during my first semester at Swarthmore college. In a lesson that was to be repeated throughout my undergraduate education, the professor opened the class by admonishing us to reject binary thinking. As the class was staring at her dumbfounded, she divided the chalkboard in two with a thick vertical line and asked us to name the dualisms that structure our world. After she provided a few examples to get us started – male/female, white/black – we jumped into the game, calling out binaries one after another: rich/poor, smart/stupid, human/animal, cool/lame, skinny/fat … The game went on until the board was full and the air saturated with chalkdust. Pausing a moment, our comparative literature professor asked us if we noticed anything odd about the list we had constructed.
Looking at the chalkboard, we saw an easy answer: on the left of the line were “good” terms – cool,skinny, rich, smart, white – and on the right were their counterparts, the derided terms. In an instant, our class grasped an essential precept of postmodern philosophy: Western thought has hitherto divided the world into a series of binary oppositions that privilege one side over the other. The political implications of the lesson were clear: Oppression can be traced back to the way we think, and hope of liberation rests on escaping this binary thinking.
The postmodern project of overcoming binary thought, however, is more difficult than it may appear. First of all, one cannot simply flip the terms and privilege what was once diminished – that would merely replicate the binary in reverse.
The issue is not which term is privileged but the false belief that existence can be divided into two distinct, competing parts. Thus the task of the postmodern activist became the blurring and problematizing of distinctions in order to destroy dualist thinking. It was all done in the name of political liberation. At least that was the intended goal.
In the light of the traumas of modernity, where millions were slaughtered because they fell on the wrong side of the imaginary Aryan/non-Aryan divide, the project of deconstructing binaries should have been a positive development. In fact the primary way of disturbing categories – pointing out that the primary term is only defined through exclusion of the other – might have effectively stalled the pseudo – scientific Nazi eugenic project. The problem with the postmodern approach, however, was that it came too late.
While it could have offered a way out of the genocide of the world war II, by the time the project of deconstructing distinctions was widespread in academia and had filtered down to society at large, oppression lay not in the maintenance of dualism but the opposite: increasing hybridization. That is the irony of contemporary philosophy: what we take to be a tool of resistance, the application of cutting-edge theory to our contemporary moment, turns out to be a hammer of our oprresion. And by rejecting binary thought outright, we were not challenging the status quo … we were helping it along.
It takes courage to insist that the coming era differences do matter – like the difference between comrade and consumer, human and glutton or the good life and consumption – and without a return to the genocidal modernist project, we can forge a new path that gather its strength from the difference between spiritual wealth and material greed.
by Micah White
adbuster – the post-modernism issue – Mar/Apr 2010