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Binary hopping - click opera
February 2010
 
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Thu, Dec. 20th, 2007 01:52 pm
Binary hopping

When you write about things -- when you use language at all -- you use binaries, the zero-one, off-on, this-that system on which semantics is based. Binaries are always also dialectics. In other words, the oppositions they incarnate are to some extent false and temporary -- their relationship is actually interdependent. They don't threaten each other so much as create each other symbiotically. The view that binaries are dialectical replaces a two-part, competitive structure (this versus that) with a three-part complementary one: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. What really threatens binaries is not each other, but the possibility that a new way of seeing will make them cease to be able to define each other by opposing each other. This new way of seeing is called, in dialectics, the synthesis.



Here are some themes that have come up recently on Click Opera; let's look at them as binaries, and then as dialectics. French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, we noted yesterday, is a sadist, at least in his imagination. But my article about him ended with a rhetorical twist -- by gambling, with his latest "masturbatory" book about the evisceration of little girls, with the alienation of all his readers and critics, Robbe-Grillet might be a masochist after all. The binary there is obviously sadist / masochist. In my text, Robbe-Grillet begins as one and ends -- surprisingly! -- as the other. But this particular binary can be read quite happily as a dialectic -- we talk of "sado-masochism" and see the two states as interdependent rather than independent, complementary rather than contradictory. (Note that I can't attack binaries without using binaries: independent / interdependent and contradictory / complementary.) "Alain Robbe-Grillet is a sado-masochist," we conclude. In this case, seeing the binary as a dialectic leaves the relationship of the thesis to the antithesis relatively undisturbed. Even though there are "sado-masochists", a sadist can still be the opposite of a masochist. The two terms can still define each other.

Here's another example. We've been talking this week about the relationship between British newspapers and the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, and specifically a statement in the Evening Standard that the ICA's remit to "push boundaries" is a tired one. I mentioned the 1976 Throbbing Gristle / COUM Transmissions ICA show "Prostitution", and how it attracted the condemnation of the newspapers. This, I said, was part of an ongoing battle between conservatives and progressives in Britain. So the binary set up there is conservative / progressive.

What happens if we make that into a dialectic instead of a binary? What happens might be seen more clearly if we use slightly different terms for our binary. Conservative / progressive uses the past and the future as its structure, with conservatives yearning for the past, progressives rushing boldly into the future. But if we say instead reactionary / provocative, I think we'll see much better the dialectical structure of the binary. This is a collaboration, not a competition.

Actually, I think something like the 1976 "Prostitution" show is the perfect example. Here COUM Transmissions put together a package, an exhibition designed to lure in the tabloid press. Tabloid headlines and porn mags were exhibited. The show was "provocative" in the very direct and obvious sense that it provoked a reaction, precisely, from its supposed "enemies" in the press. It spoke their language. It was, quite literally, on the same page. The provokers called out to the press, and the press reacted by being reactionary. Call and response.

It was very much the modus operandi of punk outrage; think of the Bill Grundy Show incident which catapulted the Sex Pistols to notoriety. "Go on," says Grundy, "you've got another five seconds, say something outrageous!" "You dirty bastard!" says Jones. "Go on, again!" says Grundy. "You dirty fucker!" obliges Jones. The next day the papers are full of it. Grundy -- the only victim -- gets suspended, but for everyone else it's mutual profit, a dialectic: the provokers sell lots of records and the reactionaries sell lots of newspapers.



Here's another example. The financial pages have been full, this month, of stories about how the credit crunch and the sub-prime crisis have re-drawn the map of world banking, and how the power balance between Western and Asian banks has shifted in favour of Asia. Here's the story on Wall Street Journal, for instance. The linked binaries that structure the story are West / East and unstable / stable. There are, of course, lots of other binaries at play. One interesting detail that emerges from the Daily Telegraph's account is that the Chinese financial institutions being described as "big winners" are all run by women, who all happen to be called Xiao.

The "three Xiaos" are Wu Xiaoling, 60, senior deputy governor of the People's Bank of China, Hu Xiaolian, 49, in charge of foreign exchange, and Zhang Xiaohui, who directs monetary policy. At this point we could do something slightly more original, something I'd call a "binary hop". We could write an article saying that the shift of power in the banking world hasn't been "from West to East" but "from West to Female".

"From West to East" is a commonplace journalistic structure for an article. "From West to Female" is more like poetry. By jumping from one criterion, one binary, to another, it represents a real difference rather than the staged differences of the binary. It's fresh! What's more, it's not made up. There has been a shift from West to Female in this case. It's just that our habit of situating all drama within pre-existing, well-worn binaries makes it look surprising and wrong. How can there have been a shift of power from the West to the Female? How did these unrelated binaries get spliced? Is West male and East female? What's the relationship between geography and gender?

Let's go back to the distinction between binaries and dialectics, or rather (if you want to see it as a dialectic rather than a binary) the idea that a binary and a dialectic are the same thing seen slightly differently. Now, it may seem that the binary structure is more radical or critical than the dialectic one. It's radical and critical because, when there's a clear binary you can take sides. Using the male / female binary, for instance, you can say of something "It is too male" (the Gorilla Girls' critique of the Whitney Biennial, for instance).



But the dialectical view can also be critical. You can meaningfully say "It is too male-female". Saying the Whitney Biennial was "too male-female" would imply that it foregrounded gender, when in fact the gender of the artists involved wasn't of primary importance. And at this point you could start encouraging people to do some binary hopping. You could encourage them to say something like "In the past, the Whitney Biennial has been somewhat male-dominated. This year, however, it includes amateurs." You could even demolish the time binary (past / present) which structures that thought. "In the past, the Whitney Biennial has been somewhat male-dominated. The Venice Biennale included amateurs."

Our perplexity at the syntax of these binary-hopped sentences (built on the "absurdist" binaries male / East or male / amateur) reveals just how "paranoid" our thinking is. If something doesn't fit the shape of our binary-dialectics, it doesn't seem to make sense at all. We can barely see it. This, alas, is why the bigger criticism -- the criticism of the binary vector itself, and the way it structures our thinking -- looks like a smaller criticism, a meta-criticism, a procedural quirk. We'd rather just keep playing chess than have a big debate about the rules of chess each move.

A final thought. Whether something is monolithic, binary, dialectical, or meaninglessly plural is a function of your distance from it. When you're very close to something, all you can see is oneness, pure dominance by the thing of all others. For a baby, Mother's breast is the entire universe. For a fundamentalist, it's God. When you're a bit further away, a tidy binary replaces oneness. There are men and there are women. There's East and there's West. This is the distance journalists live at. The world of journalism is always seeing small fluctuations in the relative positions of big, established binaries like these. Women are doing a little better this year! And of course in the end the message is always the same one. Nothing much has changed, because we still divide the world into East and West, male and female.

Only poets -- those incorrigible binary-hoppers! -- can really change the way we see, because only they (with their under-the-hood view of language) are willing to abandon cookie-cutting binaries, or pick them up and play around with them. Unfortunately poets can't organize anything, and can't make any lasting systems. Because to organize, you need to reduce and repeat. You need a dependable system in which everyone agrees on the terms and the oppositions. And there we have the tragedy of human life. The people who can change things can't organize anything, and the people who can organize things can't change anything.

58CommentReply


(Anonymous)
Thu, Dec. 20th, 2007 01:53 pm (UTC)

When you write about things -- when you use language at all -- you use binaries, the zero-one, off-on, this-that system on which semantics is based.

This just begs so many questions. I suggest you actually read something about semantics that was published in the last 40 years.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Dec. 20th, 2007 02:09 pm (UTC)

What, are you trying to tell me that deconstruction isn't what's been happening during the last 40 years? Where have you been?


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cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
Thu, Dec. 20th, 2007 02:16 pm (UTC)

I have asked myself a question lately about modernism: Was modernism 'patriarchalism'? Not many female painters was highlighted back during the popularity of modernism only to be 're-discovered' in the present.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Dec. 20th, 2007 02:36 pm (UTC)

Accounts of Modernism have become accounts of Modernisms, with particular emphasis being given to regional Modernisms (like Brazil's) or to marginalized female figures like Agnes Martin. This is a kind of revisionism, and also an example of what deconstructionists call "re-inscription". But let's put it this way: there can never be an account of Modernism in which Brazil and Agnes Martin are central -- the first thing you talk about when you mention Modernism. And so these re-inscriptions can never make Brazil or Martin "win". All they do, in the end, is confirm the original hierarchies.


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translucent
translucent
lux beata
Thu, Dec. 20th, 2007 03:04 pm (UTC)


A binary isn't about total semantic opposites. It just draws a line (which may be arbitrary) between two things. Hence why it's so ripe for deconstruction!


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Dec. 20th, 2007 03:02 pm (UTC)
Poetry/Politics

In response to your final paragraph...

Off the top of my head, Pablo Neruda, Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor are all examples of poets who became involved in politics. The latter two both published theoretical writings as well. Senghor was a pretty good poet, but a somewhat corrupt politician unfortunately.

And don't forget Václav Havel. His early plays are arguably enough for him to be considered a "poet".

It's also worth remembering that Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, two of the 20th century's great "organizers", expressed themselves in verse.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Dec. 20th, 2007 03:32 pm (UTC)

To insist on the binary nature of cognitive response is really to insist on basic reductionism. And that is what a lot of recent study on non-linear systems deny.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Dec. 20th, 2007 03:57 pm (UTC)

To ignore the inevitability of reductionism in our ways of framing the world -- especially with language -- would be to ignore a key piece of self-knowledge, though. You cannot escape a mistake by ignoring it or -- worse -- denying it.


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translucent
translucent
lux beata
Thu, Dec. 20th, 2007 03:42 pm (UTC)


I think the point here is not actually one about fundamental semantics or logic - or "cognitive response" - but systems we build upon that. The mother, not the breast. Whether the underlying system is minutely binarised or not doesn't change the fact that we quite happily do engage in a vs. b thinking and structuring of our lives. Hence, amateur [post]structuralism is born!

One self-aware binary-packed comment for you for rhetorical effect!


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Dec. 20th, 2007 05:26 pm (UTC)
fade

female and male and hermaphrodite........

How many hermaphrodites were included in the Whitney Biannual?


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Dec. 20th, 2007 05:36 pm (UTC)

".......the synthesis." = Genesis P. Orridge


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akabe
akabe
alin huma
Thu, Dec. 20th, 2007 07:21 pm (UTC)

i'm not at all convinced by the attempt to link the idea of 'binary thinking' with the way computers are supposed to work. (the 1s and 0s really relate more to the way one would have lit and put off a candle before electricity, which relates to the sun going up and down and other weird, 'cosmic' stuff).

as kuma points out above the opposite of sadist would be not-sadist rather than masochist (deleuze in his book on masoch makes an excellent case for dissasociating S from M)

the idea of synthesis as a singular noun is dubious and smells like fascism whichever way you look at it - it's also quite unlike most of the stuff you seem to be advocating. this essay is very interesting in the fact that you're doing through and through all the things you seem to be refuting. (the line between your own vois and the 'general opinion' is blurry and that's the escape door, i guess.)


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microworlds
microworlds
Sparkachu Maelworth
Thu, Dec. 20th, 2007 08:55 pm (UTC)

DAMN YOU FOR THE FIRST IMAGE WHY DO YOU HAVE TO REMIND ME OF MATRICES PROBLEMS THEY TAKE FOREVER TO DO AS:FLJ:ASDJFPOSAJDFPAOEWJRPO

ALSO I HATE YOU FOR BRINGING UP BINARY BECAUSE I HAD TO LEARN IT IN MY PROGRAMMING CLASS AND I HATED MY PROGRAMMING CLASS

>:O


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grzeg
grzeg
grzeg
Thu, Dec. 20th, 2007 09:21 pm (UTC)

But let’s humour the “history as a project”, Hegelian Dialectic that’s going on here. We still talk in dialectic terms because it’s still useful. But I think it’s important to distinguish the difference between a dialectic and a binary opposition. A binary opposition is your weary pair of theoretical opposites, as perpetuated in logo-, phallogo-, and Western-centric thought (light / dark, male / female, conservative / progressive, respectively); which is why is we can’t talk about opposites of leather sofas. But if we talk about it in terms of an Aristotelian Dialectic, we see it as an object, and then understand it for what it’s not. This is when we start understanding everything and everyone as objects in the realm where subjects appear, and through which we understand action, negating or otherwise, on these objects as furthering mankind -- your typical teleological, Western view of the world as part of a historical, discontinuous continuity!

But it wasn’t always this way: Before we had “Hegelian Dialectic speech and action”, “synthesis”, and “objectively negating the world”, there was the dialogical view of history, a time where speech and action wasn’t governed by necessity, because all who spoke were Despots, or heads of households, all were free of the necessities of the oikos (their wives and slaves preserved the wealth, food, and land -- they don’t count!!), and therefore, all were seen with equal recognition -- your basic ‘Freedom’ and ‘Democracy’. I don’t want to say a dialogical way of thinking is better than a dialectic, but the whole idea of History as a dialectic is that it is a teleology: everything we do is aimed at bringing about an impossible end condition; however, the only thing we can talk about is the means/process/Becoming, which is why speaking in dialogical terms, not dialectic (though holds as dubious an origin), may be more productive.

Of course, dialogues go no where and we always need action; it’s not until we get some major crises, the crisis of Columbus and of Galileo, that we start re-subjugating the “New World” and the “Open Universe”, re-objectifying new Others.

It’s funny linking this back to a computational type of binary, but who does it well is Vilém Flusser. His understanding of the crisis of the object, of phenomenology and the critique of science, of a return to a world of numbers, of mathematica, controlled by technocrats, robots, computers and the like, are spot-on with our current contemporaneity and discussion…


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Dec. 20th, 2007 09:37 pm (UTC)

I don’t want to say a dialogical way of thinking is better than a dialectic, but the whole idea of History as a dialectic is that it is a teleology: everything we do is aimed at bringing about an impossible end condition; however, the only thing we can talk about is the means/process/Becoming, which is why speaking in dialogical terms, not dialectic (though holds as dubious an origin), may be more productive.

I wasn't really using the idea of dialectics in relation to a progressive idea of history -- I'd qualify exactly what you're describing here as a form of offshore accounting. I'm more interested in the dialectic as something much more radical -- the possibility of the collapse of every binary into a new unit which dissolves its constituent terms. We have generated meaning by setting the terms of binaries against each other (hot / cold, man / women, weird / normal and so on). But we know that these divisions -- and these hierarchies -- are arbitrary and may collapse if hot / cold, man / woman etc recognize an essential truth: their complete dependence on one another. The synthesis thus looms for every binary as a kind of end of war which is also an end of all identity and all meaning. It's a peace every binary is terrified of, like a soldier terrified of a world without enemies. "What will I do there? Who will I be? What will I fight?"


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fishwithissues
fishwithissues
jordan fish
Thu, Dec. 20th, 2007 11:31 pm (UTC)

(built on the "absurdist" binaries male / East or male / amateur)

This (and today's other absurdist binaries) reminds me that I've always always in every philosophy class wanted to categorize and analyze/dismantle (won't say deconstruct won't say deconstruct) the HYPOTHETICALS & EXAMPLES chosen by the philosopher. This is the moving part, where the science gives way to biography, specificity, etc. etc. etc.!!!!!


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Dec. 21st, 2007 12:41 am (UTC)
Binary Hopping

BhIoNpApRiYng = legitimation (formaldeyhde)

baa


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kamikaze_sqrl
kamikaze_sqrl
kamikaze_sqrl
Fri, Dec. 21st, 2007 06:43 pm (UTC)

I have enjoyed this article and especially this McLuhan-esque pun:

'It spoke their language. It was, quite literally, on the same page.'


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violet_hemlock
violet mendonca
Sat, Dec. 22nd, 2007 06:00 pm (UTC)

I can't believe I missed this post, but hey....I pretty much treat your blog like the sunday paper....sometimes its better to read a weeks worth of posts in one shot....lol


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