Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Breaks in the symbolic chain.

One of the most powerful images of the year was the photograph from the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York. The image is of retired Philadelphia police captain Ray Lewis, a career policemen, caught on the other side of the law. The fact that Lewis is in full police dress uniform gives the image extra edge and resonance. It forces us to examine a conflict between a symbol used in two different ways.

Police forces have always been very aware of the symbolic nature of uniforms. The uniforms carry strong implicit messages. The bold deep blue of the NYPD uniform speaks of clarity, strength. It’s not some wishy-washy faded yellow. Men and women of power love deep navy blue too for their suits and blazers. It’s patriarchal, more about the symbol of the father figure as a psychological necessity, than it is specifically about gender. The force that knows more, has experienced more, is clear on issues you might be opaque about. But in the image of Captain Ray Lewis the symbolism becomes blurred, because there’s no apparent dichotomy between the characters in the drama. The man being arrested should look like a man being arrested, not like the policemen arresting him. The upright bearing and dignity of the arrested man also clashes with accepted symbology. He’s supposed to ‘look’ criminal. But he doesn’t. He actually looks to have more authority than those arresting him.

This departure from the familiar chain of symbolism makes us question the context. As it should. Who is in the right? Who has the real authority – authority beyond the functional authority bestowed as a facet of procedure by those in power?

The second image, showing Lt John Pike of the UC Davis police pepper-spraying protestors, also disrupts our familiar symbolic narrative, but in a very different way. The clash here is not within the scene itself, but between the totality of this specific scene and the chain of symbols we have built up as part of the meta narrative. The narrative that says ‘trust in the police force, because they are here to protect and serve.’ Only one side of the forces in conflict here has the symbolic uniform of authority. The other side are dressed like ordinary people. The traditional authority figure also wears protective gear, but there is nothing clearly identifiable in the scene that demands he be protected from. He is standing, they are sitting. He is armed with a disabling device (pepper spray), they are not. There is a gross imbalance of power here, at least in the temporal and physical sense. Who ultimately wins that battle for power has yet to be determined.

Both these images speak well beyond their specific context. They attack the history of the symbols themselves, attack our inner diagrams and associations that go with the symbols. There is a rupture in the chain, a break. Those who trade in symbols, as police forces (and business people in suits, and soldiers and sportspeople do) make use of those symbols to give them authority they may or may not have without them. And when the chain of symbology and the associations the wearers of the symbols need to illicit from the rest of us break, then it begins to unravel. The whole meta-narrative can also unravel. Symbols are double-edged, and the process of symbolism and how it echoes or reflects or impacts upon the free floating threads of associations in our subconscious is impossible to control. This stuff runs deep. Governments have been brought down by a single symbolic moment, or a break in the chain of symbols.

Where will this break lead?

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