Represent!

Even though Donald Preziosi is not going to be my thesis advisor he said that we could continue meeting. I had some questions after reading Brain of the Earth’s Body so I signed up for his office hours last week. The last lecture in his book is called The Limit(s) of (Re)presentation begins with a quote by Ernst Gombrich:

If art were only an expression of personal vision, there could be no history of art. ?

He briefly discusses the tripartite system of sign types from Charles Sanders Peirce: index, symbol, and icon. He adds to this system a fourth sign type, artifice, based on conversations with Roman Jackobson.

I thought I understood what each of the sign types were but not how they were related with one another. Preziosi explained that the sign types were all relational. He also suggested that I think about my own work and how it might fit into these sign types. So I came up with these four questions for myself:

  1. How does my writing represent?
  2. What does my writing represent?
  3. To whom does my writing represent?
  4. Why does my writing represent?

I started making notes toward an answer for the first question. The four sign types Preziosi talks about are: index, icon, symbol and artifice.

Index: A representation is indexical when the relationship between the signified and the signifier is causal or contiguous. The example Preziosi uses is smoke. Smoke is an index of fire because smoke does not resemble ? fire, but has a cause-effect relationship with fire. The moment of seeing smoke proceeds the moment of seeing fire.

Icon: A representation is iconic when the relationship between signified and signifier is based on similarity and resemblance. The example from Preziosi is a painting of a man on a horse slaying a dragon, which is an icon for St. George because it is based on similarity and resemblance.

Symbol: A representation is a symbol when the relationship between signifier and signified is based on conventional ideas about causality or contiguity. A symbol is much like an index, except that the causal relationship is not factual ? but conventional. The example I came up with for a symbolic relationship is a yellow car being a symbol for a taxi. There is no causal relationship between the color yellow and the function of the car, nor does the color yellow resemble ? the function of a taxi. But culturally yellow cars are taken to be taxis.

Artifice: A representation is an artifice when the relationship between signifier and signified is based on an approximation of similarity or resemblance. The example Preziosi uses is the Tower of Faces exhibit in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.. There is a photograph of this exhibit on page 148 of Brain of the Earth’s Body. A collection of portraits (perhaps thousands) hang from four walls that rise up out of a hallway into bright light. Preziosi suggests that this exhibit represents the unrepresentable.

Index and symbol are both representations based on different types of causal or contiguous relationships. Icon and artifice are both representations based on different types of similarity or resemblance.

And what about my own writing? My first impression is that my writing is mostly indexical. I don’t intend for my characters or the events in my stories to represent some other concept or theme. It is enough when I write what is.

My writing is also iconic in that I intend for my writing to be similar to lived experiences. I want my readers to hear their own stories in my writing.

But I also want readers who have never shared similar experiences to be able to interact with my writing in ways I might not even be able to predict. Is this artifice? Preziosi discusses the differences between icon and artifice using the terms aequatio and adaequatio.

Aequatio admits only of true or false; by contrast adaequatio is not a formal or quantifiable identity but an imputed or virtual likeness between two nonidentities, a going toward.adaequatio has more in common with a metaphor or a heuristic use of modeling than with an equal sign ?. (p. 145 quoting Carruthers, The Book of Memory p. 26)

From my personal mission statement:

I intend for my stories to challenge the perceptions of some and affirm the lives of others, allowing readers to choose their own access point into the stories meaning. ?

Through index and icon I intend for my writing to affirm the lives of some readers, specifically those whose live outside the dominant cultural, economic, racial, and sexual structures. Through artifice, I also intend for other readers to heuristicly discover where my writing has meaning for them.

1 comment to Represent!

  • […] The next to last step in the problem solving process is to Evaluate, which requires me to have something to base my evaluation on. In Brain of the Earth’s Body, Donald Preziosi briefly discusses the tripartite system of sign types from Charles Sanders Peirce: index, symbol, and icon. He adds to this system a fourth sign type, artifice, based on conversations with Roman Jackobson. To help me understand what I want my writing to do and how I want my writing to be, I investigated these sign types. (Represent!: April 16, 2006) […]