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.
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.