what happens when I don’t disagree with you?


We are all familiar with the echo chamber that can be the interwebs: pick your own news source, pick your friends, and mute the rest. Despite this familiar complaint, we are all equally familiar with Twitter wars, trolling comments, cyberbullying, and all varieties of textual assault. These things have their academic varieties as well. We hear about the digital humanities and its “niceness” (as well as complaints that niceness is created by erasing difference within the echo chamber). And we can also witness the latest flame war over Rebecca Schuman’s Slate article on Zizek.

How does this work in more formal academic discourses? I don’t know about your graduate training, by my coursework was essentially an exercise in critical-rhetorical knife work. Class time was about critiquing this and critiquing that. The graduate student listserv was mostly theory wars. Writing a dissertation was an extension of that, where the first task was really to find or make a hole in the current research. Every argument can be deconstructed. Every viewpoint has a blindspot. Arguments about capitalism give little attention to patriarchy that don’t account for hegemony that cover over the slipperiness of language games etc., etc.

We do the same thing in teaching academic discourse to first-year students. What’s your thesis? What are you trying to argue? A thesis can’t be a statement of fact. It has to be something with which your audience might disagree. I’ve taught this myself. You can tell your students to take their theses and say the opposite thing. If the opposite statement isn’t one that you can imagine people believing, then your original statement isn’t really a thesis. In other words, your audience are people who hold a view different from yours. That said, their views can’t be too different from yours. Clearly they are people who care about the same issue as you, who would be willing to discuss it in the same terms as you, and who are open to the possibility of being persuaded by the kind of argument and evidence that you will provide. In other words, they are the kind of people who are part of a fairly limited discourse community: your discourse community.

In a way, it’s all a performance and not just for the author but the readers as well. Being an academic reader requires one’s willingness to adopt a very specific position. It’s almost like participating in a child’s magic trick. It must be carefully constructed. And here I suppose I should invoke Latour as a kind of ward against our inclination to take that to mean that the scholarship doesn’t have value. That isn’t what I mean at all. All knowledge of any value must be carefully constructed. We all know that critique is interminable and that any text can be critiqued ad infinitum. Going there breaks the performance. But one equally breaks the performance by simply agreeing to what the author says. As a reader, you must disagree (or at least express skepticism and doubt) with the thesis but only within the scope of the discourse community. You must play by the rules and accept the genre of evidence and argument that is provided. That doesn’t mean that you need to agree in the end of course but only play by the established rules for disagreement.

In short, you must begin with skepticism and allow yourself to be open to persuasion.

It’s an interesting experience to try reading these works from a different position. I’m not talking about major philosophical works, where you’re mostly just trying to figure out what’s being said in the first place. I’m referring to the typical humanistic article or monograph. There’s a clumsiness that results, like a couple dancing together but to different songs.  Is this a criticism? No it’s not, not really. Every genre has conventions that establish roles for authors and readers. I will admit that I sometimes get tired of playing the same role though, as if it were the only way to read, as if serious academic thought required one to adopt this readerly role. Where I end up is with a “what if” game. What if persuasion and argument were not the primary rhetorical functions of academic writing? We could play the believing game, but that’s just the flipside of the same coin. It’s difficult for us, especially us rhetoricians who are inclined to assert that “everything is an argument.” It’s difficult because we really do believe in the value of an agonistic approach to testing and strengthening knowledge.

I suppose I wonder if it is possible to play more than one game.