Okay, so, rhetoric and communication scholar Ernest Bormann proposed this method called fantasy-theme criticism for understanding how groups of people develop shared frameworks of meaning for understanding their world. He coined the term “symbolic convergence” to describe what happens when “two or more private symbolic worlds incline toward each other, come more closely together, or even overlap during certain processes of communication” (in Foss, Rhetorical Criticism, 4th ed., p. 97). NBC’s Community, consciously or not, represents what I believe to be one of the most consistent, profound, and thematically focused examples of symbolic convergence on American television today, and tonight’s episode–“Geothermal Escapism”–features only the latest (but one of the most touching) in a host of examples that can be found throughout the series.
Indeed, as Bormann explains, “If several or many people develop portions of their private symbolic worlds that overlap as a result of symbolic convergence, they share a common consciousness and have the basis for communicating with one another to create community [emphasis added]” (in Foss, p. 98).
Community is drenched in examples of shared meaning; one need not look far in order to get wet.
– At the end of “Cooperative Calligraphy” (the famous bottle/pen episode in season two), upon realizing how impossible it is for them to believe that one of them actually took Annie’s pen and won’t own up to it, the group decides that it makes more sense to them to believe that a ghost took it. Jeff says, “Guys, look in your hearts and answer this question honestly: what’s more likely? That someone in this group doesn’t belong in this group? Or, ghosts? If we have to choose between turning on each other, or pinning it on some specter with unfinished pen-related business, I’m sorry, but–my money’s on ‘ghost’.” In order for the study group to reconcile their understanding of and connection to one another with their understanding of the case of the missing pen, they develop a shared “fantasy”–only, for them, it’s not a fantasy. They make the decision in earnest, and even afford it a sort of fundamental ritualistic significance by having Troy come up with a story about why a ghost would steal a pen. For the study group, meaning is constructed through narrative–but narrative is only worthwhile if it binds them together rather than tears them apart.
– “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” (season two’s stop-motion animated episode) offers perhaps the most explicit example of symbolic convergence–so much so that it hardly seems worth commenting on. Instead, I’ll simply quote its brilliant climactic scene for the thousandth time: “The delusion you are trying to cure is called Christmas… It’s the crazy notion that the longest, coldest, darkest nights can be the warmest and brightest. … And when we all agree to support each other in that insanity, something even crazier happens… It becomes true.”
– A darker example of the study group agreeing on a shared interpretation of the world is found in season three’s “Competitive Ecology,” in which they ultimately blame all their problems on Todd. The group is united in their scapegoating of Todd; they co-inhabit a fantasy in which Todd represents a threat, and proceed to desperately maintain that fantasy regardless of the external reality of things (i.e., that Todd is actually a perfectly nice guy and they have no reason to be mean to him).
– While the study group’s defense of Christmas in the stop-motion animated episode was perhaps the series’ most explicit gesture toward symbolic convergence, the Dreamatorium–which appears in a multiple-episode arc–is definitely its most literal, allowing characters to actually experience co-imagined scenarios together. At its most beneficial, the Dreamatorium allows characters to understand and empathize with one another, as in “Virtual Systems Analysis.” At its most harmful, however, it provides a way for Abed to isolate himself in his own symbolic world, apart from his friends’.
– In “Pillows and Blankets” (the Civil War documentary episode), Jeff sarcastically creates “imaginary friendship hats,” which he pretends to place on Troy and Abed in order to settle their feud. Troy and Abed, however, immediately treat Jeff’s hats as real objects with real power, removing them from their heads and tossing them aside in the Dean’s office. In that moment, a fantasy symbol is created between the three of them (albeit one that Jeff doesn’t really believe in). But later in the episode, Jeff gives away his connectedness with–indeed, his need for–the group’s shared symbols when he actually goes to retrieve the magical friendship hats from the Dean’s office in order to place them on Troy and Abed’s heads. The hats work, too, demonstrating the transformative power that symbols hold for communities, especially when they’re shared.
– Finally, in tonight’s episode, “Geothermal Escapism,” Abed attempts to keep Troy from leaving by starting a game of “The Floor is Lava.” Much like the climax of “Pillows and Blankets”–which saw the two of them engage in an hours-long pillow fight, not wanting it to end because they think it’s the last thing they’ll ever do together–“Geothermal Escapism” sees Abed using a game of imagination, of fantasy, in order to maintain his connection to his community (in this case, his connection with Troy specifically). At first, the symbolic convergence that occurs for the study group–indeed, for the entire Greendale campus–is rooted in their shared desire to win $50,000. But when Troy and Britta realize that the lava is indeed real for Abed–that the lava represents the danger he sees in a world without his best friend–instead of dismantling Abed’s symbolic world, they converge with it, joining in his fantasy, his delusion, or, perhaps more appropriately, his emotional reality, in order to communicate with him more effectively (i.e., in the terms of his symbolic world). And it is through this symbolic convergence–through a shared (and earnest) narrative about cloning–that they are able not only to resuscitate Abed, but to facilitate his emotional adaptation to a changing world as well. Ultimately, by way of their shared fantasy–their shared narrative that binds–they make it so that it’s not even Troy that’s leaving, but rather a clone of Troy. This narrative allows both Troy and Abed to accept the fact that they’ll no longer be together by allowing them to transform into literally new versions of themselves–versions that can accept the fact that, even though they’ll be apart, they’ll always be connected by their shared symbolic reality.
Anyway, I think that’s all I have in me tonight. Work in the morning and all that. I just had to post this tonight–as rough as it might be–because I’ve been meaning to write a fantasy-theme analysis of Community for quite a while, and if not after an episode as brilliant and beautiful as tonight’s, then when?
If anybody reads this and thinks of other examples of symbolic convergence in the show, large or small, please do share them. I might very well write an (even more) academic take on all this someday, and you can never have too many examples to support your argument :).
Also, if you’re interested in any of my other Community write-ups, see below: