Opposites Matter (Introduction to Semiotics Part 7)

Jun 10 2012

“The purpose of myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction”  - Claude Levi-Strauss

The Star Wars films are packed full of mythic oppositions and themes. This is quite deliberate (George Lucas was an avid reader of Joseph Campbell) and even the six part series with parts 4-6 made first, mirrors the structure of Homer’s Iliad. In the story there are oppositions between young and old (immaturity/idealism vs maturity/wisdom), Luke and the Emperor (common man vs authority figure), nature and technology, the Force and evil, Jedi and Sith (democracy vs totalitarianism), rebels and empire, freedom and tyranny, love and hate (the power of constructive vs destructive behaviour) and son and father (rite of passage based on separation).

Claude Levi-Strauss argued that such oppositions are the basis of myth, whose purpose is to overcome such contradictions by dramatising them in a structured story format in order to resolve them. If you think of the creation myth, God first separates heaven from earth, and then light from dark, land from water and so on, until eventually he creates man and animals and then splits man and woman.

Many such oppositions appear to be universal and are found in the mythic traditions of societies around the world:

  • masculine vs feminine
  • light vs dark
  • good vs evil
  • self vs other
  • subject vs object
  • sacred vs profane
  • body vs mind
  • nature vs history
  • positive vs negative
  • heaven vs hell
  • beginning vs end
  • love vs hate
  • pleasure vs pain
  • existence vs nothingness
  • left vs right

These systems of meaning are highly interwoven. Let’s consider right vs left, as humans have both left and right hands (and eyes, feet, etc). In Western thought ‘right’ is associated with good and light and ‘left’ with dark and evil. The English word sinister derives from the latin word for on the left (which was considered unlucky by Romans too) and left-handedness has often been associated with evil and misfortune. In the Sistine Chapel fresco of the last judgement (by Michelangelo), Christ condemns evil sinners to hell with his left hand, and gives passage to heaven for good people with his right. Right is commonly used to convey ideas of correctness, truth and justice (for example, in a ‘bill of rights’), and a righteous person is one who is moral and upstanding.Offering a handshake, saluting or taking an oath with the left hand is considered improper and wrong.

A fourth key principle of semiotics is that meaning often comes from what things are not rather than what they are (typically such meanings are unconscious). As we grow up, we start to understand the world around us by splitting it into pairs of opposites (just as in the creation myth)”

  • Mummy is not Daddy
  • Hello is not Goodbye
  • Noise is not Quiet

and the one i struggled with most as a child …

  • No is not Yes

These are binary oppositions and are important to the structure of meaning and thinking. Such oppositions define categories which are logically opposed (with no middle ground, so something is either one or the other).

[I should say now that this is very typical of Western thought (going back to Aristotle's mission to categorise all knowledge), but does not always make sense in terms of Eastern thought, which focuses more on relationships than attributes and where people are comfortable with combining conflicting ideas to create harmony. Read more about this here and here.]

To go back to mythic structures, the relationships between the different oppositions often create strongly held cultural norms. For example, in mythology good vs evil and beautiful vs ugly are two important dimensions of meaning, which are strongly associated. Beautiful characters in fairy tales are almost always good (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, etc) and ugly characters are almost always bad (giants, ogres, goblins, etc). These combinations are ‘cultural norms’ whereas the opposing combinations are cultural contradictions (good cannot go with ugly and bad cannot go with beautiful). Cultural contradictions make for interesting stories. The Seven Dwarfs and Shrek are far more interesting than typical characters because they combine good and ugliness and similarly the Wicked Stepmother is more interesting because she combines beauty and evil. Such contradictions are the essence of powerful storytelling and also powerful brands.

One of the best known examples of such branding is Omo (known by other brand names in some markets) and the ‘dirt is good’ campaign.

I remember watching the ‘Persil mum’ ads on TV when I was growing up, without realising that this image was managing to resolve a cultural contradiction between the efficiency of factory produced high tech washing powder (and cleaning) and the caring of a nurturing mother, into ‘caring efficiency’.

Similarly, Omo resolves some of the contradictions in the following binary oppositions:

  • science vs nature
  • clean vs dirty
  • godliness vs evil

Remembering that ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’ then how can any mother allow her child to get dirty? She can if it helps them to learn, and if Omo enables her to combine the naturalness of learning through play with the science of cleanliness.

Binary oppositions are a great way to think about meanings, but the world never as neatly defined as this and nature is more circular than linear (as Eastern philosophies teach). The next article will explore how there is often a middle ground even in opposing circumstances.


Myth and Meaning: Cracking the Code of Culture by Claude Levi-Strauss (1995)

Of Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things: An Introduction to Semiotics by Marcel Danesi (2008)

Marketing Semiotics: Signs, Strategies and Brand Value by Laura R. Oswald (2012)

“The Notness Principle: A Semiotic Model of Meanings (paper)” by Virginia Valentine (2001)

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