Binarism in Post-colonial Theory

From ‘binary’, meaning a combination of two things, a pair, ‘two’, duality (OED), this is a widely used term with distinctive meanings in several fields and one that has had particular sets of meanings in post-colonial theory.

The concern with binarism was first established by the French structural linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure, who held that signs have meaning not by a simple reference to real objects, but by their opposition to other signs. Each sign is itself the function of a binary between the signifier, the ‘signal’ or sound image of the word, and the signified, the significance of the signal, the concept or mental image that it evokes. Saussure held that although the connection between the signifier and signified is arbitrary (that is, there is no necessity in nature for the link between the word ‘dog’ and the signified dog), once the link is established, it is fixed for everyone who speaks that language.

While signs mean by their difference from other signs, the binary opposition is themost extreme formof difference possible – sun/moon; man/woman; birth/death; black/white. Such oppositions, each of which represents a binary system, are very common in the cultural construction of reality.The problem with such binary systems is that they suppress ambiguous or interstitial spaces between the opposed categories, so that any overlapping region that may appear, say,between the categories man/woman, child/adult or friend/alien, becomes impossible according to binary logic, and a region of taboo in social experience.

Contemporary post-structuralist and feminist theories have demonstrated the extent to which such binaries entail a violent hierarchy, in which one term of the opposition is always dominant (man over woman, birth over death, white over black), and that, in fact, the binary opposition itself exists to confirm that dominance. This means that any activity or state that does not fit the binary opposition will become subject to repression or ritual.For instance,the interstitial stage between child and adult – ‘youth’ – is treated as a scandalous category, a rite of passage subject to considerable suspicion and anxiety. Subsequently, the state between the binarism, such as the binary colonizer/colonized, will evidence the signs of extreme ambivalence manifested in mimicry, cultural schizophrenia, or various kinds of obsession with identity, or will put energy into confirming one or other side of the binarism, e.g. Anglocentrism or nationalism.

The binary logic of imperialism is a development of that tendency of Western thought in general to see the world in terms of binary oppositions that establish a relation of dominance. A simple distinction between centre/margin; colonizer/colonized; metropolis/empire; civilized/primitive represents very efficiently the violent hierarchy on which imperialism is based and which it actively perpetuates. Binary oppositions are structurally related to one another, and in colonial discourse there may be a variation of the one underlying binary – colonizer/colonized – that becomes rearticulated in any particular text in a number of ways, e.g.

colonizer : colonized
white : black
civilized : primitive
advanced : retarded
good : evil
beautiful : ugly
human :bestial
teacher : pupil
doctor : patient

The binary constructs a scandalous category between the two terms that will be the domain of taboo, but, equally importantly, the structure can be read downwards as well as across, so that colonizer, white, human and beautiful are collectively opposed to colonized, black, bestial and ugly. Clearly, the binary is very important in constructing ideological meanings in general, and extremely useful in imperial ideology. The binary structure, with its various articulations of the underlying binary, accommodates such fundamental binary impulses within imperialism as the impulse to ‘exploit’ and the impulse to ‘civilize’. Thus we may also find that colonizer, civilized, teacher and doctor may be opposed to colonized, primitive, pupil and patient, as a comparatively effortless extension of the binary structure of domination. In fact, of course, as we are increasingly aware, the one depends on the other in a much more complex way than this simplistic binary structure suggests, with the ‘civilizing mission’ of the former categories acting as the cloak for the naked exploitation of those consigned to their binary opposites, and the former category all too often acting to conceal and justify the latter, as Conrad showed so graphically in Heart of Darkness.

Binary distinctions are not necessarily motivated by a desire to dominate. David Spurr (1993: 103) discusses the ways in which Rousseau, in the Essay on the Origin of Languages, attempts to validate the ‘life and warmth’ of Oriental languages such as Arabic and Persian. But in employing the ‘logic and precision’ of Western writing to do so, Rousseau effectively negates these languages because they become characterized by a primitive lack of rational order and culture. Although setting out to applaud such languages, he succeeds in confirming the binary between European science, understanding  industry and writing on the one hand, and Oriental primitivism and irrationality on the other.

It may be argued that the very domain of post-colonial theory is the region of ‘taboo’- the domain of overlap between these imperial binary oppositions, the area in which ambivalence, hybridity and complexity continually disrupt the certainties of imperial logic. Apart from illuminating the interstitial spaces, post-colonial theory also disrupts the structural relations of the binary system itself, revealing the fundamental contradictions of a system that can include, for instance, the binaries civilized/primitive or human/bestial along with doctor/ patient or enlightener/enlightened. In this way it uncovers the deep ambivalence of a structure of economic, cultural and political relations that can both debase and idealize, demonize and eroticize its subjects.

Perhaps one of the most catastrophic binary systems perpetuated by imperialism is the invention of the concept of race. The reduction of complex physical and cultural differences within and between colonized societies to the simple opposition of black/brown/yellow/white is in fact a strategy to establish a binarism of white/non- white, which asserts a relation of dominance.By thus occluding the vast continuum of ethnic variation, relegating the whole region of ethnicity, racial mixture and cultural specificity to one of taboo or otherness, imperialism draws the concept of race into a simple binary that reflects its own logic of power. The danger for anti-colonial resistance comes when the binary opposition is simply reversed, so that ‘black’, for instance, or ‘the colonized’ become the dominant terms. This simply locks the project of resistance into the semiotic opposition set up by imperial discourse.

Much contemporary post-colonial theory has been directed at breaking down various kinds of binary separation in the analysis of colonialism and imperialism. For instance, Guyanese novelist and critic Wilson Harris’ attempt to break down the binaristic structuration of language precedes the poststructuralists’ efforts in European theory. Thus in a novel such as Ascent to Omai, for example, this process is continually foregrounded, as the following extract makes clear:

‘Do you remember?’ the judge addressed the hidden personae in his pack,blurred masks or readers looking over his shoulder backwards into the future: flicked the pages of his book like an expert gambler with currencies of time obverse and reverse. On the one side judge on the other judged.On one side again father on the other son. On one side still again ancient on the other modern. (Harris 1970: 86)

An important consequence of this disruption of imperial binary systems is a particular emphasis on the interactive and dialectical effects of the colonial encounter. Imperial binarisms always assume a movement in one direction – a movement from the colonizer to the colonized, from the explorer to the explored, from the surveyor to the surveyed. But just as post-colonial identity emerges in the ambivalent spaces of the colonial encounter, so the dynamic of change is not all in one direction; it is in fact transcultural, with a significant circulation of effects back and forth between the two, for the engagement with the colonies became an increasingly important factor in the imperial society’s constitution and understanding of itself.


Source: Post-colonial Studies The Key Concepts Second edition Bill Ashcroft,Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, Routledge 2007.

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  1. This was super helpful!

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