Symbolic Interactions – Garry Smith

Today I saw this picture of some Goths, the ones with the pale faces dressed all in black, it was juxtaposed with a picture of another type of Goth, a version of either a Visigoths and the Ostrogoths who were two branches of East Germanic people who, along with the Vandals, were associated with the downfall of Rome way back, remember that? The original Goths were fierce warriors who dominated vast parts of Europe by the 4th Century. If you messed with the Goths you generally got your fingers burned, and your village.

The picture I cut from a meme on FB it asked what the hell happened? The question implies all sorts of things and the main message is that we have gone from Warrior to Weirdo in not that many generations. I had one of those, I get this moments when I saw this pic, and it was to do with the nose to mouth jewellery of our black clad Goths of today. You see it is made of Jet, Unlike most gemstones, Whitby Jet is actually fossilised wood, similar to our present day Monkey Puzzle or Araucaria Tree. which has been compressed over millions of years. The colour of Whitby Jet is unique; its blackness is so intense that the expression ‘as black as jet’ has been a commonly used phrase for hundreds of years. Whitby is a seaside port in North Yorkshire commonly associated with Captain Cook and Dracula.

The Abbey ruin on the South Cliff inspired Bram Stokers epic novel, that and a few white lines of a certain powder, and that is what drew the first modern day Goths who now hold two festivals here a year, My wife and I love Whitby and travel there several times a year, we just spent a week there, I always get asked if I am off for the Goth weekend, and there are always a few Goths wandering the streets, last time we saw a family of three generations of Goths crossing the bridge over the Esk. The modern Goths descend on Whitby not to burn and pillage but to drink, dance and shop (no doubt boosting the trade in Whitby Jet no end that was a bit of a wash out after the boom in Victorian times).

Apparently the Goths, who have been coming here for years now do not gather and party alone, they are now joined by Punks, Steampunks, Emos, Bikers, Metallers and all genres of the alternative lifestyle. It sounds like I may be off there in October, especially as Spear of Destiny are performing.

Anyway, get to the point Garry. Well often it is the more dramatic sub-culture that allow us to see ourselves better. Not that we must all be Goths or Emos, Bikers or Skinheads, Mods or Rockers but there are subcultures in virtually every culture, they are mostly associated with youth but youth is no longer a determining factor of membership. Indeed our fascination with the different, the spectacular and the weird is largely associated with youth culture and its emergence alongside, and stimulated by the explosion in popular music in the latter half of the 20th century.

However, the old Goth, the warrior Goth as represented above is also key to this article. Just look at the pic for a few seconds. Look at the clothes, the weapons, the hair, the adornments, jewellery. If we look closely the amazing thing is not how different the two representation of Goth are but how strikingly similar. Centuries apart and as one in their expression of their identity. Each culture and sub-culture has at its core its own idea of its identity, identity is central to culture, shared identity as expressed in how we are, how we speak, how we eat and how we look.

Clothes, music, dress, jewellery, hairstyle are all part of the rich cornucopia of artifacts we use to express our identity and by extension interact with others.

Think just for a moment about how you dress. What do you wear, what influenced your choices and what are you saying to others in the wearing? What you wear and what you do may be different for different occasions, think about that too?

We cover ourselves with symbols, we badge ourselves up from cradle to grave, we put on our patches to tell the world who we are, and, which tribe we belong to. Everyone is in a tribe. Please do not try to deny it, the thing is we may not recognise it, we may not wear the spectacular clothing of the Goth, Emo or Punk, we may not wear the leathers or the 1%er patches of the biker gangs, we may wear the grey suit of the corporate tribe, the colours of a sports fan or the mom and dad suitable clothing sold in the department store but even that identifies us as who we are or who we like people to think we are.

We interact using symbols, it is called symbolic interaction. We humans, unlike other animals, attach meaning to things and social actions. Sometimes a simple symbol can get everyone all fired up. Like this one.

Well no points for guessing why the symbol used by the Nazis upsets many people, because of their evil actions the symbol has become, for many imbued with evil as its meaning. If you want to shut down a political opponent then calling them a nazi generally does the job, that and painting Swastika on their door. I used to be a window cleaner and one home I worked on had two of these painted on their doorstep. If you knocked on the door to get paid you were not greeted by your stereotypical (yes you have a picture in your head don’t you) white power supporter as in American History X but a lovely old Indian lady (as in Indian sub-continent).

You see the swastika is considered a sacred and auspicious symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, it appears as a Chinese character and has been in use since Neolithic times. A bit earlier than the rise of Adolf Hitler. However, the catastrophic events of World War II and the Holocaust have left the negative association of the swastika (also called  a Gammadion Cross, Cross Cramponnee or Manji) remains dominant in most minds.

It is impossible to live without belonging to a tribe, whether you identify as part of a sub-culture or part of the ‘mainstream’ culture, you have an identity. Every aspect of your behaviour is related to that identity including the central characteristic of all groups, language in all its wonderful complexity. Much of that complexity is handled by our use of symbols. The very colour black is symbolic for the modern Goth, so for those involved or in contact with those involved in martial arts, self defence or related fields, you will have come up against the powerful symbolic meaning connected to the revered black belt. But symbols do not only convey messages to others, the act back on the user too, so what happens with this whole black belt thing?

This article is not a tease, there is more to come next month, for now I want you to do some homework. I want you to do an experiment, come on it will be fun. I want you to adopt the position of anthropological strangeness. Anthropologists study human beings, usually in their natural environment. I want you to study yourselves in your environment for a short period. To do so you need to have a kind of conscious out of body experience.

Pretend you are a visitor from another planet, you have no experience of human behaviour of any kind. Suspend ALL your values and beliefs for a few minutes and take a look around you and at you. Reflect upon what you see. Look at how you look, how others look, at how they interact, what appears to govern those interactions, free the mind to see what is actually happening in your day to day life and how we use symbols to interact (like the letters and words on this page), it is far more interesting than you think.

Here is a little clip from a comedian I really love doing a little ‘anthropology’. It should give you a few clues how to do the experiment. See you in July.


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