imomus (imomus) wrote,

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.

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