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.
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.