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This article appeared in Volume 5 (1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

SRB Insights: Symbolic Type

by Don Handelman

The symbolic type refers to a human being whose presentation of self is of such extreme selfconsistency that he or she impacts on and moulds the contexts of social order rather than being determined by the latter. The symbolic type upends conventional relationships between social order and person. In traditional, modern and postmodern worlds, certain religious figures, cult leaders, political personages, terrorists, stars of the mass media, clowns, the mad and the aged have become symbolic types. Symbolic typing has been especially prominent, for example, in the aesthetics of fascist and communist leadership, and in those of Shi'a Islam. The radical selfconsistency of the symbolic type may be predicated no less on internal contradiction and chaos as on single-mindedness of behaviour. The special conditions under which the holistic symbolic type is superior to context, and its radical consequences for social order, are addressed further on.

Of all approaches to the study of symbolism, the theory of symbolic types is the only one that makes the living body the essential template of symbolic form. As such, the symbolic type must be distinguished from ideas of symbol, sign, and icon. This too is taken up below, as are themes in the development of the concept of symbolic type.

Persons who become symbolic types are engaged in the search for what may be called "perfect praxis" -- the obliteration of the distinction between the ideal and the real through the projection of a totalistic, holistic state of being. The reality that a symbolic type projects becomes the reality of others who attend to the type because the type is so self-consistent, so wholly true to itself. The ontological premises projected by the symbolic type momentarily become the axes of the lived world of others. Because they are worlds unto themselves, many symbolic types annihilate metaphor: through perfect praxis they destroy illusion, fantasy, the fictive, the imaginary, and insist on their own reality as the totality of being. The symbolic type is a rare but potent moulder of the realities of others.

The idea of symbolic type originated with the social phenomenologist Richard Grathoff in his work, The Structure of Social Inconsistencies: A Contribution to a Unified Theory of Play, Game and Social Action (1970). He contrasted the symbolic type to the role type, the social role in conventional usage. The concept of role is elemental to understanding human beings who act in concert. Although persons know one another through cultural categorizations and their associated normative prescriptions, the social roles they enact are constructed through interaction with others. Therefore roles are modified continuously and created anew through give-and-take, that is, through interpersonal negotiation. Constructed through others, roles necessarily are constituted through perspectives that join "self" and "other". This follows from George Herbert Mead's idea of "taking the role of the other" as the interactionism basis of social life.

The role is a locus of dialectical contradictions. These tensions within roles are controlled by and elaborated through the higher-order integration of context. As its etymology implies, "context" connotes a thrust or momentum toward the orchestration of disparate characters, themes, and behaviours. Their "weaving together" as context enables the coexistence of normative prescriptions and the practice of give-and-take. Context therefore reproduces the division of the "ideal" and the "real", without their synthesis. Context controls and directs the interaction of roles in social order.

Grathoff was concerned with conditions in which context did not hold and fell apart, and where social roles either lacked the capacity or were too conflict-ridden to reintegrate social order. These were conditions of social inconsistencies, whose most extreme manifestation was that of anomie. Grathoff (1970: 120) argued that in these conditions, "socially significant structural contours become blurred, vague, and finally entirely elusive. Mutual clarification of thematic fields and reciprocal constitution of (roles)...which had been possible before, no longer succeeds ... The situation cannot be united into context." Social order unravels, social action loses its relevance to routine realities, and disintegration exposes irreducible social contradictions.

Grathoff argued that symbolic types appear in these conditions, tying together context so that an integrated field of social action can be maintained once more. Research by others, mentioned further on, argues that Grathoff's insistence on the reintegrating capacities of symbolic types is overly restrictive. Thus, depending on the logic of its internal composition, the symbolic type either can resynthesize order or make and spread disorder. The symbolic type is a living, performing body of being whose embodiment is itself reflective or refractive of versions of culture and social order. Embodiment here refers to the formation, coalescence, and incorporation of an integrated holism through the model and medium of the body. Thus the embodied symbolic type operates as the equivalent of context, while the type's premise of internal self-consistency replaces that of give-and-take among social roles that are directed by context. This embodied holism of the symbolic type enables it either to create or to destroy order.

The transformation from social role to symbolic type is profound in its consequence for social order, and yet it depends in principle on a single premise. A symbolic type comes into existence when and only when a person ceases to modify his or her behaviour in response to the reactions of others. That is, he ceases to respond to others through give-and-take. Then that person becomes wholly self-referential, wholly himself. The person contains not only his own self but also himself as Other, since others outside himself no longer partake of nor participate in his being. He becomes a tautological creation, the cause and effect of himself, of his self-reifying being in the world. For others, his being is characterized by extreme self-consistency -- since whatever he is, this is overdetermined. And since he is accountable to himself, his self-consistency can accord with that of an internal design of totalitarianism at one extreme or anarchy at another. Unlike the person enacting roles in relation to others outside himself, the symbolic type becomes a world unto himself, a totalistic being. Nonetheless, he holds to this typing only so long as he is impervious to negotiations with others over the character of his being.

Symbolic types are characters that first and foremost signify themselves. In the perceptions of others they vary from the inhuman (for example, the Madman) to the superhuman (for example, the Prophet or Saviour). These extremes are inherent in the limits set on others by a symbolic type's closure to give-and-take with them. This closure radically limits interaction on the part of others with a symbolic type to only two choices: either to reject the vision or design of reality projected by the type, or to accept it. If one accepts the type's vision, one is then encompassed by the type who determines one's own perception of reality in keeping with its own reality. If one rejects the type, it becomes peripheral to the reality of others, and is often controlled severely through normative prescriptions. The rejected type may be made into a Madman, while the accepted type is made into a Saviour or another culturally constructed charismatic character. Charisma becomes a function of the closure to alternatives that is embodied in symbolic typing. As such, the comprehension of charisma can be removed from the study of individual depth psychology (to where it was relegated by default by Weber), and charisma may be analyzed instead as a response of cultural design to extreme social conditions (Handelman 1985).

Rejection of a symbolic type (for example, the creation of Madman) makes it signify the boundaries between order and chaos. The rejected symbolic type is made wholly the prisoner of context without even the give-and-take that characterizes the negotiability of roles in daily living. However, for those who accept the design of reality projected by the symbolic type the consequences are profound. In Meadian terms, those who accept the symbolic type must perceive themselves through its vision of the world. Yet this vision is utterly self-consistent and closed to give-and-take. Therefore those others are ensnared within the self-signifying, self-reifying perspective and discourse of the type. To interact with the type that one embraces is to do so wholly on its own terms.

The visions or projections of many symbolic types are more akin to designs of culture than they are to the personal idiosyncracies of the individuals in question. This is why, in Grathoff's terms, the accepted symbolic type can resynthesize a disintegrated social order. To take the viewpoint of a symbolic type is not to see oneself in the type, but rather to perceive and feel the symbolic type in oneself -- in other words, to be made over in the image or design the type projects. In extreme religious and political aesthetics alike, this is virtually akin to possession -- that is, to the enchanted loss of self in the other, the type, and therefore to becoming an object constructed by that other.

These qualities of the symbolic type not only make it relatively autonomous of context, but indeed reify the type above social order. This is so because the type holistically subsumes the totality of its own reality. Thus the symbolic type is its own context. Two points follow from this. First, the symbolic type imposes limits in keeping with the consistency of its own internal design. Second, the type determines the context of others -- the type impacts on social order to deform, to remake, and to change context. Therefore the symbolic type can resynthesize social orders that have lost their coherence and fallen apart because others, enmeshed, perceive the world through that type. But these processes occur only because the type is constituted as a holistic being, a body in the widest sense. The symbolic type is an ambulatory and performative body, an embodying organism that, as others take on its perspective, projects its own self-referential, holistic vision of the world. In this regard the idea of symbolic type differs from those of symbol, sign, and icon. This distinction should be clarified because the latter concepts have long dominated discourse on symbolic action.

Umberto Eco's discussion of the Greek etymology of symbol locates precisely how this concept and that of symbolic type are at odds. Eco (1985: 385) comments that, "Originally a symbol was a token, the present half of a broken table or coin or medal, that performed its social and semiotic function by recalling the absent half to which it could have been potentially reconnected." Symbol is fragmentary, leading elsewhere and elsewhere. The impulsion of symbol, the fragment, is to join with its absent completion. In usual discourse, a symbol stands for, evokes, or brings into conjunction something else, something absent. It denotes that kind of relationship where certain components exist elsewhere, but are brought into some sort of connectivity with others that are present.

This relationship between presence and absence constitutes social action as a performative symbolic structure. Therefore an enactment that leads elsewhere and elsewhere should indeed be termed "symbolic". For example, this is usually the case of theatre. However a performative symbolic structure that is holistically selfreferential in and of itself, like the symbolic type, is not merely a symbol. Since symbol denotes a relationship between presence and absence, the power of symbol lies precisely in the generative gap between alienation and the longing for completion. This semiotic gap is yet another variant on the tense hiatus between the real and the ideal, and therefore the idea of symbol resists all efforts to erase this dualism and so to accomplish the holism of perfect praxis. The idea of symbol is also antithetical to the simultaneity of the symbolic type. Symbol is a unit of duration. Just as it is partial and leads elsewhere, so too this must occur over time. A symbolic type becomes a "symbol" only when it collapses as a holistic, selfreferential typification.

Regardless of whether sign or symbol is considered the master trope, conceptions of the two commonly overlap. Sign is similar to symbol in its play on the relationship of presence to absence, and in its reproduction of the dualism of the ideal and the real. However, the sign is distanced even further from the symbolic type in that the former is constituted as an arbitrary designation, without any naturalistic linkage to whatever it signifies. On the other hand, the idea of icon is closer to that of symbolic type. Icon is figurative and holistic. convevinal significance through the medium of the body. Nontheless, the icon is only a representation of life; its form is static, its shape a reflection. The icon is performative primarily in miracle.

The symbolic type must be a living embodiment. This the radical cut that separates it from symbol, sign, and icon. Even so-called "living symbols" lack the powerful presence of symbolic types because the former fragmented beings open to give-and-take, so to self-modification. By contrast, the symbolic type is an embodiment whose holism leads into its own internal design. There, within itself, and unlike most symbols and all signs, the symbolic type has perspective. The symbolic type is an intentional being that causes things to happen. It takes an attitude toward its world that is consequential.

The symbolic type's antithesis to symbol, sign, and icon is demonstrated most profoundly through its propensity to annihilate metaphor. Both symbol and metaphor exist through analogies. They enable one thing to relate to something different through the found similarities between them. Symbol and metaphor substitute and re-present. Multivocal and polysomic, both open numerous possibilities of interpretation and meaning. Through substitution, symbol and metaphor can create relationships in series, hypothetically without end. Such chains of relationship have no necessary "natural" or principled closure. Symbol and metaphor open toward a possible infinity of alternatives, and therefore to the fragmentation of holism.

To reiterate, it is only the utterly self-referential being that ironically, projects a vision of existence that ensnares others through the extreme limitation of choice. A physically extraordinary or unusual embodiment does not make a symbolic type. Any body-- indeed, anybody -- contains this capacity through the operation of self-enclosure described earlier. It is then the cultural logic of design through which the type is constituted and which it projects that is crucial to comprehending its potential impact on others. The symbolic type annihilates symbol and metaphor through the holism of the body. The totalism of the selfreferential body prevents any metaphorical escape from its performative being. The other is trapped in the praxis of the symbolic type, since the annihilation of metaphor is the destruction of alternatives. The symbolic type becomes wholly itself through its perfect praxis, leaving no vacant space for the alienation of practice from ideology. The result is a being that recursively signifies itself as the totality of reality, so long as it recreates itself through performance. The symbolic type is wholly real, signifying nothing beyond itself, thereby encompassing everyone beyond itself who r accepts the type's uncompromising self-definition as the only reality.

Applications of the concept of symbolic type have focused on the knotty problem of how particular performative characters transform ritual context, and thereby enable certain rituals to actualize their programs by moving sequentially from one phase of the ritual to another (Kapferer 1983; Handelman 1981). One study has used the concept to discuss the social impact of a liminal rabbi in the Moroccan Atlas Mountains (Bilu 1993). The idea of symbolic type also is furthering understanding of how the uncertain give-and-take of mundane interaction becomes ritualized (and therefore more certain) without invoking a formal ritual context (Handelman 1979). Thus Lavie (1990) has developed the concept of "allegorical type" to explain how Bedouin personae ritualize the banality of everyday life through the telling of allegories when conversation becomes stuck on problematic issues of identity. The allegorical type transforms and reorganizes the context of discourse through the narration of spontaneous, emergent allegories. These allegories enable interaction to proceed, while making this highly reflexive for the protagonists.

More generally, the idea of symbolic type extends the thinking of Gregory Bateson on "schismogenesis" (the processes whereby new cognitive structures emerge through social action), of Victor Turner on liminal conditions for the emergence of antistructures, and of Erving Geffman on mundane "interaction ritual" and its social consequences. The development of the concept of symbolic type contributes significantly to an understanding of the genesis of ritualization as an emergent property of social behaviour, rather than as a product of normative prescription. In turn, this provides one basis for the comprehension of how ritual processes, as such, emerge from within conditions of ritualization. The symbolic type thereby focuses analysis on the transformations of social life rather than its reproduction.


Bilu, Yoram. Without Bounds: The Life and Death of Rabbi Yaacov Wazana. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1993 (In Hebrew).

Eco, Umberto. "At the Roots of the Modern Concept of Symbol," Social Research 52 (1985(, 383-402.

Grathoff, Richard H. The Structure of Social Inconsistencies: A Contribution to a Unified Theory of Play, Game and Social Action. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff,1970.

Handelman, Don. "Is Naven Ludic? Paradox and the Communication of Identity." Social Analysis 1 (1979),177-191.

Handelman, Don. "The Ritual Clown: Attributes and Affinities." Anthropos 76 (1980),321-370.

Handelman, Don. "Charisma, Liminality, and Symbolic Types." In Comparative Social Dynamics: Essays in Honor of S.N. Eisenstadt. Eds. E. Cohen, M. Lissak, and U. Almagor. Bouider: Westview,1985, pp.346-359.

Handelman, Don. "Symbolic Types, the Body, and Circus." Semiotica 85 (1991),205-225.

Handelman, Don and Bruce Kapferer. "Symbolic Types, Mediation and the Transformation of Ritual Context: Sinhalese Demons and Tewa Clowns." Semiotica 26 (1980),41-71.

Kapferer, Bruce. A Celebration of Demons: Exorcism and the Aesthetics of Healing in Sri Lanka. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

Lavie, Smadar. The Poetics of Military Occupation: Mzeina Allegories of Bedouin Identity Under Israeli and Egyptian Rule. Berkeley: University of California Press,1990.

Don Handelman is Professor of Anthropology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Israel).

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