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Surplus of Meaning

The image on the leftmost side of the banner up top is often referred to as a Duck-Rabbit.  While the Duck-Rabbit type of image was popularized by Wittgenstein, the specific image used on this site is the 1930 work of German psychologist Walter Ehrenstein.

For those who have not yet seen the duck and the rabbit, that first step to look in the image for both.  When seen as a rabbit, the animal is facing the right of the frame, its ears point towards the left at about 8 O’Clock.  When seen as a “duck,” the “ears” of the “rabbit” “become” the “bill of the duck”, and what previously were “rabbit legs” “become wings.”

I lean towards the gross overuse of quotation marks because I think it important to acknowledge that both the transformative becoming of the image, and the actual presence of specific animal parts exist primarily in the mind of the viewer.  This is not to say the image does not appear to be a duck or rabbit when viewed, but rather that it cannot be said that the image is only one or the other at any point in time for anyone other than the viewer.

From a conceptual standpoint, which is to say an un-embodied one, the image isn’t a duck or a rabbit.  It is some Duck-Rabbit thing, partly duck, partly rabbit, partly both, and partly neither.  And yet when, in practice, a viewer sees the image, she will see a duck and/or rabbit.  Our human, embodied experience of things often reveals itself as somehow aside from concrete, objective, abstract truth.  The embodied truth is often the theopoetic truth, the truth of the articulation of an embodied experience as opposed to the truth of abstracted theory or logic.

The image doesn’t just “mean” rabbit or duck.  It contains both possible readings and is primarily neither.  From a philosophical and academic perspective, I see this as closely related to some of Paul Ricoeur’s ideas in his book, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning.

He addresses this issue within the context of challenging Classic Rhetoric’s definitional claims for metaphor.  He notes that in early metaphor theory, the existence of multiple levels of signification presupposed a primary, literal one, and another, secondary symbolic one.  This approach says Ricoeur, “is the residue of the literal interpretation.”  He sets this up in comparison to a symbolic interpretation in which, “there are not really two significations, one literal and the other symbolic, but rather a single movement, which transfers [the participant] from one level to the other.”  Ricoeur does not deny the existence of primary and ancillary significations, however he redirects the energy of inquiry to the movement and moment of the reader/viewer between levels.

Thinking about the effect of the surplus of meaning on someone is not the same as considering exactly what each level of meaning conveys. I consider the effect and implications of this surplus in the ideas orbiting The Willingness to Squint.