Notes on Freedom

Coronavirus decides that masks must be worn on ski lifts

The French government ruled that, should covid cases exceed 200 per 100,000, then vaccine passports and masks would be applied on ski lifts. All ski resort employees must be vaccinated, or carry out a laboratory covid test every day. In the run-up to the start of the Pyrenees ski season, nobody knew when or whether the 200 figure would be reached. The government spokesman said that he thought it would, but everyone was watching and waiting, and ski resorts until the last minute said that passes would be ‘possible’. In the end, covid cases reached 230 by last Thursday, and so the Pyrenees ski season began two days later with passes and masks.

Here is a new mode of government. The government creates a benchmark, an index, to which a coercive policy is tied. Then they stand back and wait. When the index is reached, the policy is enacted. Nobody seems to have authored the policy; once the index is created, it seems to exist as a natural condition. It then seems that the policy is enacted by the virus itself.

Of course, requiring people to be vaccinated or wear masks on an open-air ski lift will have no effect on the circulation of the virus. The policy is an – almost arbitrary – restriction, a bureaucratic talisman. It is linked to an equally arbitrary benchmark of covid cases. And so the relationship in the enactment of a policy is between an arbitrary number, and an arbitrary restriction.

Policy occurs, decisions are made, without reference to the people, or what people want. The public figures only as a covid statistic – as cases per 100,000, or an R number – and politicians relate not to the public but to this number. Moreover, politicians eclipse even their own wills: they say that they do not want to restrict skiing, but it appears that cases are rising and they have no choice, that rising cases will trigger the restrictions. And then 200 cases are passed, and they raise their hands and say the restriction must be imposed.

Policy appears as an autonomic phenomenon. Politicians create quantitative mechanisms in order that coercion can be triggered automatically. It appears as if coronavirus is really governing the country. Policy becomes something like the rain or the wind, a natural phenomenon that cannot be reasoned or argued with, or like the remorseless working out of a mathematical formula.

Vaccine passports and the control bureaucracy

Is there any longer any genuine public health response to the pandemic? Every supposed public health technique – tests, masks, and now vaccines – has changed in meaning, and is now pursued primarily as a symbol of bureaucratic compliance.

Masks were spurned at the start of the pandemic – they became de rigeur only when they assumed the meaning of compliance with an official standard for conduct, and a willingness to distance oneself from others.

Meanwhile, the British government persists in testing all secondary children twice a week, regardless of the questionable usefulness of mass asymptomatic testing in general as well as the particular tests being used.

Now, most dramatically, we see the same thing with vaccination – which began as a targeted public health intervention for the most at-risk groups, and has morphed into a de facto qualification for citizenship, with the imposition of increasingly harsh vaccine mandates and passports.

Vaccine mandates are occurring at the very moment when it has become clear that vaccines do not prevent transmission – when highly vaccinated countries such as Israel lead the world for infections, and when vaccinated people are testing positive at similar rates as the unvaccinated.

Yet Italy last week mandated vaccines for all workers, condemning the unvaccinated to joblessness. San Fransisco will require 5-11 year olds to be vaccinated in order to visit public venues such as cinemas or restaurants. France has changed its vaccine passport regime to require a third dose from certain groups, a step already taken by Israel for whom two doses now counts as ‘unvaccinated’.

It is very possible that this forced vaccination of younger age groups will yield more injuries and deaths than they would have suffered at the hands of covid. The logic here is not medical but political.

The vaccine passport becomes the mandate for citizenship: it is a safe citizen card, a sign that someone is safe to interact with others. In Ontario, public health officials recommended excluding unvaccinated family members from Thanskgiving gatherings, or requiring them to have tests and wear masks.

The belief is that, without measures such as vaccine passports, society cannot function, that it is only because of these controls that cafes can stay open and schools can receive their students. In Lithuania (which requires a vaccine passport for people to go to any public facility aside from small grocery stores and pharmacies) the vaccine pass is called the ‘opportunity pass’. In other countries, it is the ‘green pass’. This is the pass that gives freedom, that gives opportunity, that allows life to go ahead.

Lithuanian economics minister visits cafes to promote the ‘opportunity pass’

Under coronavirus, the state becomes an industry producing bureaucratic controls, which are given the status of a prophylaxis. These are its public service, the thing it does to protect public health and wellbeing. These restrictions mediate life and we relate to others only through them. We can approach other people only when wearing a mask, go to school only after being tested, go to a cafe only after swiping our QR code.

Vaccines, masks and tests function as bureaucratic insignia, a talisman of safety, without which we cannot participate in civic life; without which, it is believed, that life could not be possible.

When covid cases rise there must be a concomitant increase in bureaucratic controls. The French government claims that it would dearly love to remove the vaccine passport, but it cannot, because covid cases are too high and it is simply not possible. No doubt when covid cases rise further over the winter then it will introduce further controls. There is a ceaseless choreography of rules, which are imposed, amended, lifted then reimposed.

Of course, all this is a bureaucratic mythology. If vaccine passports were removed tomorrow, nothing would happen. The belief that they allow society to function is like the Aztec belief that their rituals were essential to allow the sun to come up every morning.

It is the political meaning of vaccination that explains the extreme stigmatisation of the unvaccinated, who are described in Italy as rats, subhuman, criminals, who should be ‘purged’. Lithuanian politicians said that they ‘at war’ and must ‘fight the virus that is the anti-vaxxers‘. The true danger posed by the unvaccinated is not a medical one but a danger of their being outside the system, of having resisted the imperative of bureaucratic compliance. States become obsessed with getting to that last 10% or 20% of people who do not want to be vaccinated. These 10% niggle. They seem to be the problem at the root of everything; they are the cause of the persistence of the pandemic, the cause of rising cases.

There is a separate legal status for the unvaccinated, who are excluded from all or part of public life. If admitted, they are subject to different legal rules or separation from the vaccinated. This segregation will be evident in the Hamburg Christmas market, where a fence will divide the unvaccinated from the vaccinated. In one area, vaccinated citizens can eat, drink mulled wine and mingle without masks; in another area, unvaccinated citizens can shop but must wear a mask and socially distance, and are not allowed to consume food or drink.

It is telling that natural immunity is often not recognised by vaccine mandates. What is at stake is not the medical protection itself, but the meaning of vaccination as a bureaucratic procedure undergone. The immunity developed naturally may be more potent in medical terms, but it is worthless as political value, and so it is either not recognised at all by vaccine passports or grudgingly admitted for a limited period and then eclipsed.

Where the QR code state is heading is probably not conscious, but events point towards the abolition of civil society and spontaneity, and people’s participation and relation only through bureaucratic mechanisms, which will be continually changing in standards and requirements. One day the standard is two doses, then three; tomorrow it may be something else. What is certain is that the requirements will not stay still; there will be a continual disruption of life and the imposition of new requirements for civic participation.

It may seem that those with vaccine passports have retained their freedoms, since they are able to sit in cafes. In fact, as the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben notes, it is the registered bearers of the green pass who are less free, since they are the swiped and monitored; they have joined the QR code civic realm on the terms of the state.

With the vaccine passport, cafes in France are not the same. There is a bad feel about them; the QR code signs on the tables give them the stench of collaboration.

By contrast, the weekly demonstrations against the vaccine passport have become informal societies, with people having picnics and drinking in the street, playing music and dancing. Only here, in clandestine sociality, is there an element of genuine freedom – and a memory of what social life should look like, and what should be defended in the battle ahead.

The weaponisation of vaccination

The vital public health measure of vaccination is being transformed into a project of the extension of state control, with measures such as covid passports and mandatory vaccination.

The Israeli minister of health was caught confiding to the minister of the interior that ‘there is no medical or epidemiological justification for the Covid passport, it is only intended to pressure the unvaccinated to vaccinate’. France – the European country with the harshest covid pass laws – shows how this ‘pressure to vaccinate’ is driven by a political rather than a medical impulse.

The vaccination pass is a mobilisation of state power, an extension of discipline and policing over the free life of civil society. This rides roughshod over individual liberty, unions, scientific committees and medical logic alike.

Currently, all over-12s in France must present a vaccine passport (‘pass sanitaire’) in order to access restaurants, museums, long-distance trains, and outdoor and indoor sports facilities. All civil society bodies take on a policing function. Covid pass checks are installed at the entrance of open-air horse riding facilities, in bars, at the entrance of swimming pools. The sports instructor checks your covid pass at the start of every class or term. The riding school asks you to ‘prepare your health certificate’ before you are allowed to walk into the open field where the horses are held. The cafe asks you to scan your QR code before sitting down at a table.

The vaccinated person is treated as safe, and the unvaccinated person as risky. This distinction is made not on public health grounds, since vaccinated and unvaccinated transmit the delta variant at similar rates, but because the unvaccinated person stands as the figure that has resisted state authority. The unvaccinated becomes the dissident, the person who refused to roll over. A young French woman who tried to enter a shopping centre without a covid pass was set upon and beaten by a group of armed police. She was beaten not because she is a public health risk, but because she represents a threat to public order.

The push for 100% vaccination has become a project of incorporating the whole population, whether it is in their interests to be vaccinated or not.

It is this political impulse that lies behind the hasty extension of vaccination to younger age groups, who stand to benefit little from the vaccine and could suffer from short-term or future side effects. Macron apparently made the decision to extend vaccines to 12-15 year olds suddenly one morning, when he was told by his scientific advisory committee that he had ‘free rein’ to decide whether to vaccinate the young, partly in order to ‘avoid the slowing down of vaccination’. A more reflective scientific ethics advisory committee complained that it has not been given time to make its recommendations, and criticised the ‘hasty’ decision; it judged that the benefits of the vaccine to adolescents were ‘very limited’ and the existing safety data to be too slim to judge its suitability for this age group.

Yet now, this age group is forced to take the vaccine. Sports clubs must check the health passes of 12- and 13-year olds before they are allowed to practice their designated sport. They are given a choice between vaccination or resigning their hobby, between vaccination or never going to a restaurant or the swimming pool. They are forced to accept a medical procedure that is unlikely to benefit them and could cause them harm.

A state that is this cavalier about the health and welfare of its young is one that is sacrificing its future for the political imperatives of the present. The focusing on the young could even be a perverse form of state socialisation, incorporating the young into Macron’s project of ‘exceptional mobilisation’ (which may explain why the pass sanitaire was first applied in nightclubs, long before it was applied in retirement homes or hospitals). Macron has announced his intention to extend vaccines to the under-12s as soon as his scientists give him the green light, which judging by their general helpfulness in this regard may not be long.

There is also a project of state disciplining of public sector employees, with a direct vaccination mandate for 2.7 million ‘carers’, who were ordered to receive at least one dose by 15 September or lose their jobs, and the second dose by 15 October.

This amounts to a perverse act of self-sabotage of the health service – a blind and wilful disorganisation – which has little or no effect on covid transmission and will do much to limit the quality of care. 13% of ambulance staff do not want to be vaccinated, while doctors who do not want to be vaccinated are closing their doors.

This includes a doctor of 30 years, who said she had anti-bodies from a previous episode of covid and that it was against medical practice to vaccinate someone who had antibodies from a previous infection. The non-recognition of natural immunity – which is stronger than that conferred by vaccination – shows that this is not about her personal health status, but about her compliance with a state imposition. Tellingly, a local politician said that her refusal to be vaccinated was ‘political act’, and that she had a ‘political position because she is a territorial representative’ – reducing her status from medical professional to apparatchik. The doctor said in response, ‘the state wants to impose it upon me, but I say to the state, it’s not you who practices medicine, it’s me’.

The closing of her surgery leaves 1500 people without a doctor, a scene that is repeated in several surgeries across France. A mother with an autistic child told me that she was about to lose her son’s local autism expert, while hospital staff in Pau (south-west France) who did not want to comply with the vaccine mandate burned their diplomas and uniforms as they resigned from the profession they had practiced for many years, saying ‘these diplomas are not worth anything anymore’.

Ambulance staff in Strasbourg lined up in a ceremony of dismissal, taking off their helmets and walking away from their frontline roles. Outside Marseilles hospital, female healthcare workers were manhandled by riot police. Such is the political impetus behind vaccination that the French state sends military police to attack the nurses who stood at covid patients’ bedsides.

Scientists who do not fit with the 100% vaccination view are sidelined or retired, including Didier Raoult, one of the world authorities on infectious disease, who is being pushed out of his post leading research and treatment of covid patients at Marseilles University Hospital. He had voiced unorthodox opinions on the claimed effectiveness of current vaccines and the wisdom of mass vaccination of the young. It is perverse in the extreme that France’s primary infectious disease expert is being pushed into retirement in the middle of a pandemic, because his views – developed through his treatment of covid patients and study of the epidemiological data – do not fit with the ‘institutional message’.

Even the police are being pressured, with one former police captain objecting to obligatory vaccination for police officers and calling Macron an ‘enemy of the French people‘. The head of a policing union was summoned by police authorities for his opposition to the pass sanitaire, which he called ‘liberticide’, and said that the police have ‘better things to do than to control the vaccine passports of people who want to drink a coffee at a pavement cafe’.

It is ironic and tragic that vaccination – a measure carried out for the benefits of the recipient and society at large – is being transformed into a question of submission of people to state authority, and the extension of state control throughout social life. This corrupts the rational public health use of vaccines, just as surely as it strangles civic freedoms and liberties.

How #MeToo undermines sexual morality

imagesOne of the defining aspects of the #MeToo movement has been the refusal to make a distinction between acts of different nature, intent, or gravity.

Everything is placed in the same category of ‘harassment’, including come-ons, chat-ups, even acts of tenderness, and acts of violation or violence.

When Matt Damon said that ‘there’s a difference between patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation’, he sparked a twitter storm:

‘It’s the micro that makes the macro.’

‘How about: it’s all f****** wrong and it’s all bad, and until you start seeing it under one umbrella it’s not your job to compartmentalise or judge what is worse and what is not’

The attempt to distinguish between degrees of severity, or differences of intent, is considered to be offensive. There is an ethical imperative to think of varied events as being substantially ‘the same’, requiring the same words, the same response, the same punishment.

Yet there cannot be a sexual morality, or a legal judgement, unless we make distinctions. Relations cannot be guided, checked, punished, approved or disapproved, unless we weigh the gravity of acts, and judge the intent of those who carried them out.

After all, precise distinctions are at the very basis of legal codes, and the means by which offenses can be defined and prosecuted. Primitive law had only very vague notions of crime, and punishment was ‘fitful, governed by chance and personal passion’ (1).

The first criminal codes (at the time of the city states in ancient Mesopotamia) laid out for the first time what, precisely, should be considered a criminal act, and what should be the punishment.

Ancient legal codes calibrated degree, the grades of severity of an offence. If someone had been hit on the head, for example, ancient Germanic codes gave different punishments according to whether there was no blood, blood ‘falls to the floor’, or if the brain appears (2).

There is a difference between a strike that produces no blood and blood that falls to the floor. The wound is different, and so is the crime, the degree of violation committed. Criminal law is built on this objectivity – this standing aside from the act, and asking does the blood fall to the floor or does the brain appear.

Later criminal codes established the grades of intent, making distinctions between: a pure accident, an intentional violent act, an act done in self-defence, and an accident that should have been foreseeable and was therefore negligent.

The first developed sexual moralities were equally concerned to make distinctions between different kinds of acts.

(A sexual morality guides how free people pursue the game of love: it is concerned only with free relations, and not with arranged marriage, customary sexual obligations, etc.)

Arguably the first sexual morality developed in ancient Greece, governing love relations between adult men and youths. People subjected their conduct to scrutiny and discussion, and developed a finely tuned framework through which acts could be weighed and judged.

How should the lover pursue the boy? Which gifts and inducements were acceptable, and which were not? For the boy, at what point should he yield, and how often, and in what manner? What should be the relation between lover and beloved?

Another sexual morality developed in the Middle Ages, in the times of chivalrous love. ‘Courts of Love’ passed judgements on cases, pronouncing on what love was, how one should go about it, and the rights and wrongs of conduct.

Should a knight, having been rejected by his lady, be free to go off and attach himself to another; or should the lady have powers to bind him, though she did not love him?

The court of ladies issued its judgements with gravitas:

‘May this judgement, which we have delivered with extreme caution, and after consulting with a great number of other ladies, be for you a constant and unassailable truth.’

Why, then, is there such a current aversion to distinctions? Why is it unacceptable to say that one thing is worse than something else; or to apportion blame and fault as they appear due, on two sides? Why cannot we distinguish the good and the bad, or the criminal from the rude?

The reason appears to be that #MeToo is based on a single model of human conduct: that of the abuser-victim. In our times, this has become the archetype for all human relations: between men and women, but also between adults and children, or even children and other children.

It is the uniformity of our model of human relations which means that no distinctions can be made between acts. Acts are seen as important, and meaningful, only inasmuch as they represent the abuser-victim archetype.

There is a deliberate attempt to eclipse different points of view, or different narratives of human conduct. ‘You men are all the same’, said the woman who accused Aziz Ansari of sexual misconduct (though she was the one who pursued him, and she didn’t at any point say no to sexual acts). ‘How about we NOT celebrate men who are simply decent human beings’, said one of Matt Damon’s critics: she doesn’t want to hear about the good men. Here is the pursuit of sameness, of uniformity of narrative.

It is because #MeToo represents an archetype, that you join it simply by saying the words ‘Me too’ (as Ellen did). You need give no details, no proof – merely the two words, which enact a subsumption of one’s own experience under the universal umbrella.

(The claiming of exception – for example, saying that you have not experienced something you would consider harassment or abuse – is met with incredulity: they do not believe you.)

#MeToo cannot make distinctions, because to make distinctions you need polarity – notions of good and bad, innocent and guilty.

In ancient Greece, there was the polarity of noble and ignoble, and this was the question they asked of their conduct: was it noble or ignoble? A lover should not lose control or self-possession, and he should not degrade the boy or make the boy his object (3). They should meet each other freely, equally: the goal was to unite reciprocally but to remain self-possessed.

In the Middle Ages, the judgements of the Courts of Love were guided by an ideal of love, and wrong behaviour was marked out precisely as a violation of this ideal.

For us, there is no ideal to hold against the bad, in contrast and in measurement. There is no notion of what we are seeking to realise in our relations with one another.

One result of this is that an act such as violent rape loses its shock as an extreme and unusual act – as the extreme violation of how we should be relating. The rape becomes merely an example of a general model, and so loses its status as an exception, an inversion of mores, as something outside the normal course of conduct.

#MeToo may breed nervousness and anxiety among men, or it may breed antipathy and resentment. But these consequences will be lawless, amoral. The movement will not lead to a guiding and civilising of sexual relations – which requires judgement, and it requires distinctions.


(1) Crime and custom in Savage Society, Bronislaw Malinowski, 1932

(2) Sources of Ancient and Primitive Law, Albert Kocourek, 1915

(3) The Use of Pleasure, Michel Foucault, 1985

In defence of binaries

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


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