Decryption and Decipherment — Işık Barış Fidaner

Nowadays, “data” is big. But data is just a reification of one’s access to it. A coin toss can yield heads or tails only if one can clearly see and distinguish such outcomes. This is a well-known weird fact of quantum physics. Thus one’s concepts of “heads” and “tails” that let one access the outcome play a crucial part in that outcome’s emergence. Indeed, one’s conceptual access to a body of data is as crucial as the substance of that data. The first is the key to the second. These two aspects are respectively called “header” and “payload” in the network packets that circulate through the Internet. Every header unlocks its payload. All data is encapsulated by concepts. The digital ultimately relies on the conceptual.

Concepts are useful in framing one’s reality, i.e. in authorizing oneself. But such framings are never neutral. Examples: signal or noise, abundance or redundancy, typical or atypical, normal or pathological, right or wrong, correct or incorrect, true or false, good or bad, pretty or ugly, clean or dirty, safe or unsafe, happy or unhappy, sense or nonsense, rational or irrational, life or death, success or failure, etc. Notice that this sequence of example pairs is based on a single underlying pair of concepts: useful or useless for the subject’s authorization.

When symbolic chains are formed only by the “useful” concepts, like “abundant typical signals” or “correct normal senses” or “good pretty truths” or “rational happy senses” or “clean safe successful life” etc., this is called “symbolic authorization” [1]. Symbolic authorization presupposes an objective distinction between useful bodies and useless bodies in the world, i.e. it’s fetishistic. In symbolic authorization, the enchainment of the signifiers depends on their usefulness for the subject’s authorization. Thus it’s an external authorization.

When the symbolic chains are not based on choosing the useful over the useless, (as in chains from these pairs: red or blue, fruit or vegetable, plant or animal, necessary or contingent, actual or virtual, man or woman, etc. added to the pairs above) it is called “real authorization”. In real authorization, the use of the signifiers depends on their enchainment with other signifiers (by metaphor and metonymy), not the other way around. Real authorization is thereby separated from objective embodiments, i.e. it’s not fetishistic [2]. It’s grounded in the subject’s will or desire, manifested as a symptom. Thus it’s self-authorization.

The key signifier in symbolic authorization is “useful”: Once a signifier is enchained as being “useful”, it will serve the symbolic authorization. For example, once it’s established that red is useful and blue is useless, red will be authorized and blue will be unauthorized automatically. Usefulness is the absolute reference point of symbolic authorization. On the other hand, real authorization does not have a key signifier. The manifesting symptom is determined by the relative configuration of the signifiers: The signifiers are “useful” for the subject only through their “exchange-values” in metaphor and metonymy.

A fetish is just like a room with a key. The signifier “useful” is the key that automatically applies to a fetish. But the room of a fetish is a crypt because a fetish can only be a dead body. Based on this image of a crypt with a key, let’s give another name to symbolic authorization: decryption [3]. When Ernesto Laclau once said that “it is not only Stalinism which is a linguistic phenomenon, but language itself which is a Stalinist phenomenon” (Sublime Object of Ideology), he had decryption in his mind. Decryption is inherently aggressive and perverse because it needs to kill its objects to embody them in fetishes.

On the other hand, a symptom is just like a ground with a bridge. It is the subject’s own ground that is bridged to the others by a configuration of signifiers. A symptom is a cipher to be repeated with fidelity, i.e. it is its own key. Based on this image, let’s give another name to real authorization: decipherment. Decipherment is inherently sexual and hysterical because it is a questioning of the Other based on the non-existence (real ex-sistence) of the sexual relationship.

The crucial fact is that the symptom is not only the key to itself, but also the key to the fetishes, because both phenomena rely on the same field of signifiers. The pair “useful or useless” also attains its use through the hysterization of language. “The digital ultimately relies on the conceptual” means that the aggressive ultimately relies on the sexual: decryption ultimately relies on decipherment.


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 “Symbolic Authorization of Fetishes and Real Authorization of Symptoms”

[2] See “Separation of Authorization from Embodiment”

[3] See “Antiprogression Chain” for decryption and decipherment. See also “The difference between Procedure and Policy” in Lecturing Exemption Demand Procedure and Policy.


  1. ‘But data is just a reification of one’s access to it.’

    But I thought there was no such thing as a reification 😉

    Actually, isn’t it the other way around? One’s *access* to it, is just a reification of *data*..


    • hello. my point is that when you have a memory card, what you are “storing on the card” is really your possibility of access (=access) to that data. the body of data exists there insofar there might be a way of accessing it (authorization).


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