Friday, October 05, 2007

Odd Third Choices

My favorite cola is neither Coke nor Pepsi, but RC.

My favorite browser is neither Internet Explorer nor Firefox, but Opera.

My favorite beer is neither Budweiser nor Miller, but Point Special.

My favorite operating system is neither Windows XP nor Mac OS X, but Linux.

On the radio I prefer to listen neither to AM nor to FM, but rather to shortwave.

I prefer to write neither with ballpoint nor with pencil, but rather with a fountain pen.

Given my choice of board games, I'd prefer neither Chess nor Checkers, but rather the Japanese game of Shogi.

Toss a coin, and I'm likely to call neither heads nor tails, but rims (let's not get into the one time in high school when a friend tossed a nickel in the air, and I called rims correctly)...

It's a consistent thread running through my life: given two choices, I often prefer some obscure, unheard of, far-distant third choice. The only wonder is, I don't vote Libertarian.


Blogger The Tetrast said...

Okay, what's your third choice with this?:

1. The glass is half-empty.
2. The glass is half-full.

Friday, October 05, 2007 10:27:00 PM  
Blogger Paul Burgess said...

If what's in the glass is known to be drinkable, I suppose I might drink it. If it's undrinkable, or drinkability unknown, I suppose I might pour it out.

What runs through all these third choices of mine is a tendency to reject double binds by forging my own alternative. Given a choice of "the lady or the tiger" I choose what's behind door number three.

Looking at it from an intellectual angle, this is one of those points where the late Gregory Bateson— with his work on systems theory, double binds, and pragmatic paradox— has been a bad influence on me.

Looking at it from an autobiographical angle, I remember one time back in my student days when I was walking across the UW-Madison campus, and I came upon a small boulder in the middle of the sidewalk with a sign directing people to walk around to the left of the boulder. I immediately intuited this to be an experiment by some psychology student, with expected outcome of most people walking around to the left, a few people rebelliously walking around to the right.

So without missing a beat, I proceeded to hopscotch back and forth, back and forth, over the boulder.

Sure enough, glancing up into a nearby building, I saw a student with notebook in hand, evidently marking down a tally of passerby reactions.

I remember back in junior high devoting a great deal of thought to the two alternatives of conformity versus nonconformity. Of course I was in junior high in the late Sixties. There was a conformity in the culture in those days which, like a lot of young people, I found fairly stifling. But at the same time I saw much of the Sixties nonconformity as a mindless kneejerk reaction, "a mass-produced nonconformity for the millions, everybody different exactly alike." In its own way, the nonconformity could be just as stifling as the conformity. The third-choice alternative which I hammered out at that time was individualism: "think for yourself, and 'let the finder beware'!" I remember also connecting these ideas with the British TV series The Prisoner, which first aired in the US in the summer back around 1967 or 1968.

Digging back further into my life history, I wonder if some of my devotion to third choices may derive from my horrific experiences with school bullies in the lower grades. I'm convinced those experiences were an important factor in touching off my "radioactive core meltdown of the imagination," which I resorted to as a matter of psychological survival. Probably same story with my pursuit of third choices. One aspect of power structures in general and bullying in particular is the attempted placing of people into double binds, "heads I win, tails you lose." Situations are framed so that, no matter how you respond, you end up only playing into the bully's hands. I learned early on, when someone faced me with a choice of heads or tails, to call rims.

Eh, power structures, double binds, odd third choices... once again I'm going all triadic, aren't I?! If I remember correctly, Peirce didn't deal much (if at all) with issues of power structures. Synechism outmaneuvers and outplenums the stark dyadic horns of a dilemma. In one sense that's all to the good, as it makes it harder for the power-obsessed dictatorship of the intellectualariat to hijack and coopt Peirce to their purposes: you'll notice their preference for a Saussurean mode which only allows for dyadic sign structures.

It seems to me that something like Bateson's thinking on double binds can be recast in Peircean terms: think of a sign in which self-representation and self-interpretation become the two alternatives of a double bind, "heads I win, tails you lose." Worked out in detail, this ends up looking something like good old-fashioned existentialism, Man as an embodied sign driven toward becoming a self-paradox, driven toward illimitable self-fragmentation no matter what he represents and no matter which way he is interpreted. You know, thrown into a world he never made, confronted with the existential threat of nothingness, all that jazz.

But this is revisiting chapter six of my dissertation, which I haven't revisited now in years. Eh, what's in the mix there is not only Peirce and Bateson, but also Josiah Royce's "calculus of modes of action" in his System Sigma, as well as Reinhold Niebuhr's Gifford Lectures, and probably also some notions from the Peircean essays of novelist Walker Percy hovering in the background.

Saturday, October 06, 2007 8:12:00 AM  
Blogger The Tetrast said...

And I say,

3. Now there's a glass that's twice as big as it needs to be!

Sorry, that was my pre-planned punch line, I used it.

Saturday, October 06, 2007 7:20:00 PM  
Blogger Paul Burgess said...


Monday, October 08, 2007 8:45:00 AM  

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