X-marks-the-spot on a map, making it a designator of precise location. Right. There. It is also the most often used algebraic variable, where it signifies the unknown (until you solve for it) which is, oddly enough, the opposite of designating precision. Consequently, it gets a whole axis named after it on the Cartesian plane, a further testament to the infinite realm of numbers X can be. It’s a mathematical chameleon. Unless we’re talking the Roman system instead of the Arabic. Then it’s just 10.
But it is also a sign of danger, especially when formed from a pair of bones, placed under a smiling skull, and flown atop a canon-armed ship or stickered to a bottle in a laboratory. Other common uses are in the phrase “the X-Factor,” an uncategorizeable exception or unpredictable agent. This is connected to one of X’s shining moments in popular culture, the X-Men, the thrilling superhero team allegorizing the battle between tolerance and intolerance. Which side of this debate does X belong? Well, when we cross our two forefingers in front of us we are warding something away, and if you’re reading this on the computer, then there’s an X in the upper right of whatever program you have open waiting for your command to exit. Want to excise text? CTRL + X. The X-Men may be named for Professor Xavier, but they are branded as the unknowable, unpredictable, unwanted others of society. Every society has its X-Men.
X is mysterious, darkly mystical, unknown, a symbol for symbols. The letter that nets you 8 points in Scrabble means so many things that it almost doesn’t want you to know what it means. It revels in its subversiveness, a smile beneath a shadowy cloak, ready to brandish coin or blade.
This power, I believe (or, as an analyzer of symbols, choose to believe) is derived from X’s shape. Two perfectly diagonal lines bisecting each other in the center has a specific effect on our culture’s visual conventions. First, it is the inverse of a square. While a square is simple and shapely and draws a boundary between what it includes and excludes, X is merely exclusionary. You can’t get inside X; you can’t know X. There’s no space in there, just four disorienting corners.
That awkwardness puts us off. In many Xs, there aren’t right angles but two acute and two obtuse, and even when the angles are right they are positioned awkwardly. In a society of right-angle buildings and intersections, X is defiantly different. It seems to pull from the furthest reaches of its stretch—that corner, and that one, and over there and there—stretching as wide and far as it can, stretching to grab everything if it had the choice, and bringing it all in to a single point. The intersection. Where all the separate entities of everything migrate to commune.
This shape does not just give X practical application at railroad crossings, in bowling alleys, and on game shows, there is a grander architecture to it. It symbolizes one of the great binaries of our reality: the individuals, all out there where those four arms are stretching to grasp, and the collective, where they all meet in the middle. And we don’t every really know what is going to happen when individuals collect in the middle. It’s unknown, unpredictable. Each connection between individuals is as unique as the two people in that connection. We may commune or exclude, meet ally or danger. We may judge each other solely on quantifiables. We may click together with a good handshake or be awkward or misunderstood. Or, not knowing what to do, we may wander in the mystery that is our unsolipsistic sharing of this space. Whatever that mystery is, where the known and unknown forever intersect, that’s the spot that X marks.