7 Trickster and Duality
In „Semiosis, Marginal Signs, and Trickster“, I was interested primarily in marginal signs; that is, signs which are not at the centre of semiosic processes and are consequently more than usually subject to question, doubt, confusion, deception, and creativity. I was particularly concerned with signs which are not semiotically or semantically clear, but are given over to disputations, disagreements, ambivalences, cultural change, and semiotic mitosis.
That interest took two forms. One was the semiotic issues surrounding binary versus trichotonomous systems of classification because - despite more than a hundred fifty years of semiotic thinking - there are still serious contentions about the nature of the sign being either primarily binary or trinary. Although this may seem an esoteric issue, given the tendency of referential theory and linguistic slot theory to be closed systems and the tendency of semiosis to be an open system, it is a crucial problem of understanding how sign generation occurs, and the generation of news remains for semiotic theory both a persistent problem and an ongoing blessing.
The second form of my interest was in Trickster as a model of the processes of semiosic generation of signs and as the vector of sign creativity in the narratives of culture, because the marginal sign has more freedom than the centristic sign. This second interest is a response to the issue of the first and suggests ways in which sign generation may take place, and it does so by way of the oldest mythic and most universal narrative device we know, the trickster figure.
Finally because the trickster figure often articulates cultural values (albeit sometimes by inverse example), trickster seems an ideal illustration for sign generation. These two interests have continued and led to a first symposium on Trickster at the 1997 Semiotic Society of America meeting at Santa Barbara, where various scolars looked at how trickster functions with cultural boundaries in a semiotic way. Two years later a second symposium on trickster at the annual meeting in Pittsburgh looked at the Polarities of Trickster, and this collection of essays examines the dualistic roles from a number of perspectives.
8 It seems worthwhile to look at trickster initially in terms of his cultural function since the initial location of trickster was in cultural studies. Moreover, the details of trickster have certainly been more fully documented and explored by students of culture than by semioticians. Yet my own lifelong interest in trickster has literary and mythographic roots, and I'm convinced that trickster's function is best understood in semiotic terms. That was my contention in the final chapter of Semiosis, Marginal Signs, and Trickster, where I argued that:
The semiosis of the Trickster function is the transition point from the object reference to the interpretant forming, for it shows the shift in the value of objects. It is the transcending ratio, an ambivalent deed; therefore,
I would like to refer to the state of ambivalence as the Trickster Point, or the T-Point, for what characterises trickster is the ambivalence of the undifferentiated form of a culture hero who specifically brings to his culture the tools of that culture. The trickster figure is the ambivalent generator of things and his bringing of the gifts of culture is a bringing of semiotic gifts - tools, signs, arts, crafts, and so forth. He is the maker and challenger of boundaries, and what culture has to learn is how to deliver the limits of the new cultural order in tune with the previous natural order.
Semiotic mucking with the stuff of the world changes it and has complex consequences which cannot always be determined. Signing about objects faces the same difficulties as the evolutionary contraries of stability and change conservatism and adaptability.
The T Point is that complex of sign boundary, sign stability and instability, where are nested the relations between the functional needs of an older, but superseded order, and those of a newer, more inclusive order. As a part of the sign, it is what Poinsot called the „relatio transcendentalis“; it is a transcendental ratio, or…a systemic and spatiotemporal event which arises because the unlimited boundary making marginality of the sign.
Trickster is the lord of the boundaries
I won't repeat all the arguments here, but suffice it to say trickster can best be understood as a semiotic creature because trickster is the lord of the boundaries, the hinge, the road, the edge, and most of the other marginalities of culture - the sibling of semiosis. He is an enemy, at least a performative critic, of established orders.
Trickster „makes this world“ by playing with cultural categories and highlighting the arbitrary nature of cultural rules and categories and constantly reminding the narrative culture that that is much beyond its own perspective and understanding. This would seem obvious, but the capacity for human beings to believe that our own articulations of the universe are absolutely correct is exceeded only by our capacity to dismiss, persecute, or war upon others when or because they don't share our articulations.
Trickster constantly tries the boundary between the known and the unknown, between the signed and the unsigned, between the legitimate and the outlaw, between the domesticated and the wild; that is, between culture and non-culture. Thus, because one has and tells trickster stories, because trickster is culturally specific if universally patterned, because narrative is always a cultural act, and because trickster operates at the edges of culture, through his misadventures, creative schemes, and ambiguous naivety,
the trickster figure helps us appreciate, validate, revolutionize, subvert, or reinforce cultural categories by re-instituting their very semiotic properties. At least narratively, the trickster brings the hearers of the narrative back to something of the semiotic origins of the various structures of the narrative culture.
9 Duality and Semiosis
Although it is the edgy nature of Trickster and the ambivalence of his marginal dance which would allow one to discuss Trickster in terms of dualities. It is also the nature of semiosis and the history of semiotics that requires such a discussion.
There is something in the nature of the sign that has always suggested a duality of object and reference, of user and idea. From Aristotle through the mediaeval logicians to modern linguists there runs a thread of duality not only in our understanding of signs, but in our understanding of understanding. Aristotelian laws of thought, binary logics, and binary linguistic drive much of how we understand the universe - even our own strange, perceptual part in it. In fact, the modern episteme, based on "subjective" and "objective" experience, is as much a dualistic problem of sign and reference as anything.
As Thomas Seboek has put it, "the sign is bifacial, dividing the stuff of the world into sign and signer, object and thought, reference and meaning"; or, to use Saussure’s terms „signifier“ and „signified“.
The sign is a label of category; it is a category, marked by a user, set against an eternal universe of stuff, and it is a marker of a set of characteristics extrapolated from that totality and labelled for some particular (and often unknown) use. The sign, as a communicative act, is so tied to what we as human beings are, we even define our uniqueness in terms of its use as tool, science, or culture.
Of course, much of this bifaciality, however it is used, is driven by negation - the very origins of dualism. (Peirce’s notion of secondness is clearly a categorical duality. The very resistance or brute fact, is based on the fact that it is NOT the self and not subject to the demands of the self. It is really substantially and existentially Other.).
Whether it be Aristotles three laws of thought, linguistic slot theory, or mathematical information theory, what apparently drives our perceptions and thought as much as anything is our ability to think in terms of the „Not“ - to suspend the present, to narrate the past, to anticipate the future means using negation to drive our intellect into linguistic and cultural accomplishments.
Thus, to mark one slice of stuff with a sign is not to mark other aspects of stuff; to mark the stuff now, or otherwise, is to mark it for not-now, or not-otherwise.
To escape the eternal present is to construct a universe of negation. There is always an unmarked, an unsigned, an unsaid, an unthought in our pattern of semiosis. We use negation to digitally mark an analog world, to structure a continuum into a comprehensibility, and to weave the narrative of culture.
Also, and more to a somewhat reductive point I suppose, we ourselves, as biological entities, are dualistic creatures evolving in bisymmetrical patterns of physiology, neurology, cognition, and reproduction. This apparently inbuilt duality affects our understanding of both our perception and cognition of the world. It allows us to see the world as a thing apart from us, and the modern duality of subject and object causes the world to retreat forever into a veil of approximation.
The dualistic sign divides the wholeness of space into a continual polarity of things, with this on one side of the mark and that on the other - signifier and object signified, sign and user of the sign, sign and interpreter, individuation, or interpretant. Such dualities divide things and keep on dividing them until, for some, the world becomes no more than a concatenation of stuff which will be divided forever - an endless series of signed regressions (if your viewpoint is originary; or sign progressions, if your viewpoint is more teleological).
It need not be that way for, as Peirce wrote in 1904, „No sign can function as such except so far as it is interpreted in another sign (for example, in a „thought“, whatever that may be). Consequently it is absolutely essential to a sign that it should affect another sign…What I mean is that when there is a sign there will be an interpretation in another sign“.
10 Generally this interpretation of the sign by another sign is where the more pedestrian transparency of a sign system (based on dualistic reference) is lost, and what we think we see, in place of clarity of meaning, are the notions of ambiguity, circularity, confusion, semantic distortion, deception, sloppy thinking, superstition, ideology.
My own view is that this interpretance process is much more one of discovery and sign generation, for there really is a process of classification (or at least interpretant externalisation and development) at work here. This is so because the interpretation of one sign by another is what is used semiosically to clarify the categories the sign represents. In fact, the part of semiosis is that it does explain one sign with another, and thus is able to adapt one semiotic situation to another by boundary shifting and renewing itself with fresh and new signs (as needed or wanted).
Such a pattern keeps semiosis an open-ended process and able to adapt to new situations. Thus, the openness of the sign system, ironically, is seen most clearly and most powerfully at the boundaries where the sign system switches between codes and individuation.
Boe: Fuchs - codierte/uncodierte Probleme (Die Verwaltung der vagen Dinge, S.30)
For most of us, that means the process of semiotic clarification is most evident when the boundaries of the categories are least clear; as in paradox, oxymoron, irony, inversion, contradiction or logical contraries - a state that troubles logicians to no end, but delights storytellers, artists and poets everywhere.
These dualities open the sign system to semiosic renewal, for at the boundary between the two systems is the greatest amount of semiotic energy, or what Julia Kristeva, in „Revolution in Poetic Language (1984) calls the „chora“ - the process and practice of signification that make symbolic modes less opaque and more „real“ (although „efficacious“ is, I suspect, a better word) by returning to the very process of semiosis.
The chora returns to the point of semiosic creation - to the seed crystal of duality to find semiotic renewal - and thus participates in the initial, and ongoing, process of meta-communication which highlights cultural fictions and the marginal boundaries of semiotic creativity, transition, and transformation.
The semiotic chora is, I believe, the T-Point I mentioned earlier. It works signs new and old through the semiotic barrier of any original relation established by any dual analysis and torques them into a new use or understanding. It models the category-generating and category-breaking role of sign usage and the axiological and cultural marginality of a digital system trying to catch the analog system.
(In System and Structure Anthony Wilden uses the terms analog and digital arguing that communication systems are digital punctuations of an analog world based on the concept of nothingness, or zero - a condition which does not exist in the analog world.
Using the linguistic model of distinctive difference, the nature of signing is seen as such that divides the stuff for the world into the digital categories and communication systems. So they point to the object and the objectifier or to the concept and the conceptualizer, and the echo chamber of semiotic categories fuels what human beings have known as thinking, or Thought.
The drawing of distinctions and differences, similarities and likenesses, or oppositions and integrations operate by a principle of feedback between the boundaries of the two systems.
Wilden contends, "Boundaries in fact are the digitalisation generating a distinction, and the distinction may then become an opposition. Figure and ground form a binary relation, one and two form a binary distinction .A and non-A form a binary opposition (and identity." (Wilden 1980, 186). Thus, relation, distinction, and oppositions suggest a tri-relative influence operating from the boundaries of the binary system, and it's punctuation need not be distortive nor ideological; the integration may be simply the tri-relative influence of the sign.)
The chora is a result of Peirce‘s provision that „a sign is not the sign unless it translates itself into another sign in which it is more fully developed.“ Peirce’s sense of the developing sign complicates endless repetition of ever-receding dualities in that it becomes the agent that transforms a binary unit, or a bipolar situation, into a triadic one, just as Peirce argued for any semiotic act.
First, since the cultural match between the analog world and the digital system (no matter how poor it may seem to someone at the later point) is seen, during its viable life, as accurate; the margins and boundaries between the analog and digital are seen as more or less transparent. No anomalies are detected, but when shifts occur due to entropy, change, or manipulation (or when punctuation is resistant to change because of the conservative nature of the langue and the system‘s stability), then the match will be less and less satisfactory.
That is, signs and their interpretations have a dynamic life that has to be renewed when the match between the sign and the object seems, for what ever reason, to drift. Thus, as time passes, as cultures grow or stultify margins and boundaries become less transparent, and anomalies will be more and more present.
As this happens, the chora, the T-Point, or Trickster become more and more available and suggest themselves more and more. It oscillates with instability and takes on the role of metacommunication. Attention is shifted to the margins and the possibilities of new digitalised punctuation, which will produce a new when satisfactory match that will then carry its own stability.
Second, the chora/T-Point performs a triadic function of integration and preparation for sign shift. This possibility allows the kind of metaphoric network that Eco inversions in his inferential walks (1976, 32), and it fits with his notions of sign production. It allows for the complexity and universality that Peirce envisioned for the semiosis. The chora can semiotically represent both the analog energy and the digital punctuation; it can represent the analogue potential for mobility, and the digital movement of the sign system, the sign users, and the marginality between nonmatching systems. The T-Point, as a fully semiotic tri-relative influence, is thus focused on the point of semiotic angst and slippage that this played out in the semantic polarities of paradox, irony, inversion, and so forth; or in the semantic polarities of dysfunctional forms such as dreams, hallucinogenic voices, neuroses and psychoses.
The chora suggests that signs have a life of their own beyond the simple digital use of some kind of informational binary coding that operates from an object mystique. In Eco’s terms, it would be those semiotic structures which would require an “inferential walk“ to compensate for what appears to be a distortion, but which on semiosic manipulation turns into a productive text. Thus, all of those marginal areas can be developed for semiotic purposes and cultural uses.
Third, the chora/T-Point also functions as an area for Gregory Bateson's sense of play as category commentary and metacommunication - which suggests the very complexity and oddity of Trickster's innocent and not so innocent gamey behaviour. The chora, a marker of play and metacommunication, participates both in the world of analog and digital communication and in the process of transformation between two systems. In short, it can integrate by play.
By the freeroaming energy of play, it is able to bring distinctions of logical typing and by a semiotics freedom that can recast the boundaries of both the digital and the analog, it produces new semiosis and functions as triadic structures relating sign, object, and interpretant.
Rather than a simple binary of play and not-play, bite and not-bite, the semiotic chora is a new dimension added to the communication process that allows transcendence of the binary markers and any endless series in a dualistic universe.
It is the re-iterative and recursive nature of the chora, which is the core of semiosis. It is what Peirce meant when he talked about Thirdness and the continuous interpretation of signs by other signs.
Such a pattern complicates duality and polarity into something way beyond the status of code toward the state of sign generation, and it does so in a way that incorporates both the duality of punctuated systems and a trichotomous influence.
12 Duality and Trickster
Rather than playing a numerical game of duality or trinary sign structure, I think it better to move on to Trickster as the embodiment of this choratic movement, and what I would like to do now is look at trickster in terms of his dualities and how those are used to generate semiosis and cultural mitosis.
The domain of trickster, in semiosis, is the T-Point:
Spinks 1991 - The semiotic critical proximity in which the torquing of the pre-sign is sufficient to create the stability of relations to become a full sign; it is the leading point of a line that forms an orbit or a cycle. Physically its trajectory is the ark of the semiotic orbit, and thus it is literally the function of a transcendental ratio. But as with all orbits, it can decay or it can breakaway.
So it stabilisation is a „dissipative structure“, the threshold of the shifting in orders of organisation, and when orders shift, they are most vulnerable to breakdown and destruction. So when the sign divides the stuff, it not only produces division, it also produces ambivalence, for as Peirce argues, the nature of sign is the nature of division and the production of categories, which never fully match the continuum of stuff.
The sign system is by its very nature a fabric of boundaries and categories - numerical semantic inclusions and exclusions which define a thing as the thing it is (Spinks 1991a,199).
13 Given the nature of trickster as the spirit of disorder, the enemy of boundaries (Kereny), the Lord of the "in-between" (Hyde), the category between categories (Douglas), the awareness of oppositions toward their resolutions (Lévy-Strauss), the liminal, paradox personified, a representative of inverted values, paradox, and sacred foolishness (McNeely), the principle or rather personification of ambivalence (Radin).
Trickster obviously is understood to participate in a duality of existences. He possesses no well-defined fixed form but is a figure of an inchoate being of undetermined proportions. What marks him is is ambivalence and ambiguity.
Radin:Trickster is at one and the same time the creator and destroyer, giver and negator, he who dupes others and is always duped himself. He wills nothing consciously. At all times he is constrained to behave as he does from impulses over which he has no control. He knows neither good nor evil yet he is responsible for both. He possesses no values, moral or social, is at the mercy of his passions and appetites, yet through his actions are all values coming to being. Laughter, humour, and irony permeate everything trickster does.
Trickster is the source of troubles, and his ambivalent nature, his ambiguous state, and his oxymoronic character make him a serious difficulty for rationalists.
14 I would argue that his contribution to the birth of evolution of culture is what is really being examined here. Trickster is a world maker and world shifter.
Lewis Hyde: Trickster is a boundary crosser. Every group has its edges, its sense of in and out, and trickster is always there, at the gates of the city and the gates of life, making sure there is commerce. He also attends the internal boundaries by which groups articulate their social life.
We constantly distinguish - right and wrong, sacred and profane, clean and dirty, male and female, young and old, living and dead - and in every case trickster will cross the line and confuse the distinction.
Trickster is the creative idiot, therefore, otherwise full, the grey-haired baby, the cross-dresser, the speaker of sacred profanities. Where someone's sense of honourable behaviour has left him unable to act, trickster will appear to suggest in an amoral action, something right/wrong that will get life going again. Trickster is the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambiv
alence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction, and paradox.
Contradiction, irony, deception, duplicity, inversion, reversal, oxymoron, paradox: these are the toolkit of negation, ambivalence, and ambiguity that trickster uses do make and remake culture.
Given the occurrence of a sign association, Trickster recognises its limits, articulates its margins, speaks its unsaid, and gives life to all of its semiosic energies; carving out new territories in signs, re-orienting old categories and signs, giving laughter and showing moral exempla while reminding us that the margins of culture are a bit arbitrary.
Like Nietzsche says, „Truths are illusions about which it has been forgotten that they are illusions“., And trickster reminds of their illusionary and illusory nature. His very being lies in paradox, contradiction, and the weaving of cultural unsaids with the unweaving of cultural pronouncements. The very use of marginality makes trickster the difficult and problematic figure that he is because anything that returns to the semiotic chora with regularity (or irregularity for that matter) will call into question the demarcations that culture has made, and culture can ignore the unsaid only at its own risks.
15 Trickster‘s duality is not simply nay-saying. That would be neither funny nor instructive; his toolkit helps construct the full complexity of the sign system as it operates in culture. It is a semio-evolutionary wildcard, and openness assistant to what has been excluded, for trickster is "the archetype that attacks archetypes" (Hyde).
His making, unmaking, and remaking the world of signs is a recognition of the semiosic principle that anything can be a sign of anything else, but culture, like phonology, is limited in the number of distinctions it can make.
The digital world of culture will never exactly match the analog world of stuff, and sign systems, in order not to become dead codes, must renew themselves and renew the margins that have been drawn amidst the stuff by the sign.
Trickster does this quite well in ways frequent, familiar, rare, and strange, but he always reminds us that the „ map is not the territory“ (Korzybski), and continually teases us with the notion that even the territory is not always the territory.
The semiotic chora is re-evoked and the cultural marginality is redefined or reasserted by the return to the T-Point. By negation and contradiction, by inversion and reversal, by ambiguity and ambivalence, by oxymoron and paradox, Trickster renews the archetype by attacking the archetype; he makes the ambivalent polyvalent; and what he does buy this dance of differentiation is that he keeps the archetype from settling into stasis and gives it evolutionary life.
Beobachtung 3. Ordnung