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Thr Burning Mirror

Symbolism of Popular Culture

The Burning Mirror:
Speculation Towards Hypothesis And Application

“My prophecies come not from myself, but from Divine revelation as perceived through my astrological calculations and through cloudy visions as in a burning-mirror.”


“It is useless to tell a river to stop running; the best thing is to learn how to swim in the direction it is flowing.”


Research into the symbolism of popular culture continues under various guises. The most interesting and important work often carried forth by those who don't necessarily realize they are engaged in the study of symbolism. As we have argued, symbolism is like a "homeless" wanderer within the disciplines of the modern world. This situation has both helped it remain free from the confines of traditional academic disciplines while at the same time providing it with a fuzzy definition amenable to appropriation by various groups for their own agendas.

Whether one calls it symbolism or collective unconscious is less important than discovering whether culture is composed of reoccuring patterns of objects, events and people. We need to move forward with this overall goal in mind rather than the goal of attempting to prove particular theories such as the existence of the collective unconscious. The belief in context has broad historical dimensions and is much larger and encompassing than recent manifestations of it such as the theory of collective unconscious. Rather than the invention of one man or school of thought, it is better viewed as a type of ancient symbol dressed in modern clothing.

In our electric age, the possibility for tracking collective actions is a reality for the first time in history. Rather than surmise about the collective unconscious from individual experiences such as dream interpretation, vast amounts of collective data from areas such as sales, rating services, internet actions and voting can now be gathered and patterns searched for. Just as scan data is obtained at supermarkets to track sales patterns in grocery items, a type of "scan" system can be put in place for the key products of popular culture such as films, TV programs, books and music.

Traditional Methods Of Macroenvironmental Forecasting

Movement towards a symbolic perspective of popular culture will bring about the reevaluation of a number of current theories, many in the discipline of marketing. One of the greatest areas effected will be in that elusive area of marketing research about macroenvironmental factors. These are large market forces based around demographics, economics, politics, technology and the natural environment.

A key problem with current marketing research is that it has been effected by the epidemic of segmentation. In fact, it is an epidemic it helped create. Symbolically, one could say that the "head" of the serpent is devouring the "tale" of the beast in a type of uroboric embrace. As the American market becomes more segmented, marketing research like modern management theory, becomes more segmented.

In large part, this segmentation is the result of marketing research becoming a product itself, bought and sold in the marketplace, competing with other products. As a product it has a greater interest in distinguishing its various brands from each other than in acquisition of a pooled reservoir of common knowledge. As pointed out earlier, in a late capitalistic economy, there is little economic interest and motive for joining with others unless formal business alliances or structures can be used to cement the alliance. But even once alliances are established they too attempt to segment and brand themselves away from other brands.

The result is an increasing number of methods for forecasting and an increasingly fuzzy picture of what the overall forecast looks like. Marketing professor Philip Kotler notes a few of these major methods in his classic Marketing Management textbook:

  • Expert Opinion
  • Trend Extrapolation
  • Trend Correlation
  • Economic Modeling
  • Cross-Impact Analysis
  • Multiple Scenarios
  • Demand/Hazard Forecasting

The problem with a large part of this is that it is often based on what people say (out of context) rather than what they do (in context). The assumption of most of this type of research is that broad collective behavior can be surmised from extremely small samples of people under controlled circumstances. The electronic age, though, makes it possible and cost effective to monitor large scale collective consumer behavior for the first time. Why continue to ask questions of a few about behavavior when the behavior of the mass can be observed?

It should come as no surprise that a culture with little clue as to what the present looks like has even less of a clue as to what the future looks like. Many of us laugh at the Humpty-Dumpty silliness of a 50s mass culture where most televisions were tuned to shows like Leave It To Beaver or Father Knows Best. Yet the real tragedy is that Humpty-Dumpty has fallen off the wall and broken into pieces which no one has been able to put together again.

New Paradigms/Models For The Macroenvironment

The general tenor of this investigation needs to be viewed more as the suggestion of a method than the proposal of a hypothesis. While we have garnered some initial data on popular culture, the task is far too much for an individual researcher and greater resources need to brought to the project. In this sense, this investigation could almost be viewed as a proposal for a research grant.

Even though much more research is needed, we can offer some brief speculations on various models and paradigms a symbolism of popular culture might be based around. This is with the caveat, as expressed throughout this investigation, that it is better to ask for forgiveness than beg for permission.

With the above in mind, we suggest some ideas for models of popular culture which summarize the research and ideas from this book.


Similar to the constellations in the heavens with positions in them remaining relatively fixed, the products of popular culture might also be part of symbolic constellations. As we have suggested earlier, these constellations may have a symbolism similar to the ancient Greek Gods in that the positions in them taken by key symbolic dualities. Earth may be a mirror of the heavens and popular products today may mirror the ancient Gods in that they fulfill particular psychic needs similar to the Greek Gods.

The model for this constellation paradigm are the marketing positioning maps familiar to those in advertising and marketing. One of the first steps is to create four key directions which represent the main attributes which define the constellation.

Constellation Of Popular Culture

Here, it is important to closely examine the various "positions" in the constellation of the perceptual map. Some things may appear to change but they may in reality be the same thing simply appearing, as all symbols do, dressed differently for the times.

For example, genres may appear to change but new genres may really be updates of older ones. In American film, the western genre was the dominant genre of the 50s but today there are few westerns at the movies. Has the western genre disappeared or has it reappeared in a different form? Does it continue on in the form of another genre? It is doubtful that any genre or contextual symbols ever disappears completely. More likely is that it simply dresses in new "clothing" for the later era it reappears in.

In this sense, the western genre of the 50s might be said to have made a reappearance in the science fiction and fantasy genre of Lucas films of the 80s and the Star Trek phenomena since the late 60s. The context of space replaces the context of the desert and macho cowboys are now Harrison Ford's Hans Solo rather than John Wayne. Interestingly enough, the early parts of Star Wars are set in a desert, the main context of westerns. And, a scene like the bar episode in Star Wars is an obvious reference to old western saloons.

Generational Archetypes

While the constellation model sees a relatively fixed contextual zeitgeist moving through history, a paradigm based around generational archetypes sees context as a clash between the old and the new generations of history. Each person in many ways lives out the myth of his or her own moment in time and at any particular point in time there are groups which possess similar experiences because they are close in age. They are part of a generation. The paradigm of generational archetypes builds symbolism around the generations existing in a culture at a particular point in time. Usually, depending on which criteria one chooses, this is either three or four generations from the oldest to the youngest.

Once one accepts this scenario, the question becomes whether or not one generation dominates another generation in the sense that popular culture shows more "content" from the archeytype of that generation than the others. Or, perhaps there is not an overall dominance but rather dominance in specific "content" areas of popular culture.

Then again, dominance may not be the correct way to view the paradigm. It may be better to view generations in a type of dynamic balance with each perhaps representing key dualities within a symbolic system. For example, it may be that the older generation represents the symbols of consciousness which stands in opposition to the young generation symbol of unconsciousness. The generation, or generations, in between represent a s form of "sequence" in the transition between unconsciousness and consciousness.

1) Dominant Generations

An important book by Frank Sulloway of MIT called Born To Rebel argues that cultural dynamics are determined by family dynamics based around birth order. But one can view family dynamics and generational dynamics as the same thing in that all families consist of members from different generations. In effect, the generational dynamics of the culture on a grand scale may be played out within the context of each family on a smaller scale.

Sulloway's hypothesis is that first borns in a family are more likely to maintain the status quo of the parent's ideas than later borns who are more likely to be rebellious. This is so because the later borns want attention from the parents and the major way to get this is to distinguish themselves from their older siblings. They distinguish themselves by finding niches within the family just like new products find niches in the marketplace.

Generations might be seen as symbolic parents with older generations viewed as parents or grandparents, against which the sibling or younger (new born) generations fight for attention.

2) Generationational Dynamics

William Strauss and Neil Howe in The Fourth Turning suggest there are four sequences, or generations, within each individual life cycle: artist, prophet, hero and nomad. These four generations are based around the archetype of sequence and in fact, may find "mirror" generations in the past with other generations born in the same sequence.

In Rocking The Ages, J. Walker Smith and Ann Clurman of Yankelovich Partners also suggest that generations center around particular experiences, archetypes and products. Their focus, though, is not on generational cycles like Strauss and Howe but rather on generations as a key method of marketing segmentation.

They show how key ideas, values and products relate to the three key current generations in America: the matures, baby boomers and the Xers.

In effect, their argument can be seen as one suggesting that product symbolism clusters around generations. More than merely provide a hypothesis, the authors provide numerous product and values associated with these three generations. A brief outline of some of their findings is reproduced in the chart below:

Products, Media & Values Of Current Generations

Their ideas are logical, compelling and comprehensive in including numerous references to key products within each of the generations. Generational ties, the authors argue, link widely disparate individuals of varying education, income and life stage. These ties are trans-demographic and psychographic and in fact may ultimately be more effective means of segmenting markets than these traditional marketing methods.


The movement of popular culture can be seen like the dramatic movement of a film. The "hero" of popular culture is the collective unconscious. Like a hero in a film, collective unconscious moves between dualities. Content of culture is aligned vertically (simultaneously and synchronistically) with context.

But content and context may be dualities which oppose on the linear horizontal movement. In this sense, culture movement on a broad scale may not be towards the segmentation of increased content but a movement back-and-forth between content and context. This movement may represent itself as a change in the zeitgeist from transcendental and spiritual to materialistic and objective, from feminine to masculine.

Duality Of Popular Culture

The above shows the general steps in a duality movement from a feminine cycle to a masculine cycle. Note that the various sequential steps are also included. Each sequence marks a change in the alignment of "contentual" products of popular culture.

The chart below, shows the above in a more dramatic form by simply contrasting black and white and suggesting contextual symbolism and contentual genre products in this contrast.

Contexutal Dualities

Here it needs to be noted that horror genre films relate to a context such as night, inside, below and female. In this sense, when horror genre films dominate popular films, the expectation is that context will show a dominance towards these contextual images as well.


Symbolism moves through time in the non-linear form of cycles which constantly repeat themselves in their movement between dualities. Within each cycle is a linear progression of universal steps which represent a sequence pattern. Movement through sequence may have correspondence with contentual symbols such as animals and objects and contextual symbols such as place, time, space, color, elements and symbolic systems like genres.

For example, in a general sense, color sequence can be said to move from the black of unconsciousness to the white of consciousness. From darkness to light. Apart from these two dualities, there may also be a sequential color progression from black to white. Might this progression be represented by the well-known color spectrum?

Or for another example, consider the hero's journey from unconsciousness to consciousness in terms of place symbolism. The symbol of the ocean is recognized as perhaps the most powerful symbol of the unconscious, original state. It is pure context. On the other hand, the symbolism of a mountain is associated with consciousness. Does the voyage of the hero in mythology show a commonality of story setting of a movement from the ocean to the heights of a mountain? Or, for that matter, from any of the places associated with unconsciousness and femininity to places associated with consciousness and masculinity? Apart from the ocean, forrests are symbols of the unconscious feminine and it should not surprise us that a forrest is most often the setting of the fairytale.

Apart from the contextual symbols above, there may also be dualities of contentual symbols associated with the hero's voyage from unconsciousness to consciousness. One of the key contentual symbols might be an association with an animal near the unconscious state where the hero is close to nature and then a movement away from an animal as consciousness grows. In fact, many hero legends show the hero cared for and nurtured by an animal helper close to birth. One needs to also remember the closeness of animals to the birth of Jesus in a manger.

Ultimately, the goal of creating a symbolism of popular culture is to relate symbolic cycles and sequences to contentual and contextual symbols and then finally, to products. This is already being done by a number of researchers working in different fields whose work is involved with symbolism without them really being aware ot it.If culture moves in cycles, the key is to find the particular alignment of contentual symbols at one point in the cycle. Then, using a method similar to that of Nostradamos, note when this cycle will reappear in the future. There will be the same alignment of symbols but they will be in the contentual "dress" of their time.

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