Binary oppositions

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Binary oppositions

Binary oppositions: A concept borrowed from linguistics by poststructuralist theorist Jacques Derrida, a philosopher of language who coined the term deconstruction, to suggest that people in Western culture tend to think and express their thoughts in terms of contrary pairs. Something is white but not black, masculine and therefore not feminine, a cause rather than an effect. Other common and mutually exclusive pairs include beginning / end, conscious / unconscious, and presence / absence. Derrida suggested that these dichotomies are not simply oppositions but also valuative hierarchies, in which one term is viewed as positive or superior and the other considered negative or inferior, even if only slightly so.

Derrida deconstructed a number of these binary oppositions, including two — speech / writing and signifier / signified — that he believed to be central to linguistics in particular and Western culture in general. He didn’t seek to reverse these oppositions, however, because doing so would simply perpetuate the same forms that he sought to deconstruct. He instead aimed to erase the boundary between binary oppositions — and to do so in a way that throws the hierarchy implied by the oppositions into question.

Traditionally, literary criticism has entailed choosing between opposed and contradictory meanings and arguing that works support one meaning rather than the other. Derrida and other deconstructors have argued that texts contain opposed strands of discourse, providing no basis for choosing one reading over another. They may, therefore, support readings involving both reason and passion, life and death, hope and despair.

French feminist critics have adapted the ideas of Derrida and other deconstructors in their critique of Western language and culture. They have not only argued that language is structured in accordance with binary oppositions such as male / female, reason / emotion, and active / passive, but that qualities such as reason and activity are associated with masculinity, whereas emotion and passivity are aligned with femininity. Furthermore, they have asserted that (patriarchal) Western culture values those qualities associated with masculinity over those associated with femininity; reason, for instance, is valued more highly than emotion. French feminist critics have thus concluded that language is both hierarchically structured and phallocentric, or masculine-centered.