Thursday, February 11, 2010

Disneology #10: Man’s Symbolicity=God’s Image?


The centerpiece in all of Walt Disney World for the study of Communication is Spaceship Earth. Visitors journey through the history of human communication. Cave drawings, hieroglyphics, papyrus scrolls, Phoenician alphabet, Greek philosophy, Roman roads, the Dark Ages, Jewish scribes, Islamic scholars, Christian monks, moveable type, the Renaissance, sculpture and chapel artwork, newspapers, telegraph, telephone, movies, radio, television, and finally, the computer age. The entire history of human communication exemplifies the definition of humans offered by Kenneth Burke:

Man is the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) . . . animal, inventor of (and moralized by) the negative . . . separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by a sense of order) . . . and rotten with perfection. (LSA 16)

Take out the word “animal,” and this definition of human approximates a definition of God. In the next few commentaries, I will compare Burke’s definition, phrase by phrase. Today, I will just explore the first phrase.

PHRASE 1: SYMBOL-USING (SYMBOL-MAKING). The first attribute of a symbol is that a symbol is something that stands for or represents something else. As Korzybski observed, “The word ‘tree’ is not a tree.” Yet, the word “tree” represents or stands for a real tree. The word “tree” is therefore a symbol. Nevertheless, the word “tree” is not the ONLY symbol for a real tree. If you were German, the word “baum” would be your symbol for a real tree (as you may remember from the Christmas song, O Tannen-BAUM.) The French, Spanish, Italians, Greeks, Hebrews, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Russians, etc. all use different symbols for the same real tree. If you were a caveman, the symbol for a real tree would be a drawing of a tree on the cave wall. If you used hieroglyphics, the symbol would resemble a tree. According to , “There were basically 604 symbols that might be put to [use] . . . as an ideogram, as when a sign resembling a tree meant ‘tree.’” The Phoenicians developed an alphabet, which most western civilizations use to this day. They created symbols (letters) to represent each sound, so t, r, e, and e, when combined, help us sound out the word “tree.” These letters are symbols, but they are not the ONLY symbols for sounds. Greek letters are somewhat different from Phoenician letters, but represent similar sounds. Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese letters are much different, but still help humans sound out words. Sign language provides symbols for those who may not even be able to sound out words. Braille provides symbols for those who cannot see.

Why do humans have so many symbols for the same thing? Why can’t we automatically understand the messages of other humans, from any part of the globe? Other animals have no such problem, so far as we know. Whales from the North Atlantic seem to be able to understand the communication of whales from the South Pacific. Japanese dogs seem to understand the barks of American Beagles. Bees understand the messages of the flight patterns of other bees, even though they have had no time to learn the meanings. It’s because animals communicate with “signals,” not “symbols.” A signal is “programmed communication.” The animal INSTINCTIVELY knows the meaning of the communication of its own species. Humans have a different form of communication. As Burke observes, humans MAKE their symbols.

The symbol does not even need to make sense. The second attribute of a symbol is that it may be arbitrarily chosen. Some words, such as the “hiss” of a snake appear to have been logically created. Other words may appear to make no sense whatsoever, as when I tell my students that my word for chalk is “bleh.” Yet, after having heard me say that, if I ask someone to hand me some bleh, that student hands me a piece of chalk. It may seem simple to draw a picture of a tree. But, what other animal has ever drawn even something so simple as a picture? Our cave-dwelling human ancestors did, however. Theologically, you could say that “symbol-making” is a CREATIVE act. The very fact that humans CREATE their own forms of communication argues that humans have a god-like nature. They may be said, in that sense, to be “in the image of God,” if we define God as Creator.

So, who decides which symbol we should use when referring to a tree? The third attribute of a symbol is that there must be shared meaning. English speakers are able to read this commentary, but those who know only another language cannot. Not even all English speakers know what I mean when I use words like “arbitrary,” “immutable,” etc. But, now that you know the word “bleh,” we have shared meaning. I can ask you to mail me some and you would at least understand my request. At times, we need to limit our vocabulary use to those words with which our audience is familiar—even if it means that we must be less precise in our communication.

Enter theology. One problem God may have had in communicating to humans thousands of years ago is their limited vocabulary. I discussed in an earlier commentary that Genesis uses the word “yom” or “day” in a variety of different ways. Perhaps, that is because the audience of Genesis had a limited vocabulary. One word had to do yeoman’s service. Wait! Did everyone understand the word “yeoman”? Or, did you have to look it up? This does not mean that God as a symbol-user does not know what he wants to communicate. It may mean that his audience does not have shared meaning with the terms/symbols he could use. How could the original audience of Genesis have possibly understood symbols like “the curvature of space time” or “E=MC²”? Those who are quick to criticize the scientific teachings of Genesis should at least consider that communication with humans is limited by the amount of shared meaning possible in any context.

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