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Picture Atlas > Symbols 


Etymologically the concept "symbol" derives from the Greek "symballein" meaning "throw together" or "connect". Literally then a symbol is something that is put together: It derives from the ancient practice among social or business friends to break an object apart and take a half each, thus having an unmistakable sign of recognition for later meetings. Also in sign theory the symbol fulfils a similar function. It has meaning on the basis of a code that needs to be known so that a tangible sign is recognized as a symbol for a object that is not there: "In acts of communication the symbol functions as an object reference which by virtue of a code, i.e., in a strongly conventionalized way, designates some characteristics of an object that will arouse largely familiar associations of general ideas in reference to the object." (Schelske 1997:41). The Christian cross can, for example, only be read as a symbol for Christianity if one connects the empty cross to the narrative (the code) of death and resurrection.

If the symbol thus denotes the connection of things that are separated, it will be of little surprise that the opposite of "symbolic" is "diabolic" (Greek for, among other things, tangled up or confused). Nor will it be surprising that boundaries can scarcely be set on the transference of meanings to a sign, an image or an object: Under certain circumstances anything can become a symbol. For this reason, the symbol theory of Paul Tillich distinguishes further between "discursive" and "representative" symbols: "While the former refers to standard shorthand for various practical and academic purposes (e.g., the letters of the written language), the latter, the "representative" symbols, come from the cultural and public sphere. They stand for religious, political or artistic ideas, they represent the meaning of social movements and, in order to be effective, they have to be recognizable in a community" (Diem 1995:42).

Some of these "representative" symbols go beyond the function of pure depiction, mediation and representation of a sign insofar as they bring clearly to mind the thing that they represent, and these are the subject of the present category: That the European Union has not produced in the way of political symbolism much more than a flag, a hymn and a currency, can serve as proof of the proverbial "European myth-deficit" just as the circumstance that in daily reporting European political symbols crop up in emphatically everyday contexts can be interpreted as continued work on the elimination of this deficit.

Literature: Peter Diem: Die Symbole Oesterreichs. Wien 1995.

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The Picture Atlas is an outcome of the project ICONCLASH. Collective Icons and Democratic Governance in Europe

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