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The Segmentation...

Symbolism of Popular Culture

The Segmentation of Symbolism

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The Name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.
The unamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the orign
of all particular things.

Tao Te Ching

While the modern trend towards segmentation is greatly symbolic, it is difficult to call on symbolism to help explain it because of the increasing segmentation of symbolism itself. In effect, the forces which segment culture today are the same forces which segment the idea of symbols and symbolism.

The result is that symbolism is understood very differently today than it was in the past. Ultimately, it is not symbolism which has decreased in the modern world but rather the idea of symbolism. Paradoxically, the symbolism of modern culture has increased while the idea of symbolism has decreased. The decrease in the idea of symbolism has led to great misunderstanding which has resulted in the fragmentation and segmentation of symbolism.

Transmission And Ritual

The segmentation and misunderstanding of symbolism is similar to the segmentation and misunderstanding of communication. In many respects, both are different words for the same concept.

This misunderstanding of communication derives from two competing ideas of communication. James Carey, one of the leading communications scholars, talks about these two ideas in his important book Communication and Culture. In the article "A Cultural Approach to Communications," Carey points out that there have been two major alternative conceptions of communications in American culture since the term first entered discourse in the nineteenth century. He terms these views as the transmission view and the ritual view.

The transmission view is defined by terms such as "imparting," "transmitting," "sending," or "giving information to others." The ritual view is defined by terms such as "sharing," "participation," "association," "fellowship" and the possession of a common faith. The transmission view centers around the metaphors of geography and transportation with an ancient heritage derived from the dream of increasing the speed and effect of messages through space. As Carey notes, the center of this idea is "the transmission of signals or messages over distances for the purpose of control." He remarks, "From the time upper and lower Egypt were unified under the First Dynasty down through the invention of the telegraph, transportation and communication were inseparably linked."

Dominance Of Transmission

The ancient transmission metaphor was brought into the modern world during the nineteenth century with the western expansion of the American railroads when "movement of people and information were seen as the same thing." While the arrival of the telegraph ended the identity Carey argues that it did not destroy the metaphor. He concludes that today our basic orientation to communication remains grounded in the idea of transmission.

It is an orientation with strong religious and moral connotations. This was so because movement in space became a highly redemptive act for Americans. More than merely the transmital of information, movement in space became an attempt to establish and extend the kingdom of God. It is a belief, notes Carey, that has never quite escaped from Americans. "The moral meaning of transportation," he writes, "was the establishment and extension of God's kingdom on earth. The moral meaning of communication was the same."

Carey suggests that as the forces of science and secularization gained ground, the religious metaphors fell away. The technology of communication moved to the center of thought. But the religious and moral understanding of communication has never left the "zeitgeist" or context against which communications in America is understood. As Carey says, from the telegraph to the computer the same sense of profound possibility for moral improvement is present whenever the machines ae invoked." In effect, the transmission view has become a type of paradigm which defines the "playing field" before the "game" even starts.

Ancient Heritage Of Ritual

As a result, the ritual view has played only a minor part in America's conception of communication. Even so, Carey argues that the ritual view is by far the older view and is based identity and common roots of the terms "commoness," "communion," "community," and "communication." Carey makes an important and critical point when he concludes that "A ritual view of communication is directed not toward the extension of messages in space but toward the maintenance of society in time; not the act of imparting information but the representation of shared beliefs." If the archetype of the transmission view is the extension of messages across geography to control, the archetype of the ritual view is the sacred ceremony that draws together in fellowship and commonality.

While the transmission view has moral and religious underpinnings, the "indebtedness of the ritual view of communication to religion is apparent in the name chosen to label it." Moreover, Carey points out that it derives from a view of religion that downplays the role of the sermon, the instruction and admonition, in order to highlight the role of prayer, chant and ceremony. In this sense, "It sees the original or highest manifestation of communication not in the transmission of intelligent information but in the construction and maintenance of an orderd, meaningful cultural world that can serve as a control container for human action."

The ritual view of communication therefore sees popular culture as providing confirmation of belief rather transmission of information. Its purpose is not to alter attitudes or change minds "but to represent an underlying order of things, not to perform functions but to manifest an ongoing and fragile social process."

But the ritual view has been far from the dominant motif of American communications scholarship which has been entranced with the transmission view. Carey suggests that this is in large part a result of Americans obsessive individualism, "from our Puritanism which disdains activity not practical and work oriented and from the separation of culture and science."

Similar to communication, the ancient idea of symbolism and symbols was based on ritual and communion rather than transmission. This symbolic communion involved a ritual coming together centered around a broken slate of clay. The word "symbol" is derived from the Greek word symbolon. In ancient Greece it was a custom to break a slate of burned clay into several pieces and distribute them within the group. When the group reunited the pieces were fitted together (Greek symbollein). This confirmed the members belonging to the group.

Symbolism And The Return to Communion

This ancient idea of symbolism as a coming together, though, has been lost in the modern world. The transmission paradigm leads to segmentation or coming apart while the ritual paradigm leads to unity or coming together. Rather than bringing pieces back to a common group, the several pieces continue to be broken up into more and more pieces. One might consider knowledge as the modern symbol for the ancient Greek slate. The symbolic pieces of this "slate" might be data and its tendency to cause increased segmentation rather than greater knowledge. The post-modern tendency is movement away form the original "plate" rather than a "communion" around the original plate. In the process it is forgotten that the pieces were once parts of the same "plate," that they are from a common home.

Symbolism offers a new paradigm for understanding the modern segmented world and the position of America in it. But in a fragmented world enveloped in a trance of focus on content, it is difficult to believe a relational world even exists. Symbolism itself has been fragmented from what it once was. As a result, the modern world understands symbolism in a very different way than past cultures.

In a sense, symbolism can be likened to an ancient empire which once ruled over a large part of the world, but has now disappeared. Except for pieces of it found by modern investigators similar to archeologists.

One of these "archeologists" was Carl Jung and the development of depth psychology which he started has very much involved a type of modern archeological expedition of going down (and against the modern grain) rather than up.

For a period of time around the turn of the century, Jung's discoveries in the area of symbolism held great hope that a new symbolic perspective might be brought into the world. Symbolism was shown by Jung to be far more than some forgotten ancient esoteric philosophy but rather a dynamic method for understanding contemporary culture and man.

But the great promise for symbolism that Jung saw and worked so hard to bring about has not been realized in the twentieth century. Symbolism has been used very little in a positive way to understand modern culture. Rather, its use has been to influence culture in subtle, yet subliminally powerful ways. The results have been nightmarish. This is one of the great tragedies of our age.

A Metaphysics Of The Night

Rather than become a new positive science of the day, symbolism has become more of a metaphysics of the night. Rather than offer an understanding and even belief system to the great masses it is bottled and packaged and sold to the exclusive few or used by a few to manipulate the masses.

There are a number of reasons why symbolism has failed to live up to its original promise. In part this is because of the inherent nature of symbolism as a philosophy that abhors definition. This has made it a "fuzzy" subject in our modern segmented world of quick labels, brief sound-bites and catch-all phrases. The difficulty in defining symbolism has allowed it to have different meanings for different groups. The result has been an ownership claim over it by the various groups which use it.

The Brand Of A Group

One of the main groups to use symbolism is the psychoanalytic community. But unlike its use in other areas such as advertising and art criticism, the psychoanalytic community has turned symbolism into a type of product or brand to be sold during the course of psychoanalysis. One of the great promises of the psychoanalytic relationship is the interpretation of symbols.

In this sense, while symbols may come from within the individual through dreams, the keys to unlocking them come from without through a particular service. The even closer connection between symbolism and analytic psychology places Jungian analysis as an even greater "gatekeeper" to the mysteries of symbolism. If there is any particular brand owned by the Jungian community it is symbolism.

The book The Jung Cult by Richard Noll views the Jungian community as a type of cult using multi-level marketing methods. While symbolism is not the direct target of Noll's attack, it is indirectly the target in that much of Jung's analytical psychology is based around symbolism.

The Province of Dreams

Tied closely to the psychoanalytic method, and in fact an important part of it, is the belief that symbols are primarily associated with dreams. Sigmund Freud's Interpretation of Dreams was the most important element in this association between symbolism and dreams. The result of this association is that today symbols are seen as almost the exclusive province of dreams. In this sense, symbolism has become a type of metaphysics of the night.

But the association of symbols with dreams never wanted to pigeonhole symbolism into a science of the night. Rather, it was the desire of Freud and Jung to expand its scope outside the ownership of the psychics, mediums, psychotics and hysterics which filled the landscape during the early years of the development of psychoanalysis. These people were in fact many of the Jung's patients at the Burgholzli Psychiatric Clinic where his early theories were tested. By placing symbolism in dreams Jung placed them in a common function of everyone and made investigation of the unconscious a possibility for everyone.

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Copyright © 2001 John Fraim