Race, the floating signifier (1996) — the beginning of a handout for class

It is by Stuart Hall and it is a key text. I find myself caring about structuralism and poststructuralism as never before. But this is a q/d handout for the students.

Floating signifier in Oxford Reference:

A signifier without a specific signified (see sign). Also known as an ‘empty signifier’, it is a signifier that absorbs rather than emits meaning. For example, Fredric Jameson suggests that the shark in the Jaws series of films is an empty signifier because it is susceptible to multiple and even contradictory interpretations, suggesting that it does not have a specific meaning itself, but functions primarily as a vehicle for absorbing meanings that viewers want to impose upon it.

Question by Leslie: is the American flag a floating signifier? Comment by Leslie: signifiers, and floating ones, are working at the level of language. Race is not a thing, it is a relation. Question by Leslie: race can also be (and has been) treated like a keyword (Williams) — a complex/contested concept. Question by Leslie: What is the difference between floating signifiers (Lévi-Strauss ff.) and Williams’ keywords? Possible answer: a keyword has a complex and contested meaning, as may a floating signifier, but Williams is emphasizing history of words and the contexts in which they are used, whereas struturalist and poststructuralist theory emphasizes the working of language itself, the way words lead to other words, not to things).

…[R]ace works like a language. And signifiers refer to systems and concepts of the classification of a culture that structure its practices of making meaning. And terms like race gain their meaning not because of what they contain in their essence, but in shifting relations of difference, which they establish with other concepts and ideas in a signifying field. Their meaning, because it is relational, and not essential, can never be finally fixed, but is subject to the constant processof redefinition and  appropriation. Their meaning is subject to the losing of old meanings, and the appropriation and collection and contracting of new ones, to the endless process of being constantly re-signified, made to mean something different in different cultures, in different historical formations, at different moments of time. The meaning of a signifier can never be finally or trans-historically fixed. That is, it is always, or there is always, a certain sliding of meaning, always a margin not yet encapsulated in language and meaning, always something about race left unsaid, always someone on a constitutive outside, whose very existence the identity of race depends on, and which is absolutely destined to return from its expelled and objected position outside the signifying field to trouble the dreams of those who are comfortable inside.

Classification is necessary to create meaning. It also creates order. But when you combine classification and systems of power you get racism.

Visibility of race: the body as text: visible marker of difference: makes race seem like an essence — but it isn’t, even though racial thinking has concrete results and effects.

Race is not an essence, and cannot be traced to anything concrete. It is more like a language; it is relational and constantly shifting.

How does race, as a principle of classification, operate, how does it produce meaning? For all of society is shaped by that classification . . . race is just one of our ways of classifying.

Race is a cultural system. And race is a signifier because it is a visual marker of difference; it means in relation to other signifiers (this is why it keeps shifting).

Race as discourse: there ARE differences among people, different looks, etc., but it is in language that we ascribe meaning to these differences

The Enlightenment is big on classification … and an example of giving meaning is, you distinguish among groups and you decide which is more “civilized,” more “backward,” and so on. We have tried to locate race via religious, scientific, and anthropological discourse … all of these are efforts to make the differences we’ve marked out seem stable, inevitable, natural

We want visible markers of difference, markers we can see: is this person a slave? or what? We want the body to be readable. Because race is a cultural system we want to operate, operate in; we want visible indicators and want to believe they aren’t arbitrary, but are attached to something “real” … but race is not real in that sense.

So when we oppose racism, we’re opposing something that is contingent, not fixed, not guaranteed to remain stable or even to be a thing. Race is a changing concept, whose existence as such has effects.

Why does this matter for the interpretation of Sab? To answer this question, let’s go back to the Branche piece and see, once again, how he used the floating signifier concept, and then ahead to our 2017 articles on Sab.


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