The Symbolic World

Food for Thought

Not many jobs these days involve making physical products by hand. I spend all day in front of a computer tapping and clicking. What I have created in my career are almost exclusively confined to the symbolic realm, nothing in the physical realm.

The function of language is to decouple the reality from the physical world, to render the latter irrelevant, so that anything can exist without the physical objects that the symbols presumably point to. The value of the word “chair” isn’t in its ability to point to a physical object but in its ability to signify something without any physical objects.

In some simulation games, you are able to buy pieces of virtual furniture, and many people do spend real money on them. This illustrates how our desire functions strictly within the symbolic realm even when something physical is tangentially involved. In fact, the physical world cannot engender our desires as we cannot see or feel objects that are not there. Only our symbolic system is capable of making us desire things that are not there in front of us.

Purely symbolic or purely physical existence is theoretically possible but not both at the same time, yet we are forced to confront that impossibility and reconcile their contradictions. That is the trauma of being human.

Many of us enjoy cooking, knitting, pottery making, and crafting, even though it makes no financial or rational sense to do them. Something drives us to engage in these activities, even though these physical objects will sooner or later perish, break, or be consumed.

The symbolic world existed before you were born and will continue to exist after you die. You could exist in it forever but it’s not entirely up to you to decide what “you” is. Just as a physical object is not necessary for the word “chair” to function, the symbolic world does not care if your body exists or not. The symbolic world is fundamentally alien to you.

In this sense, it makes more sense to do what you find satisfying for yourself, even if it means nothing to the rest of the world.