The nature of a symbol is that it is immediately known upon perception to convey meaning. Even if the meaning is not understood, it’s presence is apparent to the beholder. Like a spark jumping to conductive material, across a threshold of resistance. Conscious humans and symbols are a part of a biunivocal framework in this way–saying the same thing with two different mouths, or perhaps, saying words while knowing an ear is listening. Speaking to, rather than simply vocalizing. Communicating, not just making noise.
But this solidly unifying feature of symbols, finding strength in the bipartite connection between consciousness and its material expression on walls, in books, in language, in art–belies the problem: how does one identify a symbol?
A symbol could be anything. An italicized word, a scrawled bit a graffiti, a sigh at the end of a spoken sentence, a dented fender left unfixed. Meaning is an extensive concept of metaphysical significance–it seeks to search out from its prescribed boundaries, and incorporate other things into itself. Things that did not mean anything before begin to mean, because of their provenance to other meaningful things. Symbols do not just communicate with human consciousness, but with anything else the human consciousness perceives. There is no limit to perception other than perception itself, and so the word on a page does not have more meaning within the confines of the black ink than in the pure whiteness of the paper, but in between the two, and everything else: the music in the room, the temperature of the air, the sitting position of the reader, the other things that happened that day, the thoughts lingering in the mind through which the words will be read, and with mix and melange with the words and ideas later that night in dreams.
We try to keep our symbols simple. It’s easier that way. A certain number of consonants, a limited number of vowels. “Typical” vocabulary, regional dialect. The edges of the TV screen. Sometimes we just want the radio on in the background; we’re not always at the opera. But therein, a privileging of symbols necessarily occurs. We can change the volume of the radio, and take it with us in the car, unlike the sublime roar of a forest waterfall. Poems are spoken directly, and to the point. The form is an aspect of the symbol, and we tend to prefer the unified, the intentional, the deliberate and the apportioned. It suits us, that is, the symbolic perception relationship between symbol and human consciousness. It still has a freedom of interpretation, but it is more clear, and distinct.
And yet, we continue to look for more. Since the beginning of recorded history, we have looked for symbols in the structures of the natural world. In the stars, in the flights of birds, in the movement of water, in the folds and strata of the earth. Divination, these days, is understood as a foretelling of the future, because of our modern obsession with the progression of history. But divination is not just about the future. It is about time itself, about the current operating structure of the earth, whether controlled by metaphysics, gods, demons, or other perceived forms of technology and magic. The often quoted symbolic adage about distinguishing technology from magic is itself only a way of dividing the choir of symbolic angels into a tabulatory rubric suitable for logomancy. Which is the technology, and which is the magic, which we are supposed to be unable to distinguish from each other? And what are we supposed to gain by saying this? It only matters if you are going to give one a different meaning than the other. What’s the difference to you? What can magic do for you that technology can’t? Or vice versa?
Magic used to be what was erroneous, dangerous, or banned. Magic was a symbol with its own meaning. It was the power that we wished that we had, and the power that those with real power didn’t want us to have. There were certain acceptable forms of meaning, for directing attention onto particular parts of nature. Acceptable ways of reproducing, of owning property, of measuring the year, of celebrating ourselves. Magic wasn’t a different form of meaning, just different content. The idea that noticeable signs in the livers of animals might be tied to the fabric of fate is really not so different from the idea that the fates are all linked to a single theological presence that we cannot control. Both are ways of apportioning meaning in what we perceive, only one finds that meaning in the dark innards of livestock, and the other finds a threat to its meaning in the former.
Technology was a magic, but more self-reflexive than hepatomancy or theology. It began in a similar way, observations of meaning, the search for symbols, and the invention of either when it suited the human consciousness. A better way of counting required numbers; a way of tracking the seasons involved observing the stars; an awareness of the importance of blood and the interior of bodies led to attempts to see further inside, to figure out what we were really made of. What we learned or invented was passed on, in a stratification of meaning we called knowledge. If it worked, it stuck around, if not, it was improved or abandoned.
But a funny thing occurred. A strain of knowledge grew that sought to refute itself, to quickly abandon untenable theories of meaning and suggest new theories, that looked everywhere for the smallest traces of meaning, which it would unite and synthesize into theories. We called this science, and it took technology as its material. It wasn’t enough to simply have a plow that worked, or to generally have an idea of when the solstice would return. It had to work better, and it had to be exact. Any unpredicted meaning was a sign of weakness. It wasn’t enough to simply have knowledge, it had to be scientific knowledge. Numerology wasn’t as functional as mathematics; astrology wasn’t as accurate as astronomy; hepatomancy wasn’t as useful as medicine. Theology, eschatology, and metaphysics were not as fruitful as chemistry and material physics. Technology needed to separate itself from the magic and the religion. This was a meaning with a particular ethic, and a particular form, both of which could not square themselves with these other sorts of meanings. This didn’t mean that other ways of accumulating knowledge would disappear–we were still human, after all, seeing symbols on any surface to which we turned our eyes–but it meant that there was a difference between this meaning and other meaning. The power this meaning accumulated only grew.
Until the present day, when the power and rule of technology is so wide, that it is impossible for us to see it all in one glance. The symbol of scientific meaning, whether it be an equation, a code, or a method, cannot provide a viewing lens back upon itself at all times. The expanse and extension of this form of meaning’s plateau is just too great. Magic was isolated enough to form a localized genealogy of symbolic knowledge, and religion was simplistic enough that it could be apprehended through the single image of a human, mystic, prophet, or martyr; a unitary or categorical notion of the ineffable; or a simple list of precepts. Technology, however, is everywhere, and there is no technological specialist on earth that can understand the meaning of more than a fraction of the technological expanse.
What we’ve created is a world, on top of the old world. A new realm of symbols that transfers the realm of previous symbols, and transfers that realm again, and again. The symbols have lost the unity they had only just attained in magic and religion, now shifting through patterns so diverse that they continue to move even as they are locked into meaning. It is almost as if this plateau of human meaning is generating the meaning itself, and we are only able to glean the symbols of this meaning when the technology allows us to. As if it is the human consciousness, and we are only the brief, unitary symbols that float over its expanse, and make up its perceivable entity. We are the moments of its meaning, and it is only in rare moments that we are able to find any meaning for ourselves.
It is a time of technomancy, when we look to the technology we have devised with confused eyes, scanning over it for any sort of knowledge, any brief symbol to which our human consciousness might connect, to which we might join in a connection of understanding of the technological structure that surrounds us. We are needing magic to understand and deconstruct the magic we are already practicing. There are ghosts in the machine because otherwise there would only be more machines. It would be a terrible fate to have to apprehend the technological world with the pattern of meaning that would have us write it all down and remember it all. These ghosts, thankfully, are the parts of our technological world that we can write down and forget. We can cross our cell phones, grip the edges according the methods we have been taught, and think that we understand, because we’ll never be able to learn the rest. This is the real life in which you will never have to use calculus.
The blessing of a dream is not in what the dream foretells, but because you had a dream from which you might be able to tell anything. The symbol engines are churning still, even though we’re feeding them the dirty fuel, the kind they haven’t burnt for centuries. The leaking trail of anxious meaning emanating from underneath the designed shell of your consciousness means that at least the symbol lines are still pumping–if there was no pressure in the system at all, then we’d really be in trouble.
Images are from this article on technomancy.