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more geeking out about floating signifiers

I’m reading Dynamics of Contention by Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, and Charles Tilly. I’ll be posting some notes as I digest it over the next few days. It’s been interesting to see different language for some of the same concepts—or at least overlapping concepts—that I’ve been working on, influenced by many others of course. I keep translating in my head their concepts and descriptions into the language of hegemonic struggle — a term that they do not use. Nor do they refer to floating signifiers, but I’m beginning to think that maybe they should — that this concept might add clarity to their accounts of what they call contentious episodes.

Presently I’m reading their discussion about Benigno Aquino, the longtime opponent of then-Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, specifically about Aquino’s assassination upon his return to the Philippines from exile. Aquino played the part of a catalyzing symbol—a floating signifier—similar to Juan Perón during his exile from Argentina. Both men were seen as popular symbols of opposition to their nations’ respective ruling regimes. I don’t know nearly as much about Aquino, but the case has been made by many (including Ernesto Laclau) that Perón was able to play this symbolic role far more effectively in exile than on-the-ground in Argentina, because in his absence the disparate factions of the broad opposition could each imagine Perón standing for their particular vision or agenda. Had he been there in-person, it would be much more difficult to maintain this floating quality—i.e. an ambiguously broad appeal—over a long period of time. Eventually the real contents are filled into the “empty” symbol, and the symbol will likely lose its charm for at least some parties of the ephemeral alignment.

It seems that upon his death, Aquino became an even more powerful floating signifier, catalyzing a significant—and for the first time visible—political realignment amongst polity members, institutions, and social bases:

…the assassination helped to create the generalized sense of uncertainty and flux about the future of Philippine politics that we have argued is so critical to a sustained episode of contentious politics. [p.112]

Here the authors suggest that the assassination was responsible for creating the widespread “sense of uncertainty and flux”, and that uncertainty and flux are crucial components in the emergence of an oppositional alignment. In the way the authors have ordered this unfolding of events, A leads to B leads to C: (A) assassination of Aquino –> (B) general sense of uncertainty and flux –> (C) different actors (individuals and groups) reassess new opportunities and threats that have been made apparent by the uncertainty.

This progression is complicated by the next paragraph:

More precisely, this sense of generalized uncertainty was itself born of the reactions of various key parties to the conflict in the wake of the assassination. Specifically, it was the strong condemnation of the assassination and of the regime more generally by nominal Marcos allies or previously silent elites that fueled the emerging “crisis” definition of the situation. These new critics included elements within the Philippine business community, the mainstream Philippine news media, certain United States government officials, and Cardinal Jaime Sin and the official hierarchy of the Philippine Catholic Church.

The above is a classic description of a sweeping political realignment that seems at first glance to have transpired almost overnight. The authors provide enough information to dispel the idea that the realignment came “from nowhere” — or that it was triggered by the material event of Aquino’s assassination alone. Wariness of Marcos had been percolating within many sectors, including institutions and members of the polity, for some time leading up to this suddenly dramatic moment. This layer of latent wariness/distain/opposition toward Marcos, growing within many groups, is what made it possible for Aquino’s assassination to serve as a catalyzing symbol with broad appeal—yes, a floating signifier—that signified/named/made visible a powerful alignment standing in opposition to Marcos.

The latter paragraph quoted from the text—and my interpretation of it—suggests a slightly different chain of causation than the A –> B –> C progression:

  1. backdrop: latent wariness/opposition to Marcos fermenting within many groups and institutions
  2. assassination of Aquino –>
  3. intuitive interpretation of assassination, amongst key actors, as having the potential to catalyze a “tipping point” (i.e. a political realignment potentially strong enough to oust the regime) = awakening/focusing of latent wariness/opposition –>
  4. different actors (individuals and groups) reassess new opportunities and threats that have been made apparent by the now-apparent (a) potential power of a new alignment and (b) the vulnerability of the regime. This assessment leads to the activation of widespread hitherto latent opposition.

This whole process amounts to all parties now sharing the sense of “uncertainty and flux” described by the authors. In other words, it is not the assassination per se that causes a generalized sense of uncertainty and flux; it is the meaning/interpretation of the assassination as a ripe floating signifier — signifying (1) the vulnerability and villainy of the Marcos regime and (2) the power and justification of a new oppositional alignment.


  1. another relevant quote from Dynamics of Contention a few pages later:

    The assassination of Benigno Aquino fundamentally changed the context of Philippine politics. It was not the act that effected this transformation, but the interpretations and new lines of action fashioned, interactively, by various parties to the conflict that birthed the episode. [p.119, my emphasis]

  2. Pingback: underdog vs. winning team impulses « Devoke the Apocalypse.

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