There are 10 kinds of people...

…those who know binary and those who don’t. 

Russell Jacoby knows binary and likes it!  For Jacoby, there are two kinds of people:  those, like Jacoby, who think in binary oppositions, and those who think that things are (or ought to be made) more complicated.

Here’s an example of what we’re talking about:  In the February 15, 2008, issue of Commonweal, William T. Cavanaugh reviews George Weigel’s latest book, Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihad:  A Call to Action (pp. 21-23).  The essence of Cavanaugh’s critique is that Weigel is a “binary” thinker, and that the situation is far more complicated than Weigel sees it:

Weigel approvingly quotes David Gelernter: “They believe in and cultivate death; they are the party of death. And we are the party of life-and they hate us for that and hope to destroy us because of it.” They do not hate us because of the coup in 1953; or because we used to support Saddam and the Shah; or because we currently support repressive regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Indonesia; or because UNESCO said that our sanctions against Saddam’s Iraq were causing a half-million children to die each year and Madeline Albright said it was “worth it” (she later called that “a mistake”); or because our military occupies two Muslim countries; or because we give carte blanche to Israeli occupation and settlement of Palestinian territory; or because of Abu Ghraib or Halliburton or Guantánamo Bay or “extraordinary rendition.” No. They hate us because they hate life. Such self-serving hogwash ironically reproduces the worldview of jihadism: the binary division of the world into good and evil, the dehumanization of the enemy, and the inability to engage in self-criticism. [p. 22]

Cavanaugh wishes to complicate matters for Weigel.  A political philosophy–if that’s what you’d call it–of Good vs. Evil, the “West” vs. the “Rest,” etc., tends to idolize “our” side and demonize “their” side.  Other than for purposes of demagoguery, it is practically useless for analysis.

Cavanaugh is arguing that to miss the complications of the situation is to misunderstand it and to ultimately provide a false and unreliable analysis.  But could it be argued that Cavanaugh is overly-complicating things?  Isn’t it arguable that there are some meaningful differences between the “West” and the “Rest,” differences that look a lot like binary opposites?  For instance, check out what Mark Steyn has to say about the situation (and the struggle) of women in the “West” vs. in (a large segment of) the “Rest.”

What would it mean to “over-complicate” matters?  What is at stake in complicating matters?  Russell Jacoby, in a bit of a rant in the Chronicle Review (”Not to complicate matters, but…“),  wonders where an apparent new-found enthusiasm among academics for complicating matters comes from.

The world is complicated, but how did “complication” turn from an undeniable reality to a desirable goal? Shouldn’t scholarship seek to clarify, illuminate, or — egad! — simplify, not complicate? How did the act of complicating become a virtue?

The refashioning of “complicate” derives from many sources. One recipe calls for adding a half cup of poststructuralism to a pound of multiculturalism. Mix thoroughly. Bake. Season with Freudian, Hegelian, and post-Marxist thought. Serve at room temperature. The invitees will savor the meal and will begin to chat in a new academic tongue. They will prize efforts not only to complicate but also to “problematize,” “contextualize,” “relativize,” “particularize,” and “complexify.” They will denounce anything that appears “binary.” They will see “multiplicities” everywhere. They will add “s” to everything: trope, regime, truth. They will sprinkle their conversations with words like “pluralistic,” “heterogenous,” “elastic,” and “hybridities.” A call for “coherence” will arrest the discussion. Isn’t that “reductionist”?

Okay, academics–especially, perhaps, postmodern academics–are easy to poke fun at.  But I am certainly no great fan of “reductionism,” and Jacoby knows full well that the world is a complicated place and that simplistic explanations just won’t do if we are to attain any deep insights.  “Of course, to defend simplifications always and everywhere is not only anti-intellectual, but dangerous.”  But his concern is that

The new devotion to complexity gives carte blanche to even the most trivial scholarly enterprise. Any factoid can “complicate” our interpretation. The fashion elevates confusion from a transitional stage into an end goal. We celebrate the fact that everything can be “problematized.” We rejoice in discarding “binary” approaches. We applaud ourselves for recognizing — once again — that everything varies by circumstances. We revel in complexity. To be sure, few claim that the truth is simple or singular, but we have moved far from believing that truth can be set out at all with any caution and clarity. We seem to believe that truth and falsehood is a discredited binary opposite. It varies according to time and place. “It depends,” answer my students to virtually every question I ask. That notion permeates campus life.

In Jacoby’s piece, all this is a wind-up the specific episode that aroused his ire, a few lines from UCLA’s statement on academic honesty that appears in official exam books, lines that would be hilarious if they weren’t pathetic.  The statement asserts that there are “alternatives to academic dishonesty”!  Jacoby teases:  besides academic honesty, how many alternatives are there?  Here is an example, says Jacoby, of the deleterious effects of “complicating” things.  If that’s all he’s means, no one in her / his right mind would disagree. (Did I just over complicate that sentence…?)  This “policy” statement is simply foolish.

This discussion, I think, illustrates yet again the “sweet spot” in which we need to be:  between “idolatry” and “foolishness,” between thinking that things are simple and that we have all the answers once and for all, and thinking that nothing can be said for fear of falling into “binary oppositions” or “metaphysics” or “privileged regimes of ‘truth’.” 

There are two kinds of problem:  Thinking “that (whatever “that” may be…) says it all” and thinking “nothing meaningful can be said.”  As Jacoby rightly notes, over-privileging “non-privileging” can lead to all sorts of nonsense.  But a lot of the “ingredients” that Jacoby denigrates in his recipe for foolishness are, in fact, necessary to keep us appropriately humble in our quest for truth.

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