2 min read

Writing and indexicality or something like that

One thing I'm enjoying about this notebook is bashing out lots of short posts in one sitting. There's not enough time to introduce anything carefully, so I normally just start without giving any context, or maybe throw out a couple of links as a rough pointer. (Also, if I can't think of a good title quickly, I just hit Publish with the terrible placeholder one still there.)

I was talking to David MacIver about this a couple of weeks ago, and he thinks that this sort of writing is Good, Actually: I don't remember his exact words, but I think the rough argument was that people like reading high-context no-intro writing, it feels fresh and immediate and not like you're reading some dull text aimed at a general audience where you have to tediously get everybody up to speed. Generally the audience you want to read it can follow along anyway, context is normally searchable, etc. I think I agree with all this and I mainly want to explore some ideas around it.

High-context writing relies a lot on pointing: 'You know that thing there? Well, ...'. These sort of expressions are known as indexical ones, and a helpful banana has written up a clear explanation of what that means so that I don't have to:

“Indexical” is a word almost perfectly calculated to sap the morale of the reader and annihilate interest. I have seriously considered replacing it with the word “pointing,” used as a descriptor. Indexical statements are pointing statements: “I prefer this one,” “don’t do that,” “I made it for you.” These sentences have no particular meaning without reference to the situation in which they are produced. Physical pointing, as with an index finger or the lips or chin, may or may not accompany an indexical expression, but there is a sort of pointing-to-the-situation that occurs in all cases. I’ve decided to keep “indexical” for clarity, but keep in mind that indexical means pointing, in a literal and then in an extended, figurative way.

In the linguistic sense, an expression is indexical if it refers by necessity to some particular state of affairs. “This guy arrived just now” depends on the person indicated and the time of speaking; it is highly indexical. Compare “The Prime Minister arrived at 5:15 p.m.” This is less indexical, but notice that the identity of the Prime Minister depends on the country, and of course we don’t know anything about the circumstances or place of arrival from the text: 5:15 p.m., but in what time zone?

This helps explain why high-context writing feels fresh and immediate - you're pointing pretty directly at the thing, without too many intermediate layers of translation into more general terms. You're ranting about that guy there, not 'The Prime Minister'. Twitter makes this particularly easy (probably far too easy), with its inbuilt pointing mechanism of the quote tweet.

The downside of highly indexical writing is the fragility - a reference to that guy is dependent on the context, and can't be transformed out of it in a reliable one-to-one way. So although I like this sort of writing, there are limitations. Sometimes I feel compelled to put in quite a bunch of surrounding context in more polished blog posts, and although I think I often end up overdoing it I can understand where the impulse is coming from. Something to think about more.

Another angle I might want to explore: this relates to Derrida's ideas about presence (highly indexical writing feels more directly present), and it also relates to Brian Cantwell Smith's ideas about indexicality in representation. I was trying to mash their ideas together earlier in the week and this is something like the underlying generator for why I think that might be worth doing.