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Battle of Symbols

Understanding Symbols

"It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

Upton Sinclair

"This is not a time for further study or vague directives. The evidence of terrorism's brutality and inhumanity, of its contempt for life and the concept of peace, is lying beneath the rubble of the World Trade Center less than two miles from where we meet today."

Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani
Opening Speech at The United Nations
October 1, 2001

"All the most powerful ideas in history go back to archetypes … For it is the function of consciousness not only to recognize and assimilate the external world through the gateway of the senses, but to translate into visible reality the world within us."

Carl Jung
The Structure And Dynamics of the Psyche

Symbolism contains a paradox in its perpetual movement between the "truth" of duality symbols. The emerging "battle of symbols" also possesses a paradox. In the same way Upton Sinclair wryly observed that it’s difficult to get someone to understand something when their salary depends on not understanding it, likewise it’s difficult for Americans to understand symbols when the growth of their economy depends largely on them not understanding them.

Such are the familiar paradoxes of symbolism. Yet if America continues to produce symbols without making attempts to understand her "children" it seems more likely that symbols will grow larger and more powerful in the hands of other cultures and enemies of America.

In his moving speech before The United Nations, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani rightly observed that the evidence of terrorism’s brutality and inhumanity lies beneath the rubble of the World Trade Center. The attack may have been symbolic but the results all too real. He voices the feelings of many Americans when he says that it "is not a time for further study or vague directives."

While it may not be the time for "further study and vague directives," it also seems to be a time for more than military retaliation. As President Bush and numerous leaders have said, the war will be long and it will be fought on many fronts, using many resources.

In this environment, one of the real challenges for a nation filled with the emotion of revenge is finding space to attempt a contemporary understanding of symbols and their dynamics. This might sound much like Mayor Guiliani’s admonition against "further study" leading only to "vague directives." Yet within the emotions of the moment America needs to consider the probability that the current war (as well as all of the wars of the new millennium and the emergent global culture) will be a "battle between symbols" more than a battle between technologies.

As such, it becomes increasingly necessary to understand symbols before producing more of them and haphazardly sending them off into battle. And, understanding symbols means that symbols need to be observed rather than just created and produced. This calls for a certain type of psychological attitude as well as a cultural acknowledgement that symbols might just have a life of their own, that in fact they might not always be created by culture but may be expressions of nature at certain points in cycles.

Much of this turns back on that on-going debate centering around whether symbols are expressions of nature or creations of culture. Under their modern Freudian recuperation, they were viewed as expressions of an unconsciousness nature. But an emerging American consumer culture was quick to pull them from dreams and set them to work creating persuasive products. The movement was from expression to persuasion, from that wild, uncontrollable night-time visitor of dreams to a domesticated day-time warrior of consumer culture.

Yet the old debate still remains despite the conceit of modern marketing and advertising. Do modern symbols (called products and brands) rise to the status of blockbuster films, bestseller books or even American presidents because of a subliminal trickery of symbol creation and communication performed just a little offstage and out of sight by the symbol magicians of Washington DC, Hollywood and Madison Avenue? Or, do products rise to bestseller and blockbuster status more because of their alignment to the contextual cycles of nature in perpetual movement behind the content of culture?

As we have argued, symbols might be both creations of culture and expressions of nature when there is the synchronicity of alignment between the content of a culture and the context of nature’s cycle culture is contained in.

What has been the direction of the content of American culture and what is the current context of the American cycle? The growing production of American symbols needs to perhaps reverse course and move into a subtractive reduction of symbols. Ironically, larger symbols might emerge from producing less rather than producing more. And, what is the relationship of symbols to broad traits of American character?

A better understanding of this could lead to a new perspective on symbols and a clearer picture of America’s role in the growing "battle of symbols."

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Copyright © 2001 John Fraim