Perception is imprecise and entirely relative. Precision of perception is dependent upon the clarity or ambiguity of content and context. We can't say anything about anything without context. Likewise, without context, we can say anything about anything. The Valuation Equation, presented in the essay The Reasoned Response, shows how context is relative. The Perception Equation, also presented in the essay The Reasoned Response, shows how agreement of relative perception can be measured... or estimated. The Semiotic Equation, presented in the essay Content + Context = Meaning, shows how our ultimate perceptions of content + context = meaning. These essays should probably be read first before continuing on into this one...
Indeed, context is relative. Making acknowledgement of context important, whether we are obscuring context for the purposes of semiotic malleability, or clarifying context for the purposes of semiotic precision. Thus, the degree to which a person defines the context of their content is directly proportional to the degree of understanding they hope to impart upon others concerning intended meaning... that is... when or if a person's personal thoughts are ever made public. If pursuing a path of flexible associations, where extracted meaning is not intended to be of value to anyone but the self, there is little need to define context. In fact, many would argue that the less we define context the more free and flexible our thought process will be. Others who want to share their thoughts, and maybe even find some agreement among others as to the objective value of those thoughts relative to some socially constructed reality, will probably want to define context as clearly as they can.
NOTE: Flexible Association and Focused Imagination are two terms being invented on this site as a substitute for the more familiar psychological terms of Free Association or Active Imagination that people sometimes associate with tarot interpretation techniques. Tarot can be used with these psychological techniques, but I have chosen to invent terminology that is not intended to be specifically related to either one. Flexible Association means imaginatively wandering away from a given image, and freely associating related, or seemingly unrelated, things to find private, personal meaning. Focused Imagination means imaginatively focusing in on a given image to explore its archetypal roots in ways that are relevant to a given context, whether chosen or unchosen.
Whether being clear or ambiguous, context is always relative... a reference frame that gives content a place to be in the universe. In a universe, all is relative to any chosen reference frame. One person's good is another person's bad. One person will have their context and another person will have theirs. In viewing the universe from different frames of reference, or context, they may look at the same thing... and see different things. When this happens, things shared by both reference frames are claimed by both, thus allowing one thing to be two things at once. It is this phenomenon that explains the multivalence of symbolic language. Symbolic meaning follows context... as well as intent... and desire. Thus... change the context of the content and we change the meaning.
Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon
Context is unavoidable. Unfortunately, people often forget how important context is to the establishment of meaning. In some cases, people simply forget how important context is. In other cases, however, some actually CHOOSE to forget how important context is. For those who choose to forget... or ignore context, context can be seen as a hindrance to the act of Flexible Association. Once a person, who has chosen to ignore context, has broken free of the limitations of context, anything goes. When this happens, interpretation of meaning becomes a meandering path of out-of-context associations and linkages that only need to make sense to the individual at each moment of linkage. In this way, by traveling from one context, to another context, to another context, to another context, people who abandon context are able to "see" what they think and believe are important "connections" between seemingly unrelated things. Ironically enough, by breaking the chains of context, things like Flexible Association actually create a chain of out-of-context associations that lead from one idea to the next. Because there are no constraints to this process, it can continue indefinitely, until such time as the mind that engages it feels satisfied they have met with a significant end. THIS, for a LOT of people, is how tarot "works." And this is also why so many people are able to get what they want out of tarot - no matter what - and thereby be sufficiently amazed at its power.
Context plus context plus context plus context is how people "see" connections between seemingly unrelated things.
Anyone familiar with the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon will be familiar with the idea of creating linkages by way of out-of-context associations between things. In the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game we are supposed to establish a relationship between any randomly chosen actor, and Kevin Bacon, through the linkages various associated actors have with each other in their various movies. The game challenges us to create this path of association in only six steps. Thus: if actor A was in a movie with actor B, and actor B was in a movie with actor C, and actor C was in a movie with actor D, and actor D was in a movie with actor E, and actor E was in a movie with Kevin Bacon, then actor A and Kevin Bacon are said to be related... movie-wise... in six steps... or degrees of separation! Obviously, if we start with an actor who was in a movie with Kevin Bacon, this game will be easy. But if we start with a more obscure actor, or an older actor, or an actor who hasn't made many movies, it can be challenging. The point to describing the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game here is to form an analogy between that game, and the path taken by people who choose to ignore context when making important, or supposedly meaningful, connections.
If we start the Kevin Bacon game with an actor in a movie that does not include Kevin Bacon, there is very likely to be no relevant or meaningful association between that actor and Kevin Bacon. The two actors may have never met, or even heard of each other. The actor we start with might even be dead and gone. The personalities they have, and the types of movies they've made, might even make them entirely incompatible to each other in many ways. But... our job, within the game, is to make a meaningful connection where there is no reason to do so, and where no meaningful association can readily be imagined or seen. Like the linked circles shown above, we do this by connecting movies together, using legitimately meaningful associations between actors who actually did work together in the various movies. Thus, like handing off a baton in a relay race, individual associations between actors transport us from one movie to the next; i.e. this actor was in this movie with so-and-so, so that actor carries the baton to the next movie and hands it off to the next actor, who carries it to the next movie etc. Of course there is no actual handing off of a baton, because the movies are already made before we play the game. But by making these associations we are able to jump from one movie to the next, carrying a "baton" of "meaning" with us along the way. If we are successful, we are able to suggest a meaningful association between the first actor and Kevin Bacon! But is it really a meaningful association? The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game is just a game. But to many, the game of tarot is serious business. So the question is: whether it is legitimate to find meaning in any way similar to the Kevin Bacon game? Many would say it is.
Within the context of any one movie, an association to Kevin Bacon might be completely irrelevant and meaningless. But by jumping from one movie to the next, through legitimate, meaningful associations between various actors, we are able to not only jump from one movie to another, we are actually jumping from one context to another. This is how the game works; jumping from one context to another. Thus it is only by jumping from one context to another that we are able to suggest an allegedly meaningful association between any actor we start with, and Kevin Bacon. By ignoring the context we start with, we are able to jump, like stepping stones across a river, to the destination of Kevin Bacon. Ignoring a given context is how the Kevin Bacon game works. And in many ways, for quite a few people, it is also how tarot "works." The only difference being: in the Kevin Bacon game we have a goal of reaching Kevin Bacon in only six steps. While in the Flexible Association techniques of tarot, there is no specific, pre-defined destination, and... we are also not expected to find "meaning" in only six steps. By removing these two constraints, the Flexible Association techniques of tarot allow for an infinite number of "stepping stones" for crossing any width of "river," to get to whatever "meaning" we feel is fulfilling to our psychological needs at that moment in time.
The Primrose Path
If someone USING tarot wants tarot to only be for themself, they would be well advised to ignore, or minimize, the importance of context wherever they find it. They might also be well advised, as the technique implies, to keep the interpretive results to themself, as even the most articulate person will often find it difficult to convincingly explain the various connections made along such an interpretive path, and how the conclusions they have come to are legitimately meaningful. People trying to explain the tenuous associations that lead them across one context and into another tenuous association with a completely unrelated context, often end up sounding insane! In a situation like that of psychotherapy, such associations, and the conclusions they lead to, might be of great USE in the process of psychoanalysis. But if offered to others as rationale for establishing a collective understanding of something, these tenuous linkages can becomes weak links that don't hold the weight of skepticism. The analysis of tarot being presented on this site feels that it is important to acknowledge this difference before deciding whether to share what we think we "know" about anything (see the essay Imagine a Reason to Believe).
In the Kevin Bacon game, associations between actors who both appear in a movie is simple and clearly legitimate. On the other hand, some of the associations that people make between disparate elements, on a path of Flexible Association, are not so simple and often not so clearly legitimate. Some of the associations some people make along a path of Flexible Association can seem quite bizarre, tenuous or unbelievable. But... if they hold together enough to be convincing to the individual making these tenuous associations, they accomplish the task of jumping someone from one context to another. In the minds of many - namely, those USING tarot - these kinds of linkages are good enough. In the minds of those STUDYING tarot for the purposes of contributing to a greater social reality of perceived truths, tenuous personal associations are often not good enough. In other words... the problem with this daisy chain approach to meaning is that the tenuous associations that are made, are often so personal as to make little or no sense to anyone but the individual. That would be fine, if we didn't have to also consider how important it is for people to share these personal results.
The need to share is often overwhelming, as people feel compelled to find others who they hope might also "see" the same connections they see, and hopefully see them as legitimate to some objective reality, or significant to some objective social conscience. Or... that those other people might find the associations that one person has followed to be such an interesting series of coincidences as to suggest the discovery of some kind of path of Truth or Divine Communication. It is this strong desire that we all have for union, or communication with the Divine that allows us to suspend disbelief in the insanity of some of the tenuous associations we make, and follow ourselves - and each other - down a primrose path to alleged meaning. In fact, in many cases the anticipation and excitement of making a connection that might be exceptionally insightful is often completely intoxicating (see Imagine Imagine a Reason to Believe elsewhere on this site). In our state of intoxicated zeal, many of us allow extremely bizarre, warped, stretched, strained and otherwise tenuous associations to stand... unchallenged in any way. Then... when sharing these thoughts with others, we are often surprised at how unwilling others are to allow such important conclusions to hang from such thin threads of thought.
The Primrose Path through infinite possibilities. Sometimes the path people take to a meaningful conclusion involves a few overlapping connections, some tenuously tangential associations, a leap of faith, and maybe some wild speculation or psychic, intuitive "knowing."
Context In and Out
A while ago, I saw a television show on The Discovery Channel about Freemasons. It showed their logo; a compass (or divider) and a square, creating intersecting triangle-like shapes (making a star), with the letter "G" in the middle. Three people gave possible meanings for the G. One person said that it could stand for God, because members must believe in God. Another said that it could stand for Geometry, because they are masons who cut stone to build buildings. The third person said that it could also stand for Generosity, because they are a charitable organization. This, to me seemed like a good and legitimate example of a symbol having multiple meanings... meanings that are all relevant to a single context of Freemasons. But... what if a person devoted to Flexible Association were to ignore that context? For example...
What if someone were to use the Freemasons symbol in a tarot card, as a representation of Freemasonry and all that Freemasonry stands for? And what if someone devoted to Flexible Associations that ignores all notions of context were to internalize and personalize their understanding of that image? To them, the G of the Freemasonry symbol might very well come to represent the first letter of the word Giraffe... with the compass and square representing the legs of a Giraffe, or... maybe a cage containing the Giraffe. As these associations are made, this card now comes to represent a need within them to spend more time at the zoo, getting in touch with animals and nature. Or... maybe further acts of Flexible Association determine that the long neck of a Giraffe is in fact a phallic symbol of sexual desire, effectively translating the central location of the G within the enclosure of compass and square into a symbolic representation of a penis within a vagina - the V shape of the compass and square standing for Vagina and the G for Genitalia.
If someone were to take a card crafted to symbolize the concepts of Freemasonry, and turn it into a revelation of sexual desired, would we consider that to be a legitimate interpretation of the Freemason's logo that the Freemasons themselves would endorse... or would that be more of a primrose path of personal associations made to suit personal projections of self? Are these kinds of personal associations what we mean when we talk about symbolic multivalence? Or are the multiple meanings given by the three Freemasons what we mean by symbolic multivalence? Are these personal associations what we mean by "reading" the cards? Vagina and Genitalia might be a legitimate conclusion in Freudian psychology, but is it legitimate to the CONTEXT of Freemasons? Does it need to be? We can certainly find or create this meaning... if we choose to ignore all given context. However, if we choose to acknowledge context, it might be a bit harder to arrive at such a conclusion of meaning.
In one of these examples we see how a symbol can have multiple meanings that are relevant to the CONTEXT of the people who use the symbol as a representation of their organization. In the other example we are taken right OUT of that context to... well... who knows where - someone else's personal context that has nothing whatsoever to do with Freemasonry or anything else anyone but the individual in question would ever understand. In using symbols, we are meant to see both of these approaches as legitimate uses of symbolic multivalence. But.. the study of symbolism being explored on this site feels that it is important to acknowledge the difference between them. In doing so, we should always remember that there is such a thing as IN-context multivalence of symbols and OUT-of-context multivalence of symbols, and that they are NOT necessarily the same thing. People STUDYING tarot should acknowledge this difference. People USING tarot should acknowledge this difference. People writing instructional books on how to USE tarot should also be diligent in making this difference as crystal clear as possible, so that people realize what they are doing when USING tarot, as opposed to STUDYING tarot.
Lots of people choose to ignore authored content and context in pursuit of internalization and personalization of meaning that will suit their own psychotherapeutic needs. In doing so... many end up crediting the tarot cards... and by proxy, the authors of tarot cards, for these out-of-context meanings that mean so much to them when found, when what they should be doing is crediting their own imagination, and leaving the cards, and the authors of the cards, out of it completely. To think that the card they depart from, and the author, whose intent they are ignoring, ever intended for someone to meet up with the significant meaning that they achieved through their out-of-context primrose path of Flexible Association, is like saying that the Freemasons fully endorse the idea of people seeing their logo as a symbolic representation of a penis in a vagina. It is a potentially insulting and an almost criminal act of hijacking someone else's property for selfish needs.
In the Kevin Bacon game, we jump from one context to another, but at least we remain within the larger context of actors in movies. When people look for meaning within tarot, there are often no such constraints - depending on who has taught them how to read - so people tend to diverge this way and that in pursuit of personal meaning. In the Flexible Association techniques of tarot interpretation for the self, the end clearly justifies the means. "Whatever works for you" is the mantra of this technique. But... is anything really "working" here?
Flexible Association - Casual Connections - Using Symbols
Some people are of the opinion that the revealing of the self through psychotherapy is itself somewhat magical, spiritual, or divinely inspired. To them every revelation is a union, or communication with the divine. That might be true, but what does tarot bring to the table? Is tarot any better equipped for such communication than any number of other tools that one might use? Many people have commented on how the Flexible Association techniques of self guided tarot, and the ignoring of authored content and context, make the images of tarot very similar to Rorschachian ink blots. If this is true, then indeed all images are magical, making tarot no more special than any other. Or is it?
Using the images of tarot in a psychotherapeutic way, like Rorschachian ink blots, is easy. We can start today. We don't have to read or study anything. All we need is a deck, an imagination, and a willingness to believe that whatever comes to us is inherently meaningful, and tarot will "work" for anyone. Just remember to ignore authored content and context. And remember, that the end justifies the means. Most importantly... remember to use whatever works for you. Easy.
Focused Imagination - Causal Connections - Studying Symbols
But what about other ways of reading tarot cards? What about the techniques of reading that involve the acknowledgement of authored content and context? Some people like to know and use these things. Personally, I tend toward the lazy bliss of ignorance and being a happy idiot. But, in spite of my laziness, I've managed to acquaint myself with the thoughts of those who make attempts to clarify the clutter of symbols and signs that populate many tarot cards. But why? Why do people bother to explain or learn the intended meaning of symbols?
Most of the people I've heard discussing tarot seem to think that the images of tarot were designed to communicate a message of some kind. Some think that the trumps might be an Emblemata whose mottoes and epigrams have been lost. How much clearer would the cards speak to us, if those mottoes and epigrams were known? Would cards that speak clearer be more or less helpful when doing a reading? Depends on how we define a reading. Some people think a reading is an exercise in psychoanalysis using free association. For this purpose, knowing the author's intended meaning for a card is probably detrimental. Making up ones own meaning is probably better. We don't need to learn anything for that, just use our imagination and wander off. Easy. Way, way, way too easy, some might say. Some however think that a reading is a message being sent from The Great Beyond. They believe that unseen forces pick and choose cards based on the CONTENT they hold, and how well the imagery can be used as an archetypal vocabulary of meaning (see A Binary Buddy elsewhere on this site). For this purpose, knowing the contextual meaning of symbols is probably helpful, because the theory is that the message is coming from someone other than ourself and our imagination (see The Reasoned Response elsewhere on this site). Increased vocabulary means we will understand the "language" being used by the forces arranging the message. But this requires learning stuff. Not as easy.
When an image with a particular content and context shows up in a reading, I could freely interpret it many ways, using my imagination. That's one way of doing a reading. But... if I prefer the second method of reading, I have to ask why the powers that be chose to place that particular card in that particular position in my reading? What are those unseen forces trying to tell me by showing me that particular image? This technique is not as easy, because it requires that I stay focused on the actual content and context given to me, to find meaning. I am still free to use my imagination, but rather than using my imagination to wander off, away from the given image, I am using my imagination to focus on what the archetypal essence of the given image might be, and how that archetypal essence speaks to me within the spread of cards in a reading.
Personally, I think it is preferable to learn the wisdom of a system before using it. I think it is a bit rude to willfully ignore all the work that an author put forth to communicate meaning and provide us with symbolic vocabulary. Of course, with traditional tarot, there is no one left to take offense at this ignorance and disrespect. They are all dead, and if they had mottoes and epigrams they are all lost. So even in our attempts to understand the vocabulary given to us, we make things up to satisfy our own needs. But what about a wisdom system that hasn't lost its mottoes and epigrams, and makes every effort it can to clearly state every intended meaning? Is it better to ignore all that effort, and just make up whatever we want? Or is it better to focus on what the archetypal essence of the given image might be? Depends on what we want. It is a choice we make.
A Combination of the Two
Many people claim that they merge both of the above techniques. They read the semiotic language, based on the context from which it came, and then, make up their own meanings by jumping from one disassociated context to another. Reading in a contextual way and a non-contextual is possible, but also tricky. In some ways, it's kind of like reading a book, and stopping in the middle of a page to let your mind wander... and then going back to the book... and then letting the mind wander s'more. There is a message in the book and a message out there in the ether somewhere. Are they really compatible? There is nothing wrong with trying to combine techniques, except, if one concludes, and believes, that it was the intent of the author of the book-bound message for us to divert our attention at any given moment and wander off to the supposedly meaningful conclusions that we do. Some would say that it is i.e. no wrong answers, whatever works for you, the end justifies the means etc. Some, however, would say that it isn't, and that by wandering off, away from given symbols into our imagination, we are simply seeking a path of less resistance for a more instant form of gratification.
|As soon as we abandon the semiotic vocabulary
suggested by the author of an image,
we are no longer using tarot,
we are making things up.
Reading the cards as a message not derived from ourself and our wandering imagination, but instead focusing our imagination on the context of symbols and signs, and how various intended meanings can be pieced together to say something that might very well NOT be something we WANT them to say, is not easy. It's not easy to do... and for many the message received would not be easy to accept. To retreat from this possibility by wandering off into the subjective world of Flexible Association, by ignoring context and intended meaning, and personalizing everything with a daisy chain of tenuous out-of-context linkages that continue on and on down a primrose path until a more desirable meaning can be found, seems less of an act of reading tarot and more of an act of self gratification.
Personally, I think that when I am using the semiotic vocabulary suggested by the authors of images, I am focusing my imagination on the images and symbols to find relatively objective meaning, whereas, when I wander off with unbridled imagination to destinations unknown, I'm just making things up. I believe there is a difference. Inasmuch as these two techniques resemble traditional methods of psychoanalysis, each one can be used for whatever purpose befits them. The key question - I think - is... which one makes a more specific use of the unique characteristics of tarot symbols and images, and which one could be accomplished using any kind of imagery? Psychoanalysis is not tarot, it's psychoanalysis. We can use the images of tarot as a starting point or a tool, just as one might use Rorschachian ink blots as a starting point or a tool. But as soon as we abandon the semiotic vocabulary suggested by the author of an image, we are no longer using tarot, we are making things up - I believe there is a difference. It is a difference that leads to a choice. The important thing is to understand that there are differences, and what the differences are, and the consequences of our choices.
|Which technique makes a more SPECIFIC use
of the UNIQUE characteristics of TAROT,
and which one could be accomplished
using any kind of imagery?
Elsewhere on this site you can read about a technique called Numerical Etymology, that attempts to link the fundamental, primordial, abstract patterns, used to build an archetypal armature, to the various meanings a symbol might have, or the specific meanings a sign might have. It suggests a form of "guided" Flexible Association - or what this study of tarot calls Focused Imagination - that demands a certain grounding of the imagination to archetypal essence, thereby combining the idea of using a given vocabulary with the freedom of our imagination, to produce results that can be shared as part of a social reality of believable things. Conclusions are not entirely personal, and not entirely public.
If there is an interest in applying these techniques to dream interpretation, then the Dream Analysis Calculator might also be of interest.