Re: so why do people do this?

Vance Geiger (geiger@PEGASUS.CC.UCF.EDU)
Sat, 24 Jun 1995 01:06:40 -0400

From: Dara Barnett <daraone@CCNET.COM>

Well, I think that the creation of symbols is the mental
projection of peoples who are searching for an inner connection
to each other. A symbol becomes an almost ethereal entity that
the disconnected can focus upon to feel united with other
believers. If a symbol that I identify with, is, for instance, a
cross, I can sense a feeling of unity with others who identify
with a cross even if I am not with them. This sense of unity is
certainly intensified when I am physically joined with these
other believers in person and we can see a material
representation of the symbol. This is all pretty basic thinking
but I wanted to spout a bit.


Consider the following:

1. Stuff has symbolic value through metaphors.

2. Metaphors are an artifact of the cognitive ability to
transform the non-material into the material such as Lakoff and
Johnson's (Metaphors We Live By) ontological metaphors as in:

The mind is a physical thing


We are still trying to grind out a solution.
My mind just is not operating today.
I'm a little rusty today.
We have been working on this problem all day and now we are
running out of steam.

His ego is very fragile.
You have to handle him with care since his wife's death.
He is easily crushed.
The experience shattered him.
I'm going to pieces.
His mind snapped.
He cracked up.
(Lakoff and Johnson, 1980:27-28)

The mind is non-material (unlike the brain) wherein we infer
cause and effect relationships for people's behavior.

3. To communicate with other people about the non-material, e.g.
the causes of other people's behavior, we use metaphors that
incorporate physical things that we can predictably experience in

4. Some physical things accrete metaphors until they become
mental lumps of associations that include both metaphors and
expectations of people's behavior in the presence of the symbols.

5. Though the process of cognition is not arbitrary, the results
are. There will be symbols, but there is no way to know what the
symbols will be.

6. Why are symbols so important? Symbols are created and used
by people so they know what to do.

An example: When Disney decided to make the movie Pocohantas
they undoubtedly had access to information on the historical or
documented Pocohantas. Disney could have chosen to use the best
information available in determining the plot, the physical
characteristics of the characters, the dress, etc...

What did they do? They chose instead to use symbolic
characterizations based on present day expectations. I heard on
the radio that Disney is saying the movie is supposed to
represent how Europeans and Native Americans can coexist as well
as show respect for the environment. This is of course bunk-um-
boo. This is the same Disney that has near total sovereignty
over a good part of Central Florida and refuses to adhere to any
regulations put forth by the Florida Dept. of Natural Resources
since in the rush to get Disney to come the State of Florida
basically gave Disney a land grant in the old Spanish Colonial

Did Disney make the right choice? Since in our society the right
choices are most often determined by the amount of revenue
raised, I suppose that remains to be seen. The main point is,
however, that Disney has to make decisions about what to do to
get money. Their decisions are guided by their understanding of
what symbols to incorporate into their narratives. The guiding
symbolism in America is the myth of the frontier.

American anthropology is a good example. Acolytes must go out on
the frontier to do fieldwork and become the metaphorical "man who
knows indians" and then return to civilization to explain the
"other" to us. The validity of the research is largely based on
the individual's having "been there, done that."

We also saw this re-enacted here on the list when one individual
contributor made disparaging remarks about the discipline of
anthropology in general and doing anthropology in one part of the
world in particular, generating a variety of responses (including
some from myself). The final responses that appeared just before
the matter was concluded included two from anthropologists who
had and continued to do work in that part of the world. The
basis of their challenge was in having been there while their
disparager had not.

I have become acutely aware, through teaching, of the power of
the individual narrative of having gone out to a place that is
very different from here and lived with people who are different
from my students. If I tell stories in the course of teaching an
anthropology class, students will include on their evaluations
that they wished I had told more stories from my personal
experience. I have come to realize to what myth this is playing
and have come to question the practice. It is a good way to get
students attention, but do they get the points I am trying to
make or does it come across as just another frontier story? I am
not sure.

vance geiger