Gigging for Binaries
[UPDATE: I composed and posted the next post before I'd read the insightful comments below and a post by Scott at his site. I hope to be able to develop a response tomorrow, depending on how the grading / installing new kitche faucet /re-gasketing woodstove goes]
Comments on this post and also a previous post (and isn't it sad that I can't find it on my own blog?) have argued that although there is much to criticize about literary theory, at least the analysis of binary oppositions is a valuable tool.
[very quick rundown for all of you normal people with real lives who aren't up on the terminology: it's a major trope of post-modern literary theory that logical systems or structures in Western culture (philosophy, Christianity, constitutional democracy, etc.) rely upon the separation of the world into (artificial, according to the theory) binary oppositions, such as light/dark,male/female, white/black, self/other. De-construction is an attempt to force these binary oppositions apart by arguing (well, most of the time asserting) that the first, culturally favored terms are actually reliant upon the second, culturally dis-favored terms. This shown, presumably the logical structure of the "system" is called into question. So, for example, if the 'masculinity' of Christ is emphasized in the Anglo-Saxon poem "The Dream of the Rood" (Christ is an active warrior, not a sacrificial victim in the poem) then the cross itself is 'feminized' (I'm not mocking this particular argument; I think it is one of the best examples of the genre and actually points out something interesting about the poem). ]
I've deconstructed binaries with the best of them, and I can locate an abject, dominated Other with my eyes closed and one hand tied behind my back. But I've begun to question whether the whole process is actually interesting. And my answer is no, no it's not interesting any more. Because all of these binary-opposition-deconstructions always map onto the same system: there's something powerful oppressing something not powerful but nevertheless relying upon it. Patriarchal / matriarchal, center / margin, straight / queer -- the analysis has created the exact kind of universalizing system that Derrida was trying to argue against (not that I care whether or not Derrida would be happy, but it is ironic).
My gut feeling (hey, at least I'm being honest) is that anything that is so easily applied is almost certainly wrong. Well, 'wrong' may be a smidge too harsh: anything so easily applied is likely to be operating at too superficial a level. It reminds me very much of biology back before Wright and Mayr and Dobzhansky: there's lot of hand-waving about the "superiority" of this or that animal in the struggle for survival. Read enough pre-30's biology and natural history (ok, I have weird reading habits for an English Prof.), and you realize that any adaptation of an animal could be (and was) read as some kind of superiority. It's only when you get population genetics and the oscillations of predator/prey relationships and cost-benefit analysis that you escape that very easy dead end and get work like that of Rosemary and Peter Grant, which moves "adaptive superiority" out of tautology by giving very specific, detailed, historical analysis of both individuals and populations. Then the discussion gets even more interesting, with "Panda's thumbs" and "spandrels," etc.
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).
It seems to me that what we have here is a whole lot of people grasping around, desperately trying to find a method, and this is what they've come up with. It's easy, it's self-aggrandizing (you're not just noticing an interesting coincidence in an obscure poem; you're undercutting several thousand years of philosophical domination), and there aren't a lot of competitors now. Marxism did have a method, but it got tangled and endlessly complex and there was always some weirdo who would challenge you on some point of doctrine. I think most English Professors were relieved no longer to have to deal with someone yelling in lecture "You're either a bolshevik or a menshevik, make up your f-ing mind" (quoted from memory from some literary theory book; I think it's Stephen Greenblatt).
Also, gigging for binaries actually isn't that different from some of the methods of New Criticism (the slime-fanged bogeyman of all theory people): New Critics could go on and on about the shifting patterns of light and dark, or the ambiguity (favorite word) and multiplicity of meanings of the A on Hester Prynne's shirt. At some level it's the same process: here are two things that appear antithetical; let me show how they are instead inextricably linked.
You can see how, with the very idea of "method" in disrepute (because it's part of the "hegemonic" half of some massive binary opposition) and thus complex methods not being taught, something simple like gigging for binaries would fill the vacuum.
Now the argument I used back what I was writing my dissertation was that how these things happen ( the center relying upon the margin even as it devalues the margin) is interesting. But I think even considering the quia has become tedious: as soon as I hear or read someone start in on the binary opposition thing I think "I already know how this movie ends" and my eyes glaze over.
I can't put my finger on when it happened, but it just isn't exciting the way it used to be. I think I need to move on. It's not you, binary opposition de-constructors, it's me.