By symbols alone

There’s so much more to symbols than meets the eye.

The modern world’s proclivity for patterns of trivialisation wants to teach us a very questionable lesson, namely that the only symbols we manipulate are written, coded and commodified. That language is an integrated system of symbols and nothing else, that we exchange symbols in the marketplace at the exclusion of everything else, and that we create new symbols only to communicate ideas, sell and buy products and services. We are invited to reduce symbolism to logos and emojis.

Symbols however are so much more than this. All human life is symbolic. To be in the world is to be engaged in symbol creation and exchange. Our emotional response is a response to symbols, the mediatory device we have of tapping into ourselves, each other and the word at large. Our personal narratives are symbolic, even if no written symbols may be used to describe them. We have no way of referring to anything outside of ourselves except through symbols.

We live and die by symbols alone. Human meaning is crafted by means of symbols, which, as the etymology suggests, are ways of throwing together (Gr. syn + ballein) the disparate items of our individual perception, inflected and declined by cultural participation. The values we hold, the awareness (or lack of it) of what those values are and where they come from, our social behaviour, our aesthetic and normative commitments, are all symbolic – they throw together ourselves and the object of our cognition in a participatory relationship which gets packed into a well-defined or vague symbolism.

We may be widely open or allergic to a view or an idea, but our response is always directed towards a symbol. Our experience is mediated, but most of all it is symbolic. It’s what makes us human.

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