Slippery Symbols, Part 2

Catching up on old business: I owe reader Jeff Brower a response to his comments on my entry Slippery Symbols. Here’s Jeff:

The other thing that it makes me think about is the whole concept of symbol as shorthand for cultural power. The cross (or any other religious symbol, for that matter) is indeed a symbol of political power, but that’s not its primary reference. I’d be interesting in knowing what you think about the postmodern tendency to mix and borrow symbols, extra-tribally, if you will. Once again, that seems to be about cultural power . . .

First of all I hesitate to call it “postmodern.” Not because I can think of historical examples of it happening, though it wouldn’t surprise me if they were out there. More because “postmodern” is a slippery term that, when used while referring to the culture as a whole, as opposed to a specific segment (e.g. “postmodern literature”), is often so broad as to have limited usefulness. But we can easily discard the term in this case, because the tendency Jeff describes is certainly out there, and it also seems pretty self-evident that that sort of mixing and borrowing is way more prevalent now than in the past.

Speaking as someone with an ankh tattooed to his shoulder blade, I’m all for it. The down side, I suppose, would be that such a callous use of symbols potentially dilutes their significance even for the people who attach importance to them. On the up side, we get to bring symbols into circulation that might not otherwise be seen or considered, which in its own small way gives people the power to define themselves in ways not limited by their immediate cultural context. It is about cultural power, and it’s more power to the people: the ability to define yourself instead of being defined.

Jeff goes on:

. . . When an artist uses a religious symbol in a incongruous way, it seems that they are trying to acheive in the observer a kind of liminal stage, of being in-between all categories. Unfortunately, when that goes in hand with an offensive artistic use of the symbol, like immersing it in urine or morphing a fish symbol into a darwin-dog, that openness is lost.

First of all, the liminal stage Jeff’s talking about isn’t limited to artists or to religious symbols: I’d say it’s what goes on whenever there’s a bit of symbol-borrowing. What’s achieved isn’t always liminal in the sense of being perpetually in between categories, but it does very often involve escaping the categories that exist, and most times, as Jeff suggests, also creates openness. I think the two examples of “offensive artistic use” are different, though. The urine-soaked cross—though I’ll heartily defend the artist’s right to make it—does seem to lose openness. Whether or not you find it perverse, it’s certainly not robust, semantically speaking. The darwin-dog I don’t find so much offensive as silly. First of all, it would be a lot more elegant if you took the DARWIN letters out and let the feet speak for themselves. Then you’d have the basic implication, “evolution replaces Christianity,” with a nifty added layer, “Christianity is something you evolve out of, just like a fish crawling on land.” It would all be quite clever if it wasn’t predicated on the nitwit notion that Christianity and evolution are mutually exclusive. So here I guess we have a case of failed robustness, and a lack of openness based not on the symbol itself but the narrow-mindedness that inspires it.

For pictures of a darwin-dog, and to see how far down that road the symbols have gone, check out this site. In most of those cases the original reference to the Christian fish-symbol has been left behind, except insofar as one connects the dots from the original Darwin fish. I got a big kick out of the description of the Happy Shark Emblem:

If you’ve lost another emblem to the holy war, consider one of these sharks – just for the sturdy tape. Some people like these sharks because they illustrate the hostile nature of some popular American religions. Some members of those very religions like to display shark emblems as a symbol of their “muscular christianity.” Still others just like sharks . . .

It’ll symbolize whatever you want! It slices! It dices! The shark, like most of the stuff on that page, is an example of Jeff’s “postmodern” symbol jamboree—a vapid and harmless example. One of the reasons I’m generally for symbol proliferation and tinkering is that they create significance but don’t really take any away from the root symbols they draw from. A urine-soaked cross is certainly ugly, but even it doesn’t dilute the power of the cross as a symbol itself.

All of this takes on some concrete importance for me, since I will be getting another symbol brazened on my flesh in the near future. (Suanna and I have decided to get tattoos every five years on our anniversary, though this time it’s been delayed since she was pregnant during anniversary #10.) What to do? I’m thinking of Kali, riding a tiger bareback, holding a laser rifle. Too busy?