The signpost is a liminal artefact. It points from where we are to where we dream of being. We are both here — at this grassy triangle on the edge of a Norfolk village — and (in our imaginations) at the destinations it advertises. And such fingerposts help us navigate in more ways than one. With their help we slip between modes of ‘here’ and ‘there’, ‘now’ and ‘then’, ‘when’ and ‘where’. The signifier roots us in one place and time; the signified in another.
And such dissonance and indeterminacy can bring comfort. Imagine a long journey home, the grey, wet motorway unfolding before you as the sun falls behind a distant cooling tower. This is Augé’s non-place where identity is dislocated and our sense of self and community denuded. We drive through alien(ating) landscapes, bypassing towns, villages and hamlets in ‘a constant reminder of what we might be missing by choosing to travel in this way’ (Andrews, p.63). Then, through the windscreen wiper, we glimpse a sign bearing the name of a familiar road or destination. Associations of home and community invade the non-place transforming it into a space ‘rich in mundane comfort and sensations’ (Edensor, p.151). We find ourselves travelling not just roads of asphalt, metal and neon but highways of the imagination replete with emotion and memory.
Our fingerpost is also materially indeterminate . Bloomed with lichen and scarred by blistered paint and mouldering wood, it transmutes with each season, frost and storm. Like the ghost sign and the ruin, it is in a ‘constant state of decay and unmaking’ (De Silvey and Edensor, p.472). And for these signs pictured, an ultimate ‘unmaking’ is imminent as the local council has announced their ‘sympathetic’ replacement. Until that day, as wood and paint dissolve, the metal lettering endures. An obdurate shout of defiance proclaiming the villages they signify — Ashwellthorpe, Hapton — as the world around wastes and falls away.
This power of fingerposts and signs is immense. Think how new, invasive notices have lately transformed our spaces of work, leisure and consumption. These signs of instruction, reminding us where to walk and the need for sanitiser or masks, may reassure but also unsettle and perturb. Like the fingerposts, they dis[place] us. They signify not just an unfamiliar present, but a nostalgic past. For emphasising what we are now, they remind us what he have lost. And what are stories of nostalgia but those of loss (Gabriel, 2000)? But, like a cracked and ill-enchanted kaleidoscope, such signs also meld the present with a foreboding future. Here, threats we have yet to predict creep and slouch towards us. Such signs are both consoling and minatory. For we may yet regain what we have lost or lose what we have yet to regain. The liminal artefact poses doubts yet rarely confirms resolution.
Andrews, M. (2012) ‘The autoroute and the picturesque’, Corkish, A. (ed.) In the company of ghosts: the poetics of the motorway. erbacce-press.
Augé, M. (2008) Non-places: an introduction to supermodernity. Verso
DeSilvey, C. and Edensor, T. (2013) ‘Reckoning with ruins’, Progress in Human Geography, 37(4), pp. 465–485.
Edensor, T. (2003) ‘Defamiliarizing the mundane roadscape’, Space and Culture, 6(2), pp. 151-168.
Gabriel, G. (2000) Storytelling in organisations: facts, fictions, and fantasies. Oxford University Press.
Yeats, W.B. (1921) ‘The Second Coming’, in W.B. Yeats selected poetry. Pan
All illustrations, Ian Rodwell, South Norfolk, July 2020.