Furthest Right

Age of Symbolism

Few us of us yet understand how profound the changes that are coming are. Humanity is awakening from a seduction that began when we moved from idols to abstract gods, and we are realizing that we just made the idols abstract and we are still caught in a primitive obsessive pathology on par with psychopathy.

First it is important to realize that symbols literally — and I mean “literally” literally — rule your life. If the other guy does not believe in the equals sign, we go to war with him. If someone says something about average IQs, we view his statement as being outside acceptable bounds of the symbols we tolerate.

You can manipulate a crowd by telling them that some program or spending is good because it helps the poor, lifts up the minorities, benefits women, or improves the lot of homosexuals. If we go to war, we are good because we wave the equals sign on our flag and the other guy does not.

People have become symbols. If a woman acts like Marilyn Monroe, she is sexy and desirable, therefore every man should want her. If a man gets on a motorcycle while drinking Jack Daniels, he is a rebel. People who live in suburban homes with 2.1 kids and a couple hybrid SUVs are considered to be living the good life.

We never look into the chain of events that bring people to these places, or with depth into what they are. That suburban couple may be swingers on coke who are about to go to jail for stealing from their jobs. The rebel goes back to his IT job in the morning; the attractive woman is a paid courtesan. The equals flag conceals a need for empire.

Of course, what would we expect from a movement dedicated to face value? Symbols are what we use instead of looking into the details and depth of any issue, event, or outcome. Symbols allow us to ignore the actual reasons why things are done and their outcomes in reality so that we can focus on intent as explained to others instead.

People put their faith in symbols for politics and socializing. Men who dress like Alan Alda are seen as harmless. Men who have Jack Daniels, motorcycles, and Motörhead tshirts are seen as edgy and dangerous. Women who put up “Live Laugh Love” signs are signaling hard for being good safe harmless domesticated suburban success stories.

In politics, some value whatever is “progressive,” no matter what results and consequences it eventually creates, especially down the line. They value the new over anything old. They are concerned with living in the moment and looking like reformers to their friends, and if it all turns out badly, well, who pays attention that long?

If someone expressed this in any other context, we would consider it a mental health problem. And yet people take this approach to politics and technology as they do to sell-by dates on foods. Whatever is new is better automatically. Whatever is old can be forgotten. Live in “the now” like a hippie!

The Age of Symbolism came about when the Age of Idols fell. It fell because having a non-abstract god means that you can be conquered when the other team captures the golden calf or ritual staff. Better to have a god in the abstract, so that no one can conquer him and anyone can appeal to him.

Then the written word became important because now understanding abstractions was necessary for normal function. Those abstractions had to be passed on, with passwords and shibboleths, so that only those who knew the magic symbols and their meaning had power. Otherwise, the symbols would be subverted like a captured idol or ikon.

Progress for example can always be re-invented since it does not have a tangible form. “We don’t care how it turns out so long as it is new” can be easily passed along and always create a personal army for those who want power. This is similar to “we represent the god of love” and “we stand for the flag.”

In the West, symbolism took over after WW2 because the last holdout anti-symbolists — people who relied on continuity between material reality and its meaning, having a basis in biology, genetics, nature, culture, and history — were defeated in a reprise of the previous world war.

The attitudes from that war took complete control a decade later, and the decade after that showed the West reversing everything in its past that was incompatible with the symbolism of the wars. This left nothing but the symbolism, and it had reached its highest power.

In religion, with the fundamentalists symbol took on a greater importance than reality. The literal word was in fact preferred to reality, causing function such as ends-over-means to become less important than optics and symbol, sometimes referred to as means-over-ends.

Taking it further, the fundamentalist interpretation of religion held that it was more important to be destroyed while doing the “right” methods than to win by doing the “wrong” methods, even if winning was desirable and the best moral outcome. Symbols themselves are a means, so their use asserts means-over-ends.

Where the ancients endorsed a belief system of ends-over-means where achieving the right results was more important than using the right methods, the modern religions represented a capture of spirituality by symbolism. In these bureaucratic faiths, doing the right procedure regardless of outcome was how we knew who was good and who was bad.

We see symbolism dominate politics too. People make themselves into symbols; therefore, they argue for whatever justifies their decisions so far. It is popular on the right for example to see all government as an evil and to claim to “just want to be left alone,” but neither of these are realistic approaches. However, they get attaboys at the bar.

Symbolism rules over industry too. In your average IT shop, they are either using trendy new and insane process framework like Agile, scrum, or devops, or they are discussing them. The symbol of being current and competitive is more important than the results.

How many projects in human history have done everything exactly right according to the textbook, and still failed? Most of what we do at jobs is process-related, like going to meetings, answering emails, filing paperwork, and walking through the steps of a checklist or procedure. Very little of it contributes to the end result.

For those coming out of the age of tangible gods, the age of symbolism offered a way past what was confusing humanity at the time. Instead of relying on physical objects, humans could use abstraction, and these abstract gods could be re-purporsed to justify whatever the humans wanted or needed.

While the physical gods demanded constant sacrifice, in the symbolic world the gods are the sacrifice for whatever humans needed. The idols may have been fallible, but they were of the world, where the age of symbolism is entirely within the control of the preferences of the individual.

It turns out that allowing people to rationalize their view of reality encourages as many viewpoints as you have citizens, and in the end, that means a lack of unity and even faster decay. This is a fatal flaw in the age of symbolism, and is why it is fading away to be replaced by an age of naturalism.

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