Woodcut from Brant's
Ship of Fools (1966)
Of the vayne hope the Foles hath to
succed to herytage possession and ryches
Source: Woodcut from Brant's The Ship of Fools (1966)
The Fool's JourneyI want to begin this paper by citing a short passage by John O'Neill. The quote is taken from an article called 'Environmentalists and the Temple of Doom'; and was published in the Sydney Morning Herald.
Hardly a week goes by without another warning of imminent catastrophe from the environmental movement. Preaching their cause with an almost religious fervour, the greens have been extraordinarily successful in gaining credibility with the public and the media...[A] history of disinformation and exaggeration demands a closer scrutiny of their claims. (January 20, 1996, Spectrum, p.1)O'Neill seems to me to have encapsulated a fairly common-place perception of the communication technique used by environmentalists. While I agree with him that it is largely self-evident that many environmentalists have succeeded in becoming newsworthy, I think it is less well understood why environmentalists choose to communicate the way they do. To unpack some possible explanations on this question, I presented a paper at a conference in Tasmania on environmentalism, public opinion and the media (Low 1996). My argument at that time was that environmentalists are playing the traditional role of fools. As living embodiments of the trickster, environmental protesters confront the present with the possible, and in the process, create new value.My analogy also led me to thinking about the fool's traditional role in literature and art. For example, I suggested that Cervantes' Don Quixote might be one of the green activist's archetypal role-models.
Source: Cervantes (1842), illustrator: Tony Johannot.
In its modern environmentalist manifestation, the ritual sequence runs as follows. A relatively powerless environmentalist engages in the intensive study of environmental texts. The concerned environmentalist gains the impression that the planet is in danger, so much so, that it must be "saved". Struck by a sense of urgency, the environmentalist adopts a suitably noble persona, dons a rubber suit of armour, mounts the trusted surfboard or zodiac, and rides to the rescue.
'Delphius' from Brown & May 1989To those who think the environmentalists have been reading too many books about the looming collapse of a toxic planet, the role is truly Quixotic. As modern Don Quixotes, the locus of the problem is though to be inside the protesters, not outside in the environment. In other words, to detractors, the greenies' behaviour is made understandable by assuming that the environmental problem is imagined. In this interpretation, the protesters are fools tilting at derelict oil-platform windmills.
My characterisation is not necessarily how environmentalists intend to be understood. Like Don Quixote, they know who they are, and they know that they really are on a mission to save the world. As a consequence, when I presented my first paper on this topic (Low 1996), the environmentalists in the audience were not too happy with me. I don't want to get into the same trouble again, so this time around, let me state my position unequivocally. I am not suggesting that greenies are fools or Don Quixotes. What I am suggesting is that the roles environmentalists play have certain characteristics that may be associated with well-known literary frames. These shared antecedents are used by both the actors and audience to construct the environmentalists' concerns into an imaginative story. Thus, my argument is that environmentalism aims to involve an audience within the discursive frame of a story. In other words, I am suggesting that the audience is encouraged to construct themselves imaginatively in a cooperative relation with the activists via substantive elements, such as character roles, suitable props, and a plot. Like all good actors, then, environmentalists want their audience to take the environmental issues introduced in their theatre of protest seriously. In this sense, environmentalists are playing the traditional role of fool, but for good reason.So, to get it quite clear, I am not saying that I think the issues that concern environmentalists are unimportant, or that environmentalists are silly people. What I am suggesting is that well-known interpretive frames are being strategically mobilised as a communication technique. Further, my argument is that these interpretive frames, dialogues, or conflicts, constitute a distinct style of communication, which I call the greenie genre .To further explore the genre I have decided to take my earlier conference analogy literally. We are now going to enquire into the greenie genre as if the environmentalists that animate it really are living embodiments of the traditional fool.
So, as they say in mathematics, let this tarot fool represent a Greenie Fool. Next, let us imagine that we can travel with this picaresque Fool on a life-journey. This imaginary journey is intended to serve as a semiotic heuristic of the greenie genre. Along the way, we will examine how the Greenie Fool, as a moving sign, can embody and convey an idea, for example, the idea that the world needs saving. Indeed, our journey will be reported in the form of a travel dialogue. We will journey with the fool to see how our Greenie Fool might emerge at the end of the tarot journey as a fully informed Global Fool.Why is it important that the Greenie Fool make this journey? As Lotman (1990) has pointed out that, just as the world has an atmosphere, a biosphere, and a hydrosphere, the planet also has a 'semiosphere';. If we damage the systems of meaning that sustain us, we will have also damaged the global semiosphere. Indeed, if we damage the semiosphere beyond the point it can sustain human meaning, we will be unable to survive as a meaningful-species. In other words, we will become extinct. In my view, this is why we should be interested how the Greenie Fool, as an embodied sign of environmental concern, can create, in the mind of somebody else an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more fully developed sign.Now, as some of you may recognise, the way I just phrased this last sentence is a restatement of the Charles Peirce's well-known definition of a sign: "A sign...is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign" (CP 2.228 2). This is a technical definition of a sign, thus the work I shall shortly present was written as a means to unpack some of what Peirce was getting at with the definition. Keep in mind, however, that my aim in the following is not to give a magical tarot reading for the Fool. Rather, the aim is to use the tarot as a heuristic system and learn how Peirce's semiotic method can be applied to the analysis of environmental discourses.For those of you unfamiliar with the tarot, I will now give a quick sketch of the system and my reasons for choosing it as a guiding heuristic.
There are seventy-eight picture cards in a tarot deck (Waite 1910). These are sub-divided into four suits and a further set of named cards called the major arcana. The major arcana are numbered from zero to twenty-one and form a narrative sequence for the Fool, card zero, to pass through. Thus, the twenty-one named cards unfold as a life journey for the Fool. Each card represents a stage in life and each card is progressively embodied by the travelling Fool. Thus, once travelled, the tarot sequence represents a memory for the Fool. For example, when someone says they have 'lost the thread' of an argument, they are alluding to a journey that was Ariadne's ball of string to Theseus in the labyrinth. Like Theseus, the riddle the Fool must solve is not how to get in memory, any fool can do that, but how to get out again. In this sense, the tarot cards can be used as an efficient way to recall the significant lessons we encounter on our journeys through life.
To represent the Greenie Fool's journey, I am going to use just five cards. I have chosen these cards as they represent the beginning and conclusion of our story, and the intermediate cards represent the three 'spiritual guides' the fool needs to encounter to complete the journey (Tweg 1983). These five cards represent the five stages of the Fool's journey through the semiosphere. To represent the first of the five stages, I use card zero, the Fool. This card is the greenie at the beginning of the life-journey. The Fool at this stage is pure feeling, a first without recognition or analysis. The next card, the Magician, represents the Fool's encounter with the outer world of facts, a second, the elements external to the Fool, the Fool's habitat. The third card, the Hermit, represents the Fool's binding of time, the Fool's sense of learning or consciousness, a sense of thirdness.Peirce held that these three modes of human consciousness, feeling, fact and thought, afford a phenomenological explanation of the three necessary logical categories: quality, relation and mediation (CP 1.377; 1.378). Taken together, therefore, our first three cards represent Peirce's irreducible analysis of a sign. For Peirce, a sign is something comprised of a representamen, an object, and an interpretant. The Fool is a representamen, the Magician its object, and the Hermit an interpretant.The last two cards we shall use are Temperance and the World. Temperance represents semiosis, or what Peirce called the action of the sign. As we can see, Temperance is caught here depicted in the act of balancing the inner and outer worlds, the focus of which gives both matter and form to consciousness. Temperance is trying to determine the general characteristics of the semiosis. The final card, the World, is our conclusion. The World represents the ultimate goal of the Fool's quest. It is here that the Fool finds the Fool's genuine semiotic-self.I now want to examine each card individually and talk in a little more detail about Peirce's semiotic method of analysis.
The Greenie Fool is where we start, arcanum zero, the original primal wilderness, or what I call the wilderness within .
In terms of the tarot journey, we see the Fool is located at the beginning of a trip into self-knowledge. The Fool at this stage is omnipotent, newly born, or as Ovid (1986) put it, "adorable". Indeed, the flower of Ovid's Narcissus narrative, the "White petals clustered round a cup of gold", is being carried in the palm of the Fool's hand, the sign of a yet to be realised narcissistic wound. I say not yet realised for, as we can see, at this stage, the Fool has not yet even heard Echo's reply. As Peirce put it, "That of first is so tender that you cannot touch it...in youth, the world is fresh and we seem free" (CP 1.358).Now, in this card we have represented one of the most interesting features of the greenie genre. The Fool's journey is typically said to be into self-knowledge, not outward into the world of real relations. This begs the question: How can the Fool learn anything about the real world if the Fool is not going anywhere except inside the Fool? My solution to this question, naturally enough, is derived from Peirce's semiotics. In semiosis, the Fool is always journeying, both in and out , simultaneously. Indeed, this is the paradox that the Fool will progressively learn to transcend during the journey. At this stage, however, the Fool is both subject and object, both inner and outer, both yes and no. Indeed, at this stage, the Fool has no unity, for there are as yet no parts. The Fool is what Peirce called pure Firstness. In his words, firstness is all that is "present, immediate, fresh, new, initiative, original, spontaneous, free, vivid, conscious and evanescent" (CP 1.357). The Fool is all of these, and more. The Fool is pure possibility. As a possibility, the Fool is setting out into the world without an identity, hence the Fool's youthful appearance. In this sense, the Fool is the carrier of a soon to be realised identity. Indeed, I would suggest that this soon to be realised identity is signified by the bag at the end of the Fool's staff.Speaking of setting out, I should also note that Arthur Waite, the supervising designer of the card, chose to make a curious inversion of the traditional image here. He has correctly instructed that the Fool be depicted in an elevated position, about to 'launch off' into the unknown so to speak, but in the wrong direction. If we read from left to right, the Fool is looking back in time, instead of forward. This is significant in the present context. For example, we might speculate that one of the characteristics of the greenie genre is that the Greenie Fool is looking to the past instead of the future. The Greenie Fool is looking backward to a pristine first rather than moving forward to deal with the real world. If this is the case, the Greenie Fool is setting out in the wrong direction on an impossible quest for the original, "lost object" (Freud 1957), an idealised (utopian) primal wilderness.To avoid this impossible search, it is vital that the Fool, a first, should meet the Magician, a second. The Magician represents the worldly forces that can turn the Greenie Fool around before it is too late. I see the overall character of the Magician, therefore, as signifying external mastery. This card, also sometimes called the Scientist, represents what I call the wilderness without , the Fool's earthly habitat. In terms of Peirce's phenomenological categories, the Magician embodies pure Secondness. As Peirce put it:Besides Feeling, we have Sensation of reaction; as when a person blindfold suddenly runs against a post, when we make a muscular effort, or when any feeling gives way to a new feeling. . (CP 6.19)Secondness, then, is the interruption of pure consciousness, or perhaps a sense of resistance. In literary terms, I think the post-modernists have secondness in mind when they discuss otherness "with a capital O". Secondness is something up against a first, which is why we can have a Firstness of Secondness, but not a Secondness of Firstness. This is also why the Fool must move forward into the future and not backwards into an impossible past.The Magician's archetypal role, therefore, is to teach the Greenie Fool how to interact with the material substances encountered on the journey. Note therefore, that laid out on the Magician's table are the four tools of the Magician's trade. These are the four cardinal elements of the universe. They are depicted here as the four suits of the minor arcana: cups, wands, pentacles and swords, but have a wide correspondence to other semiotic-systems. For example, in Alchemy they are the cardinal elements of water, air, earth and fire. In Astrology, they correspond to the four cardinal points of the compass. In the Cabbala, initiative, inertia, equilibrium and result. In Buddhism, the Four Great Elements: solidity, fluidity, heat and motion. In the Apocalypse, the four beasts. In Magic, the four classes of spirits: nymphs, sylphs, pygmies and salamanders. In modern physics, the four fundamental forces: gravity, electromagnetism, strong atomic force and weak atomic force. The lesson for the Fool, at this stage, is that each of these element has a factual locus in the outer realm. In Peirce's terms, these elements are "genuine seconds".The Fool, however, has not yet got to the stage of fully comprehending any of this. The Fool has not yet met (i.e., embodied) the Fool's conscious self, or what I call the Hermit. As a consequence, the Fool-Magician has, once again, no sense of identity, a possibility that Ovid exploited for all its poetic worth in his Narcissus passages. As Ovid explained so well, it is impossible for the Fool at this stage to build consciousness from an external world that is entirely dissociated from the Fool's sense of self in time. In a dissociated world, true consciousness or learning is impossible. It is important keep this in mind, as we are examining the necessary semiotic elements through which an environmental consciousness can be embodied by the Fool. To become conscious, the Fool must have first have encountered the object of consciousness, an inner reality, and an outer reality. At the present stage, with the Magician, the Fool has been introduced to both of these, however, it is pointless to ask the Fool whether the Fool found the wilderness without, or whether the Fool created it (Winnicott 1971). There is no way the Fool can answer such a question without an identity. The Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz comes to mind here as a another good example of a fool trapped in secondness. Without a mind, the Tin Man, or in this case, the Greenie Fool, does not know whether the wilderness without, the realm of the Magician, is a part of the Fool, or a part of something independent of the Fool. For the Fool to be able to make this distinction, it is necessary to introduce the Fool to the Hermit.
In the Hermit we meet the last component of Peirce's sign triad. What is first, the Fool, is pure ego. What is Second, the Magician, is non-ego. What is third, the Hermit, is purpose, consciousness, a sense of learning. Thus, to progress, the Fool must learn that mediate between the Fool and the Magician is the "thread of life" (Peirce CP 1.337). In other words, the Fool must learn to see the continuity of the journey, its accelerations and successive positions. To do this, the Fool must learn two things with the Hermit. First, that meaning involves a triadic relation and, second, that meaning cannot be reduced to dual relations. These lessons may require a period of considerable reflection, and it is interesting to note, therefore, that a number of cartomancers have argued that the Hermit is symbolically connected with the powerful, ancient god Saturn, a personification of Time (Bellenghi 1988). The Fool, at this stage, must learn to locate the Fool's identity in time. Indeed, many argue that the planet Saturn is the star in the Hermit's lamp (eg. Tweg 1983). For Peirce, time represents Thirdness almost to perfection (CP 1.381). Firstness is immediate consciousness, Secondness is the fact of the two sides of an instant, Thirdness is a sense of time's passage.We might also note the black background that surrounds the Hermit. In alchemy, Saturn is the technical name for lead, which Paracelsus called the "blackest and densest of all" (1894, p. 110). Thus, in alchemical medicine, Saturn is linked with black bile, which was often thought to be the determinate factor in the development of hypochondria. Thus, if the Greenie Fool is frozen up there with Hermit-Saturn, the wilderness without and the wilderness within cannot be distinguished. The Greenie Fool might remain trapped in the orbit of Saturn, unable to determine whether the environmental problem is real, or imagined, external fact, or internal fancy.Once again, therefore, it is interesting to note that the Hermit is depicted looking down, into the past, perhaps searching for that "lost object" again. To sort out whether the Greenie Fool is dealing with a real problem, or an imaginary problem, or perhaps something that is both, the Fool must next meet Temperance.
In the Temperance card we find many images of the comparing and contrasting the Fool must learn to master in process. For example, the pouring of liquid from one cup to another, or the balancing between the elements of water, air, earth and fire. In respect to our interest in the greenie genre, we should also note that Temperance's role is to teach the Greenie Fool how to distinguish between what Peirce called a degenerate sign and a genuine sign (CP 1.521ff.). That is, the Greenie Fool must learn to distinguish between the active and passive forces of life. In the active mode of Secondness, there is the sense of something external to the Fool, such as the feeling of some hidden object obstructing a door we are trying to open. In the passive mode, there is a sense of reaction, something like the feeling of blue giving way to a feeling of red. The active mode is a sense of resistance with something outside the Fool, the passive, a sense of connection with something inside the Fool. This inside/outside distinction is central to the thesis I am developing. The active and passive modes of Secondness represent two distinct grades of thought.
Now, if you think this is a little complicated, it gets even more interesting when we consider the implications of the above for thirdness. If secondness is a dual relation, with two interrelated yet distinct grades, this means that there are three possible grades of thirdness. This is more difficult to see, so I have adapted a diagram from Peirce to my present purpose (Peirce 1976, p. 243). In thirdness, there is genuine thirdness, or what Peirce called symbol, and two degenerate grades, which Peirce called index and icon. The two degenerate grades of Thirdness are of the great utility. The most degenerate of the two grades of Thirdness is an icon. As Peirce explained it, an icon possess the quality it signifies and is independent of any purpose. In terms of our tarot journey, the Fool card comes as close to representing pure iconicity as we can get. Thus, if we say the Fool is an icon, we are suggesting that the card predominantly represents the wilderness within, the realm of pure feeling. As an example of what I have in mind here, Peg Putt, spokesperson for the Tasmanian Greens, once described the Tasmanian State Government's logging policy as "a crewcut for the Tasmanian forests" (Briggs 1996). This statement is a sign by resemblance, a third of comparison to a quality. It refers to the similarity between forms that might not ordinarily linked together. As Peirce put it, an icon is more an association due to a power within than a sign due to external fact (CP 1.365).A sign of fact is what Peirce called an index. An index is a sign which is fit to serve as a sign by virtue of it being in a real reaction with its object. In terms of our tarot journey, we could say that such a sign is governed by the Magician, the relation of signs that denotes the Fool's wilderness without. The index denotes the elements on the Magician's table by virtue of being really affected by them. An index, therefore, cannot be just an icon, although it will involve some iconicity. This is because the Fool, as an icon, is whatever the Fool is, independent of anything else. The Magician, on the other hand, is a manifestation of the continuity of the Fool. The magician represents an index, and therefore involves some aspect of the icon, but it is something more than the icon. The index is a sign by virtue of it containing some information about the environment of the Fool. In this sense, an index represents fact because it is in a real reaction with the object denoted. A good environmental example of an index, therefore, would be the fumes coming out of a car exhaust. The fumes are a sign of air pollution because they are in continuous contact with the atmosphere the Fool must breathe. The pollution is a fact of the explosion of the fuel, and is therefore a real relation, not a relation of reason.We now come to the genuine sign, here represented as the Hermit's consciousness. This is what Peirce called a symbol. Peirce said a symbol is a sign because it will be so interpreted. Language and all forms of abstract thinking fall into this category. A symbol may therefore interpret either an icon or an index. For example, a sign might interpret a word like "logging" so as to call up the iconic image of a shaven head. Alternatively, a sign might interpret a word such as "carbon monoxide" and call up an index which denotes a gas that is well-known to both utterer and interpreter. As I noted earlier, the Hermit's remote view encompasses both the characteristics of the Fool and the Magician. In the case of a symbol, we might say the sign expresses a general observation or law-like habit. Put another way, we might say that the symbol is applicable to whatever may be found in the world to realise the idea connected with it.Perhaps by now the Greenie Fool understands something of the bewilderness of the environmenalists' wilderness. If so, I expect the Greenie Fool will have to spend some time with Temperance still, weighing up and considering the importance of triadic relations. We, however, will not linger at this stage. Our Fool must continue the journey and meet the World.
The traditional interpretation of the World card is that of the successful achievement of a goal. Thus, the Fool is now surrounded by a corolla or laurel, a symbol of victory or a crowning glory. Ruskin (1896, p. 468) suggested an interesting reading in this respect. He pointed out that "Laura" is the old English name for "the path". He also noted that "Labyrinth" properly means "coil-of-rope-walk". In this sense, the Fool's prize is the successful twisting together of the semiotic threads found along the journey. The path of discovery now encircles and "crowns" the Fool. Indeed, crown is another term for head, which might suggest that the path of life now surrounds the Fool and, simultaneously, constitutes the Fool. Thanks to the lessons of the Magician, Hermit and Temperance, the Fool has arrived at the end of our tarot journey as a compleat sign. The Fool now embodies the material, spiritual and angelic realms, all harmoniously embedded, once again, in the four elements, here represented as the four beasts of the Apocalypse.Note also that the Fool is placed at the centre of the garlanded circle, with one foot before and the other behind, balancing in and out of the circle. This configuration represents the perfection of "in-between", the mediate realm of signs. The Fool has now understood the purpose of striking a balance between the material and spiritual aspects of the Fool: the wilderness within and the wilderness without. Indeed, in this sense, the Fool is now self-consciously balanced between the passive and active forces of the Semiosphere. As Peacock has put it in the style of greenie genre, the Fool has attained "a mutually regenerative interchange between [person] and the ecosystem" (1995, p. 21).
We have now come to the end of the Fool's tarot journey. Before I finish, however, I think it will be helpful to summarise the journey in a single diagram. To do this, I have adapted a graphic from John Sheriff's book The Fate of Meaning (1989). The first stage of the sequence is Peirce's phenomenological triad, the minimum categories through which we can consider the being of a sign. This stage is represented as the Fool, the Magician and the Hermit. They form what Peirce called a Qualisign, the Firstness of feeling. However, just as an icon cannot be an index unless embodied by the Fool, a Qualisign cannot act as a sign until it is embodied in relation to something other than itself, therefore the sign next travels to meet Temperance who displays the sign as a focus in process. This next triad is what Peirce called a Sinsign. This is an actual fact. It is a fact because it embodies the Qualisign in relation to something other than the Qualisign. That is, the object of a Sinsign is the entailed quality that inheres in the meeting of the Fool and the Magician, which as I explained earlier, is an index, a fact of reaction between two realms, the inner and the outer. However, as we noted earlier, a fact cannot be understood until it is embodied in consciousness. Therefore, we next travel to meet the World where the sign embodies, as an object, all three components of a sign: the Fool, the Magician and the Hermit. This last triad is what Peirce called a Legisign. As Peirce put it, the Legisign is "sympathy, flesh and blood, that by which I feel my neighbor's feelings" (CP 1.338). This sign, in turn, will become a sign.How do we apply a semiotic method to matters of vital practical importance? While there are a potentially infinite number of meanings we could attribute to the following picture, I just want to draw attention to three. First, I see this picture as an icon. It represents the possible qualities of the person in the picture. The image is also an index of pollution: this Greenpeace activist is covered with toxic sludge. Finally, it is a symbol, an argument that aims to persuade us to a particular point of view. For example, it might persuade us to an interpretation in which environmentalists are seen as saviours, or perhaps even modern Don Quixotes. Regardless of the specific interpretation, my argument is that Peirce's process categories help show how these associations can be dialogically constructed into an imaginative story. Perhaps this is the story that the Fool had in his bag at the beginning of the tarot journey. The Fool's staff has now been transformed into a walkie-talkie, a symbol of communication, a sign that implies an endless semiosis of meaning.
Recall that I am also arguing that, just because we imagine a story, this does not prevent it being a story about something that is important. Like our tarot heuristic, environmentalism translates narrative action into into a speculative rhetoric that can guide possible future action. Thus, if we believe-in the story, and use it as a guide to action, the story is consequential for us. For example, it might persuade us to do something about environmental pollution. Indeed, we might even set out on our own journey to 'save the semiosphere'. This is the reason I chose this last image to represent the conclusion of the Fool's Tarot Journey. It simultaneously represents the conclusion of the journey and a new beginning. The garland that surrounding the Fool in the World card is now worn on the head of the activist. In the context of this paper, this represents the circularity of the Fool's semiotic journey as a metamorphosis. The tarot fool is now a part of the same semiotic universe that governs the environmental activist. The Greenie Fool still carries his staff, but now there is no longer a bag at the end because the contents have dressed the activist in his newly contexualised role. Having come a full circle - from birth to rebirth, this Greenie Fool can now carry forward a more complex semiotic self on the next journey. In other words, this Semiotic Fool is evolving. Our reborn activist has found the monster at the centre of the Labyrinth and made friends with the strangely blended creature at the centre of the meaning-maze. The activist has returned by remembering how to rewind Ariadne's genetic thread.Is the creature at the centre of the maze real or imagined? In my opinion, the environmental monster is something that is both. As we have seen, every symbol has enfolded within it an icon and an index. All environmental problems, therefore, are thoughts that entail both feelings and facts. We can only live in a world of signs because we too are signs. This is the lesson of the Greenie Fool's Tarot Journey.
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1 An earlier version of this paper was presented on May 17, 1996 at the Department of English, University of Tasmania, Australia.
2 References to C. S. Peirce’s Collected Papers are given directly in the text, with volume number followed by a period and the paragraph number cited.
Copyright ® 1997 David W. Low
END OF: David Low, "The Fools Journey"
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