Okay, so both “epistemology” and “binaries” are big words—if not in the sense that they contain a lot of letters, in the sense that they have a great deal of meaning, especially to the field of gender studies. I’m not going to lie, I definitely pretended to know what they meant for awhile before I actually started to get an idea about what they even begin to signify. So, I hope this isn’t too rudimentary, but I thought I’d start my post with the definitions of these terms…

Epistemology: “a branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge.” (Thank you, dictionary.com.) When I read this word in a sentence or phrase—like the book titleEpistemology of the Closet—I insert the words “history of knowledge or understanding. (So, [History of knowledge or understanding] of the Closet, for example.) This helps me to break down this word and all the meaning behind it.

Binary: A set of two opposing ideas from good/evil or bad to man/woman, male/female, masculine/feminine, or gay/straight—or “mind and body, thought and extension, reason and passion, psychology and biology,” as Elizabeth Grosz brings up in Refiguring Bodies, for example (3). The overall premise is that the opposing ideas in each set are sort of separate but equal. However, deconstructionist thinkers have brought to light that binaries are, in fact, anything but equal. The two terms in a set are, in fact highly hierarchical, and they are so closely intertwined as to depend on each other for their very meaning[s]. As Grosz explains, “The subordinated term is merely the negation or denial, the absence or privation of the primary term, its fall from grace; the primary term defines itself by expelling its other and in this process establishes its own boundaries and borders to create an identity for itself” (3).

So, the epistemology of binaries would be a sort of history of human understanding of this system of ideas that appear to oppose one another—a key component of Grosz’s argument, if I hadn’t mentioned that yet! Grosz also provides some other great, destabilizing ideas about binaries: Binaries have a tendency to come off as absolutes, as a set of two opposing truths; however, they are actually constructed ideas. In fact, the whole method or way of thinking in this binary fashion is constructed. It developed relatively historically recently; its development can be traced back to Descartes.

Destabilization, as I have actually come to realize quite recently—again, I’m not ashamed to admit it!—is, in and of itself, often one of the goals of feminist and queer theorists. And, what a goal it is! Never blindly accept any piece of knowledge! Always question! Never reduce people or ideas because the world is endlessly complex!

After methodically taking apart the concept of binaries and looking at their subtleties, such as how the poles of binaries often come to be conflated or, at least, related—nature or emotion with femininity and civilization or rationality with masculinity, for examples—Grosz cites another theorists thoughts on such knowledge-production. Earlier I suggested that accepting binaries, or any way of thinking, at face value could lead to oversimplification. Ironically, in conceptually opposing this, thinker Baruch Spinoza postulates a model of philosophy in which “‘soul’ is granted to animals, plants, and even inorganic matter” (12). In other words, we are all connected/united/one.

Speaking of binaries…

The idea of the way that poles of binaries overlap reminds me of a cell membrane. See the little ball things with tails? The way the electrical charges of these molecules are distributed force them into together into this configuration—the cell membrane, itself. This is actually what makes a cell somewhat impermeable, what helps control what comes into and out of it. (A metaphor for how binaries and their overlapping poles can affect knowledge-production?)

A depiction of a cell membrane from a bit more distance.

Okay, hope you all didn’t fall asleep at the end there.

Thanks for reading!

Lynn Beavin