Beyond the Empty Signifier: An Example of lalangue in the Black Lives Matter Movement
Timothy Appleton and Estela Canuto
We feel it is appropriate for us to comment and position ourselves, within the pages of #lacanemancipa, on the political events that are taking place at the moment in the United States. The political movement that has grown out of the tragic murder of George Floyd has produced debates of all kinds, all over the world. In #lacanemancipa, however, we feel it is pertinent for us to discuss details of language and political subjectivity that are not usually analyzed in other contexts. A good example of this is the current slogan of the group that leads (although one should also ask the question of what it means to “lead”, in this context) the American mobilizations, Black Lives Matter. Its current slogan is: «Defund the police!» We consider that this is a key element of the movement’s discourse, but we also note that no serious theoretical analysis of the phrase has yet been carried out. So, what does this phrase mean? How can we account for its connotations and repercussions at a political level?
Defund is a modern word – contemporary, in fact -, a neologism, of obscure origin. “To fund”, in English, has a connotation social/civic generosity. In the same vein, «Defund» is a word that seems to be deliberately provocative: resentful, some conservatives would say, as if it constituted a direct negation of the social good. What interests us most about the negative prefix, however, is that it has two different interpretations, which are not present in the positive form. On the one hand, it could connote diverting funds from the police (an increasingly militarized force, which has even more resources than the United States Army itself, in its foreign adventures) towards other forms of social work. Its other possible meaning implies directly abolishing the police force. Perhaps with these elements, the vinegar of the phrase can already be seen. To put it in traditional terms, we have, on the one hand, the existence of a «reformist» demand, on the other a «revolutionary» demand. In this sense, it is a signifier that is neither revolutionary nor reformist, but both at the same time. In other words, the prefix introduces a radical undecidability in the relevant discourse, which – the moment it is put into circulation as a political signifier – makes a subsequent political decision even more peremptory. It is as if it were a phrase that required constant explanation. At the same time, it oscillates – to describe it psychoanalytically – between two different modes of jouissance. In a word, the very enunciation of the phrase produces a dilemma, thus opening up a whole field of possible political militancy. Let’s take a couple of examples of the political effects the phrase has had.
It is very interesting to note what happened in the demonstration on June 8th, with the mayor of Minneapolis, the state in which George Floyd died, an event that precipitated the entire wave of protests. The mayor – Jacob Frey – can be considered a true progressive, a political representative who is genuinely leftist, and is basically on the side of the protesters. For instance, it is very rare for an official political representative to attend such a demonstration. That is why it is even more interesting to note that the protesters kicked him out of the event. So what occurred?
Mayor Frey began his speech by expressing sympathy for the protesters. Laying out his position, he said that racism has to stop. Indeed, he even went further. He made a structural analysis of the problem, stating that racism exists even where it is not directly perceived and for this reason, a great radical intervention was required in the institutions of civil society. Nothing to criticise here. What we find interesting, however, is that on this occasion, not even the typical structural criticism of the contemporary left was considered adequate to the situation. At one point, Frey was interrupted by a (black) organizer who addressed him directly, saying: “We don’t care what you say. We only have one question for you, and we want you to answer yes or no: «Are you in favour of defunding the police or not?» Of course it was very difficult – almost impossible – for this career politician to answer the question directly. You can almost see his «existential crisis» unfolding in real time, in the video of the meeting. In the end, Frey answers: «No». We can assume that if he had not given this answer, he could not have continued as mayor. Perhaps the best that can be said about him is that at least he did not try to avoid the question, which is what many politicians would have done. But from the point of view of the protesters, of course, in that moment he displayed his bad faith, and he had to withdraw from the demonstration, to a chorus of jeers from the protesters.
Another example we consider interesting is that of Kamala Harris, the black senator who participated in the Democratic Party primaries as a possible candidate for the Presidency of the country. Harris comes from the right-wing of the Democratic Party, has previously been a Detroit Attorney, and was reputed to be an exceptionally draconian functionary. Nevertheless, Harris was forced, a few days ago, on one of America’s most popular television shows, The View, to defend the demand to Defund The Police without hesitation. It was a moment of high drama. The interesting thing about the situation was that she found herself obliged to defend the slogan in all its radicality, because in such a context (one of enemy ideological fire), it was impossible to distinguish the revolutionary demand from the reformist one without abandoning the defence of the movement as a whole. One interesting aspect here is that it shows how a truly popular demand breaks with any left or right schema, thus undermining established political structures. So how should we analyze the phrase «Defund the police!» theoretically?
Many would surely say that this is an example of what in theory is called an empty signifier, in the sense of a signifier without a fixed signified, thus allowing people to project different signifieds onto it. It must be added that the empty signifier, at least according to the theory that Laclau has of it, also contains a moment of ambiguity. It implies a short-circuit between what Laclau calls «the universal» and «the particular». Where might these two aspects be found in the Black Lives Matter movement? First, the universalist dimension can be found in the demand to abolish the police. Some would call this aspect «utopian» (they have indeed done so). Of course, Laclau would not have used this word to describe it; instead he would define it as a “radical ethical investment”, but of course the condition for such an investment to occur is that the relevant demand is impossible to carry out in the first instance. Secondly, the demand for local and bureaucratic reforms could be considered a particularistic dimension, in the sense of being very specific and concrete, and at the same time, perhaps, relatively feasible. The problem with applying the theory of the empty signifier in this context, however, is that it also supposes a certain «transference» – specifically, that which occurs in a metaphorical condensation – between the two moments mentioned. Instead, Black Lives Matter’s slogan, as we have already explained, is directly perturbing (due to its radical undecidability), and therefore requires people to explain and position themselves politically, over and over again. In our language, the phrase demonstrates the divisiveness of the real of jouissance. In other words, its ultimate vocation is to divide, not to condense.
We actually consider the slogan “Defund the police!” to be a good political example of what in the Lacanian world is called lalangue, defined as a way of playing with the dispersed phonemes of language in order to access a jouissance that is not entirely present in the established terms, and ordering, of our languages. The prefix De – produced by neologism – is the decisive element in this regard. The psychoanalyst Jorge Alemán, in his work, has long advocated lalangue as a fundamental element of the political processes of emancipation. We would say that «Defund the police!» is a very illustrative and interesting example of this idea.
Perhaps we have not yet found an adequate categorical nomenclature to describe a demand of this type, beyond its «lalinguistic» status. We have said that «empty signifier» is not valid. Calling it a «radically ambiguous signifier» perhaps does not explain its nuances either. Surely we will have to find another name. Which simply demonstrates, again, that politics always moves in advance of (meta-)theory. As Marx said: «Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.» In this sense, the slogan can be said to be a magnificent example of popular political intelligence. Perhaps Black Lives Matters, by deploying it, will transform the world. We hope so.