In general, I think that images, masks, and other kinds of public symbols very rarely, if ever, stay firmly rooted to their original condition of meaning. Visual artists, in fact, often compare their art to children who grow up, leave home, and become their own distinct creatures in their interactions with others. Hence, in general, I think meaning is as varied as interpretation, which invites all sorts of ambiguities that attach to questions we may ask about things like Shakespeare’s plays, stories in the Torah, visual images, sculptures, etc.
The degree to which meaning may be as varied as interpretation partly depends on at least two questions: (a) how vividly attached is the image/symbol to the original conditions of usage, and (b) how widespread is knowledge of the original condition?
Take an example. About two weeks ago, I read a story of a young businessman in India who opened a retail store. Guess what? He named it “Hitler,” and he used the image of the swastika as his store’s brand logo. He claimed that he did not know anything about the Nazis or the atrocities against the Jewish people. He had heard some co-workers at another company he used to work for referring to their supervisor as “Hitler” to indicate how authoritarian, stingy, and frightening was his leadership style. That was his only reference point for the name and logo. For some reason, he wanted to name his new store “Hitler” and use the swastika logo. What’s interesting about this particular incident is that if we examine issues (a) and (b) above, the connections are very tight for the swastika, its actual historical conditions of meaning, and a widely distributed public recognition of the meaning. So in this particular case, the relation between meaning and interpretation has less wiggle room.
The Italian philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco coined a phrase many years ago: “encyclopedias of reference.” He uses this phrase to describe our interpretive filter, the framework of concepts that we use to interpret all the data that comes to us in any form. It is the interaction of the incoming data and our encyclopedias of reference that give birth to interpretation and hence our conferral of meaning onto the things we experience. These encyclopedias of reference contain so many things, but for me personally, they contain films that have deeply affected me. For example, when I think of coming-of-age stories, I think of Lasse Hallström’s film My Life as a Dog, and any time I hear of a young person struggling to make sense of his or her experiences of a complex world, I think of that film. Others probably have other kinds of things in their encyclopedia of reference that they use to interpret their experiences.
In the case described above of the unfortunately ignorant young man who opened his store with a most unfortunate name and logo, a great portion of the world, including the non-Western world, has a shared encyclopedia of reference that confers very similar understandings of the significance of a swastika. Thus, the judgment was rather swift and severe.
Now, what about those Guy Fawkes masks used in the context of the Occupy protests? For the English, their encyclopedia of reference may be the historical Guy Fawkes. But for Americans, who in general are addicted to both pop culture and Hollywood entertainment, I wonder if their encyclopedia of reference is the 2005 film-adaptation of the V comic book. In the film, a huge host of anonymous protesters against the British government appear at Parliament wearing the Guy Fawkes mask, just like the mask of the horribly disfigured anti-government-protagonist in the film.
If that is what the encyclopedia of reference is for the American protesters, perhaps they are seeing the alleged general similarities between the structure of American corporate culture and the dystopian portrait of British authoritarian government in the film V. There is thus a creative fusion between the collective usage of the Guy Fawkes mask in the film and the collective usage of the very same mask in the real life protest of the Occupy movement. Perhaps the uniformity of the mask also underscores the solidarity of the 99% against the 1%. Those of the 99% are totally anonymous, especially to the eyes of the 1%. When the 1% see the protesters with their totally anonymous masks, perhaps the message is, “Hey you! You don’t even see us as individual human beings! And we’re wearing these masks to underscore your deficit.” Hence, the masks in protest become symbolic of both the solidarity of the protesters and the moral critique of the allegedly depersonalizing vision of the 1%.