Friday, March 04, 2005

Parliamentary Debate and the Cult of Adaptability

“In the present state of history, all political writing can only confirm a police-universe, just as all intellectual writing can only produce para-literature which does not dare any longer to tell its name.” --Barthes

"The Happy Consciousness-the belief that the real is rational and that the system delivers the goods-reflects the new conformism which is a facet of technological rationality translated into social behavior. It is new because it is rational to an unprecedented degree. It sustains a society which has reduced--and in its most advanced areas eliminated--the more primitive irrationality of the preceding stages, which prolongs and improves life more regularly than before. The war of annihilation has not yet occurred; the Nazi extermination can1ps have been abolished. The Happy Consciousness repels the connection. Torture has been re-introduced as a normal affair, but in a colonial war which takes place at the margin of the civilized world. And there it is practiced with good conscience for war is war. And this war, too, is at the margin--it ravages only the "underdeveloped" countries. Otherwise, peace reigns. The power over man which this society has acquired is daily absolved by its efficacy and productiveness. If it assimilates everything it touches, if it absorbs the opposition, if it plays with the contradiction, it demonstrates its cultural superiority. And in the same way the destruction of resources and the proliferation of waste demonstrate its opulence and the “high levels of well-being”; “the Community is too well off to care!”"--Marcuse

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These are only my initial (admittedly provocative and argumentative) questions about an issue that many have posted on in recent weeks on the parli-L listserve.

1. The privileging of style over substance:

The charge towards the "policy-fication" or "flow-gocentric" approach to debate is chiefly that it privileges technicality over style. Is it possible that the cult of adaptability does the opposite? And if the Jon Logings of this activity are guilty of privileging style over substance, what political implications exist to those of us who feel that, rather than training future business leaders or public relations specialists, we are training critical advocates?

Why are we so eager to vilify technical knowledge, the grasp of analytic complexity, and high-level abstract thought? Is there a post-modern assumption built into parli "traditionalism?"

For those more on the critical/activist end of the attack on technicalism, what makes you think that the oppressors will not appropriate adaptable, aesthetically pleasing debate-speech just as readily as (or perhaps more readily than) the oppressors will apropriate hypertechnical discourse?

2. Adaptability as a construct:

Toulmin's world of "Argument Fields" --as was pointed out in an excellent article several years ago by Ted Prosise, Jordan Mills and Greg Miller*--ignores the existence of those fields as real sociological (read material) entities whose power to control acceptable and unacceptable discourse is more a function of institutional and material control rather than the persuasive abilities of authorities and systems. If this is true, then is it possible for debate theorists to come up with a definition of "adaptation" that is in the least bit stable, pragmatic, or objective?

Isn't academic debate ITSELF an arena of discursive struggle whose antecedents are the clashing proponents of political views outside of the institution of debate?

It is at best extremely ignorant, and at worst scandalously disingenuous, to suggest that the form of abstract “accessibility” is more conducive than esoteric forms to a politics of liberation. The argument that a conversational rate of speed, an abandonment of academic and theoretical discourse, and an eschewment of “specialized” strategic positions will more easily veer towards liberation fails even the most elementary tests of logic and empirics. History is full of strong examples to the contrary. All sorts of monsters and murderous tyrants have talked pretty.

There is at least as much reason to believe what we already know in our own minds: A game whose emphasis is strongly on burden of refutation, research responsibilities on the cusp of impossibility, and time-based pressures to manage one’s thoughts and discursive economy, engenders a critical sensitivity that renders its participants far less likely to accept closed systems of totalizing discourse, an appeal to common and ancient prejudices, or calls for violence to supplant reasoned argument.

3. The danger of anti-intellectualism:

Behind every word of those posting that "critiques"/"kritiks" are "not relevant," not on-point, etc., does there not lurk a dangerous functionalism, a thinking that reduces all difference and challenge to safe, civil, self-limited, sterile argument?

Given that what we debate folks do cannot ever be completely removed from the political and economic realities of our times, is there a relationship between the active discouraging of critical and non-intuitive, non-"populist" debate argument and the anti-intellectualism of the recent upsurge in evangelical-apocalyptic Christianity, the over 50% functional illiteracy of the American population, the embrace of cultural icons that discourage, rather than stimulate, critical thinking, the popularity of hate radio's Michael Savage, and the tendency to reduce all opposition to warmaking to "you're anti-American?"

In other words, is there a relationship between the attempt to limit debate practice to a pre-ordained (and inevitably conservative) notion of "relevance" and the watered-down political discourse that greases the wheels of incipient fascism?

[*Prosise, Theodore O., Jordan P. Mills, and Greg R. Miller. "Fields as Arenas of Practical Discursive Struggle: Argument Fields and Pierre Bourdieu's Theory of Social Practice." Argumentation and Advocacy 32 (Winter 1996): 111-28.]

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