A coincidence of opposites

A coincidence of opposites: notes on inbetweeness in art-as-enquiry.

Paper given at Discourse Power Resistance: Research as a Subversive Activity conference. Manchester Metropolitan University, April 2006.

A coincidence

‘I am shifting rivermist’.

Basil Bunting (1968: 83) in his poem,

Chomei at Toyama.

Art as enquiry

As John Dewey argues, in Art as Experience, (1958) it may be useful to think of art as a form of enquiry or as a set of modes of exploratory thinking. In order to accommodate such a view the usual notions of research and investigation (derived from the sciences and other academic disciplines) need to be expanded to encompass the following activities which are integral to art practice:

  • visual, spatial, auditory and kinetic enquiry – grounded in our experiences as corporeal presences, sensory agents and embodied minds;
  • associative and connective thinking that leads us from idea to idea and form to form in ways which are often non-linear and unpredictable;
  • intuitive thinking – playing with materials and ideas – being open to chance, divergence and improvisation;
  • symbolic thinking – developing ideas encoded in material structures, orchestrating indexical, iconic and symbolic signs to generate meanings, narratives and interpretations.

It is often at the interstices of inconsistency that innovative ideas form, or at the gap between apparently incompatible ideas that a spark of invention leaps across and makes a new connection – opening up new forms and lines of enquiry.

Richard Rorty (1999) argues that all forms of enquiry, including the arts and sciences, can be seen as different kinds of descriptive discourses – intellectual and material practices that describe, interpret and make sense of the world and its inhabitants, events and behaviours. In this sense a mathematical or sociological ‘ theory’ can be considered as an imaginative narrative on a par with art, poetry and other forms of enquiry. The idea of theorising and artmaking as being kinds of descriptive practice may explain the emergence of theorists who increasingly employ ‘artistic’ devices and structures in their work – for instance: blurring the distinction between literary/semiological theory and literature in the work of Umberto Eco; or transforming philosophy into a kind of episodic non-linear narrative or poetic discourse (Wittgenstein, Derrida and Baudrillard); or hybridising new forms of commentary out of arts criticism and literary methods (Guy Davenport, Lucy Lippard and Thomas McEvilly).

Art practices can also be considered as ‘enactments of mind’ in the inclusive Buddhist sense. As enactments of mind, art practices and products condense and externalise experiences, ideas, feelings, beliefs and values – an array of phenomena that are often, almost by definition, improvisatory, unsystematic and complex – resistant to closure and explanatory analysis. As such, art objects and events are characterised by concreteness and specificity – an actuality that defies abstraction and generalisation.


Nicolas of Cusa – ‘coincidence of opposites’

Back in the fifteenth century, the mathematician and mystic, Nicholas of Cusa, (1401-1464) seems to have had a ‘mystical illumination in 1437 during a journey home from Constantinople’. (McFarlane 2004) This vision had a profound effect on his thinking, enabling him to discuss the concept of infinity in relation to what he calls ‘the coincidence of opposites’ . His mystical insight involved an apprehension of God as beyond, or antecedent to, distinction and indistinction, antecedent to any limits, categories or propositions. Thomas McFarlane remarks, ‘According to Nicholas, this logic of infinitude unites opposites, transcends comparison, overcomes limits of discursive reasoning, and goes beyond both positive and negative theology’ . (ibid) In order to understand the concept of the ‘coincidence of opposites’ it may be useful to look at the example of another concept which Nicholas introduced into fifteenth century philosophy, ‘learned ignorance’ . McFarlane writes:

Learned ignorance itself is a coincidence of opposites, for it teaches that the more we know our ignorance, the more we attain to true knowledge. Thus, as learned ignorance is perfected, knowledge and ignorance coincide. (ibid)

Another intriguing example of the coincidence of opposites is the idea that ‘ in the Infinite, the circle coincides with the line’ . (ibid) What Nicholas means is that as a circle increases in size ‘a given length of the circumference is less curved and more similar to a straight line. The infinite circle, therefore, coincides with the line.’ (ibid)


summer on the blue rocks

a fly scratches


Scepticism, dogmatism & research

Art can be considered as a philosophical discipline, a mode of metaphysical enquiry or research. Many works of art and the work of many artists can be seen as exemplifying the methodologies of ancient Greek scepticism. Julia Annas, argues that:

The Greek term skepticos means, not a negative doubter, but an investigator, [a researcher] someone going in for skeptesthai or enquiry. As & Sextus Empiricus puts it, there are dogmatic philosophers, who think that they have found the truth; negative dogmatists, who feel entitled to the position that the truth cannot be found; and the sceptics, who are unlike both the other groups in that they are not committed either way. They are still investigating things. (Annas, 2000: 69)

The sceptics, use all kinds of devices, particularly a remorseless dialectical analysis, to expose the contradictions, paradoxes and nonsense inherent in taking any particular side in an argument or in making any kind of dogmatic assertion that poses as a truth or fixed statement about the essence of things. Sceptical enquiry is always in motion, open to revision, reformulation and new possibilities. The sceptic and artist are involved in what Umberto Eco might call, open work – the unfolding of materials, ideas, narratives and images that have no fixed meanings or interpretations. In this kind of open work we are at play – in the sense that we have no predetermined goal. Playing with ideas, images and materials, we may suspend critical, analytical and rationalistic processes in order to see what happens, to let things develop in ways which accommodate chance, randomness and intuition. Periods of working ‘in the dark’, or when ‘not sure of what is happening’, can be as exciting and productive as periods of lucid control. In any creative process unlearning and stepping outside the formulaic constraints of acquired skills can release new ways of thinking and making. These situations are highly complex and unstable, requiring flexible thinking and responsive handling of material processes. Meaning and making are in a state of flux, with countless possibilities rapidly presenting themselves. Developing the ability to improvise (with ideas as well as materials), and to generate and make use of situations in which indeterminacy prevails, are key aspects of enquiry within art.


Lao Tzu observes:

In the pursuit of learning

we know more every day;

in the pursuit of the way

we do less every day.

We do less and less

until we do nothing at all,

and when we do nothing at all

there is nothing that is left undone.

(my version of part of stanza XLVIII,

Lao Tzu 1963: 109)


Crossroads – on the way to everywhere & nowhere – hermeneutics

According to Jonathan Williams, (2006) Hermes is the ‘god of waysides, crossroads, messages, poetry & theft’ . It is no surprise then that hermeneutics – [from Hermes, the messenger of the Greek gods] is the art or science of interpretation – concerned with the unravelling of messages and pathways of thought. Artworks, poems and other objects of interpretation, stand at the crossroads of infinite vectors of ideas and meanings. As itinerant interpreters we know that these crossroads can lead us everywhere and nowhere. As travellers we know that no road is without interest and adventure, and that walking the open road is one of life’s great pleasures.

In his thinking on hermeneutics, Paul Ricoeur, poses what he considers to be a fundamental dichotomy between two competing notions of what it is to read and interrogate texts: on the one hand, the desire to explain; and on the other, the desire to interpret. Explanation and interpretation involve two very different trajectories of thought and intention, grounded in different beliefs and values. Explanation tends to be about the convergence of different analyses upon an agreed version – this is what is meant, this is what the writer was trying to say, this, rather than that! The intention is to define, to pin down and privilege one result of enquiry above others.

Interpretation, on the other hand, tends to be about developing often divergent, streams of meaning, association, metaphor and analogy. The intention is not to define but to explore, not to pin down but to open up, not to privilege one response but to unravel more and more threads in the belief that it is in the multiplicity of meanings and possibilities that understanding resides – though ‘reside’ is not the right term, as it suggests a settling, a being-at-home within one set of walls, whereas hermeneutics, in Ricoeur’s sense, involves being-in-motion, a continual unsettling movement away from closure and finitude.

In the hermeneutical projects of Ricoeur, Derrida, Eco, Barthes, Gadamer, Rorty and others, nothing is fixed or frozen or finite. Even when agreements are reached, these are always provisional, ripe for further enquiry, interpretation and unfolding. As far as Ricoeur is concerned the ‘conflict of interpretations’ (the title of one of Ricoeur’s books) is a positive state. The ‘hermeneutical field’ (in Clark 1990: 61) is an inbetween space in which we can acknowledge and live with contradictory narratives, symbols, images and metaphors. An artwork is one particular zone of interpretation – a state or condition of doing, knowing and being with materials. The artwork involves an activity, a doing, a working with something – a weaving of strands of meaning out of an engagement with a substance in a space. This interpretative activity complements the work of the artist. The making of the artwork is always a collaborative participatory process – something creative happening between artist, material and anyone who engages with, or in, the work. And this being in the work, or being at work, is exciting and enriching. We find ourselves playing with meanings, happy to hold in mind contradictory interpretations and to enjoy suspending judgements about which is the right view. We accept, for a time, both this and that, as being equally valid – a ‘coincidence of opposites’ .

We can think of the sites of art, learning and researching or enquiry, as overlapping ‘ hermeneutical fields’ – spaces or arenas in which multiple interpretations arise, jostling against each other. Sometimes there may be a fusion of interpretations, a provisional convergence of understandings or analyses, but just as often there may be a dynamic divergence between interpretations that are incommensurable or contradictory – we cannot determine what is right or wrong, true or false, because each interpretation is as valuable, useful or enjoyable as another. And this polysemic and non-hierarchical state can be productive, stimulating and highly creative – a state of open-ended learning. It is a condition to be valued and sustained for as long as possible – a non-dogmatic holding in mind of many possibilities. But once we focus on one or other of the multiple possibilities we leave the ‘coincidence of opposites’ for a more dogmatic state of knowing and being.


Williams (2006) quotes Catallus: ‘Everything is water – if you look long enough’ .


This is my favourite translation of Basho’s famous poem:


f r o g

p o n d

p l o p

(Basho, translated by Dom Sylvester Houedard)


Scepticism & Barthes’ The Neutral

In 1977-78, Roland Barthes, gave a series of lectures at the Collège de France, which have recently been published in English translation under the title, The Neutral. (2005) Barthes puts forward all kinds of ideas about, and examples of, the in-between or liminal state of being open and receptive to all possibilities without coming down on one side or another – ‘neither this nor that’ . He draws on a diversity of sources, including, Greek scepticism, (particularly Pyrrhonism) Daoism, mysticism and Zen. He suggests that living with multiplicity and contradiction, and resisting or subverting dogmatism, are virtues that we need to cultivate. ‘Philosopher or not, man speaks by contradicting what others say and there is no way of deciding between them [& ] Now, from the fact that the reasons are ‘equivalent’ [& ] the sceptics (Timon) infer silence’. (Barthes: 25) This state of being silent, or aphasia, isn’t, for the sceptic, the result of a ‘searching for a comfortable refuge in the midst of doubt or for a means of avoiding error. To the contrary, he is only reflecting the state of balance of his soul when confronted with uncertain representations and submitted to equal contrary forces’.(Jean-Paul Dumont, in Barthes: 25)

In scepticism, as espoused by Sextus Empiricus, (late third century AD) on behalf of Pyrrho of Elis, (c.360-270 BC) the notion of epoché is very important. Epoché, refers to the ‘suspension of judgement’ which the sceptic aspires to in relation to any assertion or statement made by others. Likewise, it is important to practice non-assertion oneself – that is, not to believe, to be certain, or dogmatic, that what one asserts is the only true or valid view. This non-assertion, aphasia, is what Barthes translates as ‘silence’ . He argues that it is equally ‘reasonable’ to say either yes or no, or to keep silent, as long as we do not believe in either affirmation or negation, or to think we are saying anything ‘true’ or ‘absolute’ about the ‘essence’ of things or states of affairs. That is, we shouldn’t be systematic or emphatic in our statements, for, he points out, we should not ‘oppose dogmatic speech’ with an ‘equally dogmatic silence’. (ibid: 28) This is a position that Sextus also articulates in his Outlines of Pyrrhonism. (Empiricus: 1990)

In our relations with artworks, which can be seen, potentially, as emblematic of our relations with anyone – or any thing, idea or event – we do find ourselves in a state in which many readings, meanings or seeings are equally valid – we are ‘confronted with uncertain representations’. In this situation we tend to be open to many possibilities, and even when we align ourselves with one view or another, we don’t do this dogmatically – we recognise that this view isn’t necessarily true, correct, or false. To sustain this state of mind, to practice aphasia and epoché, we have to be nimble-footed, unattached to any fixed position – to embrace ambiguity, ambivalence and contradiction, and to accept indeterminacy as a condition of our being-in, and knowing-about, the world. This is a state we are often ready to experience in relation to art but often resistant to in our everyday interactions with others.


As William Blake says, in a letter to Thomas Butts:

May God us keep

from Single vision

– 22 November 1802

(in Partington 1996: 112)


Jonathan Williams shows us how to be with doubleness (2006):


so what did the

zen monk say to

the hotdog vendor make

me one with everything


The contrarium

In my recent book, Picturing Mind (2006) I suggest a way of thinking about these matters in terms of a contrarium – a term I’ve borrowed from Robin Blaser. It is in the perpetual flux of possibilities and ever-changing perspectives that we live our lives, a contrarium in which all perspectives have a place in the scheme of things and in which artists and poets, offer their images and narratives alongside those of philosophers, scientists, mythmakers and mythcritics. And the contrarium is itself a field of indeterminacy, a zone of mutually interdependent, and often mutually antithetical, ideas, conjectures, insights, speculations, understandings and misunderstandings.

For Blaser (1993: 278) the contrarium refers to this articulation of doubleness and polarity, the interpenetration of inside and outside. One characteristic of the contrarium is that its dynamic polarities are never resolvable through a formulaic rationalist discourse but only through the continual recomposition of lived experience and the open work. The polyvocal and polysemic contrarium can’t be posited in simple terms as the expression of the singular self. As Blaser (ibid) puts it: ‘Such polarity is not reductive to a simple-minded authenticity or to a signature that is only one’s self’. To realise or actualise the contrarium in the arts and in life is to bring into play the dynamics of otherness and hybridity – the polarities of self and unself, visible and invisible – within a subjectivity that is no longer an expression of the illusory, unhyphenated, singular self.

We are all manifestations of the contrarium – half-breeds and hybrids, liminal presences on the edge of otherness. To seek for a fixed essence or purity is to falsify the way we are and the way all things are. For reality is a confluence of identities, impermanent and indeterminate as wind and cloud, and to be precise we are neither, this nor that, one thing nor an ‘other’ – yet we are also this and that, self and other.

Another way of looking at the contrarium is as a state or clearing in which contraries are held in suspension, an attentive unknowing in which oppositions arise and are observed without comment or judgement – a ‘coincidence of opposites’.

Dasein as opening or clearing

The idea of the contrarium as a state or clearing in which contraries arise can be linked to Heidegger s notion of Dasein – being-there – which he also describes as an opening or clearing in which entities become present, a field of possibility in which being arises.


From cow to cloud

As memorable as the more well-known version, is Wordsworth s line: ‘I wandered lonely as a cow’. According to Jonathon Williams (2006) it was Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy who changed cow to cloud!


The use of koans – a dialectics of absurdity

Koans, like Hakuin’s, ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ or Hui-Neng’s, ‘What is your original face?’ are now the stuff of clichéd commentary or comedy. But within the Zen tradition, particularly the Rinzai school, they have a crucial role to play in a radical dialectical method that forces Zen students to experience the absurdities and paradoxes that arise within the web of language. The koan is used to pull the linguistic conceptualising rug from under our feet, to flip us over into suddenly experiencing the undifferentiated, ineffable concreteness of existence. In a kind of philosophical or existential slapstick the Zen teacher uses the koan to bring the student face-to-face with a reality-consciousness that is pre-linguistic, immediate and wholly indeterminate.

In the Zenrin Kushu, a collection of Zen poems and aphorisms, the paradoxical nature of this situation is evoked as follows:


You cannot get it by taking thought;

You cannot seek it by not taking thought.

(in Watts 1989: 136)


Only by no longer grasping at essences and relinquishing the desire for answers can the sceptical states of epoché and aphasia, be realised. Descriptions of these states echo the accounts of Zen students experiencing sudden insight or release (satori/kensho) when they’re no longer able to grasp for the right (or wrong) response to the koan:

[peace of mind, in sceptical terms, only arises] by not looking for it, merely being there when it arrives; and it arrives as a result of the rigorous investigation that makes it impossible to commit yourself for or against any position.(Annas 2000: 70)


Zen teacher, Ikkyu, summed up this old life of ours in the following way:


We eat, excrete, sleep, and get up;

This is our world.

All we have to do after

That – is to die.




Many years ago (late 1960s) I did an art action entitled: Proposition /Query. It lasted for between three and four hours and consisted of me repeating the two words I and AM while rocking gently from side-to-side. One small change of intonation or emphasis acted as a pivot for the whole event – the shift from ‘I am I am I am’ to ‘am I am I am I’. Anyone who missed that moment would have heard only the proposition or the query. Those who heard the moment of change tended to smile or to exchange glances before returning to the monotony of the voice and the swaying body.


Lao Tzu again:

To know yet to think that

we do not know

is best.

(my version of part of stanza LXXI,

Lao Tzu 1963: 109)



In the words of John Cage:


The situation must be


not either-or.

Avoid a polar situation.

(in Perloff 1996: 213)



I have suggested that the arts can be seen as polysemic and non-dogmatic modes of enquiry – ways of doing, knowing and being that often involve multiple paradoxes and the holding-in-mind of many interpretations and positions. Artistic constructs can be thought about, and experienced, as sites of contradiction, indeterminacy and uncertainty, in which dynamic currents of association and open-ended play are accompanied by suspension of judgement. Things are often done by not-doing and learnt by unlearning. It seems to me that the kinds of non-dogmatic enquiry and equivocal states of knowing manifested in the arts subvert and counteract the false certainties and dogmatic assertions which so often masquerade as the fruits of research and the goal of enquiry or learning.


Or, as William Empson, the author of Seven Kinds of Ambiguity, points out: ‘life involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that can’t be solved by analysis’. (in Phillips 2005)


According to Heraclitus (the Dark):

‘It is the opposite which is good for us’.

Fragment 46.

 Coincidence ending



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Barthes, R. 2005. The Neutral, New York: Columbia University Press.

Blaser, Robin. 1993. The Holy Forest. Toronto, Canada: Coach House Press.

Bunting, B. 1968. Collected Poems, London: Fulcrum Press.

Clark, S.H. 1990. Paul Ricoeur, London & New York: Routledge.

Dewey, J. 1958. Art as Experience, Capricorn Books, New York.

Empiricus, S. 1990. Outlines of Pyrrhonism, New York: Prometheus Books.

Feyerabend, P. (1975): Against Method, Verso.

Lao Tzu. trans. Lau, D.C. 1963. Tao Te Ching, London: Penguin.

McEvilley, Thomas. 2003. The Art of Dove Bradshaw: Nature, Change and Indeterminacy. New Jersey, USA: Mark Batty.

McFarlane, Thomas J. 2004. ‘Nicholas of Cusa and the Infinite’. On line at: www.integralscience.org (consulted 06.06.2005).

Mitchell, J.J.T. ed. 1985. Against Theory, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Partington, A. ed. 1996. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Perloff, Marjorie. 1996. The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.

Phillips, Adam. 2005. Review of William Empson, Vol.1: Among the Mandarins by John Haffenden (Oxford: Oxford University Press) in The Observer (17 April 2005).

Rorty, R. 1999. Philosophy and Social Hope, London: Penguin (eg p. 48-49).

Watts, Alan. 1989. The Way of Zen. New York: Vintage Books.

Williams, J. 2006. ‘Ray’s Gray’s’ – essay on the photographer, Raymond Moore, for an exhibition at The Photographer’s Gallery, London, 5 October 1993. The Jargon Society, Musings, online at: http://jargonbooks.com/raymoore.html


© 2007 – John Danvers

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