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1.7 Communication through symbols

1. Ubiquity of symbols

The international community is faced with the twofold challenge of information overload and fragmentation of relevant patterns of information. Many of the possibilities of conceptual integration are reviewed in Section K, but it is not clear whether enough can be achieved in time nor whether such conceptual integration will meet the communication need, especially in relation to the wider public. The possibilities of using metaphors and their relationship to patterns of concepts are reviewed in Section MM and MP. It would however be a mistake to neglect the role of symbols, especially to the extent that they can play a more fundamental integrative role.

Symbols are widely used by the international community. Attempts are made to give an identity to most major international programmes through the use of a symbol. Most international organizations make use of a distinctive symbol on their letterheads and other documents. More informally the mass media are constantly in the process of searching for symbols which will attract the attention of their audiences, whether it be Mère Thérése, a Live Aid happening, Baby Doc Duvalier, the Challenger space shuttle, child ambassadors (exchanged between the USA and the USSR), or some media star.

Whilst the role of symbols is scorned in academic and administrative responses to the global problematique, symbols are heavily exploited by the advertising media in helping people to define their self-image and personal development in terms of the acquisition of consumer products. Symbols are also used, under the guidance of media consultants, in helping to define the identity of national political parties. Such manipulation of contemporary symbols is only possible because of public sensitivity to a large body of symbolism which has become traditional over the ages and constituting an international language transcending the normal limits of communication.

The question is whether some form of symbolism can provide any assistance in new responses to the global problematique.

2. Definition

A distinction must be made, following Erich Fromm (The Forgotten Language, 1952), between three kinds of symbol:

  • the conventional, such as the signs used in industry, in mathematics and in other fields;
  • the accidental, resulting from temporary association whereby one thing symbolizes another;
  • the universal, where there is an intrinsic relation between the symbol and what it represents.
It is the latter which is the concern of this section.

According to J E Cirlot, definitions and analyses of symbols and symbolism are all too frequent (A Dictionary of Symbols, 1971). In many ways it is the excesses and mutual antagonism of those sensitive to the symbolic dimension which has prevented the symbolic heritage of humanity from being explored as a resource relevant to an integrative response to the global problematique.

Because of their integrative function, symbols lend themselves to many definitions and interpretations. it is therefore doubtful whether it is possible or useful to seek any precise definition. Cirlot adopts the approach of pointing to useful insights into their nature, rather than reducing them to some formula. Thus for Lin Yu-tang symbolism has the virtue of containing within a few conventional lines the thought of the ages and the dreams of a race. It kindles our imaginational and leads us to realms of wordless thought. Commenting on this J C Cooper states that: "This thought is not that of the individual ego; the symbol cannot be created artificially or invented for some purely personal interpretation or whim: it goes beyond the individual to the universal and is innate in the life of the spirit. It is the external, or lower, expression of the higher truth which is symbolized, and is a means of communicating realities which might otherwise be either obscured by the limitations of language or too complex for adequate expression." (An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, 1978, p.7) This certainly suggest that symbols have something to offer to the challenge of communicating paradoxical or mutually antagonistic insights as reviewed in Section KD. This is confirmed by Cooper's subsequent observation that: "Much of symbolism directly concerns the dramatic interplay and interaction of the opposing forces in the dualistic world of manifestation, their conflicting but also complementary and compensating characteristics, and their final union, symbolized by the androgyne or sacred marriage. These are expressions of the unity of life which is the central point of all traditional symbolism." (p.8).

3. Function of symbols

Cirlot summarizes the unique function of symbolism as a language of images and emotions based upon a precise and crystallized means of expression, revealing transcendent truths, both in the cosmic order external to man and within him. Furthermore it possesses a quality which increases its dynamism and gives it a truly dramatic character. This quality, the essence of the symbol, is its ability to express simultaneously the various aspects, namely both thesis and antithesis, of the idea it represents. The symbolic function may therefore be said to appear or become active when a state of tension is set up between opposites which the normal conscious mind cannot resolve by itself. The symbolic function is thus effectively centred within the unconscious and does not recognize the inherent distinctions of contraposition (J E Cirlot, 1971, p.xxxi).

Mircea Eliade perceives the function of the symbol as going beyond the limitations of man and his particular concerns as "fragments" and of integrating such fragments into entities of wider scope such as society, culture or the universe. But an object transmuted into a symbol is not simply dissolved into totality, for the symbol does not restrict movement or circulation between levels of reality or interpretation, rather it enables it, thus performing an integrative function. What the symbol makes manifest restates point by point what the totality manifests. (Images et Symboles, 1952, p.17)

The analogy between two planes of reality is founded upon recognition in both of a common rhythm according to Schneider (El origen musical de los animales-simbolos en la mitologia y la escultura antiguas, 1946), namely a "coherent, determinate and dynamic factor which a character or figure possesses and which is transmitted to the object over which it presides or form which it emanates. This rhythm is fundamentally a movement resulting from a certain vitality or from a given "number"... Rhythm may be understood as a grouping of distances, of quantitative values, but also as a formal pattern determined by rhythmic numbers, that is, as spatial, formal and positional similitude." (J E Cirlot, 1971, p.xxxii)

Rhythms and modes thus allow relationships to be perceived between different planes of reality in a manner similar to the approach of general systems theory in its preoccupation with isomorphy. But while natural science establishes relationships only between "horizontal" groups of beings following the classificatory approach of Linnaeus, symbols construct "vertical" relationships between objects having the same rhythm, namely objects that correspond or are analogous to others on a different plane. Symbols thus function in terms of a kind of magnetic force that draws together for comprehension phenomena having the same rhythm. (p.xxxiii). Symbolism thus reveals that the profound meaning behind all series of symbolic objects is the very cause of their repeated appearance in the world of phenomena. This can be related to David Bohm's explorations of the manner in which objects are unfolded to perception and re-enfolded into the wholeness of the implicate order (Wholeness and the Implicate Order, 1980). Such "objects" can include man's image of himself, which reinforces Donadeo's insight that: "It could perhaps even be said that rather than having created symbols, man has himself been created by his capacity to form symbols." Jung uses the word "archetype" to designate those universal symbols which possess the greatest constancy and efficiency, the greatest potentiality for psychic evolution, and which point away from the inferior to the superior. In discussing psychic energy he specifically states: "The psychological mechanism that transforms energy is the symbol." (Symbols of Transformation, 1956)

For Martin Grotjahn: "The word symbol implies throwing together, bringing together, integrating. The process of symbol formation is a continuous process of bringing together and integrating the internal with the external world, the subject with the object, and the earlier emotional experiences with later experience." (The Voice of the Symbol, 1971, p.178)

In the face of the fragmentation resulting from the explosion of information and specialized knowledge, analogy, as a unifying and ordering process, appears continuously in art, myth and poetry. It functions to unite what has been dispersed, exploring the unknown and, paradoxically, communicating the incommunicable (J E Cirlot, 1971, p.xli). Given the increasing impossibility for an individual to absorb more than a small fraction of the knowledge of experts, reliance must necessarily be placed by educators, media documentaries, and policy presentations, on the use of analogy to convey complex insights. Such analogies are more easily remembered and have greater impact if they are drawn from patterns of symbols that reinforce one another.

4. Symbolic patterning and syntax

As Cirlot remarks in discussing "symbolic syntax", symbols, in whatever form they appear, are not usually isolated. They appear in clusters, giving rise to symbolic compositions which may be evolved over time (as in the case of story-telling), in space (works of art, graphic designs), or in both space and time (drama and dreams). Combinations of symbols thus evidence a cumulative meaning (A Dictionary of Symbols, 1971).

There is thus a rich network of relations between symbols in the form of correspondences and analogies. For Mary Douglas: "A symbol only has meaning from its relation to other symbols in a pattern. The pattern gives the meaning. Therefore no one item in the pattern can carry meaning by itself isolated from the rest." (Natural Symbols, 1973)

Unfortunately little effort is made by those concerned with symbols to map out such networks. The tendency in the literature is to focus on a few relationships at a time, explored in lengthy texts presupposing a sense of perspective that is not offered in any readily accessible form. There is a marked disinclination to map. Exceptions to this may be seen in some eastern systems using forms of mandala in which different symbols are associated with particular parts of the mandala and are thus interrelated. Perhaps the richest map of this kind, and the most explicitly documented, is that constituted by the network of explicit relations between the 64 hexagrams of the Chinese Book of Changes (see Section TP 1991.

The pattern of concepts developed from Alexander's pattern language for building design (see Section MP 1991) can also be usefully viewed in symbolic terms. Cirlot notes that the symbolism of architecture is complex and wide-ranging. "It is founded upon "correspondences" between various patterns of spatial organization, consequent upon the relationships, on the abstract plane, between architectural structures and the organized pattern of space." (p.15) He gives as example a Romanesque cloister with its central fountain, which although it corresponds exactly to the concept of a sacred precinct (temenos) with a silver thread (sutratma) linking from the centre to its origin, "does not invalidate or even modify the architectural and utilitarian reality of this cloister; it enriches its significance by identifying it with an "inner form"." Of special interest in Alexander's initiative is his effort to map the network of relations between some 253 design patterns which, to the extent that they are in his terms "archetypal", must necessarily also be understood in symbolic terms. His deliberate effort to embody the "quality without a name" may indeed by successful to the extent that such patterns reflect such an "inner form".

The exercise in Section MP to identify parallel pattern languages at the socio-organizational, conceptual and intra-personal level, may consequently be given further legitimacy on the basis of symbolic considerations. Cirlot stresses that there is an "immense weight of testimony offered by human faith and wisdom" proving that intangible order, whether conceptual, psychological or spiritual, is analogous in form to the material order." This is evident in the saying of Plato: "What is perceptible to the senses is the reflection of what is intelligible to the mind." Or, more recently, in studies on the calculus of self-reference, Francisco Varela concludes: "In contrast with what is commonly assumed, a description, when carefully inspected reveals the properties of the observer. We, observers, distinguish ourselves precisely by distinguishing what we apparently are not, the world." (A Calculus of Self-Reference, 1975). In this sense the exercise in Section MP is an effort to describe verbally a network of forms or patterns at various levels, which can most probably be much better described through the use of symbols. Alexander's architectural patterns may be interpreted in their symbolic sense to this end. Other symbols most probably exist for many of the intra-personal patterns. The network is however unique in its explicitness and merits further exploration in terms of its possible symbolic significance.

5. Resistance to the symbolic dimension

The widespread resistance to recognition of the special integrative function of symbols is in large part a backlash against the excesses of the pre-scientific period. The scientific method can even be said to have emerged in reaction to such excesses.

Cirlot points out that: "The error of symbolist artists and writers has always been precisely this: that they sought to turn the entire sphere of reality into a vehicle for impalpable "correspondences", into an obsessive conjunction of analogics, without being aware that the symbolic is opposed to the existential and instrumental and without realizing that the laws of symbolism hold good only within it own particular sphere." (A Dictionary of Symbols, 1971, p.xii)

It has been with great reluctance, and largely as a result of Freud and Jung, that any significance has been attached in the West to symbols in relation to the processes of human development. Such acceptance is however limited to the psychoanalytical disciplines, which are themselves viewed as of doubtful significance by most of the natural and social sciences. The only exception, as noted above, being those applied social sciences dealing with the use of symbols in advertising and propaganda or engaging in descriptive exercises on the use of symbols in different cultures. Outside the sciences however there is not such resistance, whether in the arts, in religion or in relation to the status symbols of an individual, a corporation or a country. This is especially the case in non-western cultures.

The resistance is however justified because of the continuing tendency, despite the emergence of scientific disciplines, towards sloppy and undisciplined thinking in relation to symbolism. It has proved difficult to distinguish between uncritical, undisciplined attitudes towards symbols and inspired, creative explorations of symbols. As pointed out above, symbols encourage freedom of association but in the absence of any countervailing discipline, the whole approach is easily associated with primitive, non-scientific thinking or purely aesthetic exercises.

Jung, who contributed so much to clarifying the transformative function of symbols noted that: "For the modern mind, analogies - even when they are analogics with he most unexpected symbolic meanings - are noting but self-evident absurdities. This worthy judgement does not, however, in any way alter the fact that such affinities of thought do exist and that they have been playing an important role for centuries. Psychology has a duty to recognize these facts; it should leave it to the profane to denigrate them as absurdities or obscurantism." (Symbols of Transformation, 1956)

Despite the wealth of work by psychoanalysts, and possibly because of the archetypal nature of their disagreements, psychologists and sociologists are still far from according any significance to symbolism. This resistance is reviewed by H D Duncan (Symbols in Society, 1968) who notes that systematic explanations of human relationships are determined by communication of significant symbols have not been much in vogue in America. In a major review of contemporary sociology, under the auspices of the American Sociological Association, "symbol" did not appear in the index. As sociology becomes more quantified it provides less insight into the nature of symbols. In discussing the confusion over the social function of symbols in sociology Duncan points to factors such as: confusion of the symbolic with the subjective, failure to study symbolic forms, the "trained incapacity" of sociologists in the use of non-mechanistic models, the definition of a symbol itself, and the fundamental ambiguity of symbols. In discussing the latter he suggest that it may indeed be the ambiguity of symbols which makes them so useful in society as a kind of bridge allowing people to alternate between different interpretations (namely the possibility reviewed in Section KD 1991).