How We Detect a Symbol

September 2, 2016  Leave a comment

After watching my Mad Max video, a friend asked me, “how do you know that’s what the author had in mind?”

The same question might be asked of you reading this. How do you know what I’m communicating right now? Simple answer: because I’m telling you and you, of course, know how to read and understand English. There’s a lot about interpretation which we already know.

While there’s a bit of mystery in detecting and interpreting narrative symbolism, on the whole, it’s more like what we objectively do every day. We speak because we expect to be understood. Authors write and invest images with symbolic meaning because they likewise expect us to understand them. But how could they have this expectation? How can we know with relative certainty when an image possesses more than it’s surface meaning and what the meaning is?

While I’ve read and thought a great deal on symbolism, I’ve yet to find a succinct objective explanation on how authors mark out symbols and how audiences intuitively pick up on them. Lacking any simple guide, I’ve honed in on the following.

1. Humans are by nature makers and interpreters of symbols. Language is the primary way we use this ability every day.

2. Words are symbols. A word like “hand” is not the thing itself but a written or spoken representation of the appendage at the end of our arms. Cultural context has invested the sound or combination of letters with that meaning.

3. Since words are symbols they can and often do have more than one meaning. Within our culture, the word “hand” has a number of alternative definitions. And we add to a words list of meanings by bending and adapting them in new contexts.

4. New meanings to words are communicated, not by spelling them out (as in a dictionary) but through implicit connections in the context. This is how “giving someone a hand” came to refer not to the literal act of cutting off that body part but instead to help or applause. The specific context in which these expressions were first used became the key by which the audience was able to understand their meaning. And thus a new definition of “hand” was added to a growing list of definitions, spreading to the wider culture and eventually into the dictionary.

5. Some words (like “hand”) because of the availability of their primary definition are more adaptable to alternative meanings and therefore have a long list of secondary definitions.

6. Without context, we naturally assume a word’s primary definition.

7. Determining if another meaning is intended is a matter of weighing the contextual evidence (both external (the cultural) and internal (the conversational)). More evidence leads to a greater degree of probability.

8. Images within a narrative work in the same way that words do. The image may possess no alternative meaning and thus simply be the thing itself (in other words the primary definition – a picture of a rock is, of course, a rock). But it also may mean something else (an alternative meaning, i.e. symbolic meaning).

9. In a narrative, writers define an image as a symbol by making a connection to a preexisting cultural meaning (An eagle could represent the United States, Freedom and or Flight etc.) or they make some connection to an alternative meaning within the context of the book or film etc. itself. Metaphors and similes spoken in dialogue are potentially carried over into corresponding images within the world of the story. A metaphor in one conversation can define the corresponding image in another scene. But connections can be made implicitly through the narrative as well. The mirroring of one image with another through proximity and similarity is one technique at an authors disposal. The effect of cutting between two similar images in a film has the effect of placing those images side by side with equal sign in between – in essence an implicit metaphor.

10. Since people intuitively understand how symbolism in language works, they are well supplied to make the leap in interpreting narrative symbolism. Whether they cognitively know it or not, symbolism works it’s magic even on the unsuspecting reader.

Matthew Scott Miller

Posts Twitter Facebook

Your comments make my day - the good, the bad and the ugly! I read each one and try to respond within a few hours. Please see the about page for the reason behind Logos Made Flesh and, if interested, 25 utterly random things about me.