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symbolism of control

John Fraim

    'What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.'
    Herbert A. Simon. Nobel Laureate Economist

    'Images chosen and constructed by someone else have everywhere become the individual’s principal connection to the world he formerly observed for himself.'
    Guy Debord. Comments on The Society of the Spectacle

There is the strong relationship between symbols, communication and control. In fact, the history of symbols is the history of communication and control. This common history has involved an evolution from the visible to the invisible, from message to medium, from content to context.

The popular understanding of symbols is that they are the content of images and objects. These traditional symbols are constantly defined, classified, analyzed and interpreted in dictionaries and reference works. They are the signs on banners that men have marched to war behind. They are the emblems on flags that serve to define nations. They are the artworks in museums, the characters inhabiting dreams, the great artifacts of religion. Today, these traditional symbols are expressed in such things as brands, products and information.

However, there is a growing awareness that symbols are also contexts that contain contents. Media theorist Marshall McLuhan was one of the first to recognize this with his famous statement 'The medium is the message.' In the same vein of McLuhan, one could also say 'Context controls content.' These contextual symbols are not images and objects but rather places, spaces and time. They are the medium for the messages of content and like all environments they are ubiquitous and invisible.

Symbol history has involved the interplay of the traditional visible contentual symbols and invisible contextual symbols. Control and communication has also involved the interplay between visible and invisible methods and techniques. While contentual symbols have always existed in contexts, the evolutionary trend has been from visibility to invisibility of symbols, communication and control.

Control was originally gained through the visible 'hard' power of strength and power maintained through sanctions of penalties and punishment. But through the ages society has grown wise to these hard methods of control. For this reason, modern holders of control have realized that control is now gained and maintained through the invisible 'soft' power of public relations, propaganda, entertainment and media. The early 'visible persuaders' of weaponry and strength have been replaced by 'hidden persuaders' of advertising messages and brand images.

Communication has also evidenced a parallel development with symbols and control from visible to invisible. Originally communication was speech between those present in the present. Participants in communication were visible to each other. As communications scholar James Carey reminds, communication originally involved 'communion' or coming together. But through the ages, communication as communion has changed to communication as transmission. The original idea of communication has been forgotten in the modern transmission of communication between invisible participants separated by time and distance.

While the change from visible to invisible symbols of communication and control has involved a long evolutionary process, the founding of America greatly accelerated this evolution. In fact, one could argue that the incredible rise of America was brought about by its key position at the intersection of contentual and contextual symbols. The two great symbol dualities had been present in other nations. But it was in America that they both became embedded into the two paradoxical ideals of the new nation: freedom and equality. The visible symbolism of content was behind the idea of American freedom while the invisible symbolism of context behind the idea of equality.

The original expression of these duality symbols in the American system aligned society with freedom and government with context. The original founders realized this duality. As Thomas Paine observed in Common Sense (1776):

    'Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher … Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.'
While America’s founders saw the duality in the conflict between society and government, the government realized this duality was dangerous: it was too visible to the populace. It therefore set about to discover ways to move away from this content and towards an invisible context.

The technique American government eventually employed was based on moving the contextual symbol of equality into society and making it a contentual symbol. There, it would do battle with the other contentual symbol of freedom. One might say the change was one from a vertical duality between government and society to a horizontal duality between the two key groups in society, one group based around the symbol of freedom and the other based around the symbol of equality.



Democrats vs. Republicans


Political Control: Shift from Vertical to Horizontal Duality

This change was accomplished gradually over a number of years. In the decade after the American Revolution and the debates leading up to the creation of the Constitution, the battle was redirected away from one between society and government to one between a strong central government and strong individual states. The term for this was Hamiltonian Federalism and Jeffersonism States Rights. During the 19th century the battle was again redirected farther away from Federalism and States Rights and became embodied in the American two party system of Republicans and Democrats. In effect, Republicans symbolized the ideal of freedom and Democrats the ideal of equality.

The result that government and its symbols of communication and control have retreated to the unseen context while society is constantly distracted by battles between the two parties. The hidden agenda of the two party system is to distract attention of society away from government, away from the duality the Founders saw between government and society. In effect, it is to make society focus on content rather than around at the surrounding context. The two political parties, the dualities of content, are constantly at war with each other on a playing field while the government sits up in the context of the stands observing the battle without anyone looking up from the battle on the playing field to observe them.

It is one of the most important yet hidden challenges of American government to perpetuate this battle between contentual symbols within society. Keeping the battle within society avoids recognition of the original duality seen by the Founders between society and government. In this sense, it matters little what symbol of society is in power, freedom or equality, Republicans or Democrats. As long as the battle can be framed as a contentual, horizontal one between societal elements rather than a contextual, vertical one between society and government, government and the symbolism of context will remain in power. As long as the dual party reigns in America, the true controllers will always be just a little outside of sight, at the top of the pyramid. They happily watch the two groups do battle knowing that they always remain in control no matter which side wins.

A number of times in American history, the populace has glanced outside the duality struggles of content and briefly viewed the controlling symbols of context. Artists have glimpsed outside the duality and have allowed a large number of the ruled to see the rulers. And visionaries have also seen outside the duality. These are times when third parties in America have had their greatest impact.

But these times have been rare. Much more common has been the dominance of one of the symbols, equality or freedom, at the expense of the other. In the first half of the 20th century, the symbol of equality dominated America and the world in the form of mass communications, mass production, mass culture, totalitarian, communist, Fascist and Nazi political systems. As Erich Fromm observed, the overriding desire was to 'escape from freedom' during this period of time.

The second half of the 20th century, though, saw the decline of the equality symbol and the rise of the symbol of freedom. Much of the impetus for late capitalism and consumerism has been fired by this 'escape from equality' and a 'return to freedom.' This desire to escape from equality and return to freedom is behind the rise of postmodernism and relative narratives over meta-narratives. It is also responsible for a lack of standards of morality, for celebrity culture and Hollywood and the growth of the religious right and evangelical fundamentalists. It is also behind the growth of a segmented, niche marketplace full of numerous cable TV channels and the explosion of brands and consumer choice.

But ironically, the rise of greater freedom makes contextual symbols of control less and less visible. The modern symbol of freedom is not manifested in a spiritual freedom but rather a cultural enslavement caused by an increasing number of contentual symbols in the form of products and information. As Nobel Laureate Economist Herbert Simon notes 'What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.' One might add, poverty of attention to controlling contextual symbols.

In all of this, freedom becomes more and more illusory. It becomes the consumer’s mantra of 'shop until you drop.' Society is given more and more things which more and more the same and less and less different. This applies to entertainment, brands, media and certainly political choices. As Bruce Springsteen once lamented, '500 channels and nothing on.'

With the growing segmentation of society it becomes increasingly difficult to see a common enemy.

And it is just as difficult to find a common hero.


copyright © John Fraim 2005

John Fraim is creator of the leading Internet site for symbolism of popular culture. His latest book Battle of Symbols: Global Dynamics of Advertising, Entertainment and Media was published by Daimon Verlag (Zurich, Switzerland, 2003). Mr Fraim is President of The GreatHouse Company a marketing consulting firm. He has a BA from UCLA and a JD from Loyola Law School (Los Angeles).

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