by: Jonathan Matthew Smucker, Andrew Boyd, and Dave Oswald Mitchell
The American flag inspires extreme passions . . . but what exactly does it stand for? To different people it means freedom, justice, imperialism and terror — its meaning shifts wildly depending on context and observer. This emptiness, into which observers can pour almost any meaning or desire, is a large part of the symbol’s power.
For activists, a well-crafted floating signifier can be a powerful tool for catalyzing broad-based action. Subcommandante Marcos and the Zapatistas, for example, deployed the concept of the floating signifier masterfully. Marcos described the masks the Zapatistas wore as a mirror in which all who struggle for a better world can see themselves. The Zapatistas’ iconic black balaclava was not just a necessity for personal security, but became a powerful statement of unity and universality. “Behind our black mask,” they declared, “we are you.”
In 2008, presidential candi-date Barack Obama also made masterful use of floating signifiers. His poetic rhetoric of “hope” and “change we can believe in” inspired a population weary from eight years of misrule. He became whatever his supporters wanted him to be. Obama explicitly acknowledged this phenomenon in the prologue to his campaign screed, The Audacity of Hope: “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”