Binary Patterns: A Western Obsession

This or that?  Me or you?  I or thou?  Subject or object?

Along with these basic either/or questions, Western thought is built on other key binaries.

A binary is an either/or choice like the zeroes and ones making up DVDs or other digital codes.  While some things lend themselves to “this or that” choices, we know that the world is often much more complicated.  The answer “Pepsi or Coke?”  might define a person privately, but whether you like one or the other may not carry much public meaning.  Ironically, it did carry meaning in the 80s during the Cola Wars.

These either/or choices often have strange histories.  For instance, the tragedy/comedy binary informs genres on television and in literature.  It is based on a thinker, Aristotle, who was not even approving of literature.  Dig into the history of tragedy and comedy and you will find some strangeness.  For instance, tragedy was supposed by Aristotle to feature someone making a choice which leads inevitably to their downfall, which we witness and feel catharsis, a sense of purging out of both ends. .  .!  Weird enough for you?  It makes a certain amount of sense, just as listening to a blues song makes us feel happy, but it’s what we’d call contingent: based on a quirky, particular set of happenings that did not have to occur.  So binaries are contingent.  (Call this the non-tragic theory of approaching binaries.)  And comedy was supposed to involve a mating and joining offstage in early Greek comedies—which were held at the festival of the god Dionysus, at which, originally, his devotees called Maenads were said to mate with willing victims on mountainsides, after which they would rend apart the sacrificial victim.  And this is what informs our genres—and has done so for 2,500 years.  So I’d add necessary vs. contingent as a binary that can be useful.

For more on the strangeness of binaries, you might do a search for humor theory or look at the history of academia (gowns, gavels, graduations. . .).  Or if you’re talking good or evil, one might look at how evil always comes back (Sauron, Voldemort).  Weirdly enough, this even contributes to a type of cannibalism whereby an enemy’s body is eaten so that his soul can be erased–for a time–from the eternal battlefield. As the cliche goes, “The truth is stranger than fiction.”  In fields like literary analysis, there is no “capital-T Truth.”  That idea of there being one would go back to Plato and his theory of Forms.

So these issues have histories of which we should become aware.  As a critical reader, it is important for you to take note of binaries and gauge their effects.  Though they may exclude other choices, it is the case that humans notice contrasts and oppositions.

Binaries are crutches, tools.  They can work but can put blinders on what we notice.  Early in stages of the writing or critical thinking processes, they can be useful.

Which side of a binary does the author notice or value more?

Which views are portrayed as negative?

What is undervalued or missing from a given text?

In a writing course, then, you might create a persuasive essay that argues one side against another.  We contribute to these ongoing debates most thoughtfully if we realize that they arguments will continue, however well we write about them!  Just don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the world is either/or, comforting as that notion may be.