Category Archives: Communication Studies

On The Sightseer’s Mind: The Symbolic Complex Revisited


I wrote about “The Symbolic Complex” a few years ago in a post entitled, “Walker Percy and the Symbolic Complex.” In no way did this post adequately capture the depth of Percy’s thought, rather it was a hasty and casual attempt to better understand his most potent idea for life-making. The main quotation that I used (from Percy’s Loss of the Creature)  was, “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).”

The Receiver is in Control

In essays and books by communication theorist and executive consultant Lee Thayer, the idea that the receiver of any communication message is always in control of what that message means is spoken about to great lengths. It is not necessarily “the sightseer’s eye,” but rather the sightseer’s way of interpreting what is said or seen or felt or touched or tasted–the sightseer’s mind–that needs to be taken into account. What something means to a person will depend on the ways in which that mind makes meaning. Minds will make the kinds of meaning that they are equipped to make and nothing more, nothing less. In this way, it is important to be mindful of how one is interpreting something and if that way of interpreting is the best possible way of minding that thing.


Percy is right when he says that the raw thing-in-itself is impossible to see and in knowing this did Percy, perhaps come closer to being able to truly “see” the things of the world as they ought to be seen? Was he able to re-appropriate them to useful ends? If the receiver controls how things are interpreted given that receiver’s unique ability to comprehend and make meaning, then everything is at stake when we contemplate the symbolic complex in light of who we are speaking to and how clearly we are able to communicate.

Make Meaning

The world or the things in the world are not meaningful in and of themselves. We make them meaningful as Saint-Exupery reminded us and many echoed before and after him. What Percy is calling for is for us to seek to recover the world, to rescue it from how we habitually interpret it and, in doing so, to come to live in a new world. Practicing new ways of interpreting the familiar is an exercise most worthy of our time. It takes mindful practice and persistence to develop such a way, but what are the consequences? Would they, perhaps, be able to give us a little more control over our own thought and our own destiny? Is it the creators of the world (the purposeful interpreters) that are the ones who are able to interpret the things of the world in new and startling ways? I certainly hope so.

Conventional Wisdoms: An Exercise (#2)

It was a great challenge to think through Lee Thayer’s thoughts on “advice” and knowledge in the previous post (Figuring Out). Today, I would like to tackle his second “Brain Exercise,” and attempt to think through it and make it meaningful to myself and hopefully to you, the reader. The second exercise calls for us to carefully think about the following:

“Conventional wisdoms always and inevitably produce conventional results. This means that if you perceive some problem or opportunity in a conventional way (just because that’s the way your mind works), you will come up with a conventional solution. But high performance, real achievement, is far from being the norm, far from being “conventional.” So the implication is that if you want to achieve extraordinary results, results that are not more or less “average,” then you have to produce those results out of some fairly unconventional wisdoms. … [Often such] perspectives … are counter-intuitive. That is, they run contrary to what most people already believe… always and inevitably …”

What unconventional way(s) could we think through this idea that would lead us to a better, more beneficial way of thinking? What Thayer seems to be saying is that the more conventional your thinking, the more conventional the results will be by virtue of your being limited by the conventional ideas which you use. That is, if you seek change in your organization, and since it comes from the thinkers you have available to you (your “resources”), you best make sure that the wisdoms you are drawing off of are potent enough to lead your thinking in the direction of that desired change. However, if the members of your organization are bounded by a “conventional” way of thinking, then that change itself will be “conventional.” We are limited by our thinking capacities.

Extraordinary (extra-ordinary) results come from one’s ability to think in ways that are not ordinary (conventional). The richer your mind, the richer the results of your thinking. If the stream of thinking in your or your competitor’s organization flows unchecked, then it will be that unchecked flow that will end up drowning your competitive edge. Thinking and questioning in counter-intuitive ways, having capable minds on hand will, on the other hand, provide critical power to your organization’s culture. Perhaps questioning conventionality and the conventions of your organization is the first step toward counter-intuitive problem solving?

In this light, it would seem that questions and the ability to be a superior questioner, in light of your purpose and your ideals (the ideals of your organization), would be a most beneficial skill to develop (is there a more “unconventional” approach that I am overlooking?). That, and perhaps, developing the ability to decipher the useful and provocative wisdoms from the run-of-the-mill ideas that get pushed by the mass business press.

Where would you look for the resources needed to become a skillful unconventional thinker? How does one begin to develop ab-normal strategies for high performance? What thinkers have colonized and influenced your (or your organization’s) mind? Where have they led you thus far? Can one be such a risk-taker in a conventionally-minded organization? What are the risks?

Figuring Out: An Exercise

In a blog post from early 2007, Lee Thayer proposed a series of “brain stretching exercises” meant to getting one’s thinking gears in shape. Today, I will attempt to exercise my brain by tackling one of these exercises. The exercise in question revolves around the idea that, “People can’t figure out what they need to know. People can only figure out what they are personally capable of figuring out. So they seek “advice.” And here a paradox rears its ugly face: If you know the difference between good advice and bad advice, you don’t need advice (Thayer).” The link to the exercise is: here. Let’s dig.

Looking at the first two statements I would ask, what are some differences between what people can figure out (what they are capable of figuring out) and what they “need” to know? Is what you need to know dependent upon what you are trying to know? How capable am I (or, are you) of figuring out what you need to know? Are we, as humans, perpetually stuck in the condition of forever being limited by our own capacities for knowing?

Advice: Is most advice sought because one doesn’t know what one needs to know or doesn’t know where to look so looks to someone else for help? What should one do to maximize the quality of the advice that one gives/receives? Which leads us to the paradox that Thayer suggests: “If you know the difference between good advice and bad advice, you don’t need advice.” What this suggests to me is that it all comes down to your capacity for filtering out what is relevant to your purpose and reason for knowing. That is, if you can recognize good advice from bad advice, then you probably don’t need advice. Is that what Thayer is saying?

Would the capacity to be able to distinguish good from bad advice somehow help one in their competency to be able to better figure out what they are capable of figuring out, thus leading them closer to where they should be?

Perhaps, if you have the ability to distinguish what advice is good/bad for you, then you needn’t seek. In other words, the building of the capacity to distinguish the two, in itself, becomes useful in terms of figuring out what you need to know. Where would you start exercising this capacity? In asking yourself for advice?

To further explore: If a person wants to take a job for a certain company, but, in fearing he doesn’t know everything he should know about that company, seeks advice from others, and then, in hearing the advice rejects the advice, did he actually need the advice in the first place? What benefit was the advice that he received? Had he already decided before even hearing the advice?

The Influence of Each Other


In his book “Leaders and Leadership: Searching for Wisdom in all the Right Places,” Lee Thayer writes, “Relationships are necessary. You can’t be anyone without first auditioning in front of others. But the influence goes both ways. Other people want you to be who they want you to be. If that is consistent with what you intend to be, then consider yourself the most fortunate person on earth and move on.”

If this is so, then problems most definitely arise when two people are at odds with who they want the other to be in their eyes. In these cases, how do we navigate each other away from the problem? If I want you to acquiesce to my way of seeing things and you want me to acquiesce to your way of seeing things, then we will have a problem. Is the solution simply a matter of one person acquiescing to the other? Or, is this a mis-diagnosis of the problem? Will the fundamental difference (the, perhaps, stubbornness) go away or increase in the changing of oneself?

Relationships between couples seem to be a good example. If one of us wants to go north and the other south and both have compelling reasons for wanting to go their respective ways, then how do we as a couple solve this problem without ending the relationship? How do we compromise? And, say one goes north with the other, getting his/her way, but then becomes adverse to the decision thus blaming the other for proliferating a mood of negativity, it would seem that both lose this game. How could the two resolve this problem? Again, is there something more fundamental that the two are not seeing?

If the couple intends to be together, yet suffers such problems of who the other is (diverging views of each other) then would that mean that they ought to redefine the relationship and their purposes for being together? Other than either redefining each other or acquiescing to one or the other (deferring), what other possible solutions are at hand?

Do relationships fail on the basis of bad performances? Are the most fortunate relationships those who are sharing purposeful performances?

Think Piece: Fahrenheit 451


I have begun teaching Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” to my ninth grade high school students. It is interesting teaching this book realizing that all of the students in the room (from varying international backgrounds) have been raised with more advanced and “faster” communication technologies than I could have dreamed of when I was their age. Granted I am not that “old,” but do remember the day when a large satellite television dish was planted in what used to be a garden in our yard. The black monolith, which connected me with other virtual worlds, which greatly shaped my imaginative development.

It is difficult for some of them to relate to the overarching themes of a society obsessed with amusement and speed. Could this be due to the ways in which technology and amusements have already infiltrated their minds? And, am I, as their “teacher,” immune from the consequences of an over reliance on the various gadgets that make my life easier? Should the role of the teacher of a book like “Fahrenheit 451” be one who has become like the character Clarisse, “insane” to the eyes of an out-of-control society as described in the book? If so, wouldn’t, in the teaching of this book, it make more sense to conduct the class while sitting on grass, away from the technological pull of the city? More importantly, does this book resonate with the students in the ways in which Bradbury intended? What kind of student would it take to “take arms against a sea of amusements (Postman)”? What kind of research would be most applicable? What kinds of secondary texts would fill in the gaps?

In order for this book to achieve its own purposes as a so-called “novel of ideas,” it would seem necessary to me to foster an inquisitive classroom environment from which students could gain the capacity to critically and curiously question the technological devices and media influences in their lives that they are exposed to and that they expose themselves to on an hourly basis. The development of these capacities would be for the purpose of having them re-experience those devices and interfaces that shape the virtual landscapes of planet “my life.” What questions would one need to ask to enable students to ask the right questions to themselves about their connections to technology and what that technology could mean? Would this way of teaching (inquistive) make for the proper atmosphere of presenting the novel’s ideas?

At the end of a few lessons, I began thinking about how this book will influence and hopefully develop their ability to examine contemporary culture. For example, the character Clarisse says, “I sometimes think drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly.” This observation, which I felt captured a potent insight into culture didn’t seem to resonate with students, even though our location (Beijing) is a city of vehicles, an overpopulation of vehicles. None of the students walk to and from school and judging from their reactions to the idea of “walking for pleasure,” none of them see walking for the sake of walking as a choice by which one’s experience of the world and how one perceives it is enhanced as having any relevance to them whatsoever.

Other than actually taking them on a walk, how does one open up this idea and make it relevant? How can we teach students to regain the simplicity of life if they don’t want to learn it?

Thank you for reading. I hope that this edited yet stream-of-consciousness “think piece” is of use to you.

Contemplating the “Indirect Path” (Execupundit)


Michael Wade over at Execupundit recently posted two provocative questions under the title, “Indirect Path.” His two questions are as follows, “Is happiness something that is captured or achieved?” and “Or is it more likely that happiness will climb our steps when we are not in active pursuit?”

What I would like to do here is to simply open up these questions and in doing so hopefully give readers of this blog and his, some food for thought in the contemplation of these matters.

First, if happiness is something that is “captured,” from where do we capture it? How does one “find” it? Could it even be possible that happiness exists apart from our attitudes toward what we do and how we experience life? Or, does one, as Herzog might say, “wrestle it from the Devil’s hands?” If happiness is achieved, then what does that tell us about such things as perseverance, effort, accountability and responsibility? Could it be that the pursuit of these leads one to a “happier” life because they align one with one’s purpose? How caught up are happiness and purpose?

And, to address Wade’s second question, does the direct contemplation of happiness somehow eliminate its manifestation? Any student of David K. Reynolds’ “Constructive Living” should be familiar with the adage that one cannot will oneself to be happy. Or, is it that happiness is a performable feeling that one can actually will into existence by the performance of that feeling? Also, does the direct desire to be “happy” have any meaning whatsoever? Is there a state of happiness apart from one’s own unique life circumstance in which that term “happiness” takes on whatever relevance it may have to that person in that circumstance? How has your understanding of happiness changed over the years? Is it the happiness that changed or your own changes in how you interpret things?

Additionally, how is happiness discussed through mediums such as television, radio, film, books and the Internet? Which medium would be most useful a platform for learning more about what happiness could be and how it manifests itself in our lives? Which “stories” that you may live by most influence your understanding of happiness? Does it matter which story we use as long as it “works” for us?

Somehow, for me, in the thinking of these questions, some kind of internal calm overcomes me and I daresay I feel…happiness? I’m not sure. Perhaps this tells us something. But what? Is it that the right questions somehow guide us closer to a more lucid understanding? But without a purpose in mind how do we know what to ask? Why is happiness so sought after?