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Trance of Symbols

Battlel of Symbols

Trance of Symbols

"That old black magic has me in its spell.
That old black magic that you weave so well."

"That Old Black Magic"
Song by Harold Arlen

In light of the paradox and irony of American symbols, one of the key questions of modern times is whether the power of symbols can be put into positive use within a global context rather than for the continued perpetuation of symbols from Hollywood and Madison Avenue directed at Americans and indirectly into the global economy.

Given the close relationship of American symbols with Hollywood entertainment and Madison Avenue advertising it is questionable whether this will happen. In the aftermath of September 11th many American leaders were adamant about Americans returning back to the power of American symbols under the rhetorical guise of getting the economy moving again. The American economy is tied directly to symbols in that greater consumption of products means greater consumption of symbols.

In a sense, the events of September 11th distracted America for a period a time from the powerful spell of consumer symbols. For a period Americans were able to consider the "medium" producing the ubiquitous "messages" all about them. Somehow, symbols just didn’t have that grand power over the American psyche anymore.

Even grand symbols like the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog lost their power in these derailed times. Reflecting on the arrival of her new shiny red and silver Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog, columnist Maureen Dowd writes in the October 3, 2001 edition of The New York Times:

"It makes you a little sick and a little wistful. Even though it was printed only a month ago, it now seems as detached from the moment as cave drawings, a document of an extinct culture that reveled without apology in the trivial and gaudy, pushing luxury to absurd heights. A simple hanger could not suffice when there was a $65 mink hanger ‘too beautiful to tuck away in a closet.’ A simple jean jacket could not suffice when there was a $2,785 jean jacket with rabbit collar and cuffs. A simple baby carriage could not suffice when there was a $4,250 Burberry pram with matching $375 diaper bag."

The catalog arrives in the midst of the growing economic downturn and the cheerleading efforts of leaders to get things back on track. She catches the irony of the moment when she notes "America has developed an aversion to consumer overindulgence at the very moment our leaders tell us the only way to prevail against the terrorists and prop up our economy is through consumer overindulgence."

But American symbols will most likely regain their control over America as the shell-shockness of the September atrocities become buried under the "Show must go on" necessity of American consumer culture and its symbol labs in Hollywood and on Madison Avenue. Aversion to consumer culture will most likely fade into diversion from "big picture" concerns and no one will be able to see the trickster "medium" behind all the "messages." Things will be back to business-as-usual normal.

The return back to the "normalness" of consumer culture will be aided by the increasingly short attention span of the American public, something both a creation as well as a product of American symbols. Ralph Peters, a retired Army intelligence officer, pinpoints the problem well just a few days after the September atrocities. In the 9/14/2001 issue of The Wall Street Journal he wonders whether our resolve will last. "Perhaps our greatest national weakness," he observes," is our short attention span, and I fear that in a surprisingly short time, we will forget our just anger." His points seem partially reinforced in the few days immediately after the atrocities by the sudden fall in Neilsen TV ratings from an audience of 60 million on September 11th to 43 million on September 12th.

Yet if America is able to rise above the paradox, irony and power-hold of symbolism, a most formidable ally might be recruited to advance the cause of America within the global community. In fact, using the power of symbols in this new way may be a large part of the ultimate destiny of America, a nation whose origin and history is so closely tied to symbols and the great paradoxical dualities within them.

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