The mythical Uroboros is an ancient
symbol of self-reference; idiotic sym-
metry offers remarkably stable systems
of relationships where little is known
but much is done (silent trade).

idiotic symmetry

Idiotic symmetry is a ‘figure’ created by four equally important elements of human culture, its formations, and the semiotic consequences of using signs ‘conventionally.’ These four are:

  1. The fact that signs combine an ‘ideal’ meaning with a material stratum (sounds, marks, gestures, etc.) that are both independent from each other (the necessity for arbitrariness) and attached (‘quilted’) in ways that can ‘permanently’ anneal material features to meaning complexes.

  2. The fact that signifiers must be able to ‘slide past’ one another, creating the need for the semi-permanent quilting by using metaphors to combine elements and specify privileged points of view.

  3. The creation, in the quilting process, of a ‘point of view’ that fixes the subject’s relation to immediate as well as long-range conditions. The majority of these points of view are elaborated culturally into ‘traditional relationships,’ usually a variant of the master-servant.

  4. The ‘distant symmetry’ of the subject’s fantasy about other subjects occupying other points of view and the surplus/lack of the objects of perception and sources of power/authority (the Other). The inadequacy of the Other is the object that correlates to the fantasized subject’s pleasure, knowledge, or privilege. It is the ‘key’ that gives the imaginary subject access to the interior of the Other, re-framing it from the inside.

Idiotic symmetry is also the reversibility of this structure, so that two ‘subjects’ can occupy the position of the barred subject and imagine the other as a full-blown ‘Other.’ Such is the case with the ancient practice of ‘silent trade,’ where two parties who never actually meet establish a system of exchange where each believes the other to be a ‘god’ who is the magical source of ‘transformed’ goods capable of enforcing rules of fair exchange. Idiotic symmetry is behind the evolution of silent trade’s imaginary god into the classical gods of Hermes, Janus (Dianus), and others associated with the worship and respect of boundaries.


The Greek god Hermes presents a problem to classicists in search of stabilizing the relationships of the Olympian system of twelve gods and goddesses. The infant Hermes stole Apollo’s cattle through a clever ruse of concealing their tracks. Some say he drove the cattle backward, others say that he made shoes from the bark of a fallen oak. He was caught and finally confessed, but in the process he produced the lyre he had made from a tortoise shell and cattle gut to appease the sun-god and was promptly forgiven. Later, he invented pipes made of reeds and gave them, too, to Apollo. To wean him off the habit of theft, his father Zeus admonished him. In exchange for promised reform, Hermes asked to be made a herald, pledging to always tell the truth but not always all of the truth. His duties included the making of treaties, promotion of commerce, and maintaining security for travelers. Zeus gave him a staff to commemorate his new authority, a rod with serpents entwined in a figure-8.

Hermes then, according to Robert Graves, assisted the Fates in the invention of the alphabet, invented astronomy, the musical scale, boxing and gymnastics, weights and measures, and olive cultivation. It is hardly any wonder, then, that Hermes’ tradition is complex and somewhat contradictory. Following his early childhood adventures, he is the god of thieves. His interest in cattle and invention of the shepherd’s pipes makes him also the god of shepherds. His role as a herald and protector of commerce led to a close association with boundaries. As a herald able to pass across any boundary, he was easily the best choice for the god responsible for conducting the souls of the dead to Hades. More famously, "herms," square markers with a male human head and erect phallus, were used to mark property. Violating the herm by trespass or disfigurement was, in ancient times, severely punished. Herms marked off agricultural fields, important not just for the income they brought but as a location of burial spots. Family tombs could not be shared or even approached by non-family. Fustel de Coulanges reports termini, or upright boundary stones, were set up at the margins and fed offerings of wine, oil, and fat. Strangers were forbidden to even touch a terminus, and tilting it out of position was a capital crime. The offender was ritually sacrificed and his own house and fields were destroyed.

The four distinctive traditions surrounding Hermes – theft, boundaries, commerce, and relation to the dead – are somewhat explicable in terms of the evolution of "silent trade." This is an ancient tradition that permits groups who forbid contact with strangers to trade their surplus goods with each other without ever making actual face-to-face contact. A "herm" was, originally, the name of a pile of stones cast aside by travelers to mark out a crossroads. As these piles grew, their size was a direct indicator of the volume of traffic and potential of trade. Offerings left by one traveler would be picked up by another, as a "gift of Hermes." But, the beneficiary would have to leave an offering in return, to be picked up by yet another traveler. With the customary passage of the same groups at regular intervals, a system of exchange developed and stabilized. Indeed, historians have noted that silent trade, which still exists in some parts of the world today, is perhaps the oldest and most reliable economic institution in existence.

The key to this stability and longevity is the "idiotic symmetry" which underlies its use. Each party in the trade thought the other party to be a god. Not wishing to bring bad luck upon himself, his family, or his tribe, each traveler would carefully consider the value of his offering in light of the "gift of Hermes" he had just taken. Because the other partners in trade also believed their suppliers were divine, the institution persisted, even when the theological reason no longer played a part. The value of the transaction, a metonymical consequence of the "metaphor" of a magical trading partner, dominated. As with the lore of Santa Claus, who exchanges whatever he wishes for the cookies and milk left by European and American children at Christmas, the belief is subsidiary to the material substance and compelling logic of idiotic symmetry.

The symmetry is "idiotic" because it works even when both parties cease to hold any illusions about the divinity of their trading partners. They behave "as if" the others are gods, even when they know this not to be the case. The word "idiot" means, simply, "a private person." Reduced to action and attribute, identity dissolves and the participants become appearances, like the "malic molds" Duchamp famously exhibited in the lower, "bachelor" portion of his famous work, The Bride Laid Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. Pure metonymy, by virtue of the deprivation of metaphoric meaning, itself becomes metaphor. The client who acts and talks like an idiot is an idiot. Emmanuel Ravelli looks a lot like Emmanuel Ravelli.

The bond holding together the parties of silent trade is a curious knot made out of self-reference. The custom is unabashedly tautological. "If I believe I’m trading with a god, then the trade works; if the trade works, I must be trading with a god." Zizek comments, "The subjects think they treat a certain person as a king because he is already in himself a king, while in reality this person is king only insofar as the subjects treat him as one . . . [but] the moment the subjects take cognizance of the fact that the king’s charisma is a performative effect, the effect itself is aborted. In other words, if we attempt to ‘subtract’ the fetishistic inversion and witness the performative effect directly, the performative power will be dissipated."

Adding together all of Hermes’ associations would produce a matrix roughly organized around three "functions": a song function related to his invention of musical instruments, a boundary function associated with the herald traditions and trade, and violation themes that include Hermes’ credentials as a thief, seducer, and trickster-in-general. The flatness of the matrix, its logical order, is like an atlas of the spherical planet of the expanding "kingdom ij." The maps on the edge of the flat atlas could only indirectly account for the curvature of the surface. The matrix needs to be "twisted" to connect, among other things, the theme of theft with the notion of trade, erotic themes with Hermes’ relation to death.

© 2012, Donald Kunze, all rights reserved