Multistable Figures and Complementarity

Multistable Figures and Complementarity

Since autumn 2010, the ICI Berlin has taken multistable figures – Kippbilder – as point of departure for exploring further the topic of Tension/Spannung. These images not only continue to fascinate cognitive scientists as a form of optical illusions, but they also function as models for probing complex epistemological, aesthetic and ethical tensions.

‘It’s a duck!’ – ‘It’s a rabbit!’ As long as interlocutors see only one aspect, they will engage in an endless dispute without approaching agreement. Recognizing that the same image allows for different, equally valid descriptions, quickly settles the dispute. Experiencing the gestalt switch and the emergence of another gestalt furthermore makes us realize that the perceived shape is more than the sensory data given by the image. Multistable figures thus highlight the activity of the perceiving subject, but as we can agree on the recognized shapes, they promote no radical constructivism, subjectivism, or relativism. Rather, they form productive models for mediating and distinguishing between subject and object, reality and construction, natural and conventional categories. At the same time, each perceived shape is a partial reduction and the different contradictory perceptual experiences may be said to be complementary insofar as their sum provides a fuller description of the object. Multistable figures thereby provide peculiar models for resolving/easing conflicts not through some kind of synthesis, mediation, identification, or hybridization, but rather through the recognition that contradictory positions may be equally valid and complementary.

In the second year of our focus on Kippbilder/Multistable Figures, we would like to concentrate on the notion of complementarity, which provides an attractive model for the coexistence of different disciplines, systems, discourses, and cultures. There is, of course, no reason to believe that disputes over contradictory descriptions can generally be resolved by considering them as equally valid, complementary aspects of a single Kippbild. The first impulse is rather to assume that some descriptions are in some sense better than others: more accurate, more complete, or preferable on aesthetic, ethical, or political grounds. This assumption forms the condition not only for conflict, but also for progress. Except for some few, carefully constructed Kippbilder, each perceived gestalt relies not only on eliminating other aspects, but also on reducing complexity, marking a few traits while ignoring others. While improvement can happen gradually, imagining other ways of seeing, experiencing and living, making them visible and realizing them is the work of revolutionaries – not only in politics, but also in art or even science: “What were ducks in the scientist’s world before the revolution are rabbits afterwards” (Kuhn). If the accent here is on an irreversible shift within a field, the practice of shifting back and forth between aspects in different fields and seeking to re-integrate complementary aspects also carries a productive potential. It may not lead to a synthesis, but helps produce fruitful tensions on either side in contradistinction to violent conflict or indifferent co-existence.

At the same time, complementarity is a complex notion that can be understood and function in various ways, capable in fact of promoting both indifference and conflict. On the one hand, as soon as the complementary descriptions are taken to be equally valid aspects analogous to the duck-rabbit model, shifting back and forth provokes no further change in either position. Asserting complementarity thus risks stagnation and succumbing to a conceptual conservativism, as Paul Feyerabend observed in his critique of Niels Bohr’s famous principle of complementarity for quantum mechanics. Whereas Bohr precluded the possibility of obtaining a better, more unified description for quantum systems than through contradictory classical descriptions such as describing light as both particle and wave, Feyerabend insisted on maintaining the possibility that a framework incommensurable with the classical framework may be found in which the contradiction disappears. The so-called Rubin vase, another famous Kippbild that arguably informed Bohr’s thinking, may illustrate this possibility. ‘It’s a vase’ – ‘It’s two faces’ does not form a contradiction as vase and faces are complementary in a different way than duck and rabbit. The vase and the faces do not cover the same region – the figure of the vase becomes the background for the faces and vice versa – so that the ‘it’ in the seemingly contradictory statements does not refer to the same figure. Thus the Rubin vase may provide a model for indifferent, non-interfering coexistence free from tension.

On the other hand, the same figure can illustrate how some forms of complementarity may also generate conflict. In the Rubin vase, the different aspects are foils or negatives of each other. That is, they are directly related, similar to complementary colours or the sexes within a heteronormative order. Rather than a model for the resolution of conflict between contradictory positions, Kippbilder like the Rubin vase might help grasping the danger of remaining bound to the logics of one figure even as one shifts back and forth between different perspectives. In other words, the focus on Multistable Figures and Complementarity also seeks to address the generation of conflict through a misrecognition of ‘the other’ in its incommensurability and thereby engage with critiques of complementarity by feminist, queer, and postcolonial discourses.

By exploring different ways in which multistable figures and relations of complementarity may function, the ICI Berlin seeks to reflect upon the possibilities and limits of bringing diverse cultures and discourses into productive confrontation beyond indifferent coexistence and violent conflict.

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