Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Concrete Symbolism


I often feel that I am on the verge of some great insight, something that will reveal to me what this thing we call life is all about. It seems that whatever it may be, it is always just out of reach – sometimes at my fingertips and other times more than an arm’s length away – but it’s always there. Since beginning my study of communication in earnest, that feeling is more profound than ever, but at the same time the frustration of not being able to grasp it has become more pronounced. How does one describe what is beyond definition? Words, for all the robustness and versatility they hold, are painfully inadequate.

Yet this is what we have. Symbolic communication – via words and otherwise - is the hallmark of the human enterprise; it separates us from the rest of the living. We are connected by the ability to think in and communicate those thoughts symbolically with each other. But the thoughts are not symbols – they are real. Our representations are abstract images of what we think, they are not the same as the substance of thought. Since symbols are the product of a process of encoding, and interpretation one of decoding, vast rifts can form between intention and interpretation. For all our ability to communicate, we still fall woefully short in transmitting and receiving messages. The greatest achievement of our species, therefore, is wrought with infinite variability in how what one says is turned into meaning by another.

Despite it’s imprecision communication has given rise to human domination of the planet. We have climbed to the top of the food chain in very short order. We are not the biggest or the strongest; not the fastest or the longest lived, but through our intellect and the ability to symbolically share our view of the world with one another, a degree of cooperation has occurred sufficient enough to have mastered our environment. Indeed, we have created it. Yet for all that communicative prowess, when someone looks at us the wrong way we read into it all the evil the world has to offer. For all the civilization we have created, we too often act with abject savagery. Differences of opinion beget personal affronts and peace, the very thing we (all humans, all the time) say we strive for, is lost in the destruction of what we have built.

Perhaps we will master the art of communication someday. Maybe that is what is just out of reach, a formula of encoding and decoding that leaves no room for interpretation – concrete symbolism might be the next great achievement of the human race. Computers can do it – digital instructions are followed to the letter (or number) without variation, without judgment. But if and when that day comes, what will be left for us to say? It is the very nature of six billion visions of the world, six billion symbolic representations and six billion interpretations that makes life the dynamic experience it is. With no variation, there is no humanity - even when some of those variants seem so very inhumane.

3 comments:

Sue said...

What you think I said is not what you heard?

Michael Althouse said...

Yes.

Belizegial said...

Quite a mouthful said here. Let me ponder this.

In the meantime Mike, visit my blog to see aerial photos of my beautiful Belize.

Happy September!