Thursday, October 06, 2005

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.


Frank said...

Not that my opinion counts for anything, but I totally agree with you. Whenever we talked about deconstruction as a theory, I always thought, "Well, that's nice with all the binaries and hegemonies and whatnot. But where does it actually GET US? What does it actually tell us about a piece of literature?" I feel the same way about Othering: yeah, that's nice, but who cares?

Scott Kleinman said...

I think that binaries were once necessary structures for framing ideas which didn't necessarily take binary form outside the realm of theory. To the New Critics, this disconnect represented glorious ambiguity. To the deconstructionists it represented untenable hegemonies of one binary feature over the other. To my mind, where both approaches stopped being interesting was when they stopped seeming to be productive. As we came to view social (and literary) phenomena as complex, it became harder to see contrary forces as diametrically opposed. Rather, they become creative forces giving rise to new phenomena. Postcolonial theory parallels your biological metaphor in using the term 'hybridity'. Although the efforts of postcolonial theorists are not always successful, I think their basic drive to understand the new hybrid beast speaks to a broader tendency in today's theoretical approaches (stated or unstated) to look for such productivity in literature.

Natalia said...

Fact: deconstruction as promulgated in Of Grammatology is not a methodology for literary criticism. The theory of deconstruction is a kind of theorem (or set of theorems) that some literary critics then decided to apply to their research - some cleverly, and some ill.

I think what you're rightly pointing to is that methods claiming a geneology in deconstruction are too often used to impart a sort of cheap veneer of relevance to basically boring, uncreative research. But the problem isn't deconstruction per se, but rather the lemminglike scholarly community that encourages boring criticism to thrive.

(By the way, I'll be referring to "us" a little bit; I really mean "literary criticism in general," because the deconstruction boom happened when I was still disputing with my mom over Brussels sprouts.)

When I commented, long ago, that deconstruction has brought us useful tools, and that, in particular, it has made us suspicious of binaries, I did not mean (did not even imply) that "gigging for binaries" was a good critical methodology.

Rather, and I think this is fairly indisputable, deconstruction brought some philosophical issues to our attention that merited attention, particularly in that historical moment (the moment of structuralism). Similarly, the New Criticism made us permanently aware of "ambiguity." Most of us have grown up and don't wave ambiguity around like it's in itself interesting, but that doesn't mean we don't give it a look when the situation warrants.

Unfortunately, most of us haven't grown up enough to treat deconstruction as one of many useful sets of intellectual issues. I've read plenty of bad criticism whose stunning punch line is that X is hegemonic, yet relies on the oppressed Y. And that's bad.

But I don't think grousing about "theory" is the answer. I would rather grouse about bad literary criticism instead; after all, Paul de Man wrote some smart things. Come to think of it, so did William Empson.