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Opposition in Discourse The Construction of Oppositional Meaning-Lesley Jeffries

However, it is clear that the notion of two words being opposed to each
other semantically in the way that is implied by the term opposite or
antonym seems to have a special status in human thought and history.
Clearly, many of the most important historical events usually wars
and most of the worlds great reli- gions are based on some kind of
conceptual binary. 7
There was a tendency in early Greek thought, including Platos work,
to assume that this kind of opposite was indeed the fundamental type. It
may be worth pointing out here that so fundamental were the opposites
assumed to be that the question of their number and identity is not
clearly addressed in a focused way by philosophers of this period;
presumably they are thought to be self-evident.
Hegel (1874), Levi-Strauss (1963) and Derrida (1967) in particular
have focused on the importance of binary opposition in structuring
human perceptions. Hegel is credited with the thesis- antithesis-
resolution triad which underlies much of scientific endeav- our, though
there is some dispute about whether he is indeed the originator of this
model. Levi-Strauss, as an anthropologist, observed that human
societies were often based on binary divisions, though usually with
some kind of equivalence within this division similar in some ways to
the resolution of the scientific model. In Structural Anthropology
(1963), he argues that it is the fundamental properties of the human
mind that influence social and cultural structures, and that these are
universal. He also suggests that the human mind desires to find a
midpoint between the opposites. This is something that it might be
useful to revisit in the light of the findings of the study reported in
Chapters Two to Four, and particularly in relation to the importance of
opposites for conflict situations and their resolution.
Levi-Strausss ideas influenced Derrida, another significant com-
mentator on cultural structures, but one who rejected the structural- ist
view of human perceptions and introduced deconstruction as a way of
demonstrating the relativity of oppositions, and their effec- tive lack of
universality. By contrast with Levi-Strauss, Derrida (1967) claims that
though binaries are ubiquitous in human societies, they usually
privilege the powerful and there is always inequity between the two
terms of culturally and socially significant opposites. His
deconstruction programme is aimed at overturning these power
structures in favour of the oppressed or powerless party.

makes a similar point when she distinguishes between two
different kinds of opposite; canonical and non-canonical:
The two types are not completely separable their boundaries are fuzzy
and it is not always possible to determine whether a pair is canonical or
not. Certainly, happy/sad is canonical, but is happy/ unhappy? If not, (.
. .), then why does happy/unhappy seem like a better antonym pair
than green/non-green or straight/unstraight? Wet/dry is canonical, but
is humid/arid? Wet/dry is certainly a more common pair, but cannot
uncommon pairs belong to the canon? (Murphy 2003:1011)

The question of whether or to what extent these inferencing
processes involve reference to some kind of universal or fundamen-
tal opposites remains open. Certainly in the current case, I cannot see
an obvious lexical opposition which underlies the usage, though one
might recognize a conceptual opposition between material and
emotional values.
three kinds of knowledge that might play a part in the interpretation of
novel opposites. If we take the three kinds of oppo- site that were
identified in the previous section, it could be hypothe- sized that they
are represented by the three kinds of knowledge. Thus, the
conventional opposites would be established as lexical entries against
the relevant lexical items in our long-term memory. The second kind of
opposites, those which have all the usual charac- teristics except the
conventional status (e.g. humid/arid), would be produced by general
rule, and interpreted by the same process, on analogy with what is
known (but not repeatedly processed) about opposites in general and
the superordinate pair in particular. The third kind of opposite, those
with which I have been mainly con- cerned in this book, would be
generated as mental representations with a single strand of oppositeness
foregrounded as the vital ingredi- ent for their relationship in this one-
off case.

that political opposite-creation is a force at work in our world, it seems
likely that the power of the media, and politicians through the media, is
hegemonic in nature and has the capacity to influence the world-view
of many of the worlds citizens. Given the apparent importance of some
basic set of opposites in helping us to interpret novel opposites, we may
even hypothesize that there are socially constructed and over-arching
conceptual opposites (GOOD/ BAD) that will rank alongside the
metaphor set (TIME IS MONEY etc.). What may be different,
This book has proposed that there is a phenomenon in many text- types
and genres that I have chosen to call constructed opposition (or
unconventional opposites) and which seems to behave textually in
fairly similar ways in a wide range of contexts, though with differ- ent
ideational and probably also different ideological effects.
In the case of non-literary texts, I would argue, the same basic proc- ess
is likely to obtain, with the Principle of Minimal Departure creat- ing
the assumption that the text world will be as similar to the readers
actual world as possible unless something explicitly challenges this
assumption. If we read a news article about the invasion of Iraq in the
year 2007, and the Principle of Minimal Departure applies, then we
have a potential cognitive explanation for some of the ideological
effects of the mass media. Not only are we aware of reading some-
thing that purports to be true, we are also inevitably going to read the
text as though it were true, because we even do that when we know it
isnt (i.e. in reading fiction). This phenomenon, called by Coleridge
(1817:314) that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which
constitutes poetic faith will predispose the reader, at least for the
duration of the reading, to accept any meanings that do not seem to be
clearly at odds with the actual world we live in.

What is interesting for my purposes here is that in Wierzbickas list
there is only one clear candidate for a conventional opposition and at
the early stage, only the positive term in that opposition: good, was
included, though bad was later considered possible too.
It may be,
therefore, that the archetypal opposite in human cognition turns out to
be good-bad. However, it is not clear, if this is so, how or whether this
distinction corresponds to the postulated image-schema of I-other,
unless of course the I is identified as good and other is bad, which may
well correspond to some cultural theories of self/other.
There is also more to do in discovering the process by which created
opposites are interpreted, and whether there are intermediate, cul-
turally determined, but nevertheless basic opposites which are recog-
nizable out of context, and are the reference point for readers trying to
interpret textually created opposite-constructions. Note that Davies
(2008:41) explains the interpretation of created opposites in terms of
what he calls superordinates