Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Place in The Symbolic Order

She read the email on her small laptop with a slight sense of curiosity. It was a small update from her mom.
“Erin’s doing fine, she lives in Massachusetts, Tess lives in Germany with her boyfriend and she teaches English, Shelly lives in London.”
She nodded to herself. They were all short one-liners about friends she had lost contact with years before, but she felt satisfied and reasonably caught up. Then her brain did a little twist and she smiled when she realized she didn’t know anything. She had no idea what Tess saw every morning on her way to work or what her boyfriend looked like or how she felt close to midnight when she looked out a window. She knew nothing about her old friends, just a few simple words. Germany, boyfriend, teaching. Three simple words that helped her place Tess within the world. She had never even been to Germany, but she imagined Tess walking on a cobblestone street eating a sausage. It was her own imagination that made her feel like she knew how Tess was doing. Those three words gave her images, they gave her pictures and implications that had nothing to do with the Real, or with what was really true, but the three simple words satisfied her curiosity for a moment. Now she knew.

She wondered what her own mother had said about her. Did she make up a few lies or did she simply give them her location on the planet and another word about her job. They probably nodded and were satisfied, just as uncurious about the details as she had been. They would be able to imagine her somewhere within San Francisco and that would be enough. Everyone would nod while taking another bite of dinner, imagining her somewhere next to a red Golden Gate...yes, that was San Francisco She was placed, comfortable within the symbolic order. They would have no idea that she lived in a large studio with a backyard full of trees and flowering shrubs. They would not know that she woke up every Sunday morning and sold bread at the farmer’s market and felt tired afterwards and then would go home and start working and soon someone with a friendly voice would call her and she would smile and feel her chest lift and lift and a smile within her would burst and appear on her lips. They would know none of that, just as she knew nothing about them. She lived in San Francisco. Erin lived in Massachusetts. That was enough to know.

Because a simple word will easily place us within the symbolic order, what we do can easily be explained with a sentence.
“I’m a saleswoman…”
“I’m a musician…”
“I’m writing a story….”
“I live in London…”
You will see a head nod, the chin rising up and down slowly, yes… it is understood. They can picture someone behind a counter and a cash register. They can picture someone with a guitar and hear some music in their head, they can picture a book and a pen…it is all easily understood, you are now known. There will be no further questions, you have been placed within the symbolic order.

Because it can all be so easily explained, we can hide what we do. Never mind that the dark mystery envelops you in a crystal sheath and takes you beyond the realm of words, somewhere that cannot be explained. It is not for the world to know.
People are satisfied with a one-liner. Your emotions, the way the light fades slowly out the bedroom window and makes you feel like the twilight holds every secret in the world, it cannot be explained with a word and it can never be known. They think they know you with a word, let them. The things which cannot be explained with words will always remain invisible. If it cannot be explained, it will not be seen.
We can hide what we need from the world even when we live among the crowds in the city. We can even show ourselves to them, we can show our books and art, and as long as there is a word to describe it (colors on a piece of paper is called “art”) then they will feel like they understand. If what is true is spoken, then it will be changed. It cannot be otherwise.

A woman is working undercover for the CIA. She pretends to be the girlfriend of a gangster and follows him around the world, reporting his whereabouts whenever she can to the authorities. In her role as the gangster’s girlfriend, she pretends to be sexually interested in another man in order to lure him into her bedroom to gain his trust. It will be his trust in her which makes him go to a secluded field and wait for a man which will never show up, which is what the gangsters want. But after sleeping with him, she develops true feelings for him. What she had once pretended, what had once been a cloud of dust and lies has become real.

A young boy wants to be a doctor. He sees his father dressed in a white lab coat, grabbing a thermos cup of coffee before heading out the front door to perform a few surgeries, and that is what he envisions for himself. He wants to be in that lab coat, kissing his wife goodbye before he goes off to save a couple of lives. The boy spends his evenings studying a mountain of books and because of his intense effort, he gets into college and then becomes an intern in a hospital a few miles from a choppy ocean. After a few years of intense memorization and fourteen hour days and many tests, his internship is complete and he is now a doctor. He now wears a spotless lab coat and walks on the shiny linoleum floors with shined shoes. Patients call him “doctor” and he interacts with them using a tone of authority. As a sign if status, he buys an expensive watch, which is what every doctor on his ward wears.
The only thing Real is the watch. It can be seen and felt. The symbolic order creates the “doctor.” There are extensive ideas of what doctors should do and wear. How they should act, what they should drive. None of these are inherently real. These things do not make a doctor, they do not determine if someone has the know how to set bones or perform surgery. A lab coat does not make a doctor, but within the symbolic order, it does. The role of doctor is adopted and acted out.

In the symbolic order, little girls are given dolls and tea sets and pink clothes. The babies do not come out of the womb asking for these particular things, but they are given them by adults because within the symbolic order, that is what girls play with, that is what they like. Little boys like sports because they are told they do. They prefer blue because they are given clothes in that particular color. Eventually, after enough time, little boys do actually like basketball and little girls really do like to play with their dolls. What was not real to begin with has become real. The girl is placed in the symbolic order as a girl, she acts like a girl and is given “girl” things and then, she becomes a girl. Pink clothes are not an inherent part of having a vagina, but within the symbolic order, at least in the United States, it is.

If a little boy is only given pink clothes and tea sets and baby dolls, he will probably grow up liking them and playing with them. It will be all he has ever known. But when he steps into the broader symbolic order, where most boys play with trucks and wear blue, there will be a serious clash. To the boys in his school, he will be seen as “other.” They will not understand why he is not like them, and they will search for a way to explain it and place him within their symbolic order.
Placing someone or something within the symbolic order is a quest for Order. To make sense of chaos. The boy who likes pink because he was given pink (just like the other boys like blue because they were given blue) will be called gay or sissy or whatever word can be used to place him in the symbolic order. It will be the word used to understand him. One word will be enough to provide the explanation.

Our purpose is to be awake within the symbolic order. It existed long before us, it will continue after the last breath of our body. Our purpose is to be free to fit in or not. Our purpose is to be awake enough to have a choice. The left hand path is the path of breaking the rules of the symbolic order.
The symbolic order has been given to us, it has been placed on us since birth. It was imposed upon us by parents and teachers, just as it was imposed upon them as infants. No one chose it, we stepped into the role that was placed before us and pretended to “be” until we “became.” The left hand path breaks the rules of the symbolic order. That is one of the choice at our disposal. We can also choose to fit into the symbolic order without becoming identified with it.

A little boy is dressed in a fancy suit every Sunday and brought to a small church with a white steeple. He copies what his parents do. He kneels and clasps his hands in front of his heart, he bends his head forward slightly and closes his eyes. He asks for things he wants while his eyes are closed and he imagines something, somewhere, fulfilling his wishes. Soon, after enough imitation, the boy comes to church thinking that he has made the decision, he has chosen this path for himself. He is now a full grown believer. He is too identified to see that the people around him on the wooden pews have all been taught this just like he was. They simply imitated the others around them, just like monkeys learn to ride bicycles and wash their socks or bang shellfish until the shell cracks.
We do as we were shown and religion is no exception. Our choice can be to come into the small church, to feel the pressure of the floor as we kneel, to drink in the scent of the candles, to close our eyes and act out the part without becoming identified, without being absorbed into the act, without letting the imposed symbolic determine the real.

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