Against the ‘Post-Fact’ Hypothesis

(Post begun on Wednesday, 9 November 2016, in the post-Trump situation.)

1.

At lunch today, I was struggling to explain my objection to that strain of commentary about post-‘fact’ politics.

Has politics become ‘post-fact’? The mystery from which this strand of commentary begins is that people seem willing to continue their support for politicians who:

  1. Make claims which they know to be false,
  2. Are blatantly inconsistent and self-contradictory, or
  3. Advocate economically and socially costly policies with no clear benefit.

Given these observations, the hypothesis is that people nowadays must simply have less of a concern or capacity for ‘facts’ in politics.

Is that an unreasonable hypothesis? Not exactly – but this initial plausibility is deceptive. In fact, I think its intuitive appeal is precisely what makes ‘post-fact politics’ a cognitively limiting and discursively sterile frame.

My most basic objection to the ‘post-fact’ hypothesis is that it is ripe for confirmation bias. “This is the politics of grievance.” “In the age of reality TV, people can’t distinguish serious content from entertainment.” “Nationalism and nostalgia are resurgent in many places in the world.” “It’s a rural-urban divide,” the sub-text being either, “It’s a tribal divide,” or, “The hicks don’t understand the news.”

From the ‘post-fact politics’ frame, this looks like a convergent pattern, and this seeming convergence creates the illusion that the hypothesis has explanatory power. However, that convergence arises partly because these explanations all serve to affirm a premise implicit to the ‘post-fact’ hypothesis: that my understanding of the parameters of constructive discussion doesn’t need adjustment. With ‘fact’ on my side, disagreements tend to be rationalized as transient differences of concern (temporary and self-correctable deviations from the norms of rational discussion), or as essential and unchangeable differences (mostly, an incapacity for civility or knowledge).

2.

I think it’s revealing that J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy was one of the most extensively covered books about Trump-land in the establishment press. Vance tells a story that is evidently cognitively satisfying for a broad audience. His depiction of difference – framed in terms of class, culture, and other parameters of social situation – seems to have sparked a certain empathetic impulse in his audience (here I quote some of their letters to Rod Dreher, who did an interview with Vance):

  1. “I enjoy intelligent conversation and debate and have learned to carefully listen to and understand those who I may disagree with, so I might be educated fully on the issue not just entrenched in my beliefs […] Thank you for a refreshing read in a sea of partisan sludge.”
  2. “I do think dialog and empathy are something of a short supply in American politics today.”
  3. “I also feel a greater understanding now of the appeal of Trump to certain strata within our society… along with a renewed sense of how dangerous he really is to all of us (not to mention the rest of the world)!”

At the same time,  these three letter-writers also detailed their parameters of difference from (and similarity to ) Vance’s hillbillies:

  1. “By the way I am black, liberal, I most often vote Democrat and I don’t like Trump (for Reasons too high in number to state).”
  2. “I’m Californian, a progressive and a Sanders supporter, a former Nader supporter, a former UAW organizer, currently a medical devices engineer in [state], and have a Ph.D. in engineering. I grew up in a town 5 miles north of the Mexican border in south San Diego, and grew up among Mexican immigrants, many of whom were undocumented… they were my neighbors, my friends, my elders. I myself am an immigrant, came here as a kid with my parents, who were liberals who wanted something better than that right-wing dictatorship in [another country] // But I did grow up around the poverty line. My parents fought hard to stay out of welfare, to stay together, and to teach us the value of work.”
  3. “I speak as a socialist, agnostic, gay white male who’s never voted Republican in all his years! As a lifelong resident of the suburbs of Houston, Texas, it’s long occurred to me how insulated I am from the struggles of poor and working-class folks today; however my family started out poor, with my parents divorcing when I was six.”

All three writers testify to having experienced a moment of empathy, sparked by an appreciation of the social differences they detail – and to the extent that empathy extends the imagination, that’s a positive.

On the other hand, the media coverage of the book left me with a nagging suspicion about how far this particular mode of empathy will go, in terms of changing the terms of engagement across ideological lines.

While the NYT managed to remain mostly nuanced, the sub-title on the National Review’s piece was: ‘A harrowing portrait of the plight of the white working class’. What strikes me about that sub-title is the clear emotional valence of it (it borders on the sentimental), and the equally clear moral/political valence.

That clarity is cognitively satisfying, but rather than extend the imagination, I think it undermines it and deceives it. It promises that your categories work, and that your sympathy bridges the gap.

As for whether Vance’s book itself manages to bridge the empathy gap, I think this reviewer’s suggestion that ‘Vance is very skilled at generalizing from very small pieces of evidence’ is worth weighing as well – really his suggestion is that generalization is Vance’s primary skill, and that in his evaluation, Vance hasn’t actually represented the challenges and situation of the region very faithfully at all.If he had, it would probably have been a different book; but would Vance’s Elegy have been as enthusiastically received among such broad constituencies if he’d generalized less? If not, then perhaps it can’t be expected to reconfigure those fundamental alignments very much either.

3.

At lunch, we got to talking about how ‘fact’ is also discursively bound and socially constructed – always a bit of a morass…

The case I was struggling to make was that the psychology of those constituencies that get cast as ‘post-fact’ isn’t necessarily reducible to hindbrain-driven tribal behavior, or to a desire for emotional gratification/validation. Considering things from a different angle, Trump’s blatant self-contradictions (“I love the Mexican people”) at least signal the ability to consider those objections that the better-informed seemed to ignore. That’s a powerful signal, if your disagreements and your ‘facts’ seem never to be represented, only ever misrepresented, and never responded to in a way that means something to you. Trump voters get cast as either haters or suckers – because isn’t that what they have to be, if they’re swallowing what Trump’s selling? – but there is an alternative: that perhaps ‘they’ also have a capacity for cultural theory, media studies, and criticism.

I really don’t think the genius of Trump is his unusual syntax (try reading that Slate article, and see if it doesn’t strike you as condescending) – if anything, it was his ability to resist commentators’ power to represent him at all.

Not that I put it in exactly those terms; still, the reply I got was that his constituency can’t be that sophisticated.

4.

Once, I took a series of buses across half the U.S., from Minnesota down to Tennessee. I went on my own with food, clothes, and a tent, to get to a music festival.

Being at the festival was a strange mix of the familiar and the alien. In some sense, I was the alien in the middle of a gigantic farm in Tennessee. On the other hand, part of how I got there involved feeling convinced on some level that I knew what I was going to be experiencing: the bands, the songs, the fans.

Adding to that strangeness was the fact that places like music festivals are also where signs and icons come to life. Imagine the memes and reposts on a trending topic, except people are waving the signs and shouting the words, wearing the costumes or carrying the near-life-size dummies, etc.

As I was settling in over the first two days, the music was familiar. I watched Real Estate and CHVRCHES and James Blake. I noticed a few things that were unfamiliar, though, like the meme, ‘Do you like fishsticks, Kanye?’ (I found out later that this was from South Park.)

I knew Kanye was due to play at the main stage on the third day, but I hadn’t been aware of his history with the festival – to cut a long story short, in 2008 a series of scheduling and technical missteps trapped a late-night crowd in a field for a few hours, with the crowd working itself into a mutinous mood that inspired some heartfelt graffiti.

But being unaware of the historical context, the anti-Kanye messages I was noticing presented something of a puzzle.

Another puzzle: Does enthusiastically voicing an effigy of South Park Kanye for three days make you the opposite of a fan, or the best fan?

I ended up watching Kanye’s show with a couple of grad students from the University of Tennessee. I asked them about why they were watching Kanye, and if the crowd really hated him, or if it was something else. I heard that Kanye was classic, and that Kanye was complex, and that, for both Kanye and the crowd, hate was also about self-hate. I also heard about how Kanye had paid Zach Galifianakis and Seth Rogen to parody him in the past (both true).

In my head, I theorized about Kanye’s performance of egotism, and the heroic aspect to the role of rejected villain. From the stage, there were some amazing monologues.

5.

Another response I got at lunch to what I was saying, was that ‘post-fact’ is essentially the construction of deviance. I thought my friend was right, but that it might be a problem if the ideological establishment’s central project is effectively the construction of the thoughts and responses of nearly half the country as deviant.

One area in which I thought I might agree with the suggestion that we have a post-‘fact’ politics was the idea that the central political controversy has become, ‘Whose facts?’ But in a way, maybe that makes ‘post-fact politics’ just politics. Maybe this is just what groups do, what politicians do, and how politics happens.

An interesting idea that Alexio Mantzarlis raises is that ‘at any point in history we can find politicians vandalizing our understanding of reality’. The idea is that the ‘post-fact’ hype is just the perennial condition of political discourse, rather than a novel situation. That politicians make representations that suit their constituencies’ situations is a given. Some representations may be more or less self-interested, and more or less equitable to their non-constituents, but at some level conflicting representations are just part of the process.

An alternative statement of the ‘post-fact’ situation is that the norms that defined the political discourse seem no longer able to accommodate the divergences in discourse – but maybe that’s just how polities evolve.

So maybe it really is just that (I quote a friend), ‘The era of centrism and logics of depoliticized technocratic management in all its manifestations is over,’ which just about covers everything I’ve tried to say about ideology and the discourse around ‘fact’, the ‘fact’-bound, and the people who feel they must own their own ‘facts’.

6.

I think one trap for the progressively minded is that there does come a point when your reference points erode and your slogans change direction. Things like ‘difference’ become templatic, and lose their meaning when their dimensions of reference become incomprehensible.

However, my speaking against the ‘post-fact’ hypothesis isn’t intended as an admonition to arrogant liberals (or any particular group – I truly believe that the inertia of human imagination is a universal tendency). Not all divergences in dimensions-of-reference may be resolvable; some incompatibilities may well be fundamental, and perhaps that’s the basis of all political struggle.

But that’s also why I find that the ‘post-fact’ hypothesis has a cynical dimension, in its passive acceptance of incompatibility.

Mantzarlis (an expert on fact-checking!) is a fellow skeptic of the ‘post-fact’ hype, and in an article from July 2016, he offers this analysis:

‘To some extent, “post-fact” is a coping mechanism for commentators reacting to attacks on not just any facts, but on those central to their belief system. When the political realities are as alien to a liberal-cosmopolitan worldview as Donald Trump’s candidacy or Brexit, it can be easier to explain them away by painting 2016 as an apocalyptic “post-truth” era where people are just not getting the importance of facts.

‘This is not to say there are no grounds to worry. This has clearly been an acrimonious year for politics on both sides of the Atlantic. Facts are getting a thorough shellacking by campaigns which don’t think they matter to the electorate. In the UK, a key donor for the “Leave” campaign said as much, while a supporter of Donald Trump called fact-checking an “out-of-touch, elitist media-type thing” (even that has echos of 2012).’

There’s a lot in there for me to agree with, but I think the point that came out the most clearly for me was about how certain campaigns treated the electorate. Ultimately I think the thing I most actively object to about the ‘post-fact’ hypothesis is that it is a surrender to the cynics.

Unhearing

‘We did not see that our slogans had lost their bearing and pointed in the wrong directions. We invoked “democracy” solemnly as in a prayer, and watched while the greatest nation of Europe voted, by perfectly democratic methods, its assassins into power. We worshipped the will of The Masses, and their will turned out to be death and self-destruction. We regarded capitalism as an outworn system, and were willing to exchange it for a new form of slavery. We preached tolerance, and the evil which we tolerated destroyed our civilization.’
Arthur Koestler, “The Chinaman’s Nod”, in Bricks to Babel.

Bricks to Babel is a collection of Koestler’s writings, many of them short pieces. “The Chinaman’s Nod” is a very short piece, about Koestler’s posting to Berlin as a journalist. Koestler arrived in Berlin on September 14, 1930, the day of the election in which the National Socialists dramatically increased the number of seats they held to 107 of 577, from just 12 seats before. Koestler refers to the day as ‘the beginning of the age of barbarism in Europe’.

“The Chinaman’s Nod” is primarily about a disjuncture between the imagined state of political manoeuvres and political discourse, and the actual behavior of the body politic.

Much of the piece takes the form of a depressing run-down of how the various groups that might have been expected to challenge and arrest the rise of the Nazis – e.g. the Liberals, the Socialists, the intellectuals, the Communists – could not (or did not, until the point it was too late), either because their credibility with the people was poor, or because they were apt to operate in an ineffectual way.

If the disjuncture I described above was the problem, the natural question to ask is about how this disjuncture came to be. Koestler’s answer might refer to the preoccupation of politicians (and others) with issues they thought were important, their failure to recognize real danger, etc. However the underlying pathology he diagnoses isn’t something specific to some subset of citizens; as he writes,

‘After the event, people asked themselves: How could we have been such fools to twiddle our thumbs when the outcome was so obvious? The answer is that owing to the inertia of human imagination, to most people it wasn’t obvious at all.’

I read Koestler’s suggestion of the existence of some sort of ‘inertia of human imagination’ as a reference to something we are all subject to.

*

What does the talk about political dysfunction look like nowadays? Words like ‘gridlock’ and ‘polarized’ tend to come up when discussing the health of the world’s super-powered democracy. (A body out of balance, and in need of a cleanse, maybe.) People speculate about how the mysterious algorithms behind things like Facebook’s News Feed create political echo chambers for individuals who are subsequently surprised to find that people who don’t share their views actually exist, and in significant numbers. We worry about the fragmentation of discourse, and wonder if it adds up to a coherent imagination of community.

At home, terms like ‘silent majority’ and ‘the 70%’ come up, sometimes (I get the feeling) from people who seem like they feel disappointed or even betrayed that those who disagreed with them failed to do so in terms more to their liking, in media they prefer. At least ours is a small country.

Earlier I asked the question about how the disjuncture between the imagined state of political discourse and who people actually end up voting for comes to be. While I agree with Koestler that it’s often an imaginative gap, when I think about ‘discourse’ and what makes a ‘healthy’ political discourse, one way to think about it is in terms of who gets heard and who gets ignored. There’s also the question of how we hear, which is both a practical question (what do we tend not to hear/read/watch?) and a question of whether we are aware of our cognitive biases (what do we tend not to understand?).

I actually came across the first passage from Koestler I quoted above on the same day I saw news of J.K. Rowling’s defense of Trump’s right to expression on my FB feed. In truth, I don’t think Mr. Trump needs much help on the media air-time front; can he even be silenced? She might say the question is not whether he can be silenced, but whether he ought to be silenced, and I would have to agree. 

But even in that discussion, I’m not sure the principle of freedom of expression should be uniformly invoked to defend the speech of the powerful as compared to the speech of the vulnerable. Really I think the urgent question is, Whom have we not heard, that we need to hear?

The vulnerable always need advocates, I think; but there are also the ‘not-as-loud’, who might not need advocates, exactly, but whom I think of as having a hard time being understood through the noise. Trump’s voice gets represented, but what about his supporters’? In a democracy where these ‘not-as-loud’ might be the majority, the cost of either not hearing them, or hearing them but not understanding them, may be dear.

On the Form and Function of Open Letters

(I’m not sure which blog exactly is the best fit for this, but in keeping with the tradition that ‘this shall be the blog for things that don’t neatly fit’, I’m leaving this here. Relevant context may be found at USP Notebook, however.)

The open letter is a form that is easy enough to describe. It is correspondence between two (potentially more) parties that is deliberately made un-private. The key operation is the overturning of the expectation that the correspondence is of primarily private interest and for a private audience. This subversion is, however, accomplished unilaterally, with one party leveraging the medium to provoke the other into a public engagement.

At the same time, however, it must be pointed out that the open letter is not a purely offensive tactic. The best open letters set themselves up to be about an issue of clear enough public interest that the invitation for the other party to engage should ideally have a clear upside, e.g. where the addressee is in a position to prosecute a useful response that the public audience will appreciate.

Note (and I hope this point will be obvious without too much explanation) that not all writing or even all correspondence intended for a wide audience would qualify as an open letter. An Aljunied resident’s review of, say, the controversy over the administration of AHPETC would not count as an open letter, nor would, say, an email from the NUS president to the university.

Also according to the description I proposed above, I think the public letter (example) would have to be regarded as a closely related but distinct genre. In the case of the public letter, the letter is not a tactical instrument that invokes the weight of public attention; rather, because the discussion is already public, the author simply addresses another author’s public.

*

So I can’t think of a non-obnoxious way to state this fact, but, yeah: During my time as USC President, I wrote several club addresses, but only one open letter (see footnote 1.). This was an open letter which, I might add, I find cringe-worthy on several points; but I take some comfort in the fact that if it was not well crafted, it was at least well addressed, in that it sought to publicly engage certain agencies in pursuing a policy that they had a demonstrable interest in pursuing. Indeed, after some discussion we did manage to reach a practical compromise (less than ideal in some ways, but, hey, compromise…). Something else I regard as a victory was the fact that the solution later moved forward on the participation of individual students with the skills and willingness to facilitate its implementation.

The point I’m reaching for is that I think the open letter can be a good instrument under some circumstances, but it has several defects that are uncharitably exposed in other circumstances.

I think something that writing an open letter necessarily involves is presumption. The writer is always to some extent involved in making representations about some audience’s interests. This is true even of the more mundane examples of open letters, like complaints about receiving bad service (e.g. from a restaurant, airline, etc.); when the writers in these examples appeal to some notion of service standards defined according to some accepted norm, or notions of equity based on some model of public morality, they are purporting to represent the view of some public. In the case I describe in the footnotes (1.), this is a weakness mitigated by the fact that the letter-writers were already holding official positions that constrained them to represent (or at least purport to represent) the interests of their respective constituents. On the practical level, this also meant that subsequent engagement between parties could be sustained.

A second weakness of the format is the transparency of the letter-writer’s intention to provoke a public response (by definition of the form). When a subject is not well addressed (and frankly even when they are), open letters can come across as shrill and impassioned, while leaving the reader still mystified about the cause for alarm.

Another example of an open letter that I recall from a USP context was this one, about Houses in USC (incidentally, a letter I’ve criticized before, but focusing on content and context). The first level on which it failed to be well-addressed was that the letter-writers addressed an office-holder with whom they were committee members, and as such the letter contained the implication that the committee’s normal functioning was insufficient to even discussing the issue. However, even assuming that the issue was simply irresolvable for political reasons, as a tactical manoeuvre, it fails again because no discernibly useful course of action emerges from the representation made of the situation.

*

All in all, open letters are a form which I approach with no great fondness. In the technological context of the present, one wherein speech so often has a public component to begin with, it is a form that has to contend even harder with the difficulty of being pertinent, well-addressed, or more generally right and opportune2.


Footnotes
1. Document: Follow-Up to Open Letter, 12 November 2012. An update to the club that contains the letter. See also the response from ComCen to an article in Studentry (the online version of the Ridge) about the wireless situation.
2. No, I did not take WCT in ‘Civic Discourse in a Fractious World’.

News from Mars

I saw the news about Umpqua a few hours ago. I did a quick search for news reports and posted one on Facebook. One of the first few comments I received linked to the 4chan thread on the channel /r9k/ that the shooter had allegedly been posting on just minutes before the shooting. Activity on the thread was high, with some commenters egging the OP on (OP: original poster) to follow through on his plan. The Daily Mail’s report on the thread in question highlights some representative posts, and provides some broader context on 4chan and its community (if you can call it that; anonymity is the norm) of users.

Something that isn’t as easily presented through representative posts, however, is the discursive frame1 that many of the participants in the thread adopt2 (or at least acknowledge). I was trying to get a sense of it while reading through the thread (an unpleasant experience), so I figured I might as well write down what I’ve figured out so far. Also it’s almost completely new to me (something I’m somewhat glad to be able to say).

1. ‘so long, space robots’

The OP signs off his initial post this way. This is a reference to the 4chan channel (/r9k/ stands for ROBOT9001).

Another prominent term in the thread is ‘normie’, which UD defines thus:

‘1. A person who does not have a mental illness such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, mood disorders, PTSD, depression or any similar mental disability. “Normie” is a reference to those who are a part of the mainstream culture; the 97% of the population who do not have a mental illness.’

I think the above is a rather narrow definition, and that the sense of it probably expands, in the context of /r9k/, to all non-participants in the /r9k/ subculture. It would also serve as a term to exclude, for instance, commenters who do not demonstrate that they subscribe to the ‘right’ set of norms, including communicative norms (e.g. familiarity with certain memes and fluency in employing them).

But overall we see that the identity that the ‘space robots’ are attempting to normalize, is to be the antithesis of the ‘normies’. It’s about experiencing solidarity by being non-normal (a familiar enough pattern in fandom culture), but in this context it seems ramping it up from non-normal to anti-normal is imagined to demonstrate one’s credentials as a member of the in-group more emphatically.

2. ‘beta’, ‘beta uprising’

While the alien-normie dichotomy probably isn’t going to be picked up on in the ensuing media commentary, the beta-alpha one probably is, because of the existing popular interest in MRA stuff (Wiki).

The basic idea is that alpha-males get the lion’s share of society’s rewards (e.g. female attention, most often; but also social rewards more generally like economic rewards), at the expense of beta-males who, by virtue of being less aggressive and less willing to exploit others, get a lesser share, but who nevertheless continue to participate in society and keep it going, by passively accepting those unfair terms.

The solidarity project here is advanced by self-identifying ‘betas’.

So I read a term like ‘beta uprising’ and there are echoes of, say, Marxist rhetoric, but overall it’s a rather twisted reinterpretation of the critique of power more generally (which we see in Marxist ideology, but is also part of feminism, anarchism, etc.).

3.  ‘Chad’, ‘Chads and Stacies’ 

Basically the antagonists. The generic male/female names stand for generic, ‘normie’ people. ‘Chad’ (rather than ‘Chads and Stacies’) is referred to much more often in the thread, because Chads (‘asshole jocks’) are basically the bane of beta experience. I’m inferring, but I would say Chads need not necessarily be alphas; they just happen to behave in ways that self-identifying betas find antogonizing.

4. ‘edgy’, ‘edgelord’

There is a popular sense of ‘edgy’ that means something like ‘challenging to societal norms, in a somewhat dark way’ (paraphrasing the top UD definition). The sense of ‘edgy’ is somewhat more specific in this subculture, however. The UD definitions for ‘edgelord‘ capture this quite well:

1: ‘A poster on an Internet forum, (particularly 4chan) who expresses opinions which are either strongly nihilistic, (“life has no meaning,” or Tyler Durden’s special snowflake speech from the film Fight Club being probably the two main examples) or contain references to Hitler, Nazism, fascism, or other taboo topics which are deliberately intended to shock or offend readers.’
2: ‘Fedora tipping, fat fuck that spends his life on anime cartoon message boards being a worthless pile of shit. Nobody likes this guy but he acts like he doesn’t care. He’s a pathetic, lost kissless virgin that should just kill himself.’

So the higher-voted definition is a lot less inflammatory (quite successfully provides a veneer of academic objectivity on this interpretation of the employment of the term in the discourse), and the second definition is a lot closer to the tone of the thread I was reading – but more importantly I think there’s a layer of irony that the person supplying the second definition is aware of. I read it as a space robot speaking with the voice of a Chad – so basically as much self-hate as hate.

*

I’m just going to list some quick thoughts.

  1. In this discursive community, we see solidarity can be expressed by performing alienation. This does not mean we should assume all speakers think of themselves as alienated (though some certainly appear to).
  2. The dark side of this interpretation? Like the example of a group of dudes acting rowdy even when there are no chicks around, it’s like practising for the real performance. I see /r9k/ as the virtual space where the playing-out of the character of the space robot happens. For most users a basic premise is that this is a virtual performance (indeed necessarily a virtual performance, otherwise how could one be alienated?) and not a real performance. Yet the edges of these realities do bleed.
  3. In all this, there is irony – but irony with a manic, involuted quality.

1. By ‘discursive frame’, I mean something like ‘cognitive schemas or structures shape the way individuals perceive and represent reality’ (article in the Encyclopedia of Case Study Research).
2. I say ‘adopt’ because there is an extent to which we can think of frames as being selected by a speaker on a particular communicative occasion.

Week 3, Saturday: On Questioning

I started digging in today into what I’ve found to be a very interesting volume, Questions and Information Systems (1992). (It was somewhat quaint to hear references to ARPANET.)

While several chapters are about what were at the time termed ‘expert systems’ (‘algorithms’ being a term that sounds to me like it has the same level of being in vogue now as it did then), some chapters focus on the perhaps more classic or basic problem of what questioning involves. These certainly draw from the technological frame, but less than they do from (I would say) philosophy and linguistics.

One example is Marianne LaFrance’s chapter, which presents a nice summary of the problems with the ‘usual’ ways of thinking about questions, e.g. as ‘knowledge acquisition’ (p.15); ‘In fact, acquisition of knowhow from an expert is one variation on the venerable question of how any person manages to transfer hard-won personal proficiency to someone who is less skilled’ (p.15).

I was also excited by her six axioms about the ‘process of question asking‘ (p.16), which I found ring truer for their being counter-intuitive:

  1. Information is not extracted by questioning.
  2. Questions require common ground.
  3. All questions are leading questions.
  4. Questions derive from knowledge rather than ignorance.
  5. Questions occasion the telling of stories rather than the furnishing of answers.
  6. Good answers ring true rather than are true.

(p.16)

*

The other chapter I was studying was Graesser et al’s chapter on ‘Mechanisms that Generate Questions’ (p.167). They proposed a rather comprehensive taxonomy of inquiries, as well as propose a summative framework of question-generation mechanisms. The four main groups of mechanisms they identify are:

  1. Correction of Knowledge Deficit
  2. Monitoring Common Ground
  3. Social Coordination of Action
  4. Control of Conversation and Attention (p.175)

For my own reference, I’m recording here my own alternative grouping of the 18 categories in their taxonomy of inquiries  (pp.172-173).

  • I think the first basic group includes verification (is X, y?), comparison (how is X vs. Y), and disjunctive questions (is x or is y?). I imagine these types of questions as operations that localize the exchange within some topic area. One feature I observed of these question types is that the questioner has to supply the range of knowledge to the answerer.
  • I thought ‘concept completion’ (Wh-questions) was closely related to the first group, in that the questioner still supplies significant identifying information, although the object/referent of the question is left genuinely open. This distinguishes it slightly from the above group, however, in that it presents the opportunity for a new knowledge-entity to populate the knowledge base.
  • Following from this, I thought that ‘definition’ and ‘example’ are species of questions that are intensively focused on populating new areas of the knowledge base.
  • ‘Interpretation’, ‘Feature specification’, and ‘Quantification’ all appear related to eliciting the answerer’s assessment of some situation.
  • ‘Causal antecedent’, ‘Causal consequence’, and ‘Goal orientation’ seem to be focused on eliciting the answerer’s understanding of a narrative.
  • The frame for ‘Enablement’ and ‘Instrumental/Procedural’ questions seems to be a problem-solving frame.
  • The last group of questions (‘Judgmental’, ‘Assertion’, ‘Request/Directive’) have in common how little room they leave the answerer to manoeuvre. The question-type listed before these, ‘Expectational’, can be as restrictive as these, but could also occur when the stance involves the questioner genuinely seeking the answerer’s assessment. However, this might be better classified under ‘Interpretation’.

Doing ‘Discourse’ (Part I): Situating and Qualifying CDA

The main problems Chilton considers in his chapter on ‘Missing links in mainstream CDA’ (published in this volume) have to do with CDA’s foundational claims. Taking inspiration from Chilton’s book chapter, I would identify three of these claims, namely that:

  1. Language-use is, among other things, social practice.
  2. CDA is useful or otherwise valuable to human society.
  3. Discourses exist, we know what they are, they are analyzable, and they are worth analyzing.

I see these claims as being ‘foundational’ in that they situate CDA relative to some starting point in the preexisting literature, as well as motivate (i.e. provide a rationale for) the project of CDA.

Beginning with the first claim, if language-use (and language-constituted ‘discourse’) is social practice, then one implication is that CDA is as relevant as anything else that has come in the tradition of social theory (power, consent, etc.) and social critique (exposing power structures, demystifying previously ‘opaque’ concepts, etc.). If one accepts the relevance, validity, or usefulness of the body of social theory I have broadly alluded to, it follows that one would appreciate the significance of the CDA project at least along those dimensions.

This particular implication is also relevant to the second claim I identify, about the usefulness of CDA. Thus, when Chilton brings the ’emancipatory’ mission and ‘demystifying’ function of CDA into question, we have a ready response, insofar as language is indeed social practice, and insofar as we buy into the general body of social theory. In our class discussion, as well, I found many of the arguments for the usefulness of CDA to be true for the usefulness of social theory in general, e.g. the value of being able to analyze and discuss social processes.

This is one sense in which ‘CDA’ claims to be ‘Critical’ – but we see that the function of ‘Critical’ here is also to situate CDA relative to the tradition of social critique. (Although I would also argue that the main ‘Critical’ it situates itself against is theory of literary criticism, as developed in the Western academy; Chilton doesn’t question this move in his article, however.)

However, even if we are able to achieve some understanding of social processes as enacted through language through the practice of CDA in the mode it currently adopts, Chilton questions our readiness to affirm the potential of this understanding in enacting social change. Can we really claim to be able to understand the bases of linguistic behavior and social behavior in a way that is comparable to how a financial analyst or policy-maker might claim to understand the behavior of economic actors in a certain system, or how a chemical engineer might claim to understand the physical principles governing the efficiency of a production process? Are social and linguistic behaviors ‘manageable’ in similar ways, and can we indeed claim to be contributing to the achievement of some socially beneficial outome(s) when we do CDA?

In Chilton’s evaluation, mainstream CDA has not addressed these questions, leaving an explanatory gap that undermines CDA’s claims about the ’emancipatory effects’ of the enterprise, and its claims about the social utility of the enterprise more generally. In comparison, Chilton discusses how an evolutionary-biological theory of cognition has greater explanatory power than CDA, when it comes to explaining social behavior and linguistic behavior (e.g. in the model explaining how apparently small ‘cultural inputs’ are enough to lead to persistent and significant cognitive biases).

But ultimately it is the third foundational claim which I wish to expand on, partly because I didn’t hear it come up during class discussion very much, and partly because Chilton is quite oblique when he alludes to this problem, to the point that it almost doesn’t appear as a problem in the discussion. I will expand on this in Part II.