Home » Symbolism at the Nadir of Modernity

Our late-modern world, to borrow a phrase from Carl Trueman’s Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, dwells in petty enchantments. That is, the rise of modernity, and especially industrial modernity, affected what Max Weber termed a disenchantment: we no longer saw vitality and power in nature and its operations but a mere mechanicism. The ability to explain through scientific experiment and inquiry the opaque processes of growth, life, death—this deprives them of magic, and us of wonder.

But, it may be argued, enchantment proves inevitable for human life. We want to wonder; we want to believe that there exists mystery and power in the universe. Too much of our experience defies mechanicist reductionism. You may identify the neurological pathways that light up when I pray. You may explain the chemicals that are released when I hug a beloved. But these physical phenomena fall far short in explaining the experience we have of faith and love. And so, having cast off the ritual practices of our forebears, we find ourselves enchanted nonetheless. Persons declare themselves “spiritual, but not religious”. Like an invocation, they chant: “Love is love!” Star Wars turns from entertainment to religion. The Sacred Mass is displaced by binge watching a favorite Netflix show. The font of holy water and kyrie eleison are dismissed in favor of Purell and “trust the science”.

Symbolic Vestiture

Put otherwise, even the most ardent materialist seems, inevitably, to locate the meaning of life in symbolic objects. It is little accident that the late 20th and early 21st centuries have seen, for instance, the re-adoption of tribalistic behavior. By this, we mean not only adoption of the “me and mine contra mundum” mentality (though this undoubtedly has become quite common), but also of visual totems. As Mark Stahlmann (President of the Center for the Study of Digital Life) said to me yesterday in a rhetorical question, “Why are attractive young women covering themselves in tattoos?” Indeed: many are attractive enough that, if all they are seeking is attention, they need no outlandish designs drawn on their bodies. Nor, in a world where tattoos now are common, can it merely be an expression of “individuality”.

To the contrary, this self-adornment seeks permanence and belonging. As Byung-Chul Han writes:

Symbolic perception, as recognition, is a perception of the permanent: the world is shorn of its contingency and acquires durability. Today, the world is symbol-poor. Data and information do not possess symbolic force and so do not allow for recognition. Those images and metaphors which found meaning and community, and stabilize life, are lost in symbolic emptiness. The experience of duration diminishes, and contingency dramatically proliferates.

Byung-Chul Han 2019: The Disappearance of Rituals: A Topology of the Present, 2.

As he goes on, rituals are a symbolic technique of making ourselves at home, comfortable in the world where we live. Rituals are to actions what symbols are to appearances. We put on symbols (whether in ink or clothing) as enduring continuation of ritualistic action. We want stability and belonging. Isolated individuality distresses us. Thus, as Northrop Frye writes (1947: The Educated Imagination, 33), “the only genuine joy you can have is in those rare moments when you feel that although we may know in part, as Paul says, we are also a part of what we know.” If our culture lacks symbols to give us, we will seek them out—or create them.

Escaping the Nadir of Modernity

The prevailing contemporary attraction to symbolic vestiture—evidenced by the popular of figures such as Jordan Peterson and Jonathan Pageau, a return to perennialism, mysticism, paganism, etc.—I would argue, consists in its apparent provision of a path out of the petty enchantments of modernity. Contemporary science claims everything is in perpetual motion. Digital life bombards us with constant newness. But the human mind seeks that which is unchanging. We are naturally left dissatisfied by the ephemeral.

Little surprise should be had, then, that when Pageau waxes rhapsodic about a mountain, or that a disaffected youth stumbles across René Guénon ever-uncoiling the mysteries of esoteric Hindu interpretation, something resonates in the human soul. Symbolism seems a ladder out of the modern muck.

But is it? Or might it merely be an effective illusion? Does it bring us to the truth? Or does it become merely a kind of spiritual tattoo? Do we escape modernity’s nadir—or do we merely place a box filled with pretty pictures over our heads?

What is a Symbol?

Too often, the term “symbol” conveys only a vague and nebulous idea. For attracting audiences of the disaffected, vagueness and mystery prove effective. They allow the audience to believe themselves entering something grand. Everyone likes to be an initiate of a higher order. But in the absence of a clear conception of what constitutes a symbol, I am afraid that one has truly been initiated, indeed, only by putting a pretty-pictured box over his or her head.

Countless writers have offered theories as to what symbols are, from antiquity to the present. Among relatively recent philosophically-minded contributors we find, notably, Charles Sanders Peirce, Ernst Cassirer, and Susanne Langer. Literary theorists, such as Allen Tate, Warren & Wellek, Northrop Frye, Cleanth Brooks, and Robert Penn Warren have offered their own. Psychoanalytic thinkers such as Freud and Jung and Lacan have all opined as well. At the nexus of these traditions, I find only confusion and chaos. Let us try to bring some light and fresh air to the question—won’t you join us?

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