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Binary opposition

A binary opposition (also binary system) is a pair of this phenomenon whereby people value one part of a bi-
related terms or concepts that are opposite in meaning. nary opposition over another; we, as living in a certain
Binary opposition is the system by which, in language culture, think and act similarly in situations when we want
and thought, two theoretical opposites are strictly dened to pick out one of the concepts in the binary oppositions
and set o against one another.[1] It is the contrast be- or while seeking truth or a center. For example, we give
tween two mutually exclusive terms, such as on and o, superiority to life rather than death. [9] This suggests that
up and down, left and right.[2] Binary opposition is an the cultural setting a reader is a part of may inuence their
important concept of structuralism, which sees such dis- interpretation of a work of literature; only one concept,
tinctions as fundamental to all language and thought.[2] In from the binary opposition, is ready, in our mind, to be
structuralism, a binary opposition is seen as a fundamen- privileged and the other one is usually put aside as having
tal organizer of human philosophy, culture, and language. the second priority. [10] He reached this conclusion by
Binary opposition originated in Saussurean structuralist giving a name to the shared western unconsciousness for
theory.[3] According to Ferdinand de Saussure, the binary a preferred binary concept- logocentrism. This is the be-
opposition is the means by which the units of language lief that an ultimate reality or centre of truth exists and
have value or meaning; each unit is dened in reciprocal that can serve as the basis for all our thought and actions.
determination with another term, as in binary code. It is This might imply that readers might unconsciously take
not a contradictory relation but a structural, complemen- side with one concept of binary opposition, and Derrida
tary one.[3] Saussure demonstrated that a signs meaning traces this reaction as a cultural phenomenon. [11]
is derived from its context (syntagmatic dimension) and According to Jacques Derrida,[12] meaning in the West
the group (paradigm) to which it belongs.[4] An example is dened in terms of binary oppositions, a violent hier-
of this is that one cannot conceive of 'good' if we do notarchy where one of the two terms governs the other.
understand 'evil'.[5] Within the white/ black binary opposition in the United
Typically, one of the two opposites assumes a role of States,[13]the African American is dened as a devalued
other.
dominance over the other. The categorization of binary
oppositions is often value-laden and ethnocentric, with An example of a binary opposition is the male-female
an illusory order and supercial meaning.[6] Furthermore, dichotomy. A post-structuralist view is that male can
Pieter Fourie discovers that binary oppositions have a be seen, according to traditional Western thought, as
deeper or second level of binaries that help to reinforce dominant over female because male is the presence
meaning. As an example, the concepts hero and villain of a phallus, while the vagina is an absence or loss.
involve secondary binaries: good/bad, handsome/ugly, John Searle has suggested that the concept of binary
liked/disliked, and so on.[7] oppositionsas taught and practiced by postmodernists
and poststructuralistis specious and lacking in rigor.[14]

1 Theory of binaries in Western


thought 2 Deconstruction of Western bina-
ries
A classic example of a binary opposition is the presence-
absence dichotomy. In much of Western thought, includ- The political (rather than analytic or conceptual) critique
ing structuralism, distinguishing between presence and of binary oppositions is an important part of third wave
absence, viewed as polar opposites, is a fundamental ele-
feminism, post-colonialism, post-anarchism, and critical
ment of thought in many cultures. In addition, accordingrace theory, which argue that the perceived binary di-
to post-structuralist criticisms, presence occupies a posi-
chotomy between man/woman, civilized/uncivilised, and
tion of dominance in Western thought over absence, be- white/black have perpetuated and legitimized Western
cause absence is traditionally seen as what you get whenpower structures favoring civilized white men. In the
you take away presence. (Had absence been dominant, last fteen years it has become routine for many social
presence might have most naturally been seen as what youand/or historical analyses to address the variables of gen-
get when you take away an absence.) [8] der, class, sexuality, race and ethnicity.[15] Within each
According to Nasser Maleki, there is another example of of these categories there is usually an unequal binary op-

1
2 4 IN LITERATURE

position: bourgeoisie/working class man; white/people of paired opposites were removed the others precise mean-
colour; men/women; heterosexual/homosexual.[15] ing would be altered.[20] Binary opposites, therefore, are
Post-structural criticism of binary oppositions is not sim- at the foundation of all literature. Two examples will ex-
ply the reversal of the opposition, but its deconstruction, plore this.
which is described as apoliticalthat is, not intrinsically
favoring one arm of a binary opposition over the other.
Deconstruction is the event or moment at which a bi- 4.1 Examples
nary opposition is thought to contradict itself, and under-
mine its own authority.[16] In Harry Potter there is the magical and non-magical
community, but there are exceptions to these categories in
Deconstruction assumes all binary oppositions need to
which there is no existing category, half-bloods and mug-
be analyzed and criticized in all their manifestations; the
gle (human) born (paradigm). The evil wizard Voldemort
function of both logical and axiological oppositions must
seeks to eradicate these that do not t within these cate-
be studied in all discourses provide meaning and val-
gories as he believes there should only be fully-edged
ues. But deconstruction does not only expose how oppo-
magical and non-magical community. This leads to a
sitions work and how meaning and values are produced
binary system in which what Voldemort is insisting on
in a nihilistic or cynic position, thereby preventing any
creating is a world where the fully-edged pure-blooded
means of intervening in the eld eectively. To be ef-
wizards are the favoured of the binary opposites (pure-
fective, and simply as its mode of practice, deconstruc-
bloods as opposed to half-bloods and muggle-born) and
tion creates new notions or concepts, not to synthesize
the muggle-born and half-blood are the disfavoured of the
the terms in opposition but to mark their dierence, un-
[17] two. With the ideology of the pure bloods being pursued
decidability, and eternal interplay.
it would leave to the bias and cultural change that there
is only one distinction between classes, the categories are
only pure blooded members of the magical community
3 In relation to logocentrism or non magical.
Vampire Academy, a series of novels by Richelle Mead,
Logocentrism is an idea related to binary opposition that draws upon the conventional binary ideologies of West-
suggests certain audiences will favour one part of a bi- ern culture, whether intentional or not. There are Strigoi
nary opposition pair over the other. This favouritism is inherently evil vampires conned to the night and Mo-
often most strongly inuenced by a readers cultural back- roi and dhampir, weaker vampires who can venture into
ground. The strong patriarchal themes in 'The Women daylight. The novels play upon the binary opposition the-
and the Pot', an Amharic folktale, would be one such ex- ory and its secondary levels; night and day are: evil/good,
ample of logocentrism. This tells the story of two women other/normal, disliked/liked, ugly or handsome. The evil
who are upset at their diminished role in society, and who Strigoi vampires attempt to vanquish the Moroi through-
consequently go to their King for help. He eectively out the novels, signifying a binary system in which the
conveys the message that women cannot be relied upon strong would dominate and exploit the weak. Meads use
to take on a greater role in society, which becomes the of the binary system presents readers with an example of
moral of the tale. Prasad explains this idea; The lo- how dangerous it is for one group to possess such power,
gocentric value is seen through the 'Eternal Knowledge' and how it may result in evil deeds.
the naturalness of male superiority that is conveyed
On the contrary, Harper Lees To Kill A Mockingbird dis-
through the folktale. The hidden a priori binary oppo-
rupts this conventional twofold hierarchy by utilizing the
sition is 'Man over Woman'. [18] In relation to the cul-
second level of binaries. Lee has broken the illusion that
tural heritage of an audience having an inuence on their
black is bad and white is ultimately good. The plot
unconscious preference for one part of a binary oppo-
focuses on a case involving a black man Tom Robin-
sition, Prasad says; By way of studying a selection of
son who is accused of raping a white woman, Mayella.
Ethiopian folktales, the paper uncovers the presence of
Mayella, with her bruises and ethnicity as a defence, is be-
logocentrism and a priori binary opposition being at work
lieved by the townspeople instantly. The novel explores
in Ethiopian folktales. These two elements attempt to
concepts of racism and stereotyping with the help of the
endorse and validate the 'given' subservient position of
binary system. In the end it is revealed that Mayella lied
women in society.[19]
and her father was the one who beat her. In the context
of the story, however, racism still prevails. The binary
system, however, highlights the injustice of preconceived
4 In literature connotations attached to race and colour.
In addition, binary opposition was explored in childrens
Binary opposition is deeply embedded within literature as literature and it was found that authors were reinforcing
language, and paired opposites, rely upon a relation with Westernized images and philosophies of feminism via the
adjoining words inside a paradigmatic chain. If one of the binary hierarchy.[21] Western authors were creating a rep-
3

resentation of non-Western countries based on colonial [12] Derrida, Jacques (1992). Positions. p. 41.
discourse, using binary oppositions to categorize human
behaviour into one term or another not both. The non- [13] Hogue, W. (2008). Radical democracy, African Ameri-
Western woman, therefore, was the opposite or other can subjectivity and John Edgar Widemans Philadelphia
to women and girls from the West. [21]
Thus, Western Fire. Melus 33 (3): 48. doi:10.1093/melus/33.3.45.
authors are establishing imperialist binaries between cul-
[14] In 1983, American philosopher John Searle reviewed
tures, with the us/other binary opposition alongside that Johnathan Cullers On Deconstruction: Theory and Crit-
of the men/women. Doing so is not only undermining the icism after Structuralism for the New York Review of
entire ideology of feminism, but is also revealing of how Books, writing,
societies work: in binaries.
In Cullers book, we get the following ex-
amples of knowledge and mastery [attained
from analysis of binary opposites and decon-
5 See also struction]: speech is a form of writing (pas-
sim), presence is a certain type of absence (p.
Dichotomy 106), the marginal is in fact central (p. 140),
the literal is metaphorical (p. 148), truth is
Gender binary a kind of ction (p. 181), reading is a form
of misreading (p. 176), understanding is a
Opposite (semantics) form of misunderstanding (p. 176), sanity is
a kind of neurosis (p. 160), and man is a form
Polarization (politics)
of woman (p. 171). Some readers may feel
Yin and yang that such a list generates not so much feel-
ings of mastery as of monotony. There is in
deconstructive writing a constant straining of
the prose to attain something that sounds pro-
6 Notes found by giving it the air of a paradox, e.g.,
truths are ctions whose ctionality has been
[1] Smith, G. (1996). Binary opposition and sexual power in forgotten (p. 181).
Paradise Lost. Midwest Quarterly 27 (4): 383.
[15] Dunk, T 1997, 'White guys: studies in post-modern dom-
[2] Baldick, C 2004. The concise Oxford Dictionary of liter- ination and dierence', Labour, vol. 40, p. 306, (online
ary terms, viewed 8 March 2011, http://www.highbeam. Infotrac).
com/doc/1056-binaryopposition.html
[16] One sometimes gets the impression that deconstruction
[3] Fogarty, S 2005, The literary encyclopedia, viewed 6 is a kind of game that anyone can play. One could, for
March 2011, http://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php? example, invent a deconstruction of deconstructionism
pec=true&UID=122 as follows: In the hierarchical opposition, deconstruc-
tion/logocentrism (phono-phallo-logocentrism), the priv-
[4] Lacey, N 2000, Narrative and Genre, p.64, Palgrave, New
ileged term deconstruction is in fact subordinate to the
York.
devalued term logocentrism, for, in order to establish
[5] Lacey, N 2000, Narrative and Genre, p. 65, Palgrave, the hierarchical superiority of deconstruction, the decon-
New York structionist is forced to attempt to represent its superiority,
its axiological primacy, by argument and persuasion, by
[6] Goody 1977, p. 36 appealing to the logocentric values he tries to devalue. But
his eorts to do this are doomed to failure because of the
[7] Fourie, Pieter (2001). Media Studies Volume 2: Content, internal inconsistency in the concept of deconstructionism
Audiences and Production. Lansdowne: Juta Education. itself, because of its very self-referential dependence on
the authority of a prior logic. By an aporetical Aufhebung,
[8] Britannica 2011, Binary opposition, viewed 9 March deconstruction deconstructs itself. Searle, ibid.
2011, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/
65552/binary-opposition [17] Cf., Jacques Derrida, Positions (The University of
Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 41-43
[9] Maleki, Nasser. Contextualising Kathleen Raines se-
lected poems in the light of Derridean midel of decon-
[18] Prasad, A. 8. Logocentrism and a priori Binary Oppo-
struction. Journal of Language and Literature 5 (2): 67.
sition vis-a-vis Women. Politics in Ethiopia Folktales- A
[10] Maleki, Nesser. Contextualising Kathleen Raines se- Study of Selected Ethiopian Folktales. Fabula 48 (1-2):
lected poems in the light of Derridean model of decon- 108.
struction. Journal of Language and Literature 5 (2): 68.
[19] Prasad, A. 8. Logocentrism and a priori Binary Oppo-
[11] Maleki, Nesser. 5. Contextualising Kathleen Raines se- sition vis-a-vis Women. Politics in Ethiopia Folktales- A
lected poems in the light of Derridean model of decon- Study of Selected Ethiopian Folktales. Fabula 48 (1-2):
struction. Journal of Language and Literature 5 (2): 68. 108.
4 7 REFERENCES

[20] Barry, P., 2009. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to


Literary and Cultural Theory. 3rd ed. New York, USA:
Manchester University Press.

[21] Varga-Dobai, K., 2013. Gender Issues in Multicultural


Childrens Literature - Black and Third-World Feminist
Critiques of Appropriation, Essentialism, and Us/Other
Binary Oppositions. Multicultural Perspectives, 15(3),
pp. 141147.

7 References
Goody, Jack (1977). The Domestication of the Sav-
age Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
ISBN 978-0-521-29242-9.
5

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