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What Do You See?

Updated: Oct 23, 2019

Once upon a time there was a duck. A duck that looked like a rabbit. Or a rabbit that looked like a duck. Either way, here was a duck embodied within a rabbit, and a rabbit within a duck. Embodied as constituted by identical components. Interchangeable. Incorporated – immersed, merged, fusionned, in shape, structure and form. Two-corpses-in-one. For the duck was in fact a rabbit, and the rabbit a duck.

Yet, the rabbit as duck and vice versa, identifying with, and equalizing, one another, was both static and factual, and variable. Static and factual, for a duck is a duck, and a rabbit a rabbit.

Variable, because the existence of the rabbit and the duck as such depends on personal perceptions – I prefer rabbits over ducks, but all I can see is foremost a duck!

Trying to make sense of the transformative process via which a subject turns from being (factuality) to becoming (through perception and perhaps, imagination), the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein uses a famous illusionary experiment presented in an 1892 edition of the humor magazine Fliegende Blätter. While the illustration openly asks: “Which animals are most like each other,” it already provides the answer within its title – “Kaninchen und Ente” or “Rabbit and Duck.” Utilized few years later within the field of psychology, the illustration served to claim that perception is not merely what one sees, but also what one interprets (though Wittgenstein argues the opposite).

Similarly to human agency, thus, what might be static in the realm of facticity might be profoundly different in the realm of interpretation – fluid, penetrable, malleable, insatiable.

“What has changed?” asks Wittgenstein? How can we see and distinguish at one precise moment a duck, and at another, a rabbit? In other words, how can a duck suddenly become a rabbit, and a rabbit a duck, in our minds? To him, the passage from a one-in-one figure to two distinct entities is a question of change within us. To me, it is a question of us within change. For we are never the center and pillar of all, but a part of an on-going process of transformation, dialectic and revolution. Un mouvement perpétuel.

Looking closely at the duck-rabbit illustration or “ambiguous image” in Wittgenstein’s jargon, we can naturally assume that one sees at least one of the two options – either the rabbit or the duck – the hypothesis being that the existence of the first does not preclude the always potential existence of the second. Is the perception of either the rabbit or the duck a question of choice, an either/or decision, in Kierkegaard’s terms? Answering yes would suggest that we can tame our perceptions, choosing to interpret and look at one thing a certain way instead of another. But it would also suggest that doing so, we can obtain comfort and certainty in committing exclusively to one perception of the illustration. Seeing either a rabbit or a duck would then be in perfect alignment with one’s expectations: as long as there is something (anything!) to see, one is satisfied. And that is more than an either/or dilemma can do for us!

Don Giovanni confronts the stone guest in a painting by Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard, ca 1830–35 (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Strasbourg)

The question becomes then: can we see both the rabbit and the duck? Of course we can, as I am sure you already have! And yet, while we have the ability to see both (depending on our level of creativity), we can however not see them simultaneously, as the perception of one annuls the perception of the other. Can we make sense of this meaning-making schizophrenia, if that is the case? For Marxists – we can and shall! To them, the natural incline of the bourgeoisie for synthesis – meaning, living outside of the unsettling struggle between thesis and anti-thesis forces – would always push the latter to try and see both the duck and the rabbit at the same time. Any alternative would be interpreted as a renouncement, or, put in materialistic terms, as a loss: instead of having two perceptions, one remains only with one. And one is always less than two.

Now, we must assume that one does not see anything. After all, ducks and rabbits are to some extent social construct. In fact, a person who never saw neither ducks nor rabbits in her life might not be able to recognize, formulate or make sense of them. And yet, one can always imagine himself out of his comfort zone. In our case, this would mean that one does not merely see any of the represented animals – neither the rabbit nor the duck – but sees something else out of the illustration. May it be an apple, a cat or a pillow!

To what extent, then, can our imagination be radical? I do not have an answer, but suggest that as long as we trade synthesis for struggle and certainty for doubt, we shall be able to see both the rabbit and the duck, simultaneously. Embracing one without losing the other. For the question never was “what do you see – a rabbit or a duck?” but simply “what do you see” – leaving to us not merely the option to choose between two alternatives, but to choose among an infinity. At the rhythm of our imagination.

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2 kommentarer

22. okt. 2019

Very cool, and making for too many thoughts (and links, and pics) turning a comment into a post:

Meanwhile, a provocative word on Don Giovanni and his, well, duck, not by Kierkegaard's A in Either/Or, but by Žižek:

Consider only Mozart's Don Giovanni at the end of the opera, when he is confronted with the following choice: if he confesses his sins, he can still achieve salvation; if he persists, he will be damned for ever. From the viewpoint of the pleasure principle, the proper thing to do would be to renounce his past, but he does not, he persists in his Evil, although he knows that by persisting he will be damned for ever. Paradoxically, with his final…


Orr Grosman
Orr Grosman
22. okt. 2019

How do you feel?

Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awoke, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things.

* Translated by Lin Yutang (I corrected one word)

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