Symbolic Valuation and Real Valuation — Işık Barış Fidaner

While the total dead count of the coronavirus crisis in Turkey approaches 400 (in April 2020), a few news stories began to appear about the loss of “important” people (like medical professors Cemil Taşçıoğlu and Feriha Öz). Let’s think a bit about the difference between the few deaths that we know about because they made news and the hundreds of deaths that we don’t know about because they didn’t make news.

The death of medical professors were deemed important because they were “well educated people that were useful to society”. Of course we should never deny the value of these lost people. Yet we should see the limits of the mode of evaluation that highlights these people. The news stories also told us about the lost people’s unique aspects, but these people were deemed important mainly due to being “beneficial and useful to society”. Let’s call this mode of evaluation that focuses on people’s positive (useful) features, “symbolic valuation”. The universities are the institutional and structural centers of symbolic valuation, that’s why the loss of these professors were given a serious news value. “Health” as a rising value in the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic focused the attention on medical professors.

It’s certainly important to be beneficial and useful. But what determines the benefit and usefulness is more important. So how is usefulness determined? The process of this determination materially consists of the exclusion of things deemed “useless”. The material examples of uselessness are the negative evidences that draw the precise limits of the rule of usefulness. But when the reason of usefulness is questioned, nobody will tell about these negative evidences, rather they will make positive explanations that rationalize. Those evidences has already been “useful” in a more important sense and now they have to be forgotten.

Let’s give an example: The negative evidence that draws the limits of human life is death. But when you ask “Why do you live?” nobody will say “In order not to die”. (S)he will present you a variety of positive rationalizations: Love, happiness, success, etc. These appear irrelevant to death, because life excludes death. Yet death is the “absolute master” of life (Hegel). Another example is the coronavirus: The protection of our health depends on the exclusion of the virus. The virus thereby becomes the “master” of our health.

The real negative factors that draw the limits (i.e. determine the principles and criteria) of usefulness are judged “useless” and sacrificed during the symbolic valuation process that they have initiated; they are drawn into darkness and disappear. Think about the many drafts that are trashed or deleted (sacrificed) until an important letter, paper or thesis takes its final form. Jameson and Žižek designates these sacrifices “vanishing mediators”.

Let’s call this pre-process that comes before symbolic valuation, that draws its limits and goes into darkness by being sacrificed to it, “real valuation”. Contrary to the positive features that the symbolic valuation (represented by the universities) focuses on, real valuation depends on negative phenomena like antagonisms, contradictions and oppositions, and it relies on real engagements [1]; it’s political.

Symbolic valuation and real valuation are like the consciousness and the unconscious of the society, respectively. Recall the lines in the famous new “Freud” series on Netflix:

I am a house. It is dark in me. My consciousness is a lonely light. A candle in the wind. It’s flickering. Sometimes here, sometimes there. Everything else is in the shade. Everything else is in the unconscious. But they are there.

We can think about the difference between the deaths that made news and the deaths “in the shade” that did not make news, like this. The lost medical professors are a candle in the wind. Everybody else is also there.


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 Engagement and Real Engagement”


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