Symbolic Imperfections

imperfection.jpg Jeff Ward, 1976

I thought of this picture today while reading an excerpt from Lewis Mumford’s Art and Technics (1952):

The fact is that in every department of art and thought we are being overwhelmed by our symbol-creating capacity; and our very facility with the mechanical means of multifolding and reproduction has been responsible for a progressive failure in selectivity and therefore in the power of assimilation. We are overwhelmed by the rank fecundity of the machine, operating without any Malthusian checks except periodic financial depressions; and even they, it would now seem, cannot be wholly relied on. Between ourselves and the actual experience and the actual environment there now swells an ever-rising flood of images which come to us in every sort of medium—the camera and the printing press, by motion picture and by television. A picture was once a rare sort of symbol, rare enough to call for attentive concentration. Now it is the actual experience that is rare, and the picture that has become ubiquitous.

. . . We are rapidly dividing the world into two classes: a minority who act, increasingly, for the benefit of the reproductive process, and a majority whose entire life is spent serving as the passive appreciators or willing victims of this reproductive process.1

Around 75 or 76, I was engaged in trying to make sense of William Blake’s collected works (in a pilfered Modern Library Edition without illustrations). Like many I suspect, when I found S. Foster Damon’s Blake Dictionary at the local Pickwick bookseller down at the Valley Plaza Mall I thought I had found the keys to the kingdom. All a person had to do is figure out what his symbols meant, and you could extract the meaning, right?

I didn’t really think of it in those terms, I suspect— it was more a matter of figuring out what the words meant and why he chose those specific ones. I didn’t really know what a semiotic or symbolic approach was at the time; I was in that cusp between high school and college. My photo teacher, Chris Burnett had recently stepped down as chair of the English department at Foothill high and was willing to help me with both Blake, and photography. He didn’t really know that much about Blake, so he didn’t really discourage me from relying on Damon, nor did he say anything about trying to read the words apart from Blake’s images. For all I knew, Damon’s magic decoder ring actually worked. I think I spent most of the fall of 1975 trying to make sense of Blake, culminating in reading Milton’s Paradise Lost in the spring of 76 in a last ditch attempt to figure Blake out. I wanted more context.

The oblique connection between the Mumford passage and the Blake story is simply this:

The Giants who formed this world into its sensual existence and now seem to live in it in chains; are in truth. the causes of its life & the sources of all activity, but the chains are, the cunning of weak and tame minds. which have power to resist energy. according to the proverb, the weak in courage is strong in cunning.

Thus one portion of being, is the Prolific. the other, the Devouring: to the devourer it seems as if the producer was in his chains, but it is not so, he only takes portions of existence and fancies that the whole. But the Prolific would cease to be Prolific unless the
Devourer as a sea recieved the excess of his delights.

William Blake, MHH16; E40

Blake saw the same division into creative/consuming classes from the opposite side. The “cunning” labor under the illusion that they are exploiting artistic products when the process is ultimately more symbiotic in nature. Artistic production, in Blake’s estimation, is connected with courage: the courage to be taken, and as is often the case, to be taken wrongly. Note that Blake also references sensual existence as the antecedent to  these difficulties. 

Which brings me to the photograph at the top of the entry, a bit of juvenilia really. My brother David thought that this picture could be read symbolically. “You should call it ‘follow the leader’,” he claimed. With typical irony, David’s point was that the guy in front always gets beaten-up the worst. I never thought of that. I was simply attracted to the funky silver spray paint that was dressing up the old poles, creating odd textures in conjunction with the asphalt (and oddly congenial to the “N” surface matte paper that I printed the original on). 

Context explicates attempts to explain the image, not the image itself. David was a technician for IBM and well-versed in corporate culture. I had departed high school, and was working on prints for review at Bakersfield College for my first class with Harry Wilson. It’s pretty understandable that we’d look at the same image different ways. To his credit, I never once heard Harry Wilson offer a symbolic critique of a photograph. He looked at this one  for a moment, solicited reactions from the other students (they liked it) and then as I recall we simply moved on. Years afterward, I think the image popped into my head when I started noticing triadic compostions, but not for long. I can think of far better examples (with regression even). Retroactively, I suppose I can always generate some reason to find this image interesting

Harry was right. It’s best to just move on. The problem with the search for symbolic meanings in a symbolically saturated world is that they tell us more about the person doing the interpreting than they do about the true sensual condition of the world. Though one could make a case for iconology or iconography, it seems a better move to be prolific.

Mumford’s paranoia seems largely unfounded to me. It is a sort of knee-jerk, reflexively imbuing images with symbolic rather than actual significance that is the problem, not the attendant multiplication and reproduction. The divide between producer and consumer may or may not be exacerbated by technology– but it seems pollyannaish to suggest that this gap will ever be closed.

Symbolic contexts never explain the pragmatic deployment of communication strategies. Twenty-years on, taking many classes with R. Paul Yoder at the University of Arkansas, I remember invoking Damon’s symbolic approach to Blake. Yoder’s response was always to say, “that may be true, but what actually happens in the text?

Why do we care about certain things and have aesthetic sensual reactions to them? I don’t think that semiotics can ever get you closer to understanding that. One of the biggest ways of defusing the energy of aesthetic responses is by classing them as symbolic action rather than action.

Now I look at the picture, and the implied action: “why would anyone paint those beat-up poles bright silver?” and move on, quickly. There are more profound actions/questions to address.

Harry was right. I’ve had lots of teachers who were right over the years. The further I get away from the days that made me, the more I understand the context. But the real kicker is feeling like I still don’t understand the text at all.

1 Reprinted in Vicki Goldberg’s edited collection Photography in Print (381-382).