i dream of being possible

post-modernism and hegemonic worldviews


Yesterday I posted a quote from a post I saw on tumblr and generally, just poked fun at it. But I actually want to dig into the reasons why the claim was not only false but also damaging. Here it is again:

tl;dr, everything will always be binary because thats the only discursive avenue our conceptualizations of reality and of self can take.

At first glance this seems like it is saying something interesting or useful about the world. But there are a number of embedded assumptions needed to make this sentence coherent, such that, if some of these assumptions are false, this claim cannot be true.

The first stopping point for me is ‘the only discursive’ avenue. There are a number of ways to interpret this claim.

The charitable interpretation

The most charitable, imo, is to think that she was making a point about language only (via the use of ‘discourse’). That – in language – we can only express ourselves in binary ways when talking about reality or the self. A rather bold claim, is it not?

But is it true? How can we prove this false? One way (but not the most convincing) would be to point out a discourse in which has a conception of the self that isn’t binary (ie, that doesn’t have some self-other distinction). Amusingly, her own bio points to the direction of such a discourse. She claims to be a devotee of Guanyin. So…. We can maybe just look towards the Heart Sutra, which explicates a key bit of wisdom that Guanyin was given during enlightenment:

色不異空空不異色色即是空空即是色 Chinese version

My translation: “Form is no different than emptiness, emptiness is not different than form. Form just is emptiness and emptiness is just form.”1

See how easy this was? A discourse in which the conception of the self isn’t binary. Same too with the conceptualization of reality. Instead, everything is empty/nothingness. The self is nothing. The other is nothing. Etc and so on.

But perhaps she does just mean linguistically we cannot conceptualize the self or reality without using binaries. One could look at the above and say that in order to explicate this vision of the self, Guanyin still needs to create a temporary binary of form/emptiness. I’m not super convinced by this.

However, logically and linguistically speaking we can also find examples of non-binary reasoning. Indeed, one of the best examples is Nagarjuna, who is one of the central figures in Mahayana Buddhism (indeed, the ‘everything is empty’ business comes from him). Nagarjuna is in/famous for his use of the tetralemma, which is a classical logical form in South Asian logic.

Note the term ‘tetralemma’ as opposed to a ‘dilemma’. So its exactly what you’d assume. Rather than analyzing a concept/idea/whatever based on using a binary mode of thinking, it uses a four-fold structure. And just so we’re clear: this type of thinking is just some ancient Oriental nonsense. There now exists several types of many-valued logics which assert much the same as what is represented in this logical form.

the non-charitable interpretation

So the above was me being nice. However, its pretty clear from the use of ‘discourse’ that she actually means something quite stronger than the position I discussed above. She isn’t only making a claim about language, she is making a claim about human cognition and how we construct internal representations of reality.

Like many post-modern thinkers, she elevates language/discourse to a level of importance that simply isn’t true as far as human cognition goes. Even if her claim about language is true (ie that all languages everywhere must use binary thinking in order to conceptualize the self and reality), it isn’t true of actual human brains.

One of post-modernisms biggest failings is creating a global metaphor out of ‘discourse’ or ‘texts’. Within it, everything becomes a text and open to textual analysis. This is why I heard some ludicrous white man talk about trying to catalogue his body because it was a ‘text’. This ties nicely into general assumptions about linguistic determinism that remain influential today.

The thing is, though, that the world isn’t discourse and text. Or not wholly so. Our thoughts and conceptualizations of the world are not determined by language. Our brains literally do so much more than simply process language. You don’t even need to go too far into cognitive science to realize this. So much of our cognition happens beneath our notice.

Language is simply one of many ways that we try to organize our thoughts into something we can communicate to others. Some people paint pictures. Others create music. All of these things are part of how we conceptualize ourselves and reality.

a hegemonic worldview

What is actually happening in that claim is that she is making an attempt to make a hegemonic claim about the world. She is attempting to treat as natural and default one very specific worldview that is deeply entrenched within its own cultural context. And, yes, what she is talking about here is at the level of worldview and cosmology.

How we conceptualize the self and reality is fundamental to how we engage and interact with the world and other people. What she is making up there is an ontological claim, not just something about language. If we take the Heart Sutra as an example, this is a world view in which there is no self (no reality either, as it happens). So her claim is literally incoherent within that context. It makes no sense and has zero meaning. If there is no self, how can there be a binary conceptualization of it?

I get troubled by stuff like the above because it is absolutely pushing a very white-european worldview onto the rest of the world. And the claims are so grand and sweeping that it leaves you a little breathless.

To the extent that this claim is true and intelligible, it is only so within a very specific intellectual and cultural tradition. It is not a universal truth.

  • Admittedly, its been a long time since I read this sutra, so the translation is probably not the best. You can also see this English translation </fn></footnotes>