Dropping Binary Mentality

In order to help us better understand things like Foucault’s encompassing concept of power, John Storey introduces his (or Foucault’s) methodology of “discursive formations” (Storey 129). In adopting his world of discursive formations we are forced break free from our binary mentality where things either “are” or “are not” and accept that there is more than one direction to everything; rather than classifying something as oppressive or enabling we must acknowledge that it can be oppressive in some ways and enabling in others and entirely both things at the same time.

Even if there do appear to be two things in unyielding opposition to each other they are not entirely unconnected, “each is motivated by the other” (Storey 128). This motivation between opposites is sometimes used to reinforce the binary mentality and define/limit things. Hegel uses this negative motivation to separate a being from any “externalities” and Kant uses it to separate the phenomena from the noumena (sometimes referred to as the limiting term, which exists only to define the phenomena).

“What we think of as ‘experience’ is always experience in or of a particular discourse. Moreover, what we think of as our ‘selves’ is the internalization of a multiplicity of discourses. In other words, all the things we are, are enabled, constrained and constituted in discourses”.

Rather than categories or topics, Storey (or Foucault?) organizes bodies of knowledge into discourses. Discourses do not rely on “violent” assumptions too keep things in place, instead there are rules to guide their practice: “discourses[…] enable, they constrain, and they constitute”(128). Discourses further transcend the either/or, they lack directionality and causality. Discourses can be both instrument and effect, the study and the subject, it can limit and free, reinforce and oppose (130). My favorite example of discourses was that of sexuality as invented by the Victorians (130). Storey claims that by trying to repress or limit sexuality they actually gave it power, in trying to control it they created their own novel resistance and gave it form. Now I am not really sure if sexuality was even a thing before the Victorians started talking about it.

This all encompassing world of discursive formations is a really ill-defined one, seeing as it lacks effective limits. Which is probably why we prefer binary mentality, it is really the easiest and most efficient way to make sense of things. You get things done. Although, like Foucault said, there is a “certain violence” to binary mentality, if you set limits there are bound to be conflicts surrounding them (128). However, as far as educational institutions go they would be nonexistent without limits as means to test and structure knowledge. Please let me know what you think: why do you think binary mentality is the default and what are the merits of approaching knowledge like Foucault and Storey?

2 responses to “Dropping Binary Mentality

  1. Hey Trieste! Great post. Actually, I had no idea what either of the readings for Monday were trying to say, but your blog post definitely helped clear that up for me.

    I’m not sure why binary mentality is the default, but I think that it might just be because that’s the easiest way to approach things. As I’m sure everyone has felt at least one time or another, more options just makes the decision harder to make. Perhaps when it comes to approaching any situation, having a non-binary mentality would make things too confusing and the decision too hard to make. For example, it’s hard to say if gun control is a good thing or is not a good thing. So I think people choose to go for the binary in most cases just to make their lives easier.

  2. Trieste — the first paragraph of your post made me think of where we have actually encountered this enable/constrain/constitute relation before, where it initially appears as an instance of a perhaps binary relation: Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. Each is constituted as a subject through the relationship they have with the other, each is constrained in their roles, and each is also enabled. The slave is clearly constrained in being a slave, and the master is constrained through becoming dependent on the slave for recognition and products, and through remaining in this dependent state without the benefit of work, through which the slave is eventually enabled.

    History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 is a fantastic read. It is relatively short, as well, for a philosophy book. I recommend anyone read it whose curiosity was sparked by Storey’s comments!

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