Discomfort, Embodiment, Argument

At the USU national tournament held two weeks ago in Atlanta, BP debaters found themselves confronted with two motions that I believe were the first moments where debaters could have turned debate on itself as a topic. This is something that regularly and easily happens in contemporary policy debate. It cannot yet happen, and may never happen, in BP debate because of the way each format manages the stress of embodying a position.

Embodiment is a source of discomfort, delight, awkwardness, uncertainty, politics and ethics. Being in the world with a body comes with it responsibilities and rights. When we articulate words into the air in a debate, we are sending out something from our body to make contact with the bodies of others. Speech is incredibly personal; the airwaves that make sound are made by the body, and contact the bodies of the listeners. When debating, we often give our bodies over to making arguments, we put our bodies into the arguments we make, we have to - the arguments are spoken, they are a part of us. It is rare that the articulation of an idea that is not our own, or opposed to our idea of self comes along in debate in a way where we feel we have to make it or we are not participating as a recognizable body in debating. However, two such interesting moments happened recently.

These moments come along rarely. At the past USU national tournament there were two such moments where debaters could have brought such critical questioning of being into the debates by invitation of the motion itself:

1.  THR the decline of apparent technical skill as a key criterion in evaluating art.

2.  THBT violence by Palestinians against Israeli civilian targets is justified.

Both of these motions (the second being at the heart of controversy at the competition all on its own without any help from me) offer debaters the opportunity to critique the norms of BP debating itself, and offer for the judges the opportunity to stand opposed or in favor of particular models of debating. But in order to get to that interpretation, in order to allow for rhetorical invention to take place, one must be able to see this as a possibility, both strategically and essentially. In order to arrive at that point, one must drum up, engage with, or be aware of a profound sense of discomfort with the body of debating itself. Formats serve the purpose of embodiment, not only policing what comes in or out of it as bodies do, but also constituting a root of identity, ethical engagement, and discomfort about things (as minimal as touching and as profound as diet or sex). Given acceptance of a general state of discomfort with debate as embodied, debaters can argue the following possibilities:

  1. Debate should not be judged on technical merits whatsoever, but on how we affectively move and feel toward a speaker’s performance. Affect is all we have, and is the root of logic, reason, and law.

Debate’s lack of technical judgement harms those who want to debate in order to make a difference in the world, participating more in showy protest marches complete with selfies rather than getting trained in how to work within the bureaucratic bowels of the beast, as real change will be led by the bureaucratic order.

We should not be constrained by technical rules in debate, we should use those limitations to be generative of argumentation rather than limiting of argumentation.

Technical rules in the evaluation of rhetoric have always had a central place in the production of political messages, we should keep them central in our debate art.

2. We should reject any motion that calls upon us to defend the deaths of innocents under any conditions, and we should leave this room, travel to other rooms at the tournament, and try to convince them to stop debating this motion as well.

This motion places us in the difficult position of evaluating options for action when the political has either dried up or excluded participation of those who are being exploited. Such motions are at the heart of debate education - making the difficult call out of several bad decisions is what policymakers do.

This motion is a call to question violence in debate in general. How often are we called upon to endorse the deaths of thousands through foreign policy, war, strategic strikes, etc. Recognizable bodies are inappropriate for debating, yet Other, foreign bodies are okay. What does that say about what we reinforce in debate? What should we be reifying? (Whatever the team chooses here is their position in the debate).

We recuse ourselves from endorsing the nature of this motion and will not discuss it. We believe this time should be spent discussing the nature of appropriate motions, what they should be like, who should be writing them, and what it means when we give a voice to ideas that threaten our own identities.

Who are we to stand here, in our spare time, and speak about just violence between those we do not know? Can we instead speak about this question? Who are we? What is our relationship to violence? Can we even justify the violence that debating does to us, here, at a university, in a classroom, today?

Such resources are not available to most BP debaters precisely because BP has no critical distance between its rules and policies and its performance. That distance is held there by fragile rules of competition, and has no theoretical backing whatsoever. BP as a form though owes its entire existence to a lack of theorization, to nearly pure pragmatics, and a smug dislike and disinterest in rooting its practice in any text outside of itself. All we need are the words of the winners, and things shall work out. But this eliminates any inventional space for questioning the body. This is important given that all practices in BP (and in most debate formats in general) come from what judges vote on. If you want to change a rule in debating, make it a persuasive part of your practice that judges vote for. Everyone will be doing it in a matter of months.

Compare this to policy debate which has gone totally the other way. Now, discomfort is the heart of the performance, it is required, in fact, you don’t even have to mention it. Everyone assembles out of a profound sense of discomfort with the body of debate. But this discomfort has become so given as to be a comfortable place of departure. Denigrating the body of debate, fragmenting it, questioning it, and calling it out for being a limited space from which to argue or interrogate at all is a universal starting point.

Policy debate has atomized the body of practices of debate by refusing to stop at the point of discomfort and using that as invention. As this became the norm, more interrogation began, but this time at the level of the body constituted by the rhetoric of discomfort. This was another productive level of expressible discomfort and difficulty about the embodiment, quickly replaced with more interrogation on this discourse of discomfort. The space between locating the site of invention of argument (discomfort with the embodiment required by the form) and the critique of those arguments as site for invention of argument (discomfort with the embodiment required by the discourse of discomfort with the embodiment required by the form) rapidly began to accelerate, until today where you have critique temporally prior to the argument that may or may not exist, but has the potential to exist - in other words, one can root argumentation in sites of potential invention to come. This has atomized policy debate; it no longer has identifiable limits. Some celebrate this lack of coherent formation, others believe it to ruin the ability to practice argumentation. At the minimum, policy debate under this description serves a valuable function of questioning when, or even if, an argumentation based on reason and evidence is possible. Policy debate is moving quickly away from 2oth and early 21st century argumentation theory toward a more performance studies/art rubric, where the constitution of the uncomfortable body questions the arbitrary limits of the performance space, the canvas, the museum, etc.

The advantage BP has over policy is indicated here - BP can be presented to audiences without serious adaptation, aside from rate of speed and argument selection. But policy presented to audiences is incredibly difficult, since the starting place is not controversial issues, but the state of controversy given acceptance of the horrors of being constituted as a body. As BP debate becomes more uncomfortable with its body, the more comfortable it becomes with expressing that discomfort through its embodiment. Right now, conversations about the limits, rules, and norms of BP are all that is possible, and they cannot happen within the confines of embodied advocacy, aka “the round.” The question for BP, as debaters start to locate their discomfort in embodiment as a site of argumentative invention will be: How much of the body must be preserved in order to form a coherent critique? Coherency, of course, must remain pinned to a third party, a decision maker. Policy debate did not hold to this limitation and remains coherent only to its own practitioners and critics of the art: “There is no point in making our discomfort with our embodiment understandable to those outside of it.”  BP is insured a bit in this way, as the entire process of embodying arguments relies on those outside of it, since “reasonable people” exist who are not connected to debate - in fact, more reasonable people are in the world who haven’t participated in competitive debate than those who have. Serious adherence to the principle of a reasonable person in the world will be needed to keep the coming articulations of discomfort in the body of BP argumentation from unraveling the body, and the space to constitute a body, in the future.