Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Evolution of Symbols

Allegedly the birth of human consciousness corresponds roughly to our ability to use symbols and metaphors. The oldest art in the world, which, let's blow our trumpet a little, was found in a cave in South Africa, signifies our move from unconscious or subconscious animals to thinking beings. Abstract thought was documented and reified in abstract symbolism. This evolved into cave paintings of animals, alphabets and religious symbols. 
A strange thought struck me today as I picked up a chocolate with so many symbols, adjectives and brand differentiators on it the chocolate seemed almost peripheral to the offering - perhaps the shift in human consciousness that so many predict is upon us (Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth, for example) is being mirrored in the evolution of symbols yet again. Where once letters and alphabets arose to document sounds and words, now symbols that represent entire systems of thought combine to form a language of a higher level. A crucifix carries with it the whole history of Christianity. A swastika invokes an ideology and an emotional reaction. Fairtrade logos and carbon footprint logos and halaal-approved logos each invoke a complex history and philosophy. Where letters once combined to form simple words, now the combinations of brands, logos and symbols form complex patterns and combinations of ideologies, histories and value. To cut through the information overload of our age, we are beginning to communicate in a symbolic language of a higher order. It may mean the birth of collective consciousness and the beginning of the prophesised golden age - and it also means we won't need to worry so much about our spelling.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Holding on to mystery

We all love a bit of mystery. Half the reason people date is because of the allure of the uknown. We create elaborate fantasies of what the other person is like; we wallow in their mixed signals and unfamiliar language like excited hippos in the mud. Science fiction and fantasy (and, some might say, religion) have all grown up because of our inherent desire to make the world more interesting, more fantastical, and to attribute to it some hidden depth, meaning and inexplicability. Mystery is a fine art. It captures our imagination and fills our hearts with possibility and hope.

And yet, it's a resource that is dwindling faster than fossil fuels or untouched forest. No one can be bothered with mystery any more. I'm all for honesty - but the levels of openness and candour that we've reached today haven't furthered the cause of honesty; they've merely stripped the world of any magic. Perhaps it's profoundly untrusting of me to think that without mystery the world loses any interest - it's all prosaic and mundane and straightforward. If what you see is what you get, then why bother looking? 

Despite the onslaught of digital media which make it unfashionable not to let everyone know exactly what you're thinking at any given moment (says the blogger), I think we should hold out and hold back. There are no longer undiscovered places on this planet for us to imagine the hell out of. But we still have silent smiles, hidden histories and complex motives. I know that, despite my propensity to be a hysterical groupie, I'm obsessing much more about the mysterious onesmallseed motorbike in my garage than I did when I met Matt Damon. The bike is alive with celebrity possibility: once I know for sure whose it is, it will just be means of transportation.

But then, maybe I should just get a life