This binary here

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Rachel Aviv, "Backpacks Among the Briefcases", NYT 7/15/2010, writing about students at the New School's liberal arts college:

Suzanne Exposito, a junior from Jacksonville, Fla., who describes herself as a feminist and anticapitalist, says she can’t understand why some people fail to throw away their trash. “There’s this binary here between the people who have a cause and those who don’t,” she said. “Some people only came here to be in the city, and they just don’t care. I think they’re the ones who dump their cigarettes on the ground.” [emphasis added]

The OED's entry for binary has a few nominal senses, but none of them really fit Ms. Exposito's usage. "Astron. A binary star or system", and "Mil. A binary weapon" are not even close. Sense B.1. "A combination of two things; a couple, pair, ‘two’; duality. ? Obs." is better, but aside from maybe being obsolete, the meaning isn't right: it should be something like "dichotomy" or "opposition", not "combination".

Encarta adds a mathematical noun ("written in binary") and a computational noun, but still doesn't cover Ms. Exposito's usage. AHD doesn't go beyond what we've gotten so far, and M-W has less.

But COCA has 428 examples of binary as a noun, according to its automated parsing. Not all of these are correctly tagged — there are quite a few examples like "For Reed, deconversion was almost as quick and binary as the flick of a switch, and there are also a few nominal uses of binary that are not correctly tagged as such. However, about half of the nominally nominal instances of binary match Ms. Exposito's intended meaning, so there are plenty of examples to examine. And there's an interesting consistency to their context.

Here's a small random sample:

This gap stems from an ideological binary between what Western society considers traditional and modern, resting on the assumption that when American Indians exist in modern contexts, they lose their indigenous identities.
In terms of the colonial/postcolonial binary, the question of who is able to effect closure on historical traumas is bound up with the imagined dismantling of colonialism.
Nor does the pilgrim/tourist binary map onto the religious/secular binary.
In the relationship between Richard and Ugwu, Half of a Yellow Sun opens up and examines the binary between a knowing Western Subject and an impossible traumatic Otherness.
Today, more transgendered people are claiming space outside the gender binary.
In these museum spaces, commemorated heritage is a combination of national grandeur and rural people's traditions, which accentuates the spatial and temporal binary of modernity and tradition and obliterates any articulations of identity and heritage that do not match these state projects.
Nonetheless, Foucault insists, silence and discourse do not constitute a binary.

The sources are all "academic", and more specifically, the examples come from journals like Studies in the Novel, Critical Matrix, Theological Studies,  Feminist Studies, American Indian Quarterly, Social Work, and Anthropological Quarterly. The division is sharp enough that you could use the metadata to drive a tagger with nearly 100% performance in COCA's sample: if the citation comes from a literary or "soft" social science journal, then binary as a noun is being used to mean "dichotomy" or "opposition"; otherwise, not.

[Given that there are roughly 200 instances of this sense of binary in the 400 million words of COCA, we can calculate an overall frequency of 1 per 2M words. But this is misleading — essentially all of the examples fall in the 80 million words of "academic" text, yielding a rate of about 2.5 per millions words. And this is still not particularized enough, because this usage is categorically absent from most of the subdisciplines of science and technology represented in the COCA collection. As a result, its frequency in the literary studies and soft social science must be several times that, perhaps as high as 10 or 12 per million words.]

I suspect that this usage is a calque from French (le) binaire, used in similar contexts with similar intent, as in this passage from Pierre Bruno, Papiers Psychanalytiques:

Or, il y a une solution. Elle consiste à dépasser le binaire parole pleine – parole vide.
And yet, there is a solution. It consists in transcending the opposition [between] "full speech" [and] "empty speech".

[N.B. The "parole pleine" vs. "parole vide" distinction was apparently introduced by Lacan in 1953 and later abandoned. There's more about it here. After a few minutes of reading these and other sources, I've abandoned hope of finding a succinct and clear account of what it means, but if you can enlighten us, please do so in the comments.]

The usage in French is apparently as idiosyncratic and culture-bound as the English usage is — thus the entry for binaire in the Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française gives only one nominal meaning, the astronomical one, which moreover is feminine (since étoile is).

II. N. F. ASTRON. Étoile double. Algol est une binaire à éclipses.

So here's a historical question: when did French intellectuals start using (un) binaire to mean "a dichotomy" or "an opposition"? Why did they coin or adapt this word rather than using (une) dichotomie or (une) opposition? Has it gained any currency outside of the quasi-philosophical discourse where it apparently originated? Or does it remain as strong a stylistic marker as it apparently is in English, where its use is limited to academics in the disciplines that have been influenced by French "theory"?

[Update — a couple of the comments below have made me realize that this post, like many on Language Log, is subject to a certain sort of misunderstanding. I noticed a word-usage that struck me as unusual — although the meaning in context was clear enough — and so I did some simple research to try to track the variant to its social and historical sources. For many people, noticing a variant usage and establishing that it's new or culturally specific is ipso facto to complain. "Who do these people think they are and why don't they talk and write like everyone else (i.e. me)?"

I'm not especially sympathetic to the work in literary studies and the soft social sciences that has been influenced by the "theory" of French quasi-philosophers like Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, and so on. But this subculture has got as much right to invent, borrow and re-purpose words as anyone else does. And specifically, I've got no quarrel with the use of binary as a noun roughly synonymous with dichotomy. My interest in the whole question is not to complain, but to document an interesting (and unusually pure) example of culturally-specific vocabulary development.]


  1. Mike Aubrey said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 3:11 pm

    Could it not have originated from the phrase "binary opposition," which was then truncated down to "binary"?

    [(myl) Not in French, since opposition is feminine. And the English usage is pretty clearly a calque of the French.

    "Binary opposition" is pretty much what the usage in question means — but that's a different question.]

    [(amz) But, Mark, nouning by truncation is common in English, so Mike Aubrey's suggestion is perfectly reasonable for English. Of course, you're assuming that (academic) English got it from (academic) French, rather than the reverse, though admittedly French-to-English is the predominant direction of borrowing; but the other direction isn't impossible. More important, you're assuming that the basis for the French usage would have to be opposition binaire — though it could have been choix binaire, which would give the right gender for the truncation and would be consistent with either direction of borrowing, or by independent innovations (both languages do the truncation thing, after all).]

  2. Mike Aubrey said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 3:13 pm

    Note that the wikipedia article entitled Binary Opposition parallels your observation about binary as a noun appearing in "literary studies and soft social science."

    [(myl) Thanks — I didn't find that article, and should have.]

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

    Ms. Exposito seems perhaps not to think that the particular "binary" she's talking about is just a way of reinforcing existing unjust power relations and thus needs to be deconstructed. Presumably questioning (or should I say "interrogating") her naive "why can't those people stop being jerks, by which I mean, why can't they just start behaving the way I behave" attitude is what the post-structuralist stance is supposed to be about.

  4. Darla-Jean Weatherford said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 3:29 pm

    Maybe I've been in academia too long, but I "got" binary as a noun immediately and I've always assumed it just derived from binary computer code, where either the 1 or the 0 flips a "switch" off or on. (Did you guess that the part of academia I'm in isn't mathematics or computers?)

    I sort of assume it gets used not so much as "binary opposition" as "binary (either/or, on/off) circumstance/condition/choice," and since we often drop nouns and use an adjective ("I could have read the red book or the blue one, but I choose the green"), these uses of "binary" seem logical to me.

  5. Dougal Stanton said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 3:40 pm


    What is the significance of (notionally) expanding "opposition" to "binary opposition" and then dropping "opposition"? Are there many oppositions in day-to-day life or theoretical construct that are not binary, such that specifying binary is important? The only examples that I can think of that are explicitly non-binary are the non-transitive systems like rock-paper-scissors or similar, and I'm not sure they're common in the real world.

  6. JR said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 3:48 pm


    The Republicans are the opposition party in the US Congress, but it is not binary, because there exist other political parties besides Dems and Republicans.

    In some cultures, there is not a binary opposition of only male or female. The Muxe of Oaxaca, for example, could be considered an example of a third gender.

  7. Peter Taylor said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

    @Darla-Jean Weatherford, I don't recall ever coming across the noun "a binary" in computing. "A Boolean", "a bool", and "a bit" are all used, with preference likely depending on background in programming languages. It's possible that there are some languages which call the 0-or-1 datatype "binary" and whose users would refer to a variable or constant having that type as "a binary", but I'm not aware of any.

    "Binary" as an uncountable noun abbreviating "binary representation" is fairly common; sample sentence: "17 is 10001 in binary". But the step from that to "a binary" as a dichotomy isn't entirely obvious.

    [(myl) "Binary" as a noun meaning "binary file", especially the result of compilation and loading into an executable program, is pretty common, e.g.

    If my project ships a binary that provides bindings to OpenSSL, but does not include its source or binaries, what notifications must be made?
    I also don't want to see FSF stormtroopers raid little Bob's bedroom because he uploaded a binary without source code.
    …the GNU project will be using a single ELF Note to indicate which GNU operating system and which version of that system a binary was built for.

    I haven't verified this, but I think this sense is more common in the plural than the singular, which may explain why "a binary" seems odd to you.

    But obviously this is completely different from the use of "a binary" to mean "a dichotomy" or "a binary opposition".]

  8. Rodger C said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 4:19 pm

    @J. W. Brewer: Spot on!

    I work in the kind of field where binaries are our bread and butter (not itself a binary, only a pair!), and what we have here is yet one more example of a perfectly good technical term (in semiotics) bleeding out into a synonym for something for which there are already enough words.

    If Ms. Exposito perceives a binary here, then she has to realize that (a) it's her own mental construct, (b) she's a member of the hierarchically dominant semiotic (etc.?) class whose content is therefore constituted by the content of the subordinated class. "I thank thee, O Lord, that I am not one of THEM."

  9. Jason Eisner said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 4:38 pm

    Peter Taylor writes:

    It's possible that there are some languages which call the 0-or-1 datatype "binary" and whose users would refer to a variable or constant having that type as "a binary", but I'm not aware of any.

    Continuing on this tangent —

    Sure, one such language is the mathematical modeling language ZIMPL. I may well have referred to its "binary"-type variables as "binaries," just as Peter predicts.

    And I have certainly referred to "binary arrays" in this context. (Here "binary" is indeed a modifying noun in a noun-noun compound, not an adjective: a "binary array" is an array of binaries, not an array which is itself binary.)

    Of course none of this has to do with the meaning that Mark is calling attention to. Mark, re. Peter Aubrey's attractive suggestion that it was introduced explicitly or implicitly as a jargony shortening of "binary opposition": how about "binary system" or "binary choice," both of which are masculine in French? (The wikipedia entry on "binary opposition" even gives "binary system" as a synonym, although they don't feel quite interchangeable to me.)

  10. Bruce Rusk said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 5:04 pm

    A little Google-fu reveals this passage from Francis Bacon's 1627 Sylva Sylvarum (1623), section XIX (here):

    But perhaps a binary of stronger and weaker, like masculine and feminine, holds in all living bodies, though it is sometimes confounded, as in creatures bred o! putrefaction, where no marks of distinction appear; and it is sometimes doubled, as in hermaphrodites ; but generally there are degrees of strength in all species. The intermediates between plants and animals are chiefly'fixed, and have no local motion of removal, though they have motion in their parts, as oysters, cockles, and the like.

    [(myl) That's one of the citations that the OED gives for binary B. n. 1. "A combination of two things; a couple, pair, ‘two’; duality. ? Obs.":

    1460 J. CAPGRAVE Chron. 3 Make eke thre binaries. As for the first, think that ye be mad of to natures — body and soule. a1619 M. FOTHERBY Atheom. II. x. §4 (1622) 307 If you desire to make Two, or a Binary. [1627 BACON Sylva §608 This same Binarium of a Stronger and a Weaker..doth hold in all Living Bodies.] 1782 BURNEY Hist. Mus. I. 65 The Alpha, or unit..and the Beta, or binary. 1837 Fraser's Mag. XVI. 405 The invariable opposition..of the binaries of boats and Anubises.

    Why the OED's version is so different in detail is not clear to me. The edition you cite, printed in 1825, seems to be modernized and perhaps revised in other ways as well — compare e.g. this to this.

    Anyhow, here's an image of the relevant section of a 1635 edition:

    This suggests that the "binarium" rather than "binary" was the original version — but it does pretty clearly refer to a binary opposition rather than to a binary combination.]

  11. lucia said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 5:18 pm

    The Larousse says:

    nom masculin

    * Système de numération binaire.

    So, when you say le binaire x-y you are saying that you're substituting the 0 for x and the 1.

  12. Nassira Nicola said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 5:24 pm

    It seems to me, as a fully-paid-up user of nominal "binary," that at least one problem could be solved simply by removing the "Obs." from the OED's listing for binary B. n. 1.

    However it came to be revived (and given that the field it's most strongly associated with, gender studies, owes its own name to a calque from French, Mark's analysis is pretty plausible), it's pretty clear that it's no longer obsolete in this sense.

    [(myl) You'd need to change the gloss as well, I think, since it reads "A combination of two things…", and the current meaning generally focuses on the opposition rather than the combination. Or maybe better, add a new sense.]

  13. Kimberly Belcher said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 5:58 pm

    Not a linguist, blah, blah, but don't both the 1460 and the 1627 citations already imply an opposition (body/soul, stronger/weaker, masculine/feminine) which when combined form a particular type of system? The gender studies/postmodernism/postcolonialism/etc usage seems pretty consistent with that, the added wrinkle being that there is a dominant and a marginalized party, and it is the dominant party that defines the "system" which is really a self-definition. At least that's how I read your citations.

    The other historical uses I didn't look up, but "combination" might be an oversimplification of the definition.

    Being a bit geeky, I initially interpreted it via electrical engineering, where any current between the 0 and 1 levels must be discretely understood as either a 0 or a 1. Surprisingly, this led to a very good symbolic approximation of what seems to be the intended technical meaning, though the writers were clearly not thinking of electrical current at all!

  14. Kimberly Belcher said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 6:02 pm

    I should add that my theory doesn't account for Ms. Exposito's utterance, which as J.W. Brewer cleverly points out, is an instantiation of what the theory is decrying! My theory would make her use an error, since it makes assumptions that marginalize the group of which she is not a member. Not a speech error, mind you; just a hermeneutical error.

  15. bb said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 7:23 pm

    I can't explain the gender switch, but I'll be very surprised if the English "binary" doesn't come from the French "binaire," and the French noun from Saussure's "opposition binaire," with Levi-Strauss and Jakobson (and later Derrida, Lacan, et al.) as the vectors who brought the words into intellectual currency.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 8:16 pm

    bb, lo and behold, I was just getting ready to add this:

    As if "binary" as a noun meaning "opposition" weren't enough, some folks are given to capping it with "Manichean," thus "Manichean binary." This is a favorite expression of one of my friends who teaches anthropology and archeology at a college in Virginia, and among her colleagues in literary theory there. When I first heard her use it, I had to stop and think what she meant, but soon realized that my exposure to the history of religions was useful after all.

    There are those, however, who will not stop at "Manichean binary," but feel compelled — just to make sure others understand how polarized the situation is — to follow it with "opposition," hence "Manichean binary opposition." Yet even that can be topped by absolute, utter explicitness with a colossal dyadicist locution such as this: "manichean binary opposition of Black and White" (from Jonathan Haynes, "'Sango Malo' and 'Ta Dona'" (1996) (…/SangoMalo-TaDona.html). How's this for a burst of binaries?


    Born roughly at the moment of Independence, their experience does not correspond to the colonial manichean binary opposition of Black and White, colonizer and colonized. The developmentalist binary of the first phase of nation-building, tradition/ modernity, while still very much present, has been complicated by issues such as the indigenization of the forms of state control, and all the forms of postcolonial "hybridity." In real life in contemporary Africa, as Jean-Francois Bayart says, people are constantly straddling the modern and the traditional, probably without a clear sense of their boundaries. Even the territorial binary of village and city has tended to break down….


    If you Google on "binary opposition," "manichean binary opposition," and so forth, you will soon see that most of the hits come from the following fields: cultural studies, cultural theory, critical theory, postmodernism, deconstruction, and so forth. There is a French core to this, which brings me back to the drift of the thread in progress.

  17. Robert T McQuaid said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 9:04 pm

    Quite apart from etymology, there is another reason binary may be popular in the social sciences. Years ago I remember a criticism of the use of the word "valence" in social sciences in a sense unrelated to its chemical meaning. It added a veneer of technical respectability to the field.

    Today, because of the success of computers generally, binary is a respectable word, making it good one to use in fields lacking a sound technical foundation.

  18. MJ said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 10:06 pm


    It gets worse. In literary theory from the 1980s and 1990s, it's not uncommon to find the claim that the overcoming or deconstruction of the binary opposition between, e.g., mind and body amounts to a violation of the law of noncontradiction (whereby a logic of "either/or" is replaced by a logic of "both/and"). The term binary opposition is often used synonymously with the term "binary contradiction," but the terms of the oppositions literary theorists typically describe amount to contraries rather than contradictories.

  19. Rodger C said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 10:54 pm

    @MJ: Thanks for the logical rigor. Literary theory has always been largely based on vulgarized philosophy, handed down by people who never had a real philosophy course and to whom it would never occur they might need one. When I was in school it was degraded idealism; now it's degraded structuralism. IMHO poststructuralism is largely a set of misunderstandings of structuralism, and the idea you cite is a perfect example.

  20. kim said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 11:30 pm

    I guess it's my electrical engineering background, but I got the gist of Suzanne's meaning immediately. There's also the usage "a binary language", to indicate that the language is made from exactly two symbols. (i.e., "1" and "0").

    And yes, there is more than one way to translate 1010 from binary into something with meaning.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 1:11 am


    !!!!!!! Help! I feel as though my "binary cortex" (very strange stuff on the Web about that!) were being cleaved down the middle!

    Just for fun, I typed / binaire manicheen / (no quotation marks) into Google. My, what a folderol of obfuscation, prevarication, and equivocation! — quite enough to prompt these trenchant lyrics by Françoise Hardy:

    Au diable les vieux refrains, binaires, manichéens
    Au diable les scanners, les mises en examen

  22. gfs said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 3:01 am

    I think the fact that I come from a Computer Science background made this sentence harder for me to interperate correctly. For me the most common meaning of "binary" as a noun, to the exclusion of all other senses, is to refer to the non-human readable executable file obtained by compiling human-readable source code. In that sense, "binary" is more or less synonymous with "program", so she might as well have said "here’s this computer program here between the people who have a cause and those who don’t". Of course her actual meaning is clear from context, but using "binary" as a noun in that context immediately rings very false to me.

  23. Fëanor said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 4:22 am

    For what it's worth, the term binary is quite common in finance: for an option that pays either a fixed quantity or nothing at all. Similar, then, to Exposito's usage, and nothing (overtly) to do with literary theory? Probably stems from finance types with engineering backgrounds, though…

    [(myl) I see lots of recent adjectival uses along these lines — "binary bet", "binary option", "binary put", "binary call", "binary variables", etc. — but so far no nouns, in financial contexts like this or this. Linguistically, this simply applies one of the long-standing meanings of binary in describing some financial widgets, or inventing terms for new ones. It's plausible that this should develop into nominal uses, but I haven't been able to find any. Can you provide some?]

  24. Robyn said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 8:43 am

    I've heard "binary" used to refer to social dichotomies many times by people who are not themselves academics – from its usage in gender studies/queer theory/etc it has become well known in some corners of the queer and trans communities.

    In the strictest sense it would be used to refer to a normative dichotomy, one in which there is social pressure to be (and a corresponding belief that it is only possible to be) one thing or the other and not an admixture, rather than the example above where she's just using it to refer to a dichotomy she's arbitrarily invented with no normative power behind it.

    However I suspect the further you get, ala the Kevin Bacon Game, from someone who's actually studied queer theory/gender studies etc the more likely you are to find someone using the word in a less specific sense. Much like the fast and loose way that the word heteronormative gets thrown around in some circles; it could refer to the normative forces which support the heterosexual matrix, but sometimes you hear it simply used to mean stereotypically het.

  25. MJ said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 9:06 am

    @Rodger C– Yes, you are exactly right, in my opinion. The same kind of vulgarization can be seen in poststructuralism's and postmodernism's appropriation of quantum mechanics (e.g., Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Schroedinger's cat). Kind of reminds me of the passive voice thread, in that literary theorists would, if pressed, claim they were merely loosely borrowing the uncertainty principle or the law of noncontradiction. But of course in doing that, their allegedly radical claims lost force–the idea that, e.g., the _pharmakon_ can be both a remedy and a poison is trivial, not an instance of a revolutionary paraconsistent logic.

  26. Bill Walderman said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 9:11 am

    Could the French masculine ghost noun be système? Système binaire?

  27. MattF said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 10:36 am

    Maybe 'binary' is used because 'dialectic' is burdened by the ghosts of Hegel and Marx.

  28. Andrew said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 11:49 am

    My background is in math, but "binary" sounds much more natural to me than any of the alternatives, and this is probably because of my interaction with queer discourse. I went and did a search on my blog to find my own use of "binary" and it seems that I have used it several times–often with a hesitancy stemming from my non-embrace of "theory." On the one hand, I recognize that people often to think in (highly simplistic) either/or terms worthy of being challenged. On the other, such ideas are intellectually untenable upon serious consideration. As such, I see a lot of "interrogation" of binaries as little more than academically legitimated beating up of straw-men.

  29. Fëanor said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 1:24 pm

    I guess you're right – it is a sort of truncated adjectival use. However, not many people in finance can be bothered to say 'option' in an informal context, so they'd just say 'a binary', or 'a digital', or 'a one-touch', etc., and it would be clear. In (formal) writing, though, they'd use the full expression 'binary option'…

  30. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 4:29 pm

    Prof. Liberman has been waging a long-running campaign against the misdescription of statistical data concerning e.g. male/female differences in a way that he considers overly essentialist. Would this campaign get more traction in certain academic quarters if he changed his jargon and started interrogating/deconstructing binaries?

  31. Rubrick said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 5:04 pm

    amz: But this subculture has got as much right to invent, borrow and re-purpose words as anyone else does.

    [(amz) By "amz" you mean "myl", right? This is a quote from Mark's original posting, not from my comment on it. Hard to believe, I know, but Mark and I are different people.]

    And boy howdy do they exercise that right!

  32. HP said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 5:27 pm

    I think that the po-mo use of binary is in there, but I also think it's colored by various fuzzy/multivalued/ternary logic. In other words, as much as you can trace this back to Lacan, et al, you can also trace it back to the very American C.S. Peirce and his ternary logic back in the 19th c.

    So, the antonym of "binary" in this sense is "ternary," or even "fuzzy." Even more interesting to me is that "fuzzy logic" processors, as found in your washing machine, have the same 1990's currency as much-derided French cultural criticism. In fuzzy logic, a given variable may have a truth value that is any rational number between 0 and 1.

    What Ms. Exposito seems to be saying is that attitudes toward the environment on campus are not fuzzy — there aren't people who are environmentalists regarding, e.g., water bottles but not cigarette butts. Rather, they are either environmentalists about everything or nothing. (Whereas, off campus, fuzzy attitudes toward the environment might be considered the norm. Water bottles are either carefully prepared for recycling or avoided altogether, while cigarette butts are tossed on the ground.)

    Personally, I can't think of a better term to describe this observation than "binary."

  33. bianca steele said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 8:19 pm

    I have probably got this wrong but I believe "binary" connotes for example not just male/female but {male,light}/{female,dark}. Otherwise HP seems right to me.

  34. Evan Harper said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 8:19 pm

    On the 23rd, Ross Douthat of the New York Times used "binary" as a noun. He was criticizing fellow conservatives, though, so maybe he slipped into left-speak ;-)

    [(myl) Interesting! To save the rest of you the trouble of following the link, here's the passage

    The first is the idea that the American elite is statist to the core (“our ruling class’s standard approach to any and all matters,” he writes, “is to increase the power of the government”), while what Codevilla calls the “country party” out in the heartland, though “heterogenous” in many ways, is defined by its opposition to “higher taxes and expanding government” and “subsidizing political favorites.” There is some truth to this binary, but only some. Are conservative Iowans against their state’s ample farm subsidies?

    Is this evidence that binary = "dichotomy" has leaked out into the world beyond literary studies and soft social science? On the face of it, yes. In some ways, of course, Douthat's use is just as tied to his cultural roots as Ms. Exposito's was. He graduated from Harvard in 2002, and I don't think he was a physics or math major — no doubt he took more than a few courses whose readings came from the fields where "binaries" roam.

    Still, your citation is evidence that the Word Induction Ceremony (or at least "Sense Induction Ceremony") can't be far away.]

  35. Tracy said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 9:03 pm

    After a few minutes of reading these and other sources, I've abandoned hope of finding a succinct and clear account of what it means, but if you can enlighten us, please do so in the comments.

    That sounds like all of my experiences of having to read Lacan in college. It's actually really nice to hear that I'm not alone!

  36. z said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 5:17 am

    Actually I was a little surprised to see this use of the word noted as striking, so used am I to the phrase (well, compound) "gender binary", which is reasonable given not my academic field but my LGBT identification and the politics of some of my friends. It's good to have a reminder, though, that other people can have a totally different reaction (including bemusement or incomprehension) to words that are perfectly entrenched elements of my mental grammar.

  37. Adam said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 10:45 am

    From seeing warning signs in Italian train stations, I gather that "track" is "binario" in Italian. I wonder what they call a monorail track?

  38. B.T.Carolus said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 11:03 am

    I'm a grad student in history and also have two BAs, one in English lit and the other in history. Although I shy away from using too much theory personally, I read things that utilize it all the time. Therefore I'm very conversant with both reading and using the term binary in the "soft social sciences" and the humanities (I'm one of the people who think history is a humanity not a social science, but that's another topic).

    1) in my opinion Exposito is misusing the term in the quote from the article. Usually the term binary is used to argue either that a person or group views/viewed something in terms of a simple and sharp division (male/female, good/evil, economic/political). This is done to argue that really the binary view is too limited because it assumes simple divisions between things, where there is really overlap between the categories and possibly also other factors not considered in the binary (ie, politics and economics are inter-related when it comes to things like regulation or building infrastructure, and a country may also make a political decision based on social/cultural issues not related to economics). The other less common use is to set up a binary in order to prove that the neat division it suggests about any given subject is really too limited for the same reasons as above.

    The problem with Exposito's use of the term is that she can't neatly divide her campus (or people living in her city) into "the people who have a cause/those who don’t." So if I were dissecting her argument for says an undergrad paper I would point out she has constructed a bizarre binary between something along the lines of engagement/apathy, but that the binary doesn't fit for x reasons. I'd also point out that she was being both extraordinarily elitist and sloppy in her thinking. And then I'd also say that she isn't utilizing the term binary correctly because it's supposed to be employed in a manner that shows the weakness of the supposed binary system, not in order to seriously explicate an existing problem.

    2) I'm a bit surprised that you haven't run across the term binary before, since it's very common in writing about literature and history and a lot of other things, and I'm sure lots of professors of literature and history and sociology huff about binaries in committee meetings and academic senates. Here's a cite for a paper that covers basic theory, including the binary. Unfortunately it's not available in an online database (google books doesn't grant access to the pages the binary discussion is on), but the book itself should be widely available in university libraries.

    Frank Costigliola, “Reading for Meaning: Theory, Language, and Metaphor,” in Michael J. Hogan and Thomas G. Paterson, eds., Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 279-303.

  39. Rodger C said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 2:54 pm


    1) I think we could succinctly say that Ms Exposito is using "binary" as a pretentious and inaccurate synonym for "distinction."

    2) I'm not so surprised that some people are unfamiliar with our use of the word "binary," but I am bemused by the people in this thread who seem to think that a term used in the hard sciences is illegitimate when it happens to occur elsewhere with a different meaning. "Binary" does have a definite and useful meaning in our fields, though of course it can be misused as well.

  40. Greg Morrow said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 9:18 am

    Regarding the gender problem of the proposed derivation by truncation of le binaire in French: I remember reading a while back that modern speakers of French were a lot more casual (or uncertain) about grammatical gender than the traditional written language, so I would not be surprised if modern neologisms had genders that were unusual by the standards of the traditional written language.

    In addition, at the risk of parroting Pinker, might this not be a case of inheritance being blocked by headlessness? That is, in the classic example, Walkman does not inherit the plural of man because it is not a kind of man. In this case, perhaps it is that binaire does not inherit the gender of opposition binaire because the truncation strips away the head, and in its absence, speakers apply a default gender. Is m. the default in French?

  41. C said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 10:32 am

    My background is Literature through to an MA, and then some Cultural Studies Ph.D. beyond that (I don't have a Ph.D., however). Much of the tail end of my BA in Literature was colored by literary theory, and then a great deal of my MA work revolved around reading Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, Althusser, etc. (the usual suspects). I won't comment on the merits of those writers' works, or their intellectual rigor as philosophers (quasi- or otherwise), but I can say with some confidence that when I was pursuing my MA, it wasn't uncommon to be in conversations when terms like "binary" were dropped about without too much serious thought or real concern for precision in meaning (and I include myself in the bunch who were dropping those words; by the way, I completely agree with Mike Aubrey's initial comment, and others, that Exposito's use of "binary" seems almost certainly to be a short-hand for "binary opposition," and that it distantly echoes the "structuralist-turn" in liberal arts studies).

    As a side note: one of the interesting things I saw happening just as I was beginning my Cultural Studies course work was the increasing use of "deconstruction" in a way that seemed completely untethered from its original complicated (maybe inexplicable?) usage in Derrida's works. I had taken some courses in which we read, for example, "Of Grammatology" (Spivak's translation, not the original French) and "Limited Inc." (again in English translation), and so it was always pretty humorous to see the word used casually (sometimes in the press, but often in conversations with fellow students and faculty) to mean something like "dismantle" or "consider critically." Now, I can't even begin to explicate "deconstruct" or "deconstruction" (even then, when I was in the middle of reading the primary sources) and wouldn't presume to try, but it was pretty clear to me that those two terms couldn't be reduced to something like "dismantle." So, I would put "deconstruct" right up there with "binary," in our current conversation, and I wonder what it's primary popular meaning might be right now.

  42. ASG said,

    August 16, 2010 @ 1:08 pm

    When I was studying critical theory in grad school, we used the word "binarism" to translate Saussure's important idea of opposition binaire. Uglier, perhaps, but at least it doesn't encroach on the territory of "binary." Does Saussure himself ever shorten the phrase to one word (binaire, or perhaps even binarisme)? The Cours is online but there's no search function and there's no way I'm reading that damn book again. :)

    A history of translations of the Cours into English might also give us a clue as to why graduate seminars in one part of the English-speaking world might use "binary" while others use "binarism."

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