Symbolism

In Cultural Ecology 2017 we paired two readings to discuss the question of symbolism and representation:

Note: I revisited the Ingold material here with a transcript of the lecture or see YouTube segments:


What is potentially confusing is that Kohn claims that signs and representing are also properties of life beyond the human, whereas Ingold seems to be claiming that these “depictions of animals” are not representations. However, if you re-align the vocabulary, the two accounts are not as far apart as they might seem. What Ingold means in arguing against representations has more to do with what we generally see as the high symbolism of art and language. In this sense, both authors are trying to re-locate what we normally see as high symbolism, art and language, in the currents of the life-world.

Symbolism Resources

Of particular interest for readers of Ingold’s “Totemism, animism and the depiction of animals” see Animal Images In Prehistoric Rock Art: Looking Beyond Europe by Barbara J. King. King discusses work by archaeologist Iain Davidson. King concludes:

Rock art is a thrilling part of our species’ evolutionary history, and of indigenous peoples’ cultural history. Even when the meaning of the animal images remain unknowable to us, those images move us with their beauty and with the questions they raise about a diversity of human ways of looking at the natural world.

Across the globe, rock art and its animal images deserve our notice and our protection.

Also of interest is the May 2018 A Radical New Theory About the Origins of Art in Sapiens by Derek Hodgson and Paul Pettitt. I would say the authors are definitely onto something with regard to seeing animals in rocks and caves. But they could use a dose of Ingold to get past the idea that this becomes representational or figurative: “The activities of hunters and gatherers that lead to the production of what we in the West call ‘art’ should, I argue, be understood as ways not of representing the world of immediate experience on a higher, more ‘symbolic’ plane, but of probing more deeply into it and of discovering the significance that lies therein” (Ingold 2000:112).


Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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