Binary opposites, sign, representation and meaning
When people see things as beautiful,
ugliness is created.
When people see things as good,
evil is created.
Being and non-being produce each other.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low oppose each other.
Fore and aft follow each other.
Tao Te Ching
A term originated in Saussure’s structural theory and coined by Roman Jackobson (1896 – 1982), a Russian-American linguist and a key person of structural analysis of language (others are Saussure, Peirce, and partly Barthes). He described the fundamental characteristics of language and the way we experience the world and how we communicate. Binary oppositions are e.g. dry/wet, soft/hard. Jackobson explained that binary oppositions are intrinsic to the world and fully embedded in our consciousness (Pooke and Newall, 2008). A perspective that some people perhaps challenge for its potential of ideology of how language is used. The philosopher J.R. Searle (b. 1932) would possibly state that binary oppositions are not constituents for reality, but rather intrinsic to human’s consciousness and representation of reality.
Jacques Derrida (1930 – 2004) confirms Jackobson’s view but added another notion to it: ‘Western culture depends on binary oppositions and these are hierarchical’ (Belsey, 2002, p. 75). De-constructivists as Derrida are trying to overcome the dichotomy.
The effectiveness of binaries as defined by its opposite can be easily tested by asking a person to think of everything but an umbrella. It is not possible to think of absence when the presence of the same thing is mentioned.
But binary opposites are not a Western invention, as the Taoist symbol Taijitun or better known as yīn and yáng shows. Both sides (‘sunny’ and ‘shady’) as part of whole, one not without the other., together in balance. If one would try to translate this into tropes the result would be either a metonym (name of one thing for that of another e.g. shield and spear of the male sign ♂ for man) or a synecdoche (part represents the whole e.g body and phallus ♂ for man) (Fig. 2)
The Western figure of speeches are representations of a picture, a condensation, a reduction. The yīn and yáng is conveying the sense of a paradox dualism as whole. As with the Western binary oppositions with an additional layer of ‘hierarchy’ and judgement, was yīn and yáng from its purer sense modified with additional moral conceptions with Confucianism.
I do think it is important to see how language and consciousness is relating to each other and how we create meaning and develop knowledge through them.
The way we explain consciousness depends on how we see the world. W.J.T Mitchel understand consciousness as ‘an activity of pictorial production, reproduction and representation governed by mechanism such as lenses, receptive surfaces and agencies for printing, impressing, or leaving traces on these surfaces’. (Mitchell, 1987, p.16)
He relates this strongly to how we represent and make sense of reality and nature. He further relates this to the palimpsest of images (real objects, material images (e.g. painting), mental images) Mitchell understands the limitations of visual and pictorial paradigm in representation and knowledge (Fig. 1). Nevertheless, he considers the subjective perception of reality and a subjective nature of consciousness. A notion that post-structuralists do deny. The do not consider consciousness originated in the self, as identity. They question this and consider consciousness as external, defined through cultural construction, a self that is constructed by others. One could even say that they consider the self as the signified by others as signifiers.
Signs and Representation
According to Semiotics language consists of words and speech. Words are arbitrary signifiers (symbols), relating (Saussure) to signified or referring (Peirce) to an object with a related interpretation. Altogether, knowledge derives from meaningful significations as a social construction. But signifiers are also representations of images of objects or thoughts that are abstracted into language. But the way we represent reality through images, either pictorial or verbal, is a separate discussion.
L.Wittgenstein rejected the notion of mental or verbal imagery (Mitchell, 1987, p.24). However, words e.g. man, woman, table, dog, do rely on a sequence of abstraction from object or picture, through pictograms, ideograms, towards phonetic signs that constitute language.
The attribution of signs (either iconic, indexical or symbolic) is driven by the human intention and conception. To obtain meaning in chaos. This is a naturalist understanding of human’s condition (Emerson, 1834) as explored in my previous post – click here. However, it answers as well the Why question of social construction of reality as described by Searle.
Meaning and knowledge
Signs are a means to understand and provide meaning to the world we experience. Regardless of their intention, they are related to human’ condition and desire. They are also a conceptual means of abstraction, through simplification or stereotyping to grasp the complexity of the surrounding world. One way of stereotyping and simplification are binary oppositions. Part of human consciousness.
Derrida explained binary oppositions in context of difference: ‘Meaning is always the effect of the trace, paradoxically, of the other in the selfsame’ (Belsey, 2002, p. 83). Here it is the absence that defines presence. The other describes the self, the dry describes the wet. Through the difference meaning is provided.
Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924 – 98) extended difference with his conception of dissensus (Belsey, 2002, p. 83).. Not consensus, but the divergent dissensus it what drives innovation, creativity and heterogeneity.
A view of difference that Gilles Deleuze (1925 -95) characterized with his conception of the ‘reversal of Plato’ as the extension of one-viewpoint and copies of the same, towards multiple viewpoints, different in his description of simulacra as the chaos ‘where all differences are alike’ (Deleuze, 1983)
For the Constructivists and Post-Structuralist meaning derives from language and not from an idea. They critique a logocentric tradition of Western thought that is based on the assumption of a preceding idea that seeks expression through speech and transcribed in writing. (Belsey, 2002, p. 64-79). They deny a transcendental signification outside of text. Text as sequential order of signifiers according to Structuralist thoughts consists merely of signifier, the idea of meaning is deferred as an imaginary presence.
“There is nothing outside the text.” – J. Derrida
Another difference is between that of a realist and idealist position, with the position of constructivist in between. The idealist sees reality including the physical world as subjective and socially constructed, the realist considers an external reality independent of human representation. The constructivist wouldn’t deny a non-constructed physical nature, but considers that perception and conception of nature is mediated through our representational frameworks. (Chandler, 2016, p.78-79)
‘For the relativist claim is that …we can see.. the world, its social systems, human identify even, are not givens, somehow guaranteed by a language which corresponds to reality, but are constructed by us in language, in ways that can never be justified .. that such things ‘really are’. We live, not inside reality, but inside our representation of it.’ (Butler, 2002, p.21 – highlighted by Butler).
This is truly an anthropocentric view of reality and nature, and a restrictive one as well considering Derrida’s remark above. Nevertheless, this view is a means to obtain meaning as a base of social interaction. Signs are applied to nature in order to represent, signs can resemble an object, but is not required, as long there is a common understanding mediated through a learned language. The example of Leonardo’s stains do show the limits of such a framework of understanding, when it is applied to a reversal of identity, Signs as representational system are directional, the do not resemble per se. Expressed in language by the notions of pictograms, ideograms and figures of speech (metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony – see also Fig. 2). One need to be cautious not to consider those as the real.
When there is not meaning inside of text, but only deferred, and if there is no meaning neither inside subject nor outside in a transcendental state of nature, the question would be what is left?
Dichotomy or binary oppositions are the poles for a continuum, between black and white are infinite shades of grey. And perception is subjective, not in the sense of relate to a subject, but more as related to context. As in the example of the ‘Checkerboard Illusion’ where the square A and B are having the same tonal value.
As the Taoist example of yīn and yáng shows binaries can be seen as a balancing whole between poles, or as divisional image for moral signification and hierarchical judgement. Language and cultural context defines how we perceive those and how much signifying meaning we assign to it.
One does not need to deny or sacrify poles as at times current debates on gender and a male – female dichotomy might suggest (Samuel and Februari, 2017).
It seems rather to find the balance like the essence of yīn and yáng expresses. A further construction or re-construction of signifiers or meaning might not be beneficial for an open discourse. It seems that equality and balance lies not in the poles but in the respective qualities of the poles and the balance as a whole. It seems like a fight over which side of the coin has more value: the heads or the tails. Both sides are needed to have a coin at all to discuss about. And value and truth is intrinsically in the whole.
With this conclusion on semiotics, consciousness and meaning, I will embark on the argumentation of opposites of nature as culture or not.
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- Deleuze, G. (1983) ‘Plato and the Simulacrum’, In: October, 27 pp. 45-56.
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- Searle, J. R. (1996) The construction of social reality,Penguin philosophy. London: Penguin.