Rules of Engagement
What is the purpose of a graduate seminar, and how does one use such a space to usefully engage with texts? I offer this document as an answer to that question and as a kind of constitution for our class.
The military root of the phrase "rules of engagement" is unfortunate because we are actually interested in something as nonviolent as possible. Of course, any interpretation of a text will do violence to it. This is the nature of interpretation. We fit a text or a set of ideas into a pre-existing framework that we already have. This is unavoidable. But we can try our best to forestall that violence or to at least soften the blow. In the interest of this kind of approach, I offer the following rules:
1. Disagreement and agreement are immaterial.
Our primary task is to understand, and this does not require agreement or disagreement. The only agreement the seminar asks of you is this: I agree to read, consider, analyze, and ask questions about these texts.
In his essay "The Rhetoric of Hitler's Battle," Kenneth Burke presents us with a succinct encapsulation of this first rule of engagement:
The appearance of Mein Kampf in unexpurgated translation has called for far too many vandalistic comments. There are other ways of burning books than on the pyre - and the favorite method of the hasty reviewer is to deprive himself and his readers by inattention. I maintain that it is thoroughly vandalistic for the reviewer to content himself with the mere inflicting of a few symbolic wounds upon this book and its author, of an intensity varying with the resources of the reviewer and the time at his disposal. Hitler's "Battle" is exasperating, even nauseating; yet the fact remains: If the reviewer but knocks off a few adverse attitudinizings and calls it a day, with a guaranty in advance that his article will have a favorable reception among the decent members of our population, he is contributing more to our gratification than to our enlightenment" (The Philosophy of Literary Form, 191)
Of course, we will not be reading anything like Mein Kampf, but the principle still stands. We are more interested in enlightenment than gratification.
2. An argument is a machine to think with.
This is another version of I.A. Richards's claim that “a book is a machine to think with." The "with" here should be read in two different ways simultaneously. We read "with" an argument by reading alongside it. We "tarry" with it. We get very close to it and join it during a long walk. Notice that this requires that we stay with the author rather than diverging down a different path, questioning the route, or pulling out our own map. But "with" here also means that the argument is a tool that we must first understand before using. Our job is to learn how this tool works. It has multiple moving parts and purposes. It has multiple audiences. We need to understand all of this before we make any attempt to use the argument, and we certainly need to do all of this before we can even think about disagreeing with it.
3. Ask that question sincerely, or the principle of "generous reading."
Why the hell would s/he argue that? If you find yourself asking this question, then take the next step by answering your own question. Why would s/he argue that? If I am indignant about the argument, does this suggest that I am not the audience? If the argument seems ridiculous, is it relying on definitions that I find foreign? If I think the argument is brilliant, is it because I am in fact the target audience, so much so that I am having a difficult time gaining any kind of critical distance?
The principle of "generous reading" has little to do with being "nice." Instead, it is more about reading in a generative way, in a way that opens the text up rather than closes it down. This requires that we read a text on its own terms, understanding how an argument is deploying certain concepts and ideas (see Rule #2).