The Power of Symbols


A few recent posts in various blogs has got my thinking about symbols. Wade at The Straight and Narrow Blog and Mark Bulter at M* have both identified symbols in their posts. The issue here is how we are supposed to know a symbol when we see it, how we are supposed to know the correct interpretation of that symbol, and how we are supposed to act both mentally and materially in response to it. These issues have been debated at lenght among anthropologists.

From the 1960′s to the end of the 1980′s, symbolic anthropology ruled the academic roost. Mary Douglas, Clifford Geertz, Victor Turner and others argued that culture and religion were a system of symbols, “webs of signification” and members of a culture (or religion) interpreted these symbols in order to act and navigate the world. Geertz, who looked quite a bit at religion, described it primarily as a symbolic system that induced beliefs, dispositions, and behaviors in its interpretors. The attractiveness of symbolic anthropology in the academy at large is that it brought a wide variety of disciplines such as history, literature, anthroplogy, and linguistics under one common methodological umbrella, namely, the art of interpretation. However, it saw symobls (and rituals) as a stimulus and human behaviors as a response, without much to mediate that relationship.

Beginning in the 1990′s scholars of religion began to be increasingly skeptical of symbolic anthropology, precisely because it couldn’t explain the relationship between symbols and practices. How exactly does a symbol inculcate certain values, dispositions, beleifs, etc? Instead, scholars began to turn to “practice theory”, a particular anthroplogical approach developed mostly in France. Foucault, Bourdieu, Certeau and others focused on the relationship between cultural symbols (discourses) and practices. Anthropologists of religion such as Talal Asad picked up on these insights and showed how a wide variety of practices are involved in inculcating religious beleif from symbols. He argued that symbols themselves were inneffective at bringing about religious dispositions and behaviors without power that ensured the proper interpretation of symbols. He looks at how St. Augustine authorized the use of violent force against heretics who misunderstood the scriptures as a way of showing that the texts themselves could not be properly interpreted without the sword.

The cumulative effect of both anthropological approaches was to show that symbols are not natural. They are the products of traditions and that a variety of interpretations exist within and between religious cultures about the meanings of symbols. What practice theory also showed is that these symbols required power to ensure their proper interpretation and to give them to ability to have meaning.

As Mormons, we really don’t have a very deep reflective tradition on the power and nature of symbols. We seem to be stuck in a particular moment that sees symbols as naturally occuring or as self evident to astute observers, rather than the product of our own interpretation. As such, we are unwilling to see how our interpretations of symbols are produced within a superimposed ideology. Further, we tend to see symbols in a stimulus-response model and don’t consider how interpretations are authorized by our culture.

I guess the question that I have is what sorts of practices, disciplines, sanctions, etc are at work in the production of Mormon identity and the relationship between Mormon symbols (temple, scriptures, hierarchy, etc) and behavior? Note, these words sometimes have a negative valence, but for anthropologists, they are simply descriptive terms for how societies work. I want to know how Mormon society works, how its symbols are produced and how they produce Mormons.

  • Kiskilili

    These are good questions, and your unorthodox (unauthorized?) assertion above that a pumpkin symbolizes Christ nicely brings some of these issues to the fore (how is the “meaning” of a symbol constructed, and who is authorized to construct it?). I think this sums up the situation perfectly: “We seem to be stuck in a particular moment that sees symbols as naturally occuring or as self evident to astute observers, rather than the product of our own interpretation. As such, we are unwilling to see how our interpretations of symbols are produced within a superimposed ideology.” Although I have no thorough response, these are my preliminary thoughts:As you note above, our explicit discourse on symbols tends to explicate them with a pseudo-algebraic logic, as though one can simply solve for x, with virtually no theoretical discussion. But it would be interesting to see a diachronic study exploring what is identified as a symbol and how its meaning is constructed (did the early Church even discuss symbols?). Although I haven’t looked closely at the issue, I suspect one significant aspect of what’s going on is that associations that are obvious in one context are lost over time. Due to the fundamentally conservative nature of religion, forms are clung to even as their content shifts dramatically and must be recreated. What in one environment was ordinary clothing, for example, was adopted by monks, and as fashions shifted, within a few hundred years it had become sacralized. I suspect a parallel phenomenon is at work behind what we identify as “symbols.” Mundane “forms” in one era are not necessarily discarded as the culture (and thus the religion) changes, and so they become esoteric over time. My impression is that our (unstated) methodology for explicating symbols, although we talk about them as though their meaning is self-evident, is historical–that is, one establishes the “meaning” of a symbol by uncovering how people in the past understood it. (This fits our restoration paradigm, which locates legitimacy in antiquity.)I also have the impression that, since we treat symbols as a code to be cracked, the role they play in social hierarchies in the Church closely parallels that of secrecy: social capital accrues to those who know the “code” and the secrets. In the outer circle are non-members; secrecy and esoteric information serve as one reinforcement of that boundary. (But I suspect those who are implicitly authorized to explicate them must already have a certain social standing in the community–is the priesthood a prerequisite, for example?)On the other hand, even though we hear indications that symbols are self-explanatory to the astute observer, we also exploit their wiggle room when it suits us. One friend informed me that anyone can interpret the language of the temple any way they choose. (Wow!! Let’s just all speak in gobbledy-gook!) It fascinates me that in a tradition barely willing to engage modernism, let alone postmodernism, we’ll readily hurl ourselves off a nihilistic cliff if the moment seems opportune, leaving even radical reader response theorists in the dust.In this vein, while we look to antiquity to create esoteric associations around what we identify explicitly as symbols, I think in other instances symbols we don’t identify as such play an important role in our self-concept as a transcendent, unchanging institution across time. I would love to see a study comparing Mormonism and Neo-Paganism; in both instances, continuity with the past is claimed by transplanting terms out of ancient contexts (“prophet,” “Druid,” etc.) and creating entirely new ideological apparatuses to support them. Symbols can be one way of changing while asserting continuity across time–each generation can claim it has discovered the “true,” intended “meaning” of the symbol which previous generations did not entirely understand, so apparent change is explained away in acceptable terms or rendered invisible.I’m not sure what factors influence which approach we take, but HOLY COW this comment is long, so I’ll stop rambling for now.

  • JupitersChild

    Both excellent posts. What kinds of symbols do you feel are involved in Mormon-making? Which are most central to Mormon practice? Control of Scripture? Of Prophetic Mantle? Am I on the wrong track?

  • liz

    i dont get it

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