An especially underwritten aspect about the policy debate community is its connection to the wider realm of ideas that makes our argumentation possible weekend-in and weekend-out: Scholarly literature; scientific research; music, art, and creative writing; and investigative journalism. The arguments that we read and write do not come from some electronic portal where we can grab the world and reproduce it in specialized word processing documents; no, regardless of how some might wish that the automatization of debate be the only way we come into knowledge (and, therefore, community) with each other in this activity, the human element of knowledge production will not fundamentally change within the lifetime of anyone who will read this essay. I am writing this blog post because I think that an important part of the research process when we commit to argument development can be contacting the experts, scholars, thought leaders, activists, etc. relevant to our research when we need further insight, have thoughtful questions, and/or want to start a genuine discussion with someone who has devoted a portion of their life to an idea that may only be relevant for us for a few hours on a weekend in some far-off place.
Like any aspect of the research process, there is a methodology to contacting and conversing with the experts and authors we hold so dear and defend with such vigor in mostly empty classrooms. This post will be the first in a series of gestures into the ways, ethics, and consequences of communication between the producer of research content and the rhetorician who subjects it to idea testing analysis—i.e. debate. Through my own lived examples as a debater and a coach, I will attempt to document and then detail the major movements in some of these gestures with the goal of generating a discussion on methods. Deeply, please understand that these posts are not intended to set-up a science or a system of morality for scholar-rhetorician interactions. There will likely be a few occasions where I will attempt to solidify a ‘best practice’ and or an ethic, but those are nothing more than modes disconnected from a coherent system of determination.
In part two of this blog series, I will discuss some ways to navigate and balance communication strategies in order to assist you in writing stronger interrogatory emails. This is important because while my interactions with Michael Clifford were relatively pleasant and endearing, there have been times where policy debaters can get themselves (and potentially the community) into more of a problematic place than they could ever have expected (i.e. William V. Spanos among others). This will bleed into a culminating third part that involves the structuralized political ‘realities’ of knowledge production and suggestions on how to proceed when an author does not reply and/or does not want to reply to your inquiries. As such, the crux of part three will be a careful engagement with the conceptual ethics of information gained from direct contact with scholars in policy debate.
With this preamble set, I would like to invite you to share a moment of nostalgia that will be the guiding circumstance for this essay’s later discussion.
When I was preparing for my senior year of debate—the surprisingly compelling transportation infrastructure topic from 2012-2013—I knew that I wanted to work on a project that would be unique and help me grow my skill set. In reading through some of the files produced at camps, I came upon an idea that I had not ever encountered before: genealogy. I asked my coach about some books that might be helpful and he suggested Michael Clifford’s 2001 book Political Genealogy After Foucault: Savage Identities. For those who are not familiar with the text, it is a pretty robust theoretical text—that while engaging upon a second read after going through several years of post-secondary education—that seeks to make very clear distinctions across a large number of ‘big thinkers’ in the study of Foucault.
I was absolutely lost for most of Clifford’s 256 pages, but I felt confident that I had understood a few elements about genealogy better than I had before reading the text; however, I was honest enough with myself to know that I still had so much more to learn. I compiled a list questions and peppered my coach and friends with them. Despite these interactions, I did not feel like I was making the progress I wanted to in my file production. When I expressed this to my coach, he bluntly suggested to me that I should email Clifford in order to get to the bottom of the uncertainties in my argument development.
At this point in my debate career, I knew that emailing authors was something that had been done on occasion, but I had not really embarked on that journey myself. Even more, I had never tried to use an email exchange with an author to learn more about an argument rather that to confirm if the argument I was working on was correct or not. On top of all of this, though, was a degree of insecurity involved in contacting someone who I had a sense of existential respect for—in my mind, I was this silly little high school student emailing a fully tenured, deeply awarded intellectual about my inept reading of his important text. I spent several hours crafting an email that I felt would be direct to the areas of concern that I felt were preventing my file development progress, meaningful enough that Clifford would want to reply to the kinds of questions that I was asking, and respectful of the time that it took him to read and respond. I have included the full text of my email to Clifford below:
Dr. Clifford, While reading your book Political Genealogy After Foucault: Savage Identities, a few questions come to mind and since I am still a high school student with a very limited access to those with dense philosophical knowledge, specifically on post-structuralism (I know, Foucault would be disgusted with my labeling), I would like to know if you could answer a few questions I had about genealogy, form, and MacIntyre?
- What would be the best way to implement a genealogy of a political act/identity? Would it be a speech act? a paper? a performance?
- While I understand your depiction of what it would look like (a multiplicity of heritages, traditions, and histories) I find trouble understanding the depth and preciseness with which a "proper" genealogy. If you could give it a form (I do apologize for turning your work into a subject) what would that look like?
- Has the debate between you and Alasdair MacIntyre continued since the publishing of your book? If so, would I be able to find those articles on JSTOR or Project Muse?
- Do you have a curriculum vitae? I did not see one on the MSU [Mississippi State University] website. If so could you send it to me in your reply?
- How close are the concepts of politics you write about with that of Gilles Deleuze? I know that he and Foucault were contemporaries, but I am unsure of the level of cohesion of their theories.
I very much appreciate the time and effort you put in to the art of philosophy and I really did enjoy reading your book. Thank you for taking the time to read this email and respond to it.
Damien High School
Besides assessing the tenor of my affective reticence to email Clifford at all, I want to draw attention to a few areas of my email that (upon reflection nearly seven years later) were successful and also those areas that could have definitely been improved.
Firstly, I want to talk about the areas that met the criteria I had established prior to writing the email (direct, meaningfulness, and respect). One of the areas where I think my questions were very effectively direct involved my interest in the evolving academic debate between Clifford’s reading of Foucault and Alasdair MacIntyre’s reading of Foucault. At the time, I did not have a clue who MacIntyre (one of the foremost Scottish intellectuals of moral theory in the 20th century) was or why he and Clifford were at such loggerheads; however, I did know that the amount of time that Clifford spent responding to MacIntyre’s critique of Foucault mattered to the larger point of Clifford’s Political Genealogy. On the level of respect, I think I might have even been too formal—to the degree that some of the asides that I included (the deferential ‘humor’ located in the parentheses) fell flat and into awkwardness. Regardless of my insight into Clifford’s work or how nicely I phrased my questions, though, I feel that the general tone of my email would be read as a meaningful attempt at learning by Clifford because of the genuineness in my rhetoric: I was direct in my novice status without overly degrading myself or praising Clifford; I demonstrated an interest in Clifford and his work beyond the simple object of my questions about his book by asking about his other research and the implications of other scholarship on his work and the content he writes on; and I was respectful of the opportunity for communication with Clifford at a base level of learner-to-scholar.
Honestly, though, looking back at this email does induce some degrees of cringe in my demeanor. As a coach and as someone who is making their first entry-level attempts at critical knowledge production, I cannot help but twinge at the debatiness of some of my questions. The idea of genealogy as something to be ‘implemented’ could only come from the mind of a policy debate participant seeking out a kritik alternative that had built in answers to pragmatism and other like framework arguments. More, too, some of my questions clearly did not get a full review—for example, question number two just trails off into incompleteness. Aside from some questions being too narrow, a certain degree of me feels like several of these questions are attempting to generate meaning-of-life style answers out of a brief electronic communication. Suffice it to say, there was plenty of room for me to grow and I hope that I continue to do so (especially when I look back on this blog post several years in the future, if I am still writing (I hope I am)).
I am not going to include a copy of Clifford’s reply to my email—mainly because I do not have his permission to reproduce his response and I am a bit too embarrassed to ask all of these years later (hopefully I can get over that). I will share with you that he was very generous in his demeanor and willing to show me a few intellectual sparring moves as they related to his ideas on genealogy. Interestingly enough, I also learned that MacIntyre had been one of Clifford’s instructors during his graduate education (which gave a lot more body to Clifford’s deep discussion of MacIntyre in Political Genealogy)! Clifford was also extremely fascinated that any high school students were reading his work at all—let alone attempting to make sense of it. I do not include that detail to brag about how nice it felt to be complimented by a thinker that I felt a lot of admiration for; but rather, I am including this detail because it was a moment where I felt proud to be a member of the policy debate community and that I felt that I had represented us well to those in the proverbial outside world.
Moving away from my wistfulness and back into the more concrete aspects of this post, I want to discuss a few elements of the procedure that I have narrated for you above. There are too many reasons why it is important for members of the policy debate community to know intentional ways to contact knowledge producers than can be represented in this small forum. Briefly, I will focus on three aspects that I consider close to the center of the concept: Civic engagement; co-operative learning; and community relations.
In this era of increasingly difficult to discern truths—from deceptive political figures, ‘deep-fake’ technology, to the ever-increasing danger of algorithms—we have an ethical obligation to the production of an ‘accurate’ knowledge (this necessarily involves knowledges that are suppressed because of the impact of their truth on hegemonic structures of identity formation, political subjectivity, and relation). I know that there are Baudrillard die-hards (of all and many disciplinary persuasions) out there gleefully priming their critique of this nostalgic desire for ‘authenticity’ with their pitchforks composed various degrees of différance, object a, and subalterneity; however, my first point, here, is that even if we agree that truth is existentially compromised/empty/impossible, we do continue to breath, decide, and participate in some category of existence (regardless of its valence of agency). As such, we (participant rhetoriticians) have a duty to be able to assess the incoherencies, de-completenesses, inaccuracies, confusions, etc. and to be able to communicate these observations to relevant parties—especially those who produce the knowledge we claim to be able to asses and understand. This aspect of participation in knowledge production goes both ways when we enter into a dialogue with knowledge-producers: They may learn more from us than we have learned from them.
In understanding that knowledge production in this context is not linear and two-dimensional, we can gain an appreciation for how little we all actually know. We are also able to gain an appreciation for how much we still have to learn. This fall into a degree of nihilism is not a terminal one, but, instead, generative! Those individuals who work their lives away passionately on the performances, policies, theories, etc. that make debate possible—in my experience—have been particularly excited (and some I might even say were emotionally touched) to learn that there exists a ravenous community of soon-to-be knowledge producers across high school and college communities. More than simply engaging a public figure in a brief and all too pre-planned media opportunity, contacting knowledge-producers in writing sends them a signal that there is still a thriving presence hoping to engage and participate in processes of knowledge production. I only have to think of the vigor and aggressive delight that Frank Wilderson brought to his lecture at the 2014 Irvine Round Robin (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KxMfL35rQsA&t=2623s) to know that there is something tangible and uniquely substantive involved in the sharing in and of knowledge production between ‘experts’ and rhetoricians.
Lastly, the implication for the sharing of knowledge as it is coming into knowing for the policy debate community has at least two distinct tracks. The first involves the community that has already consolidated in leagues, tournaments, camps, etc., while the second involves the expansion of the policy debate community. Frequently and meaningfully contacting the authors who we cite in our every card and file requires that this community of soon-to-be and already-are communication scholars develop a more approachable and tactful standard for interpersonal dialogue. I genuinely believe that if we can make a practice out of treating these strangers that we know all too well (in some cases, worryingly so) with the undying respect we give to their evidence, then we just might be able to unconsciously treat each other with some similar version of that respect. It is possible, too, that our positive candor and undeniable passion for idea engagement might just bring those authors into a closer form of relation where they might start sending us questions about the structure and nature of the subject we are ‘experts’ on: Policy debate.
- Want to read more? Find Part 2 of the series here