Decentering the Flow in Policymaker Debate (Part I)

With the practice of critical debate approaching its third decade within the cross-examination format, indications of stress on the evaluative epistemology instantiated within judging paradigms appear to be increasingly unreconciled and problematic.

In evaluating and reconciling a “policymaker vs. policymaker” (PvP) or “critical vs critical” (CvC), or other like forms of debate, a judge typically encounters far less difficulty than one where the major orientations of approach derive from dissonant, disparate methodologies. As such, many debaters and observant panel judges tend to note that a judge confronted with such dissimilarities, absent a method that moves outside of the paradigmatic structure. This is particularly a challenge when the “objective” evaluation of the round eludes capture within the native framing of the judge’s paradigm (e.g. policymaker), but is even more appropriately illuminated when opaque claims of paradigm correspondence are made (e.g. “tabula rasa”). Each debater instantiates a claim to a paradigm-corresponding meta-framework, to which a resonance or dissonance may prevail and will tend to be reconciled through less-than-ideal responses which we could loosely approximate to the predominant “fight, flight or negotiate” reactions :

  • Fight — stand one’s paradigmatic ground: Evaluate the round not through the instabilities of framework and the opportunity to move above first to select frameworks, but instead through a strict application of the judge’s own framework. This may result in evaluative absurdities akin to analyzing Stravinsky’s primitivistThe Rite of Spring” through the basso continuo theory more appropriately applied to the compositional analysis of Bach. From my analysis of panel judging, along with the perspective shared from some of the accomplished debaters on our circuit, this option appears to be the more common reaction selected when judges are faced with a problem of “incompatible” frameworks.
  • Flight — flee the framework debate through an escape to the flow: Defaulting to flow structuralism to find a technical decision, a judge may regard the framework debate to be one of little to no meaning on the consequentiality of argument cognitive evolution and judging interpretation (rejecting, in a sense, the Luhmann “second-order” debate for the false stability of the first). This practice is often done reactively, e.g. through the rationalization that a token compatible framework debate was provided to authorize the judge’s escape, and as such, frequently invites reification and over-coding of framework arguments. While liberating the judge to force the “square peg” of the debate’s representations into the round hole of her/his paradigm, the result is hardly predictable nor constitutive of an ethical assessment of the round.
  • Arbitrate — seek a meta-framework debate to “neutrally” reconcile the framework debate: Regressing even further outward, some judges (myself included for some time) would seek a debate above/outside the framework proper, perhaps of an ethics orientation, to situate and select the more resonant and appropriate framework for the reconciliation of the round. Absent universally in the representations by both debate teams, and suffering time constraints and representational norms, the capacity of the meta-framework approach is subsequently limited and of no avail in rounds where team discourse fails to signify into this plateau.

The Problem of the Flow
Before we continue toward evaluations of alternative models for reconciling heterogeneous and disparate frameworks into an evaluative paradigm, we need to carefully examine the non-neutrality of the instrument of capture used by the judge in notating and evaluating the experiment of the debate round. The flow, resonant to a predominantly Aristotelian tabula rasa ideal, signifies an instantiation and capture of the “blank slate” floating above the room, into which the phonetic utterances of argument and evidence are placed into a journal-ideal (of which a paltry copy resides on the judge-as-scribe’s laptop or assemblage of paper sheets). According to this practice, the determination of the debate is readily obtained at the round’s conclusion by the scribe reading through the symbols of signification captured on the flow, applying a scientific, calculative methodology to interpret the signifiers in sequentiality, and determining the linear argumentation outcome, decision calculus and “winning team” based this positivist analysis. Logical continuance or disruption of linear arguments across a duration of time and interval of speeches weigh heavily in this diagrammatic exercise. Through the analysis, “reason” is located and an objective decision for the winning and losing teams determined.

As many should suspect (and if not, they probably would not be found reading this exploration), reason eludes our best intentions of working in such a predictable flow. A profoundly chronolaminalogographocentric representation, “debate flowing” as a means of finding reason is fraught with metaphysical centerings that profoundly overcode the interpretation of what’s “actually happening” within a round. As such, the current judging practice would exert an epistemological and pedagogical violence if enacted literally and without question as to the problematic of the flow. While we’re fortunate that a reasonable population of judges have found the ability to express degrees of questioning on the structuralist problems of flow-centrism (and express small degrees of deviation and independence from its expectation), the force of the form and the absence of a suitable radicalization-of-paradigm continues to represent itself in the signification, evaluation and determination of debate.

Specific to the chronolaminalogographocentric orientation our flow debate provides us, our evaluative medium expresses positive (non-neutral, non-passive in a Foucaultian sense) and reterritorializing overcodings. These gravities center the debate through and across the paradigm’s cognitive sequence of signification, interpretation, representation, evaluation and determination. Specifically illuminated, these intensive orientations express a “reading of the round” that can be:

  • chronocentric: Policy debate functions as a re-presentation, given that the reading of the text of the round is entered in a time-forward sequentiality which places hierarchies of order and rules of interpretation around the chronological sequence. An argument must be initially signified in a constructive speech (though culturally interpreted today as in the first constructive by each team, a practice that has become even more reactionary and restrictive since my time as a high school debater a little more than two decades ago). Arguments placed in time are seen to function in a forward manner and as such, “reason” is found only when these arrangements are adhered to. A new and remarkably vital realization that emerges and erupts in the 1AR/2NR most often will not be evaluated unless there is an already instantiated, similar structure on the flow which it can be hid within.
  • laminar: Reflective to linear flows of information, laminar centerings are typically uniform and undeviating, permitting sequential forms of order as derivatives, but not new forms arising out of clinametic autopoiesis. For instance, language or representational critical violations occurring in a 2AC’s response to 1NC negative constructive arguments, which may be violent and otherizing, rarely permit the introduction of “new” (but not quite, given they arise through the subtle laminal disruption of the clinamen) criticisms arising and inscribed into the block. Rarely evaluated as legitimate, such disruptions are found to be problematic to the logocentrism of the flow and subsequently excluded through paradigmatic norms.
  • graphocentric: As opposed to phonocentrism (where the spoken word is privileged as having greater access to representational truth), policy-maker debate frequently privileges the written. Consider the role of evidence in the round, for example, and the role of the judge calling for cards at a round’s conclusion in order to obtain a correspondence and verification of the truth. The spoken word and its policymaker velocities are fast, furious and ever-so-shady. While there may be substantial rationalization of the defense of this centering of writing, particularly around the conception of the practice in the making of policy, such defenses have quite shaky foundations, including but not limited to the privileging of the author, the restriction of interpretation, and the counter-reading of the round already debated through the new interpretation of the judge post-round.
  • ocularcentric: Represented here not strictly in the Chomskyan tradition, the practice of the representation of argumentation in debate through the flow tends to instantiate a trace into material form through the presence of strong visual “signal” and diminishes the role of noise, parasites and other other-signals that don’t readily encode into the flow. Expressed confidence or nervousness, gestures, a timely glance of hesitation, a pregnant pause all deliver meaning but are left unrepresented as noise to the flow.
  • logocentric: Paradigms do claim privilege in delivering clarity in the cognitive sequence (signification, interpretation, representation, evaluation and determination) and this centering should not be ignored. In fact, a pre-round question debaters might consider asking the judge could inquire into what the judge things would have to come out of a round in order for the practice of policy debate to be furthered, potentially illuminating centerings toward game-playing, reason-finding, speech-uttering or other imputed meanings. Pragmatically, a judge would be expected to find some sense of meaning should the ballot function more than a rendering of uncertainty. That such arrivals at meaning are effectuated by varying intentions inscribed within non-neutral political sites should demand our scrutiny and questioning, even if we’re left ethically acknowledging its inevitability in the end.

Many of these centerings are accepted as is, infused to the practice and rationalized (if cognitively examined at all) as necessary and/or inevitable. We’re told through both policy-maker or critical debates that their representations are more “real-world,” an apparent normative universal which we would expect should have established a paradigmatic agreement. Yet each of the above centerings examined can hardly be described as real-world. In an executive decision-making setting, for instance, the eruption of a disruptive and inherently damaging issue with a proposal, placed into the final speech before the executive panel (2NR) but constituting entirely new material, is absolutely grounds for consideration. Frequently, such observations only come through discourse and it would be foolish to one’s career to claim a chronological privilege in the 2AR before senior management, should one’s opponent have failed to register the otherwise-valid observation until their last speech. As such, sequentiality of representation and laminar eruptions are common occurrences and are warmly embraced in the “finding of reason” in management decisioning. In scientific practices, as expressed through the analysis of Hans-Jorg Rheinberger (Toward a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube, Stanford University Press, 1997), one would expect a scientific process to require the emergence of “reason” throughout the framework of the experiment and not merely limited to sequentialities of data collection across time nor constrained to the initial experimental cycles conducted.

The Purpose of the Event
Moving even further away from the question of the flow, we’re confronted with the question of the purpose of the policy-maker event itself. One would expect that after a half-century of plan-specific policy debate, this question would be mostly settled. Yet epistemological, pedagogical and hermeneutic questions invoked by Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze and others have suggested that the foundational claims of the activity (e.g. “to engage in the finding of meaning through the engagement of confrontational advocacy and discourse”, e.g. Laycock & Scales Argumentation and Debate theory of 1904-1905) are most certainly problematic.

Cognitive of the challenges that confront the stability of debate as a method for teaching and practicing policy-making practices, the event has responded to the challenges in somewhat predictable form. From reactionary rejections of confrontational theory resulting in the construction of defensive castles and monasteries of policymaker tradition, to the perceptually nihilistic engagement of games playing that ignore the question of the collapse of reason in argumentation and debate theory, policy debate has become a challenged landscape.

In spite of these problems, we continue to debate and surprisingly, those committed to the policy form tend to be passionately so. It would be my anticipation that through the identification of the ethical, pedagogical and epistemological resonances that persist across the canvas of policy-maker, critical, institutional elite and subversive up-and-comer, there are paradigmatic alternatives that move beyond the limits of our structuralist orders (policy-maker, critical-theory) and may provide a capacity for a judging model which, while never free of centerings, may express greater awareness, consistency and applicability across heterogeneous representations within and outside the policy-maker debate round.

Conclusion of Part I
“If you are interested in a clinical problem, start back about three steps from where you really want to work. Then you will find out something, although it may not be what you were looking for.” -Edwin J. Cohn

In the second part of this two-part essay, I will explore the framing of the debate through the concept of the experiment, integrating analysis conducted by Hans-Jorg Rheinberger, Avital Ronell, Niklas Luhmann, Humberto Maturana, and Francisco Varela into an approximation of a “post-structuralist paradigm” (for lack of a better name).


One response to “Decentering the Flow in Policymaker Debate (Part I)

  1. This is really interesting; I agree that the “flowgocentrism” of debate is shockingly under-analyzed, considering the nature of the activity. You would think a group of people who spend a good chunk of their time discussing issues of epistemology, truth, and pedagogy would be less lackadaisical about that, but I guess we all have our blind spots. But I think any critique of the flow (especially from your standpoint as an “insider”) necessarily has to consider the question of competitive fairness. I tend to think that the old justification that “if the activity dies, we won’t have any room to consider these things at all” actually rings pretty true. So, in the case, how do you think we reconcile the need to open up space for non-positivist ways of viewing a debate and- as you put it- “express greater awareness, consistency and applicability across heterogeneous representations” with the necessity of maintaining some sort of intelligible, stable access to the W (i.e. “fairness”)?

    (For clarification, I’m certainly not asserting that the status quo is “fair.” I’m just interested in how you understand the relationship between those priorities.)

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