I received a question from the recent article I wrote regarding Laclau and Malaysia’s empty signifiers, which I think serves as an appropriate launching point for this essay:

“What do you think of the chances for a populist subject and empty signifier to form against UMNO-BN? Or do you think, electorally-speaking, such an empty signifier was already in place when the majority of those who voted in GE13 voted for Pakatan?”

This is an important question as it highlights another area which Laclau was famous for i.e. populism (the belief that the people should have greater involvement in governance, as opposed to power being concentrated among elite). According to Laclau, populism itself may function as an empty signifier by the very ‘universal’ demands it makes of the State. In this sense, one could say there are two kinds of empty signifiers: (1) the ‘bad’ hegemonic kind represented by the State and (2) the ‘good’ activist kind represented by populism.

Recall Part 1 where I noted that an empty signifier is simply what is produced by an oppressive state to legitimate their hegemony or to illusorily render their own particular aims as universal to those they govern. Such empty signifiers take on the form of propaganda and other State-sponsored media-machinery to nurture a covering of the hegemonic split i.e. the fact that a one group can never stand in proxy for an entire nation.

Remarkably enough, populism shares a similar form. Example, when Bersih (Coalition for Free and Fair Election) protested against the Putrajaya government in 2007, 2011 and 2012 they were not merely asking for clean and transparent elections. To be sure, the elections were the flagship issue of the movement but, as ‘everybody’ knows, what Bersih was really doing was challenging the rule of Barisan Nasional (BN) as a whole. Laclau writes:

“(In a) situation of radical disorder ‘order’ is present as that which is absent; it becomes an empty signifier, as the signifier of that absence.” (1996: 44).

Remarkably, one could argue that Bersih as an empty signifier signified the absence of order which BN presided over. Populist movements like Bersih in this sense embody dislocations i.e. encounters with a traumatic Real which disrupts a given discursive field. Dislocations are shocks to the system which both threaten existing identities whilst producing the possibility of new frames and coordinates. A dislocation paradoxically exposes the impossibility of full closure (or representation) whilst simultaneously spurring new socio-political creation or articulations.

So to quickly address the opening question above, yes, empty signifiers in the form of populist movements had already formed against the BN and were primarily responsible for the bloody nose it was given at the thirteenth general election (GE13). To reiterate, the good news is that populist movements can emerge to exemplify the lack produced by hegemonic ruling powers which can itself spur immense change.

The ‘bad’ news, though, is the flip side of what it means to be an empty signifier. It is simply impossible (albeit noble) for populist movements like Bersih to represent the fight for Malaysian justice in its entirety. Bersih represented an attempt to universalise the struggle for Malaysian freedom and whilst there is no question Malaysia needed such an endeavour, and whilst Laclau himself would probably endorse such activism, it remains the case a particular cannot logically be a stand-in for a universal. There will always be a lack, a marginalised group which Bersih (no matter how trendy and forceful) cannot adequately give voice to (e.g. the poor in Borneo who depend on BN’s generosity and for whom no suitable alternative to subsistence-voting is available?).

The critical Laclauian point here is how the empty signifier represents the positivisation of the impossible lack in society. A rather crude example from everyday life would be the attraction of the female breast to males (I’m obviously referring to male heterosexuality here but the astute reader can easily apply this analogy across all sexual orientations). Let’s be honest: Every straight guy after puberty has a strange attraction to girls’ boobs.

But we must ask: What is it about that allure? What is it about milk-secreting organs which become such insatiable magnets for male desire? The answer provided by psychoanalysis Jacques Lacan (from whom Laclau drew much of his political philosophy) is that boobs embody the objet petit a i.e. that impossible object which both promises to, but can never (in principle), deliver the ultimate Edenic fullness sought by humankind. It is not that the boob itself is ‘paradise’ – it is that ‘paradise’ itself has (albeit temporarily and fleetingly) taken up residence in the (usually clothed) breast, especially in those belonging to a desirable person. The exposed breast, on the other hand, will also coincide with a dissipation of desire, exposing the fact that it was not, indeed, the locus of paradise initially thought…and thus the man’s eyes travel elsewhere…

How does this connect with politics? Like sexual desire, political society, too, is impossible. Like a dream lodged in an attractive body, a perfect politics is something which cannot be attained. In Malaysia, many wish to topple BN and replace it with a Pakatan Rakyat (I’m being conservative here, not least given the problems with the Alliance). I long for this too, but the lesson from Laclau is that should it happen, there will always be something missing.

Granted the country may be better off without the endemic corruption of the BN, but if Malaysians believe they will be fulfilled should BN lose the next elections, they will be sorely proven wrong. Inevitably there will be groups who will continue to feel marginalised, ‘cheated’. Inescapably, the newly formed government will also be guilty of oversights, ‘preferential treatment’ and inequality.

Frustration and lack are a guarantee in politics if only because frustration and lack are constitutive of the very society which politics exist to ‘battle’ over. In conclusion, populism is like an attractive cleavage: Very effective for mobilising action but, ultimately, not something anybody in their right mind will anchor a relationship in.

Alwyn Lau is presently pursuing a PhD at Monash University (Malaysia). His research interests include Malaysian politics, psychoanalysis and critical theory. He has written extensively on the psychoanalytical resonances surrounding the Bersih movement in his paper Just Jouissance: Discerning and Subverting a Politics of Inherent Transgression in Socio-Political Malaysia, co-authored with Steven Sim (Member of Parliament, Bukit Mertajam, Malaysia) and published in the Asian Journal of Political Science. .

Further Reading:

Laclau E (1996) Emancipation(s). London: Verso.

Laclau E (2000) Identity & Hegemony: The Role of Universality in the Constitution of Political Logics. In: Butler J, Laclau E, and Zizek S (eds), Contingency, Hegemony, University: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, London: Verso, pp. 44–89.

Stavrakakis Y (2007) Laclau with Lacan on Jouissance: Negotiating the Affective Limits of Discourse. In: The Lacanian Left: Psychoanalysis, Theory, Politics, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 66–108.