3.2. The symbol

The symbol is a sign that informs by convention. Alternatively, like WHITTICK (1960) put it: ‘A symbol includes all that is meant by a sign, mark or token.’ Such an appealing definition pinpoints, in its shortness, to the different directions of its meaning. The main constituencies are the sign and the convention. The first (sign) is a static description of reality, finding its place (in a quadralectic environment) in the empirical visibility (of the Third Quadrant). The second (convention) is a dynamic, swerving and swaying entity in the multitudes of a domain, which is later identified as that of a language (in the Fourth Quadrant). The original Greek meaning of the word ‘symbol’ as a ‘bringing together’ is applicable here.

The given definition lacks, unfortunately, an important element of the character of the symbol. The convention – or communis opinio – must have a specific intention, which is different from the apparent meaning. The sign is not what it really is (a cross, a car or whatever), but it stands for something else (a Christian faith, wealth or some other substitution value). This transitory quality is the hallmark of the symbol-sign.

The conclusion of the above given definition would be – in a linear and hierarchical line of thinking – that the symbol only finds its reason of being in the things to come. Its ‘Second Quadrant’ identity is based on a ‘Third Quadrant’ entity, which gets another (double or multiple) meaning by the interpretation in the ‘Fourth Quadrant’. Another possibility would be, that the association of the sequence (signal, symbol, sign, language) with the quadrants is invalid and should be arranged in another way.

The solution to this sequential problem is a transposition from a linear (and hierarchic) to a cyclical (and non-hierarchical) way of thinking. Everything is in everything, not only at the very beginning – like the linear view often prescribes – but also during the whole process of data exchange. There is no ‘before’ or ‘after’ in a general overview, only on a local and limited scale. The essence of the whole quadralectic communication lies embedded in every single moment and every single place.

The position of the symbol in the dynamic Second Quadrant is well earned, because the transitory nature is typical for this phase, just after the first division took place. It is the world of ideas, non-coherent connections and preliminary interpretations, which might substantiate itself after some form of a convention (in the fourth (sub)division of the Second Quadrant) has taken place.

This symbol-forming course is, in many ways, a proficient reflection of the communication-as-a-whole because the observer has to go through all the various stages to get the picture (of a symbol) right. The initial signal manifests itself in an invisible visibility (after its diffusion in an array). This array is picked up by an observer, interpreted (symbolized), established and communicated (compared) with the findings of other observers. The first full round along the observational stands yields a personal symbolism, based on an individual impression (which was, in essence, already explored in the second phase of interpretation).

The last stage in the path of signal processing, i.e. the actual participation in a communal comparison, gives the communication a sudden ‘human touch’ (and associated subjectivism). The newly experienced reality (for the observer) is no longer noncommittal, but assimilates in a group and mingles as a component in a language (defined here as the collective construction of the visible invisibility).

The language-entity has the capacity to become a new signal. The array of this (language) signal makes a second round (along the observational stages of the language group), which results in a group symbolism. Interaction between different (cultural) groups can result in a third round, a fourth, and so on.

Symbols, as a particular expression of understanding, are very versatile. They can be manifest as a separate presence, like a down-to-earth sign in the Third Quadrant or cluster together as an icon in the Fourth Quadrant (fig. 14). The various meanings (and operational places within a communication) have to be fully understood to grasp the intention of a symbol within a language.


Fig. 14 – The symbol is a sign, which informs by convention and points to something else. The Hitler Jugend of Zernikow (100 kms north of Berlin) planted these larch trees just before the Second World War. The yellow foliage formed in autumns a swastika pattern amidst the other trees. The swastika itself is an ancient sun-sign, which became a symbol in Nazi Germany. The pattern was discovered from the air in 1992. The trees were cut down in December 2000 in fear of becoming a place of pilgrimage for extreme-right wing groups.


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