Sunday, January 26, 2020

Review: Life Isn't Binary

[Meg-John Barker and Alex Iantaffi. Life Isn't Binary: On Being Both, Beyond, and In-Between. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2019.]

A look at the ways in which, in Western societies, binaries organize our thinking and our lives, and at ways we can navigate and perhaps at moments move beyond them. Clever and very accessible, though not without its limitations.

I've read two books by one of the authors (Barker) before, one focused on relationships and the other on sexuality, both of which I liked very much. Their general approach seems to be to take ideas which are usually found in inaccessible and often quite academic and theoretical forms, and present them very clearly and accessibly and concretely. They use that to push readers to think more expansively and complexly about the area in question, and thereby to open up possibilities for living differently. This is, I think, the most ambitious of the three books I have read by them. I really like what it takes on and think there are things about how it executes that project that are excellent, though other ways that it falls a little short.

Life Isn't Binary begins from contexts where there is at least a certain degree of familiarity with the idea that most of us think in binary terms but some experiences and some people don't fit within those binaries – so the first chapter is about sexuality and the second chapter is about gender. Indeed, both authors are nonbinary in both of those areas, and another way to characterize this book's mission might be to theorize the world starting from that nonbinariness. The remaining chapters go on to explore how binaries operate in terms of relationships, bodies, emotions, and thinking, how they are limited (but also productive), and various ways to live and think and act (to borrow a phrase from John Holloway that this book doesn't actually use) within, against, and beyond them.

This is obviously a tricky thing to write about, if your aim (as is the case here) is to reach beyond the already initiated. Not only are you trying to talk accurately and usefully about the dense social totality that surrounds us, but you're trying to do so in a way that cannot just make use of existing assumptions about the world. That means that there is going to be a careful, linear, cumulative process of laying things out to the reader and helping them build their understanding, so not every moment of writing is going to actually capture all of the complexity. It's not surprising, then, for a reader who has at least a little background in some of these areas to have moments of reacting with "Yeahhhhhh, but..." to what is written. I certainly had some of those moments. I had some of those moments, but particularly given that I think a lot about how to write about the world myself and have a sense of how tricky it is, I can certainly appreciate how you are inevitably going to end up with such moments unless you write something sufficiently dense that it will not be broadly readable.

On the other hand, though, there seemed to be a pattern to such moments. I mean, they were all quite different, but most of them seemed to boil down, in one way or another, to what felt to me like inadequate attention in that moment to socially organized materiality and to power in the context of whatever binary was being discussed. Not that the authors are unaware of such things, and of course had lots to say about them at other points. But I do wonder if the consistent presence of this kind of "Yeahhhhh, but..." for me might indicate a bit of a different understanding than the authors of the relationship between binaries as conceptual practices – and note I'm not invoking the mind/body binary here, but rather using language that keeps the things we do with our brains firmly in the material realm – and binaries as features of social organization. These two are of course deeply interrelated, and are perhaps best articulated as different moments within the same landscape, but they aren't the same thing, and how they relate to each other is not obvious, consistent, or easy. I think, at heart, that more of this book needed to be both more consistently and more clearly social and material in how it talked about these things.

There are a couple of other minor points I would make. There were occasional "Slow down!" boxes that presented exercises to help readers pause and connect with how they were feeling about what they were reading. I thought this was in principle an interesting and innovative experiment in terms of care for the reader. But I also found it a bit puzzling, because I had trouble imagining, at least in many instances, the kind of difficult intensity that these call-out boxes seemed to presume as likely, or at least possible, reader responses. Perhaps I'm just underestimating the impacts of the text on people to whom all of these ideas are completley new? And I had mixed feelings about where the book ended up. By that point, it had effectively challenged a great many inherited assumptions, had introduced many new and challenging ways of thinking, and was exploring some ways of navigating all of this. But it kind of felt like even as it was working so hard to be expansive and inclusive in this field it had opened up, it was really grounding its advice in a fairly specific sensibility. Which isn't a problem, necessarily, but it felt a bit odd that that specificity remained largely unmarked.

Anyway. As is so easy when you are writing a review, I think this comes across as more critical than I actually mean it. I think this book is a great idea, that it does a lot of things very well, and that it will equip lots of readers who might otherwise never encounter such things with some tools to deal more complexly and compassionately with the world, with the people around them, and with their own experiences. It challenges us to recognize that even when it comes to binaries that feel like they fit our experiences well, all of us have moments of misfitting; and it opens up space, in the context of those binaries that we refuse or that we just can't fit within, to feel seen and supported. I'm certainly glad I read it.

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