Zizek, The Symbolic Order

The Symbolic Order is the realm of language, signs, culture, and law. It includes official institutions such as schools, political parties, and Churches; as well as quasi-official institutions like codified and non-codified social norms, i.e. handshakes, winks etc. The Symbolic Order is a chain of signs that is grounded in the Master Signifier—a sign which grounds itself. Any attempt to explain the MS ends in a tautology, i.e. God is God because he is God, or the law is the law because it is the law. In the Symbolic Order the subject finds the roles that she is to fulfill, as daughter, or mother, or sister, or wealthy, or poor, or religious etc. The Symbolic Order is anything that the subject experiences as existing independently of an individual. The big Other is what allows the Symbolic Order itself to become a subject.


A person must enter the Symbolic Order in order to exist as a human subject, yet in so doing she becomes disconnected from herself, this is seen when a person refers to herself as “I”. As soon as she names herself she is dislocated from herself because she is the subject of the enunciation as well as the subject of the statement. It is not herself who names herself. 


One can only enter language by first being disconnected from herself or the world as it is in itself. This is dependant on Saussure’s understanding of language being a signifying chain or system that is reflexive, that is, dependant on itself, rather than having any connection to the real world as it is in itself. 


So, when in the Symbolic Realm we are in an unstable environment because signs change. An example would be the signifier “woman”. “Woman” has come to mean something different than it did even fifty years ago and this has produced confusion in the Symbolic Order. Now that woman no longer signifies the fairer, weaker sex how is one to relate to a female subject? Is being a gentleman a cover for chauvinism or is it still a way to honor the opposite sex/gender? This also points to the inevitable alienation within the Symbolic Order. It is not that the signified, the individual female subject or female subjects as a whole, has changed in thier ontology, or being, but rather our relationship to them has changed because the Symbolic Order has changed. And when the Symbolic Order changes the subjects within that order feel anxiety because their way of relating, and thus their world has changed. As long as the Master Signifier remains the Symbolic Order remains relatively stable but if the MS collapses or is seen as no longer existing the Symbolic Order breaks down and subjects are left in emmense anxiety and possible total collapse.


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