Four things are two binary oppositions

From Bitty Ramirez on Facebook:

It is really unusual to have a K-12 lesson that allows discussion of dice and playing cards. This may be the first time I’ve encountered it. And I am finding it really disconcerting that the writer keeps dividing suits by color instead of by major/minor.

This was at first completely baffling to me: major/minor?

It turned out to be significant that Bitty is a bridge player, and I am not. Major/minor is a thing in bridge.

In bridge, I have learned, the suits of playing cards come in an order. In ascending order, with minor (MIN) followed by major (MAJ), these divided by a vertical bar:

clubs (B) diamonds (R) | hearts (R) spades (B)

In a chart, to be read like text:

The top row is MIN, the bottom MAJ, and the colors leap out. Four things, two binary oppositions.

But for four things, there are always three possible binary oppositions:

A B C D: AB vs. CD (MIN vs. MAJ); AC vs. BD; AD vs. BC (B vs. R)

So what’s AC vs. BD, the left column vs. the right column? pointed-top (PT) (diamonds, spades) vs. rounded-top (RD) (clubs, hearts).

We are categorizing creatures, and also pattern-seeking creatures, so given four things we’ll break them down into pairs (two-member categories) and see some kind of significance, some kind of “meaning”, in the pairs; we pretty much can’t not do this.

This kind of decomposition into explicit binary oppositions is a hallmark of structuralist thinking. A little essay in NOAD‘s entry:

noun structuralism: a method of interpretation and analysis of aspects of human cognition, behavior, culture, and experience that focuses on relationships of contrast between elements in a conceptual system that reflect patterns underlying a superficial diversity. … Originating in the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, and extended into anthropology by Claude Lévi-Strauss, structuralism was adapted to a wide range of social and cultural studies, especially in the 1960s, by writers such as Roland Barthes, Louis Althusser, and Jacques Lacan.

Personal note: my intellectual influences are quite varied, but they include Roman Jakobson, a major figure of structuralist thinking, especially in linguistics. Binarist thinking was as mother’s milk to me.

I waggisly incorporated this thinking into a piece of homoerotic magic realist fiction, told in the voice of Sundance (Sundance is a angel when he flies; yes, he can fly), called Sonny (originally a genuine country boy, clever and sweet, but largely unschooled, also a fool for mansex), called Soní, in a Bolivia of the mind, in a larger world in which both time and death are flexible and variable notions. From my 4/5/11 AZBlogX posting “San Soní”:


I have learned how to do computer searches on titles (there are some truly marvelous things in modern life), and being the sort of person I am I search for SODOM, which nets me a whole pile of stuff I might someday want to take a look at (Sodom’s SongSodomy and the Pirate TraditionThe Haunts of the Sodomites: Where to Fuck and Get Fucked in the Great Cities of the World). Plus the absolute prize-winning title, as far as I’m concerned; The Four First Sisters and the Four Sodomite Martyrs: A Study in Binary Opposition in the Folk Beliefs of Bolivia. By Rosalie Cavanaugh-Charles, who’s at the University of East Anglia. Just published. I am the first user (as they say in libraries) to check this one out.

Chapter 1 tells the legends of the First Mother: how She took the Jaguar as her husband, how the Four First Sisters were born together, all at the same time, that sort of thing. Most of it I already knew, but there was some new stuff; for instance, I didn’t know that all four of the sisters’ names were in some language (or maybe languages) no longer spoken in Bolivia, so that even their usual translations are on the iffy side. Here Cavanaugh-Charles produces the first of her many useful (ok, sometimes baffling; I’m still ferreting my way into academia) tables and charts:

Pal’chas ‘mountains’ calm
Ixqin ‘sea’ playfulness, good humor
Sqonis ‘hot’ or ‘north’ enthusiasm, passion
Multhan ‘cold’ or ‘south’ control


When it’s laid out like this you can start to see patterns.
Chapter 2 is about the role the sisters play in Bolivian culture. More familiar stuff, but it’s nice to be reminded.
First, the sisters are used as yardsticks for character. If someone is too serious, humorless, people say that have “not enough Ixqin” in them. If someone is wild, refuses to take things seriously, they have “too much Ixqin”. And someone of good humor is “a perfect Ixqin”. Ok, Piero said I was a perfect Ixqin, and that pleased me a lot.

Second, babies are named for the sisters (but versions of the names that fit Spanish a bit better), in the hope that they’ll turn out to have that sister’s qualities. Max’s mother was named Ixqina; from all accounts, Palchasa would have fit better, but then she was actually named after her father, Ixqino, Bolivia’s first prince, and everyone says the name suited him just perfectly. (Yes, Maximilian I was imported to provide a male ruler for the new nation. Ixqina might have been the most powerful woman in the country, but she was unacceptable as its chief of state. Max the First was, actually, an inspired choice: handsome, charming, enough nobility to be accustomed to command, not enough to want to undo things in a major way.)

Third, and by far most important, each community of women is identified with one of the sisters.

Chapter 3 goes like chapter 1, except that it’s about us faggots. Amazingly, Cavanaugh-Charles talks about fag sex in a direct, un-sneering, un-prissy way; she doesn’t use words off the street, but she’s pretty inventive in getting the picture across with perfectly acceptable words, like “penetrate”. I think I’d like to meet this woman.

But, oh Jesus, it’s still another version of my year with Max, and it’s akilter, askew, discordant with every other version I’ve heard so far, including Consuela’s, which I’d been assuming was the folk take on these events, at least in this century.
In this version, Maximilian III was born the year before I appeared (same date, previous year), and Carlota and the baby sailed happily off for Spain the day of my appearance. A nice, neat, touch.

In this version, Max and I actually ruled together, as equals.
In this version, the couplings that took place in the men’s bedroom of the palace are displaced into sexual performances in the plaza, before every onlooker who happened to come by.
In this version, Simón himself, acting on his own, surprises the unwary four and leads us at gunpoint from the palace. Blood gushes spontaneously from Max’s pectorals. A truly unpleasant picture, to my mind, anyway.

In this version, there’s no shit, and certainly no maggots feeding on our shit. Now there’s a detail I would happily give up.

It goes on and on. I can’t do it any more. My head hurts.
But there’s a table, oh yes a table:

Maximilian The Christ of Bolivia strength, power
Soní The Angel loyalty, good friendship
Piero The Teacher learning
Francisco The Patient dependability, patience

Chapter 4 is like chapter 2. Yeah, again, about us faggots. It’s all news to me. The idea that we are symbols in modern Bolivian culture is just so bizarre.

But all the stuff from chapter 2 rolls by again, except now it’s about us. And it’s real, meaning that living breathing Bolivians subscribe to these ideas, wow. There are folks who say that some people have “not enough Soní”, meaning they’re fickle, changeable, or “too much Soní”, meaning they’re servile, dependent. Am I a perfect Soní?

Cavanaugh-Charles explains that with another four personages — her word — to identify with, there can be sixteen kinds of communities of women, not just four. Everyone seems to think this is a very good thing.

Apparently there are lots of little Sonís and Sonías running around in Bolivia’s villages these days.

And there’s a Soní cult, with Santa Carlita del Norte (the place where I died with Butch) as its center. I wonder what the rituals are like.

Chapter 5 is completely daunting. It’s all about binary oppositions, with all this stuff about computer logic, somebody named Levi-Strauss (who seems to have thought very deeply about the difference between raw and cooked), and linguistics (here at least I learn a little something, about voiced versus voiceless consonants, rounded versus unrounded vowels — a lot of the terminology strikes me as sexy, though probably that’s an accident).

In chapter 6 we get to what she thinks is the real point of the exercise, breaking down the Four First Sisters and the Four Sodomite Martyrs into binary oppositions. I sort of see the point. I certainly see how Max and I made a couple and how Piero and Francisco did. And I see that I was subordinate to Max (no matter what he said) in the same way that Francisco was subordinate to Piero. But Piero and I made a kind of couple, too, as opposed to Francisco and Manuel, but then Manuel isn’t in this story. So I could group us any which way. Cavanaugh-Charles, though, dismisses the Piero-Soní connection and produces this astonishing chart:

+: SUN/DAY Maximilian Soní
-: MOON/NIGHT Piero Francisco

Oh, now I see that this does group me with Piero in a way; he’s my total opposite. Hmmm.

Actually, this comes after she’s done her number on the Four First Sisters. I have to say that it all goes easier for them, you could see it pretty clearly all the way back in chapter 2, what with the sea vs. the mountains and north vs. south and the “hot” sisters vs. the “cool” ones:

+: UP -: DOWN
+: DAY/HOT north, hot (Sqonis) sea (Ixqin)
-: NIGHT/COOL mountains (Pal’chas) south, cold (Multhan)

Then she goes on to claim that the two charts are really just the same chart. So I’m Ixqin. (What she actually says, omigod, is that “Soní fills the same position in the system of binary oppositions as Ixqin.”)

It gets loonier. She does this analysis over again two more times, with the four elements (fire, water, earth, air) and the four humors (sanguine/passionate, choleric/angry, phlegmatic/stolid, bilious/peevish) and matches these two charts — you really don’t want to see them — with the two from Bolivia. I’m water and angry, in case you’re interested.

The point is that it’s all supposed to be universal, “the same two binary oppositions realized in different material in different domains.”

Actually, she had pretty well sucked me into the whole thing, until she mentioned a guy who’d done this analysis on the Beatles, for Chrissake. That broke the spell for me. I saw that you could jiggle any four things around and make them fit, maybe in more than one way even. Shouldn’t I have been hot, fiery, passionate, like the sun?

But I liked the idea of being connected to Ixqin, to Max’s mother and to his grandfather. And to the sea. Bolivia is a land-locked country; you dream of the far-off sea, you long to walk into waves that sparkle in the sun, you yearn to give your body back to the playful, angry ocean.


The crucial step: “the two charts are really just the same chart”. And, yes, the Beatles: of course, the Beatles.



3 Responses to “Four things are two binary oppositions”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    I’m not sure, in the case of the “rounded” and “pointed” suits, whether there’s any “meaning” attached to the categories; I think it’s just a convenient way to identify a pair of suits not covered by the other two categories. (Whether it’s actually any more convenient to say that a player had to worry about losing tricks in the “rounded suits” rather than just saying “hearts and clubs” is unclear, and I was briefly puzzled the first time I encountered the usage in a bridge column.)

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    For another set of four things paired in various ways, see the Wikipedia article on The Quadrivium.

  3. The Raw and the Cooked | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] the book figured prominently in my 5/8/18 posting “Four things are two binary […]

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