Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Symbol Creation

It's almost Christmas, and, therefore, the past month or more has seen the annual deluge of diamond store commercials. Zales, Gordons, Kay, and any number of local stores, in seeking to up their holiday sales, seemingly spend most of their advertising budget between December and February (a wise decision, I'm sure, especially this year with such movies coming out).

I myself considered purchasing an anniversary band for Amy (it was just our 7th!), as a new Zales outlet opened right by our local Wegman's. There was one I liked, and I know Amy would like, but the Zales saleswoman would not accept this fact—I of course needed to purchase a ring with three stones, "which symbolize our love in the past, present, and future." After I unstuck my eyes from the position into which they had rolled, I said thanks and left.

Besides the "past, present and future" collection, it seems that the rage this Christmas are "journey" collections. These necklaces feature different sized diamonds, growing from small to large—to symbolize the journey love takes as it grows.

These designs are curious to me. Do people allow diamond companies to designate symbols for their lives? Can a corporation really succeed in designating such "illustrative symbolism" into a common symbol system? And, can this corporation expect that the interpretant of its symbol really understand what was intended?

I suppose that last question's answer is, yes, largely, since viewers of commercials are told in that interaction exactly what to understand the symbol as—no abductive thinking there. But, will these necklaces be understood in five years? Ten? If not, then the sign has failed. Do these ads work, though, I wonder?

Two ideas come to mind: the first, that they do not work, and, that people like myself gag when thinking about them. But, if that were the case, they probably wouldn't continue to run them. The second is that they do, but that leaves my to wonder, Why? Are we so sign-starved as a culture that we need diamond commercials to give us more? And, why cannot a couple determine their own sign? Part of sign creation is bound up in the relationship of the sign giver and its interpretant—who has a greater relationship than a romantic couple?

I suppose, though, if movies are any indicator, people really can't interpret signs without explicit explanations given. I don't necessarily agree with that, but that does seem to be how this culture is understood. That brings me to a more important point, and that is, that Christian worship is largely made up of signs. Again I wonder, can people interpret the signs that occur during a celebration of the Eucharist? Can they interpret what happens at baptism? At Easter Vigil? I think so, with little prodding.

Those who have a relationship with the Church and with God should be able to interpret what happens in church during the worship of God. But, maybe the Church should take out television advertisements to run every commercial segment explaining the meaning of thuribles, of bread made from wheat, and of water. That of course would leave congregants free from thinking, and then they could focus only on their feelings about God.


millinerd said...

This is funny. I gave Denise a family ring once with ten stones (certainly not all diamonds!), and told her they symbolized the ten commandments.

That seemed a bit silly. Sometimes the stones are just pretty stones. I think you're right that we're "symbol-starved." The problem is when the symbols can't be taken for granted, and have to be invented, and this is the problem of a Christian culture of which we have echoes but has been lost. It's not the same when you make it up.

Jodi Bottum did a nice piece on this that has stirred a lot of conversation where he compares Catholic culture to migrating birds that were scared away by the pastoral disaster following Vatican II.

In a response letter, one couple wrote in about how they invented a little Easter ceremonies with papier mache tombs n' all for their children to perform, and though they say it's helpful, it's not the same when it's invented.

Christian culture (must resist self link!), and the symbols that go with it, are a precious heritage. It's sad how cavalier the last few generations have been with what remained.

Time to build it up again. A design professor of mine from Wheaton has made a modest but loving attempt on the Protestant side.

Anonymous said...

On diamond companies - if you do some research, I think you'll find that they invented the connection between engagments/ weddings and diamonds (1920's, I think) through advertising.

And on 'signs' - there has to be a common understanding between the one 'signing' and the one 'receiving' the sign. The demise of a Christian center to Western culture leaves many artifacts of the past impotent for today's persons.

<>< Ron Troup

PS - Condolences on the Fiesta Bowl (Boise State?!?).

Lance said...

Millinerd, the invention of Easter ceremonies is not that unusual. If you start looking around in the ritual studies field, you'll find that people are inventing rituals for all sorts of things—some Christian, some pagan. The book Deeply into the Bone by Ronald Grimes describes coming of age rituals that go on (among many others) for children which seem somewhat odd, but of which the children themselves have fond memories. He says that people should not simply appropriate rituals from other times and cultures, but rather should create appropriate rituals based on their own contexts.

Do we have a Christian context still, one that can draw from before Vatican II? In some sense, yes, since Christianity itself is such a shaper of Western culture. I suppose the question is, in ceremonies, how much should be appropriated from before and how much invented? I agree that mere invention is fairly empty—but what about symbols whose meanings have been lost? Can we draw on past symbols in newer ways?

And Ron, you might find this article interesting in regards to jewelry companies and their symbol creations, successful and otherwise.

millinerd said...

Incidentally, the wedding ring as symbol was so associated by Protestants with popish symbolism that it wasn't re-introduced into the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer until 1928!