The Real vs The Symbolic

The Real vs The Symbolic

Our inability to fully depict in words a feeling or an experience; our inability to reduce our inner symbolic experience to fit within the limited vessels of words; the artificial oppositional quality of presence vs absence (binary opposition) introduced through language...these qualities of communication, of language proper and of media in general generate a "cut" between what is and the symbolic signifiers we marshal to obliquely reference the authenticity of experience.  Images are not always reducible to a label or name.  Some experiences and happenings are so inexpressible, they are beyond words. 

For those people with a visionary mentality, who are heavily grounded in the metaphor of life, there can be a noticeable gap between the "realness" of experience and the words at our command for translating that experience.  This predicament would seem to be aggravated by the very syntax of our primary communication device...language.  One begins to wonder what it is that language communicates through its reduction, by which I mean to say the psyche is ultimately structured through the symbolic sphere of language. Do we speak through language or does language speak through us? The real or the authentic, the thing itself, cannot be indexed or placed in context through language. Even if language or any form of media were capable of containing the "realness" of what it signified, doing so would imply the structure of language itself contained within it the 'realness" of the thing being referenced, thereby removing the need for symbols, i.e. language. Thus a divide emerges between the iconic symbol, language, and what it intends to signify (authentic experience). Man exists within this divide, immobile, unable to resolve the discrepancy between the real and the symbolic or more aptly denying the real in favor of the imaginary symbolic.

In The End of Art Theory, Victor Burgin discusses two possible conversions an image can undergo, "In time retained images undergo two kinds of transformation: reduction of sensory vividness and translation of the images into other forms of representation (Such as words)."  In light of this Age of Global Communication, where the package can mean more than the product, Burgin's concept of a fading sensory vividness seems particularly applicable. The western conscious is bombarded with a constant barrage of high resolution signs and symbols. If there is a need to turn down the contrast on one's perceptive input screens, it comes as no surprise. Many of us witness images of violent death and other random terrors on a daily basis, in our homes and on our screens...our very being would seem to require allowing less and less impact or significance for any number of symbols. 

Approaching this idea from a slightly different angle, it is entirely reasonable to claim the more an image is copied or translated the fuzzier and less resolved it becomes; to know the truth in this argument one simply needs to repeatedly photo-copy an image and watch its resolution fade with each successive copy of a copy.  When one compares the original image with a copy from several images later, the resultant change is indeed a loss in clarity.  These ideas bring us to Burgin's second image transformation, that being, the translation of an image into another form of representation altogether.  It's necessary to pause here and note the two words that Burgin has chosen to denote the change taking place.

Working from the inside out, the first word Burgin uses is 'translation',  which implies the conversion of something from one style or form into another while retaining the original form's initial sense.  'Transformation' is the other word Burgin uses and its meaning supersedes the implications of 'translation' through placement. Its meaning is defined as, " 1. To alter markedly the appearance or form of., 2. To change the nature, function, or condition of: to convert."  Both words imply a change of form but it is the word 'transformation', which Burgin uses in order to tell us that the function and meaning of the original image will be altered beyond recovery during the process of discourse.  The unity of meaning inherent to the experience of the original form has been lost in the process of transformation and something different has been created (Yet the process of transformation into another language is not to be belittled).

I highlight these distinctions because so often in contemporary society we are called upon to translate our experience, or our production of thought and meaning, into words/discourse without being asked to face and reflect on the transformative aspects that this process implies. To speak, to write, to sing, these are each real expressions suspended or some might argue enhanced by the transitive quality inherent to language. My point: once we attempt to reference what is real we have, instead, made a choice to exist in symbolic absence or the binary oppositional quality necessitating the production of meaning vis a vie language. Language is a symbolic tool designed to cut up the real and replace it with a simulacrum, an agreement, an inauthentic replica. The problem isn't so much whether language succeeds or fails at signifying the real, it is our refusal to acknowledge the "realness" of language as a thing unto itself. Language is a third thing existing outside of but also within the real...it is the feedback loop we know as consciousness. The artist is at the root of this absurd predicament, attempting to represent the ineffable, to sustain the primal, preverbal howl of what is real through non-linear symbolism.


 Lacan, J., The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954–1955 (W. W. Norton & Company, 1991)

Heidegger, Martin.  Poetry, Language, and Thought.  Trans. Albert Hofstader.  Harper and Row, Publishers, New York, 1971.

Burgin, Victor.  The end of Art Theory: Criticism and Postmodernity.  Humanities Press International, New Jersey, 1988.

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