February 27, 2008 § 1 Comment
Do you mean?
Or one of the 172,000,000 other ways of defining it?
Possibly, it was Ernst Cassirer who defined man as a symbolic being, highlighting that as humans we use language and symbols to grasp reality. His monumental “Philosophy of Symbolic Forms” (appeared in three volumes 1923-1929) was an attempt to understand the function of symbols to structure social life, the passing or recurrence of time and the stability the use of symbols gave to human existence. The importance of this work is its insistence on the inner logic of the symbols themselves, the practices associated with their use, which can be totally detached from anything such as truth or reality. Cassirer is an important, and often unacknowledged, prelude to the debates about signs, semiotics and the reality-making qualities of communications media, which have defined most of twentieth century discourse on humans’ relation to their symbolic environment.
The reference to an event or an act as symbolic suspends a relation between symbol and act as logical, as necessary or utilitarian. A monk burning his body in public may not alter the conditions of his sect of being politically suppressed, but the act draws attention to such conditions so as to open a space of reconsideration. A friendly handshake between opposing political factions may symbolize an act of consensus or reconciliation, but the basis for reaching such a consensus will consist in laborious negotiations behind closed doors, heated debate and intricate maneuvering. The symbolic act of cutting a red tape does not functionally distinguish a building site of a highway from a finished highway – the road is the same before and after the cutting of the tape – but symbolically the public investment in the road is acknowledged in the act of cutting the tape, before the highway is put into public service. In all of these examples, the symbolic function of an act exceeds – and in a way universalizes – a plain social interaction.
In looking at the symbolic qualities of an act we simply suspend other modes of explanation for this act, by focusing on the self-referential qualities of symbols and their relations to other symbols. An analysis of media representations that starts with the same preference for symbols – instead of just signs – that the media exhibit, can be an analysis of power and meaning. Those who deploy the symbols are in a position of power to define in which terms, in which symbolic relations a particular question is phrased. A symbol condenses a multitude of other meanings so as to keep each individual meaning in a latent contradiction to other meanings. The symbol is thus ambivalent as to its meaning, which makes symbolic representations a welcome mode of communication for mass media. Through their latent ambivalence symbols address audiences in different ways. Each latent meaning of a symbol sustains one or another opinion, yet the symbol never fully, never completely sustains only one side of a debate. Because the media bring into circulation such ambivalent symbols, they can assume a posture of neutrality, while influencing the debate entirely through their choice of symbolic ambivalence.
This picture was printed in a newspaper with the telling caption “Violent Youth (symbolic image)”. The discussion attached to this image was certainly not dedicated to a particular incident of youth violence, but discussed more general circumstances. This picture is thus not a picture of this young man, at a particular time, shown in the act of attacking; the picture is more likely even staged for the aim of producing a picture. But the attributes of the man in association with the theme bring into play typical symbolic tensions and prejudices. As a scene shot from an action movie this image would create very different impressions, maybe of independence, masculinity, street-wiseness, etc. But as a “symbolic image” for youth violence the image is brings together an entire semantic field of attributes associated with the sociology of youth violence. The picture thus evokes a set of commonplace assumptions about the reasons for such violence and the “typicality” of its perpetrators.
The elements of the picture in a symbolic reading map an entire social existence, marked by body cult (piercings) and carelessness (beard), disguise (hoodie, cap) and open threat (fist), raw and unsophisticated violence (knife), male viciousness (look) etc. All these elements stand in an ambivalent relation to symbols which imply the exact opposite in other contexts: clean-shaven, hightech criminals in suits, who are in fictional contexts endowed with vastly more positive attributes despite the larger scope of their crimes. By bringing up a symbolic tension between what are believed to be the most typical elements of a youthful renegade and its semantic oppositions, the image remains symbolic, not only of a violent youth, but also of the media strategy to prefer symbolic images over merely illustrative ones.