I was reading Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think over the past week in preparation for a podcast episode of No Country. The book has a lot to say about how the Runa people of Ecuador interact with their environment, the animals in it, and fellow people.
It gets really dense at a certain point, and Kohn gets deep in the weeds with some semiotics, nobody’s favorite methodology. But it got me thinking about writing (of course), and how different signs work on the page.
There are three different types of signs: symbolic, iconic, and indexical. Symbolic signs are the words on this page, symbols that represent ideas, objects, etc. Sigils would fit into this as well. Iconic signs represent the signified directly. It’s like the little man walking at a crosswalk. Indexical signs relate to the signified, how do I describe this…the best way I heard it described is seeing smoke means you know there is fire. Another way are the skull and crossbones label on poison. Drinking poison is the signified, but the indexical sign is what happens down the road.
In a book, we are using symbols to relate ideas. If there are pictures, we are using icons. But I think a lot of great writing uses indexical signs as well.
By the way, if I mess any of this up, remember that I’m a dumbass.
Some of my favorite passages in books relate indexically to the thing that they’re trying to express. These are clues or hints within a text that allow us to form a picture in our minds without the words to explain them. It’s kind of how jokes work, as well. You’re doing that final leap to click the picture together, rather than having it told to you expositionally.
I’m sure there’s a better word for that.
Thanks for reading the blog! I’ve gotten a bunch of new readers in the past few days. I do this every day, so feel free to subscribe. Sometimes neat things come out of these daily sit-downs. It’s an emergent thing. I go into it with no clear path, and just dump thoughts down. It’s cool!
My new book is out, and I’ve bundled the first three over on Gumroad. If you get this one, I’ll either send you the file (if there’s a way to do that) or you can download the next two for free.