Reprinted from New Old Traditions, who originally posted it for me.
“The roots of today’s globalizing spiritual crisis lie in a movement away from immediacy; this is the hallmark of the symbolic.”
“Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.”
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Symbolism is an act of re-presentation, always impoverishing and isolating that which is symbolized by collapsing it into a fragmentary concept, separated from its environment and its dependency on the rest of existence. As the universe flows on in its relentless dance, a symbol remains the same, and the breath and spirit of what it identifies is forgotten in favor of its name. “For the Murngin people of northern Australia, name giving and all other such linguistic externalizations are treated as a kind of death, the loss of an original wholeness,” notes John Zerzan in Too Marvelous for Words: Language Briefly Revisited. How deeply in this pile of deaths might we be buried today, as symbolic culture has grown exceedingly complex and expansive since its inception?
Humans didn’t always tend towards the symbolic. In the two million years of our existence as a species, most archeologists estimate only about 5% of that time we have been symbolizing despite our earliest ancestors showing comparable levels of intelligence.
“The earliest evidence we possess of human symbolism is in the forms of art and indications of language ability. No art-like productions are recognized of an age exceeding 32,000 or 35,000 years, and the earliest available language evidence is seen to be the first successful colonization of Australia, thought to have occurred perhaps 60,000 years ago. This school of thought is probably most coherently articulated in the work of two Australians, Davidson and Noble (1989, 1990, 1992; Noble and Davidson 1996; Davidson 1997). It categorically denies the possibility of human symboling abilities beyond, say, 100 ka (100,000 years) ago.”
—(RG Bednarik, Beads and the Origins of Symbolism)
Consciousness-altering modes of symbolic conceptualization form the basis of all cultures. They manifest as language, time, number, and art, all embodying the unique logic of a word apart from the world, a separate reality created by reification. These are the vertebrate of civilization, without which it could not imagine functioning.
They gained social importance in concert with the domestication of plants and animals at the dawn of civilization and culture (culture coming from a Latin root meaning “to cultivate”), and still today comprise the barriers between sects of humanity. “Comparative linguist Mary LeCron Foster (1978, 1980) believes that language is perhaps less than 50,000 years old and arose with the first impulses toward art, ritual and social differentiation. Verbal symbolizing is the principal means of establishing, defining, and maintaining the cultural world and of structuring our very thinking” (Zerzan).
The symbolism of time disrupts enduring pre-historic (a revealing euphemism) mental and physical dwelling in the Eternal Now—the point where all existence converges. This proves to be a vital and fundamental method of disconnection in which symbolic life takes hold over immediacy. Yet past and future are only inventions to coordinate and control events (once planting and harvest times, now work schedules), and these concepts, as introspection will reveal, have credence only in fantasy. They have no true existence and are only constructs of symbolic thought, perpetuated by the needs of civilization. Nothing can ever happen outside of Now—even memory and expectation, which we might call “past” or “future”, cannot occur outside of the present, as primitive humans knew too well, lacking coaching in the alienation from their instincts. In reality no one has ever been anywhere but where they are and when they are. Buchdahl asserts, in The Past, the Counter Culture, and the Eternal Now, that members of society become unable to function within it once faced with the experience of primitive presence, the Eternal Now, and thus must abandon their roles in society, forming the historical phenomenon of counter-cultures, a clear indicator that the empire relies on the omnipotent social contract of symbols to subject citizens to its agenda.
According to both Zerzan and Debord, the modes of production are ruled by the symbolic principle, leading to landscapes of alienation and spiritual disembodiment of those cultivating the spectacular apparatus that has become global civilization. Zerzan explores the chasm between natural and civilized consciousness by saying, “Language, and symbolism in general, are always substitutive, implying meanings that cannot be derived directly from experiential contexts. Here is the long-ago source of today’s generalized crisis of meaning.”
In religious terms, this exposition of symbolism explains why so many different methods of expressing the same eternal truths have developed across the world (see Joseph Campbell). Religious traditions are entirely symbolic; based on revelations of the natural universe but not integral with it. Zerzan estimates that all symbols were originally religious symbols, veiled methods of proclaiming authority employed by early shamans which lead to social hierarchy. These symbols fundamentally lack the immediacy and fulfillment of the senses and pave the way to existential misunderstanding. “Art, like religion, arises from unsatisfied desire” (Zerzan, The Case Against Art).
The symbolic nature of religion also reveals the roots of religious zealotry and fundamentalism: once symbols (whether holy images, texts, or personages) overshadow what they point to, or even prevail as a method, conflict arises between different systems of belief. Science has vaulted this conflict ad absurdum beyond previous zealotries, declaring itself unquestionable in its reified “discoveries” (much the way Columbus discovered America), an arrogance attacked at length by Native American author Vine Deloria Jr.
Methods of scientific investigation—science itself a belief system–are also symbolic in nature. The first prerequisite for a scientific experiment or assertion is that a variable be isolated, a sure giveaway that something real is receding into the symbolic. We end up with an atomized universe and a concept of knowledge completely detached from sensual, embodied consciousness. The assertion, for instance, that the earth revolves around the sun, is completely unfounded for anyone experiencing the world clearly, without the lens of the symbolic. We experience the sun moving across the sky daily, along with the moon and stars. It is a rather weak intellect which imagines the observer is unconnected to their direct experience of the day and night, preferring to ascribe authority to an “objective” observation—that is, an observation without an observer, which is absolutely absurd. “Mircea Eliade calls this ‘cosmicizing’, the passage from a conditional, situational plane to an ‘unconditional mode of being’” (Zerzan, The Axial Age), a tendency which reaches from the oldest world religions into the deepest assumptions of the scientific paradigm. Quantum physics has run up against this problem finally, only when dealing with the most minute possible fragments of the universe, finally admitting that conclusions which refuse to incorporate the observer are missing a crucial piece of the puzzle (and then continuing their investigations).
Measurements themselves are a basic symbolic apparatus, a closed system of understanding, epitomized by the ruler which makes divisions where no divisions exist (except to itself)—a cornerstone of illusory symbolic culture and a metaphor for obedience to social mores. As with other civilized divisions such as property lines, nations, races, etc., the divisions of rulers and clocks are symbolic constructs, not things which exist sensually. As Debord said in Society of the Spectacle, “In a world that is really upside down, the true is a moment of the false.”
That is, a moment of knowledge is a moment of ignorance, and the fabled tree of knowledge of Genesis bore fruit which blossomed into astounding new dimensions, feeding golden calves which have roamed across the entire earth, invisible in plain sight, posing as empires and ploughs and machines, wallowing in their own refuse, so intent on leaving the ouroboros-circle of Mother Earth that they have blasted even to the moon.
“The tautological character of the spectacle stems from the fact that its means and ends are identical. It is the sun that never sets over the empire of modern passivity. It covers the entire surface of the globe, endlessly basking in its own glory…
The society based on modern industry is not accidentally or superficially spectacular, it is fundamentally spectaclist. In the spectacle — the visual reflection of the ruling economic order — goals are nothing, development is everything. The spectacle aims at nothing other than itself.”
It appears that Debord not only struck at the basis of modern society, but caught a glimpse at the roots of civilization itself. In agricultural societies, the cycles of nature are reified in the production of the fields, and the roots that connect humans to the earth are severed, leading inevitably to the industrial spectacle deplored by Debord. Today each citizen, by being given a symbolic name (and ultimately a symbolic persona), becomes subjected in the most fundamental capacity to the impoverishment of symbolism. We’ve forgotten that we are in essence infinite (in-finite, as opposed to symbols, which always de-finite), that we are a tree of life at one with the entire cosmos. A tree is naught without the earth, the earth is naught without the sun, the sun is naught without the galaxy, the galaxy is naught with out the whole of the universe. Etc. Thus we realize that events which seem unrelated are actually, through rather subtle and complex interrelationships, all part of one happening, and the nonsense of Dogen’s poem becomes perfectly logical:
To what shall
I liken the world?
Shaken from a crane’s bill.
The heart of mysticism is to grasp this concept, and yet mystical traditions often do a disservice to truth by indulging in symbolic systems (Kaballah, I’m looking at you). Lao Tzu wrote long ago, “The Tao which can be named is not the eternal Tao.” This paradox of pointing to that which cannot be pointed at is the hallmark of his master work, the Tao Te Ching, as well as many works of Buddhism. We must draw the conclusion, then, that Lao Tzu would have done his wisdom more justice if he had remained silent like many aesthetics who have “disappeared into obscurity.” The same can be said of Solomon, who in writing Ecclesiastics betrayed his own vanity, and left his own legacy of “grasping at the wind.”
All religions make this fundamental mistake; in fact, the very existence of dogmatic belief and unearthly ritual has its roots in trying to express that which is beyond expression, detaching thoughts and life itself from the natural universe which gave them birth.
By this token, separating religions from the cultures that created them is terribly misleading, as the structural tools of language and symbol involved rely on the same pool of structured thought. For the same reason, science is just as intertwined with the symbolism of its culture, despite its claims to objectivity.
In mass societies such as America where many religious (and atheistic) beliefs cohabitate the same landscape of production, we have to admit that we have truly lost ourselves to the whim of the spectacle. The original modes of symbolization have become totally detached from culture itself, stranding us in the no-man’s-land of postmodern miasma. “At present we live within symbols to a greater degree than we do within our bodily selves or directly with each other,” Zerzan concludes. These symbols include both societal and personal structures such as the ego, one’s place within the division of labor, and cultural / religious identification and practices, leading to an identity decidedly fractured from the currents of unity with the natural cosmos.
Rituals, prayers, and devotions which may once have had tangible purposes as a kind of spiritual kung-fu, as a way of making love to the world, survive only by their symbolic virtues, becoming almost insane the longer they are disconnected from the world at hand, perpetuated only by their dogmatic appeal while becoming completely devoid of the grace of reality which inspired them. Indigenous ceremonies by contrast don’t merely recite hollow symbols but use songs and dances to call forth actual powers from beyond normal experience, inducing trance, vision, and super-consciousness. Thus Black Elk said that when healing he was not healing, but he was a hollow bone through which the spirits of nature could pass to bring power and balance.
The Chinese word for nature, “tzu-jan” means of-itself-so, and points to the spontaneous, wholly self-defining, universally interpenetrating way in which that natural world exists. The Christian idea of God-as-creator, meanwhile, justifies contrived social structures by imagining that existence itself was premeditated by a supernatural entity, validating this as a model for societies which seek to create their own (symbolic) life-structures without recourse to the “tzu-jan” which sustains all life. Idols of the Buddha and other deities similarly mark attachments to the symbolic, their creators ignorant that the rock into which they carved the statue was a better expression of the nature of the universe than their art could ever signify.
Zen Buddhism makes a noble attempt to surpass this unfortunate pointing-to-that-which-can’t-be-pointed to by simply pointing. Transcending symbolism is a central tenant of Zen, more so than most earth-based religions because it recognizes immediate circumstances and freedom of the heart above any tradition or doctrine. “Don’t look at my finger—look at the moon!” as the Zen proverb goes, an absolute treatise on the inferiority of symbolic thoughts to the real world which lies beyond them. Zen makes no attempt to lay down rules or guidelines, and merely relies on statements of the heart which have no meaning other than exactly what they say, actions which are of-themselves-so. Thus the idiom, “When sitting, just sit, when walking just walk, and above all, don’t wobble!” ‘Don’t wobble’ meaning just wake up! Do not falter on false questions, do not stumble on doubt. Just—uh!
Human emotion and spontaneous feeling are not degraded, looked at as driven by impure attachment to life such as traditional Buddhism. One may weep if they want to weep, dance if they want to dance, and lie drunk under the cherry blossoms. As in Ryokan’s poem, “To My Teacher”:
An old grave hidden away at the foot of a deserted hill,
Overrun with rank weeks growing unchecked year after year;
There is no one left to tend the tomb,
And only an occasional woodcutter passes by.
Once I was his pupil, a youth with shaggy hair,
Learning deeply from him by the Narrow River.
One morning I set off on my solitary journey
And the years passed between us in silence.
Now I have returned to find him at rest here;
How can I honor his departed spirit?
I pour a dipper of pure water over his tombstone
And offer a silent prayer.
The sun suddenly disappears behind the hill
And I’m enveloped by the roar of the wind in the pines.
I try to pull myself away but cannot;
A flood of tears soaks my sleeves.
He makes no apology nor grandiose explanation for his emotion, nor does he try to transcend his human emotions for an ‘unconditional state of being’ in which he may be unmoved in his infinite wisdom. He merely admits it—of course he cries! And by embracing the poignancy of life makes no gestures or deference to anything outside of the truth at hand. Just by being honest and unpretentious, he expresses the complete, holistic, God-given disposition of humans, felt deeply and beyond question. The essence of Zen is the spontaneous, natural life, unburdened by the confusion and crippling of thought ingrained by symbolic cultures, religions, and modes of production. This is the aim of the Zen koan—to provoke an answer of complete honesty, a totally genuine action, unclouded by grasping at symbols or concepts which distract from the essence of the heart, the soul of the world, as waves crash mindlessly against the rocks. Essentially, in Zen, Zen is just a word to be forgotten.
A famous koan goes like this: The sage Mu-nan had only one successor. His name was Shoju. After Shoju had completed his study of Zen, Mu-nan called him into his room. “I am getting old,” he said, “and as far as I know, Shoju, you are the only one who will carry on this teaching. Here is a book. It has been passed down from master to master for seven generations. I also have added many points according to my understanding. The book is very valuable, and I am giving it to you to represent [!] your successorship.”
“If the book is such an important thing, you had better keep it,” Shoju replied. “I received your Zen without writing and am satisfied with it as it is.”
“I know that,” said Mu-nan. “Even so, this work has been carried from master to master for seven generations, so you may keep it as a symbol [!] of having received the teaching. Here.”
The two happened to be talking before a fireplace. The instant Shoju felt the book in his hands he thrust it into the flaming coals. He had no lust for possessions.
Mu-nan, who never had been angry before, yelled: “What are you doing!”
Shoju shouted back: “What are you saying!”
I hesitate to give a nod to burning books, but I have to admit that Shoju has a point. If we want to awaken humanity to its true nature and avoid the nosedive of industrial civilization, Zen’s method of transcending the symbolic has a perfect home in resistance and spreading the rambling joy of true feeling and awareness. I realized a few months ago, walking through the mountains, that the whole natural world is filled with irreplaceable treasures. In a word where we can get online and type a pair of shoes into existence, how can we remember the priceless gift of yucca, perfect for making sandals? The gift of all the healing plant people, the gift of the wild animals, the mountain tops which call down the rains, the valleys which gather the waters, the the wealth of the natural world? The beauty of flowers, how precious! The gift of grass, what else is like grass but grass! Who could speak a star into existence, who could name a kiss? Who could call the taste of a brisk spring dawn by any name but silent reverence?
There must be a way to tell people to go ahead a feel ecstatic, to help them forget themselves in the river of the world, to make them fools under the stars, to make them at home sleeping in the dirt, to see a human’s eyes in ever bug’s, to hug a tree for godsake! There is always some way. That might save us some trouble yet. We might have hope yet. Tee ha!