996: 38-39)
It is very difficult to chew through this kind of discussion, but I imagine that in order to signify Russians, for example, as an enemy (pure danger), all different manifestations of Russiannes must be collapsed into a "chain of equivalences" - one should believe that all Russians are the same. I don't know much about Russia, but the example of Chinese would be better, as I am aware that there are five or six very different varieties of "Chinese" people.
Let me go back to an exmaple that we discussed in detail in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: the constitution, according to Rosa Luxemburg, of the unity of the working class through an overdetermination of partial struggles over a long period of time. (Laclau 1996: 40)
Finally a concrete example, although the rest of the paragraph makes very little sense. In any case, the unity of the working class (in marxist rhetoric) is an empty signifier.
...gold is a particular use value which assumes, as well, the function of representing value in general. This emptying of a particular signifier of its particular, differential signified is, as we saw, what makes possible the emergence of 'empty' signifiers as the signifiers of a lack, of an absent totality. (Laclau 1996: 42)
The case of gols representing value in general seems like a regular case of a metonym. It almost seems that empty signifier is a weird form of metonym wherein "that which it is a part" does not exist.


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