… to let them live…
What is more difficult?” – Paul Valery
One of the loveliest apps of our day is the lowly technology that allows for comments sections on the Web. I think it is lovely because, among other things, it materializes a phenomenon that is usually oral and uncaptured – the ways of argument. In fact, the ways of argument are much more mysterious, since the advent of omni-pornography, than the ways of a man with a maid, or a maid with a man, or a man with a man, or a man with a maid with a maid with a man, etc. We have all seen every variety of corporeal groping, but have we all pondered every variety of rhetorical poking? That’s what I aim to do here.
My starting point is a post that recently appeared on the Crooked Timber blog. This blog has a certain returning constituency, among which I count myself. We’ve been with the blog through the Iraq war, through the great recession, through Bush and Blair and Brown and Obama. In a sense, then, the responses to any post are already semi-structured – those who comment will, we know from previous comments, take up certain positions that are consistent with the positions that they have taken up before, and will take up those positions with their own idiosyncratic styles. The post was a meta-approach to the Israeli-Palestinianconflict, pondering the question of why the issue raises such a heat rash amongpeople who are neither Palestinian nor Arab nor Jewish in the way that, say,the conflicts between the Kurds and the Turks or the Russians and theCircassians don’t.
The post, in other words, presented a theory of the way that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is argued that relied heavily on analysing the motifs and situations of the arguing agents. I would call this an analysis of the “game” that is being played.
Sure enough, in the comments sections, certain moves were made by those offended by the meta tone of the post. As one of the respondents said: this is not a game. The “this-is-not-a-game” strategy makes the assumption that the game is called off by a series of referential moves. These are almost always not trivial references, but strive to point to more and more absolute, knock me down referents – from massacres to children starting to concentration camps. The trumping referent does two things – shows that the referrer is serious, and that his meta opponent is a phoney. But the absoluteness of the referent, its inevitable excess, shows something else as well – that the player is authentic.
Against that authenticity, the original poster also proceeded to make a number of familiar moves. These moves sought to dissolve the authentic players referents into rhetoric. Instead of phoniness, the game analyst seeks, here, to show that the authentic player is actually a bumbler, a dunderhead. At the same time, the game analyst is also, in a sense, playing a “this-is-not-a-game” strategy – as if his original gambit and subsequent moves had a space outside of the game he is commenting on. In keeping with the game analyst’s rhetorical turn, this strategy tends towards irony – irony is the preferred style for remaining both detached and within the game.
These are not the only two poles of the game, of course. I don’t have a sense of how many entrances there are in the game, but I do know that one can imagine at least one other player – who I will call the sceptic. The sceptic asks two questions: a., what is the meaning of the game? And b., is this a winnable game? The latter question has some bearing on the former, since if the game can be won, then we are that much further towards defining it, or at least understanding it. And certainly the absolutist and the ironist are playing the game as though to win it, which is why there is such energy in their mutual denigration one of the other. But if the game is not a winnable game – if it is something like playing house, or whirling around and getting dizzy – then the moves made by both are delusional. Perhaps they are necessarily delusional.
What is common to all three players, I think, is the sense that the limits of the game are available, so that one can understand when one is in it and when one is out of it. But is it that kind of game?