symbols:Visual and Verbal
1 Symbols : Visual and Verbal
The concept of a tacit symbol is a combination
of the concept of tacit ness with the concept of symbol. Michael Polanyi (1958- 1966) invented the phrase ‘ tacit knowledge’
for a concept that was discovered earlier by Ludwing Wittgents in
(1953 ) who asks us to consider how one person
may be able to know his way about a town without being able
to draw, perhaps even to read, a map of the town while another person
may know how to read, perhaps even to draw, a map of the town without
being able to find his way about the town.
The former obviously has a tacit knowledge of the way about
the town. A person who combines both the capacities—finding
his way and mastery of the map- may in some way be said to have an explicit knowledge of the way
about the town.
we proceed to introduce tacit symbolism, a clarification is needed. When we talk about symbols we are liable to
proceed as if there is a special class of objects to be called symbols—there
are chairs, ladders, and there are symbols.
Indeed practically anything can be a symbol, even a ladder
can be a symbol—sopāana in India can stand for the progress
of a student or even the progress of a spiritual seeker or stand for
anything that aids such a progress.
(That of course was an explicit symbol.) Actually we
should rather speak of symbol process (or symbolism) Symbol process
can then be examined in events
of a certain sort, namely symboliziing. Symbolizing events may be either visual or
verbal or neither. If looking
at the ladder or (as in the game of snakes and ladders) at the picture
of a ladder reminds us of spiritual progress, this is visual symbolizing. (The game is actually called in India I moksapata ‘ the cloth of spiritual freedom’) If understanding
the word sopana in the course of a sentence reminds
us of spiritual progress, this is verbal symbolizing (perhaps accompanied
by a mental visualizing of the ladder).
Before we examine the symbolizing progress let us look at some
examples of tacit symbols.
When we see the rays of the sun filtering through
the tops of trees in Akiro kurosawa’s film rashomon , we may
be thrilled at the beauty of the sight but we may also be strangely
affected by it, not quite realizing that the sight has made us know
more closely the ecstacy of sex which figures in the story of Rashomon. This is tacit
visual symbolism. When we
come across a similar sight in a similar context in Kurosoawa’s The Seven Samurai, the symbolizing is more
likely to occur in the viewer this time.
One can begin to see how a piece of tacit visual symbolism
may begin to be routinized, and hence possibly to become customary. Routinized tacit symbolism is likely to be
effective on more occasions or effective with more people than a one-shot
A piece of symbolism may combine visual elements with a verbal
channel: we have already seen how a word like sopāna may
evoke the picture of a ladder before evoking steps in the spiritual
progress. Such visual –verbal symbolism can also remain
tacit. Here are the opening
lines of an ancient Tamil poem (1sT –3rd centuries
A,.D.) in A. K. Ramanujan’s
English translation (1967: pages 22, 110).
What the concubine Said
You know he comes from
where the fresh-water shark in the ponds
with their mouths
as they fall, ripe
the trees on the edge of the field.
a reader who is unaware of the conventions of
Tamil poetics about landscapes will be made
uneasy by the vivid picture of the shark feasting
mangoes—what is the visual doing
here, we ask
when the Concubine is recalling him, presumably
who has discarded her, to
her companion? And
the convention of associating the netyal landscape of
nightfall, Shark, the laburnum tree and so forth with anxiety in love,
separation, and such other
experiences must have been traceable to fresh, innovative
of earlier poets. Again ,
the convention didn’t specify this particular image in this particular
that is the poet’s innovation.
verbal symbolism need not always have this visual element. To take a wholly routinized example this time, consider the following
was trying to sell me the idea, but I
buy it. He then tried it on
but there were no takers
of a market is there for any one to see.
To a non-American, the associating of a market with communication
of ideas may be striking. The
speaker of American English may use these expressions without a second
thought. The whole verbal symbolism remains tacit to
him, but remains operative nevertheless in the way American speakers
deal with ideas and their dissemination.
One has only to compare the symbolism with the evocation of
the ashrama in Indian expressions like the following.
(‘ one living close by, disciple’)
(‘ siting close by, exposition of arcane ideas’)
men baithkar (‘sitting at the feet (of),
tacit symbolism may be neither visual nor verbal. The formula 2+3=5
stands for +2+3=5 in mathematics where the positive character of the
last quantities remains tacit. When
Winston Churchill insisted that the House of Commons be rebuilt
after the Second World War with its seating arrangement unchanged,
he was showing awareness of the tacit association of the seating arrangement with the adversaial party politics of British
democracy. When the mother
holds the baby to her breast or pats the baby in order to sooteh it
or to put it to sleep, she is, tacitly
II. Tacit symbols
In inquiring into the
world of symbols some have focussed on very explicit, refined, tidy,
systematically functioning, other-coded symbolisms: the appositeness
of any such symbol is largely determined in the context of other
symbols; they are amenable to logical, mathematical, systematic investigation,
their investigators are typically logicians, mathematicans, philosophers
of science (typically of the Vienna school).
Others again have focussed on natural languages in their natural
setting of ordinary, everyday use, on the discourse of
natural sciences in their empirical phase, of human sciences, and
of human affairs in their public setting; the appositeness of any
such symbol is largely determined in relation to the signate; they
are amenable to behavioral, objective, empirical studies; their investigators
are typically linguistic, anthropologists, sociologists, experimental
Finally some have focussed on progressively more tacit, globally
functioning, hopelessly subjective, elusive, self-coded symbolisms
functioning in loose-knit assemblies; the appositeness of any such
symbol is largely determined in relation to the life of the communicators
and addresses; they are amenable to aesthetically and ethically sensitive
observant participation in such symbolic transactions; their investigators
are typically critics of literature, art mass media, culture and students
of myths and other narratives, ritual and other rites, magic, and
If only these three groups of investigators interact, compare
notes and learn from each other If only we learn to speak about tacit
symbols in an explicit, logically coherent, systematic, down–to–earth
manner for that will not only be a step beyond the structuralism thinking
to which Claude Lévi-Strauss was initiated by the Prague School linguist
Roman Jakobson, but also a step in the direction of a more integrated
approach to all the three modalities of symbolization just described.
(Actually, each group of students has elucidated the term ‘
symbol’ exclusively in terms of its own concerns). In the rest of
this section we shall sketch a programme for partial demystification
of tacit symbolizing and of symbolizing of the third modality.
Tacitness in a sign process involves covertness, the state
of being out of awareness. More
(i) The sign-ant may be covert, as when one
says, something about him told me instantly that he was not at ease,
but I can’t my finger on what about him;
The sign-ant may be covert, as when one says, The pallor of his face
told me instantly that something was the matter with him, but I can’t
put my finger on what the matter was;
The sign-nation may be covert, as when one says, My presence reassured
him but I bet he didn’t get the connection.
The whole sign event may be covert, as when one says Nature like a
good teacher teaches us a lot without seeming to teach us anything
is tacit may sometimes By readily-recoverable – in which case. tacit-ness
may simply amount to implicitness, as when one says, He beat his wife
and vice versa (that is, and his wife beat him) or again, He beat
his wife and she him (that is, and she beat him) or as when the plus
sign can be restored in 2+3=5 (that is, +2+3=+5).
more interesting and more important kinds of tacit-ness go well beyond
mere implicitness, witness each of the examples given just now under
(i) to(iv). With these the
recoverability is far from complete if by recovery we mean the possibility
for working one’s was to a reasonably uniform paraphrase in ordinary
language that presents the signate faithfully, without any loss in
deepest level of tacitness even this paraphrasability has to be denied. Everyone knows that poetry cannot be translated
into another language without loss.
But everyone recalls the school exercise of giving a prose
paraphrase of the poem under study. This school exercise may be carried
out at a very sophisticated level indeed.
Ramanujan has not only dared to translate Classical Tamil into
the contemporary English idiom. On
one occasion he has also dared to offer a prose commentary (1985:pages
231-2). We shall look at both the complete poem and a part of the
What She Said
her girl friend, when she returned
Bless you, Friend. Listen.
mixed with honey from our gardens
is the leftover water in his land,
low in the waterholes
covered with leaves
and muddied by animals.
Now the commentary.
The speaker in the poem begins with a greeting to her girl
friend, talks about the familiar and safe childhood drink milk and
garden honey, and moves delightedly to her lover’s wilder, dirtier,
animal-ridden waterholes. It is a poem about her first sexual experience,
her growing up, her discovery that leaf-covered waterholes are more
fascinating than domestic milk and hone. She is leaving behind order,
cultivation, culture, milk
and honey, to drink of the waters of nature, sharing it with the animals who muddy it...
the greeting word annay... means ‘mother”, or any kinswoman, here
her girl friend.... The poem moves from the maternal bosom into the
sexual world of her man. The
two places, her garden and his land, describe two states, and also
two kinds people... From another angle, the speaker herself is the
waterhole and he is the happy animal ,and she is delighted ... No
names of persons or places appear... In the moment of experience,
there is no society. The lovers
are a solitude in the hills.
Even the simple absence of proper names conveys a message. And yet the commentator has stop in happy exhaustion, admitting
defeat from a simple poem described as belonging to the genre of akam
poems in Classical Tamil poetics where akam means “ interior, heart, house-hold”. What is true of a simple poem is even more true of a mythology,
as Plato’s Socrates pointed out in commenting on his contemporaries’
attempts to offer rather pat, secular
explications of the sacred narratives of Greek society. At the deepest level f tacitness where even
the possibility of a paraphrase has to be denied (asvašabdvācytā
of poetry according to theclassical Sanskrit poetics), it will only
be a slight exaggeration to say that the symbol does not merely connect
us to the signate but that the symbol brings the very signate into
existence. At this level, any symbol is truly, poema,
a making –even if that symbol is a single word like annay
or akam. Even ordinary
vocabulary and syntax, ordinary visuals ordinary postures and gestures,
ordinary arrangements have this deep, tacit layer.
Faded metaphors of marketed ideas do not quite fade out of
We shall now present a rapid survey of some of these tacit
meanings of certain highly abstract signants that enter into the more
complex signants of which we have greater awareness. (The colon in
the formulations to follow reads as ‘stands for!
features (including topological features):
point: location entity in a system,
point of time, source of divergence, endpoint of convergence
Line: boundary, path, connection
straight line: span of time, direct path,
tesor or vector quantity, distance between locations
closed curve: hole, enclosure, division into
inside and outside
circular (closed) curve: absence of hierarchy
(round table, round robin,
etc.) or confrontation or bounded-ness or
circle with centre:
periphery, centre radial paths joining the two.
spiral (open) curve: incremental recurring, vortex of energy
area: coverage, extent, population
horizontal plane: high/low level
volume: coverage, extent, quantum
horizontal: static stable equilibrium, state
vertical: dynamic stable equilibrium, uprightness,
axis of status
oblique: indirect path, dynamic unstable equilibrium
lower / higher: less/ more important, essential/
left / right: bad/good, change / no change
with marginal asymmetry: rigid order/ fluid
order, forbidding perfection/
inviting perfection (human anatomy recommends these as against asymmetry)
Proximate/ distant: related / unrelated, closely
related / distantly related
cause/ effect, more/ less important
everything/ after everything :initiating /derivative,
and foremost / last and least, rudimentary/ advanced,
short/ long interval: related/ unrelated
Number (including ordinarily):
sameness, harmony, wholeness
otherness, opposition, dichotomy
three: maximum-medium-minimum trichotomy
best, most important
Second: second best
even: with residue/ without residue
Still / moving: dead/ alive, no change/ change,
moving forward / backward, moving upward / downward
better (off)/ worse (off) (human neurophysiology
recommends forward locomotion and shirks falling down due to loss
entry/ exit: access to advantage/ loss
subjection to disadvantage/ release from disadvantage
Distribution over space/ time:
cluster: dissipation/ concentration, plenty of room / crowding
(human neurology recommends moderate scatter even distribution
of likes / uneven distribution of likes: homogenety / hetereogenety
mode of distribution along a single dimension:
mode of change (abrupt, gradual, null change as the
case may be
recurrence at even intervals: predictability, reassuring perfection (human
physiology with its own momentary, daily, monthly, yearly rhythm recommends
even distribution of
unlikes: ending state (human matabolism recommends balance
one-at-a-time/ all –at once: easy-to-process/
difficult-to process, slow and imperfect processing of information
/ quick and perfect processing of information
oral-aural: face-to-face (even if by telephone),
manual-visual: not face-to-face yet not wholly
with channel-noise/ without channel –noise
chromatic colours in complementation: enduring balance (human
physiology of vision recommends complentary colours) some chromatic
colours in recurrence or over a stretch: homogeneity, reassuring
red: easy recognizability, life-promoting
life-harming bloody violence
Sweet: celebration, attractive
redistribution of belongings and of information:
input/ output, intake/ output, put-in/ take-out:
subjected to processing / resulting from processing
Keep over time: conserve for deferred processing, withdraw from
spending/ saving: plenty/ scarcity
giver/ receiver/ the transfer: position of advantage/
position of dependence / conferring
of favor, position of disadvantage/position of power/ yielding of
heartbeat: security in the womb
orgasm (accompanied by shutting off of other sensations):
mystical or aesthetic ecstacy
The foregoing survey is admittedly all too rapid
and incomplete. While it should
uncover some of the fine texture of complex pieces of tacit symbolism
and also the infrastructure of symbolism in human neurology and physiology,
there is no room for complacency, no room for quickly jumping to conclusions
about what is universal. Let
me assure you that no demystification programme is going
to be complete which is unfortunate / fortunate (strike out
whichever is not to your taste). We now come to the last lap of this programme.
The operation of tacit symbols depends not only on letting
the context make explicit what is implicit or letting the context
enrich what is bare or letting the neurophysiological infrastructure
do its silent work (including dreamwork) but also on indirection in
the symbolism itself. The Vedic gods are said to be fond of indirection (parokṣapariyāḥ ivai devāḥ
passim, in accounting for the obscurities in the Vedas). Considering
that gods are created in man’s image, this is but something to be
expected. The artist, the mythmaker, the poet the master of eloquence,
down to the humble writer of advertisement copy or designer of consumer
product – they are all fond of indirection.
And so are their respective addressees.
Indirection in symbolizing turns up in either of two forms:
and (ii) Enrichment. Although
these two mechanisms have so far been discussed in respect of verbal
symbolism, it should be borne in mind that they are available in non-verbal
symbolism also. Both of these mechanisms of indirection draw
upon the routinization and consequent availability of the signation
– the readily available tie between the signant, the message –vehicle,
the form on the one hand and the signate, the message –content, the
sense on the other hand.
Displacement can be presented
in either of two ways –as form displacement (figure1) or as sense
displacement (figure2) (The arrow indicates the displacement.)
form sense sense
Form-displacement is traditionally recognized as the poetic
mode by some modern Western critics and vakrokti in Classical
Sanskrit poetics (in contrast to the direct mode of manifestation
or saralokti). Sense-displacement is traditionally recognized as the
tropes of metaphor, metonymy, irony or the like in Classical European
rhetoric and lakṣṇaṇā
classical Sanskrit poetics (in contrast to direct mode of interpretation
). Vakrokti and lakṣṇaṇā
but two ways of recognizing the same symbolizing phenomenon of displacement.
Obligatory in some cases in the sense there is no direct made available. The phrase win the argument has no non-metaphological
paraphrase in English. The celebrated example of this phenomenon is
of course the metaphor ranging from the humble leg of the table
or electric current to the sublime prayer tamasomā jyotirgamaya
me go from darkness to light). Non-verbal metaphors may be seen in
political cartoons or electric heaters made to look like log fires
or painted curtains or the punching bag (or sparring partner) used
for the training of a boxer.
In contrast to the mechanism of displacement,
the mechanism of enrichment does not reject the available form or
the available sense but offers sense enrichment as a sort of bonus
over and above what is readily availed (Figure
sense is traditionally recognized as suggestion in Classical European
rhetoric or vyańjanā in Classical Sanskrit
poetics. Enrichment-bearing form is traditionally recognized as atišayokti
(‘laden speech’). Classical Sanskrit poetics contrasts atišayokti with svabhavokti (‘nature-hugging speech’) and contrasts vyańjanā with abhidha (‘ direct interpretation’). Classical Sanskrit poetics also takes notice
of the fact that displacement itself may be a point of take- off-for
enrichment. So lakṣaṇā
vyańjanā and vakrokti engenders
a simile or metaphor often suggests something much more than simple
resemblance across different categories, or a rhetorical question
often betrays a residue of doubt underlying the confident statement
that it intends to make. It also takes notice of the fact that the sense
enrichment may continue indefinitely like continuing echoes (anuranaṇa).
III What Vulgarity is Tacity Saying to us
To say of some human act or the result
of some human act or the author of such acts that these are vulgar
is to pass a judgment on it. To begin with a judgment of vulgarity
used to be wholly a social judgment:
this is just the sort of thing that offends me about what to
me are the lower classes in my society.
Then it was extended to acts
perpetrated by the speaker’s peers or even his superiors as
a reproach: this is just the
sort of thing that reminds me about the offensive aspects of what to me are the lower casses is my society. from this it took only a step to speak of something
as intrinsically vulgar, as typical of lower classes in an ideal society so to say. (cf. Aldous Huwley
1930:2-3). The author of the
judgment presupposes a contrast between his own refined aesthetic
–ethical sensibility and his subject’s coarse aesthetic-ethical sensibility.
as a social judgment ended up being an esthetic-ethical judgment also.
The step from one to the other sense of the world vulgar was
historically a step from participating in a close-knit community,
a Gemeinschaft enjoining the high and the Low alike—To thy station
be true, svadharmḥ sreyaḥ (own –way-of-life –better) to participating in a loose-knit
public, a Gessellschaft enjoining everybody- To thy self be true,
svahavaḥ sreyaḥ (a coined expression, not attested in Sanskrit). In a closed society to be vulgar is to presume
above one’s station or to lapse below one’s station In any case not
to know one’s place below one’s readily invite an adverse social judgment
. —(It is worth noting that in traditional India the word grāmyatā points to lapses below one’s
station and not to presuming above one’s station. In an open society to be vulgar is to display
feeling just because one thinks that others should think that one
has them—in any case not to be sure of oneself in doing what one thinks
is the right thing to do and thus to readily invite an adverse aesthetic-ethical
judgment. Both the sense of
the adjective vulgar survive till today.
What is it
about the human act subjected to the judgment that induces the on
looker to pass such a judgment, whether wholly social or wholly aesthetic-ethical
or a little of both. The act deemed to be vulgar is a sign that calls
for or admits of some elucidation.
It is a tacit symbol. An elucidation normally remain covert.
It is a tacit symbol. An elucidation of this tacit symbol may serve
as a useful case of the whole idea of tacit.
act is sending some message, as it were, in the direction of the onlooker
who is liable to sit in judgment.
To being with, there is the message about the performance. Following closely upon this is the message about the subject’s intentions
behind the performance. Quite
often there is also the message about the subject’s own assessment
about the performance in the light of his intentions. Let is be borne in mind that these messages may be mistakes–in that
they only represent the onlooker’s assessment of the performance,
of the subject’s intentions, and of the subject’s assessment about
the performance. The judgment
of vulgarity is prompted by certain discrepancies between the messages. Actually the message about the performance
gives the first clue that there may be some such discrepancies.
The message about the subject’s
performance usually considers it as an expression in skills an expression
of feelings or an enactment of sentiments or a formulation of insights,
and finds it wanting in that the performance is of the sort that one
has learned to expect from persons of a coarse sensibility. More specifically the performance may be overemphatic,
over-explicit rather than moderately explicit or tacit, uncalled for
(reticence would have been better), something that inverts the natural
order of things (as when a recent Indian advertisement assured the
buyer that their silk looks exactly like nylon riot of colours in
a sunset sky as glorious technicolour, something that falls short
of the profundity of the passion or insight through oversimplifying
or over-mystifying (examples a are a good deal
of instant religion or instant philosophy), or something profound
or soulful only to misapply it. (The
French have a name for this last shortcoming-they call it a clichč.)
(The might also think of it as a semantic malapropism.)
The message about
the subject’s intentions behind the performance and the message about
the subject’s own assessment about the performance in the light of
his intentions need to be considered together.
Between them the two help the onlooker to recognize different
kinds of vulgarity. There are three of them:
vulgarity: There is a mismatch between intentions of refinement and
coarseness of performance. The subject (0ften a confident social climber)
sees no mismatch, at least doesn’t see how others could see through.
The onlooker is typically moved to laughter or pitying laughter. (The Germans have a name for this kind kitsch.)
Brazen Vulgarity: There is
a mismatch between intentions to pass off as refined and the absence
of any real effort in the performance.
The subject (often an upper class or a lower class person of
ingrained coarseness) recognizes the mismatch and flaunts it. The onlooker is typically moved to irritation or even anger.
Nervous vulgarity: There is
a mismatch between intentions of refinement and coarseness of performance.
The subject (often a diffident social climber) hopes that the
mismatch is not perceptibly serious.
The onlooker is typically moved to pity or laughing pity.
(An interesting case of this kind is someone over displaying
certain feelings that he genuinely has in order to make sure that
others notice them. Another case is someone who considers himself
refined trying to admire what he would have ordinarily considered
too low to be noticed. The
classic case of nervous vulgarity is of course Charlie, the creation
of Charles Chaplin.)
When there is no mismatch
between the performance and the intentions (0ften accompanied by a
certain insouciance or a certain confidence), the onlooker sees no
vulgarity and may even be moved to admiration (how graceful!’ as the
how earthy! case may be).
India is a rich breeding ground of vulgarity. Indeed it is rich in
many cultural ironies that facilitates this process—
the designers of consumer products, popular decoration, and popular
entertainment intended for mass marketing think that they are the
ones to manipulate and exploit popular taste and turn out to be victims
of their own uncertain taste which uneasily hovers between the middlebrow
and the lowbrow (for example, between films with a social or patriotics
message and grade-B masālā films);
the ‘folk’ reject folk art in favour of the lowbrow and the middle
classes find virtue and wholesome robustness in folk art;
the middle classes often flaunt their refinement but merely succeed
in exhibiting genteel vulgarity;
the highbrow often embrace the imported middlebrow to emphasize their
refinement and end up being tourists in their own country often affecting
their ‘ discovery’ of the Indian tradition (Ravishankar! how cute!
) and often treating as refined what is deemed to be coarse in the
West (fashionable Indians making a delicacy out of ‘fast food’ and
‘ pulp novels’).
Aristotle defined the
ludicrous as that which is ugly without being painful.
When one cannot make up one’s mind whether something is ludicrously
ugly or painfully ugly, one is dealing with something that is vulgar. The uncertainty is occasioned by the complexity
and the tacitness of the messages of the messages that the vulgar
act is sending in our direction.
Huxley, Aldous 1930.
Vulgarity in literature. London:
Chatto and Windus.
Polanyi, Michael 1958.
Personal knowledge. London; Chicago;
University of Chicago Press.
The Tacit dimension. Garden City NY: Doubleday.
Ramanujam, A, K., ed., tr. 1967. The Interior landscape.
Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
----ed., tr. 1985.
Poems of love and war.
Wittgenstain, Ludwig. 1953. Philosophisches
German text with English
translation (Philosophical investigations)
Anscombe, G.E.M.; Rhees,
Rush, ed. tr.
Oxford: Blackwell; New
York; Macmillan, 2nd ed., rev.
Oxford: Blackwell., 1958.
is essentially what was orally presented at the Seminar on Indian
Symbology at the Industrial Design Centre, Indian Institute of Technology
Mumbai, January 1985 except that this version has been
considerably refined and elaborated.
This was published in Indian Symbology Proceedings of
the Seminar..., ed. Kirti Trivedi, IDC, IIT, Mumbai, 1987, p-133-146.