In defence of binaries

by josieappleton

2000px-toilets_unisex-svgOur age is against binaries: it is against the division of things into opposing categories or elements.

In Jacques Derrida’s view, any binary is a ‘violent hierarchy’, where ‘one of the two terms governs the other’. To say man or woman, black or white, life or death, is to create opposed camps, composed of dominating and dominated parties.

Even the binary of the toilet door, the signs that say ‘male’ or ‘female’, which divide a social group into two separate lines – even this most common-place and incidental binary is seen as problematic.

The vice president of St Catherine’s College, Oxford, got the signs changed on toilet doors:

After about two years and many long and testing conversations with old men about the concept of gender non-binaries, gender neutral toilet signs have finally arrived in Catz.

The liberationary figure today is the non-binary, the trans; the position staked outside binaries, against them. In literature and cultural studies departments, binaries are deconstructed: made conscious, then reversed, then made to collapse under the weight of their internal contradictions.

There are insights in all this about the rigid and restrictive nature of certain binary forms. And yet binaries should not be thrown on the scrapheap: they have a fundamental role in human thought and social organisation. If we want to say anything at all, we must use the binary.

1. The primitive binary

The binary did not begin with Western civilisation: primitive thought is primarily concerned with oppositions, with the division of the world into opposing elements. These commonly included things such as high and low, day and night, left and right, summer and winter, male and female, earth and sky.

Faced with the mass of sensory experience, the waxing and waning of forms, the human mind fixes on the cardinal points: east/west, hot/cold. It fixes on the essential polarities, the extremes, the points of contrast, in relation to which the gradations of experience can be oriented. It is the distinction, the polarised difference, which strikes the human mind as meaningful.

Common primitive binaries
high / low
day / night
right / left
sacred / profane
summer / winter
male / female
sky / earth
land / sea
odd / even
peace / war
stability / movement

In The Savage Mind, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss showed how a society’s ‘logical structure begins with a simple opposition’. A conceptual system is composed of related oppositional pairs, encompassing microcosm and macrocosm, society and nature: so men could be related to sky, summer, and right; women to earth, winter, and the left.

The binary system of the Solomons uses two birds (the wild cock and the hornbill), two insects (the pharma and the mantis), and two divinities (Mr Wise and Mr Clumsy).

The binary system of the Solomon Islands
wild cock / hornbill
pharma / mantis
Mr Wise / Mr Clumsy

Among the Kiwai in Papua New Guinea, the opposition between the sago people and the yam people corresponds to the emblems of a nude woman and a bull-roarer, and is also related to different seasons, and opposing directions of wind.

Here, elements are given a polarity, and so made different or similar to other things. To us, it appears that there is no common charge between the sago people and a nude woman and a particular direction of wind. To us, it appears that false polarities are being set up, such as between two insects, or between the use of the right or the left hand.

And yet, in these simple conceptual systems, we can see the power of human thought in its early stages.

To make a phenomenon part of a binary, is to give it a sort of positive or negative charge. The polarity is its self-definition: the sign that it is not something else, that earth is not sky, that the wild cock is not the hornbill. The polarity is also its relation to other things, the thread that ties sky to men, the left hand to women. Things are placed in a web of dissonance and association.

It is not that the wild cock and the hornbill truly have an oppositional charge in relation to one another. Instead, the charge comes from these animals transformed into elements of human thought, when they are given meaning as part of a conceptual model of the world.

2. The fluidity of the primitive binary

The primitive binary is non-hierarchical: it contains elements that are antagonistic, but complementary. It is not a question of the dominance of one over another, nor is it a contrast between elements that are seen as essentially outside of or apart from one another. The primitive binary is the two sides in a relation, two contrasting aspects of the same totality.

The two sides of a pole act in correspondence with one another, and cause the changes seen in time: summer moves to winter, life moves to death. This can be seen in the Chinese system of Yin and Yang, which brings phenomena under one or another of these two opposing forces.

Yang and Yin
light / dark
active / passive
hot / cold
dry / moist
beneficent / malignant
positive / negative
masculine / feminine

This distinction is not one of superiority and inferiority, nor it is given the moral sense of good and evil. Yin and Yang are present in all things, and exist in a constant flux in time, first one predominating, then the other. One expert on Chinese thought said that the world represents:

‘A cyclical totality constituted by the conjunction of two alternating and complementary manifestations.’ (1)

In the philosophy of Tao, the aim for the adept was to perfectly integrate the elements of Yin and Yang within himself. In this manner he became equivalent to the primordial situation, and achieved the desired ‘fullness of life, spontaneity, and bliss’ (2). There was an interest in artistic forms that contained both Yin and Yang, such as bronze figures of owls with solar eyes: the figure of night contained its contrary.

Therefore, the primitive binary exists as:
a. A complementary relation, between two sides that are necessary to one another;
b. As part of the single totality of life; and
c. In constant interplay: the two elements meld together, in sequence or in single objects, causing the varied forms of things.

3. The truth of the binary

Thinking in binaries grasps an essential truth, which is that nature, and human life, proceed through the dynamic of opposition: there are conflicting forces, opposing elements, which play out beneath the surface of things. After all, nature itself contains poles: of positive and negative, attraction and repulsion.

It is for this reason that Greek philosophy – which made great gains through leaps of the mind, overreaching a still very limited technology – was also based to a large extent on binaries. Aristotle was largely concerned with marking the distinctions between definite things, and seeking balance between opposing elements.

Some of the Pythagoreans employed a sort of mathematical version of Yin and Yang, believing that ‘the opposites are principles of entities’, including (3):

Pythagorean binaries
limited / unlimited
one / many
right / left
male / female
still / moving
straight / bent
light / darkness
good / bad
square / oblong

So while primitive thought may be mistaken about the content of its binaries, which are arbitrary or fantastical, it is correct in seeing the world as composed of opposites – fluid elements existing in relation to one another, in a constant process of motion and change.

4. The rigid binaries of industrial society

The binary became something quite different in modern industrial society (a society that has precursors in the ancient world, but was only definitively achieved with the industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries).

New binary categories developed, which were tighter, more logical than before: they had lost the arbitrary, mutating qualities of the primitive binary. Yet, whereas the primitive binary flowed, and interacted, these modern binaries were highly rigid, hardened like bone. They appeared to be made of entirely different substances to one other: to be outside of one another, and not naturally relating. In many cases one side of the binary was dominant over the other.

Polarised distinctions that were set up in philosophy (and about which deconstructionists complain) included those of subject and object, existence and non-existence, reason and the senses. The subject and the object were seen as essentially unrelated, and a great deal of thought went into the difficulty of bringing the subject into a true relation with the object, and the impossibility of ever truly knowing the world.

The binaries of modern philosophy
subject / object
existence / non-existence
reason / senses
body / soul
subjectivity / objectivity
idealism / realism

Hegel criticised the separation of body and soul:

‘If both (body and soul) are presumed to be absolutely independent of each other they are as impenetrable for each other as any material is for any other and the presence of one can be granted only in the non-being…of the other.’ (4)

Here, body and soul – the two aspects of the human person – are split asunder into different materials, which do not relate, or intermingle, or form two sides of the same universality. Philosophy then picks over these different materials, puzzling that the same person could be both a body and a soul, or both a particular person and a rational universal being. It is unable to bring these two thoughts, these two elements, together.

In the social world, too, all of life appeared split asunder, divided into polarised spheres, such as art and science, or individual and society:

The binaries of industrial society
art / science
individual / society
town / country
public / private
high / low culture
subjectivism / naturalism
intellectual / manual labour
male / female

(These are the rigid binaries that Susan Sontag complained about in her Rolling Stone interview).

The different spheres seemed to be one-sided, to contain only one side of thought or action. So philosophy was pure reflection, estranged from action; industry was the rote performance of action, estranged from reflection. Science was mechanical and mathematical; art was purely aesthetic and indifferent to practical life.

(These divisions had not existed a few centuries before, in the Renaissance, when artists designed siege defences for towns and conducted scientific experiments and dissections.)

Some of these binaries were hierarchies, dividing into owner and owned, master and servant, as was the case for the binaries of male and female, town and country, rich and poor.

Therefore, deconstructionists are correct in the insight that certain Western binaries had become ossified and hierarchical. But they see the rigid hierarchical binary as the model for all time, and the model for human thinking as such. They did not have the energy of transcendence, the fluidity of thought, which people had previously brought to this problem.

5. The transcendence of binaries

There has always been a power associated with the integration of binaries, the figure who is 2-in-1, who includes opposing elements as different sides to himself. The bi-sexual or hermaphrodite god exists in many cultures, as a vision of a supreme creative power at the beginning of time.

Primitive ideas of transcending binaries tend to be posed as a return to the beginning of time, before the distinctions of the world were created.

In modern times, people sought a synthesis of opposing elements, deliberately bringing them together as two sides of the same figure. The synthesis, or transcendence, is now a future imagined state, brought about through battle and effort.

Within philosophy, there has been an effort since the early nineteenth century to transcend the subject-object division, started by philosophers such as Hegel. The distinctions of subject and object, presence and absence, mind and body, were not seen as ossified or abstract elements, apart from one another.

Instead, Hegel sought to show how these distinctions existed within a fluid, unified reality: subject and object determine one another, penetrate one another; presence was becoming absence, absence becoming presence.

‘The abstractions of existence and non-existence both cease to be abstract when they acquire a definite content; existence then becomes reality.’ (5)

It is not that binaries are dispensed with: this is still a philosophy of opposites, of contradictions and sharp polarisations. Only these distinctions exist within a moving, pulsating whole, like a living organism. A living thing only stays still through constant movement – of growth, repair, breakdown, the movement of blood and fluids. Once reality is looked at as a thing alive, then there are no fixed distinctions (of life/death, stillness/movement), no eternal opposites set up for all time.

The transcendence of rigid binaries came when philosophers sought to think, to live, more dynamically.

If you touch the world, and change it, you no longer feel that there is an unbridgeable void between yourself and the world of things. If men and women are free to develop their individual character and talents, when gender is something to occupy rather than a straitjacket, then there no longer appears that there is an iron divide between the sexes. The different poles are continually being brought together, related to one another.

This is not the abolition of distinctions between art and science, male and female, body and soul, individual and society. These things are different in quality, in make-up, in scale, or in logic. Rather, it is to see these distinctions as essentially related, as part of the same person, or the same common human world.

6. The errors of our non-binary moment

People now say that they are against binaries, and think themselves to be superior to everyone else who is trapped within old systems. But it transpires that it is they, the non-binaries, who are trapped within reified binaries: it is they who cannot think fluidly about opposites, and so oppose them on point of principle.

They take a stereotype of hierarchical binaries, of male/female or black/white, to stand for the whole enterprise of making distinctions. For them, opposites can only exist as rigid, stereotyped and dominating.

Having lost the element of transcendence – the energy, fluidity, action, hope, that fueled attempts to transcend or synthesise binaries – they are left merely with the shells of the past, which they turn against.

The non-binaries are therefore highly dependent upon these old, rigid forms: these are the adversary, the material upon which deconstruction can work. If there are no hulking frameworks, there is nothing to take apart; if there is no binary, there is no basis to the non-binary, which exists only as much as it is not-that.

In truth, it is only through the binary, the distinction, that we can think and organise our world. It is through the polarity that we can model the dynamics of nature and of history.

At the same time, we can be for the transcendence of rigid binaries – so that distinctions and polarities can take their places as different parts of the same active, curious human person.



(1) La Pensée Chinoise, Marcel Granet
(2) A History of Religious Ideas, Vol 2, Mircea Eliade
(3) Aristotle, The Metaphysics
(4) Quoted in Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness
(5) Quoted in Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness