The Symbol-Using, Symbol-Misusing Animal

I was recently re-reading an old mimeographed essay (yes, from back in the Stone Age of my university days when we said “mimeograph”)  by Kenneth Burke — the formulator of “Dramatism” —  called “Definition of Man“. It came to mind after I posted the last essay on “the myth of the machine”. Burke was a highly intelligent (and witty) writer and thinker, and I regret I have not spent more time on him in the pages of The Chrysalis because his work is also very relevant to its themes.

It’s Burke’s audacious “definition of man” that I want to address here as it bears on Mumford and the Myth of the Machine, and I will present it exactly as it appears in his essay in The Hudson Review, circa 1963-64.

Man is

the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal

inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative)

separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making

goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order)

and rotten with perfection.

I’m pretty sure that Rosenstock-Huessy would pretty much concur with much, or all, of Burke’s definition, as would, I think, Jean Gebser. You can find plenty of discussion of Burke’s definition on the Web, so I won’t spend too much time on all of it. It’s the “symbol-using”, “symbol-making”, “symbol-misusing” or symbol-abusing aspects of the definition that I most want to speak to.

Bearing in mind that the negation of the word “symbolic” is “diabolic”, you will see where Burke wants to go with this definition. The “symbol-misuing” or symbol-abusing features of symbolic action pertain to the diabolical. This is also what Jacques Ellul addresses in his book The Humiliation of the Word. If you have delved into the sociological writings of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and his “grammatical method” — our reponsibilities in speaking — you will also know that his “four diseases of society” — war, anarchy, decadence, revolution — he sees as “diabolical” situations arising equally from symbol-misuse and symbol-abuse. The cultural philosopher Jean Gebser would probably concur, that the “deficient” modes of his structures of consciousness — the magical, the mythical, the mental-rational particularly — are manifested in symbol-misuse and symbol-abuse. Propaganda is a particularly egregious form of symbol-misuse and symbol-abuse.

But we won’t get very far in understanding any of that unless we properly understand the meaning of “symbolic”, and therefore of symbolic form and symbolic action, because even here the very word “symbol” has been debased and devalued by the mental-rational consciousness until it means little more than “sign” or a “signifier”, and therefore, to a great extent, quantised. In consequence, the relationship of the diabolical to the symbolical, and the tension between them, has become opaque, or they are optional terms for “peace” and “war” respectively, and consequently also for the “integrative” and “disintegrative” forces, for “cosmos” and “chaos”, for the creative and the destructive forces, and for “sacred” and “profane” equally.

The word “symbolic” (syn + bolon) has the basic meaning “bring together”, while “diabolic” (dia + bolon) is to thrust apart or segregate or divide. In all probability, when Heraclitus remarked that “war [or strife] is the father of all things”  he had no more in mind than the tension between the symbolic force and the diabolic force, and not the diabolic alone. Likewise, Blake’s proverb that “without contraries there is no progression” mirrors Heraclitus’s remark, but it is, after all, Blake who proposes “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”.

This Marriage of Heaven and Hell is symbolic action in its fullest sense, which is exactly what Blake does in his book. It is what anticipates Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil“. The ultimate in diabolical action is the nihilism of “the war of all against all”, which is simply another way of saying “total disintegration”. What is called “creative destruction” these days is actually a struggle between symbolic and diabolic, integrative or disintegrative, force. This is connected with what Gebser calls “the double-movement of our times”.

Symbolic action is centripetal force against the centrifugal force of the diabolic. Diabolic action is centripetal force against the centrifugal force of the symbolic.

Now, in Blake’s vision, “Hell” is what he calls “Ulro”. Ulro is everyday ordinary reality which Blake considered to be merely a “shadowland” of the real. The same is also calls “samsara“. The real, though, is “Heaven”, which is the domain of the Eternal Forms, and everything existing has its “Eternal Form” implicit within it and is the thing itself. The form we perceive ordinarily is its shadow or image (the “phenomena”), which we take to be the reality, but which Blake sees as mere camouflage (itself a kind of simulation) for what is truly real. For Blake, the physical form of things, which we might call their “secular form” (temporal form) is only spectral or a “cloud”, dissociated from its “Eternal Form” in the act of perceiving it with the physical senses only. The awakened or enlightened inner senses see both the sacred or eternal form and the secular or temporal manifestation. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is, therefore, symbolic action in the true sense, when the secular form and its eternal form are perceived conjointly. This is exactly what Jean Gebser calls “the transparency of the world” and its connection with “time-freedom”. It’s a reversal of the momentum of the Kali Yuga or “the Fall Into Time”. In fact, time itself is a spectral form of eternity. And in those terms, the secular is not the opposite or contrary of the sacred “dimension” (Gebser prefers the “amension”) but is its partner. The “profane” is the separation. This is why dualism has always been considered profane.

This is why you come across that odd paradox of Buddhism: “nirvana and samsara are the same; nirvana and samsara are not the same”. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, or nirvana and samsara, is not effectuated until it is consummated by symbolic action, so to speak. Blake calls this “cleansing the doors of perception” or “seeing thro’ the eye, not with the eye.”

In other words, all purely sensate existence, which is Ulro and is Plato’s Cave too, is diabolical existence as apartness. Ulro is what the Taoists call “the 10,000 things”. The realm of the 10,000 things is traditionally called “the phenomena”, and its underlying reality called “the noumenal”. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, as symbolic action, is the conjoining of the phenomenal and the noumenal, which in alchemy is the “Sacred Marriage” or hieros gamos.

Here it’s worth commenting on the connection between the symbolic and the diabolic as was traditionally understood as “substantial” and “superstition” before this relationship was completely inverted by the magic mirror of the mental-rational consciousness. The terms “substantial” and “superstitious” are contraries, for one means literally “under-stands” and the other means “over-stands”. The substantial was the implicit “real” that lay behind, beneath, before the “appearances” or “phenomena”. The appearances or the phenomena were what was considered the “superstition”. Materialism completely inverted this relationship between primary and secondary reality or “qualities”, or between the noumenal and the phenomenal forms of things. Precisely what the McGilchrist’s Emissary calls “real” and “substantial” was formerly called “superstition”, and most especially when the phenomenon was dissociated from its noumenal form, which is precisely what Blake calls “the Eternal Form”, while the phenomenal form is its spectre or emanation.

For Blake, this inversion was “Urizen’s” doing and virtually everything that the sensate consciousness called “real” — the Ulro — was the true “superstition” or spectral as long as the phenomenal form of things (which we call the “secular” form) was not conjoined with its “understanding” or substantial reality — the noumenal or “eternal form” or generally Jung’s “archetypal” forms (a term I use with some hesitation and trepidation). Thus “a wise man sees not the same tree as a fool sees” is Blake’s response to this inversion of the primary and secondary, or the substantial with the superstitious.

And so, precisely what Gebser refers to as “the ever-present origin” is the primary and the substantial, as that which literally “under-stands” the world of the appearances or “the 10,000 things”. Blake was referring to the same “ever-present origin” when he wrote of “Eternity in the hour” or “Heaven in a Wild Flower” and so on. The conjoining of the phenomenal form with its eternal form is “symbolic action” and the divorce of the phenomenal form from its eternal form is called “diabolical”.

To put this another way, only when the intrinsic and the extrinsic are conjoined do you have the “real” and substantial, and when they are separated, they become superstitions and quite insubstantial. When the appearances are divorced from their substance, you get “Veil of Maya”, “samsara“, “Ulro”, or “Simulation”, “Cloud of Unknowing”, “delusion” and these are, then, the true “superstitions”.

“Superstition” in this sense is exactly what the “transhumanism” and the “universe as computer simulation” traffic in.



5 responses to “The Symbol-Using, Symbol-Misusing Animal”

  1. mikemackd says :

    The blog that reposted the Myth of the Machine post, VIRTUAL BORSCHT, has a interesting post further down headed with this quote:

    …the symbolic order functions like Kant’s transcendental screen, through which reality is rendered accessible and which, nonetheless, simultaneously prevents our direct access to it.

    -Slavoj Zizek, Traversing the Fantasy

    Generally Zizek’s a bit like a fireworks display, but that quote’s more like a depth charge.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Symbolic action, as described in the post, is what lies behind Rosenstock-Huessy’s saying “god is the power that makes us speak”. We can say without too much hesitancy that this is the same as Bolte-Taylor’s “Life Force Power of the Universe” (which is a name, albeit a mouthful, that I quite like — to the point).

      You can see that integrative dynamic of “the Master” in Bolte-Taylor’s own description of its essential mode of perception — how it shapes and translates the flux of energy into the perceptions of sight, sound, smell, taste, etc. as “the present moment”. The Emissary of course, works in the other direction — the direction we call “analysis”. Also, McGilchrist is very clear that the Master works in “metaphor” which is symbolic action.

      So, given this evidence, we can pretty well say that “symbolic action” is the preserve of the Master, and diabolic action the preserve of the Emissary. In mental-rational terms, this was usually represented as “synthesis” and “analysis”, but those are, in effect, special terms for creative and destructive, or integrative and disintegrative.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    It may be of interest to compare the verbs “bolon” (Greek) and “jacere” (Latin), which both mean “to throw” or “to hurl”. The Greek “bolon” is related to the word “ball” (and “bolero”). Latin “jacere” is the root from which we derive words like subject, object, preject, traject, reject, project, and so on — various forms of “thrownness”.

    This is what Gebser refers to as “directionality” of consciousness. The existentialists call that our “thrownness”.

    Greek “bolon” has many variations as well — parabolic, metabolic, catabolic, hyperbolic, hypobolic, and of course, symbolic and diabolic.

    Our “thrownness” (or directionality) is pretty well mapped by language in that sense. Thrownness is movement, and must be contrasted with the state of “repose”, which is the word “stare” in Latin, from which we derive “status” or “state” and its various permutations — as mentioned, superstition, substance, existence, persistence, resistance, constitution are all derived from the idea of “standing” or waiting.

    Latin “status” is Greek “stasis”. Latin “exist” is Greek “ecstasy” (ex-stasis). The idea here is “coming into being”.

    And its in that sense that “Genesis” or creation, is represented as “ecstatic” — out of stasis or the void, “when the morning stars sang together” as it is put. And so mystics say that universe is born in ecstasy or “bliss”. This is Gebser’s “vital centre” and “ever-present origin”

    “Coming into being” is Rosenstock’s “cross of reality”, which is a “radiant” model of being, in fact, “ecstatic” in the original sense. Rosenstock uses the term “enthused” (en-theos) but it has much the same meaning.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Another way of reflecting on this: the various permutations of the Latin verb “gradior” — “to step, walk, go” — in relation to Gebser’s and Rosenstock’s directionality of consciousness.

      Main forms of “gradior” — progress (and progressor), regress (and regressor), ingress (and ingressor) and egress (and eggressor) — forwards, backwards, inwards, outwards — directions of movement.

      And then, there are “aggressive” (and aggressor), “transgressive” (and transgressor) which express movement or “stepping” towards, or against, or across. And there is “digress” (and digressor) which is step away or step down or deviate from a trajectory, and “congress” being to step together. (Congress and digress would seem to be antitheses).

      so you have this kind of dance — a stepping in, a stepping out, a stepping forwards, and stepping backwards, a stepping towards, a stepping against, a stepping across, a stepping away, a stepping together, a stepping up.

      The thing about the “Grand Narrative” is that it gave direction to movement. With the end of the Grand Narrative, it’s all helter-skelter (in German we say Wirrwarr or “chaos” or confusion). If its a step-dance, nobody is listening to the same tune, the same “music of the spheres” as it were.

      For Nietzsche, that was the inevitable consequence of “the death of God”

      This is “The Parable of the Madman” from The Gay Science

      Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!” — As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated? — Thus they yelled and laughed.

      The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

      “How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us — for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”

      Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars — and yet they have done it themselves.

      It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”

      • mikemackd says :

        here are two articles in today’s feed from Tikkun. Tikkun’s contributing editor Henry Giroux refers to “the Trump machine”, “the government propaganda machine”, “this distinctively American neoliberal-military machine”, “this death dealing machinery of casino capitalism”, and Bill McKibben writes of “the machine that has been driving the planet in a dangerous direction for decades, a machine that spans parties, ideologies, and continents”.

        While their problem statements are clear enough, their solution strategies are problematic from this post’s perspective. For example, neither speak of the machine in the USA being of a similar nature to the earlier megamachine that Jesus opposed in Palestine – the combination of the Temple (which was also the bank in those days) and the state.

        What an inconvenient truth for Trump supporters that Jesus said you cannot support both God and Mammon, and that he resisted the temptations of power both in the desert before his ministry, and of Palm Sunday, while they grovel before it to get some of their own power from it.

        While am conversant with many religious texts, especially Christian ones, I do not believe in or belong to any religion any more. But I have faith, and from that perspective can see millions readily identifiable as Constantinians, but few Christians. Many do not even see the difference between faith and belief!

        I think these words from page 572 of Mumford’s “The City in History” describe the consequences of this lack of faith and excess of belief:

        “Unfortunately, the evil institutions that accompanied the rise of the ancient city have been resurrected and magnified in our own time … Totalitarian rulers have reappeared … Their methods of coercion and terrorism surpass the vilest records of ancient rulers, and the hoary practice of exterminating whole urban populations has even been exercised by the elected leaders of democratic states, wielding powers of instantaneous destruction once reserved to the gods Everywhere secret knowledge has put an end to effective criticism and democratic control: and the emancipation from manual labor has brought about a new kind of enslavement: abject dependence upon the machine. The monstrous gods of the ancient world have all reappeared, hugely magnified, demanding total human sacrifice. To appease their super-Moloch … whole nations stand ready supinely, to throw their children into his fiery furnace.

        If these demoralizing tendencies continue, the forces that are now at work will prove uncontrollable and deadly; for the powers man now commands must, unless they are detached from their ancient ties to the citadel, and devoted to human ends, lead from their present state of paranoid suspicion and hatred to a final frenzy of destruction.”

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