V

Content + Context = Meaning


Nothing is anything other than what anyone wants it to be, whenever they want it to be that. Everything is relative.

Nothing is anything, until we make it something (see the essay The Totality of Reality elsewhere on this site). We are governed by a law of relativity. So, to make anything into something, we need to establish a frame of reference, or reference frame, i.e. a particular context... perspective, or point of view, from which other things are compared, contrasted, measured and judged; as in "this, not that," or "this compared to that" or "if this, then that." Without such a reference frame, or frame of context, we cannot say anything definitive about anything. Things without context have no meaning. Things taken out of context loose, or change their meaning, until placed into another context. Things viewed from one reference frame, or point of view, don't always jibe with the view of another reference frame, or point of view. Change the context and a terrorist becomes a freedom fighter... change the context and a liberator becomes an invader... change the context and one man's trash becomes another man's treasure... change the context and an aroma becomes an odor... change the context and the motion of me passing by stationary things becomes other things passing by a stationary me.

Every point radiates a sphere of influence, and every sphere of influence converges upon a point. Thus, any statement made by anyone about anything, inclusively produces a frame of reference... or context, or perspective, or point of view, to some degree or another, whether intended, desired, expressed or implied (see the essay The Totality of Reality elsewhere on this site). Any statement that anyone makes about anything necessitates this frame of reference... or context, to be understood by anyone, on any level. Statements of fact, or statements of opinion, all carry with them a frame of reference, or context, whether completely known and understood or not.

Without a reference frame, or frame of context, we cannot say anything definitive about anything. Thus, the clearer the definition of context, the more definitive a statement will be. Likewise, the less clear the definition of context, the less definitive a statement will be. Some people want clarity, and so attempt to frame context as specifically as they can. Some people want ambiguity and so attempt to obfuscate context as much as possible. Some people want to understand what an author is saying, and so acknowledge their context. Some people don't care what an author is saying, and so ignore their context. Some people want Facts. Some people want Fiction. Some people want Reality. Some people want Fantasy. Thus, in communicating thoughts to each other, some people will use Signs. Some people will use Symbols. It's a choice people make, often without even realizing... which makes any attempt to discuss the subtle differences between these two modes of communication difficult to address.

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Signs vs. Symbols

In the art of communication, whether that communication is literal or lyrical, representational or metaphorical, straightforward or subtle... context is important. Context is vital, whether communicating with others or just oneself. Context is vital, whether communicating with signs or symbols. In every way, context is vital to the establishment of meaning. Given this assumption we could well conclude that indeed any Sign or Symbol + Context = Meaning. In this way, it is important to acknowledge context, even if we have chosen to diminish it, alter it, arbitrarily change it, or obfuscate it for the purposes of symbolic multivalence and personal interpretation of images in a tarot reading. It is important to acknowledge context, even if we have chosen to internalize it as part of the process of making tarot into something personal, just for the self.

In the world of Tarot, there is a predominant preference toward techniques of USE that involve internalizing and obfuscating context. By internalizing and obfuscating context, rather than expressing it clearly to others, it becomes less defined, and more amorphous and malleable. The less defined the context of something is, the more meanings a symbol can have. The more meanings a symbol can have the greater the possibility of finding a meaning that "fits" a personal situation. The greater the possibility of finding a meaning that "fits," the more we come to believe that tarot "works." Thus it is, that context is typically devalued, abandoned or ignored during the act of personalization. That's not a critical judgment. I believe that context has to be abandoned, in order to personalize a symbol and find a personal meaning. What is a critical judgment is how little acknowledgement is made to how much of this is in fact a choice people make to get a certain desired result.

You can't say anything about anything without context.
Likewise...
Without context, you can say anything about anything!


Internalized meaning is subjective. Externalized meaning is objective. But... realistically speaking, nothing is ever completely objective, once it becomes the "property" of the Mind of an individual. Still... there is an important difference to be acknowledged between relatively objective, intended meanings, and relatively subjective, personalized meanings (see The Reasoned Response elsewhere on this site). Thus debates are ongoing between people putting forth one preference over another when using a tarot deck. Some will use the images of a tarot deck as a memory trigger to remind people of intended meanings that are based on the thoughts of an author/artist. While other people will use the images of a tarot deck as a tool of Flexible Association to mean whatever the heck they want. One method is comparatively objective (what someone else wants us to see). The other is comparatively subjective (what we want to see). Traversing this objective/subjective field of thought can be tricky - especially for those who are not aware that such differences exist.

Content + Context = Meaning


In traversing this tricky terrain of objective and subjective perspectives, I stand by the previous remark: Sign/Symbol + Context = Meaning, or to simplify that even further: Content + Context = Meaning. Thus, the question that needs to be examined is what happens when someone alters the parts of this equation? Below is a chart that attempts to follow these two different forms of thought; one that minimizes context to achieve relatively subjective, personal interpretation, and another that acknowledges context to achieve relatively objective, public recognition. In both cases, each point of view could in fact be using the same manifest image. The point being that alterations in perception determine the sign vs. symbol qualities of anything that is put before a perceiving mind. Like a mind that alters a quantum wave cloud into a particle point, just by perceiving it, we alter symbols into signs by how much we choose to acknowledge the context of content.

Anything can be a sign or symbol, it's all a matter of how we process the information we receive. The square blending into a circle illustrates this morphic condition between a mind interpreting something as a symbol, vs. acknowledging it as a sign. Sometimes people want their Private, Internal message to be accepted as a Public External message. Sometimes people want Public External realities to be utilized as Private Internal realities. This often leads to friction, as people refuse to have someone else's understandings imposed upon them. Which is why I invented this chart... so that people can clearly understand the difference between various kinds of understanding, and make clear their Intent, Purpose, Context and Message.

Thus... in terms of this Semiotic Equation, sign and symbol are are THE SAME THING! The only difference between them being their relative definition or how much we choose to acknowledge the context of content. In the chart above, a person may choose to view an image on a tarot card to one extreme or another. Ultimately any image a person puts out there is simultaneously a sign and symbol, and, through relative definition, and acknowledgement of context, can be transposed back and forth, to be either sign or symbol

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Use of Sign and Symbol

Using the Semiotic Equation above, to compare signs and symbols, we can see how a sign is more literal, and a symbol is more lyrical. But we can also see how easily one can be turned into the other, depending on the actions of a mind thinking a thought. Some may think that a symbol is always a symbol and a sign is always a sign. Not so! Ultimately, context, and therefore, meaning, can be specific, or arbitrary. We decide. Thus, a literal sign with specific context equals relatively objective recognition of meaning, or fewer meanings, i.e. ambiguity reduced, clarity increased. While a lyrical symbol with arbitrary context equals relatively subjective interpretation of meaning, or many meanings, i.e. ambiguity increased, clarity decreased. A literal sign with specific context and objectively recognized meaning can be used as a memory trigger for consistent communication. A lyrical symbol with arbitrary context and subjectively interpreted meaning can be used for Flexible Association and conditional interpretation. Consistent communication, with fewer meanings has the potential for broad, inclusive, public acceptance. Conditional understanding, with many meanings has the potential for private, exclusive, personal acceptance. Signs with obvious purpose are good for public use. Symbols with obscure purpose are good for personal use.

When we make up the meaning, it's a symbol
When we write down the meaning, it's a sign

When it has many meanings, it's a symbol
When it has fewer meanings, it's a sign

When we don't know the meaning, it's a symbol
When we do know the meaning, it's a sign

When we don't agree on the meaning, it's a symbol
When we do agree on the meaning, it's a sign


When we don't know the meaning, it's a symbol. When we do know the meaning, it's a sign. When we don't agree on the meaning, it's a symbol. When we do agree on the meaning, it's a sign. When it has many meanings, it's a symbol. When it has one meaning, it's a sign. Those are good guides for understanding the difference between sign and symbol. But... how often does anything in life have only one meaning? Given the stated impossibility of absolute objectivity of anything once it becomes the property of a perceiving mind, there really isn't anything we perceive that can't be converted by the subjective side of our mind into something with multiple meanings. Especially if we are allowed to alter or ignore the context in which we are viewing. Anything removed from its intended context will acquire other meanings. Thus, anything we call a sign is also a symbol. Likewise... a symbol can have its multiple meanings reduced by forcing people to accept a single context for its use. When we all agree on its contextual use, it becomes a sign. So we change the last line to read: When it has fewer meanings, it's a sign.

It is in fact a sliding scale of relative definition. The more specific our context and purpose, the more relatively objective we make things. The more arbitrary our context and purpose, the more relatively subjective we make things. In a dream state, we are without context, or are jumping around between multiple ever-shifting, blending, amorphous contexts. In a conscious state, we are with context, or within a context. Especially if we choose to express anything about ourselves to anyone. A lot of the multivalence of symbols comes from our dream-like ability to imagine something in more than one context, where its meaning then changes. That is in fact one of the great attractions people have to tarot - for how it exercises their imagination concerning the perception of things. In a world that is dominated by people who spend most of their time in their calculating mind, escape into a world of multivalent meanings can be a welcome relief... leading to a mode of thinking that is then conducive to things like Flexible Association and personal interpretation for the self.

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The Personal Approach to Tarot

Many people are amazed at how well tarot works... while at the same time... never realizing how well ANYTHING would work, when allowed to be anything we want it to be whenever we want it to be that. Altering or ignoring context is what allows this kind of flexibility of meaning. People who prefer the "Symbolic" side of the Semiotic Equation, shown above, often forget that there are other ways of thinking. People who internalize every image they see, for purposes of subjective interpretation via Flexible Association often forget just how personal this process is. In forgetting how personal this process is to their own personal context, they begin to forget how important the idea of context is to the world of meaning. A continued desire to see tarot "work" in this personal way, conditions them to reject any other context but their own. But, is that the only way?

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The Public Approach to Tarot

Many people are amazed at the multiple meanings an image can have... while at the same time... forgetting how ESTABLISHED the icons of a tarot deck can be when we adhere to tradition and the making of things into something specific. Acknowledging context is what allows for this kind of predictability of meaning. People drifting to the "Sign" side of the Semiotic Equation, shown above, will often desire intended meanings to be acknowledged over that of personal interpretations. Forgetting how a work of art is birthed into an independent being, they will view the abandonment of context as an abuse or offence against the hard work that went into crafting an image that says something specific. They are acutely aware of how important context is in making public statements about meaning and may reject any other context but their own. But, is that the only way?

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Explain It and You Drain It

People who USE tarot prefer the personal approach, seeing things as multivalent symbols. People who STUDY tarot prefer the public approach, seeing things as specific signs. Those who USE tarot will declare that having a deck full of images that say whatever we want them to say whenever we want them to say that, is great. But then... those who STUDY tarot will ask why anyone bothers to make such highly contrived images that need to be learned to be understood? Why do artists bother to respect the written and spoken traditions of what people say each card should illustrate? Why not have every deck be different... each one a random assortment of randomly and spontaneously created works of art to be interpreted any way we want? Why stick so strictly to traditional, defined imagery and structure? What is the point of faithfully carrying over established meanings and crafting elaborate images, if such precision, and faithful adherence to definition of form, content and context is unwelcome, and is only going to be ignored, so that we can preserve our personal right to turn each card into whatever we want it to be whenever we want it to be that?

After I drew The Isomorphic Tarot, I showed it to someone. She didn't like it, because it departed from tradition too much. She kept trying to convince me that the images of tarot are the way they are for a reason, and kept suggesting alterations that were in keeping with that tradition; suggestions that would make my images look more like traditional images from a traditional deck. Why was she doing that? What does it matter? Why was she trying to make me conform to what she believed tarot images should look like? Why can't I draw any kind of image I want, and call it tarot, since so many people USING tarot don't want the imagery to be defined in such specific ways anyway? If defining things is so offensive to the mythos of the tarot community, then why be so strict about what a tarot deck should look like? If the true gift of tarot is lack of definition, personalized context, and the malleability of interpretation that goes with it, then why have tarot be so strictly and narrowly defined? It makes no sense. It's hypocritical.

Some of the resistance that we see towards definition comes from a desire among the majority to preserve personal meanings; the feeling being, that "if you explain it, you drain it." In other words, personal meanings derived from a personal context are often tenuous, elusive, and based on intuition and emotional responses that can't easily be put into words for public consumption. As personal interpretation dominates, the personal approach encounters problems when attempting to share their thoughts with others, because... if they speak, their personal thoughts are no longer personal... they becomes public. When thoughts become public, their context follows with them. Thus, the personal approach is faced with the problem of explaining their personal context in a way that will accurately reveal meaning to other people... in a way that other people can understand. People who are not so articulate often share without explanation; they leave context unexplained, they don't define their terms and they use ambiguous vocabulary. Like sharing the bizarre happenings of a dream, this type of sharing is often of limited appeal, and limited use to others. It is a kind of stumbling over the threshold that divides their unspoken experience from the rest of the world. But... the need to share is strong.

Ultimately, when people attempt to share their personal experiences of subjective meaning with other people... worlds collide! Or... to put it another way... CONTEXTS collide! This, then, becomes the source of ongoing debates about the possibility or impossibility of objective meanings. Which is why the concept of context is SO important to any public discussion of meaning. People who clearly define a context, and clearly define their terms, and use precise language, present a more convincing picture of reality. People who are not articulate do not present a clear picture of reality, and as a result are often dismissed. We have to speak (through one medium or another) in order to plant one person's reality into the minds of others. But in attempting such a feat, we find that we can never achieve 100% public objectivity, no matter how much we speak. And... if we never speak, we can only achieve 100% personal subjectivity. Thus we mostly find ourselves falling somewhere between these two extremes... forcing us to either explain it and drain it, or not explain it and have it never be known by anyone but ourself.

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Worlds Colliding

By using The Semiotic Equation chart, shown above, we can see how and why worlds of differing context can collide. To establish a relatively objective context, many look to the history, culture and stories that are associated with a particular symbol, all of which influence how we perceive it and how we react to it. With this approach, we see how the more explicit the context, the more intentional the meaning. But those same people also acknowledge that those things often mean somewhat different things in different places and times. Revealing how variable context, or arbitrary, unknown purpose increases multivalence and ambiguity.

Many people greatly underestimate how much of their understanding of symbols includes explanation of meaning or explanation of context. As a form of communication, esoteric symbols are often vague and easily misunderstood. The more esoteric they are, the greater the potential for misunderstanding by the exoteric public. In a lot of ways it's like talking to a passive/aggressive person who won't say what they really mean, but instead just drops hints that we are supposed to notice, and then figure out on our own. Some of those hints might be glaringly obvious, some might be so obscure that no one would ever understand them without some explanation. Thus... we often don't really know what symbols mean unless the culture that invented them leaves behind something specific to tell us. When reading a book, or watching a movie, we often miss the symbolic meaning of things presented to us... until someone who is "in the know" as to the historical or cultural background, offers to explain it to us. In other words, explanation reduces ambiguity and increases the likelihood of objective recognition by a broader inclusive public. Many symbols serve a deliberate purpose among the people who use them as memory triggers. They have specific intentional meanings, and are thereby accepted by a broad majority of people for that purpose (see The KEYS of Understanding elsewhere on this site).

Many admit that they might be missing out, by not knowing the history and cultural background of various symbols, revealing an admission as to how symbols can have a deliberate purpose outside of their own personal needs. And yet, they proclaim, they still get a lot out of tarot. Obviously, the reason they still get a lot out of tarot is because they are free to ignore deliberate purpose, obvious context and specific intentional meaning, and casually connect a subjective interpretation that is amorphous, inferential, ambiguous and multivalent - making any literal sign into a lyrical symbol for private internal expression. In this way we always get something from an image, no matter what. And to many, whatever is gotten is seen as good enough, whether it has any resemblance to what was intended or not. This multivalence of symbols can be good for communicating multiple meanings - within the context of a single book, movie or work of art. But what most people forget... is CONTEXT itself. In the world of tarot, there is a HUGE majority of people who CHOOSE to take symbols OUT of their original context, and make them say whatever THEY want them to say. People who are only interested in personalizing symbols, without regard for context, tend to forget how important context is, because a context of the Self requires no explanation to the self. In perceiving things this way, some come to think that all understanding of meaning is in fact intuitive to the self, and... if explained is drained of its value to the self. By ignoring authored explanations of context and internalizing everything, people come to believe that whatever meaning they personally derive from a symbol is legitimate... to the original context in which is was found... and something the author of the symbol would fully endorse. But, of course, this is not always the case... a fact that many choose to ignore.

Thus, with the help of The Semiotic Equation chart, we can see how the more explanation given, or more Explicit the Context and purpose, the less Private an image becomes, and the more Public it becomes. Amorphous Inferential Meaning becomes Specific Intentional Meaning. Insular Exclusive Acceptance becomes Broad Inclusive Acceptance. Subjective Interpretation becomes Objective Recognition. Deliberate Purpose leads to Lucidity in Communication. To a balanced perspective there is more to meaning than that which we internalize for our own personal needs. In fact, to some, taking images out of context and making them mean whatever someone wants them to mean whenever they want them to mean that, is a self-indulgent use of imagery, one might even argue it to be an abuse of imagery. We don't NEED a tarot deck to commit this kind of abuse of imagery, we only need to close our eyes and dream, we'll get all the out-of-context images we could ever need. Others will argue that taking things out of context is a legitimate technique related to the idea of Flexible Association, or techniques of Free Association, which can be extremely therapeutic to the Mind and Soul of a psychotherapeutic patient. Can these worlds be reconciled?

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Another Spectrum of Possibilities

It is important to remember that The Semiotic Equation chart represents a spectrum of possibilities, not a black or white, either/or choice. One could argue that there is no such thing as an objective sign with only one meaning, because the idea of universal acceptance of a universal context is not realistic. That is probably true. Thus we see how the two sides of The Semiotic Equation chart represent divergent tendencies, not absolute states that anyone is locked into. There are always varying degrees of multivalence. An image with little or no multivalence is a sign. The more explicit and obvious the context, the clearer the meaning, and the more an ambiguous inferential symbol becomes a lucid intentional sign. Our job is to determine where along a spectrum of possibilities an image lies, given to what degree its author has fulfilled the criteria listed above in The Semiotic Equation chart.

The Semiotic Equation chart represents a spectrum of possibilities. Thus, an image can have a somewhat explicit context, have some intentional meaning communicated, be somewhat objectively recognized for holding that intended meaning, have some popular acceptance, and still be considered a symbol and not a sign. Likewise, a person can take any sign and personalize it and internalize it, and casually connect meaning from it, and in doing so, turn it into a symbol of personal meaning. All is relative. If someone wants to be ambiguous, they can be ambiguous. If someone wants to be precise, they can be precise.

People tend to go to extremes. I, however, am more interested in those percentages of perception that are felt from the middle of The Semiotic Equation chart, when someone allows perceived notions of intended meaning, or known intent expressed by an author, to pollute, dilute or otherwise mix with their own personal needs and expectations. For more on this, see the essay The Reasoned Response elsewhere on this site.

Content + Context = Meaning. We can't say anything about anything without context. Likewise...Without context, we can say anything about anything! Sign and symbol are the same thing to different degrees of definition. Be clear and get clear meaning. Be ambiguous and get ambiguous meaning. Pull the two together as one. These are all choices we make.

There will always be exceptions, as one allows for the disregard of intended meaning. But there will also be a bell curve of statistical probability for each person, and for people collectively, when contemplating certain ideas. In fact, to many, frequency of agreement among people and cultures is what they use to define something as an archetype! Focusing on one's ability to diverge to the fringe of that bell curve of archetypality, should not nullify or invalidate attempts to determine where the bulge of the curve lies. So I say, use tarot both ways; STUDY it... USE it - but most importantly... understand that there is a difference!! Many, many arguments about tarot derive from the conflicts between those who want to discuss the STUDY of tarot, vs. those who want to discuss the USE of tarot. The All Things Are Numbers approach to tarot argues in favor of a balanced perspective that embraces both.

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EXTRA CREDIT

The theoretical model of existence being presented on this site is an attempt to establish a universal reference frame of context, from which primordial, archetypal patterns may be perceived, or conceived. It is a theoretically possible description of reality that might very well be beyond our ability to directly perceive or even conceive. To see another descriptive diagram that illustrates the gap between sign and symbol, and the idea of specificity vs. generality, try reading the essay The Totality of Reality... and look for the diagram about One Reality.


All words and images Copyright © 2000 - 2010 by Guy Palm

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