Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The “Symbol-breathing” Animal

Papers are now read, grades recorded.  It’s time to consider how well I taught my students the fundamental concepts of my discipline.  [In my courses on "Civil Conflicts" and "Terrorism" and "The Clash of Civilizations" I have gotten used to being asked "What is this course about?" from students who realize that besides the stated topic there is another more abstract one in the course, but they are unsure what it is.  How social life is enabled, it turns out, is not easily taught.]  Judging from the papers students turned in I have done only fairly.  That so few of them really got it reflects on me.  My grade should be, maybe a B-.  One of my colleagues said the other day he would be satisfied if his students would demonstrate knowledge of merely the basic concepts of biological evolution, nothing more.  Me too, for the concept of culture. 

As the last exercise, I told them to write a paper comparing five cases [from those we examined in class], but without using the word “culture.”  When tempted to use the world “culture” they were to deconstruct what they had in mind, to specify its elements.  The point was to force them to identify more exactly the ways that folks in these different settings were engaging with each other and their predicaments by means of symbols.  

It was Ruth Benedict who suggested that culture is to us as water is to the fish of the deep.  Because water is their medium of existence it is fundamental to all they know.  Similarly we human beings dwell in oceans of symbols – layers and layers of forms to which we ascribe meanings.  We perceive through symbols, interpret what we perceive through symbols, react to what we perceive by acting meaningfully, that is, symbolically.  We create our visions, our expectations, our “worlds” through symbols.  

This is no “airy-fairy” world, as some disparagingly characterize such a view, because such a world cannot exist other than materially: Symbols are always material.  They are objects – always objects -- to which we ascribe meaning:  flows of sound are taken to be meaningful utterances, marks on a page, a monument, or on the human body stand for other things.  Material things invested with meaning are the fundamental building blocks of the human imagination. 

I wanted my students to recognize how such intersubjective forms enable social life:  as human beings we draw from funds of symbols representing the understandings we have acquired through experience in order to make sense of the flow of stimuli that bombard us every waking moment.  With these symbolic forms we ascribe significance to those stimuli; we decide how to respond fittingly to the circumstance; and we act so as to convey our intentions, that is, meaningfully.  

However, although trained by experience to perceive and interpret and act in familiar ways we are not automatons; we are agents, able to choose how to perceive, how to interpret, and how to respond.  What we choose to see, and give significance to, and respond to are never the only possible ways to perceive, interpret, and act.    
So the key terms of this frame of reference are,
·        *the repertoire of symbolically constituted understandings available to us,
·        *our own selves as agents,
·        *the context that must be perceived, defined [by using symbols], and responded to meaningfully,
·        *the specific selections from our symbolic repertoire that we deploy in order to cope with the exigencies of the moment, and the reasons for those choices.

The ocean of symbols around us, framing our experience, pervading our thoughts, in fact enabling our thoughts, making it possible for us to conceive of a past and future, even to plan for a future – this is our medium.  Without it we cannot live.  In the absence of it – when we have no sense of significance – we are in danger, for we cannot bear to live otherwise.  

These are the fundamental concepts of my discipline that my students need to grasp.  I hope to do better next time.

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