Friday, June 5, 2015

The Hegemony of Binary Oppositions

I've been attending a fascinating event this week at Alexandru Ioan Cuza University of Iasi in Romania - "Going East: An Interdisciplinary Conference on Travel and Intercultural Communication.  More information about it can be found on the link  The term interdisciplinary can often conceal a multitude of seasons; sometimes it is used as a mode of convenience to bring together colleagues from different subject areas who spend little or no time trying to consult with one another but end up being confined within their own specific research interests.

This conference has been different.  Bringing together travel literature specialists, literature specialists, translation studies experts, geographers and energetic polymaths, it has made a special effort to address issues of travel, not only as a physical but an emotional act as well.  One's emotional travels inevitably involve a process of psychological adaptation to different environments.  Some colleagues think of travel literature as something distinct from 'fiction,' but this conference has suggested otherwise; reading about the travels of imaginary characters helps to stimulate readers' imaginations and thereby encourages them to make emotional travels of their own.  This is what we might describe as empathetic adaptation.

Yet still I fear that colleagues in various disciplines tend to adopt defensive positions, especially where interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity and transculturality are concerned.  One thing I've noticed, running throughout many presentations at this event, is the presence of binary oppositions as a way of looking at the world.  People might want to question them, or even ponder their existence, but there seems a reluctance to look at things in different ways; to initiate new processes of thinking that go beyond the rather tired oppositions between west/east, self/other, translation/adaptation, north/south, text/ reader, and so on.

Readers might ask how one might go about thinking in different ways.  Let me illustrate with reference to a recent performance I attended, given by a French modern dance company.  What became increasingly tangible as the dance unfolded was that the choreographer had made a conscious effort to analyze the act of speaking in tongues in a different way, through a combination of movement, speech and music.  There was no specific 'theme' to the dance; we were invited to ponder the role of speech in society through visual metaphors, as portrayed through the dancers' bodies.  The acts of hearing and speaking were considered through movement, through an appeal to different senses.  This proved a highly suggestive means of addressing the topic; I felt that the choreographer had approached the performance rather like a piece of clay that needed to be reshaped in different ways so as to encourage us to think differently.

The metaphor of the piece of clay also works well as an alternative to binary oppositions.  In looking at how we respond to the world around us - in other words, adapt to it - why don't we reshape the oppositions in different ways, reconstruct them like potters might do on their wheel?  Why don't we take the clay that makes up our world and use it to reshape our perceptions?  Sometimes the shapes we form might seem formless - illogical, perhaps - but through that very illogicality we might learn how to adapt ourselves in different ways.

This is not an easy process, I admit.  Maybe we cannot achieve it at once.  Perhaps, as a start, we might think of another process of adaptation; rather than reinvoking the binary oppositions per se, why don't we find ways of working through them, around them, or across them?  This process should encourage us to reflect on why - or more importantly, whether - they exist, except in our own minds as defense mechanisms.  What does a binary opposition look like?  Can we touch it, feel it, or sense it?  Or do they prevent us from enjoying these sensory experiences?

My suggestions might seem rather abstract - idealistic perhaps.  But I believe they are perfectly achievable if we set aside our preconceptions and acknowledge the power we possess within ourselves to adapt to any and every given situation.  The human brain has an almost infinite capacity to accommodate different, contradictory ideas, rather than trying to distinguish between them.  Why don't we give it a chance, and banish the omnipotence of oppositions to the intellectual graveyard?  By such means we can help create new and highly suggestive models of transdisciplinarity or transculturality.

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