Posted by: kararc | October 13, 2012

Binary Oppositions & McLuhan

I was struck by the idea of binary oppositions (O’Shaughnessy & Stadler: concept of duality that is not only in our culture but fundamental to our language and western mode of thought). Why is it that we think of male and female or black and white as opposites?

I’ve been digging deeper into Marshall McLuhan and his discussion of how language and the phonetic alphabet, then mechanization, led us down a path away from tribal and group consciousness towards private subconsciousness and individualism. McLuhan argues that in order to translate big ideas and concepts into words, simplification is necessary: “Language does for intelligence what the wheel does for the feet and the body. It enables them to move from thing to thing with greater ease and speed and ever less involvement.”

When we’re driving instead of walking, we don’t really feel the ground. We’re separated from the weather and the sounds outside. We’re not speaking to other travelers. We are less involved. Language does the same thing. Try putting a painting in words or describing how love feels. Much is lost in translation.

Binary oppositions are another example of how we become less involved and over-simplify to serve the purpose of fast and easy communication. Are women and men, black and white, etc. really opposites? Do binary oppositions do anything for us besides create categories that separate us from each other?

We’re moving deeper and deeper into the electronic age. McLuhan argues that this will bring us back to group consciousness when he writes: “The instant character of electric information movement does not enlarge, but involves, the family of man in the cohesive state of village living.”

What does this mean for the language-based categories we’ve produced? If we eliminate binary oppositions from our thought process, will we eliminate hierarchy?

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