If we are going to open ourselves the possibility of being surprised to discover a sorrowful god, and what that might mean, let us pause here for a technical clarification, by way of a discussion of the semiotic status of icons. The Crucifix is probably the most powerful icon in the history of Christianity; and Christians claim that it is so because it represents all that they wish from a god sacrificing himself for their redemption. Unfortunately, icons are not uni-vocal. They can represent exactly what we don’t want from their signified.
“An Icon is a sign which refers to the Object that it denotes merely by virtue of characters of its own, and which it possesses, just the same, whether such Object actually exists or not. (…) Anything whatever, be it quality, existent individual, or law, is an Icon of anything, in so far it is like that thing and used as a sign of it.”
– Charles S. Peirce, Collected Papers (C.P.), volume 2, section 247.
An icon communicates information about what it signifies, not by pointing to it, nor by elaborating the concept of it, nor by referring to it, but by “showing” it, by assuming the likeness of the signified when the signified itself is not present. Thus, obviously a statue – even of a mythological personage – can be the icon of that personage, if it is carved to give us all the likeness of the character expected of the personage. Thus we expect a statue of Hercules to have well developed muscles, reminding us of his strength. But the kind and amount of information an icon can convey can actually vary quite a bit. An aerial photograph of a road would certainly be iconic of the road, but a map drawn on the basis of the photographic would be more so, because it could include greater details, for instance measurement, roadside attractions, etc.
Most difficult to grasp, however, is that an icon can show forth, through likeness, ideas as their signified. This becomes clear when Peirce discusses how certain algebraic formulas are in fact effective icons for the relations between quantities:
“Here is an example:
This is an icon, in that it makes quantities look alike which are in analogous relations to the problem. In fact, every algebraic equation is an icon, in so far as it exhibits, by means of the algebraic signs (…), the relations of the quantities concerned. ” (Peirce, C.P., V. 2, s. 282) [Note: I am using the prime/ double prime signs instead of Peirce’s original subscripts 1 and 2, which I can’t reproduce here.]
Peirce follows up this remark with another I have found startling:
“It may be questioned whether all icons are likenesses or not. For example, if a drunken man is exhibited to show, by contrast, the excellence of temperance, this is certainly an icon, but whether it is a likeness or not may be doubted. The question seems somewhat trivial.” (Peirce, C.P., V. 2, s. 282)
We want Peirce to have said, that the drunken man is made an icon of drunkenness, or of drunken men per se. But that is not what he is saying. What he is actually contemplating is the way in which the mere presence of a drunken man is iconic representation “by contrast” of what the temperate do not want from drunkenness. A sign may be iconic exactly in contrast to an object that is different from any form it may immediately represent. To put it simply: The drunken man stands in iconic re-presentation for “temperance” (continued non-drunkenness) because whatever he is or presents, will not be found among the temperate. He is not the picture – he’s the frame.
The sign can be an icon when it frames the interpretant with another interpretant. The interpretant of the drunken man includes his being drunk; the interpretant of temperance includes not being drunk. But there is no not-being-drunk unless there is also the possibility of being drunk.
More technically: The definition of the class “drunken humans” stands as limit to a definition of all that is not to be defined as “drunken” but still defined as human, which thus satisfies the definition of the class “temperate humans.” If this sounds silly – that’s why Peirce called it trivial. It is silly because it is so obvious.
Yet what is still not obvious is the way this transforms the drunken man into an icon for temperance.
If a person looks at a drunken man, at his messed hair, his watery eyes with dilated, unfocused pupils; his reddened nose, running a little; the cut on his cheek from trying to shave with an unsteady hand’ the bruise on his chin from when he stumbled and fell; the drool at the corners of his lips; his soiled clothing; his inability to stand straight; his exaggerated posture; and then of course there is the stench of stale drink and urine….
The temperate person can see in this man all the signs of drunkenness as they look to an outsider, and perhaps can imagine what it must be like to live among others that way – the insults, the unwanted pity and condescension, the unwanted nagging of temperance missionaries…. All this is there present in such a projection, except the actual experience of being drunk. It is the man himself who stands as an icon for his own condition.
But more than that: By inversion, if I do not want to be a drunken man, then he stands iconically for my condition – of temperance. “There,” I say to myself, looking at the man (and smelling him), “that is what I do not want for myself. I want what he hasn’t got.”
So now we see that an icon can really prove a difficult signifier to interpret. Since it is representation in likeness of its signified, it raises all the questions we might have of the signified, including whatever ideas or responses we could have of it. It can even represent, by contrast, the signified’s opposite.
The Crucifix not only stands iconically for Jesus-on-the-Cross; it also stands for something that is not on the cross. If we see in it the icon of a self-sacrificing god who redeems us, it may well also prove an icon of something about ourselves that is ungodly, and possibly nonredeemable….