The Dress





Creative Commons Licence


Contributed date

April 9, 2020 - 9:38pm

Critical Commentary

As previously specified, Schismotopia describes a process of schismogenesis or, that is, of progressive differentiation between a privileged population’s and a subaltern population’s phenomenological experience of a place in relation to the hegemonic representations of that place. What is fundamental here is the capacity of space to function as a heterotopia: a single space that holds a sufficient surplus of meaning that it functions as multiple places at once, such that different groups or individuals can occupy these different places simultaneously. To illustrate this counterintuitive possibility, a visual effect that is analogous to that of heterotopia can be simulated by this rather low-quality image known simply as “The Dress.”

The Dress is a deeply ambiguous image, literally generating phenomenological difference. Most people see the dress as either blue and black or as white and gold, but very few people can switch back and forth to see both. This is important in that the image illustrates a discrepancy in interpretation that cannot be explained by resorting to either biology or ideology. That is, unlike Wittgenstein’s Duck/Rabbit and other optical illusions, it is not our conscious, reflexive attention and/or reasoning about the image that shapes our interpretation. On the other hand, there is nothing purely genetic that will determine your interpretation of The Dress’s colors either. Instead, the differences engendered by The Dress involve an unconscious mental process called the color constancy, which describes how human visual systems incorporate environmental cues to provide a consistent understanding of an object’s color despite constant changes in the actual frequency of light reaching our eyes. This enables the viewer to distinguish and understand what they see in terms of discrete and stable objects with specifiable properties. Which is to say that we are not born capable of visually distinguishing objects from the environment. Rather, we have to learn to see (Swartout-Corbeil accessed 2019).

What makes this particular image special is its surplus of conflicting cues that enable multiple interpretations and understandings. To be more precise, The Dress presents sufficient visual cues for our visual system to processes the image as either a shadowy image of a dim blue light shining on a white and gold dress, or as a bright yellow light shining on a blue and black dress. I personally struggle to see the dress’s colors as anything but the former, even though I now know that the actual dress is indubitably black and blue.

So far, this discussion has been sufficient to supply us with a visual analog of heterotopia, but we have yet to account for the schismogenic quality of schismotopia. For that, we must jump from this phenomenological scale to that of discourse.

On top of simulating phenomenological difference, The Dress can also be used, metonymically, to represent semiotic ideological conflict, as attempts to explain the multiple ways of seeing the image became important turf upon which to defend various conflicting semiotic ideologies. Soon after it went viral on the internet, The Dress found its way into both scientific and philosophical discourse. Scientists tended to explain the phenomenon in terms of the visual system and “how people are wired” (Rogers 2015), while philosophers tended to rely on ideology, arguing that thought mediates between the object and the perception (BBC 2015). In other words, the philosophers and scientists reified the Cartesian mind/body problem, each taking one or the other as the ground (systems of thought vs. the visual system, respectively) from which to interpret the variable (different color interpretations). Furthermore, individuals in both the science camp and the philosophical camp tended to respond symmetrically to one another’s attacks, intensifying the disagreement until each began questioning the very legitimacy of the other’s approach: cogito ergo schismogenesis (see here).

The problem of either approach lies in the adoption of a hierarchical structure over a more ecological model. These differences in perception are not rooted in a single scale but rather the interactions between scales in what could be termed the bio-semiotics of phenomenology. To make my point, let me describe how the concept of semiotic ideology is incapable of explaining the difference. Keane describes semiotic ideology as “a fundamental reflexive dimension of the general human capacity to use signs” (Keane 2018, 65 emphasis added). But the different experiences of this image evidence an unconscious and pre-reflexive habit that emerges over time through the practice of looking and that is indelible to phenomenon of human vision. Perceptions of the dress are still semiotic, in that they involve the interpretation of signs, but they are also located at the level of the unconscious, in the body hexis of vision that underwrites the conscious gaze.

Let’s break this down even further through the use of the trialectic. We have an ontological dimension of vision where light reflects and refracts off of various objects before reaching the eye, presenting the visual system with an altogether unfathomable amount of visual information. We also have a phenomenological dimension of vision that is emergent through the development of a pre-reflexive habit of filtering out the noise of everchanging differences in frequencies of light to be able to foreground the precise differences “that make a difference” (Bateson 1987). Lastly, we have a discursive dimension in and through which we form, inform, and reform our semiotic ideological positions on the nature of our phenomenological experience.

What the case of The Dress reveals is how differences in perception open up the possibility for schismogenic processes to take hold between opposing groups. At the same time, it also creates the opportunity for trito-order learning about the structure of our own consciousness, evidencing the capacity for differences in the unconscious habits of interpretation that are constantly shaping, coloring, and texturing our conscious experience.