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Pre-Fiat in LD: A Defense of "Kritikal" Engagement
If pre-fiat arguments need to die, it is only because the very idea of pre-fiat is no longer useful within LD debate. As much has been said about the nature of pre-fiat, there is generally a lack of clarity within the LD community as to what pre-fiat arguments look like and how they function. While pre-fiat arguments have traditionally been associated with a specific kind of kritik that draws its link from the discourse used in a debate, there has been a recent trend of referring to any argument that discusses race or gender as being “pre-fiat.” Although many positions that address race and gender involve arguments about discourse, I would argue that labeling these positions as generically pre-fiat allows critics of such arguments to dismiss them as an argumentative fad or trick that exploits the structure of fiat in order to gain an unfair advantage and win rounds. Contrary to what the label “pre-fiat” might suggest, critical arguments about structural oppression are not an attempt to avoid substantive debate for a strategic advantage.
In policy debate, fiat is a device designed to limit the scope of debate to substantive discussion of the plan. Fiat provides for the passage of the plan as if by grace in order to refocus the debate on the material effects of a particular policy proposal rather than its feasibility on the floor of the senate. At its core, fiat affirms the importance of the resolution as defining the limits of what can be considered substantive debate. If policy debate is simulation, it is not a simulation of passing public policy, with all the corresponding legislative rules and procedures, but a creative act of imagining a world different than the status quo—an educational exercise of exploring what public policy can do rather than what specific legislators cannot do.
In this way, given that fiat is a primarily a defense of substance, it would make sense that the only legitimate pre-fiat arguments would be arguments that are also theoretical checks on non-substantive arguments, e.g. checks on arguments that function outside of the limits of the resolution or arguments that unfairly prevent substantive clash. If we understand the purpose of the pre-fiat layer of debate as being merely procedural, theory would be understood as a kind of distraction from substantive debate that is permitted only insofar as it simultaneously recognizes the value in substantive debate. Despite offering an obvious structural advantage in a debate, theoretical pre-fiat arguments are legitimate as a necessary evil to deter non-substantive debate.
Yet many kritiks are also broadly said to operate pre-fiat. For example, while a stock biopower kritik might offer post-fiat disadvantages to the state’s attempt to control the productivity of life through a policy like healthcare, etc., it can also suggest that, prior to fiat or substance, the affirmative’s use of biopolitical rhetoric normalizes such discourse and makes it more likely for the impacts of the kritik to occur in the real world. Thus, as a voting issue, the kritik offers a proactive reason to vote against the affirmative that comes prior to any evaluation of the policy proposal presented in the 1AC. As such, the kritik is obviously strategic: even if the substantive link to the plan is not very good, the negative can argue that it is not the specifics of the plan but the way that the affirmative talks about the plan that provides the strongest link to the kritik and the pre-fiat voting issue. By combining the kritik with a criticism of the educational value of fiat, it is not hard to see how the affirmative has a huge amount of argumentation to get through to make the plan a voting issue.
This description of the structure of a pre-fiat argument still seems to miss the normative way in which many people in the LD community talk about such arguments. In LD, fiat has a much more ambiguous theoretical function than in policy debate. Despite the popularity of plan-based debate, topics in LD are not written in such a way that presumes the passage of a plan or even a discussion public policy. Consequently, rather than describing the relationship of the kritik to the plan, “pre-fiat” seems to be a kind of euphemism that suggests a purposeful avoidance of substance. Labeling arguments pre-fiat is a rhetorical strategy that allows opponents of such arguments to paint all “kritikal” arguments with an extremely broad brush. By isolating the theoretical structure of fiat as being the defining characteristic of arguments about discourse, it becomes easier to dismiss these arguments as being “merely strategic” or run in bad faith.
This kind broad strokes attitude towards pre-fiat arguments and critical theory more generally seems educationally bankrupt to me. It is vitally important that the LD community not take critical discourse as a kind of monolithic block—the “kritik” in all its variations. To be clear, there is a huge difference between a student who runs a stock biopower k from a policy backfile and a student who make arguments about their own embodied experience. There has long been hostility in LD to anything “critical” that is a reflection of the divide within academia between continental and analytic philosophy departments. Coaches do a disservice to their students by bringing departmental politics into the debate space—reducing complicated arguments about race and gender to some external question of whether Hegel is proper philosophical heir to Kant misses the point that these arguments, despite being written about by academics, reference antagonisms that take place far outside of the hallways of academia. Whatever biases coaches involved in academia might have against “post-modernism” or “continental philosophy,” allowing your dislike of Derrida to influence your evaluation of another professor from Irvine’s scholarship is anti-intellectual at best.
I believe that there is educational value in students reading someone like Foucault, however, I am willing to admit that the reading of Foucault produced by many stock kritiks is not particularly rigorous. To be sure, for Foucault, the idea that one can neatly be “for or against” ideology would likely be more damaging than the suggestion in a debate round that healthcare is a good idea. The world is far too complicated for an author like Foucault to reduce the cause of something like biopolitics to what is said in a debate round. While I am inclined to think that there are more substantive ways to answer Foucault in LD, I can understand why some students and coaches feel that such a generic discourse argument is unfair.
What I am unwilling to grant is that there are ever prima facie objections to students discussing their embodied experiences or that these discussions should ever be preemptively excluded on the basis of some prior structural concern for fairness. Simply put, I do not believe a student should ever lose on face for discussing an issue that is important to them, particularly an issue that affects them in their daily life. I’m not convinced that there can be a serious Deleuzian, Lacnian, or Derridian in high school, but it seems obvious to me that students who put themselves at risk by foregrounding their identity in a debate round are not cynically trying to exploit the structure of fiat to win. Only a model of debate that has discarded the importance of rhetoric in favor of a game of pure logos would place the desire to win necessarily in opposition to having conviction in one’s arguments.
If pre-fiat is a kind of dirty word that suggests a refusal to engage in substance, it seems to me that theory is empirically a far greater threat to substantive educational discussion than so called pre-fiat arguments could ever be. I am sensitive to the fact that LD is a unique space for students to learn about analytic philosophy in high school. Given threats to the humanities in higher education, I am reluctant to say that any kind of humanities education should be done away with. However, it is important that those who are enthusiastic about moral philosophy and Anglo-American metaphysics begin to understand the ways in which their discipline can prop up white supremacy and heteropatriarchy in debate. The demand that students who wish to discuss structural violence must do so on the level of a normative philosophical framework is a demand for a kind of epistemological code switching that does violence to a student speaking from a place of experience. The demand that students separate their advocacy from their body before being taken seriously is a kind of cultural imperialism that requires criticism to be gentrified before it can be understood. The assumption that deductive reasoning is the default frame through which all arguments must be viewed is the very definition of white privilege—an exercise of pure reason in which we can imagine that identity just disappears in the pursuit of the truth. Characterizing a case you are hitting as being about “saying a bad word” or being white and male is the clearest proof you are missing the point.
When coaches and educators dismiss literature from other parts of the library for referencing “obscurantist” philosophy, they do a disservice to their students. What does seem to be true to me is that running theory against such criticism can only result in intervention. It’s simple—reading theory is such a tremendous refusal to engage with the substance of the kritik that either the judge is similarly unwilling to engage and will reject the kritik on face or the judge looks to the substance of the kritik and acknowledges that running theory merely feeds the link. I’ve heard many attempts to justify why certain hypothetical pre-fiat arguments would justify running theory, and it’s easy to agree with many of them, but I have never seen such an argument in a real debate round. I have never heard a debater say that they should win for saying racism is bad or that I should drop their opponent because they are male. The actual pre-fiat arguments I hear students make are sophisticated and rely on literature that has great depth and demands engagement and not dismissal. Although an entire other article would have to be written about substantive ways to engage with arguments about race or gender, it goes without saying that the first step is to accept that your opponent is saying something, rather than rejecting their arguments out of hand. Don’t assume what your opponent does is “pre-fiat”, “performance”, or “resistance”, listen, and let them tell you what they are doing. Even if you want to talk about moral philosophy, you should have the conviction to defend the value of philosophical education rather than relying on what amounts to a procedural argument to get out of explicitly defending your values. It should go without saying, but if a model of debate cannot even justify its own educational value, why should it ever win a round?
James McElwain coaches at St. Thomas Academy in Minnesota.