Reading the Signs, Part II – Garry Smith

Welcome back dear reader, remember how in the June issue I asked you to pretend you were a visitor from another planet, with no experience of human behaviour of any kind. I asked you to suspend ALL your values and beliefs for a few minutes and take a look around you and at you. To reflect upon what you saw. The idea was to adopt the position of anthropological strangeness,  so that you could try to see how you look to others you look, how others look, how they interact, what appears to govern those interactions, I hope you tried it.

It is a kind of out of body experience and if we try it we can begin to see our day to day behaviour, the vast majority of which we go through on a form of autopilot, from a whole new perspective. Let us go back to our Goths, either type, the symbolism in their dress, jewellery and artefacts tell us who they are, what tribe they belong to, we do not need to ask them, the symbols they display scream out the message loud and clear. Spike Milligan’s ‘Cockanees’ in his spoof anthropological expedition had their own artefacts and culture too, I share their love for the fish and chips.

We all belong to tribes, we all display our membership. The rituals of tribes are important for their identities too as are their belief system. Our intertwining biological and cultural evolution are the two key forces that have shaped our identities and the identities of the tribes we belong to. Our very languages separate us, within the same language groups regional differences and dialects do the same. In the UK, one small island, there are people who all speak English but who’s dialects make them uterley incomprehensible to one another. Received pronunciation, (the posh BBC voice), is uncommon, dialects are not. I love them, I like the different sounds, the different things they tell me about a person.

In the same way I love the different uniforms different tribes adopt, their badges, hairstyles, preferred music etc. It helps me read them like I read books. People very often do wear their heart on their sleeves so to speak. The express their personality, beliefs and even their sexualities through what they wear and how they wear it. Graffiti marks out a gangs turf,  a tattoo can mark out many things, piercings, flags and all manner of iconography blast out the message, here we are, this place is our place, I have a tribe, I belong, I am in the group and you are outside the group.

I am not sure what this says about me but I love a bit of crazy and Jayne, formerly, Wayne County and the Electric Chairs do it for me, musical break.

Yes I went punk in the late 70’s and that hit the anarchic spirit in me that added to the skinhead defiance already in me helped shape the me I am now. Throughout life we leave behind old tribes and join new ones, we migrate alone and sometimes with friends, its a complex life and we do it largely without effort. Of course there are those who are raised to a kind of cultural certainty for religious/ideological reasons who’s tribes erect such effective barriers that it is possible to remain insulated from outside influences from cradle to grave. I will return to a discussion on the sacred and the profane later. For now it is enough that we begin to recognise that we do live in the time of the tribes, The diversification of most societies that we see reflected most in the western world has brought with it a conservative fundamentalist backlash from societies far away and from sections of our own societies (I refer here principally to the USA and UK).

I read Left of Bang a while ago, iconography was rightly recognised as a key source of information. We process vast amounts of information daily, hourly, we are quite expert at sifting that information for the key pieces.  If we buy products they often come complete with universally understandable warning signs and symbols often accompanied by explanatory texts. When Mo Teague writes about the cowboy code we all understand the symbolism that was imbued in the white hat black hat movies of old. Now we will have different visual clues as to who is good and who is bad, politically correct clues probably, but clues nonetheless.

Last month I mentioned the symbolic importance of the black belt to many martial arts. Last Saturday one of my students pointed out I had the wrong belt on as I had a plain black belt, no red tabs to represent my dan grades (lets not go there yet), I pointed out that it was a nice new one and not faded like my old one. In the last week or so we have graded a number of students who have all now got new coloured belts as they edge towards the desired black one. We all know, whether we have trained in a martial art or not, that there is a mystique attached to the coveted black belt, a kudos that many aspire to and few achieve…….. Or am I just believing my own bullshit?

Well that debate aside the point of this article is to explore the central importance of the use of symbols to all of us, that and the fact that we all belong to multiple tribes, hold multiple identities and ranks and nearly always we actually know this, we just do not think about it consciously in the hurly burly noise of everyday life. Conscious reflection often gets drowned out in the increasing pace we live our lives, I think that is why I like to walk and cycle, to escape into the green that surrounds the city I live on the edge of. To find a space where the brain can switch off from doing all those things and in the pleasant tempo of exercise let it wander where it will. As this issue goes to publication I will be in Austria, up in the clean air of the Tyrol, recharging my batteries for a whole week. No martial arts, no self defence classes, no Gi and no black belt, no bag full of equipment and other props. I will be wearing the uniform of the walking class, the shorts, the boots and strolling around with my knapsack firmly on my back. I will meet others of this tribe and share pleasantries, we may not speak each others languages but we will recognise one another easily enough, the signs are all there if you care to read them.

Next month I will conclude this piece by examining the use of symbols in conflict, nothing raises passions like a good flag waving parade or a flag burning protest. Flags are pieces of coloured material imbued with incredible amounts of meaning, they go beyond expressing our membership of nation or state and deep into the personal identity of individuals, love them or hate them, flags are the most used and abused of our symbols, so until next month, Auf Wiedersehen.

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