Graphic Formalism / COVID-19 arrows and the “dis-affordances” of form / Pansy Duncan

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If the COVID-19 pandemic delivered a host of what we might loosely call new forms, it also dusted off an old one—the humble arrow, which popped up, bossily, in an array of public and semi-public places across the affluent West: footpaths, supermarkets, chemists, public toilets. There was nowhere, it seemed, that it couldn’t penetrate: no supermarket aisle so wide that it couldn’t do with reconstruction as a one-way system, no flow of pedestrian traffic so obvious that it couldn’t benefit from a few visual prods.

What is an arrow? Formally speaking, an arrow is a triangle, chevron or concave kite affixed to a line or rectangle. Yet it is also a sign, busily engaged in acts of signification, from pointing, guiding, and implying to signifying relative quantity. And as Roland Barthes notes, this relentless labour of signification tends to “hide” the form of the arrow, hollowing out its “rich, fully experienced” form in order to enlist it as the “accomplice of a concept.”1 The arrow’s three centuries-long history recapitulates this process of abstraction, slowly whittling the arrow away until substance gives way to symbol. According to Robert J. Finkel, while “in early maps and diagrams, the arrow [wa]s often     … a variation of an archer’s arrow complete with point, shaft, and fletching,” today, the only recognizable features of the original archer’s arrow are the triangular head and the rectangular shaft.2 The form of the arrow also reflects this evolution toward greater abstraction, tapering, as it does, from the base of the triangle to the tip, as if vanishing into its own symbolic efficacy. This development is further mirrored in the Cambridge English Dictionary’s definition of the term, which shifts quickly from form to significatory affordances: “a sign consisting of a straight line with an upside-down V shape at one end of it that points in a particular direction used to show where something is.”

Significatory affordances the supermarket floor arrow certainly had, although some were more explicit than others. The explicit: to direct human and cart traffic in the service of social distancing. The inexplicit: to offset the “collective disorientation” produced by a virus whose transmission routes and long and short-term effects were not entirely clear.3 To this end, the arrow had a distinct advantage over the cluster of other graphic forms, from the QR code to the ubiquitous “flatten the curve” line-graph, that rose up in the wake of COVID-19 to help control its spread. The advantage of the arrow lay in its unassuming quality. Whereas the QR code initially telegraphed crisis, the arrow is humdrum and quotidian, more reminiscent of airport lounges and supermarket aisles than global pandemics. Whereas the QR code rests on relatively new technology that has sparked concerns about dataveillance, the arrow has a demure vintage charm. In theory, the arrow’s unassuming air should have sustained it in its signature elision of its own performative force, its recasting of demand as description. (The latter is encapsulated in the Cambridge English Dictionary definition cited above, in which the arrow’s work of pointing us “in a particular direction ostensibly serves less to direct us than to show us “where something [already] is.”)

Yet despite the arrow’s self-effacing tendencies, 2020 and 2021’s bumper crop of arrows was a magnet for significant controversy. While some commentators celebrated their new ubiquity as effective biopolitical governance, others bundled arrows in with stay-at-home orders, vaccine mandates, school closures, and enforced masking as part of a “new standard of state boundary-crossing.”4 While some people dutifully followed their cues, others proudly didn’t.5 And it’s easy to trace the origins of these conflicting responses to the figure. Unlike the QR code, the mask, or the flatten-the-curve graph, and however superficially self-effacing its performative work, the arrow is just plain pushy. For many, its claims on the body pegged it as just one of numerous COVID-19-specific assaults on bodily autonomy and freedom of movement. It didn’t help that, like pronouns and prepositions, arrows are deictic signifiers—hard-working, multi-purpose signifiers whose denoted meaning rests almost entirely on context (that is to say, on the time, place, position, source, and means of their appearance). In the case of the arrow, for example, its meaning depends on the angle from which you approach it: if the arrow points toward you, it’s a firm visual rebuff; if it points away, it’s welcoming, inviting, solicitous. This contingency is also on display in the arrow’s role as a logical operator, where the horizontal, rightward-pointing arrow indicates implication; the upward-pointing “Sheffer stroke” indicates that at least one of its operands is false; and the downward-pointing “Peirce arrow” indicates that neither proposition is true. The problem with the contingency of the deictic signifier is that, as Per Aage Brandt notes, its “intelligibility” depends strongly “on the presupposition of a communicative intersubjective bond, such as a shared caring for something     … interpersonal respect, discursive relevance, etc.”6 From this perspective, polarized responses are baked into the arrow’s significatory structure; its meaning quite literally depends on where you’re standing.

Image purchased from Shutterstock.

So much for the arrow as sign, for the arrow wrestled into service as a means of helpful or less helpful pointing. Yet the arrow is not just a sign. Sustaining its many significatory affordances are what Eugenie Brinkema calls the potential “dis-affordances of form,” with their unpredictable “capacity to neutralize, suspend, disrupt, even void grounds of meaning.”7 This capacity is only amplified in cases of formal failure, which tend to draw fresh attention to form in all its neutralizing, suspending, and disruptive force. And this failure was nowhere more noticeable than in Aotearoa-New Zealand, where the arrows plastered around the country in the wake of the virus largely failed to stick to the point. Contra what Gillian Fuller describes as the rise of an “international standard in signage,” most local retailers opted for masking tape or chalk in lieu of the slick, shop-bought arrows that were quickly manufactured to meet the new market for public health signage.8 In part this was testament to the speed with which the government guidelines they helped enforce came into effect. But it was also testament to a cycle of denial about how long they’d be in service: few people wanted to invest in an expensive, quasi-permanent means of handling a problem they wished would simply go away. Either way, it had consequences: masking tape arrows had a habit of bunching up or breaking off along the shaft underfoot, while chalk arrows fared especially poorly in the wet Auckland winters, snaking off course or dribbling into the gutter. In short, like much else in the New Zealand cultural landscape, they were just a “little bit shit.”9 To the extent that, as Giuliana Bruno has noted, a figure’s materiality “manifest[s]” as form, these arrows were studies in formal failure, and thus examples of form’s “dis-affordances.”10

Yet for precisely this reason, there were upsides to New Zealand’s poorly-rendered and poorly-applied arrows. Because nothing confounds and convolutes like form, these crude tape or chalk markings became a peculiarly Antipodean bulwark against the excesses of the COVID-19 culture wars.11 If, as some voices contended shrilly, the arrow is the “tool and trope of the control society,” our arrows afforded this particular control society a hapless, ad-hoc quality that few could take altogether seriously.12 If, for others, the arrow should be vaunted as a lesson in “positive biopolitics,” these arrows suggested that we had quite a way to go before biopolitics would look entirely positive.13 In this sense, these well-intentioned but poorly-executed figures helped to discredit all discourses, both “right” and “left,” that tried to make them signify, effectively undermining both government efforts to press them into service as a means of controlling the spread of disease and efforts to enlist them as emblems of seamless authoritarian control. That’s not to say that the humdrum arrow entirely spared New Zealand a nationwide struggle over the meaning of COVID-19. But these struggles did not scale up to quite the degree that they did elsewhere. Perhaps this was because, unable to point at anything with any authority, our arrows—crooked, bunched-up, stained and stepped-on—came to signify the compromises and contingencies at play in the process of pointing itself. 

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This is part of the cluster Graphic Formalism. Read the other posts here.

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Endnotes

  1. Roland Barthes, Mythologies (London: Jonathan Cape, 1972), 117.
  2. Robert J Finkel, “History of the Arrow,” American Printing History Association, accessed August 15, 2022, https://printinghistory.org/arrow/
  3. Alexander J. Means and Graham B. Slater, “Collective Disorientation in the Pandemic Conjuncture,” Cultural Studies 35, no. 2-3 (2021): 514-522.
  4. Laura Glitsos, “COVID-19 and the ‘perfectly governed city,’”Journal for Cultural Research 25, no. 3 (2021): 270-286.
  5. “The amount of people that can’t follow arrows around a supermarket is frankly astounding,” Reddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/britishproblems/comments/g6mh6b/the_amount_of_people_that_cant_follow_arrows/
  6. Per Aage Brandt, “Deixis – a semiotic mystery: Enunciation and reference,” Cognitive Semiotics 9, no. 1 (2016): 1.
  7. Eugenie Brinkema, “Form,” in Concise Companion to Visual Culture, ed. A Joan Saab, Aubrey Anable, and Catherine Zuromskis (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2020), 262.
  8. Gillian Fuller, “The Arrow – Directional Semiotics: Wayfinding in Transit,” Social Semiotics 12, no. 3 (2002): 234.
  9. Nicholas Holm, “The Difficult Arts of Being a Bit Shit,” NZ On Screen, accessed August 23, 2022, https://www.nzonscreen.com/collection/nz-comedy-in-a-good-way/background/nicholas-holm
  10. Giuliana Bruno, Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 2.
  11. Richard Horton, “Offline: COVID-19 as culture war,” The Lancet 399, no. 10322 (2022): 346.
  12. Fuller, “The arrow – Directional Semiotics,” 242.
  13. Bratton, The revenge of the real.