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Zooming on iconicity

Shadows, mirrors, and smoke screens: zooming on iconicity

By Christina Ljungberg

Iconicity is one of the semiotic concepts introduced by Charles Sanders Peirce that has recently attracted much attention across the disciplines. In neuroscience, the discovery of mirror neurons, brain cells that fire both when the organism acts itself and when it perceives the same action being performed by another organism, has raised much interest in iconicity and seems to offer explanations for theories of communication and speech development. Could behavior such as empathy and imitation have neurological roots? Could the Mirror System Hypothesis perhaps explain the evolution of speech by linking language to this theory of mind (cf. Arbib 2004)? The cognitive sciences have for a long time had much interest in the role of the iconic in concept formation and in communication, which has only increased with the current development in complex multimedia techniques and sophisticated methods of visualization of scientific processes. For quite some time, the focus has been on the importance of mental images in cognitive processes, not only for the way we orient ourselves in the physical world we live in but also for how we outline problems by “mapping them,” describe processes or make decisions by using maps, schemata, and diagrams. Cognition involves iconicity because mental images are icons, and icons can lead to new insights and to the discovery of relations not recognized without their iconic representation.

Iconicity then becomes a precondition for communication and mutual understanding. This has recently been pointed out by Winfried Nöth (2008) who stresses that it is above all the diagrammatic icon structuring discourse and reasoning that makes texts and arguments clearer and more transparent since diagrams lay bare the path of the argument: “Diagrams in language are both cognitively necessary and rhetorically efficient since icons are superior to other signs when clearness of representation and coherence of argumentation is concerned.” The importance of diagrammatic iconicity to cognition also accounts for the new interest in analogy. Analogies are mental diagrams with the effect of the parallel mapping of the structures of two conceptual domains. Analogies are important to linguistic theorizing and modelling and they are important factors of language change, language evolution, and language acquisition, as the studies by Douglas Hofstadter (1995), Terrence Deacon (1997), Esa Itkonen (2005), Dieter Wanner (2006), Olga Fischer (2007) and others have shown who have given evidence that the basic mechanism of learning is analogy. Frederik Stjernfelt is on a similar track in his recent Diagrammatology (2007), but he attempts to chart the importance of diagrams by looking at their philosophical implications (diagnosing similarities between Peircean semiotics and early Husserlian phenomenology) as well as exploring what a diagrammatic approach can bring to areas as different as biosemiotics, picture analysis, and the theory of literature.

The increased interest in iconicity has also been prompted by the current focus on intermediality. Intermediality is not only of concern to the way modalities such as genres, narrative modes and styles change in the transfer process from one medium to another but also to the extent to which an ‘original’ medium dialogues with other media and thus receives impulses in return. An example here is how literature has been influenced both by painting and film, attracting and absorbing techniques and ideas, which then flow back to these two media again, inspiring, in turn, literary texts anew. Not only are there interrelations and constant interactions between the visual, verbal, and oral media, and, as W.J.T. Mitchell has repeatedly claimed, all media are mixed media, but the intersemiotic translations and transformations taking place have a mainly iconic character as they involve the mapping of structures and self-reflexivity. As a result, the combinations of, and the switching among, the various media in multimedia works of art direct our attention to the specificity of the media and make us aware of the various sensory modalities addressed and the semiotic register of sign functions involved.

These topics and the iconicity in written texts and spoken discourse in general are some of the issues that will be discussed at the upcoming Seventh Symposium on Iconicity in Language and Literature, which will take place at Victoria College in Toronto during 9-14 June in 2009. Further topics of this conference are iconicity in visual texts, in signed and gestural languages, visual and auditory signing, cognitive science, reader-oriented approaches and music interacting with language as well as film and multimedia performance. It will also feature a workshop on Cognitive Poetics with distinguished speakers such as Margaret Freeman (Myrifield), Reuven Tsur (Tel Aviv), David Herman (Ohio), Zoltan Kovecses (Budapest), Adam Kendon (London), Mark Changizi (New York). It is therefore with excitement that we watch the June Symposium take shape. For further information, please visit the conference website.