The Symbolic Code


"Pegasus Constellation", Johannes Havelius (1611 - 1687), Polish

Without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula.

― "Course in General Linguistics", Ferdinand de Saussure

Signs, symbols, words - from the earliest times, linguists concerned themselves with the mentioned terms. The study of the symbol was then taken by sociologists of the interactionist school and by structural anthropologists of the Levi Strauss lineage. Interactionists focused on individual interactions and how humans communicate through the symbols and what does it mean to share the common symbolic language. Structural anthropologists concerned themselves with the very evolution of the symbol. All of these different disciplines studied the symbol because symbolic communication was seen as something uniquely human and as the very thing that has allowed human to build civilizations, cities, complex systems of literature, music and art.

The Symbolic Communication

It could be said that humans, as they are born and grow inherit two codes - one is the genetic code they get as a part of their biological inheritAnce and the other is the cultural code they learn from their culture. Both are, naturally, a result of milleNnia of transmission. The cultural code is the language, customs, thinking patterns that an individual inherits - because of them, an individual can interpret a white dove as a symbol of peace, a combination of sounds as something that bears a specific meaning. Everyone has also heard the stories of the feral children - the children who grow up, away from human society, in a complete wild, and therefore never inherit the cultural code. Those children are usually incapable of functioning in a complex human society because they had never learned the symbols that the society uses to communicate. Such a person, like an animal can communicate only through signs. Signs and symbols are similar but different - sign is a natural occurrence - an animal may give a sign that signals danger or hunger, symbol however, is a completely human creation and different cultures may use, and almost always use, different symbols. Symbol is simply defined as anything that stands for something else. At some point our ancestors have agreed that specific combination of sounds or individual symbols that represent these sounds as phonemes is to mean "a house", in another language, they have agreed that it should be called "la casa", in third something else. The point is that usually there is no natural connection between the group of sounds we decide and the occurrence itself. There is no reason why this or that sound represents the house better, it is entirely a human creation. From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep, we are surrounded by symbols - the symbols we use to measure time, the ones to communicate, the ones to signal "stop" or "go" when we are in traffic, we use money, which is also a symbol, something humans have created as a symbol of economic value. If we go to a church, mosque, temple, shrine, once again we use religious symbols. If we study, we use either verbal or numerical symbols. We do all that often without realising how complex and complicated our world of symbols is. Our brains interpret them without noticing because they are part of our cultural code, cultural inheritance, the same way we do not notice our body's natural, genetically predisposed responses.

The Nature of Symbolic Communication

The ability to create symbols and to communicate through symbols, gives human language and its use few distinct qualities. One of the most important qualities, is the symbolic communication's, that is language's ability to "evoke the absent". When humans talk about a thing, that thing does not have to be in front of them in order to speak about it - by sharing the common symbol, they can evoke the thing without its physical presence. The language therefore transcends time and space - one does not need to go back in history to talk about history and does not need to go to future to talk about future. This ability of human language, which is based on symbol, is perhaps what has allowed us our imagination and our visions. We are capable of creating entire categories that we cannot find evidence for in the empirical reality - dragons, goblins, trolls and others. By symbolically labeling events, things, places, eras, they never have to be truly in front of us to speak or think of them. The phenomenon above is facilitated by the fact symbol alows for categorisation - through symbol we can simply make "house" a category in which we put all houses, we do not need to invent a new symbol for every individual house. This allows us to recognise, a general form of things. Almost as if existing in the Plato's ideals form - we because of this quality of symbolic communication, can recognise the essence of "houseness" or "horseness" and are able to bring them in connection with those that are similar to them. One needs not be a zoologist to notice a similarity between a tiger and a lion, perhaps many of us could hear, older, never formally educated people saying upon seeing them on animal documentary: "They are so similar to our house cats". We have a symbolic category of "catness". This allows us to interact with the world easily. Perhaps the most important quality of the symbolic communication is its creative ability. Creation of anything begins in the mind, which we conceptualise through symbols and once a human decides to act on it, that is apply physical effort, he becomes a creator of the material culture. Symbol stands at the very core of the creation of culture. Human becomes the tool maker and his tools allow him to build the world in a way no other have built. When human writes a poem, a play, paints a painting he also creates culture. In arts, our symbols become even more complex - we use allegories, abstractions, and figures of speech - when a poet says: "the vast blue canvas above us", it is easy for anyone to know it is the sky poet speaks of. Metaphors, allegories and figures of speech are even deeper aspects of the symbolic, linguistic, communication that they deserve their own reflection, so we shall not address them here.

Interactionism, Deconstruction & the Isolated Monad

Sociologists of the theoretical school called symbolic interactionism studied symbols humans use in their daily interactions. They studied the way individuals communicate through symbols and what allows this kind of communication. There are many different perspectives and ideas within the school itself but from reading them, it can be easily concluded that in order for individuals to communicate effectively, both of them must share, that which is mentioned above - the symbolic code. We can understand the symbolic code as a script we get in order to understand what fellow humans around us communicate - by using this script, we know clearly what is kindness and what is a flirtation, we know clearly what every gesture means as everyone around us shares the same symbols. As the time progressed, with the appearance of deconstructivist and postmodern theories, the shared symbolic code came to be named a "social construction" and therefore something that oppresses the individual. Indeed, it is a social construction, so many things are, and it is a useful, pragmatic social construction without which we can barely function as individuals who share spaces with other people. The extreme pluralism that postmodern theories often advocate and extreme interpretationism, has resulted in the ocean of isolated monads - everyone speaks their own language, anything can mean anything just because you want it, language is a construction itself and therefore, inherently meaningless, you can do whatever you want with it. Perhaps, as an individual you can, but the moment symbols stop having a collective meaning, a communication from human to human becomes impossible. It is then, easy to interpret an act of kindness as flirtation because "kindness" and "flirtation" have complete different meanings for different individuals. Humans developed symbols and languages to communicate, not to isolate one another. The world that seeks to deconstruct the symbol is the world that seeks to deconstruct ability of communication and of shared experience with fellow human beings. The logical conclusion of the complete deconstruction of the collective symbolism is nihilism and despair - in such a world an individual can scream, yet nobody understands him because nobody shares his symbols, such an individual can send a white dove as a symbol of peace, yet nobody would understand it as such, they may, even understand it as something malicious. Shared symbols are at the core of our shared humanity and if we want to maintain our ability to speak to one another, we must resist the deconstruction of the symbols.

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