[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next]
Return to main CEDA-L Archive Page
Topicality, Texts, and Contexts
A good deal of thinking about topicality has occupied my brief time in debate. The cases I affirmed were generally considered on the periphery of, or wholly excluded from, most people's interpretations of topics. Radical responses to topicality were necessitated by this. Conversely, many of the negative debates I was involved with required that I do extensive 1NR topicality debate.
Two things have been bothering me about topicality. Both of these issues have to deal with what type of a text topicality arguments are, and what contexts they exist in.
(note: I will use the term "text" in the more contemporary sense, which has freed it from the obligation to be written or permanent or stationary.)
First, the most obvious problem with resolutions and topicality arguments is that they exist both in written and oral forms. More appropriately perhaps is the recognition that we really debate _two_ resolutions. We debate a resolution which is textually present in written form, and we debate a resolution which is textually present in oral form.
It may be said that these are just two versions of the same text, but I would go so far as to say that they are fundamentally different texts. (Walter Ong's work on oral vs. textual culture is appropriate here.) At the very least I think that in the movement from written to spoken text we see a radical shift in context. There exists great capacity for one to change and add to a written text when speaking it. Even beyond the paralinguistic elements added in the speaking the resolution is recontextualized by placing it beside, after, and before other utterances.
This recognized, I am troubled by the application of the standards for written grammar to the spoken text, The resolution, the affirmative case, and the topicality argument exist for the critic primarily as spoken text. Since the critic is not reading from a page, but listening to speech, what rules of grammar do we apply? The traditional rules of Standard English are not intended (nor are they appropriate) to oral (or aural) texts. However, this is what we commonly use to argue "best definition" meta-standards. Often we hear references to grammatical rules and positioning in sentences as if the resolution and the plan are written texts (which they certainly have an existence as). The resolution seems to find itself as neither written or oral. By any means, if the resolution exists at any point as other than written it should be recognized that conventional rules of grammar as applied to the written word are not effective, meaningful, nor appliccable to resolutions. Thus, I seem to lean toward the conclusion that even if I were to believe the positions of those who attempt to isolate and locate a text definitively (hogwash), such isolation and location may only be functional in terms of a written text, and not resolutions as they are debated.
Now, the second problem. I think that contemporary topicality arguments in large part consist of two radically different and potentially contradictory theoretical origins. The first is represented by a definition from a dictionary, claims to field expertise, grammatical correctness of meaning, etc. At heart these all rely upon the theoretical assumption that words mean, and that their positioning means, and most importantly of all, that these meanings can be definitively determined and located. The modern topicality argument holds baggage from earlier days within it. The modern topicality argument asks us to adjudicate which interpretation of the resolution is more "correct." I think that these questions are futile and most likely poorly founded. However, that is not really the issue here. What is they issue is that this theoretical underpinning to most standards and a fair number of meta-standards is radically divergent from the theoretical underpinnings of many other meta-standards and the most common voting implications.
The vast majority of topicality debates I see come down to the questions of abuse, ground, and fairness. Essentially these may well be the same issue. At heart, these questions have little, if anything, to do with the grammatical correctness of an interpretation. In fact, we should well be able to imagine an interpretation which fails to make a compelling argument for grammatical or factual correctness but likewise fails to abuse the negative (if such is even possible). Additionally, we should all know cases which have met a strict and grammatically defensible interpretation of the resolution, but was extraordinarily difficult for most negatives to find a substantive and compelling argument against (as Matt Roskoski once said, sometime the status quo does suck in a topical way). This second paradigm which has existed alongside the first is not a question of procedure or even of jurisdiction so much as it is a critique argument. It seems the negative is claiming their has been in round impacts to the affirmative's advocacy (ground abuse) and the judge should vote negative to stop/deter/reject/punish that advocacy.
Given the theoretical split existant in what I would guess to be 90% of all topicality arguments I heard this past year, I wonder how compelling the argument can really be considered to be. It should be of little surprise that the argument is so difficult to defend given that the negative essentially convolutes two arguments and doubles the load of their defense. Likewise, the ground argument in particularly pernicious because of the indeterminancy of potential ground and arguments available to the negative. To compound this problem the grammar and definitional arguments are difficult to maintain given the often radically divergent interpretations of terms dependent on perspective and context. That these two already difficult, and potentially conflictual paradigms attempt to support a single argument leaves that argument uniquely vulnerable. That vulnerability is compounded by the totalizing nature of the implication (aff loses) and the indeterminate nature of the adjudication.
Given these theoretical problems I think we should not be surprised that the topicality argument is extraordinarily difficult to win in many debates. Topicality is also, in my opinion, a location in the debate where the judge is accustomed to intervening and willing to. I would hazard to guess that judges regularly place themselves as interpreters deeper into topicality arguments than they do into other arguments.
Now, I think that there are four potential paths the debate community can take with topicality. The scenarios are:
Scenario 1: And that's the way it is. No conscious change.
Topicality devolves in power to such a point that the argument is worthless to negatives. It fails to even draw time away from the aff anymore. Some debaters and schools may quit due to frustrations, aff win ratios will increase, and peripheral interpretations of the topic become what the center is today. Possible backlash may swing the pendulum radically, or further divide the community.
Scenario 2: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. No more topics.
Recognizing the futility of procedural debate, CEDA/NDT gives up on having topics. All teams are required to post copies of their plans and outlines of their cases to a special listserver 1 week prior to the tournament. Topicality become an argument to use when someone changes from their posted case. Case specific research may diminish as more and more teams switch between different cases every week. Generic negative becomes impossible. A dramatic increase in critical thinking arguments and analysis will fill the void.
Scenario 3: The times, they are a changin' back. Revert to strict grammatical standards.
Debate swings back to the days when topicality was who more correctly defined and interpreted the topic. Ground becomes meaningless. Alternative interpretations and marginal voices are shut out. Debate separates itself from communication theory, linguistics, semiotics, philosophy and philology by attempting a strict and conservative view of Standard English. Creativity radically diminishes, students drop out due to lack of opportunity to explore alternative interpretations. We all start to think we can really determine what a word means. We educate towards linguistic, interpretive, and cultural imperialism.
Scenario 4: Don't tread on me. Reinvent topicality from the critique perspective.
Debate abandons defintions and authoritarian interpretations. We throw away our dictionaires and "field expert" definitions. We remove meta-standards based on interpretive authority, grammar, and correctness. W frame the topicality argument based entirely on ground abuse. Judges stop demanding things of topicality arguments which are ridiculous, like specific in-round abuse, and recognize a larger perspective on the role of the negative in preparation and interpretation through literature. There is an increased importance of the interpretive model's implications for negative's potential argument field. There is an increased importance of the affirmative's interpretation providing opportunities for meaningful debate. Mark Jones at WSCA wrote a paper proposing a new standard for topicality: controversy. I suppose in part that is what this scenario would seek to develop.
In conclusion, I believe that the contemporary topicality argument is theoretically inconsistent and poorly supported. I think it is severely weakened by these problems and that this accounts for much of the decline of the argument's success. Absent a conscious and careful choice about how we step into the future with a new way of approaching topics and topicality we are likely to find damaging and disturbing implications.
I strongly encourage judges and coaches to reinforce experimentation with alternative formats for topicality arguments. I strongly encourage judges to try to be open minded about new approaches to arguing what might seem like a topicality issue. We face a liminal period for topicality theory and practice. We need not close opportunities for exploration off, lest we lose the opportunities that arise during such periods.
Archive created by Jonathan Stanton (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Return to main CEDA-L Archive Page