Are Symbols about Meaning ?

Weaving a Web of Meaning

in the Ontological Hall of Mirrors

(A Self -Reflexive Attempt to Make Death Groovy and Anthropology Responsive to the Concept of Liminality )

By Joanne Tippett

Name : Joanne Tippett

Tutor : Mario Aquilar

Course: Meaning and Symbol

Sociology 308

Seperti katuli di bawah tempurong

Like a frog under a coconut shell

(he thinks he sees the whole world)

(from Hobart 1:1982, p. 41)

The question, 'Are symbols about meaning?' seems at first to be fairly uncomplicated. Define a symbol, define meaning and decide whether or not this is the function which symbols serve in a society. As one looks deeper into the question, it becomes more and more complex. Is there such a thing as meaning in an absolute sense? Are we capable of making value-free judgements about societies other than our own, or for that matter, about our own society? Barnes and Bloor state, "the rationalist goal of producing pieces of knowledge that are both universal in their credibility and justified in context-independent terms is unattainable. (1983 : 46). Thus the problem is to define what is attainable and how to go about thinking of meaning and symbols.

According to Victor Turner, a symbol is "a blaze or landmark, something that connects the unknown with the known" (1967 : pg 48). According to Geertz, "sacred symbols function to synthesize a people's ethos, the tone, character and quality of their life, its moral and aesthetic style and mood and their most comprehensive ideas of order" (1958 in Banton,1969 : pg. 3). It can be seen that symbols are of fundamental importance to the structure of a society. Indeed, Geertz believes "the anthropological study of religion is .. a two stage operation : first, an analysis of the system of meanings embodied in the symbols which make up the religion proper, and second the relation of these systems to socio-structural and psychological processes " (1958 in Banton,1969 : pg. 42).

Where are we to find these all-important symbols? Turner suggest the first place to look is in ritual behaviour. "By ritual, I mean prescribed formal behaviour for occasions not given over to technological routine, having reference to belief in mystical beings or powers. The symbol is the smallest unit of ritual which still retains the specific properties of ritual behaviour; it is the ultimate unit of specific structure in a ritual context. (Turner; 1967, pg. 19).

It seems the aspiring anthropologist must find ritual behaviour, isolate symbols and study them, discover their meaning and write about them. As Geertz says, "Culture is public because meaning is" (1973 : 12). One is to dig out the meanings and "the facts as facts are of little immediate interest beyond the confines of ethnography".(Geertz, 1973 : 360). Although Geertz will admit that these meanings can be "elusive, vague, fluctuating and convoluted, ... they are, in principle, ... capable of being discovered through systematic empirical investigation' (Geertz, 1973 : 362). Geertz sees the study of culture as the study of the "the machinery the individual and groups of individuals employ to orientate themselves in worlds otherwise opaque" (Geertz, 1973 : 362). He feels this machinery is identifiable and able to be talked about in terms of meaning. This fits in well with the Western philosophical search for truth and fixed meanings, "to be a philosopher was to be concerned with the question, what is the truth? What is knowledge?" (Foucault 1980:82 in Mudimbe,1988: 41). Is this search for meaning at all problematic?

Turner suggests that one of the important features of symbols is their ability to condense meaning, or for one symbol to have a multiplicity of meanings. "many things and actions are represented in a single formation... a dominant symbol is a unification of disparate signification... interconnected by virtue of their common possession of analogous qualities or by association in fact or thought." (Turner, 1967, pg. 28). Thus it can be seen that there may be more than one meaning for any one symbol. This does not overly rock the boat in the search for meaning, all it requires is for the ethnographer to be very observant and to take detailed notes. In this attempt to understand a society, it is helpful to utilize the concept of a triangle of meaning, in which there are three interconnected parts essential for complete understanding, the first being the idea, or culture; the second the word, or the language; and the third, the signified, or what is meant. Thus it is necessary for the ethnographer to be careful in assuring s/he understands the background of the culture, in terms of historical context and contemporary meanings. If, as Max Weber said, "man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he (sic) himself has spun" (Weber in Geertz 1973:5), the ethnographer must be assiduous in understanding the many strands of the web, in unravelling the first part of the triangle, the society in which the group being studied live.

Is meaning as unproblematic as this, merely asking us to be very careful and thorough in field work and observations? "As Harold Bloom remarks, "the word Meaning goes back to a root that signifies "opinion" or "intention", and is closely related to the word "moaning"". (1979 :1 in Hobart: 1982, pg. 39). Perhaps meaning is not to be so easily pinned down. Part of the complex problem can be solved by applying and understanding of what Ricoeur termed the hermeneutic circle . The hermeneutic circle is understood thus : "the meaning of a word can only be understood by knowing the meaning of the sentence of which it is a part, yet the sentence's meaning depends on both that of the word and the text in which it is situated, which both illuminate and are illuminated by the historical and cultural context of the author and reader, and vice versa. We must enter in at some point on the circle, that is "believe" in it, in order to understand the rest and eventually the whole (Ricoeur, 1974, pg. 289, quoted in Parkin 1982, pg. xxii). Thus patterns of triangles and circles are able to pin down the essential meaning.

There still seems to be a problem, having to do with distance and space. Salmond suggests that two metaphors have shaped Western intellectual discourse :"knowledge is territory and argument is war" (Salmond, 1983: 70). She gives and example of the way in which these metaphors work thus :


"Knowledge is a landscape entails that knowledge is a territory, entails that knowledge has spatial existence...intellectual activity is a journey (and so knowledge is a destination); ...facts are natural objects ( and knowledge is thus possession) (Salmond, 1983: 67). "In this process of exploration, new discoveries are made and the terrain is charted, mapped and so brought under cognitive control (Salmond, 1983: 69). Thus, "Westerners distance themselves from the objects that become colonized as knowledge. " (Parkin, 1982, pg. xxx). One could be tempted to question the relevance of these word games and to dismiss them as intellectual gobbledy-gook. Mudimbe, however, suggests that the very way in which Westerners have talked about and structured intellectual discourse has more far-reaching effects and implications than may at first be assumed, "three complimentary hypotheses and activities emerge (from colonialism) ; the domination of physical space, the reformation of native's minds and the integration of local economic histories into the Western perspective" (Mudimbe,1988: 2).

So, what effect does this spatialization of intellectual thought entail? "Space, in common sense English is three-dimensional and static, forming a backdrop for movement and the passage of time" (Salmond, 1983: 78). Time flows past a fixed point and is measurable, quantifiable, it moves onwards in a linear fashion. This linearity has been expressed in theories of evolution of societies; "the mystifications according to which all cultures pass through a succession of evolutionary phases : from magic through religion to science; from savagery to barbarism to civilization; from sexual promiscuity to matrilineality and finally to patrilineality. "(Mudimbe,1988: 68). It has been theorized that in culture there is an evolutionary move forwards., with a culmination in Western civilization, the most advanced form of organization. This has not only placed a value judgement on societies other than Western ones, as being inferior and not as well (or as far) developed, but has also provided a way of defining self, or the Same : "The African has become not only the Other who is everyone except me, but rather the key which, in its abnormal differences, specifies the identity of the Same" (Mudimbe 1988:12). A discourse of Otherness becomes "a means for comprehending oneself." (Mudimbe,1988: 33). Mudimbe terns this Western attitude "epistemological ethnocentrism" (1988 :15) and suggests that it "fundamentally escape the task of making sense of other worlds" (1988: 72).

Caught in this trap of "epistemological ethnocentrism", what can we do as sensitive, well meaning ethnographers in order to escape? Reflexivity entails a development of an awareness of the viewing of other societies through a Western paradigm. Parkin states : "a recent critical shift has been away from explanation to description, while this is a matter of degree, the movement away from functionalism has lessened our preparedness to explain how the 'other' works in favour of describing it." (1982, pg. xiii). In this more descriptive mode of anthropology, "the key issues were those of self-awareness and even self-criticism in the cultural translation of ethnographic experience" (Parkin, 1982, pg. xvi). Within this method, there also needs to be an awareness of the way in which the language we use to describe experience can affect understanding, "how to recognize the part played by our own ordinary analytical language in shaping our interpretation of other cultures"(Parkin, 1982, pg. xvi), or an attempt to "escape from the web of words...the prison house of language" (Jameson 1972 in Hobart, 1982 : 52). Turner has explained reflexivity as "the ability to communicate abut the communication system itself"(1985 :181). (My own attempts at a self-reflexive style of writing in this essay seem to emerge from the cultural mangler as sarcasm.).

At this point, it is still necessary to question, along with Nietzsche, "What then is truth? A mobile army or metaphors, metonyms and anthropomorphisms ... illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are" (1873 in Hollis and Lakes 1983: 3). It seems impossible to state with any certainty what truth is, "Definitions of reality are always provisional... we cannot assuredly say what reality is but only what it is like, hence the use of metaphor in theory" (Parkin,1982, pg. xxxii). This theoretical position seems to contradict "what Bergson calls our search for fixity (1975 : 15, in Parkin,1982, pg. xxxi). Our language is permeated with this tendency to fixity and this necessarily colours the way we are able to think about the world.

In Western thinking, there has been a great tendency to think in dualistic terms, an either-or, black-or-white style of thinking which sets up dichotomies as a structure for understanding the world. How are we to try to find out about meanings at all? Relativism has been put forward as an alternative to this dualistic (or rationalist) thinking, "If the relativist places all beliefs on a par with one another for the purposes of explanation, then we can say that he (sic) is advocating a form of monism. He is stressing the essential identity of things that others would hold separate. (Barnes and Bloor 1983 : 25).

The dualistic position seems to have become deeply entrenched in Western thought, such that it becomes difficult to understand more complex structures and to comprehend a multiplicity of meanings, or seeming paradox embodied in a ritual or symbol.

Victor Turner offers a way of approaching an understanding of meaning in a multi-step process, first looking at meaning in terms of levels, then in terms of poles which allow a multiplicity of meanings. He has suggested there are three levels or fields of meaning. The first level is that of indigenous interpretation, or the exegetical meaning. This level concerns the way in which people talk about and interpret meaning in their own culture. The second level is the operational meaning, concerning the observed behaviour of people, or what they do with the symbol. The third level is the positional meaning, the way the symbol fits in to the overall structure of the society. (Turner, 1967)

Within the first, or exegetical, field of meaning, there are two distinct poles, the oretic and normative poles. The oretic pole tends to be associated with grossly physiological characteristics, "the meaning content is closely related to outward form" (Turner, 1967 : pg. 28), and is associated with emotions. The normative pole within the symbol, however, is associated with the attributes which are necessary for the continued functioning of society, or "components of moral and social order". (ibid). Thus, "one finds an arrangement of norms and values that guide and control persons as members of social groups and categories",.(ibid : pg. 28). "Within its framework of meanings, the dominant symbol brings the ethical and jural norms of society into close contact with strong emotional stimuli." (Turner, 1969, pg. 30) this association imbues the social characteristics which are necessary for harmonious social functioning (which are often to do with continence and the inhibition of greed and desire and thus seem not to be very desirable to the individual) with strong emotional content, thus making them desirable forms of action. Poles of meaning within symbols can perform useful social functions, as well as providing a means in which many meanings are stacked into one symbol.

How are we to avoid falling into the trap of attempting to suggest fixed meanings for symbols, declaring that they are true and inviolable? Turner clarifies this point by including an element of the flow of time in his analysis: "I found that I could not analyse ritual symbols without studying them in a time series in relation to other "events", for symbols are essentially involved in social process... the structures and properties of the symbol become that of a dynamic entity. (Turner, 1967, pg. 20). This is in direct context to Western notions of fixity and static truth.

This seems difficult for Westerners to do, faced with the task of attempting a more fluid form of thinking and analysis within a more complex framework of fields of meaning with multiple possibilities, one is apt to feel a bit daunted. Fortunately, one is not expected to synthesize all of this at once and at the same time as making notes and doing ethnographic field work, but meaning is, rather, "retrospective and discovered by the selective action of reflective attention." (Turner 1985 : 204). Meaning is thus "connected with the consummation of a process, it is bound up with termination, in a sense, with death, the meaning of any given factor in a process cannot be assessed until the whole process is past," (Turner 1985 : 204). This association with death, perhaps distasteful at first, provides a clue as to how this search for meaning is to be done, and how this is to become a creative and fluid process. "Undoing, dissolution, decomposition are accompanied by processes of growth , transformation, and the reformation of elements in new patterns. (Turner, 1967 : 99).

Van Gennep originally described the process during which an individual is torn out of the normal social, economic and political structures in order to undergo rites-de-passage. Victor Turner describes liminality thus: "being on the threshold, means a state or process which is betwixt-and-between the normal, day to day cultural and social states and processes of getting and spending, preserving law and order and registering structural status" (Benamou and Caramello eds. 1977 : 33). It is in this liminal time and space that rites-de-passage, which involve a transformation of the individual in her/his social context and often role and status in society, occur. Van Gennep believed that "rites of passage, with their symbolic representation of death and rebirth illustrate the principles of regenerative renewal required by any society ' (Kimball,1968:113 in Turner 1985 : 159). Liminality is a condition which is essentially unstructured, "a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise" (Turner, 1967 : 97). There is a release from the constraints of everyday social structures and cultural units can be recombined in often bizarre ways. It is possible for new thought patterns and ways of perceiving to arise, thus liminality can be described both as :"a stage of reflection" (Turner, 1967 : 105) and "settings in which new symbols, models and paradigms arise- as the seed-bed of cultural creativity" (Turner 1985 : 9). .

This possibility for new ideas to arise can have important consequences for survival, "ecological systems (including those ordered by culture) survive 'in so far as they have evolved tactics to keep the domain of stability, or resilience broad enough to absorb the consequences of change" (Turner 1985: 161). This aspect of cultural variability and adaptability of ideas can also be applied to the culture of anthropologists. If one is to assume a relativist position, where the crucial point is an acceptance that no "preferences can be formulated in absolute or context - independent terms." (Barnes and Bloor 1983 : 27), it will become necessary for anthropologists to be able to think beyond, through and around their own paradigms and culture patterning. Turner says : "anthropology needs a wider orbit" and suggests that the way forward will require anthropologists to "utilise systems theory and ...processual approaches... including phenomenonological negotiation of meaning.. and remain aware of the powerful role of socio - cultural liminality in providing conditions for reflection, criticism" (Turner 1985 :169-170).

If this seems to be getting too serious and difficult, one thing to remember is that "there is an aspect of play in liminality"(Turner 1985 :160). It becomes possible for ways of thinking about other societies (and by extension, reflection and comparison, our own) to become more creative and playful. A way of looking at meaning and symbolism which involves liminality, reflexivity and relativism would allow ethnography to involve colourful descriptions, attempting to bring the rich array of possible ways of being to life, with less value judgements and hopefully less damaging consequences for the societies in question than has been the case with ethnographic approaches which attempt to fix the meanings of symbols in absolute and Western terms.



Bibliography :

Banton, M., (1969) Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion; Tavistock Publications

Barnes, Barry and Bloor, David, Relativism, Rationalism, Sociology of Knowledge, (Pg. 21-47) in Rationality and Relativism, (eds. Hollis, Martin and Lakes, Stephen ); Basil Blackwell, Oxford

Benamou, M. and Caramello, C. (1977) Performance in Postmoderm Culture

Geertz, Clifford (1973) Interpretation of Cultures; Basic Books, Inc. New York

Geertz, Clifford (1969) Religion as Cultural System, in Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion ,(ed. Banton, M.); Tavistock Publications

Hobart, Mark (1982) An Ethnographic Note on a Little Understood Tribe (pg. 39-63) in Semantic Anthropology, (ed. David Parkin); Academic Press, London

Hollis, Martin and Lakes, Stephen (eds.) (1983) Rationality and Relativism; Basil Blackwell, Oxford

Mudimbe, V.Y (1988) The Invention of Africa; Gnosis, Philosophy and the Order of Knowledge; Indiana University Press

Parkin, David (1982) Semantic Anthropology; Academic Press, London

Salmond, Anne (1982) Theoretical Landscapes, On Cross Cultural Conceptions of Knowledge, in Semantic Anthropology ed. David Parkin; Academic Press, London

Turner, Victor ( 1967) Forest of Symbols; Kingport Press, U.S.A.

Turner, Victor (1985) On the Edge of the Bush, Anthropology as Experience, (ed. Turner, Edith); University of Arizona Press, Tucson Arizona