Category Archives: Philosophy

The Tale of the Sculptor and the Alligator

Jade Alligator
Note: I shared this fable at Nebraska Debate Institute this August during my postmodernism lecture to the Lincoln Douglas Debate Workshop, as a introductory encounter with what I referred to as “poststructural constructivism” (per my Luhmann, Whitehead, Serres and Deleuze influences), for the purpose of understanding the extent of how Philosophies instantiated into Theory and Practice/Politics profoundly shape the possibilities and the limits of such instantiations. Given its positive reception, I thought I’d share it here as well in a little more finished form.

The Tale of the Sculptor and the Alligator

by Jamie Saker

A Sculptor, employed by the Sovereign, was known far and wide for his ability to create remarkable likenesses of creatures from stone. As the Sovereign would conquer new lands and cross rugged mountains, he would send great pieces of rock back for the Sculptor to work: Persian red marble, soft white marble and stones of even more exotic flair. Upon receiving a new stone block, the Sculptor would grab his tools and dive into creation, chipping, chiseling and carving massive stone alligators, each reflecting the color and intensity of their original stone.

One day, the Sovereign sent a rare, large block of jade with a request: “As my daughter’s wedding is soon, I ask that you purpose this special stone and carve her a giant swan. This would please me greatly.” Gladly, the Sculptor accepted the assignment and moved the massive stone into his workshop. Weeks passed and the Sculptor was naught to be seen, keeping himself locked away in his workshop for all hours with the special stone with only the endless sound of hammering and scraping to escape its confines. Mere days before the wedding, a message was sent to the Sovereign that the work was complete. Arriving at the Sculptor’s workshop, the Sovereign was presented with a massive object enshrouded with a single white sheet. “Behold,” said the Sculptor as he tugged at the cloth, “I present my greatest accomplishment yet!” The sheet flew to the ground, unveiling a giant, brilliant green alligator.

Enraged, the Sovereign implored the Sculptor to account for this most improper beast expressed in the precious jade, reminding of his most clear request for a swan, appropriate for the royal celebration. “But Sir,” protested the Sculptor, “How can you expect me to produce such an animal when every rock you send me already contains an alligator inside?”

(credit to Michelangelo Buonarroti and François Laruelle for their influences and to Chris Kraus for encouraging the use of colorful words)


listening to the subaltern: concluding the jan-feb LD topic

With only a few weeks remaining on the national high school debate topic, “Resolved: It is morally permissible for victims to use deadly force as a deliberate response to repeated domestic violence.”, I wanted to conclude with a couple of observations based on comments and questions encountered with the cases my team has shared with the debate circuit.

We’ve run several affirmatives, such as our appropriation of Derrida’s “Beast and the Sovereign” that works through one of his last published works, engaging allegory, fable and other forms of storytelling to make serious questions about the integrity of the social contract so many accept without any question. We’ve engaged Levinas and Zizek in an examination of the site of ethical and moral construction, challenging the naive assumption that all individuals (or really any, for that matter) have access to universal notions for the pre-determination of the morality of a contemplated and premeditated act.

We’ve also engaged negative positions that, to confess, have been deconstructive rather than “truth testing” (a word we had to bend to have some chance of engaging the critical thinking of many who were misled in their education toward believing their metaphysics were unquestionable). By unconcealing and illuminating the centerings implicit in the resolution’s words “deliberate” and “permissible,” we brought attention to potentially undesirable and problematic epistemological and cultural packages that travel along with these signifiers.

What is common to each of the cases is that they tend to challenge the ~framework (let’s refer to this framing/enframing with the tilda to distance it from the commonly used term of framework that refers to a type of debate argument often found in policy rounds between critical and policymaker paradigms). Returning to LD after more than twenty years, I was shocked to discover a proto-religion had taken hold of the event I had loved and excelled within in high school. A new metaphysic of “Value & Criterion” had attained imperial authority and commanded over the interpretation of many a judge and debater, a doxology that emerged well after I had departed the mid-1980s high school LD scene. Some rather suspicious characters were found within this realm: Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Hume and a few others. While of certain historical philosophical interest, they commanded a presence within this frozen snowglobe of an event, delimiting that which was legitimate and acceptable to the sovereign form.

What was most curious was the rigor of its structuralist approach; I often felt as if I was back in undergraduate music theory being told that “all composers use figured bass notation and then a formula of rules they depart from in order to compose their music”… a claim that’s quite difficult to reconcile with the existence of the music of Charles Ives, John Cage, Witold Lutoslawski and numerous other composers I personally identified with. Realizing the significant pedagogical and epistemological harm that was being inscribed upon our debate community, we worked through elements of resonance and dissonance to introduce arguments that, as Deleuze was likened to say of his philosophical adversaries, they would recognize immediately as their own yet be horrified when they realized the extent of the mutation.

I’m pretty sure from some of the judge reactions we’ve had that we’ve been successful in this effect.

Subsequently, the general “theme” of our argumentation has been one where we’ve attempted to approximate a formalist construction (meaning “trying to make our argument look and feel somewhat similar to something the LD structuralists would recognize as ‘valid’, without utilizing their form; think of the proto-Ridleys in Alien Resurrection as a not-but-becoming-abject form approach). We’ve also attempted to create substantial instability in the framing itself (think of the black cat that walks past twice in the first Matrix movie, or the warping and bending of fields under stress). Stressing words in the resolution, shifting the intensity of the resolutional world from visual to infrared or ultraviolet, or moving the ontoepistemological center of the ethical-interpretive event (e.g. where is the site of the reading of the act, to which it can be determined to be ethical or moral) have been aspects of this ~framework stressing and bending, deterritorializing and reterritorializing. To those who have felt the worldview shift in the round, this is very much intended.

Behind this work across strata, there are a few aspects within the approach that merit clarification. I’ll address these around some of the recurring questions we’ve gotten:

Isn’t your case being parametric?
This was a puzzling question for me at first, as Jay can attest from my difficulty at first explaining why it is and isn’t. Akin to Derrida’s explanation that rather than claim the written word was not suspect (to the claim that the spoken is more true and pure than the written), Derrida’s analysis in Of Grammatology is instead to illustrate how both written and spoken word are troubled. Parametrics can only exist when one assumes there can be a totalizing universal that can then be sliced down into a parametric. On this level of believing in universalizations of the debate resolution, this is an assumption that goes unchallenged by most within the current structuralist LD paradigm, but by no means is an appropriate assumption to hold unquestioned. To argue that there are no universals and universal cases, however, is the easy and less-than-interesting answer. The more interesting discussion is the deconstructive analysis, which suggests that instead, ALL LD cases are parametric. To run a Kant affirmative on the domestic abuse topic is to reject 2300 years of Western philosophical tradition, save for a very tiny portion of the Enlightenment epoch, and construct a normative “worldview” from this myopic framing. This parametrization is even more violent when it is considered that we haven’t even included substantial bases of Indian, Chinese and other non-“Western” philosophical traditions (We enjoy debating Spivak and Sloterdijk for many reasons, one of which is the occasional reference to the Mahabharata and other epics).

When decentering from the epistemologies of certain dead white-male European traditions, it can be understood that a case based on Hobbes, Locke and Kant is exceptionally parametric. Our construction of ethics from the perspective of a viciously abused child is also parametric; in fact, one would suggest that from the perspective of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and Heidegger’s ontology, we’re going to have great difficulty constructing any reading of the topic through a case that is not parametric. Whether we’re intentioning through the construction of a young child or an dead philosopher, both texts attain precise phenomenological and epistemological coordinates, narrowing the interpretation through a parametric lens. Rather than claim the illegitimacy of the pervasive and nonunique parametric, the more intelligent question becomes one of comparative coordinates.

I’d briefly note that we could even have some etymological fun in examining the baggage that comes along with the word “parametric”, para: along-side, beside, beyond-or-past (paraphysics), by extension; metric: pertaining to a meter, measured. Of a certain ghost-like presence that isn’t before us, but a specter stepping along-side us in a haunting, taunting manner, applying measurement and scrutiny. When in the company of such judgmental spirits, I’m certain many a devious LD structuralist would rather avoid having their imperialist baggage inspected, their sins accounted.

You’re breaking rules by making us defend the entire resolution
This was a recent and most unfortunate interpretation. One of the core components of counterplan theory in contemporary argumentation and debate theory is the concept of a PIC, or plan-inclusive counterplan. In this argumentative analysis, a word of the resolution is tested in order to stress it and force its advocacy or defense. This is a vital test in both debate and poststructuralism; in the former, a problematic word may be covered over and its debate avoided, with assumptions generally accepted by the debaters often on both sides. In the latter, it’s often the grounds for exploring problematic centerings, biases and cultural-epistemological skews.

Consider a real world application: a new policy is being proposed by the ruling demographic that makes clear sense to those intending it to do good will. But due to a difference in cultural interpretation, a word in the policy may be interpreted differently and have devastating results when it is implemented upon a broader demographic. Would we not want to test certain words, especially when these words have had a history to leading to systemic discrimination, exploitation, and even subjugation, violence and genocide? This becomes even more vital when we’re discussing norms; the cultural interpretation of a word for the construction of a social value can hardly be considered universal in interpretation as the mere historical construction of a word’s meaning is intricately connected to the historico-social production that shaped its rough, resonant form. Words like “permissibility,” for instance, may seem neutral to dominant majorities but when encountered by a minority, is consistently associated with a sovereign who “insists on being the one who gets to permit.” Permissibility, obtaining a permit, isn’t a conscious concern for those who have their papers in order and have paid the sovereign’s fee. Words like “permissible” and “deliberate” are far from neutral and demand careful questioning, particularly when issues of ethics and morality are of our concern.

Once again, the more interesting exploration of the “rule breaking” question is not in the linear defense to the problematic charge, but rather how the charge is impotent while also pertaining to all negative cases debated. As each affirmative constructs an ontoepistemological world (a world conceptualized from a specific ontological coordinate within a framed manifold of epistemological potentiality), each world is an advocacy of a “truth” (or “meaningfully explanatory and predictive resonance of sufficient signal and limited noise”). Each word in the resolution is traced in a highly specific way – either intentionally or not – enveloping certain signifieds within its border while willfully leaving other signifieds out. Consider the resolution:

Resolved: All human beings should be protected by the state from death.

Should an affirmative be questioned on their advocacy of this resolution if their trace of the “human beings” signifier intentionally leaves out “those deemed not human”? Daniel Goldhagen’s important 1997 work Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust addresses this very tracing and suggests the definition of Jewish individuals as “rats, vermin, not humans,” as evidenced throughout generations of anti-Semitic German literature, may have profoundly contributed to the societal “moral permissibility” of allowing millions of Jews, Roma, and other peoples to be sent to their death. Is requiring the Affirmative to defend the evidence of a problematic trace fair grounds? Or rule breaking? And if it’s the latter, to quote a remarkable debate coach and friend Dana Christensen, wouldn’t we have an obligation to challenge and break these rules? I’d suggest there may be a more important debate regarding moral obligations underpinning the framing of debate rules if that were indeed the case.

Aren’t you cheating by not debating the resolution?
This infrequent question has perhaps been the source of greater disappointment than the rest. Hearing a few judges (not the majority, fortunately) repeatedly claim that “I think you’re doing shady things by debating these cases that really aren’t about the resolution” shows the failure of our academic project in debate more than anything. Consider that on the topic of women being domestically abused, raped and murdered, some in our LD world would immediately run to a handful of very dead, old white guys to serve as authorities over what is and isn’t moral. This observation was the very grounds for one of our cases, as we are quite certain that the first thing that pops into the mind of a woman or child about to be violently beaten and even possibly killed, is not: “What would Immanuel Kant say?”

Doesn’t this racing for the “Good Book” of the Enlightenment when faced with a contemporary crisis suggest the slightest bit for concern? Are we really that disconnected and insensitive to an other’s plight? Is this a snow globe of privilege and pedigree? If we have vital projects like Women Under Siege and remarkable artistic, poetic expressions from subaltern women through movements such as the RAWA in Afghanistan, how could one feel comfortable silencing these voices in our experience? Should LD become a “Dead White European Males Only” zone?

I’m certainly understanding of the remarkable contribution this narrow pedigree of thinkers provided for us; Deleuze, Spivak and Derrida (three of my favorite thinkers) repeatedly acknowledge their tributes to the work that they had done, but remarkably, continue the evolution of thought forward. The real statement made in that question is not an accusation but rather a defense: Why are you encouraging thinking in our debate experience when I was told that rote skills, memorization, and drills were all that was needed to succeed. Why are you intending to threaten my legitimacy by rendering me obsolete?

To this final charge, I am indeed guilty. As one aligned profoundly with Ranciére’s pedagogical project, and working intimately in the world of systemic risk, I am firmly convinced that unless we advance our systems of learning to encourage and engage our young people with critical and creative thought, there is sufficient reason to doubt humanity’s long-term survival. The problems we face today are ones that memorization and rote drills cannot solve, nor “depth over breadth” approaches to a silo’ed education. Inter-and-multidisciplinary approaches, crossings of borders, infusions of poetry and aesthetics into science and literature, and continued engagements and challenges of the assumed frameworks, are necessary for our future generations to have a chance at resolving the problems that contemporary thought cannot reconcile.

morality of the victim’s act: thoughts on the 2012 jan-feb lincoln-douglas debate topic

Having judged the January-February 2012 LD topic at Blake a few weekends ago, and being asked to provide topic analysis for some in our debate community, I’ve assembled the few thoughts below to provide some possibilities for exploration. Given the resolution:

Resolved: It is morally permissible for victims to use deadly force as a deliberate response to repeated domestic violence.

Let’s first take a look at some of the opportunities a quick and informal topological analysis of the resolution provides. Typically when encountering a new resolution, I like to “chunk it apart” to look at conceptual areas. For instance, this resolution seems to present at least four large chunks:

morally permissible: we’re talking morality, again, sigh. Rant on this NFL ontotheological bad habit later.
victims: broad and open to considerable interpretation as we’ll discuss.
deliberate deadly force: not accidental, in rage, but premeditated.
repeated domestic violence: note the repeated frequency; definitions of domestic violence will be important

As mentioned, I tend to first chunk a resolution and then deconstruct off of the conceptual chunks. I’ll then push the interplay further; e.g. what does one chunk’s interpretation effectuate with respect to the others. In the prior resolution, I chunked it into triads and ended up examining “left chunk” “middle chunk” and “right chunk” debates, and did analysis on the first two tournaments to see where the focus appeared to be. Because LD debate is an extremely normative practice, meaning judges interpretations mean much more than your creativity (as we’ve seen from Blake ballots indicating we dominated the technical debate, but the judge just refused to believe in our underlying premise), you will want to monitor how your reading of the resolution resonates with how the circuit tends to norm it. LD is particularly hostile to experiments and interpretations outside its highly hegemonic normative doxology.

Chunking and Deconstructing
Ranting aside, let’s play with this resolution’s chunks.

1. Morality: An early decision we have to make is how we’re going to handle the concept of morality. I will rant again here that the NFL has no business imposing theological concepts upon what should be a secular practice. Debaters have no business preaching, nor do they want to be preached to. Any sufficient reading of moral theory will provide the grounding into theology. Subsequently, we avoid this problem and interpret morality through a poststructural reading as “ethics” (Todd May, an Anglo-American analytical philosopher who has crossed the bridge repeatedly into the Continental world, with respect by both, deals with this particular issue carefully and competently). So, we tend to understand that we’re making a determination of ethics through this re-reading and will be prepared to defend this interpretation through May or others. Because of the capacity for a rather toxic, otherizing debate, I recommend that religion simply be left aside in debate as it only serves to polarize, divide and will never persuade or convince.

2. Victims: The resolution expects us to talk about domestic abuse victims. We have a bit of latitude to play here but I’d strongly encourage us to think about the profound normative shaping the LD community tends to have on its tolerance (or the lack thereof) in interpretations. In CX debate, squirrel cases, parametrics and radical interpretations may have a judge shaking their head partially in amusement at the courage of the team running them and daring a topicality and framework challenge, but it’s usually left to the debaters to define. Rarely is this tolerance and respect for interpretive creativity permitted in LD. LD has established norms and forms and you’re expected to comply; variance either invites judge hostility or rejection. It’s unfortunate, given the mountains of pedagogical theory and research that shows this very reaction to be quite damaging to the educational process. But deal with the reality and be prepared for its consequence; my own interpretation has been to push the edges a bit but recognize we have a Luddite audience with very little tolerance for new forms. I’m reminded of a former Omaha Symphony conductor who said he’d love to perform much more contemporary literature, but his audience would hang him. So he’d play a bit of what they wanted to hear (Beethoven, Mozart) and occasionally push their ears a little (Shostakovich, Mahler, Stravinsky, which was 50-100 years old at the time and still considered too edgy and avant garde; this should help one understand why much of the LD practice in Minnesota hasn’t yet evolved past Immanual Kant’s philosophy which is amusingly treated as contemporary and theoretically relevant, rather than historically curious).

So with your victims analysis, you’ll want to resonate as it’s an easy place to find commonality with your judge and their restrictive normative and interpretive worldview. Children, women and other diminished individuals in domestic power relationships are givens and are likely to do well with the majority of the judging community. I’d particularly love to see this pushed, but wouldn’t advise it before other judges. Victims in other minoritarian relationships are particularly interesting topics: the subaltern (ala Gayatri Spivak’s remarkable thinking), victims in same-sex abusive relationships, and other more difficult terrain is intellectually interesting but again, may move you out of your judges comfort zone. To think of the big stick cases, I’d suggest women victims of male abuse is the most accepted interpretation, followed by children (this coincides with what I saw at Blake; children were actually quite rare).

3. Repeated violence to the victim: Shifting the topic order (since we need to talk about this next in my analysis), we need to understand what defines the victim as one. You’re going to need to think about this and draw some brightlines as there is debate on this interpretive ground. Do I have to actually physically abuse, or is verbal abuse ok? What about the threat of abuse? This represents some rather fascinating ground, but again, your judging may not go there with you (we brought a Lacanian negative that deals with a worldview of psychology that is quite predominant outside the U.S., and explains that even with the killing of an abuser, the site is constructed in the victims head and the killing will never remove that site of violence; killing is not an alt. Judges hated it and refused to engage it as a possibility). Using the “What is a typical middle class teacher/educator interpretation of what would be abuse” model, you can and should look for a big stick interpretation here. Beating the holy crap out of someone, leaving the bleeding, breaking limbs, cigarette burns and all the horrifying imagery seems to meet the threshold of the normative readings of the resolution; repeated incidents appears to be key.

4. Deliberate deadly force: You’re going to need to think about whether actual killing is part of your case conception, or merely the right. Much of the debate I’ve judged on this topic so far merely insists it is a right that shouldn’t be taken away, but doesn’t go so far to necessitate it. That’s probably an intelligent debate and literature definitely supports it.

Chunk Interplay
Looking at the interplay between the chunks and looking toward the effectual intolerance of the general judging normative practice, I’d suggest that you have at most a single degree of freedom in your case construction, necessitating the remainder of the chunks fall firmly within the norms. There’s not a lot of reason to push the edge on chunk #4 (deliberate deadly force), nor with #3 (repeated violence), you probably can and should stay safe and work with a morality=ethics interpretation given the community doesn’t seem to want to debate theology (except when it does via ontotheological philosophers which might explain Kant’s popularity in Minnesota), and this leaves you with an independence on the victims interpretation. This becomes a sort of plane that the case would want to function and resonate within.

Again, this is how I’ve read the topic. Play with the technique, theory and interpretation and engage in your own dérive (make your own detour!). I’ll continue based on these assumptions and share a bit of what I’ve seen in judging.

Case Assemblages

Let’s talk about some actual case constructs, both ideas I’ve played with as well as a few seen and judged:

I. Feminism
Remarkably, this topic has seemed to be somewhat open to a feminist aff strategy. I’ve judged it at Blake and feel that at a minimum, a third-generation feminist grounding will probably resonate well on the topic, depending on how traditional your feminist authors and their associated movements tend to register with your judge. You will probably have little difficulty with a liberal feminist interpretation. Given a single degree of freedom, lock down to a conservative reading on all the chunks except victim, and then construct the victim as female against a violent individual or system, and interpret the ethical justifying calculus through feminist theory. This is actually an intelligent and conservative debate on the topic. Before most judges, they’re unlikely to reject it given most actual human beings with intelligence and compassion tend to recognize feminist issues as legitimate. With a critical judge, there are some remarkably interesting debates to be had here.

Liberal Feminism: Many of the policy Fem K files will have decent materials here, and you’ll probably find a few LD files around too. I’m far from qualified to speak to this tradition as it is usually the object of structuralist and identitaritarian criticisms from the postmodern and poststructural schools (ask a liberal feminist if she recognizes a genetically and anatomically configured male to identify and construct their gender as female-in-male-body, but then elect to engage in “lesbian” relations with genetically-female bodies, and you’ll find extremely rigid structures that reject these constructions and demand anatomy of males fix their gender constructions).

Anarchist and Radical Feminism: This is a remarkably interesting terrain and connects strongly with the right of the victim to use deadly force. You’re probably facing an uphill battle with mainstream judges. I’d love to judge it (and there may be something coming out from us on this interpretation…).

Black Feminism: Another wonderful plateau that I’d love to see debated; it advances thinking that has tremendous pedagogical value. Uphill climb, though perhaps a little less than the anarchist and radical “tradition”.

Postcolonial and Third-World Feminism: This plateau requires two degrees of freedom, per my topic analysis. You’re going to have to open the interpretation of the victim to a broader and more abstract subject, such as Gayatri Spivak’s subaltern. You’ll also need to deal with the abuser and quite likely (re)construct it as a structural, systemic violence, to which the subaltern should have a moral(ethical) action of deadly violence against it. This is a complicated case and very uphill for most judges. It’s also in the area of poststructural postcolonialism that I tend to stay up night reading, unable to put down, and would freak out if I were to judge it being run well. If you’re marginally curious about this area (or even a decent human being and want to read something all decent intelligent human beings should read, then check out this short but necessary journal article by Spivak, called “Can the Subaltern Speak?“. Hint: This is where the concept “black women don’t need to be defended from black men by white men” originates).

Postmodern Feminism: Running Butler, Haraway and others from this “tradition” will probably work well in front of a critical-receptive judge. Strangely, the mainstreamer judges don’t seem to accept concepts such as gender being constructed, and they are quite often oblivious of the presence of biopower’s productive influences on social systems, structures, language, discourse, etc. Foucault, Derrida, Lacan and others have much to say in this greater resonance to postmodernism but is a fierce uphill climb before all but the receptive.

(concluding the section on feminism, I’ve absolutely neglected a great deal of thinking, including tremendous thinkers like Irigaray, but ask you to take your own dérive and create your own path here; it is a responsible and remarkably ethical debate to bring, even if you do end up with close minded judges in the end).

Child Abuse: This is a good plateau for a non-critical topic, with literature ( and scribd) that deals with issues of children killing abusive parents, children with schizophrenia (linked in some research to this abuse), etc. We debate a case in this area and I think it provides for an intelligent big stick, given that we have to ask how we construct what is moral and ethical. As a poststructuralist, I do all I can to help people in society become aware of the myth of the universals they tend to believe protect them from the monsters out there (when actually, as Sloterdijk observes in his just-translated masterpiece Spheres: Bubbles, the opposite is quite true. Humans who believe in universals for protection are much like the baby chick that is born out of the shell, sees the chaos and complexity of the world out there, and rejects it, shoving its head back into the shell that had such unifying simplicity. This lasts until the fox walks up to an oblivious chick with its head hidden in the shell, ass stuck up high in the air, and chomps the little chick down for dinner). In our interpretation in this area, we look at where ethics (morality) should be interpreted. Do you want to be a sick universalizing bastard and condemn a little child as immoral and going to hell because she or he didn’t consult Immanual Kant’s three critiques and deem what was the moral universal before lashing out after being violently raped the 30th time? This approach seems to resonate, though I’d encourage you not to copy, but dérive, explore, play and make the idea of “where is the morality being constructed?” your own. An opportunity for this follows.

Prostitutes, drug addicts and other social “undesirables”: Society has a lot of people it tends to look the other way when they get violently abused. Throw-away people, as some might deem. Approached ethically and sensitively, this provides for a powerful debate that any judge with a pulse would feel like a total asshole for rejecting. This is tremendously important to note: you don’t approach these topics with trickery, nor with a will to win. You approach them because they are stories that need to be told, in spite of our preference for not noticing them as we step around them on the city streets or drive past them as they suffer in a rural trailer. Is a woman forced into prostitution morally just in striking back when she’s violently and repeatedly abused? Are you a debater willing to stand up for someone most others refuse to even think about? In this case, I think the key again is to look at “who is the moral judge” – by creating this kind of debate, it becomes disgusting to impose some dead white European like Kant and his preachy, problematic universals. “Well, you’re not moral because you didn’t consult Kant.” Ugh. You don’t have to dislike Kant to see problems with this rationale.

So far, I’ve talked about chunks and cases. What seems to matter more on this topic is the ethics-within; attributes of the plane that the debate is constructed within. A conversation I had during the Dowling tournament with Millard West head coach Fred Robertson seems to be relevant to this meta-debate discussion.

As we talked about the new January-February topic, and my disgust in having yet another “morality” topic (per the rant above on its appropriateness in secular debate praxis), Fred shared an interesting observation. Per my recollection, Fred said something to the effect of “You know, the last topic was a disappointment. It’s a serious issue and I think the framers wanted to see an actually discussion of the topic, but instead they got mostly theory debates. I’d love to see someone just debate the resolution.” If you know Fred, he’s a remarkably intelligent and compassionate human being that wants to see the best for people. I thought Fred’s analysis on the old topic was impeccable: I’d see 70% of an affirmative case arguing pre-empts, standards for the Neg, and a dozen other setups for a theory debate, and then with less than two or three minutes, a shell of an affirmative case.

I felt that Fred not only had a point, but that perhaps there were others out there that agreed with Fred. I thought I sensed that in several other coaches and judges in our region and recommended that we try to actually debate the resolution on this very serious topic. At Blake, this feeling was very much validated. There is a tremendous opening for running narratives, telling stories, or setting up a basic case debate and being prepared to demand the same from the Neg. No theory trickery; this is a real issue. But to do this, you have to be original. You don’t need complicated theory arguments or difficult philosophy; actually, I’d suggest those work against you in this approach.

Factoring the Personal: A Warning
I do need to discuss a complication on this topic which has to do with individuals personally affected by the topic. In the Iowa circuit, we have the case of a debater who is a victim of domestic abuse and has made tremendous progress in moving forward from it. You need to approach this round and your opponent with compassion and care and not make this a personal topic, ever. You may not know that someone debating abuse in the abstract might actually have been (or is still being) abused. You don’t know that the very evening after the debate concludes, your opponent may face the possibility of going home to encounter these abstractions and universals in the very real manifestation of violence in their household.

It’s for this reason that I am strongly angered with anti-ethical advocacy of any sort and don’t respond to those games (I’ve encountered a “rape is constructed in the victim’s mind” argument once in cross-x debate on a negative argument made by two novice boys at an Iowa tournament in policy three years ago, mocking a sensitive and responsible case two girls were running, which resulted in zero speaks, a loss, and an ejection warning. These are always interesting things to have to explain to a fellow head coach; usually they agree with the consequence).

That said, the extreme cases are fortunately rare, but we need to acknowledge that in the case of abuse, it’s less rare. You need to approach each round with an ethics of compassion and care for your opponent and be responsible enough to not construct polarizing situations that may wound and hurt.

Intending not to end on a minor chord, your case has a capacity to create a meaningful moment of real discussion and exploration. Approached as an exploration of the difficulty of the minoritarian subject embodied within the resolution, you have a tremendous opportunity to construct and share a view into the phenomenon and experience of that other. I’ve been particularly critical of some of my judging colleagues for their apparent unawareness in the consequentiality of their normative practices, but would also acknowledge that their behavior is nonunique and quite consistent with the broader societal experience. In spite of that uphill climb we might face when intending to debate more aggressive thinkings, I have found that most of the LD judging community intends to be decent, compassionate human beings. If you approach the debate in a commensurate manner and bring a creative, thoughtful and sincere discussion, you’re probably going to do just fine. Don’t be about the win; let the win occur when it finds a resonance and a thoughtful debate.

I’d engage questions in the feedback area if you have them. Good luck debating and don’t be afraid to write that second case on something less common, for that rainy day you encounter a judge who might just love to see it debated.

Simon Critchley on Space

“Space is alien, frightening and terrifying, other than through scientific laws which explain its motion but don’t give us the meaning back. Gnosticism comes back in a new way; we live in a world indifferent to us. If we want to create meaning, we have to create another world.” – Simon Critchley, European Graduate School lecture, June 4 2011

A Pragmatic Justification for Competitive Academic Debate

© 2010. James R. Saker Jr..
email: noise -at- thirdparasite . com
Distributed under Creative Commons License. Attribution Non-Commercial. Cc-by-nc.

With new debate programs under consideration in the Nebraska community, I wanted to share my support through the illustration of the value of the programs to the education and practice of corporate governance. The usual justifications of debate program proposals often advance the value of debate in expanding the student’s capacity for the development of argumentation theory, persuasive advocacy, analytical reasoning and research skills. While I certainly don’t mean to diminish these invaluable skills and concur with the accuracy of their identification with the competitive activity, I wish to highlight a less frequently identified aspect of debate which is both more relevant to the pragmatic “business orientation” of today’s secondary and post-secondary academic programs.

As a governance, risk and compliance (GRC) professional responsible for enterprise and technology risk management for a global financial processor, I coach, judge and advocate high school debate because of my recognition of the activity’s role in advancing the exposure and familiarity with critical thinking skills. Many on our regional circuit know me as one of the more “critical judges” (which derives from the critical theory label) which tends to perplex those who would expect a corporate type who debated during the 1980s to be of the traditional “policymaker” paradigm.

In my role as architect and leader for our risk management initiatives, I’m challenged with the responsibility of transforming the interpretation, integration and application of “risk thinking” across our global enterprise. Applying the emerging theoretical expertise from critical and post-structural theory, I’ve increasingly valued the pedagogical capacity of debate’s “critical thinking” aspect in the development of future young professionals who will possess the conceptual skills necessary in addressing a whole new set of problems. Globalization, busting economic bubbles, major global demographic shifts, the end of consumer anonymity and the failure of the regulatory model in preventing systemic market risk are all challenges our future professionals will immediately face in their careers. Yet little of our structured academic program engages our students with the awareness of the emerging systems of thought that provide opportunity for an answer to these new challenges.

While the core academic program will continue to produce candidates capable of functioning within the current system, critical debate provides a rare framework which delivers our future architects for advancement of our businesses, institutions and society. With the proposals for college CEDA/NDT debate at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and considerations of program additions at Nebraska and Iowa school districts, I wanted to share a sampling of the application of this critical field of thought and illustrate some of the context and relevance our students experience through the practice of competitive debate. The following four issue areas represent a specific aspect of governance, risk and compliance, where a student with critical debate experience would obtain familiarity with concepts prevalent in the debate realm.


Do systems of corporate governance suffer from dynamics that facilitate the permanent erosion of authorized policy and procedure? Do our corporations engage in the autopoietic generation of quasi governance systems to a state where corporate policy is permanently extended and controls eroded? What is the impact to enterprise risk when the policy controls of the institution are systemically excepted?

Debaters familiar with Italian post-structural philosopher Georgio Agamben’s work are introduced to vital concepts that illuminate tendencies in governance systems to expand to the extra-legal state, often through the mechanism of exception. Although originally intended for the evaluation of political States, Agamben’s State of Exception provides exceptional theoretical foundation for this corporate governance analysis and the emergence of the existential threat from the expansion of the condition of exception to authorized corporate policy. Both descriptive and prescriptive, Agamben’s model is useful in assessing and counter-acting the erosion in policy controls within institutions.


Why do efforts to protect the economy and its consumers from systemic risk fail? Is this failure – illustrated by market meltdowns, exposures of systemic breaches in corporate ethics, financial accounting fraud or product safety nightmares – caused by a shortage of regulations and regulators? Or can it be blamed on the deficiencies in audit and accounting methods and procedures? Or is each failure a unique, unforeseeable occurrence society is unable to predict or prevent? Or is there perhaps a structural flaw that is inherent in our systems we don’t yet understand?

Debaters researching the 2010-2011 high school debate resolution will almost certainly encounter Hardt and Negri’s vitally relevant text, Empire, encountering an application of German sociologist Niklas Luhmann’s social systems theory. While Hardt and Negri evaluate the applied theoretical landscape of hegemony, imperialism and post-modern constructs of statehood, Luhmann’s underpinning model provides exceptional descriptive and predictive capacity for anticipating the failure of a regulator or auditor evaluating an assessed entity. Problems of second-order communication are of particular concern, and should Luhmann’s model be correct, neither more regulation nor additional auditors engaging through current second-order practices will have any meaningful change in the realization of unanticipated systemic risk and impact. Alternative methodologies will need to be developed and employed in order to respond to this phenomenon.


What is the role of the corporation in the safeguarding of consumer information? Should personally identifiable information, including consumer preferences, medical records, credit histories and other attributes that identify the behavior and orientation of a specific consumer, be further utilized for the advancement of product customization and the enhancement of the “consumer experience”? Are there risks in the aggregation of disparate consumer information sources that could incur reputational risk from consumer backlash? And through what framework – legal, ethical, moral, social or other – should the corporation evaluate this capability and commensurate risk?

Continental French philosopher Michel Foucault, who’s examination of the application of biopower in social service systems was predominant in the 2009-2010 high school policy debate season, evaluates at length the concerns of a surveillance system. Foucault, and numerous others who have followed his analysis, provides debaters with an invaluable orientation into the risks of surveillance and the role of authority in social systems. Debaters who become familiar with the works of Foucault and followers will likely possess greater understanding of the inherent perceptual risk associated with systems of surveillance, particularly as applied to the digital marketplace.


How is corporate transformation facilitated? Why do corporate cultures tend to decay to a state of regimented, stagnant, silo-structural dominance? Why do extensive hierarchies and vertical organizations tend to struggle in the globalizing marketplace, particularly when we’ve been led to believe that stronger hierarchies with increased central power are the solutions for problems in our economy as pronounced through a growing central government? If expansive hierarchies are not the solution to corporate and economic transformation, what are alternatives and how are they employed?

Philosopher Gilles Deleuze and sociologist Félix Guattari, predominant in advanced critical debate circles, provide ground-breaking theories on the relationship between hierarchical and decentralized structures. D&G’s analysis of rhizomic (decentralized) vs. arboreal (hierarchical) systems, the behavior of cultural territories, the conceptualization and application of multiplicities, and numerous other concepts are significant in addressing organizational transformation. Other predominant critical debate authors, including Continental philosopher Jacques Derrida, who is notable for his development of deconstruction as an approach for identifying and moving beyond systems of binary conceptualization, and Slovoj Žižek, notable for criticisms of capital particularly in a realm of increased globalization and interdependency, provide ample ground for the discovery of new methodologies for the re-engineering and ethical transformation of institutional process, program and enterprise.


Competitive debate, particularly oriented around the critical analysis of our society, systems, institutions, policies and cultures, provides an unparalleled educational experience for our students in the introduction and advancement of critical thinking skills and concepts.

Acknowledgment: I’d like to recognize a notable University of Nebraska at Omaha leader who inspired me in my practice of high school debate and encouraged me to look deeper in questioning the rules and norms of the institution, recalling deconstructive opportunities inherent in paths left unexplored at earlier forks in the road. To Dr. Otto Bauer, retired UNOmaha vice chancellor, published debate theorist, Air Force Academy debate coach and Northwestern University debater, I thank you the encouragement you gave to the many generations of debaters you reached.

Of Clinamen and Rilke Vortices

I’m perpetually amazed at the capacity of memes to arise out of laminar information flows and stochastic background noise and surprise us both individually and socially in a manner that Michel Serres appropriately describes as “islands rising out of a sea of chaos.” In his work Angels: A Modern Myth (which is a major component in the current Fremont-Mills (re)constructive policy debate affirmative), Serres attributes the capacity for systems of order to arise out of randomness through the function of Lucretiusclinamen, described as the least angle conceptually possible that unexpectedly swerves from a straight line.

Placed in Euclidean space, a laminar flow of fluid information passing in a perfect direction (akin to the vertical flows of The Matrix perceived from outside) until it is distorted the clinamen, bending its perfect direction to the least significant of disrupted angles. An interruption. Knock at the door. Dis-Order. Missed tag on the flow. Inspiration. Parasite.

Once bent, the flow becomes self-aware, asking the question of the parasite’s presence. This invites further clinamen and instantiates a gravity of local order. Lines bend inward and give rise to a vortex of new order. It’s this capacity of randomness to disrupt a linear flow of disorder and give rise through intelligence to locally stable orders of thought centered around the pull of a temporary gravity. Misperception brings flows into its re-interpretive local order.

This past week, I encountered the clinamen’s curious influence. Reviewing the wikipedia entry for pop artist Lady Gaga (which has become a popular item in the household), I noticed her indications of influence by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. As one who studied five years of German, I have to confess that I’m incredibly inept when it comes to the poetic arts, having for decades misperceived science to be the primary path toward a new information theory. Rilke’s name functioned as clinamen, pulling the meme’s trajectory slightly off of the plane. Later that afternoon, Rilke arose again as I opened my just-arrived Gadamer Truth and Method out of its packaging, only to be presented with a forward in the book from a Rilke poem.

Twice again Rilke would arise in less than twenty-four hours, most recently in this morning’s Nietzsche reading:

For Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror,
which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed by it because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
-Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies

While I’m rather confident Rilke’s memes didn’t actively seek me out, the experience is one we all encounter: the clinamen interrupts often by accident, but once caught by its singularity, our course bends into the swirl of a new vortex. Fresh perspective. Ascending island. Disorder and the parasite create new meaning.

Momentary Vortices of Clarity

One of my favorite experiences encountered when pouring through a new work, uncovering new terrain, is the rare but profound illusion of clarity that may arise. I’m well past referring to those moments as illuminations of truth; I’ve spent too much time with the thoughts of Jacques Lacan and Michel Serres to believe such pure truths are approachable (mere approximations are my aspiration, at best). Perhaps, however, they’re best recognized as moments of new creation. A new synthesis. A witnessed vortex.

Earlier last week, we encountered over a foot of snow followed by blizzard winds in excess of 40 mph. Jay and I spent time looking out our back sliding glass door where periodic snow vortices gave rise to temporary moments of order, arising out of laminar flows, etching near-perfect ellipses below and embracing life-like presence as they danced before us. Eventually they disappoint, lifting away or deconstructing into insignificance and chaos. Temporary moment, policy round, new song by a favorite artist, ascending in experimental form only to drift away.

Of Debate and Angels
As our local debate circuit experienced, we cut our first Serres affirmative (one doesn’t dare call a Serres-influenced case a “critical” affirmative) in one of those vortex moments. It functions on multiple levels, as I’d imagine Serres would certainly encourage, embracing pedagogy, hermeneutics, post-epistemology and other aspects of comprehension. As a first iteration, the case operates as a black box, helping us understand the expectations of our circuit’s condition of discourse as much as it does to introduce Serres to the circuit. In this primary respect, the bidirectional discourse is exceptionally true to the philosophy Serres. We use this case as a team and school who has no tradition in debate, let alone policy debate, and the evaluation, reaction, criticism, inspiration and argumentation that occurs within the round as well as outside (especially through the conceptual engagement of the judge) are all moments where the initial vortex forms. Being outside the institution and discursively naive, another parallel.

But this first swirl is fleeting and immature. There is much work to do as we share the experience of the Serres contribution. While I plan on a greater introduction to his thought and why it’s overdue for a significant presence in policy debate (as well as elsewhere), I thought I’d provide a first iteration of post-constructive explanation to those who are curious and courageous enough to venture here. It’s a fragment at best; no system or totality. Vortexes don’t work that way, they come and go as experiments.

Post-Deconstructionist Interdisciplinarity
Serres is an creative, positive optimist. We’ve had decades of post-modernism (more than a century, if you recognize the critique of German Expressionists like my favorite, Franz Marc). Ultimately, the post-modern led to Deconstruction, Derrida, Dismay, Disfunction, Delusion, Deleuzian, Distrust, Discouragement and other Depressions. Left with scraps to defend, fragmentation, schizophrenia and psychosis. Akin to a Millard South Fight Club case (with or without aquafication), there was a rock bottom to realize to the (post)modern. But where does one go past this bottom?

Often, when one’s lost, we retrace steps. Question earlier forks taken. Serres, described as a truly amodern philosopher by Bruno Latour, returns to pre-Socrates in his origination of a new fork. Serres is shockingly radical through a rejection not only of the Enlightenment’s claim that natural science has exclusive access to reason, but rejects over two thousand years of institutional construction on science, reason, time and culture. It’s usually at this point that the PhD in Philosophy, frustrated at all the “great poetry but incomprehensible constructions” throws the book out the window, protecting his decade investment in an established institution of thought. The Church precedes the Faith. But for the rest of us who are more interested in uncovering “that which exists past deconstruction” — the open door to the next epoch, the subsequent plateau, the emerging island of order in the sea of chaos — Serres presents one of the strongest indications as to the location of the door. And if you’re a debater who is skeptical of the puppy-mill format of policymaker debate, realizing it’s yet to attain a single net benefit after four decades of practice, chances are the door Serres opens to the realm of the reason we’ve excluded might just be for you.

All indications are that this next island is one where the attribute of interdisciplinarity is a primary strength, both individually and socially. Breadth, not depth, is key to understanding the challenges before us. Particle colliders approximating energy levels within a second of the Big Bang. Billions of hungry Hiroshimas rotting in silos. Nanobots seeking a grey goo meal. More than sufficient depth with no progress in understanding. The singular march of Enlightenment’s Science has birthed the Society of the Idiot Savant.

A second hermeneutics arrives. This potentiality is an curious one, for should it resonate in the next island’s construction, it will have a powerful synthesis that advances systems that embrace difference. The philosopher of relational metaphor, post-modern systems of difference are replaced with temporary orders constructed of unique likeness. Can it be that the post-modern of homogeneity that gave rise to Third Reichs and other great de/reterritorializations can suffer its final critique? Certainly much mischief resides in the next epoch, but one has to wonder just how significant the heterogeneous systemic value will affect the systems of order built upon it.

Vortical Iterations
When approaching such a (re)construction of philosophical thought as Serres undertakes, explanations of the thought requires more than illustrating difference. Serres’s unique conceptualization of time, history, rejection of the Enlightenment’s Ju-Piter (separation of the natural sciences from the social sciences with a unique role of the hyphen), significance of relationship as primary and subject/object as ancillary, the post-Marxist ascent of the first world creating a third and fourth world in structural poverty, the post-structural semiotic role of prepositions as messengers in semiotic systems of meaning, the role of chaos and uncertainty giving rise to systems of order, and so on are all major explanations in themselves.

Indeed, as several astute critical case writers have commented, “there’s a hell of a lot going on… probably way too much for a constructive case” when covering just a small part of Serres. With that simplification in mind, seeking a momentary discursive clarity, the next few weeks over the holidays will hopefully provide an opportunity for this exploration and coverage as the next 1AC vortex conceptualizes.