February 23, 2011

Debate and Theory

Peter Gratton over at Philosophy in a Time of Error has an extremely interesting post on K debaters. From his just surface knowledge of the activity by way of interaction from people who used to be/are in the activity he has the practice of K debate pinned down. For example:
"...as I understand it, is that the Continental approach is mostly used by under-dog teams taking on rich East Coast private high schools. Need to take on realist accounts of nuclear proliferation? Counter with a post-colonial critique of the creation of the global south or a feminist critique of phallo-centrism as represented in the use of missile technology (I’m not making either of these up). Apparently, it throws off the better profile teams used to more standard counterarguments, which seems to match Continental’s role in the academy in general."
I would also add to the discussion that the use of theory is not only strategically used by these "under-dog" teams but also because many of these team gravitate towards this style out of necessity (the catching people off guard is just a bonus). "Rich East Coast private high schools" are not just found on the east coast but everywhere, and they are the teams to beat. Policy debate (where teams argue in the traditional means about the desirability of policy actions) requires massive amounts of resources from high capacity printers, massive amounts of paper, large coaching staff, travel expenses, etc. These larger programs are also able to sustain large squads that can be mobilized for high amount of research production. Due to these structural advantages these larger schools are able to excel at the traditional policy style debating because they have the time and woman power. This is because they are able to stay current on research and produce enough evidence to cover all angles and arguments that are involved in a policy debate.

Because of all this teams/debaters from schools that have a small (or functionally non-existent) team need to find ways to be able to have a debate strategy they will have time to manage and research all by themselves as well as keep on top of their school  and life requirements. These easy to maintain strategies normally manifest themselves as the K (critique). A debater will find one author/critical position that they might find interesting (I myself did this with Nietzsche and later Baudrillard) and then do all the research they can possible do to understand that position inside and out, once that is done these debaters are able to go to bat against the best policy teams in the nation with relative success.

The other interesting part of Peter's post was that he was interested in ways that theory can be made more accessible to debaters:
I’m on the SPEP advocacy commitee the next couple of years so this seems like this would be an area where one could advocate for Continental in a certain way, but I’m not sure how: by putting Continental in touch with debate prep coaches? By leading some of these students into Continental friendly programs?
 I thought of a few suggestions myself for how organizations like SPEP could reach out to debaters:

1. Instead of reaching out to coaches, reach out to the debaters- set up a program where debaters who are interested in theory can get help/advice/direction in their research/thought. This could be done by organized web chats or Q&As where debaters can ask questions to be answered by somebody versed in Continental. Or set a "database" where you provide the emails of certain people who are experts in separate fields that so that they can be contacted, this can be broken up by school of thought or by knowledge of figure head type authors (Heidegger, Deleuze, Baudrillard, etc.). Once this is done THEN contact debate coaches and debate discussion boards.

2. Tell us how - Offer information on how to/where to do theory after high school. Many "k debaters" want to go to college and do/study Continental Philosophy but they are not quite sure how exactly to accomplish this. Do they go into the philosophy department, the english department, sociology,cultural studies, anthropology, political science? Sadly there is really no Critical Theory department, so providing information about issues such as this would probably increase the "recruitment" of high school debaters to Continental.

3. Dazzle them - This somewhat jives with #1 but i think deserves its own- Critical debaters are always amazed by great, interesting, applied thought - and this amazement doubles when it can be used by them. Maybe have a group of disparate Continental authors take the current high school topic and have each write a short essay or use it as a starting point to levy a critique/explain their own theoretical positions, give the collection away by having students email one address. Then SPEP has a mailing list of (elated) high schoolers interested in Continental thought.

This is all I got for now, but if anyone reading this blog has suggestions of their own I highly encourage you to post them in the comments here and/or at the post I linked up top.


  1. I won't post a long-winded reply to all of this, but as one of those critical focus debaters (centering my work around Deleuze and Guattari) I definitely resonate with number 2. I've found that the Communications department is a good place to end up for this, but that the lack of just a "Critical Theory" major makes it difficult for us to really know where to take/how to do philosophy outside of debate.

    Hank and I have definitely done this kind of underdog debating and used criticisms from Deleuze/Guattari as well as Baudrillard and Bataille to undermine the structural advantages of large private schools and other schools that maintain large squads/budgets, being that we're both debaters from geographically/economically isolated rural areas.

    I agree with Hank's prescription on #3 though: some sort of actual interaction between professors/academics and the debate community might create a much more genuine blending of thought into the debate circuit as opposed to our current appropriation of academic thought. Peter makes a good point when he talks about the weird nature of some K (critical) strategies:
    "Need to take on realist accounts of nuclear proliferation? Counter with a post-colonial critique of the creation of the global south or a feminist critique of phallo-centrism as represented in the use of missile technology (I’m not making either of these up)."
    Kunzelman is on point here too - i think more often than not some of our strategic choices are more exactly that, a strategic choice (which isn't to say that I haven't, nor that others haven't, used real criticism). We're bending or shifting thought to win the ballot. I think connecting to the academic community could diminish if not eliminate that problem.

  2. I think there's a big problem with #1. As soon as someone becomes an accepted knowledgebase in policy debate, that person is treated like a resource. I know that I have experienced the "You like (insert philosophy), right? How do I win with it?" Now that I'm distanced from policy some, I don't have to deal with that as much, but I'm pretty sure that Scu deals with it fairly often now.

    So sure, opening up that line of communication is cool, but it wears on me, personally. I don't think that professional academics really have time to be explaining Heidegger to a fifteen year old who really wants to beat a prep school team.

  3. That's probably a fair critique of number 1 but that could easily be solved by having it as maybe in a blog like format or message board format where students could submit questions and then the group of answer-ers could pick and choose the ones that were most conducive for real discussion about getting knowledge about and author/position unrelated to the debate/strategy side of it. That way they can focus on "what does ontology mean?" rather then "how do i beat the krishna perm?".

  4. I'm a former NDT/CEDA debater, so these questions are very near and dear to me.

    Re 1: "Debaters Not Coaches".
    The quality and duties of coaches changes from school to school and circuit to circuit. That said, I think reaching out to the whole of HS or even college debate would be very difficult. While we're more than happy to answer emails or something like that, I think it would be difficult to work outside of a small number of mentorships without it overtaking our busy schedules.

    Re 2: "Recruitment"
    I agree that theory-interested HSers are an untapped resource. But it's not like we have some sort of grand alliance of critical theory either. Fields of study are usually disciplinarily organized in the US, whereby theory is a "specialization" or a methodology. Theory's reception is varied and always shifting, a phenomena Derrida calls dissemination and Foucault names dispersed. Even in American Philosophy, Continental is a sub-field separate from Political Philosophy. Or in Political Science, Political Theory is a sub-field separate from IR (and thus Critical IR). Navigating this varied terrain is possible but there's no 'obvious' approach to it.
    [my own person story, is that i made it to an interdisciplinary department that is extremely theoretical. the department is 'French theory' leaning rather than German, but still has quite a bit of heterogeneity]

    Re 3: Applied Work
    Academics don't share debate's neurosis -- especially those tied to the flow or authorship. While some writing styles and theoretical approaches are more suited for carding-out, it's by not means something that an academic would strive for. There is a former debater/coach, Jairus Grove, who runs an extremely fruitful public philosophy blog -- contemporarycondition.blogspot.com/ and one could imagine some academics writing a cluster of texts like this for a debate topic. It might not end up being "useful" in the way debaters might want, however.

    Anyway - good to hear you all have made some connections with the wider academic world. Not everyone's as cranky as Bill Spanos ; )

  5. Re Re #1: I understand it would be quite a large undertaking but look to my response to kunzelman above i think if there is some kind of system set up that can receive/respond selectively to questions that anyone can propose it would solve many of those concerns.

    Re Re #2: What University are you currently at, if you don't mind me asking. I understand you are a PhD candidate currently but i am interested it theory after high school but because of the multiplicity of different paths you described i'm honestly not sure how to (best) do this. (i was probably projecting many of my fears into number 2 lol).

    Re Re #3: I admittedly love the contemporary condition and Jairus (he was my lab leader last summer at debate camp). And texts such as those that appear there would help, but also i tried to convey in my original post (obviously not as successful as i wanted) that the texts produced didn't need to be "debate useful" just informative. Debaters seeing that Continental is interested in them or can do other interesting things besides Link->impact->alternative might be more productive than something "debate useful".

    On a big aside- thank you for the input, i was pleasantly surprised when i saw this comment because at the i had your two new posts about The Social pulled up in tabs for reading when i checked this blog. It's nice to know there are other debaters out there in the blogosphere besides this blog and Scu's.

  6. 1) There have been attempts to do this before. The most effective I've seen is where scholars agree to mentorships. Anything more shared or distributed usually leads to diffusion of responsibility. Not saying its impossible to try new thing, tho.

    2) I'm at the Ohio State department of Comparative Studies. Though there are a tons and tons of diff places where theory is encouraged. All depends on what you like/need/want.

    3) Point well taken. The best format might be one similar to how I imagine Jairus runs his blog - asking guest scholars to comment on specific topics.

    re "aside": thanks for reading my blog. "the social" will be an increasingly important category in my PhD work. its already widely agreed upon as an important site (think 'social-ists' 'social democracy' or even all of the governmentality/neo-lib stuff on 'the social') - but I think new conversations on pro/anti-social behavior, esp v/v anti-social anarchism, is quite provocative.

    consider "Social Rupture" for instance [http://socialrupture.tumblr.com/], whose about statement reads: With every bank robbery, every so-called “pointless” act of vandalism, and every seemingly random attack on everyday life, we see a qualitative rip in the biopolitical tissue. When the word “society” equates to an intense atomization that concurrently sublimates the unwilling individual into a functional citizen enmeshed in the capitalist relationship, we seek refuge in these anti-social acts and can only hope for their immediate contamination of the rest of the population.

    think of it as dick hebdige "subculture: the meaning of style" for the new millenium.

  7. Peter Gratton runs Philosophy in a Time of Error, not Peter Jennings.

    Good replies to this post though.

  8. That's my bad. Thanks for the heads up.

    @AwC: That sounds like extremely interesting work. The concept of these (anti)social ruptures is intriguing sounds like "lines of fracture" to me ;) Good luck in future work, i'm looking forward to it.