Floating signifiers is a term used in semiotics and discourse analysis to denote signifiers without referents, such as a word that doesn't point to any actual object and with no universal, agreed upon meaning.
Claude Lévi-Strauss originated this term, where he identifies terms like mana (magical mystical substance of which the magic is formed), or oomph (American slang term for flavor in the figurative sense) "to represent an undetermined quantity of signification, in itself void of meaning and thus apt to receive any meaning". Daniel Chandler defines the term as "a signifier with a vague, highly variable, unspecifiable or non-existent signified". As such a "floating signifier" may "mean different things to different people: they may stand for many or even any signifieds; they may mean whatever their interpreters want them to mean". Such a floating signifier - which is said to possess "symbolic value zero" - necessarily results to "allow symbolic thought to operate despite the contradiction inherent in it". In Emancipation(s), Ernesto Laclau frames empty signifier a context of social interactions. For Laclau, empty signifier is the hegemonic representative of a collection of various demands, constituting a chain of equivalence whose members are distinguished through a differential logic (as in elements exist only in their differences to one another) but combine through an equivalential one. This chain of unsatisfied demands create an unfulfilled totality, inside of which one signifier subordinates the rest and assumes representation of the rest via a hegemonic process.
Uses and examples
The notion of floating signifiers can be applied to concepts such as race and gender, as a way of asserting that the word is more concrete than the concept it describes, where the concept may not be stable, but the word is. It is often applied to non-linguistic signs, such as the example of the Rorschach inkblot test. Roland Barthes, while not using the term "floating signifier" explicitly, referred specifically to non-linguistic signs as being so open to interpretation that they constituted a "floating chain of signifieds." For example the American flag is at once a signifier of the geographical nation it represents, of patriotism to that nation, of the nation's set of governmental policies, and/or of the ideologies associated with it, such as liberty. Depending on the context, the flag can carry either positive or negative significance.
The concept is used in some more textual forms of postmodernism, which rejects the strict anchoring of particular signifiers to particular signifieds and argues against the concept that there are any ultimate determinable meanings to words or signs. For example, Jacques Derrida speaks of the "freeplay" of signifiers: arguing that they are not fixed to their signifieds but point beyond themselves to other signifiers in an "indefinite referral of signifier to signified."
- Claude Lévi-Strauss, "Introduction à l'oeuvre de Marcel Mauss" in Mauss, Sociologie et Anthropologie, Paris, 1950.
- "Oomph definition". Thefreedictionary.com.
- Chandler, Daniel. "Semiotics for Beginners". aber.ac.uk.
- Jeffrey Mehlman, The "Floating Signifier": From Lévi-Strauss to Lacan, Yale French Studies, No. 48, French Freud: Structural Studies in Psychoanalysis. (1972), pp. 10-37.
- "Race: a Floating Signifier? Stuart Hall speech". caffeine_sparks.
- Claude Lévi-Strauss, Introduction to Marcel Mauss, (1987) London: Routledge, 63-64.
- Semiotics for Beginners: Modality and Representation
- SBF Glossary