Walker Percy and the Symbolic Complex

What is the symbolic complex and how does the symbolic complex transform for us the image of that person (how do we transform others through the symbolic)? Semiotician and Novelist Walker Percy, in his essay “The Loss of the Creature,” writes “Impossible to see: the thing as it is, has been appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer’s eye (47).” What I think he means is that, the “symbolic complex” comprises and veils those ways that things are symbolically represented and/or conveyed either by others or ourselves in communication with others. The thing becomes the thing as it is spoken about and interpreted, ceasing to be the thing-in-itself.

Celebrity Symbolism

Let’s attempt an example. I visited New York City one year during spring and happened to be in a shoe store when I saw the musician Dave Grohl (Nirvana/Foo Fighters). I had liked both of his projects when I was a teenager and suddenly became overcome with a giddiness that I cannot explain. That is, the man perusing sneakers did not blend in like the host of other “normal” people that we encounter in our daily life, but stuck out for me and was instantly appropriated by my symbolic image of him through the music that I had listened to years before. In that moment, there was no struggle even in trying to recover the everydayness of him as a biological human creature (as an “everyday person”); my mind had already covered his image over in a symbolic web of imagination instantly.

Everyday Symbolism

However, even said “normal” others are symbolically apprehended. Walking through the streets of a metropolitan American city it is easy to see many different kinds of people. There is not enough time to talk with them all and get to know them, we can only see them pass, observe interactions and physical features and move on. Perhaps we strike up a casual conversation with the barista while waiting for our drink or we address the other by talking about the weather, but for the most part, we do not interact with others. In viewing the sartorial, the physical, I think that we symbolically codify certain others in terms of how they choose to represent themselves via uniform, dress or posture. Students in Japan are almost always symbolically uniformed from kindergarten until senior high school. The uniform provides a symbolic representation of the other in terms of status and association. I don’t see you simply as X, but as X who works at a certain company via your symbolic representation of that company as it blends with my interpretation of your image of self.

The Planners

Or, maybe there were times when you were offered a job that you didn’t think was suitable for your aspirations. That is, the other person, symbolically appropriating who he or she saw you to be and imagined that you could be tried to build you into a new kind of character by trying to convince you of your worth in a certain kind of position. How much of your self has been created by others and how many others come through your self? How do we blur others by judging them based on their country of origin? How do we use our country or origin to our own advantage when interacting with others?

While this is not an explication of Percy’s “Loss of the Creature,” but more an exploration around it, I would like to end with another passage from the same work (“The Loss of the Creature”) regarding a person being something one must struggle for.

“As Mournier said, the person is not something one can study and provide for; he is something one struggles for. But unless he also struggles for himself, unless he knows that there is a struggle, he is going to be just what the planners think he is (63).”

Thank you for reading.