The Esoteric and Critique

Critique is paradox. It demands that we change ourselves and yet settles for the ballot.

Let us consider the statement, “I lie.” Strange things happen in self-referential situations: if the statement is true, then it is false. Conversely, if the statement is false (here one must remember that this is precisely what the statement is saying), then it is true. Thus, one may conclude that the Liar Statement is true if and only if it is false. Given some noncontroversial assumption of excluded middles (i.e., the assumption that the statement has to be either true or false), then we can further conclude that the statement is both true and false. Despite over two thousand years of attention, philosophy is yet to agree on on a way out of the paradox.

A popular solution, inspired by Tarski’s Undefinability Theorem [see his “The Concept of Truth in Formalized Languages,” in Logic, Semantics, and Metamathematics (Clarendon Press: 1956)] is to postulate that self-reference is a special case in classical logic. That is, the statement isn’t speaking about the natural world whose truth could be assessed by Tarski’s archetypal account of truth: the sentence “snow is white” is true iff snow is white (a strange parallel to the opening of the Tractatus). Rather, the statement is speaking about language itself—so the solution to the paradox is to assume that language refers to the world and metalanguage refers to language. If the Liar’s Paradox is a statement in the metalanguage, then it seems that its truth value is neither true or false, so the contradiction mentioned above does not arise (this is essentially a mangled and over-simplified version of Kripke’s argument in “Outline of a Theory of Truth,” inJournal of Philosophy 72).

So what does this have to do with the K? One cannot divorce critique from the context in which it occurs—there is always something negative and destructive about the process of critique, and this is the sense in which we can speak of the parasitic structure of critique. “Theory” was once the same way—it was a response to arguments in debate as they were formulated, and it destroyed old paradigms of evaluation and competition before founding more familiar forms of debate we encounter today. I don’t know if “Conditionality Bad” had to overcome the hurdle of the framework argument in its own heyday, but the K makes a parallel move: critique is not merely talk—it is talk about talk.

A distinction between arguments that occur in debate and arguments that occur about debate should therefore be drawn for the moment. I do not think that this is controversial—at one point, before the advent of “competing interpretations” as a whole framework for evaluating theory arguments, “Conditionality Bad” was more an accusation that the other team didn’t so much as say something bad but rather did something which should not have been allowed. Abuse, abuse! And the K? Zero-point, zero-point!

This is a long, rambling way to introduce the main thesis of this post: the critique is, by necessity, esoteric. I think that it is easy enough to show (in four short paragraphs, no less) that the critique is different from other arguments insofar that it is a meta-argument (an argument about argument). We can grant that other arguments like disads and counterplans are often supported by meta-argumentation (the notion that the winning uniqueness argument is the one that post-datesassumes the meta-argument that this is how we are supposed to value uniqueness claims), but this is a trivial observation as the very nature of argumentation is to sift out “poor” argumentation by reference to argumentation itself. What makes the meta-argumentation of critique different from the meta-argumentation in vanilla disad or counterplan debates is its esotericism. It is easy enough to show that, as debaters, we can both debate and debate about debate. However, what the critique is allowed to say is qualitatively different from what theory about disads and counterplans already say about how we should argue.

Enter the scholarship of Leo Strauss. Okay, only some of his work—I’ll “strategically” dismiss arguments like Drury’s that Strauss was illiberal and elitist. I want to focus on his notion that philosophy is esoteric. Let us consider Strauss’s conception of the birth of political philosophy: the execution of Socrates. Strauss makes a distinction between scholars (those of us who, while generally calling ourselves philosophers, meticulously catalog and reference the works of greater minds) and great thinkers (e.g., a Socrates, someone who boldly and creatively addresses “big problems”).

In his Persecution and the Art of Writing, Strauss maintains that in order to get by, many great thinkers have hidden their “true teachings” in their writings. This might be to get around religious or political persecution, or this might be a pedagogical tactic used to engage the reader in dialogue. In any case, the real meaning of a philosophy is hidden—and I would submit that this love of hiding comes from the fact that politics must be protected from political philosophy as the latter rightly engages those “big problems” which threaten to undo the masses’ fascination with prevailing political mythologies (and here, perhaps I am reading too much Nietzsche into the question—that the belief in progress Nietzsche encountered in his own time was soon to become yet another fable, and that the only way “out” so to speak was to embrace these kinds of fable instead of running toward the oh-so-deadly truth).

Esotericisms abound: Aristotle wrote the way he did because he feared that “Athens might sin against philosophy yet a second time”; Pseudo-Dionysus could not publish under his (her??) own name because of the radical nature of religion outlined there; Augustine had to write to give political justification for the fall of Rome; Descartes (and much of modern philosophy, perhaps) had to make sure to write a scientific philosophy with just enough room in it left for God (and into what strange shapes this God is twisted!–the principium individuationis, the ground of “practical” reason, Nature itself, one big-ass monad, Geist, even a corpse). Worse still, one can always find an esotericism if one looks hard enough.

Thus what the critique is allowed to say about debate is absolutely key to understanding what makes the critique different from other arguments. If critique becomes too radical, a framework argument can easily exclude it from accessing the ballot. If critique is too conservative, a framework argument can easily include the object of critique (generally speaking, the aff) so as to either permute or outweigh the critique. This is what makes critique different—it is not the fact that the argument has an alternative (that is a counterplan) or that the impact is about rights or genocide (that is a disad) but rather that the link is to something that was done in the debate round rather than to something which is advocated (the plan). In other words, if the framework argument does not apply, then one hasn’t found critique.

And this is a strange situation, no doubt, for a community whose mission is the clarification of personal values and the progress of argumentation in general. I am reminded of some old CX-L posts from a former Oak Harbor debater which detailed his/her revulsion at seeing peers eating meat after having read about the Deep Eco K. This debater also probably would have gotten ulcers after reading too much Lifton, but luckily a commitment to eating well probably prevented this. At the end of the day, these posts (which, as a novice debater, I excitedly read in rounds as “K cards”) mused on an interesting version of the Liar’s Paradox in debate. If someone read the Deep Eco K on you and one of the links was to the fact you ate meat, how would the judge handle this? Worse still, let us say that despite running the Deep Eco K you in fact ate meat (and, say, are totally unaware of critical defenses of meat-eating in the literature such at Plumwood’s criticism of vegetarianism) and a “performative contradiction” argument was made regarding the permutability of this link. How would the judge handle this? Nowadays, the personal lives of debaters are shielded from the ballot through the employment of framework arguments: the judge probably reasonably asks him/herself “What does this link have to do with the plan?” Despite all of the excellent scholarship done on the question of standpoint epistemologies, it seems as if debaters are rarely willing to bring their standpoints into the debate unless there is some positive strategic value (and thus the confession becomes just another appendage of the permutation).

I do not like the position critique therefore finds itself in debate. Truly radical notions about transforming not only debate but the people who participate in the activity are marginalized via discussions of the plan. Now, I understand that the plan itself is generally a proposal to change how people live their lives in the status quo. But herein lies the problem: as commentators on the status quo, we often divorce ourselves from both the way we construct and are constructed by the status quo. That is, one of the greatest assumptions of the framework argument—that it is possible to judge a debate round “objectively” in the sense that we could consider the round itself as a special or unique kind of writing about the status quo—defeats the framework argument outright. That is, if objectivity were possible for the critic, then the special kind of link forwarded by the critique becomes “more true” than the arguments made within traditional debate. Granted, this relies on the assumption that the critique’s link argument is won, but this is perhaps the strategic beauty of the critique (the link is almost always there—it is a matter of outweighing which is a problem) The permutation is just an apology for the object of critique, not a defense.

A strategic aside, then. Consider the situation where a straight-up affirmative runs up against a “performance” neg. Usually, on the permutation, the negative will say that the affirmative isn’t a performance (whether this implies mutual exclusivity or something is usually left for me as a judge to decide). This argument demonstrates the neg’s inability to come to terms with the theoretical implications of performance theories: if the neg is right, everything is a performance. In fact, one of the main internal links to the performance K’s impact is that certain performances are excluded from the banner of legitimacy in the status quo—so the neg replicates this structural harm of the status quo via their argumentation in the debate round. The correct answer should be that the affirmative did in fact perform their argument but that this performance is a bad one. Given the tension between making normative statements and the monolithic nature of the kind of links people like to run nowadays, I can understand why some would be loathe to make this kind of argument. It gets worse when a team like Weber State refuses to make their religious arguments about the other team—debate is particularly American in that we have a strange tendency to simply assume that “different strokes for different folks” is a ethico-political yardstick for evaluation. Weber runs the God K and the other team doesn’t think for a moment that their personal beliefs really have a part to play in the debate round. It gets worse still when a team runs a Nietzsche K and their opponent’s response to the “no value to life” contention is “blunts, bitches, and forties” (perhaps I am too jaded by what children think the value to life is nowadays)–and they generally get away with this!

To return to the topic of esotericism, then, the critique necessarily esoteric for two reasons. First, it uncovers the hidden truth of the object of critique (the link level). Second, it itself contains a hidden truth which must love to hide lest the critique become the object of political persecution (what OD calls the “assimilationist model” of critique). I am not advocating a return to the old equation of arm+brick+window… (though, given all the commentary on esotericism in this post, I wonder if I can even be taken seriously at this point). Rather, I am calling on all those so-called critique debaters to account for their beginnings, to ask themselves why they debate the way they do. Then, I am calling for more lies. Every critique should be called the Lie. Everyone should understand that when critique actually happens in the debate round, nobody is allowed to recognize it.

This post is a lie.

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10 Responses to “The Esoteric and Critique”

  1. kevin kuswa Says:

    This post is a must-read. A question we’ll all have to grapple with given the argument here about critique’s “meta,” is whether we should even talk about a permutation–what if the entire idea of a permutation is within a rubric where the critique’s meta has been swallowed up by a counterplan analogy that might not apply in the first place? Why give the permutation any ground at all–it’s just not applicable. Or is it? What is “it,” anyway? Permutation: terror or light saber?

  2. stevepointer Says:

    While we’re pointing out the unfortunate, let’s also point out how the framework debaters also concede to committing the act that is the link to the criticism. Virtually every K that Izak terms as “esoteric” relies on winning the assertion that the rhetorical artifact of the 1AC contains elements that are outside the explicit content of its text. And far too often, the aff never bothers to do either of the two things necessary for them to have a fighting chance in these debates, namely offering an alternate interpretation for the motivation/intent/representations of the 1AC, or offering a defense of the practices that are being criticized. The number of times a Nietzsche K or any strain of psychoanalytic K attempts to link off of the motivations/rationale of the aff, and those motivations/rationale are conceded, rather than contested, and barely defended in any meaningful way is disappointing, at least to me as primarily a judge of clash of civilizations debates.

    Most of this, of course, stems from the failure of many framework debaters to familiarize themselves with the content of kritikal argument, and their refusal to read literature that sounds even vaguely k-ish. This allows many K teams to get away with shallow, distorted, and self-serving interpretations of their authors, and puts the framework team at a serious disadvantage in the game of interpretation that is a framework debate. Unfortunately, many framework debaters can only offer a defense of realism and/or the state (never mind that the context of IR realism that they evidence is largely about is not responsive to many kritiks) in a very nuance-free manner based on short, warrantless evidence. When the framework team learns to develop a coherent explanation of their motivations and defense of their institutions, kritik debate will improve immensely, because it will go beyond the caricatures of framework arguments and turn into an actual debate about the merits of the institutions and methodologies that the kritik is attacking.

    This development will also have the side effect of forcing K teams to become better at the actual substance of the K itself, rather than getting by on impact turning framework and reading their permutation blocks (which tend to isolate the K down solely to a question of “using the state” since that is the easiest link to the perm that doesn’t link to the alt). More nuance and more knowledge equals better debate, for both sides.

    • As usual Pointer, your comments are lucid and engaging. I have been meaning to get to your posts, but as I read them I find myself in almost complete agreement with your assessment of framework debaters’ ability to actually fight the link to the K.

      My only nitpick would be with your statement beginning with, “Nearly all the K’s that Izak defines as ‘esoteric'” as it is my purpose to define THE K as esoteric by necessity.

      I also worry that the distinction you try to draw between the “explicit content of the text [of the 1AC]” relies on an assumedly unproblematic notion of what counts as part of the 1AC. I think our late friend Rorty would agree that the notion of action without cause (cause here can even be read as innocently as the exercise of agency) doesn’t make any sense.

  3. stevepointer Says:

    I also want to highlight a distinction that will make my comments on framework debates a little more clear. In simplest terms, framework arguments come in two varieties, the “theoretical” (which says that the k is unfair/bad for debate) and the “substantive” (which are defenses of the methodology of policymaking). From a strategic perspective, the theoretical framework arguments have the most utility when a critic is already aligned against the kritik. This makes them somewhat problematic in clash of civilizations debates with MPJ, when your critic will probably not be inclined to think that the K is cheating. The reason this is true (for any policy team that read this far) is that the K contains built in impact turns to the things that your framework arguments assume are terminal impacts. If the education we receive from debate is problematic for the reasons outlined in the kritik, and “fairness” is already a rigged game designed to justify an unfair status quo (both of which are claims the K team is fully prepared to go for and win) then why should the critic care if the K is bad for that model of education or fairness? In policy debate terms, the K controls terminal impact uniqueness on your theoretical framework DA. In many rounds, the primary utility of the theoretical framework argument is as an initial negotiating position, to begin the “race to the middle”, where many teams trade away the legitimacy of representation/motivation links in exchange for being able to weigh the aff.

    The substantive framework argument is much more strategic in many instances, as it allows the policy team to access a body of literature designed to defend their practices against the kritik much more effectively, and forces the K team to develop quality second-line argumentation that requires a much more complex explanation of the actual warrants in the kritik. There is nothing many K teams want more than to just be able to impact turn your theoretical framework arguments, and not engage in the substance of their interpretation and explanation of their argument. Meanwhile, the substantive framework argument (provided you can explain it in the terms of the link to the kritik) allows you to contest the link, win an offensive component to the permutation, and provides the K team with less strategic argument options in the block, since the debate is less about debate practices (theory) and more about debate content. And since the K team has already made the accusation that you are calculative, instrumental, statist, etc., these arguments provide them with fewer additional links to generate in the block.

    I’ll close by reiterating the central theme of this blog: go read some books. And get over the premise that the only thing that counts as debate work is processing cards. K debates (and this should include answering the K as well) are more about explaining evidence than reading it, so the time you spend thinking about the arguments involved, learning to explain its warrants, and writing your explanations and applications thereof, are all productive debate work. Cards in K debates are necessary, but not sufficient.

    • Here, as again I largely agree with you, I implore you to cough up a little write-up on Rorty or any other methodological defense of “the middle” that you can think of.

      At the very least, we should collaborate on it. I’m busy generating more K-babble at the moment, but I would love to take a moment and gaze into the mirror of nature.

  4. kevin kuswa Says:

    keep up the comments and the posts–good nuggets in here for sure. kevin

  5. Izak says “A distinction between arguments that occur in debate and arguments that occur about debate should therefore be drawn for the moment.”

    Pointer continues this thought ” . . . framework arguments come in two varieties, the “theoretical” (which says that the k is unfair/bad for debate) and the “substantive” (which are defenses of the methodology of policymaking).”

    If I’m not mistaken, you seem to agree that this distinction is important. Pointer argues that, unless the judge is strongly in favor of excluding the k from debate, then the substantive position is more strategic. It appears to me that this approach is an engagement which “occur[s] in the debate” while the theoretical approach is an argument “about debate.” This distinction is fundamental, so I just want to verify that I’m following the discussion correctly.

    I agree with Pointer that it’s important – educationally – to do our best to argue within the substantive realm when strategically possible. Clearly, the 2002 CEDA finals is a great example of the quality of debates that can take place when this approach is embraced by both teams.

    Thank you all for the great content here. Your explanations are extremely helpful and clear.

  6. […] is an author on this site, he has participated in the Non-Trad Showdown, and written such posts as The Esoteric and Critique. As a debater he was very successful, clearing multiple times at the NDT, enjoying deep runs […]

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