What is Referential Symbolism

In the classic literature, there are several forms of symbolism. Religious symbolism dominated the field until the post modern era, when secular use of symbolism in art, literature, political and other social matters became the dominant use of symbols. Referential symbolism and condensation symbolism remain as two very common forms.

While condensation symbolism is a bit easier to define, identify and discuss, it represents a behavior that is substituted for an expression. Emotional tension can be released in unconscious or conscious form through condensation symbolism. When a person is angry at a specific source, such behaviors as obscene gestures, throwing objects, or shaking a fist can be seen as direct expressions of an emotional state that are used to release tension.

But when the obscene gesture becomes so disassociated from the original emotion that such a gesture can be made toward a friend, who laughs and sees no anger or other negative emotion in the gesture, it becomes a referential symbol. Referential symbols, thus, can evolve from condensation symbols as the emotion is removed as part of the process. Referential symbolism can then be the offshoot of a behavioral process.

Referential symbols abound in secular literature and poetry. The class struggle against oppression as represented by a society of pigs, or by the term “Big Brother”, the use of rivers in Langston Hughes poetry to represent the linkage of mankind through history, and the elusive title character of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”, are results of the expansion of symbolism into the world of secular art.

Social agreements lead to referential symbols. It is agreed that “amber waves of grain” represent a peaceful expression of our patriotic love of America. “God Save the Queen” represents the people’s love and honor of the Queen of England.

On more sophisticated levels, money, in a variety of forms has become more about the referential symbols than about the true wealth of an individual. A plastic card that strikes up communication between a store and a bank account to transfer electronic representations of money, represents money, itself.

Property ownership can be as easily represented by proof that a person owns a car key as it can by producing the title to the car. National identity can be determined by presentation of a number, a certificate, or a passport, but in many cases, not even by the word of the individual who actually gave birth to the person who is trying to prove national origin.

Powerful referential symbols are contained in buildings, national parks, dams, and other natural and man made entities. Powerful referential symbols can be contained in basic gestures, such as a handshake, keeping elbows off of the table during a meal, or in the stylized “Bear” of the Chicago Cubs football team.

The more evolved the system for symbols, the more the symbol comes to represent a variety of things. The Edsel symbol represents far more than a specific type of car, it represents a very unpopular car. The numbers “911” have come to represent both help with terrible events and a terrible event that occurred on a specific date in history.

But referential and condensation symbols mix and merge. The emotional upset that comes from remembering being hit on the head by a can of soda with a distinctive logo can trigger a condensation symbol of cringing whenever the logo is viewed by one person, while another person can see the logo as a symbol for some of the best times of their youth.

This is a time of increasing resurgence of religious symbolism, too, but with reactions that may also trigger referential or condensation results.


Regina Darnell, (et al.), ed., “The Collected Works of Edward Sapir”, Moudon De Gruyter, 1990