Symbolic Archaeology — Part 1

What would it really mean to trace our capacity as spontaneously expressive and representational creatures — as symbolic creatures — back through time in order to understand ourselves and the world more deeply? How could such an exploratory process be conducted?

What would it mean to make such a process a departure point for archaeological investigations into the depths of our developmental history?

We have to begin by recognizing that human experience tends to be structured in certain ways that are sovereignly determined by nature in its creative totality (whatever that might mean metaphysically is beside the point, for now), and by reflecting on those patterns with depth, clarity, and precision.

A primal example of this is that we are creatures who wake and dream (or maybe we’re dreamt). Beyond us, all life on Earth tends to be structured in certain ways, given the conditions of existence on this particular planet. When it comes to the ‘conditions’ of human existence, it’s undeniable that fundamental aspects of the nature of our own existence are non-linear and mysterious beyond our ability to consciously grasp. At the same time though, we are conscious of a great deal.

Various patterning influences have been playing central roles in our development since the beginning of life on earth. How can we recognize these influences, and study the ways they have tended to structure life on Earth?

One way might be to:

-Identify the most phylogenetically enduring elements, necessities, demands, and limitations of life on Earth (human and non-human life), both before and after human self-consciousness emerged. This is the method by which symbolic archaeologists determine targets for excavation and examination because these enduring elements are the aspects of the “environment” that have exerted the greatest amount of selective pressure on life on Earth across its entire spatial and temporal range of manifestation.

As Anthony Stevens notes, these enduring elements are “the source of primordial webs of cognitive and affective associations.” Because of their enduring presence as part of the environment selecting for life on Earth, these “webs of cognitive and affective [emotional and motivational] associations” are the domains of countless symbolic representations concerned with wise adaptation in the world — adaptation concerned with action that prioritizes evolutionary fitness.

Besides waking and dreaming, what other enduring elements influencing higher-order life on Earth can be identified through such meditation? Predictions and processes that generate and test them (which might actually be what dreams are in a kaleidoscopically non-linear way) are two examples. The generation of predictions might even be the most fundamental ordering principle animating the human organism, the most fundamental principle animating all life. This makes frighteningly deep sense — what has more significance, what is more primary or meaningful for the survival of any form of life than its ability to make accurate predictions about the quantity and quality of change over time? What structures and dynamics are more fertile at fostering successful adaptive interactions than those that generate and test predictions?

Once you begin to reflect on the sheer profundity of prediction, and other phenomena associated with it, its primacy becomes clear: following instincts, making gambles and bets, estimating difficulties, exercising foresight, hazarding guesses, running simulations, hoping for the best and preparing for the worst, seeking visions, formulating hypotheses, playing with fantasies, forecasting the weather, planning for the future, imagining the possibilities, “looking ahead”, following dreams, fortune-telling, drawing inferences, seeking omens and consulting oracles, philosophizing about teleology and destiny, anticipating occurrences, apprehending warnings, tossing the dice, discerning the seeds of coming events, being gripped by intuitions, asking “what if?”, the capacity for prospection, strategizing, speculative decision-making, foretelling, searching for the way of what is to come — these are the very stuff of life.

Respiration — inhalation and exhalation, breathing— is another primal reality. Hunting, tracking (the ancestor of science?), and being hunted are three more. The four elements of earth, air, water, and fire are a classical example from the human-sized scale of reality that we’re all familiar with and interact with on a daily basis. The four seasons and the day and night skies are others.

Humans are naturally social, and within social realms affiliation and acclaim, (or to put it another way, relationship and renown) structure life in more terrifyingly elemental ways than we want to imagine — just pay attention to what happens to people who are truly down or out of a social fabric.

The archetypal aspects of existence that the particularly adept archaeologist Jordan Peterson has centrally focused on are the exploring entity, explored territory, unexplored territory, and total anomaly. He also identifies these elements as the knower, the known, and the relative and absolute unknowns. Another of his basic outlines is that of chaos, order, and the mediators who dance between them. In many ways, navigation and wayfinding seem to be the phenomena of primary concern for him.

When we peel back the layers of navigation in a slightly different way than Dr. Peterson generally focuses on in his spoken content, three constituent elements of it that emerge are spatial and temporal landscapes (territories), the reflexive orientation responses of entities within and towards landscapes, and the temporal and spatial movements those entities make through those landscapes.

Landscapes, orientation, and movement naturally produce navigation because many (if not all) life-forms on Earth, including humans, are fundamentally exploratory entities. In some unfathomable sense life itself is an inherently exploratory phenomenon — this is inherently tied to the capacity to generate and test predictions. In order to survive, we need to constantly gamble and explore the world around us to discover the new implications it has for our behavior and keep our models of it up-to-date. Existence is one grand enterprise of exploration and encounter.

Simply put, landscapes are the environments where we live. Competent adaptation to any environment is rooted in the perception of its promptings and signals, and the ability to act accordingly in response to those indications. Much of this perception and action transcends the abilities of consciousness, yet consciousness has a central role of its own to play in the drama we call life.

Factoring in the ceaseless influence of the heavenly bodies, it’s arguable that two of the most ancient and fundamental landscapes we inhabit are actually light and darkness — which are naturally associated with waking and sleeping, day and night. Anthony Stevens writes:

“The general tendency of the human psyche to categorize phenomena in antithetical pairs may well owe its origins to the natural opposition between day and night. Light and darkness are, after all, fundamental data of existence on this planet. They must have been among the first phenomena of which consciousness became aware. It is not surprising therefore, that light should have become a universal symbol of both consciousness and divinity, and that darkness — the time when we are most vulnerable to predators and attacks — should be symbolically associated with unconsciousness, fearful mystery, and evil.”

What are other basic components, other “fundamental data”, of the landscapes we live in? A handful we might quickly recognize are water and dry land — oceans and seas, coastlands, lakes, rivers, deltas, wetlands, valleys, caves, deserts, woodlands, grasslands, horizons, uplands, and any vertical extensions of the landscape (like hills, mountains, and clouds).

From a deeper viewpoint it might be most accurate to say that landscapes are actually made up of goals, obstacles, and tools — and as the intensely social primates we are, most of the “landscapes” that we inhabit are actually made up of other people, and complex interconnected groups of people.

These are only some examples of the terrains that we have evolved in and continue to inhabit, but they all have a place in the “webs of cognitive and affective associations” that Stevens mentions. What does the landscape at the beginning of this post say to you, compared to this one? Both are by the same artist, and both images depict scenes touched by moonlight (although in different ways).

We must orient ourselves within and towards the landscapes we live in — we must instinctively and responsively orient towards the constantly evolving implications every environment has for our behavior. This everlasting necessity is an expression of a phylogenetically ancient navigational drive — an orienting reflex — which is a source of the deep evolutionary history and importance of centers, borders, and levels, and their associated symbolism. We’re triangulators—living kaleidoscopes that collapse chaos into order — that’s who we are at the deepest levels of our being.

In whatever ways we delineate them, we tend to experience the centers of our territories as the safest and most well-ordered parts of them. Centers express and represent stabilization through order as opposed to the dizzying instability caused by chaos. The closer we get to the edges of our territories, the more chaotic they become.

At the borders of our territories we experience an overwhelming flux of curiosity, aggression, and anxiety in the face of the unknown. Borders are where transformation occurs, where the unknown and anomalous are encountered, explored, and assimilated.

We can’t avoid looking at the world in terms of levels — levels of value, hierarchies of rank, depths of clarity or confusion. “Up” is associated with progression, victory, and success, while “down” is associated with regression, defeat, and failure. Heaven is above, and hell below. The divine center is also the highest level. As characters in video games gain experience and grow, they “level-up”.

The different levels of physical landscapes carry many different associations. Mountains are places of ascent, vision, and transcendence. Valleys are commonly perceived as fertile and sheltered areas with lush possibilities for growth and extended habitation. Caves are often places connected to stagnation, blindness, and imprisonment, or dangerous trials of initiation and descent.

Social landscapes also render levels both an ancient and ever-present reality for us because (as the inescapably social beings that we are) affiliation and acclaim, relationship and renown, play fundamental roles in our existence. It also seems possible to me that the phenomena of levels and depth have constellated such rich webs of associations because we are such potently visual creatures — by its very nature vision discriminates and differentiates the world into levels and layers of depth.

Our orientations towards centers, borders, and levels are of eternal and central importance to proper adaptation. They are “fundamental data of existence on this planet”, like light and darkness.

The demands that these necessities place on humans have catalyzed profound symbolic expressions that reveal valuable wisdom concerning successful adaptation. We risk losing this priceless wisdom whenever we use our ability to abstract in shallow ways and carelessly disregard traditional knowledge of any form that has been conserved across unimaginable spans of time. When we don’t make the dedicated effort to deeply understand the intuitive realities that we’re abstracting away from, that we’re pulling-away from, we are liable to dishonestly and dangerously reduce the complexity of reality and tradition in ways that are evolutionary liabilities.

At the same time, pulling away towards new order is always necessary, no matter how adept any old order seems to be to those who worship and cling to it. The choice that each new generation of human beings faces is whether or not they will shoulder the responsibility of uniting tradition and vision by searching for the truth.

We search for truth by moving through the landscapes we inhabit. These movements create and occur on paths, trails, routes, and roads. They take the form of walks, trips, travels, journeys, expeditions, and migrations. Navigating towards important resources, and then being able to make it back ‘home’, are basic and indispensable behaviors. How do we find our way?

As we assess any unfamiliar landscape, we respond in emotionally-charged ways based on our deep intuitive faculties — our orienting reflexes — and our memories of past encounters with the unknown. If we sense that a figurative or literal landscape holds promising-enough possibilities, we begin to move through it and map its potential with intention and caution. We focus our attention on what we perceive to be the unique prospects, refuges, threats, and hazards of that landscape. We try to discover if the landscape is worth settling down in or not — our lives and the lives of those we love depend on our ability to do this.

Any aspect of a landscape can become an obstacle, a portal into chaos. To cross a barrier, to surmount an obstacle and overcome its difficulties, is to achieve transcendence and enter a new world. Human beings have always been the kind of questing travelers that live for these adventures. All of us have left the familiar behind us and struck out into the unknown at one time in our lives or another, in one way or another.

The journey from order through chaos to new order might even be the nucleus around which the single densest cloud of symbolic expressions has condensed. We all know this story. We inhabit one form of established order or another — we dwell in a seemingly thoroughly explored territory. Then inadequacies and blindness are revealed within the old order. Chaos catastrophically emerges and revolutionary encounters with anomaly occur. The old order is dissolved by the chaotic and anomalous. Then heroic visionaries embark on the search for a new order.

Of all the aspects of life on earth that have exerted selective pressure on us since time began, the heroic journey might be the single richest source of wisdom. It might also be the clearest revelation of who we’re meant to become — navigators of truly lordly caliber.

And in a way stranger than any fiction, we ourselves are unexplored territory.

Just about every story, myth, religion, scientific enterprise, and work of art interacts with landscapes, orientation, and movement in one way or another. They are some of the most “fundamental data” of the human condition.

Beyond the waking world, recognizing the ancient wisdom of symbolic language, and becoming more fluent in it, can help us hear and respond to the messages of our dreams with more humility and skill.

As the limited and all too-often blind and warped navigators that we are, we need guiding principles that can wisely and courageously carry us forward into the future to face the threats and opportunities that the unknown holds.

We need tenets. Symbolic archaeology can unearth them.

There’s gold in the past — and we’ll need the riches that are within us for the future. Digging is a way of being.

The kind of deep symbolic archaeology that shows us the patterns shaping “every-day life” — patterns we might tend to casually take for granted — can give us new vision. It can teach us more about who we are in ways that also point to what it is we should do.