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combination of signs with differing kinds of motivation

Materials to the text
: Mimesis and semiosis


There are five kinds of signs according to the degree of motivation. They may be combined as follows:





visualisation 1
symbol 2 5
imagesign 3 6 8





Let us remark that we are dealing here with combination of signs with differing degree of motivation, not with the combination of images and signs, which are dealt with in 'Entwining of mimesis and semiosisd'.

The classification of the examples learns that there are two kinds of combination: a purely additive: combination and the more sophisticated condensation.

(01) combination van visualisations with unmotivated signs:


- visualisations are often combined with text (names of organs, cities, rivers...), numbers, arrows, mathematic symbols and what have you
- on the score of Ligeti's 'Aventures' pitch and duration are visualised and combined with phonetic script


- 'this is really BIG': the size of the letters is the visualisation of quantity.
- in scores, pitch is visualised by 'height' on the staff, whereas duration is rendered in an unmotivated code.

- In many a rebus, unmotivated signs like letters, syllables or words are condensed with size or position as analog visual signs (above, below, in and so on):


(read: j'ai grand appétit)

(02) combination of symbols with unmotivated signs

additive: image of a peace dove with the words 'peace' added

(03) combination of imagesigns with unmotivated signs

additive: satellite photo with arrows indicating cities; anatomic plate with the name of the organs


- shape of letters read as imagesign: the 's' of 'snake' as a snake; the m of 'moutain' as mountain:
- words written as an imagesign:

- words, verses or poems that are arranged in the form of their meaning (poème dessiné, or 'calligrammes' of Apollinaire like 'It rains'), :

- the sound of a word used as an imagesign: in words like 'cuckoo''. .

(04) combination of objectsigns with unmotivated signs.

additive: item in a shop window with name, price and so on

(05) combination of symbols with visualisations

additive: map with Eiffel tower as a symbol of Paris; map with individual animals as symbols for species; map of the low countries in the shape of a lion

condensed: Heartfield's capitalist who gives money to Hitler, whose importance is indicated by his size

(06) combination of imagesigns with visualisations:

additive: borders drawn on satellite photos
condensed: driving directions indicated as essentialised imagesigns of routes in a pure route map

(07) combination of objectsign with visualisation

graph where one value is rendered as the image of an object

(08) combination of imagesign with symbols:

additive: rendering of Eiffel tower on satellite photo; a cloud or some raindrops as symbol on a weather map

condensed: normal, but foremost metaphoric predication: a symbol condensed with an image

(09) combination of imagesign with symbol

additive: Mr Proper in the kitchen

(10) combination of objectsign with symbol?

Back to 'Semiosis and mimesis'


A striking example of combination of visualisation with imagesign, that eventually leads to a complete replacement of the visualisation with the imagesign, is the road map. Driving directions are invisible, but we can visualise them through a line, as when we visualise the invisible orbit of a planet: think of a metro map, or of the map below on the left, with routes converging in Santiago de Compostella. On the second map, the position of the cities is no longer arbitrary: it corresponds with the real geographical position of the cities, the rendering of which is motivated through visual analogy (translation of the degree of latitude and longitude in 'height' and 'breadth'). Such a rendering coincides with what we would get to seem from a bird's eye view. Thus, we can read the points as visualisations that are additionally motivated by images of cities which are essentialised and idealised, whereby the size of the circles can function as a sign for the size of the cities. On the third map, also the visualisation of the driving directions is additionally motivated through visual likeness with roads, as they would look like from a bird's eye perspective. The highways are rendered through two red lines, which we can read as tracks, separated through a yellow line. We may compare with the rendering of the circulatory system. The visual likeness is essentialised and idealised in view of the readability of the sign: the red and the yellow discerns the highways from ordinary roads, which are red or yellow, and from rivers, which are blue. The additional motivation may become so dominant, that the map is no longer read as a visualisation of driving directions, but as a strongly essentialised and idealised image of a road system, on which we can also read driving directions, so that the visualisations has become an imagesign in that respect, comparable with the rendering of blood vessels in a body.

The transition from visualisation to imagesign is enhanced through the additional rendering of rivers and railways, whose colour is also adapted to the demands of a colour code. How much we are dealing here with an in essence analog visualisation of driving directions, is evident from the introduction of the given 'France'. The borders of a state are invisible. 'France' can only be rendered as a visualisation, not as an imagesign. On the right, the invisible border is rendered through a yellow line with black crosses. On the right, the equally invisible border coincides with the coastal line, just like driving directions coincide with highways. But the coastal line is not an image of the border, but rather a visualisation that coincides with the image of the coastal line. How much we are dealing with visualisations here, is evident from a comparison with an image. On the satellite photo below, only the optical image of the coastal line is to be seen, whereas the border is invisible on the coast as well as on the continent. That map of an island like England is not an image of an island, although a line drawing of it would not be discernable from a map: in the former case we are dealing with an image, in the latter with a visualisation of a border. That is most evident from a satellite photo of Switzerland, where there are no borders to be seen at all, so that we have a rather difficult time in finding out where the country is to be found.

How much they may be additionally motivated as an imagesign, maps are in essence not imagesigns, let alone images, but visualisations. Although they look like an imagesign - or although the motivation through visual likeness can go so far that the visualisation can be read as an imagesign, the likeness with an imagesign is only apparent. That becomes clear as soon as we look at a demographic map, where the invisible borders are rendered through white lines, and the density through colours. Conversely, it is revealing to examine an example that is even more misleading as a road map: a relief map, where the height is rendered through a colour code that is motivated through the fact that lower regions tend look green and mountains are barren (see the legend below the map). The distribution of brown and green on the map differs from that on the photo: just compare the rendering of the delta of the Garonne, or the mountains which are white on the photo, where the relief map shows dark brown. According to the same code, a map of the Sahara is green...

But it is not because a visualisation tends to become transformed into an imagesign, that there would be a continuum where a sign would gradually be transformed into an image: we are always dealing with signs, and it is only the kind of motivation that changes. Nothing prevents us from reading the imagesign as an image. Just like the blood vessels in an anatomic plate, also the road map can be read as an essentialised image, if we remove all the other signs: the names of the cities, the colour code, and so on - although the image would have become a rather worthless map...

Back to ''Conclusions from the inquiry into the motivation of signs'

© Stefan Beyst, mei 2010
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Review of alternative approaches: Nelson Goodman, Arthur Danto, W.J.T Mitchell, Gottfried Boehm,

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Background to this text: stefan beyst: theory on art


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