The signature is, first of all, of the order of an impression, the pressing and pressure of a body on a surface leaving behind its trace or impression, in the case of the hand and its digits.
The hand, more precisely, operates in the transcription of the oral to the written through the visible, but even before this operation of transcription, there is the implication of the dexterity of a body that instructed the hand. In a signature, the happening is the momentary encounter of the body with the tracing, of the body which traces with present remainders, and one already having gone past its own inscription.
From the simple contact gesture – as in Grotto of Gargas, Aventignan - to scribbling, it is the very act of tracing which develops. An encounter of touch with a technical supplement, a signature, as a “significant fingerprint”, reveals a suture mark between the body and the technique.
In the domain of writing, the signature has become a banal gesture in contemporary societies. It can be defined as an inscription written in calligraphy of one’s name done in one’s own hand in a nearly identical way for the sake of being recognisable. This recognition is not meant to be used to decipher the name but only to identify the autographing act against a matrix, which is a previous signature. Various semiotic elements contribute to its definition.
Symbol: if to sign is to inscribe one’s name, then such is perhaps the most recent to take place in the gesture of making one’s autograph. It can be said that making one’s own name is a mark of the modern signature because before that time it comprised a type of scribbling-mark with rounded arabesques so unique as to be impossible to reproduce. The principle that someone else could never reproduce the signature underscored the ultimate objective of the signature. Thus the name, as a principle of individualisation, blended with the signature to stabilise its form. A fusion between the figural and literal dimensions of writing then occurred.
Index: all signatures are the result of a manual gesture employing calligraphy and inscribing something. All signatures require a momentary and ephemeral act when one is present which lasts only during the act of inscribing the elements upon a writable surface. It can be said, thus, that the signature is event-bound because it participates via the presence of the body in the act of inscription and is thus evanescent, given that as a gesture it is momentary and tends toward its termination. Truly, what is identified as signature is rather the product of this gesture, a graphic mark traced on paper “black on white”. A signature as a result of a gesture is on the order of a vestige. An index in that it maintains a physical contiguity with the body and the hand that traced it. The character of index has imbued the signature with a presential dimension of being in the act which the graph would tend to make eternal, given that it maintains a longer life span than life.
Icon: In a signature, the dimensions of writing and image coexist. It becomes a question of graphic transformation performed by the hand in the conventionality of handwriting in order to set down one’s personal mark, which is something on the visual order. The condensed or abbreviated signature is the origin of the initials, a type of scribbled signature, an approximation of an emblem “as a sensitive image” and easily recognised and recognisable as an individualising trace. The graphism of the signature takes on a dimension of similarity that relates any new signature to a previous one and which serves as a matrix. Thus, all signatures, in that they are unique and singular, should repeat the gesture if not the tracing which identifies the name which is already traced. In this way it acquires an iconic value that allows for its recognition. A signature is recognisable if it is similar to its prototype and imitates it.
By being one’s individual inscribed mark, the signature reveals aporia that should be noted. Given its unique character – which implies an act at each execution – the signature reveals, in the ultimate analysis, the unrepeatable nature of the happening but given that it should correspond to its model it becomes a replica, which means that it is also defined by iterability. Thus, making a signature is at the same time a unique but repeatable act and yet in terms of a manuscript, gestual and singular, and in terms of the mechanical, reproducible and analogous.
In question is a type of automisation of the tracing which defines the style of drawing and painting, for example. From there it becomes possible to speak of signature with respect to the engravings at Côa, referring not to the apposition of one’s very name written in calligraphy below drawn figures – as in modern art where the artist signs the work or makes his/her very own signature the work of art in itself – but rather an iterability of the tracing of these figures which brings them closer, identifying the same closed hand, the same body. It is possible to better understand the explanation given by specialists for the regime of signatures in the Côa engravings: “The admirably decorated rock surfaces, such as 1 and 24 of Piscos, 3 of the Quinta da Barca, 11 of the Canada do Inferno or 16 of the Vale de José Esteves, among others, justify the individualisation of the hand of some of the unknown Grand Masters of Côa, to whom we symbolically give the names of the places where even today their works of rock art are kept.”;
Style, as in signature, is an autographical practice which is neither defined nor imitated but rather is executed, each time singularly, each time confirming this very singularity – inimitable yet iterable. Thus it is the recurrence of the tracing that constitutes the style; otherwise it would be just the fortuitous tracing of a mark.
Performative value: The fact that a signature is an autographical mark does not imply that its definition and scope expire, that is, the reach of its act. In a signature there is a performativity that comes from the fact that it gives of itself in an act, that it is a statement. Not only does it legitimise, affirm or confirm what comes before it as an act, it self-legitimises. As Derrida stated: “The signature invents the person signing it”, and with it comes a “fabulous retroactivity”.
Finally, it allows the distinction amongst natural signs to operate, occurring by physical contiguity, even if involuntary, between the body and its trace, as is the case with footprints, fingerprints, or traces of blood for example, and symbolic or institutional signs, these latter produced intentionally to perform and have some legal effect, as is the case with notaries and their actions, for example. From the legal standpoint, a signature is a way to validate or legitimise an action. The analysis of the evolution of judicial procedures shows that the signature has come to replace one’s testimony; but more than this, it has affixes in the present an act from the past as it also promises in the present a future with a promise, a commitment sealed as “with a promise.” Thus we have revealed the economy and efficacy of its nature.