12.15.2013

What is an Argument?

Arguments have been given a bad rap. They're contentious, we say. They're hostile, oppositional. When we picture an argument, we see faces flush with anger, profanity, bile spewing. But this is all a silly prejudice that dates back millennia. An argument need not be contentious. In fact, everything — every thing — is an argument. Everything is a way of going.

A tulip, for instance, is an argument. Stand tall and alone, says the tulip, friends within distance but not too close. Bend a bit; sway; offer a hearty bloom. I'm not saying it's the only way to go; I'm saying it is a way to go. 



The eucalyptus, meanwhile, argues something else entirely. It is bold in an entirely different fashion. I stand in groves but will have noting else around; I will poison the earth beneath me so nothing else can take root. And then, once alone, I'll shed my skin and let my minty, cat pee stench reign over the air.  



Neither is good just as neither is bad. Each is a way of going or what Nietzsche would call their respective will to power.  The will of the eucalyptus is to spread and poison, a certain demanding, Napoleonic hegemony at work. The tulip, too, is bold, its thick green stem giving way to radiant, rich hues. But its bloom short lived, its boldness temporary.

There is no neutral ground. What would such a thing even look like? What might the foundation or basis look like? Plato argued that it didn't look like anything: it was pure Form, formless Form, untouchable, eternal idea. Everything we see, hear, and touch derives from this ideal form, this absolute Form. Everything, for Plato, is a derivation, a pale imitation of a truth we can never see, that remains elusive but nonetheless is.

The sophists, meanwhile, said that's all hogwash. All there is is this life and it keeps changing. We live in time, maintained the sophists. There is no eternal anything. All there is is change. Which means there is no foundation, no neutral space, nothing that can serve as a basis across time, that stays put amidst this flux. Everything is a position, a way of going, a spin. Everything is an argument. Even in deep outer space, light curves, inflected by the infinite play of attraction and repulsion of gravity, chemistry, collision.

And this is the history of the prejudice that disinclines us towards the argument. If there is indeed a truth — something fixed and stable and sure — then argument is so much extraneous noise. Truth needs no argument; it just is. But if there is no fixed truth, if all is flux, then nothing is certain and all there is is argument.

The modern rhetorician, Chaim Perelman, argues that arguments are not premised on proof. In fact, arguments begin precisely where proof leaves off. Proof shuts down an argument; proof speaks for itself, proclaims the truth in a voice pure and sure. Arguments begin when there is no proof, when there is no certainty, when we don't know once and for all. As such, an argument can never be right or wrong; an argument does what it does. Which is why to argue over anything is boring.

There is no reason to get all worked up — unless that's your kink, as it were. And, for many people, that is indeed their kink. They like to get flush with anger, outrage, disdain. Such is their way of going; such is their argument. They are more eucalyptus seeking to poison the ground and dominate the field than the tulip who stands proud, bold, but self-content. I do not pass moral judgment; I pass aesthetic judgment. Heated argument is usually ugly.

But what about creating an argument? What does it mean to write an argument about a book, a work of art, a piece of music?  Well, a book is not a lock for which we seek the key; it is not a crime scene with one perp we must find. A book, like the world, is multiple and moving. It can be, and indeed is, many different things.

The brilliant poet and sophist Lohren Green wrote his dissertation on different interpretations of Nietzsche. Each chapter offers a different Nietzsche — Heidegger-Nietzsche, Derrida-Nietzsche, Deleuze-Nietzsche, Jaspers-Nietzsche. Each writer makes his way through Nietzsche in a different way. This way is an argument of an argument, a take on a take, a spin of a spin. Everything is hyphenated, a way of taking up the world.

When we write an argument, our task is to assemble the elements into a way of going. We take up this metaphor, this phrase, dial up this idea, dial down that reference. Meanwhile, someone else seizes upon a footnote, an aside, metaphoricity itself, dialing up something else entirely while dialing down the very thing someone else dialed up. It's not a matter of saying: This is how it is!  The rest of you be damned! It's a matter of saying: This sure is one way to go and ain't it interesting? 

Of course, it might not be interesting. When I taught rhetoric, this drove (some) students apeshit. If everything is an argument, why don't we all get As? Well, because not every argument is interesting, refreshing, beautiful, insightful, or smart. To argue that Nietzsche argues that metaphors are all there is is not yet to have argued; it's to point out something Nietzsche says in an essay. A good argument is acrobatic, deft, assembling elements together into a surprising fashion that teaches the reader something he might not have known. A good argument instructs and inspires. Just as some tables and chairs are uncomfortable, ugly, and boring some arguments about Nietzsche are uncomfortable, ugly, and boring. Just because there is no right and wrong doesn't mean there's no good and bad. The exile of truth is not the exile of judgement.

Consider musical cover songs. Every version of The Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" discovers a different possibility within the infinite becoming that is that song. Cat Power finds a quiet, intense melancholy — after all, she can't get no satisfaction. Meanwhile, Britney discovers celebratory dance pop, putting on the history of rock & roll. Devo, however, dials up the mockery within Jagger's claims. We might enjoy one or another more but none is right. And all are arguments.

The great poet-philosopher Lucretius argues that all life is made of atoms which, as they fall through the world, bend just so. They don't fall straight; they swerve. He calls this clinamen. The very make up of the world is this curvature, the way different things swerve through and in and of the world. Don't believe the argument against arguments. The world itself is made of arguments, infinite arguments. Arguments are not extraneous, something added on top of the world. You are an argument. So is your mother.





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