Authorization and Embodiment in Fetish and Symptom — Işık Barış Fidaner

The authorization for the utterance of a signifier (or for passing a threshold) is traditionally achieved by a struggle for hegemony (Laclau) that distinguishes “master” from “servant” (Hegel). Authorization is closely related to the process of transference, which takes place as an embodiment of the objet a [1]. There are two modes for this process:

1. Embodiment can take place as synchronous with authorization. In this case, the object directly embodies the authority and authorizes it. The Master-Signifier dons the aura of the objet a. This is the embodiment of a fetish, because the knowledge or system (S2) that grounds the embodiment remains ineffective, suspended, disavowed. Žižek: “what the fetish gives body to is precisely my disavowal of knowledge, my refusal to subjectively assume what I know.” (In Defense of Lost Causes)

2. Embodiment can take place in a distance from authorization. In this case, the object is indirectly related to the authorization: it embodies the will of a subject ($) that grounds the authorization. S1 changes into S(Ⱥ) because objet a is subtracted from it. This is the embodiment of a symptom, because the knowledge or system (S2) that grounds the embodiment is accessible as the “other side” of the subject’s will ($) that grounds the authorization, i.e. (primordial) repression simply refers to the structural division of these two terms: will-system, i.e. subject-knowledge ($-S2). The truth about a knowledge is reachable through a subject. Žižek: “a symptom embodies a repressed knowledge, the truth about the subject that the subject is not ready to accept.” (ibid)

Thus, fetish and symptom are two inverted forms of the process of transference-embodiment. Žižek: “although, at a purely formal level, the fetish involves a gesture of transference (onto the fetish object), it functions as an exact inversion of the standard formula of transference (with the subject supposed to know)” (ibid)

Let’s exemplify these two modes by one’s relation to one’s own body.

1. If my body is a fetish for me, it directly embodies my authority to speak, like the king’s crown or scepter, as insignia of the phallus. Knowledge that structurally grounds my body (e.g. biological or sociological knowledge about certain systems where my body is involved) is disavowed, and I am thereby authorized to utter the Master-Signifier. An example of this stance is the universal human rights which are given to all with a human body regardless of any other knowledge. Another example is a nationalist who is directly authorized by giving body to the nation-Thing.

2. If my body is a symptom for me, it is only indirectly related to my authority to speak, through my subjective will and desire. When I embody my will and desire, my speech is marked by a lack, and I am thereby only authorized to utter the signifier of the barred Other. In this case, knowledge about (biological, sociological, etc.) systems that ground my embodiment become accessible as the “other side” of my will, i.e. as my unconscious. An example of this stance is an analysand who speaks about his/her free associations. Another example is the discourse of a philosopher who speaks about certain antagonisms of the Other.

Fetish and symptom correspond to the Lacanian notions of alienation and separation, respectively. In the case of a fetish, authorization is confused with embodiment, they appear to be a single synchronous process, and the resulting Master-Signifier produces the appearance of a big Other that is pulling the strings of the subject. In the case of a symptom, there is a lag between authorization and embodiment, (this gap in between them is the subject’s will) and the resulting S(Ⱥ) reveals the inexistence of a big Other, its impotence. Žižek: “The power that the King has to fascinate comes from covering over the difference between S1 and a. Hegel separates them and shows us, on the one hand, S1 in its tautological folly as an empty name, without content, and, on the other hand, the monarch’s physical form as pure waste, the name’s appendix.” (The Most Sublime Hysteric)


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] For authorization and embodiment, see “The Separation of Authorization (Symbolic Suture) from Embodiment (Real Suture)”

Thanks to Nobu Massiah for reviewing the text.


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