Towards a Modified Discourse Theory pt. 1: Laclau’s “Empty Signifier”

Laclau headshot saussure.jpeg

This trilogy is a small summary of a brief discussion I’ve been having with Lasse Thomassen – researcher, writer and lecturer of all things connected with Derridean theory. The discussion started off with a general question being raised in a seminar concerning whether Derrida’s concept of “to-come” (1992, multimedia) was active in all discourses or only in a few (most notably the discourses discussed by Derrida himself, which articulated democracy, justice, and hospitality, to name a few). One answer to that question – that it is indeed active in all discourses – made me feel like there could be some tight connections between the concept and Laclau’s concept of the “empty signifer” (1996), connections that might help us to bridge Laclau’s strict focus on antagonistic relationships as the moment of individuation, which would allow us to fully theorize about other kinds of social relations and their role/s in processes of identification.

But like every story this too has it’s beginning, middle and end. In this first part I will discuss the “empty signifier” and the theoretical problematics that is entailed to that concept. Problems that concern the antagonistic focus inherent in Laclau’s body of theory. In the 2nd part of this trilogy I will introduce Derrida’s “to-come” – and address some different interpretations that could be derived from it. In the final chapter I will link the two concepts together, by showing both similarities and differences, and thereafter argue that this connection could make both concepts better suited for a political non-essentialist analysis. Hence the title: Towards a Modified Discourse Theory.

Discourses as non-complete entities
But let’s start off with Laclau. First of all we need a sense of his (and of course Mouffe’s too) definition of discourse. For him, the intrinsic emptiness in all discourses is what constitutes them as unstable, inessential and contingent formations. No discourse can be a complete entity – i.e. a social construction that would be independent from all other constructions – because that would mean that the construction would be essentially given and resistant to change. It would be a meta-physical entity that we couldn’t even begin to understand. This is exactly the problem with the structural linguistic theory of Saussure – from who Laclau and Mouffe starts off. In his well known Course in General Linguistics (1974) Saussure portrayed a linguistic structure as a system of difference where every sign gets its meaning from its relational position vis-à-vis other signs. In such a system meaning is only constituted through difference and every sign becomes non-essential in character, but on the other hand, the meaning of the system itself becomes essential – something in itself as it is not standing in relation to anything at all. The relational positions of the included signs thus become fixed – which means that meaning itself is fixed. Meaning is still arbitrary – yes, and still relational – yes, but yet it remains fixed. Even Saussure recognized this problem and because of that he included the time-factor in his theoretical body. Linguistic change, he postulated, can only come from something as undefined and un-theorized as time itself (1974: 73-74).

Because of this theoretical problem Laclau and Mouffe introduced several notions, among them their concept of the “field of discursivity” (1985/2001: 111) – a field in which every discursive formation partakes in and which they cannot fully master. The field of discursivity is characterized by infinitude, i.e. by the multitude of meaning that every object/sign/element can take. This field conditions every object as discursively constituted, while at the same time it prevents every attempt to fix their meaning, since they can always be put in new relational constellations, which would assign them new meanings. Every discourse thus becomes a semi-stable fixation of the field of discursivity and there is always something outside every discursive formation – structure in Saussure’s terminlogy. This ‘outside’ makes every discourse into a non-complete entity, which allows us to theorize about structural change. But it also allows us to theorize about power – and it is for that latter analysis that the concept of empty signifier is of the utmost importance.

Emptiness at the discursive centre
The field of discusivity allows us to understand the non-complete character of meaning, but it doesn’t allow us to understand how a semi-stable meaning actually is constructed. As Laclau and Mouffe says: “Even in order to differ, to subvert meaning, there has to be a meaning.” (1985/2001: 112), and how is this meaning constructed? How is it that certain elements in the field of discursivity actually become connected to one another and thus turn themselves into a chain of relational positions (which is Laclau and Mouffe’s definition of discourse)? This is where the empty signifier comes into play. The empty signifier is the discursive centre, what Laclau & Mouffe calls a nodal point, i.e. a privileged element that gathers up a range of differential elements, and binds them together into a discursive formation. But it is only by emptying a certain signifier of its content that this process can be achieved. Its emptiness makes it possible for it to signify the discourse as a whole. The power of a certain signifier is therefore coterminous with its emptiness. motherofgod.jpgIt is only through this emptiness that it can articulate different elements around it, and thus produce a discursive formation. (As David wrote in his Notebook entry on Rauschenberg’s “Mother of God” (notebook): The centre is at the same time both brilliant and actually pretty much nothing at all). With this emptiness the nodal point becomes universal in its scope, but it cannot be completely universal, since it is only given meaning by the particular elements, which it stands in relation to. Rather it is becomes a signifier of an absent universality – of a lack within the discourse’s core. It becomes:

”… present as that which is absent; it becomes an empty signifier, as the signifier of this absence” (Laclau, 1996: 44)

The centre’s emptiness is what makes discourses possible, but at the same time they condition every discourse as empty – as a non-complete formation. The discursive centre, far from being an identifiable centre with a given – positive – content thus becomes a function of negativity, i.e. a function of something that the discourse lacks, to use Lacanian terms.

We can now begin to understand how this emptiness is related to power, not only the power to be able to construct a discursive formation, but also as a power-struggle between formations. For Laclau, the empty, incomplete character of every discourse is the driving factor behind politics as such. Politics, looked at from this perspective, then becomes a struggle to fill the emptiness with a given content – to suture the rift of the discursive centre and to create a universal hegemony. The political struggle is therefore a struggle of identification, of obtaining a full/complete/positive/essential identity. An impossible project, but nevertheless a project that political discourses undertake. It would be a project aiming at the end of meaning and at the end contingency; towards “… the realization of a society fully reconciled with itself” (Laclau, 1996, 69). Given the impossibility of this project, antagonisms are introduced as the ”… symbol of my non-being” (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985/2001: 125), of what keeps the political project from realizing itself, i.e. from obtaining a positive identity and thus establish hegemony. So the antagonistic relationship – what keeps us from Ourselves (with a capital O) – is the only type of identity we can obtain. Partial, yes, but at least semi-stable.This is exactly what privileges the antagonistic relationship in Laclau’s body of theory, because it constructs the antagonistic relationship as the moment of individuation, as constitutive of the discursive formation, using Torfings wording:

”… the outside is not merely posing a threat to the inside, but is actually required for the definition of the inside. The inside is marked by a constitutive lack that the outside helps to fill.” (2004: 11)

So the discursive centre is empty and needs to be filled, this is the very notion of politics that Laclau has brought us. A notion that always produces antagonisms, since Laclau’s notion of politics determines that the emptiness within needs to be filled with a given content. What keeps us from performing that operation (which is actually the field of discursivity) is symbolically articulated as an antagonism. So the only identity that we can obtain, according to Laclau, is this antagonistic version of being kept from Oneself.

But what if we could portray that inherent emptiness in other terms, terms that would still address discourses as lacking identity, but not necessarily illustrate their centres as something that needs to be filled/mastered by political projects – or even identified as possible to be filled for that matter – which would inevitably produce a symbol for that project’s failure (the antagonistic other)? What kind of effects would that reformulation have for the analyses of social relations and of processes of identification? Instead of focussing à priori on one type of relationships, we would have an abundance of relationships – all part in processes of identification and the moment of individuation. Such a reformulation would widen social space – such as it is portrayed by traditional anglo-saxan discourse theorists, and open up for a more nuanced and valid discourse analysis – more in tune with the social. Or at least, that’s what I feel.

But could we theorize such a leap without turning the discourses into positive entities? Without marking social relations as essential/stable relationships? And could we still withhold the emptiness within the discursive centre? It is my understanding that Derrida’s “to-come” gives us that possibility. And so we turn to part 2.

Claes Wrangel


  • Saussure, Ferdinand de, 1974, Course in General Linguistics, Fontana, London
  • Derrida, Jacques, 1992, ‘Force of Law: The “Mystical Foundation of Authority”’, in Drucilla Cornell, Michel Rosenfeld and David G. Carlson (eds), Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, Routledge, London
  • Laclau, Ernesto, 1996, ”Why do empty signifiers matter to politics?” i E Laclau, Emancipation(s), Verso, London: 36-46
  • Ibid, 1996, ”’The Time is Out of Joint’” i E Laclau, Emancipation(s), Verso, London: 66-83
  • Laclau, E & Chantal Mouffe, 1985/2001, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, Verso, London
  • Torfing, J, 2004, ”Discourse Theory: Achievements, Arguments and Challenges” i Howarth, D. & J. Torfing, Discourse Theory in European Politics: Identity, Policy and Governance, Palgrave, Basingstoke

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