Symbolic Authorization of Fetishes and Real Authorization of Symptoms — Işık Barış Fidaner

In Less Than Nothing, Žižek quotes Mladen Dolar on how irony undermines the unquestioned supports of authorization:

When the participants in a conversation are confronted with Socrates, their words all of a sudden start to sound like quotes and clichés, like borrowed voices; the participants are confronted with the abyss of what authorizes them in their speech, and the moment they try to rely on the usual supports of authorization, authorization fails. It is as if an inaudible echo of irony adds itself to their speech, an echo which hollows out their words and their voice, and their voice appears as borrowed and expropriated.

This failing of the “usual supports of authorization” is the falling of fetishes. When authorizations begin to be questioned, fetishes fall and symptoms manifest. A fetish embodies an unquestionable support of authorization; whereas a symptom embodies the questioning of the authorization [1]. All symbolic authorities rely on fetishistic disavowal. This is called symbolic castration:

Insofar as symbolic castration is also a name for the gap between my immediate stupid being and my symbolic title … each authority has to protect itself from situations in which this gap becomes palpable. … Such humiliating moments fully deserve to be called “castrating experiences,” not because father is shown to be castrated or impotent, but because the gap between his miserable reality and his symbolic authority is rendered palpable and can no longer by ignored by way of fetishistic disavowal. (ibid)

Now, the fall of the fetish of authority does not automatically bring out the symptom of questioning the authority. The fall of one fetish may lead to the emergence of a multiplicity of fetishes in the form of a symbolic knowledge that justifies and rationalizes the symbolic authority.

In Lacanian terms, this passage from “natural” authority to authority justified with reasons is, of course, the passage from the Master’s discourse to the University discourse. (ibid)

Both discourses rely on fetishes. The difference is that the Master’s discourse localizes the fetishization around the single figure of the Master that posesses the authority, whereas the University discourse distributes and disperses the fetishization around the symbolic knowledge that supports the authority. Hegel’s defense of monarchy (Master’s discourse) is a wager to isolate the irrational moment of fetishization on the singular existence of the king, thereby preventing its multiplication in symbolic knowledge:

The exercise of authority is an “irrational” act of contingent decision which breaks the endless chain of enumerating reasons pro et contra. Is this not the very rationale of Hegel’s defense of monarchy? The state as a rational totality needs at its head a figure of “irrational” authority, an authority not justified by its qualifications: while all other public servants have to prove their capacity to exert power, the king is justified by the very fact that he is a king. (ibid)

The isolation of the irrational moment of fetishization in an actual singularity is one step away from the manifestation of its symptom. Fetishization confuses authorization and embodiment (the symbolic suture of S1 and the real suture of objet a [2]). The symptom manifests when the embodiment of objet a is separated from the authorization of S1.

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)

The manifestation of the symptom makes way for a different kind of authorization that Žižek calls “self-authorization” based on Lacan’s dictum “The analyst is only authorized by her/himself” (l’analyste ne s’autorise que de lui-même). Let’s call this self-authorization of the symptom “real authorization” to distinguish it from “symbolic authorization” of fetishes. Real authorization overlaps with its own questioning. Žižek associates real authorization with Hegelian Absolute Knowing:

adopting the stance of “Absolute Knowing,” the subject does not ask if the content (some particular object of inquiry) meets some a priori standard (of truth, goodness, beauty); it lets the content measure itself, by its own immanent standards, and thus self-authorizes itself. (Less Than Nothing)

The “immanent standards” refer to the language that is the common medium of the contents that measure themselves. The irony of Socrates is that he functioned as a symptom in language that made way for the real authorization of thought.


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] See also “Authorization and Embodiment in Fetish and Symptom”

[2] See “The Separation of Authorization (Symbolic Suture) from Embodiment (Real Suture)”


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