Noise, (ir)rationality, and debate

By now, no one really imagines that presidential debates are really, well, debates. Instead, we want a line going up and down measuring "undecided" voters. Are we measuring galvanic skin response? The raw, exposed nerve of collective unconscious? In our fantasies about debating, rational arguments are provided, suppositions are considered, evidence is evaluated, and conclusions are reached through the commonplaces of argument (deduction, induction, etc.). In a purely rational argument it should be possible to reach a conclusion that both sides would be forced to agree was correct. Or at least, the sides could pinpoint their disagreement over a particular piece of evidence or supposition that could, in time, be resolved. We realize that many disagreements stem from beliefs: suppositions that cannot be dis/proven. I think that most supporters of one political party over another act out of such beliefs, including myself. That is, there is absolutely no argument the opponent could offer that would change my vote. In rhetorical terms, we might view this as a matter of ethos, but even ethos is supposed to be rationally adjudicated. 

But what about the undecided voters? Are they meant to make a rational choice from the fodder of debates, campaign ads, and partisan analysis? No, not really. Rational debate can be composed, under sterile laboratory conditions. As with a scientific experiment, a rational debate requires the near elimination of external variables, and more importantly it requires the willing participation of everyone involved. In other words, debate requires that noise and irrationality be eliminated and the debaters must play a role in that. Of course a presidential debate isn't a lab experiment. It's an opportunity to incite people to vote. Maybe after the fact, we can retrospectively rationalize our choices and we can discover rational points and tropes in a debate. 

This is not just about political debate though. As an academic, I don't think I've ever seen a colleague change his/her position on a matter of importance. Perhaps, over time, from one book to the next, positions are modified. But, for example, when one engages in a disagreement on or between blogs (or at a conference panel), no one imagines that minds will be changed. One might learn about a new method or hear an interesting interpretation. These things might change our views over time. One could read over the posts on this blog on object-oriented rhetoric to see how my views have shifted through the consideration of new theories. But that is a span of years, and just as importantly, it is not a shift that I would describe as rational so much as intuitive. That is, my decision to pursue OOO is/was primarily a result of a feeling that something interesting/productive would result. And over the years I have come to trust those intuitions. I have also come to realize that the best decisions I have made, the ones that have made me successful (to the extent that I am), have been intuitive ones AND that they are decisions I do not think I could have made by rational, deliberative means. Starting this blog a decade ago is a prime example: a totally irrational decision.

I have these thoughts in mind when I watch (or don't watch) presidential debates or follow the arguments surrounding OOO: none of this is about changing people's minds by rational means. However, what pushed me to write this post was teaching Victor Vitanza's "Three Countertheses" essay in my teaching practicum. I imagine that Vitanza doesn't show up on many practicum syllabi because his work is theoretical and challenging and doesn't offer the kinds of nuts and bolts advice that are the typical staple of such courses. I suppose the focus of my practicum is different. To me, the key goal of a practicum is for TAs to understand that a writing pedagogy rests upon theories of writing, communication, and cognition. To teach writing well, one has to be reflective of the ways in which theory and practice relate here. Part of Vitanza's argument is about the resistance of theory to application. Another is the critique of our faith in rationality to explain how writing works. Before reading Vitanza, we have read Bartholomae and Berlin, who I think still represent the mainstream thinking about academic discourse, empowerment, and critical thinking (though they also differ from one another). We've also read Russell and Wardle as I think that CHAT and the issues of transfer and writing-about-writing represent significant (and relatively new) views in the field. However, all of those positions ultimately rely upon rationality as the foundation of writing, communication, and cognition. They are all asymmetrical in their identification of the human (and the rational mind) as the controlling force in a writing system.

So what happens when one takes up a flat ontological, symmetrical view of writing? Vitanza writes about the third sophistic position, the role of the other and noise, that both the speaker and listener (in a more conventional rhetoric) conspire to erase, even when they are supposed opponents in a rational debate. What about the nonhuman objects, including language, at work in any network of writing activity? Returning to the presidential debate, this is how I see Latour's object-oriented democracy functioning. The extended network of objects participating in the debate from flag pins, cameras, and teeth whiteners to Twitter, drinking games and real-time polling: there is no ontological boundary between rationality and otherness, between noise and message.