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Towards a Revolution of Symbols

  Vast and profound changes are taking place in our country. Of the changes in economic and political life, people have some awareness. But not of those affecting the universe of symbols. The old order of symbols is fast collapsing. Along with it the human type it represented. What is the new that emerges instead? Do the nascent symbols have the ring of authenticity? Do they bear the promises of fuller and richer life? If not, what challenge does it pose? The reflections that follow are groping towards an answer. Hopefully, these gropings shared will mark the beginning of a new search together.
What is it in a Symbol?
 Symbol is a category of sign. Every sign has a material substratum. The word I write on the blackboard is visible in the contrast of colours and shapes. It is a unity of diverse material attributes. Similarly, when I utter the word, dance, I emit a specific sound that marks itself off from other sounds. Which too is material; its reach and intensity can be measured. It is referred to as signifier. The signified is the meaning conveyed, the concept evoked. Sign is the unity of the signifier and the signified. In any given system of signs, the signifier is invariably and indissolubly linked to the signified. When I say, dance, the sound necessarily evokes a particular pattern and movement of bodily organs. Nevertheless, in itself, the meaning has nothing to do with the sound. In another system of signs the concept of dance may be bound up with another sound, say, nritya, as in Sanskrit.
 Sign as the unity of the signifier and the signified has primarily to do with human speech, gestures, and actions. For, the human body is the sign of signs, the proto-sign, par excellence. It is matter and spirit, sound and meaning, blended in primal unity. Only in an extended sense can artifacts and objects of nature be seen as signs. The red traffic light (signifier) tells me, Don't cross the road (signifies). Likewise, the smoke in the oven signified the fire smouldering beneath. In the latter instance there is a causal link between smoke and fire. But in most signs the link is merely conventional. There is no reason why a green light should not be used to caution pedestrians against crossing the road.
In all signs a signifier points to a signified beyond it. But pointing to a reality does not necessarily mean having a share in it. The sound I emit when I say, dog, has nothing canine about it. When I utter the word, fish, I do not create vibrations in the air that smell of fish. Not so symbols. Symbols are signs which not only point to a reality beyond but also partake of it, though not materially. The idol in the temple not only points to a deity but is itself the deity. The cross does more than merely represent Jesus Christ, it makes him present. The national flag is not just a distant reminder of the nation; in a way it is the nation. If you tear it to pieces, you are likely to be charged with treason. No use saying you only tampered with a piece of handloom cloth. In all symbols the signifier forms a continuum with the signified. Hence the density and the concentration of meaning in symbolic language. A universe of meaning can crystallize into a symbolic word, gesture, deed, or object. That is why insult to a religious symbol can lead to communal riots and mass carnage.
Since symbols anticipate what they point to, they open out new and deeper dimensions of reality not accessible to cold, calculating reason. They represent a genuine mode of human self-transcendence and self-creation in history. As such, they spring not from the poverty but from the wealth of humanness. Their roots lie more in the untamed, volcanic forces of the underconscious than in conscious life. For this reason they cannot be fabricated or made to order. Nor can they be arbitrarily substituted one for another. They are born, not made. They may die; they cannot be killed. Symbols can be fashioned only by those whose every fibre throbs in unison with the collective unconscious. Such are creative artists, poets, and charismatic prophetic individuals.
The Death of a Symbolic Universe
What we are witnessing today is the dissolution of a symbolic universe. For our forebears, the symbolic was not one sector of life among many. Nor was it a sort of superstructure resting on a social base that was non-symbolic. Rather, the whole world was symbolic__persons, words, gestures, events, situations, things. As though everything strained towards the beyond, itched for the unending and undying. In such a world, calling a spade a spade was insufficient. For a spade was not just a tool to dig up the soil; it was the vehicle and the embodiment of the primal creative energy of the celestial architect, Visvakarman. Water was not just water but the cosmic principle of life, the womb of all that is. It was also seed, semen, blood , and the sweat of the brow. The tree in the garden pointed to the cosmic tree uniting heaven and earth. The fire in the hearth was the same as the warmth that hatched eggs, the same as the sun shining in the sky, as the fire in the heart, the passion that sent the gods chasing pretty damsels. Every limb of man or woman called out to the beyond; the eye to the stars, the breath to the wind, the genitals to fire and water, the human frame to the four quarters of the universe. Sexual reproduction merged with cosmic reproduction. In short, human existence was experienced as but a moment in the ebb and flow of cosmic life.
One with nature, man was also one with the community. Pre-eminently so in tribal days; to a lesser degree in caste society. True, the unity of caste system was itself divisive. It helped some to fatten themselves on the labour others. Still the different castes formed a kind of organic whole. The individual as an autonomous centre of decision had not yet emerged. Each man saw himself and everybody else as expanding into a wider socio-symbolic totality, that is, as having at once a material and a symbolic existence.
From the matrix of a world that was already symbolic arose a second order of symbols, myths, legends, magic, rituals, dance, and drama. These opened up a new realm peopled with gods, goddesses, nymphs, goblins, and spirits good and evil all bearing the birth-marks of their origin in nature and the community's unconscious. Men and women lived in communion with the visible and the invisible, with this world and the overworld.
The man-nature-overworld continuum has since ruptured. The centre has given way and the elements are falling apart. With the coming of science, men and things have shed their mystical halo. Nature was reduced to mere ends and means, cause and effect, mass and energy, electrons and neutrons. Further, capitalism turned everything into a commodity, into a sum of crystals of abstract human labour. Magical equivalence gave way to the equivalence of universal exchange. The universe was disenchanted; the gods fled or, rather, took refuge in people's unconscious whence they originally came.
Ruptured too was the social continuum. Under the strain of money economy the social fabric was rent asunder. Man's umbilical bond with the community was severed. Individuals began to drift alone and apart, but only to be sucked into the whirlpool of competition, to be drafted in to the war of all against all. They lost both unity within and unity without, were robbed of all ontic density. Human existence shrank into insignificance, recoiled upon its own inner vacuum. Each man became his pale shadow.
Symbols of Alienation
The collapse of the old world does not mean that today's man can do without symbols. Even in his estrangement he must reach out to a beyond, be it real or illusory. Condemned to be a symbolic biped, he must seek to recapture unity and wholeness. Since the paradise lost cannot be regained, he is impelled to find surrogates. Like Siva who removed the dirt from his body and with it made ornaments for his bride, the alienated man of today will forge symbols from out of his own ruins. The old symbols had the ring of truth as they sprang from an existence that was itself symbolic. The new ones tend to be spurious, make-believe, like plastic flowers or mannequins draped in silk. No genuine feeling animates them, no vital sap runs through them. Void and null is the beyond they point to, the transcendence they promise.
Emergent capitalism is spawning up by the thousand such alienated and alienating symbols. Wares become signifiers of the heaven of conspicuous consumption. The imported car you drive, the jeans you wear, the brand of cigarette you smoke, the bag you carry, the television antennae on your roof - all announce your promotion to the status of gods. Walking one's pedigree dog is a symbol of status, which walking with one's wife definitely is not. With such sham symbols the affluent and the not so affluent hope to wing their way to the other world of progress, enlightenment, and high culture. The symbols mushrooming up everywhere have this in common: they are instruments of dissimulation. They help men and women appear other than what they are in their shame and nakedness. You may be making a living by administering death to your fellowmen. But thanks to the "Dr. So and So, M. D." engraved in letters of gold on your name plate, you appear before the public a man of selfless service and cosmic compassion. Your mind may be as barren as the sand on the sea-shore and incapable of germinating a single original idea. Yet the magic title, professor, projects you as a paragon of wisdom, a teacher of the gods. Are you a member of parliament? You are then presumed to be a champion of democracy, a guardian of the people, the voice of the mute masses. In reality, though, your sole concern may be how to convert public function into private money. Symbols, then, like the habit, cover a multitude of sins or, to change the metaphor, serve as fig-leaves for modern man to cover his shame. Not that there is any genuine sense of shame either. Were it so, there would still be place for hope. For, "shame is a revolution in itself" (Marx).
Trans-symbolization and Symbiosis
Where do we go from here? Are we to return to the symbolic universe of our forebears? That seems neither desirable nor possible. Not desirable, because the magico-mythical symbolism of the past resulted largely from the limitations of man's relationship with nature and with other men. Besides, traditional symbols, in their present form, are the end-product of a long and lurid history of manipulation, distortion, and literary forgery on the part of the twice-born castes with a view to maintaining their stranglehold on the ignorant masses.
Reviving the past is not possible, either. With the growth of science and technology and with the emergence of man as the subject of history, the magico-mythical symbolism of old has nowhere to draw nourishment from. Nor may we envision a future without symbols, where everything will be closed in upon itself, where logic and reason will have driven out all feeling and creative imagination. Such a world would be dreary and sterile, with men and women resembling blossoms withered, stars shorn of their radiance; a waste-land of lifeless, soulless beings. For, not to symbolize is to cease to be human. Even symbols of shame are better than no symbols at all.
The only way out is to fashion a new universe of symbols opening out to a new oneness and wholeness. A cosmic oneness founded not so much on man's subjection to nature as on his being the bestower of meaning on things given and things made, and a oneness with human kind deriving not from the domination of the many by the few but from flesh and blood and soil and from the free association of persons. Tomorrow's will have to be symbols not only of fate but of freedom, not of blind conformity but of self-creation, not merely of resignation but also of hope. Their breeding ground will be the struggle of the masses for richer and fuller life. Only such men and women can create them as have the courage to dissent: never those who think to orders from above nor professional revolutionaries imprisoned within the barbed wire enclosure of the Party line. Nothing petrifies the human spirit so much as the Party, the church, the mosque, the temple. Hence the new universe of symbols will be the work of writers, poets, and activists who feel with the masses and are radically honest to the pure urge for creation.
Are we then to effect a complete break with the past? No, the past never dies but calls in us, groans in our unconscious. Its voice will ever refuse to be smothered. Still, it can only survive by shedding old meanings and taking on new ones, that is, through a process of trans-symbolization. The process is already taking place in the regional literatures. In new-wave Malayalam poetry the Mother Goddess is reappearing as a symbol not merely of cosmic fertility but of revolt against injustice and oppression. But will old wineskins be able to contain the new fermenting wine of revolt? Only time can tell. A significant pointer to things to come is the frequent use of ethical-prophetic symbols from the biblical tradition by poets who do not belong to it. Also the way persons, events, and things associated with people's struggles are raised to the status of symbols. The converging and the merging of the cosmic, the prophetic, and the historical seems to prefigure the coming revolution of symbols.

-S. Kappen
Tradition Modernity Counter Culture, Visthar, Dodda Gubbi Post, Bangalore, India - 562 149, 1994


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