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Contemporary Critical Debate - the Consequences of Familiarity

booksKritik debate faces a significantly changed set of circumstances from those when I first began debating in college in 1999.  At the great risk of writing an old-curmudgeonly account of the decline of kritik debate I want to outline some of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we might be able to go.  Likely this topic will occupy several separate posts. 

First, we’ve experienced the move from marginality to ubiquity.  Products of this move include the danger that familiarity brings either contempt or presumed shared understanding.  In terms of contempt, because it is no longer particularly difficult either to access evidence or deploy an increasingly community-wide terminology part of the process of kritik (kritik-as -verb to use a passé phrase) that distinguished much of both the style and content of critical debating has faded. 

The uphill battle that people faced earlier in the history of critical approaches in debate forced a great deal of attention to clarification of previously unknown vocabulary and concepts.  The high degree of immersion needed to pull off that explanatory and persuasive task imposed it own set of judging barriers but also required outlining the conceptual arrangement of a given theory.  As it becomes more difficult to convey the feeling of depth and critical engagement given the familiarity of argumentative terminology the way that many chose to re-energize these debates is to search for novelty.  We’ve run through the introduction of a wide variety of names and terms new to debate—Agamben, Zizek, Nietzsche to name a few—in part because philosophical systems/perspectives that use distinct terminology offer the opportunity to ask for greater involvement from judges and display difficult explanation on the part of debaters.  I applaud the innovations that this process of moving through different components of political theory, philosophy, rhetoric etc. made possible.  However, we have to face the issue of terminological overload.  The variety of systems of thought that any debater or judge is expected to have some familiarity with has expanded dramatically.  This problem forms the basis for many framework arguments that try to limit what is argumentatively available. I doubt that response can ever do much against the strategic and intellectual pressures opposing that set of limitations but that is a subject for a different set of posts.  A different response is to cope with the variety of content by utilizing unity in form.  The category “kritik” would be all but useless given the different systems of argument grouped under the heading except their translation into a relatively recognizable and stable form to ease communicative burdens means many of these arguments end up sounding disturbingly similar even if their perspectives would be incommensurable.  This is the danger that familiarity brings complacency.  We’re fortunate to participate in debates where shared understanding of the theoretical concepts in play enables a sophisticated discussion.  However, we also share plenty of conveniently strategic misunderstandings.  For example, in rarely facing the prospect of having to explain the concept of a discursive formation as used in Foucault but instead referring shorthand to “discourse” (often used in debate as basically synonymous with the words we speak) allows us access to a whole set of debate-game constructs that don’t have much to do with the evidence we read. The frequency with which we mix-and-match different concepts hurts intellectual coherence but is rarely easily available as the subject for clash with an impact.  So, criticisms of framework that focus on the reasons a kritik is “prior” sit uneasily with positions strongly in tension with the notion of linear priority.  We use the language of “representational kritik” in a variety of contexts that strongly take issue with the concept of representation itself.  This makes meaningful clash more difficult. 

Part of our problem is the tactical advantages available to teams unwilling to discuss the conditions of possibility for the system of thought of either aff or neg.  Often, a negative kritik would just as soon pretend that large swaths of an 1AC have little or no interaction with the concepts being criticized. Link specificity becomes a means for avoiding broader clash or explanation/acknowledgment of the underlying concepts of a position in tension with what we would prefer not to debate.  I admit, I’m consistently an advocate for this type of strategizing.  In fact, I’d be surprised if I don’t write a future post on the legitimacy of affirmative-inclusive kritiks.  Nonetheless, bear with me for a moment in assessing the negative consequences of this set of strategies.  I’d prefer to label this the “not our Zizek” problem.  Once again—pot, kettle.  Yet, we face a significant problem insofar as much of the evidence that would be useful in these debates isn’t written with the highly selective conceptual deployments of debate in mind.  

            Sampling different portions of a theoretical system may quelch kritik by pretending that there are no meaningful distinctions between theories or consequences of the theoretical premises of a system of thought. This evidence discussing potential pitfalls in an eclectic treatment of different theories speaks to some of our present dilemma.  Sure, it’s almost as long as the rest of the post but I just can’t help myself when it comes to making evidence too long.  This isn’t even evidence that one would likely ever read in a debate but I think the criticism of “eclecticism” connects well with our issue of diverse content simplified by familiarity of form—understanding this issue might help with a whole set of arguments that are likely to be most effective as analytics:

Joan SCOTT Harold F. Linder Professor at the School of Social Science in the Institute for Advanced Study @ Princeton ‘5 “Against Eclecticism” differences16:3 p. 114-117

I want to argue in this manifesto that the current invocation of eclecticism, while perhaps a necessary protective strategy, can nonetheless lead to a permanent silencing of the critique that certain theories have enabled. I take my definition of critique from Barbara Johnson, who writes: A critique of any theoretical system is not an examination of its flaws and imperfections. It is not a set of criticisms designed to make the system better. It is an analysis that focuses on the grounds of the system’s possibility. The critique reads backwards from what seems natural, obvious, self-evident, or universal in order to show that these things have their history, their reasons for being the way they are, their effects on what follows from them and that the starting point is not a (natural) given but a (cultural) construct, usually blind to itself. (xv; see also Brown and Halley) In writing against eclecticism, I am endorsing neither dogmatism nor purism nor orthodoxy—though it is hard to write this without seeming to do that. I do not want to suggest that we work exclusively within the confi nes of a single theoretical frame; indeed, I think selective use of several theories is fine. I am not issuing a call to the fallen to return to the faith. I am not denying the innovative potential of recombination, hybridity, or bricolage. I am in favor of transgressing disciplinary and theoretical boundaries and of confusing categories and I am not against change. I even think that iteration can be subversive because it changes meanings (but, of course, I learned that from Derrida). What I am against is the notion, implied in the uses of eclecticism I have cited, that we are no longer foregrounding conflict and contradiction in our work, no longer subjecting the foundational premises of our disciplines or, for that matter, our era to rigorous interrogation, no longer asking how meaning is constructed and what relations of power it supports, but instead applying so many useful methods in a common empirical enterprise in which even radical insight is presented simply as new evidence and the conceptual foundations of disciplinary practice are left safely in place. Eclecticism, in the highly specific usage I have referred to, connotes the coexistence of conflicting doctrines as if there were no conflict, as if one position were not an explicit critique of another. The aim is to ignore or overlook differences, to create balance and harmony, to close down the opening to unknown futures that (what came to be called) “theory” offered some twenty or thirty years ago. This “theory” has a long philosophical lineage from Socrates forward and including the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, but I want to confine myself in this essay to poststructuralism and especially to deconstruction. “What is at stake,” writes David Carroll, “is a certain relation to the possibility of (necessity for) movement, reevaluation, transformation in general, the future not as the logical outgrowth of the past and present, but as the indication of and relation to what has not been anticipated or programmed” (2). This opening to the unknown comes through the examination (even the exacerbation) of controversy, the study of incommensurability and unrepresentability, the probing of undecidability. The point for scholarly work, Carroll continues, is “to force open and undermine the traditional boundaries of the disciplines so that they will begin to admit serious, critical, theoretical investigations within themselves and thus be receptive to their own transformation and rethinking” (22). In contrast, eclecticism is not only conservative but restorative; it seeks stability and reconciliation, not innovation.

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