I’ve been thinking about the back and forth with Andrew on my last post. I realize that I prefer to use binaries in a quite specific way that may not be obvious. It’s easy to see a binary and think dualistic, but that is a habit I would like to subvert, both in myself and others. I’m going to take a stab at describing that better.
Binary thinking can be quite powerful and deep. We seem to think fairly easily with binary structures and that seems to rest in part on our evolution, suggesting that there is some aspects to the world itself that are binary. Binary thinking is not the same thing as dualistic thinking. Binary thinking identifies poles as a means of navigating between them, establishes a plane across which we can arc. To identify two binaries is not the same thing as saying that there are only two sorts of things.
The compass is a good example of this. It becomes possible by the careful application of binaries that are themselves oriented in relation to each other. East and West, North and South, and so on. To talk about East and West is not to say everything is either East and West, at least not in any absolute sense.
When I talk about binary concepts here, that is most often the sense in which I mean them. Wizard and witch, fate and destiny, spiritualist and gnostic, Saturn and Jupiter, and so on, are ways of defining a field in which navigation can take place. I would like to talk less and less about who or what is witch or a wizard, a gnostic or spiritualist, and more about the kinds of journeys such orientations allow us to take.
Once we start to make the basic divisions, something wondrous can happen. The divisions are a net cast over the world, allowing us to pay attention to this or that aspect more closely, to amplify some aspects and diminish others. Some of these binaries are more complex than just orientations, but define patterns of movement and attention, habits of being. They lay the basis for a discussion of ethos, which is all about the kinds of objects and actions to which you attend and the manner of that attending. They are wings, or arms, legs, or tentacles, gills or mouths.
One of the advantages of binary thinking is what it doesn’t directly address, namely the milieu of experience to which it is applied. Dualistic thinking tends to identify the milieu with its concept (e.g., this person is evil, this person is good), but binary thinking uses its concepts to navigate through that milieu, allowing the judgments to remain at the level of the concept and the experience to remain embedded in the world.
That milieu is what allows us to communicate with each other, regardless of our particular concepts and ethos, at least when we are occupying neighboring portions of it. That milieu provides us with the means to negotiate with each other, but to do that well we have to have a lively sense of how differently we can occupy that milieu. North and South don’t tell us what we’ll find, but they will help us find it. In the same way, binaries like wizard and witch help us find a mode of engagement, not the results of the engagement or the milieu in which the engagement will occur.
The concepts aren’t the adventure–they are the compass that helps us navigate it.