Symbolic Privilege and Real Privilege — Işık Barış Fidaner

Symbolic privilege is “Life!” as an egoic defensive strategy against death, whereas real privilege is “Life…” as the other side of death.

Remember Lacan’s words on death: “Death belongs to the realm of faith. You’re right to believe that you will die. It sustains you. If you didn’t believe it, could you bear the life you have? If we couldn’t totally rely on the certainty that it will end, how could you bear all this?” (Jacques Lacan Parle)

Acknowledging the reality of death is about sacrificing oneself. Hegel: “The self-knowing Spirit knows not only itself but also the negative of itself, or its limit: to know one’s limit is to know how to sacrifice oneself.” (The Phenomenology of Spirit) The sacrifice that Hegel mentions is about the reality of entropy being the inevitable underside of the desirable truth of libidinal energy [1]. This entropy is what Freud called the “death drive”.

The sacrifice by the death drive is not a suicide. Instead it is the acknowledgement that our life is not a mere symbolic privilege but a real privilege. You ultimately cannot “own” your life and decide its fate from a safe symbolic distance of consciousness while repressing, disavowing or foreclosing the reality of death (and suicide is arguably one of the returns of this repressed, disavowed or foreclosed reality). You are your life just like you are your death. Your waking life is the other side of the dreams in your sleep. You can fight death and you can fight your dreams only up to a certain point.

Let’s give an obvious example: The marriage vow says “to have and to hold [my partner] until death do us part”. So the partners must recognize their marriage as a real privilege. If the vow said “until our partnership becomes impossible” or “until we choose to divorce”, their contract would be reduced to a useful trick, a symbolic privilege.

Another example: If advertising and selling an entity (or project) feels wrong, if it feels like a betrayal of the entity’s truth, it’s because the marketing activity forces the entity to appear as a commodity in order to defend against its disappearance. Advertisements can only market symbolic privileges: useful tricks for avoiding disappearance and “death”. The same applies to the marketing of a meta-lingual “scientific objectivity” by engaging people in the evaluations of their engagements [2]. The same is also true for military propaganda that offers death itself as a meaningful defense against one’s disappearance.

In fact, knowledge as such is a defense against death: It is just stupid to bungle, stumble, fall and die, so everyone should be a bit smart and have some knowledge about life. But positive knowledge can only generate symbolic privileges for its possessor. Acknowledging the real privilege can only come with “nonknowledge” which is a “learned-trained ignorance” (Lacan in Écrits) [3]. It’s a bit like having good reflexes (that are not “natural” as in their usual definition). But it has more to do with being in touch with your anxieties and your unconscious.

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 “Always Afterwards: Entropy and Sacrifice”

[2] See “Symbolic Engagement and Real Engagement”, “Symbolic Valuation and Real Valuation”

[3] See “Unknowing opens the field of truth in the horizon of knowledge”


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