A few recent posts in various blogs has got my thinking about symbols. Wade at The Straight and Narrow Blog and Mark Bulter at M* have both identified symbols in their posts. The issue here is how we are supposed to know a symbol when we see it, how we are supposed to know the correct interpretation of that symbol, and how we are supposed to act both mentally and materially in response to it. These issues have been debated at lenght among anthropologists.
From the 1960’s to the end of the 1980’s, symbolic anthropology ruled the academic roost. Mary Douglas, Clifford Geertz, Victor Turner and others argued that culture and religion were a system of symbols, “webs of signification” and members of a culture (or religion) interpreted these symbols in order to act and navigate the world. Geertz, who looked quite a bit at religion, described it primarily as a symbolic system that induced beliefs, dispositions, and behaviors in its interpretors. The attractiveness of symbolic anthropology in the academy at large is that it brought a wide variety of disciplines such as history, literature, anthroplogy, and linguistics under one common methodological umbrella, namely, the art of interpretation. However, it saw symobls (and rituals) as a stimulus and human behaviors as a response, without much to mediate that relationship.
Beginning in the 1990’s scholars of religion began to be increasingly skeptical of symbolic anthropology, precisely because it couldn’t explain the relationship between symbols and practices. How exactly does a symbol inculcate certain values, dispositions, beleifs, etc? Instead, scholars began to turn to “practice theory”, a particular anthroplogical approach developed mostly in France. Foucault, Bourdieu, Certeau and others focused on the relationship between cultural symbols (discourses) and practices. Anthropologists of religion such as Talal Asad picked up on these insights and showed how a wide variety of practices are involved in inculcating religious beleif from symbols. He argued that symbols themselves were inneffective at bringing about religious dispositions and behaviors without power that ensured the proper interpretation of symbols. He looks at how St. Augustine authorized the use of violent force against heretics who misunderstood the scriptures as a way of showing that the texts themselves could not be properly interpreted without the sword.
The cumulative effect of both anthropological approaches was to show that symbols are not natural. They are the products of traditions and that a variety of interpretations exist within and between religious cultures about the meanings of symbols. What practice theory also showed is that these symbols required power to ensure their proper interpretation and to give them to ability to have meaning.
As Mormons, we really don’t have a very deep reflective tradition on the power and nature of symbols. We seem to be stuck in a particular moment that sees symbols as naturally occuring or as self evident to astute observers, rather than the product of our own interpretation. As such, we are unwilling to see how our interpretations of symbols are produced within a superimposed ideology. Further, we tend to see symbols in a stimulus-response model and don’t consider how interpretations are authorized by our culture.
I guess the question that I have is what sorts of practices, disciplines, sanctions, etc are at work in the production of Mormon identity and the relationship between Mormon symbols (temple, scriptures, hierarchy, etc) and behavior? Note, these words sometimes have a negative valence, but for anthropologists, they are simply descriptive terms for how societies work. I want to know how Mormon society works, how its symbols are produced and how they produce Mormons.