Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Binary Oppositions and Pi.
















Gerbil Pi


Inside, those little wire boxes

with little wire wheels,

circumferences, the irrational number pi,

befuddling in never-creations,

go purveyors of binary opposition.


Round and around they go!

A world of circles,

and they never, ever "know"!





rén 10/09/07




Occasionally I'll introduce the term "binary opposition" into my discussions, and I thought it might be worth some effort to explain what the term signifies to me, and why understanding it might be worth anyone's while. So, for anyone curious about what can be a fascinating topic -- at least for epistemologists -- this is an effort to put together a more concise explanation of the place of this concept in our globalized Euro-American world.

I feel it's worth the effort, because binary opposites have so much to do with the way we organize our categorized internal worlds, and the results of that internal form in both the form of our very way of life, and the way political discussions get folded into repetitive opposing sided boxes, like copied suburban houses in those ticky tacky housing developments surrounding our cities these days.

Think of it... binary opposites are easy to find, we all use them in our conceptual thought process, and sometimes the very way we value our thoughts is based on preformed hierarchical patterns that set the stage and create a momentum that almost pre programs where a discussion will go, and at another level, where societal behavior may go. Some of the first to do this in any codified "scientific" way were a group of philosophers and social scientists known as "Structuralists." In recognizing this pattern and it's more or less ontological force, some explorative folks have begun to try to figure out whether it's necessary that the structure of language and thought be so rigidly predictable, or if there might be some strategies for breaking out of what might well be called "the box."

So, then, "binary opposition" is really a simple and elegant abstract concept. I first encountered the term somewhere in my studies of philosophy, logic, and anthropology -- it's been so long I can't remember precisely where. Following you will find a couple of very brief descriptions from Internet sites, there are many sites that discuss it, if one simply does a search, so for that one poor misbegotten soul who follows me around, there's really no need to do that, pointing to my own binary oppositions, one can simply learn to observe one's own:

A binary opposition is a pair of opposites, thought by the Structuralists to powerfully form and organize human thought and culture. Some are commonsense, such as raw vs cooked; however, many such oppositions imply or are used in such a way that privileges one of the terms of the opposition, creating a hierarchy. This can be seen in English with white and black, where black is used as a sign of darkness, danger, evil, etc., and white as purity, goodness, and so on. Another example of a contested binary opposition is rational vs emotional, in which the rational term is usually privileged and associated with men, while emotional is inferior and associated with women. The list goes on. Deconstruction sometimes involves identifying the oppositions working in a text and then demonstrating how the text itself undermines the hierarchy implied or asserted by the opposition.



And:


KEY TERM!

BINARY OPPOSITION

This is a sophisticated but important idea that will help you understand how ideas and meanings are being shaped, created or reinforced in a text. It is 'a theory of meaning' and an idea that can be applied to all texts; it is especially useful when analysing poetry where meaning has been 'compressed' into a very few words.

In the mid-20th century, two major European academic thinkers, Claude Levi Strauss and Roland Barthes, had the important insight that the way we understand certain words depends not so much on any meaning they themselves directly contain, but much more by our understanding of the difference between the word and its 'opposite' or, as they called it 'binary opposite'. They realised that words merely act as symbols for society's ideas and that the meaning of words, therefore, was a relationship rather than a fixed thing: a relationship between opposing ideas.

For example, our understanding of the word 'coward' surely depends on the difference between that word and its opposing idea, that of a 'hero' (and to complicate matters further, a moment's thought should alert you to the fact that interpreting words such as 'hero' and 'coward' is itself much more to do with what our society or culture attributes to such words than any meaning the words themselves might actually contain).

Other oppositions that should help you understand the idea are the youth/age binary, the masculinity/femininity, the good/evil binary, and so on. Barthes and Levi-Strauss noticed another important feature of these 'binary opposites': that one side of the binary pair is always seen by a particular society or culture as more valued over the other.

When studying any kind of literature, it is worth looking for the ways in which layers of meaning are being created, shaped or reinforced by this sense of 'binary opposition'. In Simon Armitage's poetry, for instance, you might notice the binary opposition he creates between the ideas we associate or attach to 'sincerity', 'genuineness' and 'truth' because of our culture's utter dislike of their binary opposites, 'insincerity' and 'lies'.

Recognising such binaries can open up the ideas the writer is trying to express. Look out for these oppositions as they can allow a deep understanding of what is happening in the text as well as alerting you to the "BIG PICTURE" (see below) - what it is all about.


(here's the:)

BIG PICTURE

Whenever you need to discuss aspects of a text, remember never to skim read it. Before you can write in any meaningful way about it you will need to have grasped its big picture. This means gaining an understanding of exactly what it is about, who it was written for and why it was written.

You will also need to consider what might have motivated the writer to write the text and the circumstances under which it was created, that is aspects of its writer's context. It can also be important to take account of genre conventions and expectations as well as aspects of the reader's context as interest and interpretation can sometimes vary according to the reader's own situation.

With these details you can then open your answer by creating an effective overview of the text - of its content, genre, audience and purpose. Details of its style are left for the remainder of your answer.

It is an unfortunate fact that each year many students give shallow answers in exams that show they have skim read their texts. The moral of this tale: don't be a skim reader!



So the question really is, why take notice of binary oppositions? One can find many reasons to take notice, once onto them. Think of our fearless leaders taking us to war against those evil doers. Yes, good and evil. It can drive even the most secure nations with the biggest military forces into a frenzy of strange behaviors.

Those of us who are intrigued by the intellectual efforts of trying to get out of the box of our conceptual thinking, are often drawn to it because of the very social paradigms of hierarchy we find ourselves in, ultimately derived from valuing one element in a starting binary over another, valued elements which themselves accumulate to set up conditions of authority, all based on on a progression beginning with that first step of judging a better and a not better, a that and a not that. Even our computers work in that simple way to create their complexity of computation.

Sort of reminds me of Joseph Tainter's Collapse of Complex Societies. Societies can over burden their energy resources because they become excessively complex, that complexity results in social hierarchies, and the very structure of hierarchies require extra energy to maintain. Think of the cost of the middle management in a corporation where the management is not directly involved in its production capacities. In order to pay for its own maintenance, the middle management must use its intelligence to manage production in order to achieve an excess margin of production. It's because of those sorts of margin production stresses that societies such as the Roman Empire collapsed.

Some are comfortable with authoritarian structures that go with complexity, comfortable with their promises of daddy state security, or whatever... and some of us aren't, that's about all I will offer on that at the moment. Just wanted to mention it, because authoritarianism is a subject that runs through my ideas as an ongoing subtext, and I will be bringing it up from time to time. Authoritarianism has a number of features that I consider problematic, not the least of which is my personal sense of abhorrence of authorities.

To be interested in this, it's important to recognize the tendency of that interest to be based on cognitive acts of judgment. I put it that way because I want to call attention to the simple feature that making a judgments is an action, a cognitive, abstract action. One does not have to make a judgment, judgment can be suspended and one can be in an open state of observation and wondering, even more actively, questioning. Just call attention to that little innocuous action of thought, a judgment, harmless seeming, for the most part, even sometimes necessary when observing that a rhinoceros is charging at you on the open plain. So simply be aware that it's a part of our basic biological make up even. That's important to be aware of because distinguishing and judging is at the very beginning of the binary process itself! And if we are trying to understand how we trap ourselves in boxes made up of the binary process, then it's important to be aware of how it works, and where it begins.

Do that without forming a judgment, if possible -- and that will involve doing it without attaching a value to it -- and then just observe where it goes; that's the best I can offer.

When I call attention to a binary opposition, that's essentially what I'm doing, just noticing the tendency, and noticing that a valuing may be taking place, and that from there, a process unfolds based on that primary paradigm one sets up in one's own thought process. Notice, too, that this is a phenomenological experience. No one can know if you are aware of the process going on or not. That's why it's worth calling attention to it. It can be like a shared signal that people can recognize. Or like turning on a flashlight in the dark.

Now, why would that be helpful?


How about we introduce an Irrational Concept for starters?


Since this basic structural duality can be so helpful in understanding our very universal human interest in mythology, literature, and metaphor, I'd like to start with something both literary and metaphorical. The movie Pi, not the least because I enjoyed the movie immensely, but also because I found a nifty site that actually deals with the issue using the movie as it's paradigmatic focus to discuss the deeper implications of binary oppositions.

(Click on the picture of Max below, it's a link to the site).



Pi (see Pi the movie) is not, as most critics claim, a schizophrenic science-fiction thriller.

We refuse to fall into the naive pseudo-psychological interoperation but it’s is a very important movie to be with us, while we rush to the next millenium.

We also attempt to say meaningful things about the movie without categorizing it as others do, in the science-fiction genre, to be more precise, we actually categorize it for the sake of decategorization.

As Sol tells us in the movie itself, we filter everything through our obsessions and concepts. In this text, we filter Pi with some of the concepts found in postmodern and fuzzy logic theories, and then we attempt to go further…

The story of Pi can be told through deconstruction of its content into binary oppositions, and by defusing these oppositions using a critical tool we suggest in the text - fuzzy deconstruction.

We claim that it is possible to continue where deconstruction stops in silence. We use 'Pi' to demonstrate this. This will hopefully allow you to watch (or re-watch) it from a slightly different perspective…


End of part I.

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