Argument is war. Argument is not war.
I was at a show last night, Loving After Lifetimes of All This, and ran into my friend Neal, a UMKC grad student in economics. We talked awhile and he pointed out that two of the essays on Ten Millimeters seemed to be making opposite arguments. In one essay I was particularly critical of looking at art through the sociological lens, and then in another, I proceeded to take a similar stance. The question then is how could I do the thing that I was initially critical of?
In order to understand my attraction to this contradiction, I think we need to examine the metaphor Argument is War. Operating under this metaphor, if I'm critical of something, then I must be trying to defeat it. There is no other way for wars to end. We prepare for battle by strengthening our arguments. We fight each other with words. We poke holes in opposing theories, so we can claim victory. We talk about Argument as War, when we say things like,
"Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every weak point in my argument.
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument.
I've never won an argument with him.
you disagree? Okay, shoot!
If you use that strategy, he'll wipe you out.
He shot down all of my arguments."
(Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff, Johnson)
In war often one side is perceived as being completely right and the other side is perceived as being completely wrong. When couples fight, it is a battle of verbal sparring trying to come to terms with the idea that there can be only one victor. Rather than think about right/wrong, winner/loser, it is much healthier, and much more accurate, to think of all sides of the argument as being partial. (Wilber) If you think of them this way, then it is not defeat you are after, since ALL sides of the argument are partial, yours included. The goal is to use the heated exchange to shed light on the ever present blind spots in our individual single pointed thinking. Argument then is an exercise to help both participants fill in the much needed details of their partial view of the world.
This up front partiality is one of the things I love about metaphor. There is a coherence to them, such as when we talk about argument being war, but also, the coherence eventually breaks down. Metaphors can be stretched and flushed out, but sooner or later, you come to the edges of its coherence and it simply doesn't work anymore. It stops making sense since it can't encompass the entirety of what argument is. This is not a defeat, rather you have found the fuzzy edges of when something stops being useful and starts feeling clunky and inefficient.
Certainly we have all had the visceral experience of argument being war, of fighting with a loved one or getting sucked into a heated Facebook thread, but equally as true, we have experienced the more deliberate argument of two people passionately disagreeing in the pursuit of the shared goal of arriving at a better more complex idea, a more encompassing theory that describes more of what is going on. So argument can be war, but is not entirely war. It's edges, its partiality is exposed, and now that we can see it, now that we know, we can have a better understanding of argument itself. Ideas work the same way. When I am critical of the sociological look at art, I'm not doing it in order for it to be defeated. I am being critical of it because its limitations should be understood and embraced.
It is in this spirit that I make sometimes contradictory arguments, because I'm not trying to defeat one side or the other, rather since I usually have just myself to talk to, I try to out both sides of the conversation. I make both arguments and explore the possibilities that each one gives. In this way, I have no problem criticizing a stance and then immediately afterward, taking a similar one, because in the end, and somewhat selfishly, I don't want defeat. I want better arguments.