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Battle of Symbols

Contemporary Symbol Alignment

The ability of America to create and market symbols certainly played a part in the scenario of segmentation. But it is apparent that segmentation and differentiation were cultural manifestations of the cyclic archetype of freedom hovering over (or behind) the noise of shouting brands. Even before the events of September 11th, it was evident that the dominance of segmentation and differentiation were starting to give way to a new search for commonalties and attempts to align different market niches into larger new markets.

Perhaps the greatest example was contained in the philosophy and techniques of the Internet and the New Economy of the late 90s and first year of the new millennium. Technology such as collaborative filtering was able to instantly align online surfers with products and people, finding hidden commonalties which were invisible before. Selecting a book on Amazon would lead to the suggestion of a number of other books.

And there was an emerging corporate philosophy garnered from the dot.coms of partnerships and affiliate relationships, of contracting out functions of businesses once under one “brick and mortar” roof.

The crash and burn of the dot.coms and the New Economy put a halt to much of these new types of alignments and search for commonalties. However, it would be a large mistake to assume that America would simply return to a segmented and differentiated cultural paradigm. If its symbol makers attempt this they would be out of alignment with the emergence of a new version of the equality symbol as America’s dominant archetype. As evidenced throughout American history, when freedom falls equality rises. When equality falls, freedom rises.

Searching for demographic commonalties to align with equality would be an on-going political game in America as it has proved to be throughout America’s history. And of course it would also be an economic and marketing game.

But the real importance of alignment would really be outside American culture and in the global arena. Alignment of common symbols of people around the world could draw together new communities far more powerful and cohesive than national, cultural or civizational boundaries. It could do this in the same way that the Internet drew together powerful cyberspace communities which transcended localized communities based on place.

East and West Commonalties

America in the 90s was about discovering differences in the commonalities of the once dominant mass market. It was a relativistic period of pluralism when symbols increased in number while at the same time got smaller and smaller in meaning. More and more of less and less. The so-called “information age” was really an age of symbols running rampant over the landscape, pervasive in the atmosphere like smog over Los Angeles in the summer.

The challenge to American symbols now is reversing this downsizing trend and using symbols to find commonalities in differences. This is a job for large Jungian archetypal symbols rather than the brand symbols of things like the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog. Yet, at the same time, the concepts and techniques used to build American consumer brands need to be applied in aligning culture with these larger symbols.

There is the old Rudyard Kipling adage that “East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet.” There is also the folk wisdom from Pogo that “We have met the enemy and it is us.”

Certainly as we have briefly outlined above, there is a long history of traditional symbols associated with the East and West. While there may be an enduring truth to the dualities of East-West symbols, they are also subject to cyclic swings back and forth. In other words, there are times when freedom is ascendant in the East or equality is ascendant in the West.

In this respect, it might be unwise to characterize the current situation (using Samuel Huntington’s paradigm) as a clash of symbols. Certainly there are East and West symbols in opposition. Yet the clash between key symbols on a global scale might not necessarily be a clash between historic dualities as much as between cultures at different points in their cycles. For example, after running the cycle from equality to freedom in the twentieth century, America might return to equality again. Ironically, this return to the archetype of equality might come at the same time of the Islamic world’s move from equality into the archetype of freedom.

But there may be a number of contemporary commonalities within the archetypal symbols associated with East and West. Leading cultural critic Walter Truett Anderson feels so and persuasively argues this point in All Connected Now. Calling Huntington’s “clash of civilization” thesis a form of “antiglobalist conservatism” Anderson criticizes Clash of Civilizations as offering its “own map, with different shadings and cross-hatchings.” As Anderson notes:

It does not attempt to identify all the different groupings and communities within these civilizations – nationalities, classes, genders, political opinions, economic interests, lifestyles, worldviews. It assumes that the civilizations are in some sense entities, geographically identifiable, capable of clashing with one another.

To Anderson, it extends the “billiard-ball” paradigm. “We have seen the billiard-ball theory of nations and the billiard-ball theory of cultures; Huntington gives us the billiard-ball theory of civilization.”

Hybrid Symbols And Dandelion Seeds

A better paradigm than clashing billiard balls is perhaps one of “cultural hybridization” a label coined by sociologist Jan Nederveen Pieterse. In this hybrid world, Walter Truett Anderson observes “Symbols of all kinds have detached themselves from their original roots and float freely, like dandelion seeds, around the world.”

The new paradigm of floating symbols mixing with others is expressed well in the book Memory and Modernity by W. Rowe and V. Schelling (Verso, 1991):

How do we come to terms with phenomena such as Thai boxing by Moroccan girls in Amsterdam, Asian rap in London, Irish bagels, Chinese tacos and Mardi Gras Indians in the United States, or ‘Mexican schoolgirls dressed in Greek togas dancing in the style of Isadora Duncan’? How do we interpret Peter Brook directing Mahabharata, or Ariane Manouchkine staging a Shakespeare play in Japanese Kabuki style for a Paris audience in the Theatre Soleil?

The variations in symbols from popular culture are endless today creating much of the content of postmodern culture in mixtures such as Klezmer flamenco, Japanese salsa and French bluegrass.

In our new salad bowl world of mixed symbols, open borders and world-wide electric media, old monolithic symbols of east and west take on contemporary ornamentation. If the eastern world was somehow embodied in a type of roadside billboard, it might feature eastern characters dressed in western Levi’s. And, if the western world was embodied in a similar type of billboard, it might feature American cowboys against rice fields and Mt. Fuji in the background.

A popular television commercial ran in America after the September atrocities. It began with an American family in an SUV on vacation. It was a long trip and the kids were getting restless and asking how long it would be until they stopped. The next scene repeated the first scene with a family from another culture with kids asking the same question in another language and the mother wearily answering. The next scene again a repetition with a family from another culture. One suggestion was that vacations and families from different cultures have much in common. The logo at the end of the commercial featured a well-known tire company. There is the additional suggestion that all these families travel via SUVs and need good safe tires for the long journeys. Different families, a common experience, a common tire.

In the new hybrid global world of cross-pollinated symbols, it is difficult for the traditional symbols of East and West to really clash with each other. Going into battle against each other, they really go into battle against parts of themselves. It was always like this throughout history: the beginning of a cycle in opposition to the end of a cycle, the person of one’s youth in battle with the person of one’s adulthood; the feminine in man in battle with the masculine in man, the masculine in woman battling the feminine; the unconsciousness of life in battle against the consciousness.

But now there is the vital need to recognize this duality and understand that it is born from the same mother and even more, is in fact the same person.

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