Agree Shmagree, Argue Shmargue

I never care if someone agrees with me, at least as far as my philosophic positions are concerned. This includes my (former) students. All I have ever asked is that they understand — or at least try to understand — what I'm saying.

Argument is boring. What's there to argue about? Whether the proliferation of difference is....what? True? Good for the world? I don't care about either question, not really.

And I have to admit I've always been rather confused when it comes to argument. How does one go about it? It seems to me that an argument must be premised on some kind of common ground — the interlocutors have to agree to what certain terms mean, not to mention to what the very terms of the argument are. And how does one go about this without arguing? Argument seems literally impossible to me.

Now, in my experience, most argument is not about the subject matter per se but about interpersonal posturing and peculiar emotive releases. This posturing and these releases may be important components of civic life but a) they are not about the ideas; and b) they're, well, boring.

Unfortunately, for some students, arguing with the professor is an essential part of education. When they push back on the professor, they imagine themselves as good students. Such is our Socratic inheritance: argument, and opposition, is the stuff of thought.

But not in my world view and not in the world view I once taught. What I enjoy is the monologue and the conversation. In the monologue, someone holds forth, generously bestowing the audience with his or her spin on things. The more monologues the better, especially if they are strange and beautiful.

Conversations, too, make my heart go pitter patter. In a conversation — a good conversation —, the participants try together to push, pull, fold, spin ideas into strange and beautiful shapes, a collaborative monologue, if you will.

Some students of mine interpreted my prohibition of argument as conceit: I think I'm right. Well, that's true. I do think I'm right, at least when I'm teaching. After all, I am the professor. But that is not why I prohibit argument. I prohibit argument for the reasons stated above and because it inhibits understanding.

Needless to say, there are those opposed to my position on opposition. Fortunately, I'm not obliged to oppose them. I prefer the Bugs Bunny method — change the terms of the conversation. When Bugs is being chased, he doesn't just run, he turns into a woman or starts dancing. That is, he refuses to submit to the terms of opposition and so shifts the very terms of the dynamic. Deleuze and Guattari call this a "line of flight," a way out of the impasse of contradiction and opposition.

I know it may seem odd to be a rhetorician who disdains argument. But I don't actually disdain argument, I disdain a particular kind of argument — oppositional argument. For me, everything is an argument in that everything is a position — a chair, a building, an idea, a backwards cap, Kants 3rd Critique. And most arguments are not oppositional or dictatorial. Most arguments generously proffer their position: go like this. And if these positions are not generous, it is my job to evade, elude, and do what I must not to be squashed. But I'm not going to argue.


Cody said...

I like this post, a lot. It reminds me that life isn't a series of oppositions, which is what my 'work life' boils down to most days. I find that whenever I try to start a conversion, it's taken as argument or an opposition.

So, to be reminded of cross-dressing Bugs is a glorious image. I need to do it more often (I'm trained to do this, remember!), because it certainly throws the suits for a loop.

J.S. Butcher said...

While I can't say I find arguments boring, I do find them pretty annoying; especially in my life as a literature student, where I am expected to perfect the argumentative essay. Whenever I am constructing an argument and defining its terms (as clearly as possible) I always recall your comments about the words in a dictionary, and how no words can ever have a single, clear definition. I usually have a good laugh in remembering how hopeless it is to argue about literature.

I agree with Cody's comment. One of the effects of "argument fever" that I find particularly frustrating is that people seem to think that if I am telling them something, I must be trying to convince them to change their views into mine.

It seems that I'm expected not only to write argumentatively, but to be rigid and hostile as well.

V said...

Isn't there a role for argument in conversation? Discourse need not be solely dialectic, but can't we have some, just for flavor, like bacon bits?

Horace said...

Daniel's remarks are artful in the artlessness, complex in their simplicity, and, hence, altogether amusing in their seriousness. Time for a quick trip to Monty Python's Argument Clinic!

Daniel Coffeen said...

Considering how contentious I enjoy being, it may be tad unfair of me to be so dismissive of the will to argument. And, perhaps needless to say, I have never, ever, succeeded in being a good Bugs. Rather than divert and play, I contend and argue and inspire the wrath of others all the more, all the more. Of course, as V points out, a tad of argumentative zeal now and again can give conversation a bit of zing.

But, at the risk of sounding argumentative, I'll stick to my main point: the will to oppose this or that is so draining and dreary. I'm sticking to the Bunny as my hero, even if I fail miserably in emulation.

V said...

Maybe the academy in particular traffics in opposition -- there is little room for intellectual generosity when the parameters of your bailiwick are what dictate your continued membership in the club. Law too, of course, but that's opposition-for-hire and we all know we don't really mean it (always fascinating to see those norms recede if not vanish once settlement is on the table).

Daniel Coffeen said...

It seems to me, in my admittedly unlearned knowledge of the law (that never stopped me!), that the law allows for argument because it begins with commonality — namely, the law. And there are a bevy of agreed to terms right from the get go.

Philosophy, and politics and literature and history, have no such luxury.

V said...

Philosophy, politics, literature and history enjoyed a putative commonality, until your predecessors and your ilk (rather gleefully) destroyed it. Academic law has suffered the same fate. Legal practice per force continues to enjoy it -- otherwise, where would be? Right back in the jungle, with the beasts of burden, beasts of prey.

Daniel Coffeen said...

In the legal system, there is a prescribed set of possible outcomes and there is always AN outcome. The law, then, systematically removes the differend — the cases of mutually exclusive terms. The two sides WILL reach a conclusion (at least as far as the courts are concerned) that will be some more or less definitive thing — money, a spanking, etc.

In other realms, the matter tends to be much murkier: what is the goal of arguing whether Nabokov is allegorical or not? There may be a goal but, more often than not, each side has a goal that excludes the very possibility of the other side — they're relationship is defined by the differend. To wit, my argument about argument. So arguing becomes, well, odd and frustrating.