Flow-Structuralism and Wolfgang Ploger’s “Make No Mistake about This”

A recent viewing of Wolfgang Ploger’s “Make No Mistake about This” at the Art Institute of Chicago brought forward recent criticism of the hegemony of structuralist thought in the evaluation of policy debate judging. Ploger’s work, which is first approached as a projected incoherence encountered on a clean white wall, functions as an analog to the tabula rasa paradigm. Participants viewing the “art work” localized in the wall-space are presented with incoherence, noise and randomness.

However, the disrupting noise (akin to Serres‘ third parasite) of a film projector and the presence of a grand projector-ceiling-floor loop of moving film attracts the viewer away from the projected message and to the medium of the moving film. It’s upon this medium inspection that the viewer discovers a message inscribed upon the film which, when projected at many frames-per-second, embraces error and becomes perceptually incoherent. Inspected more closely, the film contains written discourse of the last words and testament of prisoners condemned to execution. Rendered mere noise on the projection of the wall/flow, the message is only ascertainable when evaluated within the medium itself. Ploger’s discourse then appears to appropriate McLuhan‘s famous quote: “the medium is the message.”

Contrast this experience with the state of policy debate judging (as re-experienced this weekend). Situated on an elimination-round panel and confronted with a concurring pure discourse affirmative and negative advocacy (Jane Reinhart’s Kansas City Central vs. Dana Christensen’s Millard South), the three-judge panel was presented with an error-fraught flow but a discursively clear medium. While the flow debate was problematic (akin to the phenomenally-experienced error projected image flow in Ploger’s work), the primary channel of the medium itself signified a much clearer message: KCC through both its exclusionary discourse and through its solvency deficit when approaching the discursive realm of the Lacanian Community Symbolic (my counter-reading of Millard South’s Community K/Counter-Advocacy) attains no functional solvency whereas the Negative sustains minimal solvency through the community alt.

An interesting aspect of the round was the commentary from the other judges on the 2-1 decision (I post-structurally squirrelled); they complained of error, dropped arguments (an easy Neg win through offense on the perm debate was dropped) and other problems encountered by the flow-structuralist interpretation of the discourse were spoken about at length. But through the whole critique by one of the two dissenting judges, I couldn’t help but realize that there’s was a critique of the deconstructionist reality that is signified by Ploger’s projected images. Yes, the image was filled with error (this is what happens when one reads walls and not the medium itself). Yes, structuralist rules were broken (but true discourse was in the round and never approached by the flow-structuralist judges). Yes, noise was overwhelming and the flow-structuralists (the other two traditionalists) were frustrated, angered and left making a poor decision. But more fundamentally, these judges refused to acknowledge: error is part of discourse. It’s evident that the flow-structural model of policy debate evaluation is incapable of appropriately handling error, given the consistency of decisions that express great consternation with its presence. Indeed, my prior squirrel was also in a round where the other two judges decided to reconstruct a structuralist debate that never happened, seeking to eradicate the problem of noise and recover a perfect-signal/zero-error debate that never occurred, re-affirming their faith in the Church of Structural Debate.

Yet the third parasite rendered a confident decision in an environment filled with error. How was this possible? Simple: that judge evaluated the medium, not the projected message, just as my 11-year-old (future policy debater) walked over to Ploger’s film and looked at the message-within-the-medium, disregarding the error-filed wall projection and read the words-on-film with little error. Ultimately, policy debate has to determine if it wants to perpetrate the myth of flow-structuralism, leading to even further worlds of irrelevance and absent meaning, or identify if it has the capacity to radicalize, put down the pens, stop requiring the Spectacle of the Flow, and evaluate the debate that is present before it. When presented with discourse-upon-discourse debate (where both teams ask to be exempt from the myth of flow-structural debate), a rejection of the flow-structural method is the only least-interventionist approach to take.

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4 responses to “Flow-Structuralism and Wolfgang Ploger’s “Make No Mistake about This”

  1. Brittany L (MSHS/UTD)

    Obviously I didn’t watch the round in question, but my immediate response is that I find flowing a useful way to approach debate. I find it the easiest way of visually mapping the debate, allowing me to see where arguments clash and helping me remember the debate as it was organized by the debaters. It helps me identify places where arguments go unanswered – I think it’s difficult to justify applying someone’s thesis for them (ie, cross-applying to dropped arguments), when the other team does the work of contextualizing their arguments in opposition to the specific arguments made by their opponents.

    Beyond that, I think the flow is less structuralist than it first appears. It is not a singular thing. Everyone does it a little bit differently, and it means something a little bit different to every judge. It’s interactive, and can be re-organized by clever grouping by debaters. It also allows the debate to be represented both vertically and horizontally – you can read straight down a debater’s speech, or straight across to follow the development of a particular argument throughout the round. You can draw circles and lines to highlight and connect ideas, creating linking chains of interacting arguments. The flow is a process, constructed independently and re-starting from scratch in each debate round. It’s also a format that can be standardized for those who are still learning, who haven’t learned the complex art of creatively re-organizing the flow, and it’s an objective default that most teams can be expected to be at least somewhat familiar with.

    I liked your post though. Definitely adding yours to my reading list of debate blogs.

  2. I’m really glad you reference “mapping” — I think you’re dead on there, but the mapping process itself has some serious problems (ala Guy Debord/Situationists hypergeography as well as Serres cartography). Simply put: maps lie.

    If you thought really hard about where you would place the “technology” (philosophy) of current policy debate flowing (mapping), you’d probably have to place it in the 1800s (perhaps just-post-Kant, if you’re generous). That we tolerate and embrace such flows in a post-structural world of deconstructionism, post-structural symbolic re-identification, dissonance/noise/error and so on is shocking.

    Worse yet, even the most basic approach to the existentialists points out the fraud of the “tabula rasa” paradigm. But I digress/deconstruct… most judges approach policy with the greatest of intentions (greater than any other debate form I’ve encountered). An positive effort that ruptures this flow-structuralist moment is probably necessary to help them identify alternate methods of creating maps and realizing greater conceptualization of the debate before them (vs. the minimalist system they possess today).

  3. i guess i’m somewhat conflicted on this issue. on the one hand, i’ll always line up behind any practice i think helps novices. i think flows (maps) do that (help those that are lost). i also think though, that the maps we ask our students to construct and follow are far too rigid. take brian gonzaba for instance (the blues kid). set aside the fact that he’s about as socially awkward as you can be without being literally alien. if you start talking to him about debate arguments, its very clear that he’s tremendously insightful and often, very passionate. when we attempted to get him to keep a strict flow, he didn’t understand it’s necessity – even as he watched rounds at greenhill of the highest caliber. he came out the round with flows that looked like some sort of avante-garde poetry, but he came out absolutely certain of who won the round, on which argument from the “line by line” and why. he was, in fact, the first person to predict a ludicrous upset at that tournament. the other thing about brian is he’s immensely passionate when he speaks about certain things. if you’ve seen him do his thing you’ll certainly agree. I think this early example illustrates something i believe to be fundamentally true – there are certain very admirable qualities, qualities important to successful debate, that the flow suppresses. in particular i’m thinking about an ability to understand argument interactions globally, or wholistically (as in, interactions between and below particular pages of the flow, argumentative categories, form and content, etc) and passion. certainly if we flowed some of the most renowned and inspiring debates throughout history – lincoln and douglas, murrow and mccarthy, foucault and a variety of other folks – they wouldn’t be very inspiring if we simply looked at the flow, much like the alps don’t look very inspiring on a map. in teaching kids to stick to the flow, we often imply that the flow is all there is. if you win on the flow, you win, right? so who cares if you do it pretty, if you believe it, if it’s correct, or if it keeps isolated ideas that are should interact?

    i certainly understand that there’s nothing intrinsic to something that is supposed to be essentially note taking for the purposes of memory that does violence to things like passion and interactivity. certainly Dr. King took notes. but the process becomes dangerous when the notes cease being reminders of things we think are important to say, or details to help us accurately summarize/characterize our opponents and instead become maps. it’s important to remember that maps are supposed to show us how things look so that we may choose a destination. the flow, i fear, has in many ways become an instrument that tell us where to go.

    brian leads me to another, closing, anecdote that i think illustrates the depths of our insanity, our obsession, on this issue. like i indicated before, brian sings the blues as his 1AC, and if might take a step towards a prideful fall he does so darn well. on one occasion, we encountered a team whose central negative argument depended upon the notion that reading the words to the song carried the same weight as brian’s performance of the song. this strikes me as true only if you believe that the writing on the page, the flow, is all there is (something i’m baffled by, due it’s being so obviously false). on another, and probably multiple, occasion we were asked how one is supposed to flow the blues. our answer resonates somewhere between “we don’t know” (which, judging by the look on their face, seems to melt peoples brains) and “you’re not”. i flow, pretty rigidly. i judge rounds on the flow, sort of (i’ve become increasingly convinced most judges actually decide rounds in the first half hour or so of the round and then use the flow as a post-hoc justification) and i teach my kids to flow. there simply isn’t a viable alternative at the moment. if i adopted a purely “i’m not flowing anymore” paradigm, i’d be admittedly unable to follow some of the most technical rounds and as such would probably quickly find myself really low on pref sheets. i do think, though, that this only reinforces the importance of dissent. there are practices like performance and a variety of other arguments and forms that frustrate our attempts to flow and illustrate exactly these problems jamie is bringing to the fore.

    “Lay off;
    Don’t stray;
    Well, my kind’s,your kind;
    I’ll stay the same!
    Pack up;
    Don’t stray;
    Oh say, say, say;
    Oh say, say, say!

    Wait! They don’t love you like I love you;
    wait! They don’t love you like I love you;
    Ma-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-aps;”

  4. Fred Robertson

    I’ve always felt that judges who were slaves to the flow were damn accountant idiots. I flow but I also think and feel and interact with the discourse in the round, and passion absolutely matters to my thinking.
    Flow slaves are rationalist morons who need to be able to see “flowing a debate” for what is is–a fairly useful keeping track of arguments tool.
    But it should never be as important as thinking and feeling. And despite what the flow slaves think, thinking and feeling are not at all mutually exclusive.
    Jamie and Dylan–holy shit, some great writing! I pick you both up, with 30 speaks!

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