The term overdetermined, as used in social theory, was introduced by Althusser, who took it from Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. Wikipedia offers us a nice, concise, explanation of Althusser’s usage:
Althusser used the idea of overdetermination as a way of thinking about the multiple, often opposed, forces active at once in any political situation, without falling into an over-simple idea of these forces being simply “contradictory.”
A perfect example of such overdetermination are The Five Friendlies, the official mascots of the 2008 Beijing Olympics:
These five cartoon animals (one of which isn’t even an animal) carry a hell of a symbolic burden. They symbolize: the olympic rings, animals (what animal is “fire”?), the “landscape and dreams and aspirations of people from every part of the vast country of China”, the “five elements of nature”, traditional Chinese culture, the five blessings “prosperity, happiness, passion, health and good luck” … and when you put all their names together, it spells out 北京歡迎你 (“Beijing welcomes you.”).
I haven’t even gone into the personality profiles of each of The Five Friendlies, like that of Beibei, the fish:
Among the Five Friendlies, Beibei is known to be gentle and pure. Strong in water sports, she reflects the blue Olympic ring.
To win this coveted position, the chiru competed with a dozen other contenders, including the tiger, the red-crowned crane and the dragon. “The selection will certainly draw more attention to the animals’ endangered status worldwide. This is significant because the chiru was hunted for its wool to weave shahtoosh shawls that are allegedly still in demand among some elite sections of society in India and abroad.
The Olympic slogan of “One World, One Dream” may well hold hope for coexistence of the species with inspiration from the Five Friendlies,” said Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) executive director Vivek Menon.