I have been reading a bunch of Slavoj Žižek as of late because I am trying to make sense of some of the planning theorists takes on his political and cultural views in the context of urban planning processes. Specifically, I am engaging the book Planning in Ten Words or Less by Michael Gunder and Jean Hillier. In this text the authors are trying to unravel the “empty signifiers” used within planning to give authority or legitimacy to the field forsaking other options, meanings, and contestations. Empty signifiers are, as Laclau suggests, exactly the coherence given to a grouping of meanings for a word which hides the conflicting views. Words like ‘democracy’ or ‘freedom’ have many significations, which may be deep and profound or superficial and arbitrary. Laclau argues that “politics arise in the gap between signifier and its signification: where conflicting meanings are employed and we try to fill this gap. Here the signifier gives coherence to a grouping of conflicting meanings by signifying it or giving a general label of explicit connotation and agreement for this contested ground” (Hillier and Gunder 2009: 3). Planning itself, then, is an empty signifier.
Žižek is a prolific writer and much of his work engages his mentor’s (Lacan) psychoanalytic approach. Therefore, I feel much of the interpretation of Lacan is vicariously achieved through reading Žižek, or at least this is how it seems. Gunder and Hillier use numerous theories to fill in the gap of what constitutes planning (or spatial planning in their case) while moving away from the idea of factual representations about what the future should be, and instead suggest that planning is about human hope, ambition, and values. Universally accepted techniques, methods or frameworks built on “facts” then cannot be the basis of planning. Understanding must take place through other forms. Planning is also sometimes seen as an art form, and in this capacity, as Ash Amin suggests, planning can shape the built environment through technologies, such as cityscapes, which can engineer an affect. And this affect can instill a certain ideology in the populace.