Tag Archives: representation

Completing the binary?

16 Apr

Binary arguments are ubiquitous in and among modern media outlets, and undoubtedly they create simplified views of complex, adaptive, and interrelated issues.  This is a problem.

A crucial issue is that the way people internally model the social world isn’t an isolated, non-interactive process.  Not only are the issues to be understood complex and adaptive, the agents involved in deciphering such issues are complex and adaptive.  Thus, these internalizations are not only models that attempt to explain how the world works, they create meaning in the world they are attempting to explain through their existence, application, and the construction of ideological discourse (a formalized way of thinking that can be manifested through language; a social boundary defining what can be said about a specific topic or possible truth)and thus self-fulfill their own incorrectness further deepening the illusion that is desired to be maintained.

However, the reality of the situation is that these arguments exist, and they shape the way that millions of people view the world in which they live, and therefore the way the world moves.  Now, inherently there is nothing wrong with a binary argument in and of itself.  In fact, this type of binary opposition can be thought of as an explicit evolutionary strategy for survival (conditional logic, etc.).  But when it is unbalanced, incomplete if you will, the categorization doesn’t allow for more complex arguments, rules, and schemata to be developed over the binary.  These unbalanced binaries are what we call binary oppositions.  More formally, binary oppositions are a cultural logic that constructs meaning through categories that are opposite and hierarchical (think culture vs. nature, mind vs. nature, male vs. female, East vs. West, etc.).  These binary oppositions lead to the creation of the ‘other’, the binary opposite of the normative category.  In effect, one sided arguments are perpetuated, and those with an oppositional model of the world are incapable of understanding conflicts, relationships, and issues in the world today.  From economic globalization, to cultural integration (and consumption), interactions in the world today are to complex, and indeed too sensitive, to be modeled in an oppositional fashion.What I claim in this post is that binary oppositions are what we can call incomplete binary arguments, and the best strategy to eradication of unbalanced, incomplete arguments is the completion of the opposition, rather than fighting to eliminate the other side.

Discussion on the best methods to eliminate binary arguments as the dominant ideological models is an important topic in resolving racial, political, economic and religious conflict today.   In Contesting a racialized regime of representation (an excerpt from Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices), Stuart Hall states that “the problem with the positive/negative strategy is that adding positive images to the largely negative repertoire of the dominant regime of representation increases the diversity of ways in which ‘being black’ is represented, but does not necessarily displace the negative.  Since the binaries remain in place, meaning continues to be framed by them” (p. 274).  It does seem, however, that this type of counter-representation is the most frequent, and, within many forms of media, is the most feasible.  Naturally, if given the choice, as the ultimate purveyor of media, one would chose to eliminate negative stereotypes, but lacking total control, and being one producer in a field of many, it seems the best course of action would to be to create positive images (given that they are true) and let them work against negative images.  The real battle is in altering the manner in which people perceive images (or other forms of media), which is not entirely based on the content of the image (media) itself as we know.  Is this strategy still formalized from the binary argument?  Or, is it that the binary structure can simply be layed over any sort of argument?  Or, given that it is formalized from the binary argument, can the completion of the binary allow the representations in question supersede or transcend its simplified argument?

While Hall seems to be skeptical as to the effectiveness of this strategy, I believe completing unbalanced binary arguments is the most feasible manner in which negative stereotypes, tropes, and poor representations can be diluted and eventually stripped of their meaning.

According to Hall, ‘the marking of “difference” is the basis of that symbolic order which we call culture’. In this context, binary oppositions are crucial for maintaining difference which is fundamental for producing cultural meaning.  This marking of difference is articulated within clear boundaries; it does not tolerate ambiguous or unstable spaces of indeterminacy.  According to Hall:

‘Stable culture requires things to stay in their appointed place. Symbolic boundaries keep the categories ‘pure’, giving cultures their unique meaning and identity. What unsettles culture is “matter out of place”– the breaking of our unwritten rules and codes’ (Hall).

My impression is that the nature of symbolic boundaries is formalization built from an underlying unbalanced (incomplete) binary, and the remedy to the dissolution of these boundaries is a completion of the underlying argument.  Addressing ‘difference’ and ‘difference’-making symbolic boundaries involves addressing the internal models of agents interacting with with predictive strategies in which this difference is implicit and based on pure superiority and imbalance.

Let me know what you think about fighting representation, and the effectiveness of various strategies.  Drop a comment, reply, question, criticism, or whatever.

For some extended discussion on binary oppositional representations of Arabs in Western (U.S. in particular) media, I suggest checking out this brief article by Mohammed Hirchi, a professor of Arabic at Colorado State University.



Hall, Stuart. Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices.  Sage 1997.

Lecture slides from Evelyn Alsultany, Professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.


The three B syndrome

16 Apr

The “3 B Syndrome” is the term frequently used to describe the portrayal of Arabs in the mass media: as bombers, billionaires or belly dancers. The alliteration, humorous in its simplicity, is actually an apt summary for the bulk of stereotypes and illinformed representations of Arabs in news media, film, and daily life.

One person fighting against these stereotypes is Laila Lalami, a Moroccan writer who wrote the sarcastic piece “Arab-bashing for Fun and Profit”, which includes a facetious 12 step guide for how to stereotype Muslims (great piece of counter-hegemonic sarcasm, my personal favorite strategy).  The piece includes tips like, “the villains must all have beards” and “have [the villains] threaten to blow something up.” Published initially in the Los Angeles Times, the piece got a great deal of attention and has been reprinted in many places, and I suggest you check it out.  What Lalami’s post consists of, though she doesn’t refer to them as such, are tropes of empire.  A trope of empire is a familiar and repeated theme, character, narrative, etc., which performs ideological work through the use of language (metaphor, figurative, non-literal) and discourse.  The work done by the perpetuation and ubiquity of these tropes is manifested in the way they essentialize (characterize by unchanging essences), otherize (essentialized characteristics polar opposite of Western characteristics), and create absences (‘other’ is depicted as lacking in positive traits) in the subject.


One man who studies the relationship between tropes and the ideological work that they perform is Dr. Jack Shaheen.  Shaheen, is an internationally acclaimed author and media critic who also fights to halt (or progress from) the 3 B Syndrome in American media. His award-winning book and film Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People follows the history of the media’s slander against Arab people and shows how stereotypes have grown in the film history over the years.

Watch this clip from the documentary Reel Bad Arabs, the film translation of Shaheen’s book:

Shaheen’s work also offers solutions for how Hollywood can change their defamation Arabs, and he has consulted for films such as “Three Kings”.

Through work like that of Larami and Shaheen, appealing to humor and logic to reveal the absurdities of Hollywood representation of Arabs, the 3 B Syndrome is slowly disintegrating and tropes of empire are being brought out into the open where they can be dispelled.


Devin Riley