Category Archives: Policy Debate

Governance and the myth of the static

Here’s a word every college and high school student should learn: Governance. While it has that authoritative “govern”, it needs to be disarmed and understood as the instable farce it actually represents.

Much of my non-debating time in spent in a professional world known as “governance, risk and compliance.” While I try to limit the radiological exposure to the last term, the first and second comprise a lot of my interest and attention. To debaters who find epistemology and, in particular, meta-epistemology (which I define as the practice of creating meaning-and-interpretation production systems) interesting, this is a remarkably engaging place to work that is most likely not listed on your career survey listings. To give you a sort of aggressive explanation of governance and risk, let’s work with the idea that governance is what we do and what we get when we try to model out a system, based on our best estimates of how a system would seem to work well and keep itself well maintained, and risk is what you get and have to deal with when you ultimately fail at the former exercise. If you’re working for a Sandwich Artistry company, governance would be related to the effort to figure out what procedures and policies make sure you make good sandwiches, don’t give your customers food poisoning, and make sure you don’t over-compensate and cause the company to lose money and go out of business. Risk is the practice of dealing with how you might have gotten it wrong, either in what you did or didn’t realize might happen.

Notice I’ve neglected that third term: compliance. That’s the world of busy bodies with clipboards and checklists who check to make sure a governance approach that becomes promoted into the realm of sovereign interpretation (e.g. becomes a law or some sort of a regulatory requirement) is being practiced based on the interpretation of the clipboard police. While these people are vital to the functioning of systems, they tend to be arbitrarians who don’t understand the very nature of their existence. To them, the law is. It always has been. If you’ve seen the movie Pleasantville, these are the black and white types who are terrified of the ambiguity and complexity of color. They require certainty. The belief in rules assures that bad things will never, ever happen, just as long as all those deviant rule-breakers are punished and kept at bay. Compliance with rules is a very special thing, as it defines their sole purpose for collecting a paycheck. We subsequently find compliance professionals in the socially popular fields of speed enforcement, tax auditors and other folks who live within the mythology that the law is reality. While they might be dreadfully simple people, verging perhaps on the side of embracing totalizing ideas that gladly eradicate difference and exterminate those they can’t quite understand, we need these simple individuals when appropriately deployed to ensure that we architects of process haven’t made boneheaded assumptions that could crash the whole damn system.

Yet this presents a problem for us, especially for those of us who either deal with the creative act of governance construction, or work in the abstract “world of the gap” of systemic risk management. Professionally, we often struggle with our compliance peers as they take that which we constructed to be doxological truth (as if God passed the rules off to Moses and we are left to accept it without question). I’ll be the first to admit that many (most?) architects of process are guilty of inattention and distraction. Once something’s built, it’s no longer interesting. We need Ward Churchill’s “little Eichmanns” of compliance to monitor the heat of the engines we made, given the good chance that the whole damn thing will blow up if we didn’t get a little detail right. Or worse, reality changes on us (as it usually does). But who’s going to tell these nasty, anti-intellectual structuralists that the whole system has changed, let alone manage them? This is ugly business, indeed.

I first faced this “puzzle of the compliance structuralists” in 1999, when I was the head of service development for a mid-sized Latin America and Middle Eastern digital telecom startup. My boss, the chief operating officer of the company, would throw assignments at me that consisted of things like defining and constructing a new billing practice or a new network engineering practice out of thin air. Consulting with him on “strategic direction” (sort of a vision thing that you need to connect with to inform your approach), we’d make policies, procedures, standards, and other things that would construct the particular practice. Words became real.

A year after creating a billing practice, I encountered a problem. We’d hired a bunch of people from a former Regional Bell Operating Company (aka a phone monopoly) known then as US West (which became Qwest and, through the powers of other poststructural architects employed by capitalists in the realm of Hardt and Negri’s Capital, transcended to its current state of CenturyTel) and some of the mid-level managers were running in circles, all confused and unable to do their jobs. It turned out that something in the policy and procedure documents I had written the year prior was causing them serious grief, something unanticipated and quite normal as a company moves through supernormal growth and pushes even the best models you could create at the time. I recall joining the meeting in our large conference room and encountering “Joe” and “Marci” who were both exhausted with stress. They explained to me that they had run into a dreadful problem: they were trying to carry out some activity but it simply was impossible due to the fact that the policy prohibited it. They were absolutely stumped.

I responded “Well, it looks like we have to change the policy.” The reaction I got was akin to Moses saying “Well crap, it looks like that particular commandment sucks. Let’s toss it out and write a new one.” There was an implied sovereign diety implicated in each of the codified policies, according to Joe and Marcy. To change the law, or even question it, was an act of heresy. (Note: For those playing the home version of Radical Realism, the application of the potential to the real, this is a reason we study the problematic German philosopher Carl Schmitt in spite of all of his problems. Schmitt’s Political Theology, for instance, gives a remarkable accounting of how theological things we’d otherwise expect to be rational can be, such as governance and compliance processes).

I won’t go into the theories of why Joe and Marcy believed so faithfully in the “truth” of those policies (that’s an aspect of a lot of the theory I’m subsequently working on now), but I do want to share the realization from that conversation as it unfortunately seems to be consistently found across our various systems, practices and governance approaches. When I had the required humility to confess the failure of my best effort in constructing a particular aspect of the policy (specifically, a “policy control” I had engineered to attempt to keep some specific bad things we were worried about at the time from happening, and subsequently prevented a process from evolving through stresses that temporarily pushed that control space), I discovered I had two colleagues who felt as if they had just seen the Wizard behind the screen. They saw the glimpse of the fiction of governance, being told that this Sovereign Law they believed limited their very existence and practice was nothing more than a fiction that had become real. A mere hyperstition I got wrong.

Given the willing admission and confession that I blew it when my boss and I made that policy control, we quickly moved on and made the company better. But curiously, many controls and governance specifications we encounter in society are guarded by lesser creatures: incompetent policemen who know nothing of the originary fiction of the control’s half-assed narration. They’re the bureaucratic frauds who have assumed the mantel of a practice they know nothing respective to its original purpose, subsequently doxologizing the routine they inherited from their predecessors. Accidental movements become ritual: an incidental, accidental action constructed in response to a singular specific becomes a theological doctrine, imposed with the power of Inquisitional Authority by those who have an utter lack of comprehension of the actual purpose of the initial need.

The conclusion I’d suggest is this: every governance artifact, every rule, law, code, bylaw or expectation, is a consequence of someone else’s past. It might have been useful to them in their negotiation of reality in their time, but there is absolutely no certainty that it matters to yours. In fact, it may kill you, or make you seriously sick. In this world, you can’t coast. You can’t defer your responsibility for questioning the reality you’re confronted with and doing your best to build a model that seems to help you survive it. Failing to think, and assuming you live in a static universe where prior experiences predict the future, only ensures you will have an exceptionally painful and quite possibly fatal experience in a universe indifferent to the general laziness and incompetence of universalizing humans.

Think, engage, model and adapt. And never, ever assume the map handed down to you by a prior generation will get you through life’s minefield.

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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).

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. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/

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.

ISSUES OF CORPORATE GOVERNANCE

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.

REGULATION, AUDIT AND ITS ACCIDENTAL COMPLICITY IN THE FAILURE OF GOVERNANCE

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.

CONSUMER PRIVACY AND MARKETPLACE PERCEPTION

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.

CORPORATE CULTURE AND STRATEGIC TRANSFORMATION

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.

CONCLUSION

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.

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.

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 Amazon.com 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.

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.