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fig.4—from Adamic ribs to atomic grids

 Can relative qualities can be assessed as absolute quantities? Complex problems call for dynamic inquiries that are unlikely to yield static answers. To determine the dynamics of gender (and/or sex) this example applies three variations on the Semiotic Square: First, we confine the most common terms to a grid in fig.4 (above): on either side of the vertical Y­-axis, particular terms descend from universal terms in the manner of Aristotelian subalternation. What becomes immediately apparent? The universal (neutral/quantitative/biological) terms suggest an asymmetrical relationship, while the particular (coded/qualitative/cultural) terms are symmetrical. The ‘(fe)male (wo)man’ receives her names as secondary designations (aka ‘marked terms’) which, by convention, from lexical derivation follows semantic subjection, thence devaluation. The double disparity between male/female and masculine/feminine seems inverted—shouldn’t the ‘biological’ terms be symmetrical and the ‘cultural’ terms be asymmetrical? Or if not—why not?

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fig.5—the Greimasian logic of reciprocal contraposition

 Second, once we isolate and analyze the symmetrical (coded / qualitative / cultural) terms in fig.5, we might be able to locate the cause of this imbalance outside the terminology. While masculine and feminine negate each other in comparative usage, both terms are positive ‘in and of’ themselves. The Greimas form is a strictly formal distribution of terms: built or navigated from either side, the symmetry holds true—the conventional contraries of A/B are opposed more frequently than the formal contradictions of A/­-A and B/-B. Why is the contrary a more conventional negation than the contradiction? Because positive terms maximize the difference between similar referents; in other words, the term ‘masculine’ is more unfeminine than ‘unfeminine.’ If we then read fig.5 as if an Aristotelian LSO, from particulars upward to universals, unfeminine would be a subalternate type of masculine, and unmasculine a subtype of feminine. So far, so what? Do such formalisms reflect practical usage? Only if they help to draw further inferences.

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