Tag Archives: semiotics

On Symbolism




by Alfred Korzybski


The affairs of man are conducted by our own, man-made rules and according to man-made theories. Man’s achievements rest upon the use of symbols. For this reason, we must consider ourselves as a symbolic, semantic class of life, and those who rule the symbols, rule us. Now the term ‘symbol’ applies to a variety of things, words and money included. A piece of paper, called a dollar or a pound, has very little value if the other fellow refuses to take it; so we see that money must be considered as a symbol for human agreement, as well as deeds to property, stocks, bonds. The reality behind the money-symbol is doctrinal, ‘mental’, and one of the most precious characteristics of mankind. But it must be used properly; that is, with the proper understanding of its structure and ways of functioning. It constitutes a grave danger when misused.

When we say ‘our rulers’, we mean those who are engaged in the manipulation of symbols. There is no escape from the fact that they do, and that they always will, rule mankind, because we constitute a symbolic class of life, and we cannot cease from being so, except by regressing to the animal level.

The hope for the future consists in the understanding of this fact; namely, that we shall always be ruled by those who rule symbols, which will lead to scientific researches in the field of symbolism and s.r. (semantic reactions : reactions bound to the use of words at the emotional, biological colloïdal, etc., levels) ). We would then demand that our rulers should be enlightened and carefully selected. Paradoxical as it may seem, such researches as the present work attempts, will ultimately do more for the stabilization of human affairs than legions of policemen with machine guns, and bombs, and jails, and asylums for the maladjusted.

A complete list of our rulers is difficult to give; yet, a few classes of them are quite obvious. Bankers, priests, lawyers and politicians constitute one class and work together. They do not produce any value, but manipulate values produced by others, and often pass signs for no values at all. Scientists and teachers also compose a ruling class. They produce the main values mankind has, but at present, they do not realize this. They are, in the main, themselves ruled by the cunning methods of the first class.

In this analysis the ‘philosophers” have been omitted. This is because they require a special treatment. As an historical fact, many ‘philosophers’ have played an important and, to be frank, sinister role in history. At the bottom of any historical trend, we find a certain ‘philosophy’, a structural implication cleverly formulated by some ‘philosophers’ gamble on multiordinal and el (elementalist ) terms, which have no definite single (one-valued)meaning, and so, by cleverness in twisting , can be made to appear to mean anything desired. It is now no mystery that some quite influential ‘philosopher’ were ‘mentally’ ill. Some ‘mentally’ ill persons are tremendously clever in the manipulation of words and can sometimes deceive even trained specialists. Among the clever concoctions which appear in history as ‘philosophic’ systems, we can find flatly opposing doctrines. Therefore, it has not been difficult at any period for the rulers to select a cleverly constructed doctrine perfectly fitting the ends the desired.

One of the main characteristics of such ‘philosophers’ is found in the delusion of grandeur, the ‘Jehovah complex’. Their problem have appeared to them to be above criticism or assistance by other human beings, and the correct procedure known only to super-men like themselves. So quite naturally they have usually refused to make enquiries. They have refused even to be informed about scientific researches carried on outside the realms of their ‘philosophy’. Because of the ignorance, they have, in the main, not even suspected the importance of the problems of structure.

In all fairness, it must be said that not all so-called ‘philosophy’ represents an episode of semantic illness, and that a few ‘philosophers’ really do important work. This applies to the so-called ‘critical philosophy’ and to the theory of knowledge or epistemology. This class of workers I call epistemologists, to avoid the disagreeable implications of the term ‘philosopher’. Unfortunately, epistemological researches are most difficult, owing mainly to the lack of scientific psycho-logics, general semantics, and investigations of structure and s.r. We find only a very few men doing this work, which, in the main, is still little known and unapplied. It must be granted that their works fo not make easy reading. They do not command headlines; nor are they aided and stimulated by public interest and help.

It must be emphasized again that as long as we remain humans, (which means a symbolic class of life), the rulers of symbols will rule us, and that no amount of revolution will ever change this. But what mankind has a right to ask – and the sooner the better – is that our rulers should not be so shamelessly ignorant and, therefore, pathological in their reactions. If a psychiatrical and scientific inquiry were to be made upon our rulers, mankind would be appalled at the disclosures.

We have been speaking bout ‘symbols’, but we have not yet discovered any general theory concerning symbols and symbolism. Usually, we take terms lightly and never ‘think’ what kind of implication and s.r. one single important term may involve. ‘Symbol’ is one of those important terms, weighty in meanings. If we use the term ‘food’, for instance, the presupposition is that we take for granted the existence of living beings able to eat; and, similarly, the term ‘symbol’ implies the existence of intelligent beings. The solution of the problem of symbolism, therefore, presupposes the solution of the problem of ‘intelligence’ and structure. So, we see that the issues are not only serious and difficult, but also, that we must investigate a semantic field in which very little has been done.

In the rough, a symbol is defined as a sign which stands for something. Any sign is not necessarily a symbol. If it stands for something, it becomes a symbol for this something. If it does not stand for something, then it becomes not a symbol but a meaningless sign. This applies to words just as it does to bank cheques. If one has a zero balance in the bank, but still has a cheque-book and issues a cheque, he issues a sign but not a symbol, because it does not stand for anything. The penalty for such use of these particular signs as symbols is usually jailing. This analogy applies to the oral noises we make, which occasionally become symbols and at other times do not; as yet, no penalty is exacted for such a fraud.

Before a noise., may become a symbol, something must exist for the symbol to symbolize. So the first problem of symbolism should be to investigate the problem of ‘existence’. To define ‘existence’, we have to state the standards by which we judge existence. At present, the use of this term is not uniform and is largely a matter of convenience. Of late, mathematicians have discovered a great deal about this term. For our present purposes, we may accept two kinds of existence : (1) the physical existence, roughly connected with our ‘senses’ and persistence, and (2) ‘logical ‘ existence. The new researches in the foundations of mathematics, originated by Brouwer and Weyl, seem to lead to a curtailment of the meaning of ‘logical’ existence in quite a sound direction; but we may provisionally accept the most general meaning, as introduced by Poincaré. He defines ‘logical’ existence as a statement free from self-contradictions. Thus, we may say that a ‘thought’ to be a ‘thought’ must not be self-contradictory. A self-contradictory statement is meaningless; we can argue either way without reaching any valid results. We say, then, that a self- contradictory statement has no ‘logical’ existence. As an example, let us take a statement about a square circle. This is called a contradiction in terms, a non-sense, a meaningless statement, which has no ‘logical’ existence. Let us label this ‘word salad’ by a special noise – let us say, ‘blah-blah’. Will such a noise become a word, a symbol ? Obviously not – it stands for nothing; it remains a mere noise., no matter if volumes should be written about it.

It is extremely important, semantically, to notice that not all the noises., we humans make should be considered as symbols or valid words. Such empty noises., can occur not only in direct ‘statements’, but also in ‘questions’. Quite obviously, ‘questions’ which employ noises., instead of words, are not significant questions. They ask nothing, and cannot be answered. They are, perhaps, best treated by ‘mental’ pathologists as symptoms of delusion, illusion, or hallucinations. In asylums the noises., patients make are predominant meaningless, as far as the external world is concerned, but become symbols in the illness of the patient…..

An important aspect of the problem of existence can be made clear by some examples. Let us recall that a noise or written sign, to become a symbol, must stand for something. Let us imagine that you, my reader, and myself are engaged in an argument. Before us, on the table, lies something which we usually call a box of matches : you argue that there are matches in this box; I say that there are no matches in it. Our argument can be settled. We open the box and look, and both become convinced. It must be noticed that in our argument we used words, because they stood for something; so when we began to argue, the argument could be solved to our mutual satisfaction, since there was a third factor, the object, which corresponds to the symbol used, and this settled he dispute. A third factor was present, and agreement became possible. Let us take another example. Let us try to settle the problem : ‘Is blah-blah a case of tra-tra ?’ Let us assume that you say ‘yes’, and that I say ‘no’. Can we reach any agreement ? It is a real tragedy, of which life is full, that such an argument cannot be solved at all. We used noises, not words. Here was no third factor for which these noises stood as symbols, and so we could argue endlessly without any possibility of agreement. That the noises may have stood for some semantic disturbance is quite a different problem, and in such a case a psycho-pathologist should be consulted, but arguments should stop. The reader will have no difficulty in gathering from daily life other example many of them of highly tragic character.

Excerpt From:
Science & Sanity Ch. VI – ON SYMBOLISM (p. 76-82)
By Alfred Korzybski

via Grey Lodge / Issue #9

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The Gates of Paradise are guarded by a pair of peacocks


Originally, the phoenix was identified by the Egyptians as a stork or heron-like bird called a benu, known from the Book of the Dead and other Egyptian texts as one of the sacred symbols of worship at Heliopolis, closely associated with the rising sun and the Egyptian sun-god Ra.

The Greeks identified it with their own word phoenix φοίνιξ, meaning the color purple-red or crimson (cf. Phoenicia). They and the Romans subsequently pictured the bird more like a peacock or an eagle. According to the Greeks the phoenix lived in Phoenicia next to a well. At dawn, it bathed in the water of the well, and the Greek sun-god Helios stopped his chariot (the sun) in order to listen to its song. Featured in the painting Heracles Strangles Snakes (House of the Vettii, Pompeii Italy) as Zeus, the king of the gods.



Stunning in its beauty, the Peacock is considered the manifestation of the celestial Phoenix on earth. Its mesmerizing colors and the “thousand eyes” look on its tail is considered to promote abundance and good luck in feng shui, as well as enhance one’s protection and awareness.




In alchemical writings we meet a seemingly bewildering multiplicity of animal symbols – red lions, white eagles, stags, unicorns, winged dragons and snakes. Although at first glance all this complex mass of symbolism seems tortured and confused there is an inner coherence to these symbols, which the ancient alchemists used in specific ways reflecting their esoteric content.

In this article I wish to consider a particularly tight knit group of these animal symbols, the birds of alchemy – the Black Crow, White Swan, Peacock, Pelican, and Phoenix – which are descriptive of certain stages of the alchemical process.

With the Peacock stage, the alchemist has entered into the inner experience of the astral world, which initially appears as ever shifting patterns of colour. This experience is often symbolised in alchemy by the appropriate image of the peacock’s tail with its splendid iridescence of colour. In terms of this series of five stages, the turning point is reached with the Peacock. Up until this point the alchemist has experienced aspects of his being which he was formerly unconscious of – the etheric forces and the astral body. Essentially these experiences have happened to him, although he had to make himself open to the experiences through entering into the initial Black Crow state, however, in order to progress he must begin to work upon his inner being.

Birds in Alchemy



The peacock is a symbol of immortality because the ancients believed that the peacock had flesh that did not decay after death. As such, early Christian paintings and mosaics use peacock imagery, and peacock feathers can be used during the Easter season as church decorations. This symbol of immortality is also directly linked to Christ.

The peacock naturally replaces his feathers annually; as such, the peacock is also a symbol of renewal.

Early belief held that the Gates of Paradise are guarded by a pair of peacocks.

The peacock has the ability to eat poisonous snakes without harm.

Both Origen and Augustine refer to peacocks as a symbol of the resurrection.

Pythagoras wrote that the soul of Homer moved into a peacock—a hyperbole to establish the respect and longevity of the Greek poet’s words.

“By the Peacock” was a sacred oath, because the peacock was thought to have the power of resurrection, like the Phoenix.

A necklace of Amethyst, peacock feathers, and swallow feathers were a talisman to protect its wearer from witches and sorcerers.

Christians thought, in early times, that the peacock’s blood could dispel evil spirits.

Peacock Symbolism



All the clips you missed (via Gawker)

After his monologue Letterman took a seat and eviscerated every part of Leno’s address to his audience last night, including his plea that we not blame O’Brien. “Nobody is blaming Conan,” Letterman said emphatically. Letterman then said that what’s going on now is “vintage Jay,” the same man he’s known for 35 years. At the end of his statement, Letterman had this to say about Leno: “You get fired, you get another gig! Don’t hang around waiting for somebody to drop dead.” Game. Set. Match:  Vintage Jay 

“Nobody is blaming Conan,” Letterman said.


The word “jay” has an archaic meaning in American slang meaning an impertinent person.

The term jaywalking was coined in 1915 to label persons crossing a busy street carelessly and becoming a traffic hazard.  The term began to imply recklessness or impertinent behavior as the convention became established.



I’ll always be a word man, better than a birdman… – Jim Morrison



Bill Hicks on Jay Leno


Recorded in 1993, the track “Artistic Roll Call” from Bill Hicks’ Rant in E-Minor is as true today as it was back then:

Here’s the same bit via Howard Stern

(via disinfo)





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Logophobia: The S from Hell

THE S FROM HELL is a short documentary-cum-horror film about the scariest corporate symbol in history – The 1964 Screen Gems logo, aka ‘The S From Hell.’ Built around interviews with survivors still traumatized from their exposure to the logo after shows like Bewitched or The Monkees, the film brings their stories to life with animation, found footage, and dramatic reenactments. 

Further studies in Logophobia 


The image you see on the above television screen may seem innocent enough and not scary at all, but to many of us who watched television as small children in the mid 1960’s through the early 1970’s, it was the most frightening thing on TV. In exteme cases, it caused nightmares and prevented the viewing of programs that used the logo-which was shown after the closing credits. 

A Tribute to the Most Frightening S Ever


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Kubrick: The opportunity to see things the way they are.


135 Wardour Street (Registered Office)
London WIV 4AP
Telephone: 01-437 5600
Fax: 01-437 9544
Telex: 22653
Registered in England No. 259661

Dott. Rocco Moccia
Direttore Generale Dello Spettacolo
Ministero Del Turismo e Dello Spettacolo
Via della Ferratella in Laterano, 51
00184 Roma

5th October, 1987

Dear Dott. Moccia,

You will undoubtedly understand my disappointment that my film “Full Metal Jacket” has been classified so as to prevent it being viewed by young people under the age of 18. Obviously I do not regard young Italians as being substantially different in nature, character or temperament to young people in other parts of the world and it was my earnest desire that my film be an experience capable of being shared by the widest audience possible.

This is important to me because I sincerely hope that “Full Metal Jacket” will be regarded as making an important and relevant contribution to the ways in which people view their own nature.

My intention was not to relish violence for it’s own sake but to emphasize the reality of both the training process undergone by the recruits and the war situation in which they found themselves. A crucial aspect of this process is the use of language to dehumanise the young men. This had to be presented in a totally truthful way otherwise I would have compromised the reality of the story.

I make no apology for taking such an approach. It is what attracted me to the project from the beginning: it’s sense of uncompromising truth. “Full Metal Jacket” offers no easy moral or political answers.

I think you should know that Sweden has classified the film, 15, New Zealand has a 13 age restriction, Finland has given it a 16 age restriction, as has Germany. These ratings were applied without any cuts.

I believe that all the people should be given the opportunity to see things the way they are.

Yours sincerely,


Stanley Kubrick

cc: Dott.ssa Rosa Alba de Gaetano Leardi
Mr Bernard Weinreich, Warner Bros Italia

via Letters of Note | Archivio Kubrick | L’ascensore per il secondo piano

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