Tuesday, August 18, 2009 • 12:00 AM Comments (9)

Binary Thinking and Gender: Father, Daughter, iPod

posted by Tim Wright

So I’m talking with twenty-five year old Casey Llewellyn about music and I’m praising the digital sound quality on my iPod and she comes back at me with how analog sound reproduction is more accurate than digital, and tube amps are superior to solid state, and I come back with how about how digital sampling eliminates tape and gear noise, etc. and we go back and forth a bit more and then she says flatly: “Digital: That’s binary thinking, Tim,” as if that settles the matter. It’s true, of course. Digital is all ones or zeroes, or on/off. But what is really on her mind is that Ur-binary: female/male.

Casey, who, incidentally, is my daughter, had said to me some months before: “Tim, I don’t know if I’m gay or not, but I’m definitely queer.” I immediately fall in love with that statement, without knowing quite why or entirely understanding it. Casey patiently explains that ‘queer’ in her sense doesn’t correlate to whom you sleep with, but to your rejection of the whole idea of ‘gay,’ and ‘straight’and ‘bisexual,’ all of which assume a fixed and rigid gender dichotomy. Casey lives that rejection in the sense that, though not a transsexual, she is drawn to friends and lovers who live at many points along a much more diverse gender continuum.

That position makes a lot of sense to me, despite my naughty affection for digital music and computers. Though I have generally leftist politics, I would never put a political slogan on my car or on my sleeve, and I am correspondingly pleased when people don’t know what my sexuality is when they meet me. (Of course, we are in America where, now that I am old, my sexuality is invisible anyway, but this was true even when people noticed me sexually.)

For instance, I still remember being pleased when I attempted to restrain one of my favorite junior high school students from taking abaseball bat to the head of a boy who was tormenting her. “Take your hands offa me, you gay motherfucker,”she yelled. Though undeniably hostile, I much preferred that epithet to the one I expected, which was “white motherfucker.”

Changes in my life subsequently have also conspired to make me more sympathetic to a less binary view of gender. My wife, Casey’s stepmother, was, when I met her, a multi-media performance artist. Now, twenty years on, she is executive managing director of a large, global company. In many significant ways, I have come to perform the role of her “wife,” since every corporate executive needs one. Part of the pleasure I take in this role comes, I realize, from the way in which it confounds gender expectation.

But Casey’s charge of ‘binary thinking’ nags at me, the more so as it echoes a common reproach from my wife, about a tendency I have to ‘polarize’ excessively in our discussions, which seems related somehow. And so, since I am very much my mother’s son, and since she took every new notion as an occasion to read, so do I. So I start thinking and reading a bit on the subject of “binaries”, “opposites”, etc. , which do seem to dominate much of our thinking as well as our technologies: on/off, day/ night, positive/negative, spirit/matter, and, of course, male/female.

It turns out the philosophy which corresponds to Casey’s take on binary thinking has a generational flavor, with the critique of binary gender thinking coming from a “post-structuralist” tendency in the nineties and beyond, which attacks the dominant “structuralist” thinking of the 70’s and 80’s, which emphasized opposites. Post-structuralists see gender categories as socially constructed, and feminist post-structuralists, like Helene Cixous, argue further that wherever there are polar opposites, there is built in dominance or privilege on one side of the equation: in this view, reason, day, and sun are not just opposite to passion,night and moon, but are held to be ’superior’ to them by virtue of their association with maleness, the historically dominant half of the gender dichotomy.

Anyhow, because I was trained as an historian, I am drawn to origins, and there is no question that, socially constructed or not, dualism represent a very old tradition of human thinking. Furthermore, from a Darwinian point of view, current brain research gives binary thinking some neural underpinning. According to J. Ledoux, (Emotion, Memory and the Brain, 1994), stimuli that enter our central nervous system are “immediately relayed in two directions.” One pathway leads to the cerebral cortex (the center of logical processing), the other to the amygdala, an evolutionarily much older part of the brain which “decides whether we like the object or not (and often generates a behavioral response),” such as friend or foe, and in the latter case, fight or flight. In this view, “evolution has selected and conserved the neural machinery that supports instinctive ‘good’ or ‘bad’ binary thinking, largely because of its survival value.” Still, as Wood and Petriglieri point out in an interesting essay on “Transcending Polarization,” a dialog between these two centers in the brain becomes increasingly possible as pure survival recedes in importance, and indeed such a “tension of opposites" can be a necessary “springboard for progress.”

One of the ways in which the tension of opposites is overcome is through the Hegelian, and later Marxist, “dialectic,” which posits a thesis, which generates an antithesis, which are both overcome in a “synthesis,” in which the opposites are reconciled. But as Peter Elbow points out in another interesting essay, the Hegelian ‘dialectical synthesis’ serves ultimately to eliminate difference, leading to an absurd “end of history,” and hence to the end of diversity, which is what the post-structuralists– and Casey and I both, I think – seek to celebrate.

But even if our natural tendency is to dichotomize, do we have to choose? Isn’t the struggle between reason and passion, between yin and yang, between ‘male’ and ‘female’ attributes itself the springboard for progress in thinking and living? Elbow quotes Blake approvingly: “Without contraries there is no progression.” And “opposition is true friendship.” In this sense, Isn’t Casey’s and my bickering about ‘binary thinking’ itself an act of learning? Isn’t struggle the basis for all progress?

But back to music. As my wife shrewdly points out, arguing the virtues of analog vs. digital is itself a classically “binary” argument , so Casey and I are therefore caught in the same binary loop. True enough, I think, but what happens if we pursue the reproduction of music further?

Digital Sampling

Here’s a thought: yes, digital music is constructed only from 0’s and 1’s. But what about the idea of sampling frequency? Doesn’t that undermine polarization? Obviously, If you only take a sample of a piece of music every two seconds, you are going to distort the changes that happen within that interval. Analogously, if you only sample the gender continuum at ‘male’, ‘hermaphrodite’ and‘female,’ you do serious violence to the people who are none of those things purely, which is practically everyone. So when we go to the trouble of samplling not only 01, 10, but also 001, 10010, 1101, 010100, 10011010, etc. etc., the aggregate comes to reproduce exquisitely the diversity and differences in sound. And why can’t we will ourselves to apply this principal of sampling frequency to the female/male continuum as well? Not just mf, but ffm, mmf, ffmf,mfmf, ffffm, mmmf, fmmfffmf, and on and on until the exquisitely complex and nuanced range of gender diversity is fully and gloriously expressed.

Moreover, note the subtle difference between digital and analogical diversity here. Rather than as a smooth slide from pure ‘masculine’ to pure ‘feminine,’ change is expressed here as a series of little ‘oppositions,’ which is to say, dialectically, in a series of small struggles between opposites. This rendering of diversity strikes me as truer both to the way we humans are, as products of evolution, and to the way we progress.

So in this sense, Casey, isn’t our argument itself, well, digital? And if so, don't I get to keep my iPod with a clean conscience?

Comments (9)
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:) Once again, the apple falls not too far from the tree.
Posted by Ellen on 8.18.09 at 13:15
Dunno, Ellen, in this case seems more like the tree cosying up to the apple...
Posted by Tim Wright on 8.18.09 at 17:28
I like the way the Chinese express opposites in the yin yang symbol, where the black field (yin) is always curving into the white field (yang), and vice versa, so that there is no real separation, but rather a continuum, and within the black field there is always a small dot of white, and within the white a small dot of black, so that there is no yin without yang, or yang without yin. Other that, I also like the rainbow flag as a symbol of diversity. Thinking in as many colors as possible is always positive, I believe. So I think the yin/yang play of opposites helps us deal with that binary thinking which is perhaps hard-wired in us, and the rainbow is perhaps a transcendence of that. Basically I agree with Casey that categories limit us and limit our thinking, and need to be challenged as much as possible. Much love, Elizabeth
Posted by Elizabeth Wright on 8.19.09 at 6:42
Oh, no, Tim, you're destroying my illusion! I thought it was ME who had worked out this idea of gender continuum and kept it to myself... Good example, that of frequency. Congratulations! I like yin/yang, as Elizabeth says, but somehow I don't feel it conveys a good perception of multiplicity. Maybe we can use color theory to deconstruct the idea that anybody's skin can be white...or black!
Posted by Angiola Bonanni on 8.19.09 at 8:30
i had trouble following the whole way through, but the concept is really cool... :)
Posted by Ben Gibson on 8.20.09 at 6:34
Thanks for this interesting and thought-provoking essay. I have often found that oppositions, once one really understand them, are not actually opposites at all, or not in their essence. I have also found, with all due respect to Hegel and Marx, that there is rarely a single hypothesis and one antithesis, but a number of both, and often that our tendency to divide the world into two parts (and the world is obviously divided also between those who do this and those who don't) is bedeviled by the fact that there are actually more parts or, sometimes, no real parts at all, or that the division is about relatively minor things. Perhaps the notion of the Trinity, as opposed to a duality, was closer to reality. But it is human nature to disagree, so while we may intellectually accept the notion of a continuum, we still often define ourselves by drawing strength from what we believe we are not.
Posted by M.J. Newhosue on 8.20.09 at 9:24
In either case, both the tree and the apple are fortunate.
Posted by Ellen on 8.24.09 at 8:15
As is Steve Jobs.
Posted by Amelia on 8.27.09 at 5:51
Great article! It made it into the resources list I keep for my concept research. An image that permanently lives in my head is that of two opposite contention walls (good/bad, reason/passion, male/female, ...) separated by a corridor where all our activity happens, bouncing from one wall to the other, searching for belonging. But nobody belongs to one or the other. I see coming to terms with living in the corridor as a step towards self-acceptance. Thinking binary is missing out in the juicy greyness of humanity!
Posted by Ana Hernandez on 8.27.09 at 7:16
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