Post-Structural Judging Paradigms

A work in progress that I’ve been remiss in communicating is my effort on communicating a post-structural interpretation of policy debate. I’ve had many discussions through post-round criticism and out-of-round discussion regarding this interpretation but as a serious work-in-progress, it’s expression has been notably absent.

Having squirreled three times this year (once in policy, twice in LD), I’ve paid careful attention to the panel presented and the nature of the squirrel. I’ve felt that this analysis would be beneficial in the representation and communication of my paradigm; something any person seriously concerned about the pedagogy of debate would be mindful of. This weekend’s squirrel at Westside (Nebraska) in novice policy semifinals was for a Barstow team, against a Millard West team I had just previously voted up in quarterfinals. The squirrel and its post-round discussion by all three judges illuminated the source of difference. As Deleuze would say, it was an intensive difference, not extensive difference.

Beyond Stable Meaning
A clear difference in my approach to the round is in the stability of meaning. Derrida illuminated serious problems in post-Socratic meaning through his deconstruction of Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Rousseau and others who embraced logocentrism (spoken word as true and the written as shady and questionable). Curiously, logocentrism continues to be a dynamic in the round, but an even greater question of hermeneutics (theory of interpretation) comes into play in many rounds where it is assumed that Enlightenment’s scientific approach to reason will unveil the absolute and error-free truth of the warrant. It is this Enlightenment hermeneutic that I’m terribly at odds with and tends to present the clinamen for the squirrel (clinamen is represented here as the least deviation from the laminar flow that gives rise to the vortex of a different order — a new conclusion and an independent outcome, as approximated from Michel Serres’s interpretation of Lucretius as expressed in Genesis, The Natural Contract, and Angels: A Modern Myth).

In my interpretation of the warrant, I’m fully comfortable with warrants being signified and re-signified through a system of volatile and dynamic meaning. Stable meaning is a myth: walk in the shoes of a risk manager in a global corporation and you’ll experience first-hand the extreme uncertainties of “Things that are Stable and Not Risky” go radical on you and give clinametic rise to the “unexpected” vortex of the existential-risk black swan. Meaning is shifting, unstable, uncertain and filled with noise.

Subsequently, I approach the presentation of warrants (evidence) as within this system of instability. I find it relevant to apply the claim signified to the warrant, especially given that the claim is usually made at reasonable speeds and the warrant delivered at a velocity far beyond. I find this to be pedagogically consistent, given that in the executive decision-maker climate, most warrants are rarely questioned and claims accepted unless there is reason to question the provider of the warrant. Senior executives tend to rely on the claim presented (and expect tacit representation of warrant) given that the ethical construct is one based predominantly on trust; get the warrant wrong and you usually won’t be along very long.

The Hermeneutic Experienced
An instantiation of this difference follows: Imagine an critical affirmative 2AC presents Berube’s wonderful 1997 warrant that claims that deontological impacts must be evaluated first (that delicious “Five horsemen of the apocalypse” card by former USC debate coach and CEDA theory guru Dr. David Berube). But imagine further that the affirmative claims the card says that “Beer solves poverty.” Now certainly my judging panel of policymakers and college-attending judges will recognize this card and find that claim to be absurd. As soon as the Negative puts the most minor of offenses on the flow (say, referring to their 1NC utilitarianism card and giving a warrantless claim that it’s a better card, and leaving it that), my fellow judges will gladly leap into Interventionland, determining the “beer solves poverty” claim to be fictional and failing to access the “real truth” that’s within the Berube card.

I contest that this is blatant, un-creative hermeneutics. First of all, to make this leap to a “fixed truth of the Berube card” destroys the potentiality of Derrida and deconstructionism. It goes well beyond that, in fact, denying the capacity for the counter-read. It deprives the 2AC from uncovering a new approach to meaning of the Berube evidence. But furthermore, it’s exceptionally interventionist and, I dare say, disqualifies a judge who makes this leap from claiming to be tabula rasa (on this note, I’d suggest that such paradigms are mythical in a system of fluid, unstable meaning).

Instead, I see the 2AC resignification of the Berube as an establishment of a temporary point of order — a footprint (Michel Serres) to which the affirmative seeks to instantiate a new local order of meaning. When presented, I see the least interventionist hermeneutic model as one that accepts this resignification until there is counter-advocacy sufficient to disrupt and re-re-signify.

The Hermeneutic Applied
So how does a team apply and integrate this hermeneutic? First of all, as I explain to any team approaching a panel, I strongly recommend playing the numbers. I’m a game player as are many, and advise teams to work the numbers. If two of the judges are college age policymakers and I’m the questionable third (as Michel Serres would proudly associate), play to the majority. But should you encounter my paradigm in the solitary, or have the capacity to integrate it with your advocacy to the judging panel, the following method may be beneficial.

Consider our Berube scenario: the 2AC has given us a counter-read (regardless of whether this was innovative, shady or outright confused). The Negative should recognize that I will accept the new system of signification absent a reasonable challenge. But what constitutes that challenge? Certainly not a 5-second analytic saying “The 2AC gives their Berube 97 but our 1NC Smithee ’08 is better.” Instead, draw out the Berube, re-re-signify it, or contrast it with the Smithee ’08. Best of all, contrast it, provide me a hermeneutic micro-framework of how to interpret the decision between the two cards, and call for the cards to be read through that framework at the end of the round should they be material to the ballot. I find this approach to be least interventionist in a system of unstable meaning and find great comfort evaluating the competing hermeneutic framework debate (at which even I conclude that we have to “fish or cut bait” and determine a temporary moment of stability through the hermeneutic framework in order to derive a ballot). I typically find that framework through the process of locating resonance-of-meaning and finding that resonance as a signification of a temporary order capable of offering and sustaining the hermeneutic model. This resonance model itself is something that merits further elaboration and exploration in a future post.


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