Binary Thinking

Balancing Act

Here’s my handmade response to Peter Elbow’s “The Uses of Binary Thinking” in Everyone Can Write, one of the books we are examining in a graduate class I’m teaching this semester.

Elbow states his thesis a number of times in a variety of ways, but in the end, he is arguing for a version of balanced dialectic–the encouragement of the play of opposites in a quest for full understanding: a mode of inquiry rather than rhetoric with its practical purpose in achieving persuasion through winning or the zero-sum game.  He demonstrates this dialectical approach in a number of cases, including writing (generating/criticizing), teaching (affirming/judging), thinking/learning, teaching/scholarship, form/content, reading/writing, and private/social.

Here below are some of the ways he states his thesis (italics are his):

“That is, binary thinking can serve to encourage difference–indeed, encourage nondominance, nontranscendance, instability, disorder” (49).

“Thus, my deeper goal in this essay is not to preserve pairs or binaries in themselves so much as to get away from simple, single truth: to have situations of balance, irresolution, nonclosure, nonconsensus, nonwinning” (51).

“So I will celebrate and explore here the approach to binary oppositions that seems to go against the human grain and that requires some conscious discipline: affirming both sides of a dichotomy as equally true or important, even if they are contradictory” (52).

“So, again, my argument is for affirming both sides equally–not a compromise but a push for extremity in both directions–and to resist attempts at priority or hegemony by either side” (62).

“The kind of binary thinking I’m advocating here–an approach that tries to heighten dichotomies yet maintain the balance and affirm both sides equally–involves, it seems to me, a special link or even commitment to experience” (63).

“Putting it positively, dialectic is the use of language where the prime goal is to make meaning rather than deploy meaning toward an effect: to get meanings, concepts, and words to interact with each other in order to see where they go; to ‘figure out’ or ‘figure’ ” (71).