Words, said anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009), are symbols of meaning. If I say to you, “I own a red car,” I have given you a set of symbols that you interpret in fairly concrete terms. More symbols — such as the exact brand, make, model, and year of my vehicle — will provide you with an even more elaborate understanding.
However, much human language is far more complex than this direct exchange of symbols and descriptions. Lévi-Strauss pointed out that many of our words are “floating signifiers,” meaning that “somewhat like algebraic symbols, [they] represent an indeterminate value of signification.” (Lévi-Strauss 1987:63,55)
For example, the cultural theorist Stuart Hall (1932-2014) described the word “race” as a “floating signifier”. One person might mean “race” as biological or genetic differences between people, another person means lineage and ancestry, another person means the social and cultural divisions of people, and yet another person assumes that “race” simply refers to the dissimilarities of colour and hair between people. (Hall 1997:6) What does the word “race”, as a symbol of language, actually signify? Historically we can see the meaning of the word is in constant transition — shifting, morphing, and evolving. Therefore, in Lévi-Strauss’ words, we could say that “race” is “devoid of meaning and thus susceptible of receiving any meaning at all” (Lévi-Strauss 1987:55)
We interact with floating signifiers everyday: the coworker who raises his hand in a staff meeting and says, “Our office needs to become a better community“; the campaigning politician who announces that there is hope for the next generation; the patriot who declares their tireless devotion to freedom. What do community, hope, and freedom mean? Well, clearly it depends on who you ask.
This is the incredible power of floating signifiers: when used well, they can galvanize large groups of people to change their behaviour, even though the words themselves actually mean different things to different members of the group — even though “the signifier and the signified [come] to be constituted simultaneously and interdependently.” (Ibid 60) In other words: floating signifiers do not emit meaning — they absorb whatever meaning is projected on them.
Today, when you find yourself nodding readily in agreement, double check whether or not the signifier is empty.