Modes of Communication and Symbolic Competence

by Larry P. Gross

Symbolic thought/communication (a.k.a. the manipulation of symbols) is a uniquely human attainment (Gross, 1974). Symbolic thought makes up the very substance of culture.

Only by mastering the modes of symbolic behavior can one transcend private experience and attain a measure of control over one's environment. Educational systems must be designed to encourage the acquisition of the widest possible range of symbolic competence (p. 189).

These modes or systems of symbolic thought and action determine the kinds of information we perceive/manipulate. According to this perspective, meaning can be understood or purposively communicated within a symbolic mode. It can be argued that education must be the acquisition of competence in the modes of symbolic behavior. The essential functions of intelligence consist in understanding and inventing, i.e., by structuring reality. By the same token (Piaget, 1970), knowledge is derived from action. Most educators focus on verbal and mathematical symbol systems (p. 190).

The Multi-Modal Nature of Symbolic Thought and Action

Modes of symbolic behavior are not identified with specific sensory systems. The lexical mode, for example, requires the auditory and the visual senses. One sensory system is capable of being utilized for performance in various modes of perceptual organization and symbolic communication (p. 191).

Modes, Codes, and Media

A code may be defined as an organized subset of the total range of elements, operations, and ordering principles that are possible in a given mode. Phenomenologically, the code is the primary level of analysis (p. 192).

Many of our symbolic codes have been formalized via the development of notational systems such as the alphabet, numerical and mathematical signs, and musical notation. Decoding a notational system, retrieving the information stored in the mode in which it was formulated, frees one from dependence on one's immediate experience, allows one access to the heritage of our culture.

Our civilization would not exist in its present form had it not been for the development of technologies to record symbolic codes. As Marshall McLuhan (1964) points out, these technologies have shaped the very nature of the symbolic behavior they were created to serve.

Primary, Derived, and Technical

Five modes of symbolic behavior characterize a culture: (1) the linguistic, (2) the social-gestural, (3) the iconic, (4) the logico-mathematical, and (5) the musical. These modes are not all equally elaborated and formalized. Some modes are built upon other (primary) modes, as in poetry, dance, and film, not to mention technical modes (p. 193).

A mode of expression need not by definition be symbolic. Engaging in technical modes of knowledge and action involves a competence in the primary modes of understanding of physical and biological systems and structures; these modes of expression function as the basis for skills that are not primarily symbolic in nature. Such skills are involved in the production of material goods and the execution of complex non-symbolic performances, e.g., the various sciences, engineering, architecture, and so on. All these modes of expression utilize verbal, social, logico-mathematical, and visual skills (at least) and are therefore dependent on the prior acquisition of competence in the primary symbolic modes.

What is a primary mode? A mode is primary when it can be identified with (a) a range of objects and events, (b) a distinctive memory-storage capacity, (c) a set of operations and transformations, and (d) specific principles of ordering that govern the formulation and communication of meaning. As well, primary modes are non-translatable. The information that is coded within one mode cannot be recorded fully in terms of another. The "essence" of a specific symbolic message will only be appreciated within the code in which it was created. We can have no adequate verbal translation of a Bach fugue. All convey specific meanings with great precision, but only within the terms of the proper mode.

The derived modes, while not fully translatable into any one primary mode, are each dependent on at least one of these for the formulation and communication of symbolic meaning. Scientific knowledge is verified by logico-mathematical operations as well as by empirical observation. Poetry is understood in the context of our verbal competence. The most important implication of the non-translatability of the symbolic modes is that, in the absence of sufficient competence in a mode, one will be unable to appreciate, much less be creative in, that mode. It can be argued that symbolic translation is always impoverished when translated (pp. 193-94).

The Tacitness of Skill and Competence

Competence in a symbolic mode involves the ability to perceive and/or manipulate symbols. The basic skill is that of receiving and comprehending an organized symbolic message. The process of receiving and decoding is not passive and (it will be argued) the process of acquiring even a minimal level of skill cannot be passive (p. 194).

At the least, symbolic competence involves (a) knowing the range of symbols and the range of referents to which they apply, (b) thinking about the operations and transformations involved in coding such messages and activities, (c) storing and retrieving information coded in the proper mode, and often if not always (d) reflecting on the results of prior performances (by oneself or others) that may serve as the basis for evaluating the quality of encoded behavior/ message.

One may see, beyond these requirements for the proper reception and comprehension (and possibly evaluation) of symbolic messages, the development of two complex, distinct, but not mutually exclusive levels of skill in symbolic mode. These are the levels of creative production and sophisticated appreciation. Creative activity in a symbolic mode is deeply rooted in the process of reception and comprehension. In the most fundamental sense, appreciation is a constant aspect of the exercise of any symbolic skill. One of the most important emphases of the generative grammarians has been that in order to understand verbal behavior, one must deal with the fact that any member of a linguistic community is capable of and constantly involved (Chomsky, 1965) in creating and comprehending sentences and sentence combinations that are completely novel to that individual (p. 195).

We tend to call a person creative if he can regularly produce symbolic objects, events, or messages that are novel (exactly in what sense is a very complicated question and that satisfy certain criteria (rarely made explicit) of beauty, scientific, and/or practical utility, expressive meaning, and so on. The sine qua non of creative performance is competence in the proper mode.

The act of performing creatively is one in which appreciative skill (reception and comprehension) is constantly being exercised, however tacitly and unconsciously, at a high level of competence. The sophisticated appreciation of organized events requires competence in perceiving and attending to skilful aspects of the performance, remembering previous performances and comparing them with present ones, understanding the levels of decision making involved, and evolving and applying criteria for the evaluation of the beauty, utility, expressiveness, and integrity of performances (Gross, 1972).

Symbolic competence, whether at the level of basic decoding or at more complex levels of appreciating or creating, is characterized by a further set of psychological properties. Skilful action in a mode is intelligence and knowledge itself (Piaget, 1970, 1971; Olson, 1970) and at the same time it is the only way in which such knowledge can be acquired, maintained, extended, and utilized in creative and productive activity. Intelligence is skill in a medium or, more precisely, skill in a cultural medium (Olson, 1970).

Symbolic codes represent involuntary and transparent structurings of thought and action. As defined by Piaget (and implied by Whorf and Sapir), symbolic codes govern the way we structure reality. We assimilate the world via perceptual-cognitive schemata that, although dependent on innate structure, are developed, modified, and extended by means of interactions with, and accommodations to, our environment (p. 196).

Knowledge is acquired and expressed via performance in a medium and the use of that medium becomes automatic and transparent. As we become "native speakers," we employ words and sentences as carriers of meanings and we no longer need pay (or in fact can pay) conscious attention to their actual auditory or visual characteristics. This means that we begin to hear meanings instead of sounds, and we do so voluntarily.

For evidence of this aspect of lexical transparency, think of the difficulty encountered in training students of linguistics to attend to the actual phonetic aspects of speech and ignore the phonemically carried meaning. This kind of perceptual transparency involves an involuntary structuring and organizing symbolic information. One cannot voluntarily fail to understand words spoken or written in one's native tongue or voluntarily not hear musical dissonances in a style one has learned (or become familiar with). Beyond a certain level of competence in any symbolic mode, it is only with great effort that one is able to avoid structuring a symbolic message in terms of its organized meaning.

When one can perceive, select, store, recall, transform, and order objects, events, and information without constant recourse to non-tacit level of attention and consciousness, one can generate and comprehend novel and aesthetically pleasing symbolic performances. In our culture, such competence is found almost exclusively in the lexical and social modes (pp. 196-97).

The acquisition of this fundamental level of appreciative-generative skill, however, requires learning and practice in performance in the mode itself (p. 197).

Varieties of Symbolic Experience

As we said above, thought and knowledge are active processes and they exist in a variety of distinct modes. These systems of symbolic thought and action determine the kinds of information we perceive, manipulate, and communicate (p. 198).

The Social-Gestural Mode

One of the major achievements of modern cultural anthropology has been the increasing insight that most human behavior, particularly in the presence of others, is determined by learned, culturally specific modes and patterns that communicate to fellow members of that culture a great deal of precise information about the stable characteristics and situational intentions of the actor (Birdwhistell, 1970; Hall, 1959, 1966; Goffman, 1959, 1963). The social-gestural mode, along with verbal language, is the only mode of thought and action that every member of a culture acquires. It is also, along with verbal language, one that is never really taught by formal instruction, but is required primarily via observation, imitation, and trial and error (p. 197).

Usually, one becomes consciously aware of the fact that actions and gestures carry decodable information about one's background, intentions, and so on, when one is (a) placed in a foreign culture, (b) being trained to deliberately observe such processes, e.g., in ethnographic or psychiatric training or (c) attempting to convey misleading information consciously.

In the latter instance, for example, one can avail oneself of books on etiquette if one wishes to "pass" successfully in social circles in which one was not originally acculturated. Such code dictionaries are not written for "native speakers" of a culture, who often equate the use of such devices as a sign that the user "does not belong." A child who cannot acquire the basic verbal and social codes of his or her culture will not be able to function as a normal human being (Birdwhistell, 1970).

The Iconic Mode

Arnheim (1969) has recently discussed the relation of thought and visual perception. He establishes in great detail the nature, extent, and importance of perceptual-cognitive symbolic behavior, which is organized visually iconic mode. It can be argued that visual images and symbols are capable of communicating and expressing meaningful information that cannot be formulated in the lexical or indeed in any other mode. Ivins (1953) points out that words, being in essence "conventional symbols for similarities," are incapable of communicating the unique and singular aspects of objects and events that can be depicted visually (p. 198).

Iconic symbols are highly suitable for the purpose of organizing and communicating information about the spatial, topological nature of objects, about relations between objects in space, and for expressing and evoking emotional responses. Seeing visual images as merely a peculiar way to tell a story is, as Ivins (1953), Gombrich (1960, 1965a, 1965b), Arnheim (1969), and many others have shown, to misunderstand totally the nature of the iconic mode. Consider film as a mode of communication. We have been told that our children are becoming primarily oriented toward visually communicated information via film and television.

First, film is much more complex than "simple" visual communication in that it is organized in temporally sequential images that require skill in comprehending and appreciating the intended meaning (cf. Panofsky, 1947). However, it is not at all clear exactly to what extent this organization is culturally specific or (if so) whether it is a function of the linguistic code of the culture (Worth and Adair, 1972).

Second, competence in appreciating the meaning conveyed in a film may not be dependent on the same degree of performatory skill as has been claimed to be true for the primary codes.

Third, it is debatable whether there is any heuristic benefit to be gained in the understanding of how film communicates by starting from the assumption that film is a "language" (see Worth, 1970, for a detailed discussion of this point).

The Logico-Mathematical Mode

One can conceptualize this mode at two distinct levels. Piaget (1971) described logico-mathematical knowledge as "one of the three main categories of knowledge, coming between innate structures and knowledge based on physical or external experience." He also notes however that it "takes on a differentiated form only in the higher ranges because of human intelligence." This distinction allows us to see the aspects of action that are logical in nature as well as the particular culturally elaborated mode of logical and mathematical thought (p. 199).

According to Piaget (1971), verbal language is distinct from logico-mathematical knowledge: Logic should not be reduced to "a system of notions inherent in speech or in any sort of language; it also consists of a system of operations (classifying things, making series, making connections, making use of combinative or "transformation groups," and so on) and the source of the operations is to be found beyond language, in the general coordination of action.

In this sense (Gross, 1974), all modes of symbolic thought are logical in nature. However, the higher, "differentiated" form of logico-mathematical thinking can most certainly be seen as an organized system of operations that permits those who have acquired the requisite competence to manipulate, organize, and store symbolic information in a rather complex and specific mode.

The Musical Mode

One can find a musical code of formally organized communica- tion in every known human culture. Like mathematics, music expresses and communicates specific but verbally ineffable meanings (p. 199).

Music (Sessions, 1968) can be regarded as the most precise language possible; it embodies a certain type of movement. All of the elements of this movement--rhythm, pitch, accent, dynamic shading, tone quality among others--are in competent hands kept under the most exquisite control by composer and performer alike. Music achieves a meaning which can be achieved in no other way (pp. 199-200).

The creation or the appreciation of musical meaning depends--as in the other symbolic modes--on the same order of tacit fluency. As Myers (1956) points out: We perceive and think in terms of a specific language, i.e., musical vocabulary and grammar condition the operation of our mental processes. Myers shows that Western music is architectonic and hierarchic in nature and that music appreciation involves the continual arousal of expectations, which are confirmed or modified as the listener "recreates" the structural organization of the piece (p. 200).

The listener's ability to decode the structure of musical organization is dependent on his competence in the particular cultural code or style in which a piece has been formed. Musical meaning exists only in the perceptions of those who have acquired specific culturally determined habits and dispositions. This point is crucial to understanding symbolic communication. Only on the basis of the competence to appreciate meaning presented in a symbolic mode can one hope to achieve the realization of creative potential in that mode. Learning early, via action and performance in a cultural mode, is necessary for the achievement of appreciative skill and creative skill can emerge only if the individual has already attained this fundamental competence.

The Acquisition of Skills and Competencies

The kinds of activities that lead to the acquisition of skill and competence in the modes of symbolic behavior seem to be intrinsically rewarding (p. 201).

Competence is its own Reward

White's (1959) research into animal learning, child development, and psychoanalytic processes support this conclusion: They all form part of the process whereby the animal or the child learns to interact effectively with his environment. The word competence indicates this common property. Such activities in the service of competence must be conceived to be motivated in their own right (p. 201).

A number of behaviors are motivated by their role in the development of competence, including the activities that are crucial for the development of competence in interacting effectively with the symbolically organized aspects of the environment. The intrinsic satisfactions of such activities are related to the playful character of many of the basic experiences in symbolic communication. According to Piaget (1970), play in its two essential forms (sensorimotor exercise and symbolism) is an assimilation of reality into activity proper, providing the latter with its necessary sustenance and transforming reality in accordance with the self's complex of needs.

The pleasures of effective interaction with the environment are not at all limited to the young child's development of competence. At all ages and at all levels, the exercise of competence in the skilful manipulation of the physical and the symbolic environment provides continual intrinsic satisfaction. The most quintessentially human form of pleasure (Gross, 1974) derives from the exercise of creative and appreciative skills.

Learning through Action

All competence in a skilful mode is required on the basis of constant practice and repetition (as well as observation and appreciation). One achieves competence in a medium by slowly building on routines that have been performed over and over again until they become tacit and habitual. This basic repetitious activity can be easily seen in children who derive enormous satisfaction from performing over and over again some action that results in a predictable effect (pp. 201-02).

The feeling of efficacy is the basic and initial form of satisfaction in competence. It is on the basis of a repertoire of often-repeated actions that the child can begin to introduce and perceive slight variations and thus extend the range of his perceptual-intellectual competence to more complex forms of organized behavior. Acquiring competence in modes of symbolic communication means learning the "vocabulary" for representing objects and events and the "grammatical" and "syntactical" operations, transformations, and organizational principles that are used to structure these into conveyors of meaning. In our culture, some of the basic modes of symbolic knowledge have been formalized in terms of notational systems and technological media (p. 202).

The Verbal Fallacy

A basic corollary of the assumption that thinking is primarily linguistic is the notion that skill in reading and writing is a precondition for all meaningful learning. Culturally speaking, reading skills are invaluable; after all, one comes into contact with vast amounts of stored knowledge via reading. However, knowledge--in the sense of competence in the linguistic mode--is required in order to learn to read and to write in the first place (p. 202).

It seems that an overwhelming emphasis on reading skills impedes the development of competence in nonverbal modes of symbolic knowledge. Unfortunately, this approach introduces the child to the nonverbal modes almost exclusively via impoverished verbal translation (which consists of applying verbal labels to objects and events coded in these symbolic modes) and hence not allowing the child to engage in these forms of active behavior within the modes themselves (pp. 202-03).

The (mistaken) identification of the verbal assimilation with the acquisition of knowledge about the referential world is the source of many unfortunate educational practices. Once one achieves a symbolic skill, one can use verbally coded information in order to record or convey certain aspects of knowledge embodied in that skill (p. 203).

Few educators realize that we cannot convey all the information about aspects of reality to children via the linguistic mode. One of the most difficult intellectual tasks is that of understanding what not knowing something that one has already assimilated at the level of tacit and transparent knowledge means (cf. Piaget, 1970). We also tend to treat (mistakenly) the child's ability to repeat verbally coded information as evidence that he has the ability to use that information constructively. Most children are already fluent in the linguistic and social-gestural codes of their cultures when they begin their "formal education." If they are to achieve the same degree of competence in the logico-mathematical, iconic, and musical codes of communication, they must be given the same kind of opportunity to engage in the active exploration of the modes.

The Seductiveness of the Visual

Psychological research and pedagogic experience have exposed the dangers of the "linguistic fallacy" in education. Not surprisingly, people have turned to the technologies of visual communications, e.g., still photography, film, and television.

The availability of iconic images is a fundamental requirement for the attainment of skill and knowledge at higher levels of education, when basic competence in symbolic modes can be taken for granted (p. 204).

Many of the potentials of visual communications are of value also in earlier stages of education. As Mcluhan pointed out, increasingly we have come to know the world as it exists beyond our immediate horizon via the media of electronic communications. Many people fail to realize that children may not perceive or interpret images the way educators intend them to.

A level of sophistication is necessary for the proper understanding of visual images. Pictures and films convey misleading impressions of scale, distance, time, and relationship. More importantly, the images conveyed via these media may be deliberately or inadvertently false. The potential for misleading and dissembling, for confusing fiction and reality, is as great with photographs and films as with words and actions (pp. 204-05).

This would suggest that an important task for modern education is the development of a level of sophistication sufficient to enable children to see this dangerous potential of communications technologies. A more important dysfunction arises out of our reliance on these media at early stages of learning. It has been argued that verbally coded information is not sufficient for the acquisition of competence in the nonverbal modes of symbolic thought (p. 205).

Observing and imitating sounds and actions are crucial to developing verbal communicational competence. These activities are central to the process of acquiring any mode of symbolic skill. However, observation is important only insofar as it encourages children to perform on their own and insofar as it makes the individual perform the kind of actions that will evoke meaningful feedback. Obviously, meaningful and instructive action should replace passive observation. The medium of live or animated film could be used to present performance sequences organized in this fashion. These activities would serve as a useful way of introducing and stimulating a wide range of learning behavior (pp. 205-06).

As new media emerge, they evoke new forms in which symbolic knowledge and action can be organized and communicated. What we must keep in mind, however, is the notion that the emergence of new forms of symbolic skill and knowledge at the higher levels of complexity and sophistication does not in any way reduce the vital importance of competence in the basic modes of cultural intelligence and communication (p. 206).

Education Policies and Technological Imperatives

The implications of the arguments presented here are not entirely in accord with many of the current technological and economic considerations that influence our educational institutions. The necessary conditions (Gross, 1974) for acquiring the skill and the competence described above are (p. 206):

  1. That the child be exposed to physical and social settings that permit and encourage the initial exploratory behavior that can lead to the point where he or she begins to enjoy the pleasures intrinsic to activities in the symbolic modes that develop and extend his or her competence in interacting effectively with his environment.

  2. That this exploratory activity, and the increasingly competent behavior that it leads to, be carried on with the assistance of adults who are themselves skilled and competent in the various modes of symbolic communication and who are also trained to provide appropriate feedback and reinforcement.

  3. That, as the child attains higher and more complex levels of competence, he or she be encouraged and guided in becoming familiar with the existing bodies of stored knowledge and meaning in these modes, and thereby develop the ability to apply criteria for judging the aesthetic, scientific, and practical success of his own and others' performance.

Such a program may be the only way to evolve a society in which all can meaningfully appreciate the highest achievements of the culture and in which those with creative potential (in any mode) will be the most likely to develop and express that potential. Educational systems will have to provide proper learning environments and train teachers who are competent in the various modes of communication (p. 207).


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