I want to see that flowchart

Times Online, concerning the remarkably chill recent meeting between Obama and Netanyahu:

Newspaper reports recounted how Mr Netanyahu looked “excessively concerned and upset” as he pulled out a flow chart to show Mr Obama how Jerusalem planning permission worked and how he could not have known of the announcement that hundreds more homes were to be built just as Mr Biden arrived in Jerusalem.

I am really, really curious as to what that flowchart looked like, though it probably doesn’t matter. This sounds like one of my favorite rhetorical scenarios – the impossible situation where it doesn’t matter what you say because your audience is hardened against you. I have a feeling that it wouldn’t have mattered what that chart looked like; Obama doesn’t sound like he was in the mood to consider it whatsoever. Tech comm only goes so far.

On big fucking deals

Yes, the new health care law is, in fact, a big fucking deal.

Fresh off a grammar class yesterday, though, I have to point out that ‘a fucking big deal’ would make the relationships in the noun phrase a bit clearer. ‘Fucking’ seems to be modifying ‘big’, not the other way around; otherwise, Biden is talking about a ‘fucking deal’, which doesn’t sound that great, and a ‘big fucking deal’ suddenly becomes not big at all.  In fact, a ‘fucking deal’ has probably escaped the mouth of more than a few Republicans lately.

I’m back from 4Cs, and while I had fun with the style workshop and the panel I spoke at on scholars in other fields that do rhetorical work (I talked about Mark Goodacre and the recently passed Michael Goulder), I continue to feel estranged and separated from the overall comp studies vibe. Once again, I found myself going only to panels on rhetoric and religion, or on some style or tech comm issue. It may be that I feel this separation because I’m no longer teaching comp, and the issues of such classrooms  no longer seem as pressing or intense as they once did.

In other words, rhetcomp isn’t a big fucking deal to me right now. I wonder if this is how English folks outside rhetcomp feel. I’m pretty sure the second I stepped into a comp classroom the urgency would return and I would feel the same way that I did back in ’04 when I taught my first comp course, but you can’t go home again, not really. Besides, in many ways, the classes that I teach now allow me to deal more directly with rhetorical issues than FYC ever did.  More on this later.


At 4Cs. The style workshop yesterday (Wednesday) was pretty good, and I think some sort of joint publication will come out of it.

That aside, the rest of the conference is leaving me feeling rather distant. It may simply be that I am homesick, and I would be rather be hanging with H and the zoo, but I only found a panel or two that I sort of kind of wanted to attend today. I’ve been drifting away from mainstream rhetcomp for awhile – toward straight rhetoric, toward argumentation, toward style, toward tech comm – I might have never been there in the first place – and while I’ve felt a bit removed from 4C’s before, this time, my fourth, it seems more pronounced of a sensation.

So I’m declaring the rest of the day free time, and wandering back to the hotel room to polish up my Friday presentation and work on an article. I’ll give the conference another chance tomorrow.

That’ll do it

I was looking forward to the release of Assassin’s Creed 2 for the PC this month. I saw it in a store today, even. I didn’t buy it, though, for two reasons.

One, it was sixty bucks. Fifty is high for a PC game, but ok. Forty is reasonable. Thirty is a bargain. Sixty is right out. Two, there was a huge disclaimer on the front, announcing that a ‘permanent internet connection’ was required to play the game.

Ubisoft seems to have avoided the small plastic cups of DRM (Digital Rights Management) Flavor-Aid and gone straight for the serving bowl. This is just ridiculous. The back of the box even tried to sell it as an advantage for the consumer – look, no DVD in the drive! Yeah. Right.

There are perfectly reasonable ways to have single-player games interact with the internet. This is not one of those perfectly reasonable ways. All of the perfectly reasonable ways are OPTIONAL. At bare minimum, I should be able to play the game on an isolated box (which is, increasingly, the only way to maintain a virus-free machine). Copy protection on the disc is a waste of time and hardly a challenge anymore in this digital age, but I can endure it, generally, knowing that I don’t have to be spied upon, and that it will take a week or two for a clever hacker to make the latest innovation in DRM completely obsolete.

Steam is a wonderful thing. I even enjoy the MS service that accompanied and supports my copies of Fallout 3, Bioshock 2, and Batman: Arkham Asylum, among others. These entities are handy critters, and it is easy and even pleasurable to give them money. In fact, I think Steam has something I’d like to purchase right now… I wanted to play AC2, but I don’t think I’ll be doing so.

Pragma-Dialectics and Wrenches

While in the midst of boning up on argumentation theory, I recently read Fallacies and Judgments of Reasonableness: Empirical Research Concerning the Pragma-Dialectical Discussion Rules by van Eemeren, Garssen, and Meuffels, a welcome emperical investigation of pragma-dialectical theory that contains, among other things, a restatement of the commandments of the pragma-dialectical method.

In short, P-D theory is a set of rules, or, rather, a machine or heuristic, for detecting fallacies, which are defined as errors or mistakes in argumentation under P-D. The theory could also be viewed as a form of ideal argument or dialectic to be aspired to. It has all the obvious connections to speech-act theory. But it has its problems, and  I was reminded of them while reading.

I have always been struck by how Commandment 4, “Standpoints may not be defended by non-argumentation or argumentation that is not relevant to the standpoint,” is hopelessly, hopelessly idealistic, even by the ideal standards of pragma-dialectic, and furthermore betrays an unnecessarily narrow and non-epistemic conception of rhetoric.

Behind a lot of P-D’s commandments is the questionable assumption that anything resembling a wrench in the gears of an argument is bad. I have found rhetoricians in general to be rather comfortable with the idea of such wrenches, as well as their continuing and often random presence, as they are understood to be necessary accidents in the long, messy process of making knowledge; rhetoric is epistemic. And this is a good thing, because without it we would be hidebound to syllogistic logic and unable to decide or accomplish almost anything. It would be impossible to do even the simplest of tasks – say, brushing my teeth – without the option of arbitrarily choosing from competing options for my time that have no obvious answer. A scene from Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising comes to mind, where the anti-missile system on a carrier fails to fire at two incoming missiles because it cannot decide which one to target first; the carrier is hit by both missiles.

This is why I enjoy walking through the P-D rules with such minor, yet non-trivial, questions as “Is this the best time for Mike to brush his teeth?” or “Should Mike walk his dog in the next 15 minutes?” or “Should we buy the 12 oz or 18 oz box of Cheerios?” It’s very hard not to break, say, Commandment 2, “Discussants who advance a standpoint may not refuse to defend this standpoint when requested to do so,” almost immediately, because the standard defense to most reasonable positions on these pressing issues is, “Well, I think this is about right, so…” C4 falls, also; C7 follows quickly, as does C8, C9, and C10 like dominoes. The qualitative guesswork of daily life just doesn’t cut it in this system.

That said, I’m a big fan of C1: “Discussants may not prevent each other from advancing standpoints or from calling standpoints into question.” It’s not like anyone actually follows this rule with any consistency, but it’s pretty to think so.

Then again, I don’t like C2: “Discussants who advance a standpoint may not refuse to defend this standpoint when requested to do so,” because it is impractical to assume the burden of proof for all statements or arguments one might make; this leads directly to one of the more diabolical debating maneuvers, that of demanding that your opponent explain every single claim they make and calling them out when they fail to do so. Unless immediately pointed out and countered, the result is usually a waste of time for all involved. In other words, C2 can be a nasty weapon that avoids, rather than promotes, productive dialogue, one of the key points of P-D.

However, let me reserve my deepest concerns for C10: “Inconclusive defenses of standpoints may not lead to maintaining these standpoints and conclusive defense of standpoints may not lead to maintaining expressions of doubt concerning these standpoints.” Well, the second part is ok, I suppose, but that first clause is a doozy. I can’t hold a position that I can’t conclusively defend? That throws out every religion in existence. It also keeps me from brushing my teeth at midnight. The authors do allow a “zero standpoint” of “pure skepticism” (194 – why am I suddenly citing pages? I never cite pages here) but only after a long set of chapters where it escaped mention. My agnostic brain likes that concept, but why can’t I lean in one direction or the other without some sort of syllogistic reasoning? It would seem to me that most important questions are under debate because the answers are non-obvious, and this  situation is brought into being via a lack of applicable evidence; the natural result of any debate, then, is very small shifts of opinion after the initial judgment, far too small to be described by merely three positions, “Yes,” “No,” and “Zero.” P-D’s empirical measurements of its rules on real people allow for a very fine range of opinions of the rules themselves, but once you start using the rules, they seem far more rigid on actual content and arguers.


It was pointed out to me today that p. 373 of the third edition of the Penguin Handbook uses an article of mine – “Whatever Became of the Paragraph?” as an  example of an “article in a scholarly journal.” I thought that was pretty funny. That piece has a habit of turning up in the strangest places.

More pressing to me, though, was that the Penguin Handbook has good advice on paragraph structure throughout, though it does regrettably resort to the modes at one point.