Argument as war or play

by CarlD

I was just talking with a colleague about the nebulous modernism / postmodernism divide. My shot from the hip was that they’re basically the same basket of ideas about fragmentation, hybridity and uncertainty, the difference being that the modernists angst or ennui about it whilst the postmodernists dance on the verities’ grave. Incredulity toward metanarratives and all that. (These issues came up recently at Cultural Parody Center as well.)

In this context my colleague talked about something she’d just read that distinguished two basic metaphorical approaches to argument: argument as war, and argument as play (or dance). We’re both players. We talked about how these were lenses that could really help to clarify what happens (or fails to happen) in class discussions. And perhaps protracted blog debates about Kant.

Arguments are not always (only) about what they’re about. If I may indulge in self-quotation for efficiency’s sake, when argument is in the war style sometimes what’s happening is a status bloodbath:

When irrational waste is occurring Geertz tells us to look for ways in which people’s sense of social honor is at stake. Sometimes the particular equipment in play — cocks, novels, philosophical systems, histories, footballs — is far less important to the players than “the dramatization of status concerns.” Certainly we can see this logic being played out in the Olympic games — how else to explain the enormous economic and political capital being spent over dubious accomplishments soon forgotten? A “status bloodbath,” as Geertz quotes Goffman. But can we see this sort of game being played in our own meetings, hallways and classrooms?

Apparently I was saying that war is also a game, but of course the (perceived) stakes are much higher.

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18 Comments to “Argument as war or play”

  1. It depends upon how much you wager (the percent and influence of your worth), which determines whether a hand in poker is “just a game” or not.

    What is the wager of the modernist? What is the wager of the post-modernist?

  2. On the modern/postmodern divide, with special attention to the last sentence.

    [There] are reasons to consider ‘fluidity’ or ‘liquidity’ as fitting metaphors when we wish to grasp the nature of the present, in many ways novel, phase in the history of modernity.
    I readily agree that such a proposition may give a pause to anyone at home in the ‘modernity discourse’ and familiar with the vocabulary commonly used to narrate modern history. Was not modernity a process of ‘liquefaction’ from the start? Was not ‘melting the solids’ its major pastime and prime accomplishment all along? In other words, has modernity not been ‘fluid’ since its inception?
    These and similar objections are well justified, and will seem more so once we recall that the famous phrase ‘melting the solids’, when coined a century and a half ago by the authors of The Communist Manifesto, referred to the treatment which the self-confident and exuberant modern spirit awarded the society it found much too stagnant for its taste and much too resistant to shift and mold to its ambitions….
    Let us remember, however, that all this was to be done not in order to do away with the solids once and for all and make the brave new world free of them for ever, but to clear the site for new and improved solids; to replace the inherited set of deficient and defective solids with another set which was much improved and preferably perfect…

    Zygmunt Bauman (2000) Liquid Modernity, pp.2-3

  3. The relation of war to play to solid and liquid is an interesting and familiar pattern. Wars are fought when boundaries are draw, ideas are rigid, the blockheads on both sides all too rigid in their beliefs. Playfulness is associated with more fluid minds, awareness that meaning flows, and the boundaries are, after all, only those that define the current game. The mention of ennui is also interesting. In ancient China the Daoists go with the flow and prefer the liquid to the solid. In a famous story, the officials sent to offer Zhuangzi the prime ministership of a state are asked by the sage, “Do you know the tortoise embalmed and covered with gold that sits on the King’s ancestral altar? Would it rather be there or wagging its tail in the mud?….. Begone, I, too, will wag my tail in the mud.”

  4. Let’s rewrite that second sentence: “Wars are fought when boundaries are drawn, ideas are rigid, and the blockheads on both sides all too fixed in their beliefs.” There, that’s better.

  5. carlo as I underlined on my own site, i’m interested in the proposition that the shift to postmodernity didn’t actually entail the dissolution of grand narratives, as much as the sight of them in multi-dimensional mode, the knowledge that they were being produced. this referrign to those good products of post-modernism, like the mindfuck movies of resnais or lynch, that do still have a point to communicate. i thought of the everyday insight that life-threatening situations cause your life to roll out before your eyes, like a film strip, indicating that nothing is ever forgotten and there is continuity even as daily life presents itself, often, as fragmented and disconnected. i sure hope that these thoughts won’t cause any WACKINESS from dr. sinthome, though.

  6. addendum and corrigendum: what i mean is even as we nowadays might take an ironic distance towards the happily everafter narratives of old hollywood, we do still CONSUME them massively, and the ironic distancing is often just a way of reaffirming these linear narratives. the knowledge of their producedness and constructedness doesn’t seem to impair our fixation on them. these seem to exist parallel to each other.

  7. P.C.: “addendum and corrigendum: what i mean is even as we nowadays might take an ironic distance towards the happily everafter narratives of old hollywood, we do still CONSUME them massively, and the ironic distancing is often just a way of reaffirming these linear narratives. the knowledge of their producedness and constructedness doesn’t seem to impair our fixation on them. these seem to exist parallel to each other.”

    Kvond: It reminds of the nutrician notifications now ubiquitous on the sides of products, set there to inform us of the “facts” behind the grand narrative lies on the front of the box (ah, cigarettes became only a model). As your girl-friend Zizek told us, we are not only told what is the case (no grand narratives), but also told that we have to love eating right, following the disclosure. Instead, we schizophrenically consume both, weaving in and out of the grand narrative on the box, depending on which “side” we want to turn to us, the front or the back. You are right, the knowledge does not impair, it inspires, now a twin fixation. “Junk” is even junkier, and is sweeter for it (as if people in the 40’s didn’t already know this).

  8. kvond fuck you up your sweet spinozian ass for insinuating that dr. zizek could ever be my girlfriend. I didn’t expect that kind of a WACKINESS from you. I’m not into MALE LESB’ANS for fuck’s sakes!!! and anyway, that cigarette mechanism ISN’T dialectic, as dr. zizek struggles to explain, all in vain attempts at selling some deformed slovenian prothestant christianity to the consumers. you can still sell those cigarettes without the warnings on them, just as you can paste the warnings on anything else. these two discourses exist parallel and independently of each other, not as each other’s flip side NECESSARILY, kvond, reflecting some lost paradise of fixed and straightforward meaning that dr. zizek is lamenting. i am going somewhere else, i want to find out why people perceive something that is a continuity in fragmented fashion.

  9. My dear pc, it seems that the mere drop of your girlfriend’s name has got you all twisted out of sorts. I was exapting Zizek’s point and speaking nothing of NECESSITY. In fact I was agreeing with you.

  10. Thank you both for this vivid demonstration of the themes of the post.

    PC, I like your “proposition that the shift to postmodernity didn’t actually entail the dissolution of grand narratives, as much as the sight of them in multi-dimensional mode, the knowledge that they were being produced.” This ‘standing beside ourselves’ (or ‘double consciousness’, as W.E.B. DuBois termed it in a different context), the increasing inability to live naively in a stably granted second nature (your mention of parallels; and Mikhail’s been talking about ‘parallax’) seems to be the common thread in a whole range of intellectual and cultural products of the past hundred years or so.

    It seems to be modernity or modernism as such that makes it so; it’s not like this is the first time in history that people have come into reality-disconfirming contact with each other, but the modes and discourses of modernity seem to make this a particularly disruptive or at least fretful experience. It seems to harden the boundaries, to use John’s metaphor. I think it’s in this sense that Toulmin offers the argument in Cosmopolis that modernity was an anomalous historical eruption, hegemonic but never totally dominant, to which postmodernism is a balance-restoring corrective. In contrast Latour thinks they’re both costly detours, best junked.

    Kvond, I love the image of the box with its marketing metanarrative on the front and its ‘facts’ on the sides that we flip between.

  11. It seems to be modernity or modernism as such that makes it so;

    how exactly?

    In contrast Latour thinks they’re both costly detours, best junked.

    more detail please

  12. What, you mean I can’t just wave my hands around impressively and conjure moments of enlightenment from the minds of all and sundry? Harrumph. Well, this is worth a better conversation than I can manage right now, so I’ll try to reconstruct what I was thinking in a couple days once grades are in and I’ve recovered from decyphering the cryptic outputs of this semester’s 80 different minds.

  13. alright, carl, but remember what the egyptian temptress advised: DO NOT PROCRASTINATE; look up to SERIOUS PEOPLE who WORK, otherwise you’d be turning 40 and before you know it, a rambling spinster. And above all, DO NOT WASTE TIME parodying people like some BLAWG DIVA on the internet!!!

  14. Et tu, Dejan? I just made the mistake of reading another of ET’s advice posts (perhaps the one you have in mind). What he says is exactly right – it’s advice I give and think often. Just do it! Don’t make excuses! And stop whining! Punk.

  15. carlo i could not answer the question here, so i sent you a mail.

    what a strange little world the Temptress lives in, thinking that everybody wants to spend their time hopping around European capitals in order to chat with Meilassoux about kitchen appliances, then blawg about the pictures of her labrador in Ioway. But i suppose solitary confinement does that to eunuchs, and sooner or later, she will turn into an Object.

  16. Someone is still reading The Temptress’s blog, after its reincarnation. Hmmmm.

  17. Drat, I’ve been nabbed. Yes, I read it but I didn’t inhale! It’s a fatal attraction – I know it’s bad for me, but when I see that juicy link on other folks’ sites I can’t resist.

  18. I was thinking of PC who seems to keep a tender finger lightly and lovingly on the faint pulse there, but yes, you are right, I should at least remove the link from my blogroll and do my part of cleaning up the blogospher (clean blogosphere, now that is an oxymoron). I put it up when the “I blow’d it all up to save it from the barbarians” went over, thinking that there would still be some substantive content, but (yawn), (sigh), it is the worst sort of blogging, something like P-Diddy’s twitter postings (if I can imagine them).

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