Antitheses

Contrapositum autem uel, ut quidam uocant, contentio
(ἀντίθετον dicitur) non uno fit modo. Nam et [sic] singula
singulis opponuntur, ut in eo quod modo dixi: ‘uicit pudo-
rem libido, timorem audacia’, et bina binis: ‘non nostri
ingeni, uestri auxili est’, et sententiae sententiis: ‘domine-
tur in contionibus, iaceat in iudiciis.’

Opposition or, as some say, contrast (ἀντίθετον [antitheton]
is meant) takes several forms.  There is one-on-one contrast,
as in “lust overcame shame, boldness fear,” and pair-on-pair,
as in “it’s a matter not of our ability (but) your aid,” and of
expressions, as in “let it reign supreme in assemblies, let it
lie low in law courts.”

Quintilian Institutio oratoria 9.3.81.1-6

an-tith-e-sis (ăn-tĭth-ə-sĭs) noun;  plural -ses (sĕz).  1. contrast, opposition.  2. the exact opposite.  3. juxtaposition.  4. Rhetoric. words, grammatical structures or ideas contrasted in balanced parallelism(s).  (< LateLat << Greek antitithenai  “to set in opposition” < anti  “over against, opposite” + tithenai  “set, place.”)

As merely piquant examples of antithesis, one might invoke the placement of red against green or cold ice cream on hot apple pie.  But if a reporter pens a piece on a peculating politician whose hand has been arrested in mid-emergence from a pecuniary cookie jar, and an editor runs it on the page where obits are buried, readers may justifiably gather that in the editor’s view the sinner is “dead” and done.

In general, juxtaposition of extremely limited data can promote a misleading “understanding” of phenomena of great complexity.  The suggestiveness of the “packaging” in some sense comes to speak more eloquently than the substance of the “package.”  Television seems par excellence to exploit this factual fluidity.

Newspapers and magazines are not exactly slouches in that category, either.  Graphics set over against a 36-point story lead can do wonders in the subliminal undercutting of the verbal denotation, and stories of possibly related import placed in suggestive nearness to each other can promote false inference.  Thus, for example, some years ago (9 December 1993 [?1994]) on the front page of a New York Times piece, a photo of the alleged shooter in the Long Island train massacre bears the cutline “Picture of Suspect Emerges in Long Island Killings.”  The photo of this hulking “suspect” being led off in handcuffs is so positioned that he appears be staring bemusedly at portraits of two of the individuals he has allegedly just murdered:  Now, do reader-viewers still really think that this is, as the text would assure them, a mere “suspect”?  (I omit any discussion of the charged racial overtones engendered by the juxtapositions within this photographic triptych of confused black “suspect” and his two victims, one an older jovial white male, the other a young beautiful Asian female).

This story of murderous rage and appalling violence occupies the left top half of the page and has at its bottom an inset of a hand holding a 9-millimeter Ruger, the kind of weapon used in the railroad shooting.  Immediately below stands an item titled “Video Game Industry to Issue Ratings in Response to Critics.”  This article analyzes, in alarmed terms, the need for a “ratings system” to indicate the amount of blood, sex and violence that given video games contain.  It is hard to believe that this layout was not intentional – whatever its other agendas may have been, one surely was to slide in a suggestion that a general nexus exists between video violence and real violence, which, whatever its truth, would be a classic if cheap demonstration of the confusion of contiguity with causality.  This horrendous juxtaposition of real violence on innocents to ludic violence in videos trivializes the repellent magnitude of the former and magnifies the risible triviality of the latter.  Or it can make salient the uncertainty of the second proposition by juxtaposing it to the actuality of the first story.  Guns make killing easy – not videos.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc?  And what, here, is hoc – videos or killings?

I’d like to adduce a specific feature of the classical languages in order to make a general point about antithesis, distortion and erroneous induction.

Latin – and ancient Greek even more so – is a language that stalks its subject matter largely through lexical and syntactic antithesis.  All Latin writers, following the Greeks, deploy them, on every page, and we, even writing in English, follow Latin stylistic patterns to a vastly greater extent than is generally recognized.  And our pictorial traditions are equally if not more reliant on juxtaposition to generate a meaning.

This kind of “seeing” becomes second nature, and I for one have to keep reminding myself that the phenomenological world is a fuzzy set and not constituted of those crisp polarities of the sort that antithesis treasures so highly.  These latter may entail a certain seductive elegance, but they can – and sadly do – also make for a kind of sham “lucidity” and bogus “certainty” about race, violence, sex, education, politics and hosts of other important, but not always fully comprehended, aspects of our lives together as human beings – in short, for a procrustean digital perception of what, is after all, still very much a protean analog reality.

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