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Symbolism of Popular Culture

Opposition and Sequence in Cycles

"The fear in birth, which we have designated as fear of life, seems to me actually the fear of having to live as an isolated individual, and not the reverse, the fear of loss of individuality (death fear). That would mean, however, that primary fear corresponds to a fear of separation from the whole, therefore a fear of individuation, on account of which I would like to call it fear of life, although it may appear later as fear of the loss of this dearly bought individuality as fear of death, of being dissolved again into the whole. Between these two fear possibilities, these poles of fear, the individual is thrown back and forth all his life … "

Otto Rank
Will Therapy

There is much to be gained by seeing culture as an agent of expression rather than as a tool of repression. There is even more to be gained by seeing the source of cultural expression outside rather than inside culture. Outside culture there is context while inside culture there is content. The essence of symbolism involves expression of context rather than representation of content.

For western culture this is relatively easy to say but difficult to understand. One might say that western culture is caught in a perpetual trance of content while magic happens just outside the gaze of trance in the mystique of context. Conscious attention is focused on something to understanding it. Then it is broken down into pieces to analyze it. Understanding involves breaking into smaller and smaller pieces. What is needed to understand context is a more unconscious inattention directed outward at associations and relationships rather than inward on analysis.

During those brief moments when there is the hint of an interest in context, certain specialists are often called in for the job. There is the professional therapist who tries to make sense out of our dreams. There is the little lady wrapped in shawls and jewelry who peers into glass balls in dim curtained rooms. And, there is the church service on Sunday mornings.

At certain times, specialists are not needed to establish the connection with context. It comes and goes apparently with a mind of its own, with little control on our part. It surrounds us in magical periods of life such as childhood. It comes and goes like brief unannounced winds throughout our lives. It is a familiar land to artists perpetually existing in that twilight area between content and context. It is the only land for some defined as mentally ill by a content oriented culture.

In our dependence on specialists such as mediums to bring the outside to us, in our relegation of context to a fleeting mental state, in our definition of some as living in a perpetual context, in all of these areas, we direct context into particular areas. In the process we fail to realize that we might be within a medium which is perpetual expression of context. Rather than the images of dreams, the sessions of therapists, the visions of psychics, context might be all around us like water is all around fish. Culture might be medium itself.

There is the possibility that all culture is psychotic and a type of medium, constantly transmitting something from without rather than repressing something from within. As Freud once suggested, the possibility exists that neurosis is a cultural as well as an individual issue. And there is the possibility that dreams are more realities of the day than visions of the night. Popular culture might be a vast "daydream" of contextual expression. And we might be able to gain a glimpse at this daydream if we could escape the trance of our electronic culture.

This possibility is the little understood heart of symbolism and particularly the symbolism of popular culture. Its true meaning for modern man is not contained in objects of culture but rather the contexts of cultural objects. This is easier to say than to feel and understand in our object oriented western culture. This investigation moves towards the understanding of this idea.

It is a difficult task. Symbolism is one of history's most elusive concepts. Rather than move towards understanding and definition of it, the march of time has only made it more elusive and perplexing. The result is that today it is like a multi-headed hydra possessing numerous faces, running across the landscape of the modern world like a herd of wild horses, crossing boundary lines into multiple disciplines with no particular homeland.

In a large sense, symbolism is a key part of psychotherapy and the nightworld technique of dream analysis. Yet it has played a key role in the religious realm with the plethora of religious symbols through history. Or, it has represented a particular type of technique in literature or art.

While many of these (and many other meanings of symbolism) have some truth to them, there has been little effort to see symbolism from a larger perspective that might include all of these meanings. This is a goal of the current investigation. And, at the end of this book, this goal might prove to also be elusive. The larger perspective we propose is the context of culture where symbols are not merely dream images, religious objects or artistic theories but rather products of consumer culture. It is not a world where symbols are created through culture but rather expressed through culture.

In our modern world of simulation and virtual reality, when the real and natural merge, everything becomes a symbol, a representation of the lost real. Ironically, though, as our culture becomes more symbolic, the meaning of symbolism becomes more buried in post-modern theory or appropriated by exclusive fringe disciplines and groups. Rather than see symbolism in the broad daylight of current everyday life, it has been relegated to a twilight world of dream images and museum relics of the past. We study pictures of symbolism and hear literature teachers tell of its importance in the stories we tell but it does not seem to be part of our life and it seems as if these images are separated from us by an invisible shield.

But viewing culture in a symbolic manner is much easier said than done. In attempting to do this we are somewhat like fish trying to understand the medium of water which surrounds them every second of their existence. For us, symbolism is in the air, the atmosphere. In effect, it is really a type of medium which transmits rather than produces.

Where do we begin in the attempt to see culture from a symbolic perspective? We could run full-speed ahead into popular culture chasing down symbols like a hunter going after prey. But the direct method is too conscious, too focused. The overall context is not taken in when the object of the hunt is content within context. Going directly after symbols is similar to looking into a mirror. We see reflected back what we want or need to see, or, what manipulators of symbolism want us to see. We fail to see the context containing the mirror.

What is really needed is a philosophy towards life rather than a theory about some part of life. This philosophy might begin with a few observations about symbolism which have been persistent throughout the ages.

First of all, symbols are not antiques of yesterday's culture which clutter the landscape of the modern world. They are not the leftovers from previous societies or enigmatic objects which need definition and analysis. They require comparison rather than definition. One takes the wrong road towards understanding of symbolism when one ventures down the road of definition and analysis rather than association and relationship.

But symbolism is more than images and the association of images. It is also about the appearance of images in time. In this sense, when images appear is as important, or more important, than what images appear. The focus of western culture has always been on the image content but, in focusing on image, the sequence of images has been overlooked. The real archetype or secret key in symbolism may in fact be in the sequence rather than the image, the context of the image rather than the content of the image.

Since the advent of Freud and Jung, symbols have been related to the unconsciousness, inside world. But they may have a greater practical application and importance in understanding the expression of the inside world in the context of the outside world. In the end, context may in effect be simply another word for the unconsciousness. The reader needs to be the judge in this area from the evidence we present.

As we argue, the key symbols of the modern world are the products of popular culture. But they do not simply appear and disappear through the magicians of Hollywood and Madison Avenue but rather through a series of dynamic energies.

While the meanings of symbols have changed throughout history, these energies have not changed. One might suggest that they represent a type of philosophy of life, an attitude towards seeing life, rather than a structured belief system. In this sense, they are similar to forces like gravity and magnetism that align patterns and move between oppositions. We might say that a philosophy of symbolism involves the energies of duality, relationships and sequence or repetition.

Duality And Opposites

In opposition to a linear, causal progression, symbolism represents a cyclical dynamics of duality. Two forces continually battle in the world of symbolism. They go by many names. Consciousness and unconsciousness; day and night; masculine and feminine; segmented and mass culture. There is never any victor even though the evolution of history might outwardly suggest otherwise, that consciousness is increasingly the victor.

The concept of duality is one of the basic components of symbolism but it certainly is not solely contained within the province of symbolism but is part of key ancient philosophy as well as religion. In fact, duality is at the very beginning of the Bible in the creation of light from darkness:

"And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness."

The Bible begins with the recognition of consciousness which is itself a recognition of duality. This duality is the basis for all symbolic correspondences.

Duality is also at the heart of mythology and the basic structure of myths. As Claude Levi-Strauss reminds us in his famous Structural Anthropology (1968), myths are structured in terms of "binary oppositions" where meaning is produced by dividing the world into mutually exclusive categories such as culture/nature, man/woman, black/white, good/bad/ and us/them. As Levi-Strauss notes, the purpose of myths is to make the world explicable which is accomplished by resolving these binary contradictions. "Mythical thought," he argues, "always progresses from the awareness of oppositions toward their resolution...the purpose of myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction."

Symbols are the binary oppositions of myth. In effect, myth places symbols into a linear, "narrative" structure with a movement from one opposite at the beginning of the myth to the other at the end. The same process can be observed in modern mythological stories such as modern film. But outside film and the other stories we tell itself, popular culture and its leading products can be seen as one central myth moving between opposites. Mythology does not confine itself to our theatres and dreams but plays itself in the daylight of weekdays.

It is impossible to talk about duality without talking about its opposite unity. The original state was unconsciousness or unity and the division between light and darkness in the Bible was the prerequisite for consciousness. In fact, scholars of symbolism place duality originating in the emergence of consciousness from unconsciousness, of the emergence of duality from unity. Symbolically, unconsciousness is associated with darkness and consciousness with light.

All symbols have basic division into duality of unconscious and consciousness.


An extension and consequence of the idea of duality is the concept of the opposites. All dualities consist of opposites.
The existence and knowledge of opposites go back to ancient history and the pre-Socratic philosophers, the Pythagoreans. These early philosophers were aware of the importance of opposites and established a system of ten pairs of key opposites:

  • Limited/Unlimited
  • Odd/Even
  • One/Many
  • Right/Left
  • Male/Female
  • Resting/Moving
  • Straight/Curved
  • Light/Dark
  • Good/Bad
  • Square/Oblong

Within these oppositions, one can see the beginnings of a symbolic perspective of the world.

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