Against Argument; or, 25 Notes Toward a Descriptive Pedagogy by Way of Stephen King and Jacques Rancière

 

Courtesy of Stock Snap.

1) Twitter can be a pretty disingenuous place. The tricky thing is that to call attention to any one tweet, however atrocious, risks making a mountain out of a molehill. But as a teacher of writing, literature, and communication, I’ve found myself returning again and again to one particular molehill, and that’s the molehill on which Ben Shapiro keeps challenging then-Democratic candidate, now-Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to “debate”:

For her participation in his podcast, the former Breitbart editor offered $10,000 to Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign or to the charity of her choice. It would be an ideological sparring match for the ages! The vanguard of intellectual conservatism versus the voice of Millennial progressivism! Whose ideas would prevail? Whose vision for America would prove the better-reasoned? Ocasio-Cortez declined with a clapback:

What’s so remarkable about this tweet is the x-ray vision with which Ocasio-Cortez sees through what Shapiro called “a real conversation about the issues” that would make “America a more civil and interesting place.” Shapiro, of course, has no interest in this sort of conversation; if he did, he wouldn’t have to bribe progressives to come on his show. I’m sure that Shapiro would love to—and probably believes that he could—best Ocasio-Cortez in an honest competition of ideas. But competitions like that rarely exist in US media, where news increasingly resembles reality TV, and especially not in what passes for “debate.” As Aisling McCrea writes in The Outline, “The aim of debate is not to provide a detailed, cogent, well-sourced answer to the question at hand. The aim of debate is to be the most convincing, not the smartest, and anyone who’s good at debating knows this” (2018). It is the appearance of intellectual seriousness that Shapiro would seize on to elevate his persona, to prove himself a very smart and acceptable public figure. And what masks his “bad intentions,” as Ocasio-Cortez rightly points out, is the sacred status of something that both bad-faith actors like Shapiro and we English instructors hold dear: argument.

2) When academics in the humanities produce knowledge, they do so by way of argument. An argument attempts to convey new or revised knowledge—typically framed as a thesis or main point—and it validates that knowledge by presenting relevant evidence in a series of comprehensibly-ordered subpoints. Evidence can involve a spectrum of materials, ranging from facts to interpretations to personal experiences; but in all shapes, evidence serves to demonstrate an argument’s soundness and salience.

3) While arguments do sometimes take place as verbal collisions at conferences or in post-lecture Q&As, when we define academic argument, we tend to locate it in writing, often in the peer-reviewed pages of monographs and journal articles. A collection of written arguments constitutes a “discourse,” and the purpose of argument is to alter the constitution of that discourse (or multiple, overlapping discourses) so as to make it more accurate, expansive, inclusive, and so on. In “They Say / I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing (2005), Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein put it thusly: “the best academic writing has one underlying feature: it is deeply engaged in some way with other people’s views” (2014, 3).

4) If Graff and Birkenstein were to revise They Say / I Say for 2019, they might replace “deeply” with “sincerely.”

5) In the early-to-mid 2000s, the assumption that argument engages sincerely with the views of others might have gone without saying. What bad faith actors have demonstrated in recent years—though by no means is this a 21st-century development—is that Reprehensible ideas tend to turn people off. But express a reprehensible idea along with a semblance of evidence (even if completely untrue)—and do it on a stage where that idea is presented along with competing others (a debate, for instance)—and even the most acrid positions can be made palatable.

The ultimate prize for bad faith actors is discursive legitimacy. Once they’ve made it to, say, CNN, they’ve already won—the actual argument, who wins and who loses, is immaterial. This is how evil goes mainstream: not by triumphing over other ideas, but by resonating with audiences who would otherwise rarely find their ill views or inklings echoed. This is how white supremacy becomes the “alt-right,” and how the alt-right becomes the Right.

6) Before we teach students to make arguments, we should teach them to separate good- from bad-faith arguments.

7) I’m also going to propose that in order to equip students to make arguments in good faith, we instructors need to shift our focus from the act of argument to habits of mind. We should ask: which practices lend themselves to the cultivation of meaningful arguments made in good faith?

8) Like so many others, I was a college freshman when I learned argumentation, and I learned it from They Say / I Say. I read the book in the second semester of my freshman year, in a course called “Process, Prose, and Pedagogy.” The seminar was a prerequisite for working at the college’s writing center, and in it we examined pedagogical approaches to composition that, as I soon realized, most of my peers had already encountered. But the Graff/Birkenstein model was news to me. I read the book and felt like I’d been given the cheat codes to college. What in the previous semester were rant-like, disorganized interpretations of texts soon transformed into clean identifications of (1) what others thought about a work of literature, and (2) how my thoughts differed and why. B’s turned into A’s and, eventually, grad school.

9) The first time at the University of Virginia that I was granted my own composition classroom, I was eager to spread the gospel of They’s and I’s. In the writing assignments I designed, I required students to use at least three of Birkenstein and Graff’s much-contested “templates,” plug-and-play sentences that modeled the essential gestures of argument—for example: “I agree that ________, a point that needs emphasizing because so many people believe ________” (298). I assumed that if students could internalize the characteristics of an effective and meaningful academic argument—characteristics like “contestability,” “originality,” and so on—then they would have all the tools necessary for composing arguments themselves.

10) Not so much. Instead, what I received were unnuanced, overly-grandiose claims impossible to validate in the pages of a short essay. Like the Shapiros of the world, my students could only go so far as to dress in the costumes of argument, never transcending performance.

The course I taught that semester was themed around conspiracy theories, and the biggest thing I came to learn from my students’ writing was just how stupid everyone else is. The downside of dividing the world into They’s and I’s is that beginning writers are so often inclined to characterize They’s as sorely-mistaken know-nothings whose ignorance must be corrected. And yet, what those people didn’t realize was rarely worth their time. Again and again, I found myself reading underwhelming arguments like “People don’t realize that conspiracy theories are a major part of American culture.” I was doing something wrong.

11) To draw from the anarcho-Marxist philosopher Jacques Rancière, my students were adopting the role of the “critic,” a person who “tells people they’re morons because they believe something is happening without realizing that nothing is happening, or that it’s happening somewhere else” (2016, 94).

12) But they excelled at other tasks. Students’ strongest performances came when I asked the class to examine a spectacularly-1.0 website dedicated to uncovering who really killed JFK. (Gil Jesus, the site’s creator, has since modernized its appearance. I sometimes wonder whether that was inspired by uptick in traffic my students caused.)

Snapshot from web archive of giljesus.com.

Although I had asked the students to interpret the site—to demonstrate how the site did not just propose the identity of a new killer, but also spoke to the values of American culture—students spent the majority of their time figuring out just what the hell they were looking at. They were taken by the site’s aesthetic and tonal weirdness; at the end of our 75 minutes, students had mapped on the whiteboard connections between highlighted and colored text, inconsistently placed images, odd punctuation (especially quotation marks and bolding), illogical paragraph breaks, epigraphs, hyperlinks, unhelpful navigation tools, and shifts between active and passive voice. Although I had intended for students to answer the question “What does it mean?,” it soon became evident that students first had to answer the far more interesting question “What is it?”

They were practicing description.

13) I define description as a summation of a text, object, or event that assumes its focus is knowable but not self-explanatory. A writer who uses description believes that language can effectively bring audiences to see what it is the writer sees. Here is Stephen King in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000):

Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant […] Description can begin with a visualization of what it is you want the reader to experience. It ends with your translating what you see in your mind into words on the page. It’s far from easy. (2010, 173-74)

14) For this reason, description, much like argument, demands considerations of audience. To train students to meditate on the positions of their readers—their values and concerns—is always a good thing when it comes to persuasion. What’s more, putting oneself in the mindset of another is exactly the sort of empathetic exercise on which so many defenses of the humanities rest.

15) Description asks the writer to reflect, “What would I see from my words if I were someone else?”

16) According to Rancière, description is both a “differentiatio[n]” that makes clear “what currently exists” and a “way of displacing […] the declared present” (2016, 149).

17) Description resists the prearranged conclusions of what in the last decade Rita Felski (among many others) has called “suspicious reading”: an antagonistic approach to interpretation that assumes the text is hiding something, and makes sure to find that very thing through critical ingenuity.[1] Description has no interpretive agenda; it does not hope to uncover any particular concept or implication. In an interview, Rancière reflects on how descriptive work resists ascription to named schools of thought: “my dominant mode of writing is one in which the method is so wrapped up in the description, in the subject, that it’s pretty hard to work out which major concepts or analytical grids can be readily applied” (101). Description speaks with but not for its subject.

18) Here is a very long and important quotation from Rancière that says more or less everything that I think intellectual work should accomplish:

I’m not searching for something unknowable, the incomprehensible, the sublime, etc. When I’m going to talk about art, politics, emancipation, literature, I force myself to go and look at configurations whose forms of articulation can be studied; that requires work, it presupposes going to work every day […] to go to the library, learn something, write, and so on. For me, that’s an egalitarian maxim. To caricature it a bit, the inegalitarian maxim says that it’s a bit of a bore to have to go out, that it’d be better to stay at home and look at the papers or watch telly to see just how stupid people are, and tell yourself: I must be really intelligent since everyone else is so stupid. The choice of maxim is also this: are you intelligent because everyone else is stupid, or are you intelligent because they are intelligent? That’s a Kant-style maxim: am I betting that the capacity to think I’m granting myself is everyone’s capacity to think, or is my thinking to be distinguished by the fact that everyone else is a moron? It’s also for that reason that I’ve placed a lot of importance on the question of fatigue, that is, essentially, on laziness. You go to work every day like everyone else because you think that thinking belongs to everyone, because you think that the world is not some great unknown—that there’s a whole chunk of the world you live in that you can know about, that it’s possible to understand a bit how it was formed, if you take the trouble. The whole set of attitudes is opposed to the attitude of the intellectual who knows why others are morons, which is roughly the standard deviation of an intellectual. (90-91)

19) Description does not believe that any point “needs emphasizing because so many people believe ________.” Description does not believe in morons.

20) Description assumes that the world is always already intellectually salient; the role of the writer is only to map it.

21) Description is inherently limited, as no act language can exhaustively or objectively recreate its focus. King writes that description is “not just a question of how-to, you see; it’s also a question of how much to” (2010, 173). This wisdom is doubly important in the context of expository writing. Compare the following descriptions of 2017’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, both second paragraphs from Fox News and The New York Times articles covering the act’s passage:

With a 224-201 House vote, Congress sent the $1.5 trillion package to Trump’s desk. The biggest rewrite of the federal tax code since the Reagan administration will usher in steep rate cuts for American companies, double the deduction millions of families claim on their annual returns and make a host of other changes taking effect in a matter of weeks. (Berger, 2017)

The $1.5 trillion tax bill, which is expected to head to President Trump’s desk in the coming days, will have broad effects on the economy, making deep and lasting cuts to corporate taxes as well as temporarily lowering individual taxes. (Kaplan and Rappeport, 2017)

Both are true, but they distribute their attention differently. One emphasizes “American companies”; the other “corporate taxes.” Only one designates “families” as a beneficiary. Only one mentions the act’s duration, identifying the individual tax cuts as “temporar[y]” and the corporate cuts as “lasting.” And only one situates the act in the context of the Reagan presidency.

Because it can only say so much, description is, in fact, persuasive. As such, it is not immune to propagandistic engagements.

22) Last semester, I taught an ENGL 1101 seminar at Georgia Tech on the subject of writer’s block: what it is, how it’s treated, and what to make of the figure of the blocked writer in literary and popular culture. I asked students at the end of each week to write one-to-two paragraphs describing one of the week’s assigned readings, films, or resources. Later, students scaffolded their descriptions into an encyclopedia entry on writer’s block. In comparing variable descriptions of the same text—and demonstrating to students how many ways there are to illustrate the same thing—I aim for students to recognize that to give an account of something is also to make an argument.

23) What kinds of writing or communication projects call for description? Annotated bibliographies, instruction manuals, lists or listicles, pitches to editors, synopses, study guides, review essays, infographics, reading reflections, gallery talks, journaling, reporting, narrative histories, poster sessions, book/film/album reviews, oral histories, maps, memos, introductions to texts or artworks, project proposals, advertisements and promotional materials, whitepapers, poems, stories, podcasts—almost anything besides the thesis-driven paper that dominates introductory writing.

24) If description is an egalitarian method—one that treats culture and its participants as always intellectually valuable—then it is also an act of faith and optimism. Description presupposes that culture is worth knowing and thinking about. This is not to say that description assumes naively that culture is only made up of affirmative elements. Rather, it believes that an examination of any facet of culture has its role to play in an affirmative transformation of the world.

25) When we teach description, we teach students, as Rancière describes of his own method, how to “be[t] on equality” (2016, 90).

 

Works Cited

Berger, Judson. “Congress Approves Final Tax Reform Bill, Handing Trump Year-End Victory.” Fox News, December 20, 2017, https://www.foxnews.com/politics/congress-approves-final-tax-reform-bill-handing-trump-year-end-victory.

Felski, Rita. Uses of Literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2008.

— — —. “After Suspicion.” Profession 2009, no.1 (2009): 28-35.

— — —. “Suspicious Minds.” Poetics Today 32, no.2 (2011): 215-234.

— — —. The Limits of Critique. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Graff, Gerald, and Cathy Birkenstein. “They Say / I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.

Jesus, Gil. “Evidence Oswald Did Not Know the Motorcade Route.” Was Lee Harvey Oswald REALLY Guilty? An Examination of the Evidence in the Case Against Oswald. October 6, 2014. Accessed January 5, 2019. http://web.archive.org/web/20141006201119/http://www.giljesus.com:80/jfk/motorcade.htm.

Kaplan, Thomas, and Allen Rappeport. “Republican Tax Bill Passes Senate in 51-48 Vote.” The New York Times, December 19, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/19/us/politics/tax-bill-vote-congress.html.

King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner, 2010.

McCrea, Aisling. “Resolved: Debate is Stupid.” The Outline, November 28, 2018, https://theoutline.com/post/6709/debate-is-stupid?zd=1&zi=scm6qtkh.

Ocasio-Cortez, Alexandria. Twitter Post. August 9, 2018, 6:32 PM. https://twitter.com/AOC/status/1027729430137827328.

Rancière, Jacques. The Method of Equality. Translated by Julie Rose. London: Polity Press, 2016.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You.” In Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Shapiro, Ben. Twitter Post. August 8, 2018, 1:17 PM. https://twitter.com/benshapiro/status/1027287768437641216.

[1] See Felski’s Uses of Literature (2008), “After Suspicion” (2009), “Suspicious Minds” (2011), and The Limits of Critique (2015). See also Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s concept of “paranoid reading” in “Paranoid and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think this Essay is About You” (2003).

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Aaron Colton

About Aaron Colton

Aaron Colton is a Marion L. Brittain Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He has written on politics and popular culture for Paste Magazine and The Outline. His research on experimental 20th- and 21st-century American fiction and reviews have appeared in Studies in American Fiction, Postmodern Culture, and College Literature.
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