Reflection 123: Symbol Consciousness

July 1, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Symbols are concrete sensory images keyed to or connoting abstract notions, concepts, feelings, or ideas in consciousness.  They differ from signs which denote something equally concrete, as animal tracks bear a one-to-one connection with the feet of the creatures that made them. Understanding signs, symbols, emblems, insignia, etc. requires a grasp of the situations in which they are likely to appear. In different cultures, one and the same symbol may refer to two entirely different situations, and so open onto a divergence of interpretations. Think upon the dual (constructive and destructive) nature of fire, water, wind, and sunlight, for example.

When I was in third grade, my friend Norman Stauffer went to the New York World’s Fair with his folks. Teacher asked him 1939 World Fair--Symbol of Progress to tell the class about his trip. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember the surge of envy I felt because he had gone and I hadn’t. The fair was about the world of tomorrow—the neatest thing my budding mind could imagine. Science and progress! Those  were magic words to me then. The Symbol of Progressfamous Trilon and Perisphere in the poster symbolized the spirit of the new era I was going to grow up in. Norman knew more about my future than I did because he’d been there and seen it. We stayed fast friends through the war, doing everything we could to bring that future into our lives by reading up on science, discovery, and new inventions.

Symbols are allusions in one sensory modality or another to conBaltimore Oriolesceptions beyond themselves. The playing of the national anthem is a symbol to sports fans that waiting is over and play is about to begin, with overtones of heightened anticipation and local pride. Secret handclasps  symbolize shared attitudes and assumptions. Salt air is a sign the sea is VFW Buddy Poppynear, and perhaps a symbol of a vacation mentality. The scent of perfume can be a symbolic invitation to stay near and engage. Buddy Poppies remind us each Memorial Day of the debt we owe those who have fought and died in our name.

Attitudes and feelings are important aspects of symbPure Poisonol consciousness. During election campaigns, we have strong reactions to pointed displays of donkeys and  elephants, which in other contexts might not rouse us at all. It’s not that symbols are loaded so much as that we are loaded and primedJapanese Navy  for action. Think of national flags and the burning thereof, old school emblems, military insignias including rising suns and swastikas, stars and crescents, burning crosses, valentines, shamrocks, mortarboards, jack-o’-lanterns, and the many other symbols that seem to move us one way or another when in truth it is we who give rise to our own emotions.

Wearing our hearts on our sleeves, shoulders, chests, hats, or bumpers is a way of posting important dimensions of our Go Gators! consciousness for all to see. Imagine a U.S. politician not sporting Old Glory in his lapel—he is certainly exposed and practically naked. I once contributed to the Union of Concerned Scientists and received a butterfly decal acknowledging my membership.  I put it onRed Sox Fan my car window—and have kept it there for seven years without a follow-up donation as a kind of declaration of support because that’s the kind of guy I am—or want to be know as—I can’t tell the difference. Anyway, it’s deliberate on my part. Like choosing to wear a baseball cap (brim to the fore to shade my eyes) instead of a cowboy hat, beret, Greek fisherman’s cap, or other headgear. Symbolic designs on underwear and tattoos are meant to be appreciated by the select audience that discovers them.

Whether it’s flying a flag, buying a hat or a car, or sending a greeting card, everything we do makes a statement about the Celtic Cross personal values leading us to put cash on the line (or even go into debt). All of us are master symbolists, though few have formally studied the discipline. Declaring our insides on the outside is big business—like billboard advertising. Where would the fashion, automobile, travel, or sports Peace Symbol industries be if we were truly meek and humble? No, we want to be known to the world! Translating consciousness into personal appearances and lifestyles is a high art. If we want to conform to the group, it shows in our behavior; if we are rebels, that shows as well; if we want to be invisible and draw no attention at all, even that shows up in how we symbolize our conscious insides on the outside.  

Neuroscientists believe the most direct route to understanding the fine-grained logic of consciousness is to study the brain. The Face of England But people don’t live in their brains, they live in bodies, clothing, possessions, housing, neighborhoods, jobs, recreations, societies at large, and natural environs. I strongly recommend complementing neuroscience with studies of how we externalize ourselves in the symbols and language we choose to represent the complex mix of our conscious (and even unconscious) states. There is no way of telling how we interpret the symbols we surround ourselves with except by asking for introspective reports. And even that is not a sure thing because of the shaky nature of self-declarations. But I am a firm believer that everything we say and do has meaCupid--Symbol of Lovening and significance if looked at the right way in the right light. What is most apt to disrupt self-reporting is the habitual bias and attitude of those receiving the gift of reviewing how another sees herself. The give-and-take of dialogue and follow-up questions can often clear up doubts, uncertainties, and misunderstandings.

A more ineffable difficulty in interpreting symbols is that no two of us are likely to be in the same situation at the same time, so the meanings we find in symbols are not directly transferable Opposites in Unityfrom one mind to another because the set and context of those minds are different. Which may lead researchers to feel they must re-interpret what they are told, intending to discern true meanings, but often substituting their own misunderstanding for their subject’s firsthand account. Freud frequently found meanings in patients’ word choices or typographical errors that fit his scheme of analysis, but did violence to the integrity of the verbatim self-reports, as well as to what the good doctor might have learned from them had he listened.

How symbols are intended and how they are taken are  different matters in different minds. To understand symbols, the best we can do is look to our attachments by asking ourselves what we see in them. As a photographer all my life, every image I put out is a picture or symbol of the state of my mind at the time. The Pix page at the head of this blog opens onto a compound portrait of my inner self. If you care to know, that’s who I am. Part of who I am—to myself at least.

Metaphorical states form the medium of symbol consciousness. Everything we notice is a reflection of one aspect of who we are. Different situations draw out different facets of consciousness, coupling different symbols with newSymbol of Plenty meanings, some having slight connection to the ones we are familiar with. Our public asks us to be one person going by one name, but we shine with different colors depending on the light radiating from our current situation, so are a host of different persons. Is a diamond inconsistent for revealing different hues in different facets? No, that is exactly what we expect of a diamond. And as author of this blog, what I expect of myself. It is precisely that variety that keeps me going, posting new blogs as they occur to me because today I am a new person, requiring new symbols adequate to the challenge of trying to represent who I am.

Daisy-72

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