What Makes a Symbolic Order? — Işık Barış Fidaner

In the first part of this text, I describe a symbolic order in Žižek’s terms. In the second part, I propose my own terms to designate the same phenomenon.


Žižek denotes a symbolic order mathematically by two terms: S1 and S2. The letter “S” denotes that these two terms refer to signifiers, which means that they function like how spoken words construct meaning in human language, i.e. they have a symbolic function. The subscripts 1 and 2 denote that they constitute an order in which S1 (Master-Signifier) has a priority over S2 (knowledge).

One can always question the contingent fact: Why does S1 have priority? Why not any other signifier? As a self-referential being, the symbolic order can only respond to this question by simply repeating S1.

Thus S1 emerges as a response to its own questioning. The locus of this fundamental symbolic questioning is the zero point of a symbolic order. One could have called it S0 if it were a signifier, which it’s not. Instead it’s called $, the barred subject in Lacanian terms.

Contrary to S1 which is quantifiable as one signifier among others, $ does not denote a single subject. $ may be taken up by singularities (I, ego, he/she/it) or pluralities (we, they). It is a place of symbolic questioning that is situated in relation to a symbolic order. So when we say “the” subject, “the” refers to such a situated place of subjectivity, not the quantitative singularity of the subject that is being mentioned.

$ is the locus of the inherent symbolic contingency of a symbolic order. S1 stabilizes the present order by covering and concealing that symbolic contingency. This is why, in grammar, the subject of a sentence comes first: the first word must cover over the locus of subjectivity.

S2 denotes the rest of the signifiers all of which are dependent on the Master-Signifier S1. In Žižekian-Lacanian jargon, S2 is called knowledge.

In Žižek’s theory, knowledge always confirms the priority of S1 [1]. In other words, all knowledge primarily attests to the immanent necessity of the symbolic order in which it is situated.

In expressing symbolic necessity, knowledge relies on the objects of the world. Among objects of reality, Lacan and Žižek specifically refer to a kind of object that underpins a symbolic order by causing the desire that supports its symbolic necessity: objet petit a [2].

From S1 and S2, we have thus mathematically derived two other terms, $ and a, which stand for the contingency and the necessity of a symbolic order, respectively. According to Lacan, S1 represents $ for S2: the Master-Signifier covers over its own contingent status so that the dependent knowledge can attest to the symbolic necessity of the present order.


Now I’ll introduce four universal signifiers that designate the phenomena denoted by the four mathemes elaborated above.

In a symbolic order, the Master-Signifier S1 denotes the function of “authority”. A particular authority posing as “universal” hegemonizes a symbolic field by concealing the contingency of its own dominant status.

The underlying contingency implied by the subject $ denotes the function of “will”. A particular will may support or question the dominant authority of a symbolic order. In any case, the authority will seek to represent the will by repressing its freedom to question the authority.

The knowledge S2 dependent on the authority denotes the function of “system”. A particular system is always based on a knowledge dependent on a particular authority. To paraphrase Lacan, the authority seeks to represent the will for the system.

The immanent necessity of the symbolic order caused by objet petit a denotes the function of “body”. Particular bodies in a world (e.g. the body of a Hegelian monarch) embody the necessity of a symbolic order [3].


Işık Barış Fidaner is a computer scientist with a PhD from Boğaziçi University, İstanbul. Admin of Yersiz Şeyler, Editor of Žižekian Analysis, Curator of Görce Writings. Twitter: @BarisFidaner


1. Except knowledge in the place of truth (in analyst’s discourse), in which case a new S1 is produced.

2. In fact, to support the symbolic order as a fantasy object is just one of the functions (the perverse function) of objet petit a, which may also designate the void in the place of fantasy in analyst’s discourse.

3. These four terms originate from the “Postmodern Alienation Model”.


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