Saturday, October 08, 2005

In (partial) defense of binaries

Every time I vow I'm not going to comment on Drout's next post, lest this all become an absurd insider conversation between philograms, he posts something I've got to comment on. And so it goes...

Drout was complaining about the simplistic use of binaries in literary theory, particularly deconstructive types, and his complaints are justifiable. My favorite passage:

Likewise I think it is all too easy to go out and spear a few binary oppositions and then convince yourself that you've helped to expose the unworkable logic of whatever evil system that you're trying to undermine. The whole process now just makes me uncomfortable: I feel like we're waiting for someone to pop out of the bushes and yell "tautology!!!" (well, that's how we played it where I grew up).

I love that because it is absurd and an apt description of what graduate school can be like. If you draw from that comment the suspicion that graduate school can be absurd, well... *cough*

Let me just say this in partial defense of binaries, though. As Earthlings, we may be hardwired to think in binaries. When we look up in the sky, we see two lights, one bright, and one dim. Nevertheless, we see two. And, from the perspective of Earth, those two lights appear to be the exact same size. An eclipse only underscores the apparent equality of these two lights, suggesting that they are in equal opposition to one another, perfect celestial binaries.

Now, think about the other planets:

Mercury -- No moons, just one really huge, blazing sun.
Venus -- Ditto
Earth -- Well, you know.
Mars -- Two lumpy moons of different sizes
Jupiter -- Dozens of moons, though some are too small to be seen from the "surface," I think
Saturn -- Ditto
Uranus -- Ditto
Neptune -- 13 moons, 8 of which are significant enough to have names
Pluto -- Only one moon, but it is more like a double planet system

We Earthlings are in what appears to be a pretty unusual situation. One moon in stable orbit, of apparent relative size equal to the sun. Going waaaaay back to primitive man, should we be surprised that we have a tendency to divide our immediate reality in the same way?

Taking this one step further, consider medieval Christianity ... or any Christianity, for that matter. How many of the heresies had, as part of their cosmology, a challege to the ONE god with THREE aspects of Trinitarism, instead preferring a dualistic system of one type or another: Albigenses, Gnosticism, Nestorianism, Manichaeism, and probably a bunch of otherisms that slip my mind at the moment. Even the Christian folklore regarding the Anti-Christ is part of this dualism, as it is not generally regarded as the many anti-christs that are described in the epistles of John, but rather an equal and opposite of Christ -- a moon versus the sun.

Us vs. Them, East vs. West, Alabama vs. Auburn, Jesus vs. Santa, God vs. Satan, Freedom vs. Tyranny, Rich vs. Poor, Male vs. Female, Dry vs. Wet, Tom vs. Jerry ... I'm not sure how many of these would stand under close scrutiny as useful binaries. We're steeped in them, though.

Are binaries particularly useful ways to think about literature. Generally not, I think. Let's cut people some slack, though -- maybe we just can't help ourselves.

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