An international group of artists recently unveiled The End of Money—a collaborative, multimodal exhibit hosted by the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam, from 22 May–7 August 2011. The cover design for their edited companion volume (Gaitán 2011) features a white, angular hourglass schematic against a black background. The bottom-left corner of the diagram dissolves into the void, reflecting the aspectual semantics of the title in the upper left: The end is near.
The hourglass gestalt (⧖) is a dynamic structure of “absolute difference” (Tyler 2014). Its mirror-symmetric arrangement implies infinite oscillation, but the structure itself is precarious. Considered as a crisscrossing linear process, it is closed off to possibility—unable to develop or grow beyond itself. It enforces a level of self-referentiality that is unsustainable. At any point it may begin to dissolve, separate or give way. At its axis, the center cannot hold. These propositions will seem, so far, to be unsupported; but what if their best defense is simply that we know them in our bones? I do not intend this suggestion to be taken proverbially but kinesthetically. As I describe in my forthcoming book The Semiotics of X, the argument could be framed as a direct exercise in the phenomenology of movement (a la Sheets-Johnstone 2011). For the time being, though, let me suggest a more visual path. My task here is to illustrate the precarious, felt dynamics of hourglass semiotics using brief visual and textual content analyses of graphic design case studies, involving five book covers and a movie poster.
The first comparative set of graphic designs consists of a book cover for a recently published edition of C. G. Jung’s 1912 lectures on the theory of psychoanalysis (left: Princeton University Press, Jung 1912) and a movie poster for the film 127 Hours, starring James Franco (right: Everest Entertainment, Boyle 2010). In both cases, the hourglass gestalt is held in a foreground-background tension such that the pattern alternates in-and-out of focus between the hourglass gestalt and its ground, resulting in ocular figure-ground reversals. In the left-hand image this occurs between the black hourglass design and images of Freud and Jung. On the right this occurs between the hourglass-shaped outline of the sky and the jutting faces of inverse canyon walls. In both cases, we also find a circle (or circular shape) at the center. In the Jung cover the circle obscures the kissing or crossing juncture entirely and features the term “contra”: Freud and Jung at loggerheads; two colleagues at odds; theory, truth and reputation on the line. The text and image work in tandem to reinforce the sense of stalemate across both horizontal and vertical axes. And yet, as we know, the two psychoanalysts are mutually defining pairs. Without Freud in particular there would be no Jung; and yet, following these lectures, the two found it necessary to part company. In essence, then, the circle obscuring the dynamic juncture at the center of the figure is a sign of things to come. The center will not hold.
In the 127 Hours poster, the object at the center is a precariously wedged boulder. Diagrammatically, this works as a hyperbolic reference to a grain of sand by accessing our perception and understanding of the background hourglass shape as a cultural archetype of crisis and mortality—especially with reference to limited time. Naturally, if the boulder is a grain of sand in an hourglass, the human figure perched precariously above it is the next to go—a drop that would mean certain death. This interpretation is reinforced by the tag line under the title: “every second counts”. Be this as it may, I wish to suggest that what makes this image so powerful, or what makes the composition so dramatic, lies far deeper in the human experience than our cultural knowledge of the part-whole relationships and archetypal meanings that inform our understanding of hourglasses artifacts. Rather, we feel the tension of these designs by mapping our own kinesthetic body memories onto the patterns themselves: feet apart, arms raised high. The respective blockages at the center of these two images suggest the oscillating dynamics mentioned above must themselves be frozen: no momentary “both/and” reconciliation of limbs; no momentary “neither/nor” relaxation of effort—only contradiction, negation and difference separated at extreme angles.
Next consider a set of book covers that incorporate hourglass gestalts with a further degree of instability or rupture at the center. In both cases, the paradoxical place of uniting and dividing has given way—like figures snapped in two at the waist. Both designs serve to represent crisis situations, and both foretell the imminent death or doom of some erstwhile absolute system that had been taken for granted or deemed deterministic. In each case, both the crisis and doomed institution in question are made explicit in the title: Persona non grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age (at left, Flanagan 2014) and The Great Disruption: Why Climate Crisis Will Bring on the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World (at right, Gilding 2012).
In both cases, a line of text replaces the would-be place of merging and crossing—the diagram’s dialectical intersection that served to hold the system together. In the first instance, the title serves this role—in the second instance, the author’s name does so. But the first title also refers to the book’s author, who became an instant pariah or “persona non grata” over the internet following ill-considered remarks he made at a public event. In both cases, then, the author of the text in question is framed as a catalyst or inciting force for alarm whose suffering or vision foretells the demise of an old order: in the first case freedom of speech, in the second case competitive consumption.
In neither case is the author actually the direct cause of the crisis in question. The direct causes of the two crises are framed rather in two respective triangle partitions left behind by each “disruption”. In the first case, the lower half of the would-be hourglass frames the actual cause: i.e., the advent of the internet age. In the second case, the upper (elongated) half of the diagram frames the culprit: i.e., the catastrophe of global warming. The contrast between the two is important to note. The Gilding cover on the left reinforces the hopefulness of the situation both in written form (“the birth of a new world”) and by framing the consequences of the collapse in the upper triangle. The first, by contrast, reinforces the grimness of the collapse in question (“death of free speech”) by offering no hope and framing the problem in the lower triangle. As we all know implicitly from early childhood experience—and as we all should know conceptually, thanks to the decades of findings in cognitive semantics—happiness is up and sadness is down (following Lakoff and Johnson 1980, Grady 1997). Other conceptual metaphors and signifying networks are also active in the two cover designs (such as the road/triangle blend, the dust/cloud interaction and the asymmetrical proportions of the hourglass in the Gilding cover), but these must wait for future analyses.
Return, for now, to The End of Money example from above. According to the event announcement, the exhibition “reflects upon the fears, hopes, and expectations associated with the end of money and its ominous consequence: the dissolution of an absolute standard of value” (TEM 2011). Thus the exhibition and its companion volume promote reflection on the consequences and possibilities of the dissolution of an absolute, dynamic and ultimately self-referential system. The event announcement continues by delivering an explicit prose-level chiasmus: “What limits does the economy impose on our collective imagination, and how is the collective imagination responsible for the current economy?” (TEM 2011).
Three points should be noted here that illustrate features of the argument above, further validating them in the process. First, the system in question (i.e., “money” or “the economy”) enforces strict limits on creative possibility. Second, these strict limits are part of the self-referentiality of the system, both enslaving and thriving on the curtailed imaginations of those who perpetuate it. Third, the prose-level chiasmus used to complement or reinforce this sense syntactically is congruent with the rest—economy: imagination :: imagination : economy. The semantics and pragmatics of the construction are best identified with Anthony Paul’s (2014) “mirror chiasmus”. Much akin to Shakespeare’s “fair is foul and foul is fair”, the problem identified is “a trap—mental, moral and existential” (2009: 110). The statement evokes a vicious cycle of desparation that further entrenches itself with each cycle, driving its guilty subjects deeper and deeper into its clutches until they despair of escape altogether. There is a way out, but it would require the dissolution of the system itself. This position is rendered visually at the bottom-left corner of the cover design schematic. It is worth noting that this corner corresponds with the position of the self-secure ego in Lacan’s hourglass-shaped “Schema L” (1966, 1977). Whether or not this final diagrammatic relation is intended, a rich network of congruent relations emerges. To summarize, then, we can note semiotic congruencies between the diagram token on the cover design, the visual diagram type it represents, the syntactic diagram that elaborates the problem in question, and the problem itself.
These developing hypotheses belong to a larger project consisting of many other networks of clues. Approached as a collateral index, the evidence suggests that we map our own body memories of outstretched limbs onto the angles of these images—along the outline of the sky in the Franco poster, for instance, or along the inverse lines of the black gestalt in the Jung cover or Flanagan cover. This allows us to feel the pertinent crisis in our very bones. The longer the posture is frozen or the farther the midline is pulled apart, the more discomfort shades into torture. One false move—the slippage of a foot, the drooping of an arm—and the whole structure collapses, perhaps beyond recovery. To make sense of any of the five designs above, body memory is at work, helping us see and feel that the end is near. The center will not hold. This, at least, is a foretaste of the argument I am developing for the significance of spread-eagle posture in my forthcoming book entitled The Semiotics of X (Bloomsbury Academic).
Jamin Pelkey is assistant professor of Linguistic Anthropology in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Ryerson University, Toronto. Currently editor of Semiotics (Philosophy Documentation Center), Jamin researches questions at the intersections of sociohistorical linguistics, philosophy of language, cognitive semiotics, and embodied cognition. His ethnolinguistic field research on the Phula languages of Yunnan, China, is detailed in Dialectology as Dialectic (DeGruyter). Current book projects include Sociohistorical Linguistics in Southeast Asia (Brill) and The Semiotics of X: Chiasmus, Cognition and Extreme Body Memory (Bloomsbury Academic).
This research is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada: SSHRC-IDG #430-2015-01226 “Steps to a Grammar of Embodied Symmetry.”
Boyle, Danny (dir.). 2010. 127 Hours. Film. New York: Everest Entertainment.
Flanagan, Tom. 2014. Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age. Toronto: Signal.
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