Derrida on Debate by Matthew Salah

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Victory Briefs.

Matthew Salah was formerly the Director of PF Debate at Victory Briefs. He debated for four years at the Nueva High School in San Mateo, California. As a member of the first graduating class of his high school, Matt played a large role in founding and establishing the debate team at Nueva. Some of his most notable accomplishments include championing the Tournament of Champions (2017), the ASU Invitational (2017), and the Bronx Science Tournament (2015). Now, Matt coaches debate for Horace Mann High School, and studies political science and economics at Swarthmore college.

Flow or Lay, What’s the Différance?

Common spaces at high school debate tournaments are typically filled with uproar. “That judge was so interventionist!” you’ll hear from across the room. “I can’t believe they didn’t understand that the Kritik was conditional!” Murmurs of judge stupidity, bias, or incompetence circulate the packed auditorium. Sometimes I can’t help but reflect: is the judge pool, which often consists primarily of highly educated professionals, truly filled with idiots? Or are high schoolers too self absorbed to ever admit defeat? Perhaps neither conclusion fully explains why judges’ decisions appear to go wrong so routinely. Instead, the constant outrage over decisions points to the impossibility of objectively declaring a winner in a debate. Drawing on Jacques Derrida’s view that meaning is slippery, unstable, and transient, I argue that the debate community’s reliance on a faulty, logocentric model of language gives rise to structural failures in deciding debate rounds.

A traditional view of language sees signs—the symbols, words, or concepts we use to communicate—as the deferred presence of true intended meanings. Under this model, the word “cup” translates some conscious, well-defined concept in my head—that of a receptacle for carrying liquid—to the conscious of the reader or listener. This is what Derrida means when he says, under the traditional account, that the sign is both secondary and provisional: it temporarily stands in the place of the real concept it represents (Kamuf 1992, 61). Of course, misunderstandings are possible, but they are resolvable. If my listener doesn’t understand what I mean by “cup” I can qualify the concept with further signs: I might elaborate on some qualities of cups or point the listener to a dictionary entry. Eventually, the circulation of signs will help our confused listener understand the concept of “cup.” 

Derrida characterizes this logocentric view as pure idealism and describes his own project as contesting the transcendental authority of meaning (Derrida 1971, 49, 51). While it would be convenient if we could communicate pure meaning in the manner outlined above, we are neglecting the extent to which meaning is inherently unstable. Rather than signs directly transferring stable signifieds from one person’s conscious to another’s, Derrida suggests that meaning emerges as an effect of the play of différance—a nonconcept he coins to represent “the movement according to which language…  is constituted “historically” as a weave of differences.” (Kamuf 1992, 65). To Derrida, meaning is highly contextual. This is easiest to see with a complex concept such a “democracy.” The term carries with it a multiplicity of subtleties that help to produce divergent meanings across contexts. Everyone’s own personal relationship to the concept “democracy” ensures that it signifies different things to different people. The way “democracy” is publicly discussed also influences its meaning; each use of the word presents the possibility for new connotations. “Democracy” doesn’t represent some stable object out there in the world, but instead relies on a “weave” of historically constituted symbolism: the play of différance. Derrida wants to extend this model of meaning to all of language. In even the simple example of the sign “cup,” a Derridean view on meaning would suggest that in a given conversation, I only understand the concept “cup” due to the contingent and specific forces that guide my experience of the singular event of communication: what objects have been labelled “cups” in the past, my specific relationship to the speaker, the resemblance of this interaction to other experiences and more all influence the meaning I derive from the sign “cup.” Even accidental and arbitrary connections between words, Derrida argues, affect how we understand, relate to, and interpret their meaning. For example, the purely aesthetic similarity between the French words seme and semen,  a “floating, purely exterior collusion,” nevertheless “produces a kind of semantic mirage”—a “deviance in meaning” (Derrida 1971, 46). In this sense, signs have no fully self present meaning; rather than inherently meaningful, meaning is an effect of the legacy, context, and character of the sign. 

Derrida’s view moves beyond the logocentric model of language in two ways. First, différance cannot be included in the traditional account of the sign (Kamuf 1992, 62). Derrida critiques the metaphysics of presence: while the traditional view sees present iterations of language as independent and incorruptible by the past, Derrida argues traces of meaning constantly haunt the present so that past and present cannot be neatly compartmentalized or partitioned. Second, différance challenges the authority of presence itself and questions whether only that which exists presently can produce meaning (62). To Derrida, there is no way to isolate pure presence or absence—both are deeply intertwined (Hill 2006, 15). Just as what was said in the past influences the meaning of what is said today, the unsaid and the unsayable haunt the meaning of present communication; these traces cannot be disentangled and are essential to meaning making and the play of différance.

If meaning depends on the play of différance, it becomes impossible to neatly define the meaning of a sign. One can never exhaust the endless traces of other concepts, meanings, and contexts that follow a word or concept—there are always further chains of meaning to attend to (Kamuf 1992, 124). Indeed, Derrida asks, if careful examination of context helps to uncover and delimit meaning, how can we find the borders of context itself? (Derrida 1988, 2). To Derrida, context is unbounded, first because there is always more detail to analyze, and second because the act of describing context itself becomes part of différance—another ghostly meaning that invites further contextualization (Culler 1981, 24-25). If one cannot pin down the meaning of an individual sign, then the whole system of language starts to unravel since there is no anchor point to which meaning may be grounded. Meaning, text, différance is all around us: there is no stable, transcendental signified from which we can derive meaning. What might seem outside the text is in fact deeply involved in the production of the text’s meaning, and thus there is no privileged point from which to observe or define our system of language (Kamuf 1992, 125). Thus, Derrida concludes, the failure of language is structural: all readings are misreadings and there is no communication, at least not of the traditional kind (Partain 1992, 43). 

This all points to a broader impossibility in language. On the one hand, the meaning we try to convey in the singular event of communication is always hyper-specific: I might want to point to a specific iteration of the concept “book” for example. On the other hand, the signs we use must be inherently generalizing. The word “book” doesn’t just point to the specific book in the specific place and time I want to refer to, but must instead transcend this immediate context and represent something broader. Derrida uses the example of the signature. When I sign a document my signature presents my authorization in this specific moment. Yet, for my signature to mean anything it must be able to surpass the specificity of the moment of signing and continue to authorize across time and context. So, while the signature symbolizes something singular, it can’t solely serve as the deferred presence of the signee: it must expand and mutilate the boundaries of its meaning to function across time and place (Derrida 1988, 20). This tension between the singularity of the event and the generality of our signs is featured saliently throughout Derrida’s project. 

Applying this Derridean perspective on communication to high school debate unveils the inevitable aporia in deciding who “won” a debate round. The debate community aspires to evaluate rounds tabula rasa—that is, solely based on what the debaters argued without allowing a judge’s preconceived biases, political leanings, or topic knowledge to influence their final decision. It is widely known yet rarely acknowledged within the community that nobody can truly become tabula rasa; it is clearly impossible to completely erase all your past experiences. Yet debaters and judges tend to treat this problem as piecemeal: occasionally judges biases will seep in and prompt them to intervene in the round, but this problem occurs only in specific instances and can be minimized. Perhaps the nuclear physicist won’t vote for an argument that rests on a faulty understanding of nuclear fission even if that team’s opponents mishandle it, but that won’t stop her from judging the remainder of the round objectively.

A Derridean framework understands these failures in objectivity as structural rather than occasional and sporadic. The play of différance ensures that traces of meaning from outside the round—outside information, life experiences, previous rounds, past interactions with this round’s debaters—constantly haunt judges’ understanding of the meaning that is produced within the round. Far from evaluating soley what was said in a round, judges evaluate what is not said, what could have been said, and what was said in the past. Judges normally adjudicate several rounds each day on the same topic. Just as Derrida argues that each iteration of a sign affects its legacy and therefore its meaning, the same can be said of judges evaluating the same argument through multiple rounds. Perhaps a talented team impressed them with an argument in Round 1: when they later judge the same argument in Round 4 they might have more positive associations with it and view the team making the argument as more talented. A similar force is at play stylistically: if a judge has come to associate certain behaviors, jargon, and speaking speeds with talented debaters, and they will be constantly influenced by these subtle signals of talent, irrespective of the round’s content. At an even more basic level, no one expects the judge to come in knowing literally nothing, otherwise debaters would have to rederrive basic math or explain the concept of the federal government in each round (not to mention teach their judges English!). Inevitably, the quality and character of this knowledge colors the judge’s framing of a round. In this sense, inside the round and outside the round are shot through with each other; as Derrida says, there is presence in absence and absence in presence. The high frequency of 2-1 decisions on three judge panels illustrates this structural failure: it is not simply that the deviating judge misheard an argument or had a uniquely strong bias, but instead that it is impossible to communicate of pure, uncorrupted meaning.

The debate community has attempted to alleviate these lapses in meaning by creating systems for evaluating rounds. These sets of rules, which vary from judge to judge, are known as “paradigms.” Judges will often make highly technical decisions based on their paradigm; for example, if an argument is “dropped”—not responded to by the opposing team—many judges will consider it true for the purposes of the round even if it was unpersuasive or even blatantly false. Yet judges cannot simply mechanically apply their paradigms to decide rounds. The uniqueness of each round’s combination of arguments ensures that certain situations inevitably transcend the boundaries of the paradigm; imbedded in the paradigm is the tension between the singularity of the event and the generality of our systems. Take the case of dropped arguments: what if a team makes a new argument in the last speech? It would be unfair to consider that argument “dropped” simply because the other team didn’t have a chance to respond to it. So, judges will often disallow new arguments in the final speech entirely. But then what about arguments made in the second to last speech which now can’t be responded to with new argumentation? At what point is an argument considered “new” anyways? Do new implications or elaborations of previous arguments count as “new”? Since context is boundless, cases that don’t fit within the immediate structure of the paradigm are inevitable. 

Moreover, exacting a paradigm requires bringing outside understandings into the debate round. For instance, a paradigm might exclude the possibility of new counterplans—plans of action that the negative argues should be done instead of the affirmative’s advocacy—after the first negative speech. Identifying whether a specific argument constitutes a counterplan requires an understanding the concept of the counterplan, and, more broadly, how arguments are typically categorized. In order to evaluate each argument under a paradigm, the argument must first be categorized as a specific iteration of a more general form. Thus, arguments themselves do not produce fully self present meaning in a vacuum, but are instead linked to and haunted by the ghostly arguments of rounds past. Paradigms, no matter how technical, are ill-equipped to resolve the inherent instability of meaning, and, upon closer examination, rely heavily on supposedly external traces of meaning to decipher a given round.

The impossibility of evaluating debate rounds purely technically might feel obvious to many. But that is precisely Derrida’s point: we refuse to contend with the reality that our systems of meaning are unstable and instead opt for the convenient but fallacious view that meaning can be purified and pinned down. The case of high school debate makes tangible the centrality of différance to the production of meaning and the omnipresence of the absent trace. In light of this, it’s not the case that judges should no longer try to make fair and unbiased decisions, but rather that doing so requires even more finely tuned awareness of the chains of signification that trail every word, concept, or argument. Likewise, debaters, upon realizing the impossibility of “saying what you mean,” must analyze the multiplicity of legacies, connotations, and meanings associated with each sign and communicate with the judge not as a blank slate receptacle of argumentation but as an impure subject crafted by forces supposedly exterior to the debate space. The debate community, then, has much to gain from a Derridean perspective on language.

Works Cited:

Derrida, Jacques. 1971. Part of an Interview with Houdebine and Scarpetta from Positions.

Kamuf, Peggy. 1992. “A Derrida Reader between the Blinds.” 

Hill, Leslie. 2006. The Cambridge Introduction to Jacques Derrida.

Derrida, Jacques. 1988. “Signature Event Context,” Limited Inc, trans. Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman.

Culler, Jonathan. 1981. “Convention and Meaning: Derrida and Austin.” New Literary History, Vol. 13, No. 1.

Partain, Joseph. 1992 “Are All our Readings Misreadings?: Derrida, The Flickering A (A Look At Derrida On Interpretation),” Episteme, Vol. 3, Article 6.