Excerpted from a work-in-progress....
Symbols are hot these days. The massive, unprecedented success of a thriller about ancient codes and secret societies has made symbolism a national obsession. Just a few short years ago, these pursuits were of interest only to academics and white-knuckled conspiracy enthusiasts. But then one little novel opened up a door into a secret world, and introduced ordinary folks to a universal language that is thousands of years old. The cat is now out of the bag- for thousands of years prophets, artists, madmen and poets have been speaking to us in a language that is both consistent and predictive. But as conditioned as we are to recognize only the verbal -only the literal- we have gone about our business while others have plotted, prayed and postulated right under our noses.
In addition to being nearly invisible to the uninitiated, this language has a profound effect on those who care to learn it. Somehow, there is some dormant sector of the human brain that is activated when one immerses themselves in the study of symbology. This is particularly true when the language is used for religious or spiritual reasons.
Unlike literal scripture, which is forever pointing to a forever elusive revelation, the immersion into this secret language seems to create its own spiritual reality. Sometimes meditating upon these symbols seems to make them come to life and speak to you in ways you could never express or articulate. And often when you delve into this world of sacred symbology, the symbols take over and tell you things you never thought you would know.
But the symbols will escape your notice, or at least your conscious attention, until you are able to decode them. And in order to decode them you must understand where they come from and what those who speak in symbolic language are trying to tell. For there are secret languages and then there is the Secret Language. The science of decoding symbolic language is commonly referred to as Semiotics.
Human beings communicate in three basic modes - verbal language, body language and symbolic language. Of the three verbal or literal language is by far the simplest and least complex. We learn a vocabulary and then use it to communicate with others. This language is specific and localized. There are several hundred languages and dialects being used by human beings on Earth. Body language is often used in conjunction with verbal language. It consists of an astonishing array of gestures and expressions, and can even include things such as body temperature, perspiration and scent. Body language is a criminally misunderstood form of human communication. People lie incessantly with language. It is much much harder to lie with body language.
Symbolic language lies somewhere in between. It is an artificial language in that it usually doesn't arise from the voluntary or involuntary responses of the human body itself. It can either be orally or manually expressed. You can speak in symbols- such as a code- or you can write, draw, sculpt or film them. And to those who believe that every artificially expressed communication can be broken down into symbols, even literal meanings can hide secret intent.
Yet for the most part, Semiotics is actually like a secret decoder ring for nonverbal human communication. The goal of this discipline is to ascertain exactly how nonverbal modes of communication can denote meaning. In semiotics, human communication is broken down into a series of ‘signs.’ This involves a sort of reverse engineering of these symbols and necessitates tracing the origins of commonly used symbols in human communication, much as a linguist traces the origins of commonly used words. These signs are then studied individually and/or grouped into symbolic systems. ‘Signs’ can include image, gesture, body language, sounds, even placement of objects. But unlike Communication Studies, Semiotics concentrates on meaning and not modes.
The entirety of human communication is symbolic. These very words you are reading are a series of abstract symbols we've all agreed represent certain sounds, which we then agree represent certain concepts when used in various combinations. And ultimately, everything we see or hear symbolically represents something else.
When a baby sees her mother’s face, a whole series of thoughts and emotions are triggered by it. Her mother's face actually becomes a symbol for those thoughts and emotions- comfort, food, love. The triggers become ever more complex and sophisticated as the baby enters childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Likewise, a word represents not only the thing to which it has been assigned, but also the implications and associations of both the word and its object. Even the shapes of the letters can have a Rorschach-type effect on our subconscious minds, as can their sequencing.
Semiotics may seem like one of those egg-headed European theories from the 1960’s like post-Structuralism, but the term was actually coined by the 17th Century philosopher John Locke. And the method wasn’t unique to Locke either. Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine studied the use of signs to denote meaning. Yet the science didn’t come into its own until the late 19th Century, when the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce developed Semiotics as its own discipline, rather than as a subset of Linguistics. Peirce believed that “we cannot think without signs.”
And one of the best-known semioticians at work today- Umberto Eco - is also a popular novelist.
Semiotics has become quite popular in the wake of Dan Brown’s monster hit novel, The Da Vinci Code. The protagonist of that book holds the fictional title of ‘Professor of Semiotics’ at Harvard University. What Langdon does in the course of the novel is more of form of de-encryption, since the symbols he is dealing in the story with are intentional designed codes. But he calls upon his understanding of symbology to decipher the maddeningly complex clues thrown at him by the fictional Priory of Sion.
It’s interesting to note that The Da Vinci Code bears a close resemblance to Umberto Eco’s hit novel Foucault’s Pendulum, which dealt with a lot of the same esoteric topics and also showcased the art of symbological de-encryption. But Eco took a far dimmer view of the occult underground that Brown seems to champion and Foucault’s Pendulum wasn’t nearly as successful as The Da Vinci Code has been.