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Constructing the ethical limits of play in policy debates.

We are segmented from all around and in every direction. The human being is a segmentary animal. Segmentarity is inherent to all the strata composing us. Dwelling, getting around, working, playing: life is spatially and socially segmented.

--Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1987)

Games are significantly dependent on the rules and conventions which define the available options to their participants. However, the abilities of games to become liberating spaces of play which exceed the limitations of their specified play-options are equally dependent on the ability of participants to negotiate and challenge the rules within the competitive or creative telos of the particular game. In this essay, I will examine the way in which two different understandings of norms govern the activity of policy debate, a competitive speech activity which makes use of philosophical concepts to continuously re-frame the possibilities of its participants. The first set of rules will be presented as intrinsic to the play of the game itself, capable of affirmation or negation by the immediate participants whose success at limiting the space of play is always situated within in the hands (or mouths) of the debaters arguing for their legitimacy. The second set of rules will be presented as a universal notion of ethical practice, understood as external to the space of play and outside of the participants agency to negotiate or define.

This essay will seek to elucidate an understanding of rules-governed play in policy debate which is always able to overcome the immediacy of its segmentarity by re-establishing the criteria of relevance, in which the assertion of universalized norms serves to put an end to play and sterilize the game of critical inquiry and experimentation. In attempting to understand play as a potentially infinite process of experimentation enabled by a limited space, we may understand the rules not as sterile components of governance which merely regulate or repress certain types of activity, but rather as always productive of a contoured play: This co-production of participant subjectivity and rules-process may tend towards experimentation and variance or alternately uncritical repetition of appropriately authorized behavior. Insofar as creative production and adaptation is a valuable pedagogical and desirable trait for game designers to pursue, hopefully this essay may offer some insight into the characteristics of rule-sets and their framing which either enable or preclude such critical growth and mutation.

Limits as the Space of Play

We may choose to understand the entirety of social existence as play. Insofar as we choose to operate such a concept, we have already acknowledged a distinction between play and games, between rules and limits. Play is a how; game is a what; rules are defined and ephemeral, as the cliche goes, made to be broken; limits inhere within the very space of play that is simultaneously its enabling condition and the insistence of its finitude. Johan Huizinga, the Dutch historian of play, went to great pains to characterize homo ludens as not essentially a player, but rather embodying the fluid characteristics of playfulness in its movements, writing "it was not my object to define the place of play among all other manifestations of culture, but rather to ascertain how far culture itself bears the character of play" (1950, ix). However, while Huizinga's theory and historical analysis of play may have centered primarily on the homo, we speculative humanists concerned for our own animalisms, our tendencies to vegetate or mineralize, or for any material to spontaneously humanize without warning may attend to play as a contouring process without the compulsion of adhering to the metaphysical presumption of our socially defined humanistic identity roles. As Jane Bennet writes
   Our habit of parsing the world into passive matter (it) and vibrant
   life (us) is what Jacques Ranciere (in another context) called a
   'partition of the sensible'. In other words, it limits what we are
   able to sense; it places below the threshold of note the active
   powers of material formations, such as the way landfills are, as we
   speak, generating lively streams of chemicals and volatile winds of
   methane.... (2009, 95)

We are inescapably in play, knowingly or unknowingly; whether we are the player or the played or more frequently uncertainly in the space between either, surrounded and composed of a material world which becomes towards us playfully, holding our soft necks in its ferocious fanged jaws only to leave us with the tender gouge of the "playful nip." We may thus be attuned to the trajectories of the ever-shifting coordinates which compose the space of play without forgetting that the condition for this space of play are enabled by its finitude. Just as we are encapsulated by a particular intersection of space and time, within the borders of a particular horizon, a particular habitude, a particular domicile or vehicle, a particular formula of activity, our play is segmented by the limits of our very existence. There will always be such limits, whether you want to refer to gravity or death as the impassable threshold, or recognize that the same conditions of finite production inhere with what Deleuze and Guattari name the "abstract machines" of our reality, which direct the flows of matter and energy along variable ranges of possibility. This does not mean that outcomes of these particular processes are singular, necessary, or inevitable according to some pre-ordained ideological formula, but merely states that their diversity is partially constituted by their limited possibilities. Mixing flour and water in a metal bowl cannot produce a full-grown pterodactyl in only seven minutes flat. While the generative properties of imaginative faculties may conceive of many identities beyond the limits of their material productions, the empirical vitality intrinsic to the manifest variance of reality is necessarily a function of these limits, which specify and individuate empirical phenomena and conceptual apparatuses away from the sickeningly homogenous "everything=everything" false holism of totalitarian transcendence. In fact, Deleuze and Guattari's instructions for philosophical thought, for populating one's conceptual desert via experimentation, precisely involves this sort of play constituted through limited variance, as they write,
   Although there is no preformed logical order to becomings and
   multiplicities, there are criteria, and the important thing is that
   they not be used after the fact, that they be applied in the course
   of events, that they be sufficient to guide us through the dangers.
   If multiplicities are defined and transformed by the borderline
   that determines in each instance their number of dimensions, we can
   conceive of the possibilities of laying them out on a plane, the
   borderlines succeeding one another, forming a broken line. (1987,

The segmentarity of our daily trajectories through waking, transiting, working, dwelling, and playing, as inter-characterized by one another, form exactly this "broken line" of successive bordered multiplicities that differentiate without requiring a notion of linear progression. However, just as we have distinguished the segmentarity of play generally, we may also find games as internally constituted by such multiplicities--spaces of play which are limited in ways far more negotiable. Games can thus be understood as a mimicry of empirical segmentarity through the mirroring of inherent limits through rules and conventions, adding another layer of artificial limits falsely supposed as internally symmetrical to external limits. Rules and conventions should rather be understood as contingent historical constructions for which a presumed key element is that they be treated as natural and sacred, necessary and essential to the functioning of the game and the preservation of the idealized play contained within it. Yet what happens when certain rules are understood as breakable, indeed, what of rules which are seldom if ever enforced? The limits certainly don't disappear, yet they adapt along a particular trajectory, according to the understanding of what such a violation means to involved participants. Frequently, the dispute-resolution process is incorporated into the strategic motivation of the players within the game as a space of play, as all defined elements are folded into the motivations of the defined players. One can see this in many sports where fouling or other forbidden behavior along with the governing dispute resolution process, referees and so on, become strategic elements in achieving victory which both participants know will be available to them at the start of the game, albeit with the attendant risk of incurring disciplinary intervention. (1) Insofar as the rules succeed in maintaining a relationship between the participants and allow the game to continue, the rules are individually superfluous to the space of play yet collectively necessary for the social definition of its limits.

Policy Debate as a Space of Play

Policy debate is a fiercely competitive speech activity where two teams of two participants argue in front of a judge who then adjudicates one team as the victor, the other the loser, and assigns all four debaters "speaker points" based on individual performance. While policy debate is a global phenomenon practiced in many formats and academic contexts, all of which merit serious scholarly inquiry, I will focus my attention specifically on national-level inter-collegiate policy debate in the U.S. This focus encapsulates not only a single game but a community of participants which overlaps with and includes many smaller identity communities. These overlapping communities consist of participants, judges, coaches, administrators, tournament directors, and all of the other minor agents, components, and machinery which enable undergraduate competitors, grad student assistants, and judges, professors, and other non-credentialed professional debate folk to leave their academic institutions for many weekends a year, oftentimes missing classes and important events, to travel long distances to compete against one another for days at a time. The policy debate season lasts for the bulk of the academic school year, and most of the participants have known each other for years while newcomers quickly become socialized into the norms and conflicts of the community which surrounds and inter-penetrates the game which it is devoted to. Community-members become tied together in part through their shared life style which develops with the intensity of the competition and depth of research and argument-preparation efforts, which, as Gordon Mitchell has noted, is no small feat:

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education estimated that the level and extent of research required of the average college debater for each topic is equivalent to the amount of research required for a Master's Thesis. If you multiplied the number of active college debaters (approximately 1,000) by that many research hours the mass work effort spent on exploring, comprehending, and formulating positions around relevant public policy issues is obviously astounding (Goodman 1993). (1998, 12)

However, it is precisely the communal element of the debate game space which makes the competition inextricably tied to shared social understandings of argumentative merit, which ground inclusion or exclusion. However, it is precisely this shared orientation of understanding as an on-going process which provides the intellectual raw material that provides a reservoir of concepts and memes to enable adaptation. As Steven Savatorre writes in the context of theatrical games, this research is crucial to game-development in varying contexts, and should not be limited within the discrete boundaries of the 'object of study' by itself:
   Players must know that the act of game-playing does not relieve
   them of the responsibility of preparing for the project...all of
   the game players must make every effort to know and research (in
   all senses of that word) the text. Appropriate research begins with
   a careful reading of the text itself, but could also include
   reading textual criticism, gathering information about the culture
   of the text's time period, collecting visual material from or about
   the period, and so on. (1999, par. 5)

The grounding of change in debate is thus enabled in the competitive nonlinear dynamics which motivate diverse research topics and select their success through the possibilities of competitive deployment in many debate rounds over time. This evolutionary process is always in dialogue with social expectations about argumentative merit. When competitive victory is determined from the perspective a particular critic or set of critics, it becomes impossible to separate the nature of that victory from the social and conceptual practices in which the adjudicatory decision is enmeshed. The extent to which one can objectively "win" an argument will always be less than the extent to which someone can "score a goal," the latter being significantly more difficult to dispute, the former itself a product of a game built out of disputes.

Policy debate is unique among games, as many of its participants will even tell you, in that it is "a game without rules." Strictly speaking, this is not the case; one team which is affirmative will speak first, the negative will speak second; speech times do not exceed nine minutes for the first four speeches of the debate and do not exceed six minutes for the latter four; there are four periods of cross-examination after each of the first four speeches, each of which maximally last three minutes; and at the end of the debate, the judge is obliged to decide a winner (and by corollary a loser) and assign speaker points to all four participants. What is meant by the "game without rules" is that there is no clearly defined rule-set limiting the type or strategy of argument that the participants may employ, and that the argument about what rules should be employed in the debate is itself a subject of contention by the debaters. The clearest case of this negotiability is the understanding of the resolution,--a statement created prior to the season by a committee of respected community-members prior to the season which expresses a normative statement about a ser of policy actions to be taken by the U.S. federal government. For example; Resolved: The U.S. federal government should reduce nearly all agricultural subsidies for corn, cotton, rice and/ or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. Debate as conventionally understood demanded that the affirmative team either defend the resolution, or an example of it, by reading a plan, such as "the United States federal government should eliminate all subsidies for cotton ruled trade-distorting by the World Trade Organization." However; teams that choose not to "read a plan "may argue that they are approaching the resolution from a different non-normative perspective (e.g., aesthetic, performative, genealogical, and so on) which they assert is an equally if not more valuable way to engage with the topic, or they may argue that pedagogy gained from the resolutional framing is productive of violent subjectivity, or they may argue against the very notion of "rules" in the first place, and so on.

This "framework debate" or "debate about debate," is often a microcosm for the "clash of civilizations" culture wars that occurred in the past twenty years of academia, where the arguments of Nietzsche, Foucault, and Derrida are used in battle against the staid opposition of Rawls, Habermas, and Rorty. Policy debate heavily relies on evidence which is read rapid-fire into the flow of the speeches themselves, so in many cases the words of these very authors are introduced into the clash of the debate. The framework debate may move quickly from questions of fairness and burdens of rejoinder to obligations for enabling civic discourse to critiques of exclusive limits and conceptual borders, censorship and microfascism, re-framing the debate as an activist podium or an artspace, contextualizing arguments in terms of the communicative styles which they employ and just as easily severing advocacies and strategically mutating loci of offense and defense--a populous desert to be sure, rife with conceptual experimentation.

The challenge of rule-breaking is common even when the affirmative does read a plan, part of an argumentative genre called "topicality" which challenges the plan's relation to the resolution. For example, in the case of the previous subsidies resolution, the plan "the United States federal government should abolish liposuction" would likely be deemed as outside the topic despite its normative claim, whereas a team that performed a narrative genealogy of African cotton farmers bankrupted by the hypocrisy of American domestic subsidies and free trade ideology might be considered within the topic but outside of the resolutional framework. For some critics, reading a plan is a necessary prerequisite of affirming the topic; the discussion is progressive rather than overlapping. For others, any argument is fair game; the participants are left to justify or de-justify the contentious claims and the critic will attempt to adjudicate without excessively biased intervention.

In the decades-long history of policy debate, the gaming paradigm is a relatively new invention. However, it is one which carried significant implications which may have motivated the specialization and research-intensive nature of the activity away from previous conventions of rhetorical persuasion. As debate scholar Maxwell Schnurer points out,
   Previous paradigms had been blatant attempts to keep barbarians
   away from the sacred space of debate, or were transparent efforts
   to justify competitive inequity. Gaming Was revolutionary because
   it followed the clear lines of Thomas Kuhn--focusing on theories as
   valuable because they explain our world (Snider 1984,1982). Unlike
   policy-making, or hypothesis testing, Gaming didn't advocate for a
   position on paradigms; it explained all the other paradigms as
   gamers arguing to change rules for competitive advantages. (2003,

In other words, whether or not debate as always been a game, the self-awareness paradigm of debate-as-game has fundamentally changed the way in which it is carried out by participants and adjudicated by critics, exalting an incentive system which privileges argumentative innovation, diversity, and intensive research. Debates are rapid-fire speed-reading events where debaters "spread" arguments that many people could otherwise take hours to carefully develop, all within the constraints of their short speech-times. Debates which once involved careful deliberation of students role-playing as Congressional legislators may now move quickly between plans and counterplans and permutations testing their mutual exclusivity or mutual non-desirability, advantages and disadvantages framed in particular decision calculuses and around certain values which can be criticized and counter-criticized--authorship ranging from Barack Obama to Carl Schmitt to John Mearsheimer to Gilles Deleuze. Teams exhibit varying degrees of argumentative flexibility which may encourage or discourage the use of critical theory arguments. Inflexible teams may strategically invest for skill, depth, and speech-time in narrowly defining the terms of the debate in order to preempt the necessity of a substantive response, a strategy which may complexly affect their opponents decision to engage in a critical negation depending on their own flexibility, preparedness to engage the other team on their own terms, and confidence debating "framework." Let's say that the negative team argued that the affirmative's representation of African suffering were an unethical mode of disaster pornography, cannabalizing the pain of the racial and non-American Other to expediently stage a morality play designed to expiate guilt over bourgeois complicity in the larger structural causes of that sufferings' production. A typical framing response to a critical argument might read,

The negative should defend only either a policy option or the status quo.

Moots the value of our policy proposal--changes the focus of the debate, makes all of our offense meaningless.

Destroys Linear Clash--by changing the agent from a government to the judge they prevent us from leveraging our best comparative arguments.

Predictability--we can't predict the myriad of whimsically-worded alternatives produced by critical theory--policy options are restricted by predictable advocates in the literature.

This argument is a voting issue for fairness--without shared ground debate is impossible. (Ehniger 1970, 108)

If two friends differ on whether they will gain greater satisfaction from dining at Restaurant A or Restaurant B, because the causes are simple and immediate, the common end at which they aim--that of maximum enjoyment--will exhibit like qualities. When, on the other hand, as in a dispute concerning political persuasions or social philosophies, the causes are broad and complex, the end aimed at may be remote or abstract. Always, however, some agreed upon end or goal must be present to define and delimit the evaluative ground within which the interchange is to proceed. When such round is lacking, argument itself, let alone any hope of resolution or agreement, becomes impossible. The absence of a commonly accepted aim or value is what lies at the root of many of the breakdowns that occur, for example, in negotiations between the communist and Western nations, and what accounts for the well known futility of most disputes on matters of politics or religion. When disputants hold different values their claims pass without touching, just as they pass when different subjects are being discussed. What one party says simply is evaluatively irrelevant to the position of the other.

For those unfamiliar with policy debate, these sorts of arguments might appear to be very strange. On the one hand, isn't the nature of "policy debate" to discuss only what considerations ought inform the pragmatically normative concerns of producing good policy? On the other hand, isn't it precisely the ability to shirk responsibility for representational violence that enables a willful blindness of policy-making bureaucrats to the ways in which their flawed approaches may uncritically perpetuate harmful practices and norms? Must we agree on the relevant questions of the debate in order to have a debate, or are the truly important disputes always partially over what the "framing" or "important questions" should be, and even how these frames of emphasis and prioritization should be formulated to begin with. In his seminal text on game theory and psychology Fights, Games and Debates, Anatol Rapoport distinguishes debates (which are not adjudicated by a third party) from games in that the question of strategy must be always bracketed by a willingness to find starting points for common ground. Using the example of arms control negotiations, he points out that if both sides continue to "win" the Prisoner's Dilemma by refusing to commit to reductions, that both sides become caught in a situation of absurd armaments and taxing militarism which is, strictly speaking, in the immediate interests of neither. Are debates primarily about the terms in which they are configured, what arguments should properly "count"? Policy debates, like all arguments, rely on legalistic distinctions which often parse concepts into discrete parts and wholes and distinguish the meaning of words through rigorous definitions. But is this truly the totality of disagreement? Rapoport replies,
   Distinctions are man-made, say the semanticists. There is no
   "natural" level at which distinctions ought to be made. The level
   is determined by the needs of the language user and by the resulting
   social usage. Therefore, arguments about what terms should
   be applied to what referents are not settled by "determining truth"
   but only by convention. They are like arguments over rules of the
   game.... There are still no "real" rules of the game--only
   conventions. Change the conventions and you have changed the game.
   (1960, 304)

Thus, what we might perceive as a brute and uncritical enforcement of the rules, a challenge to the participants' integrity, or an affront to their identity, mode, or style of play becomes a space in which the rules themselves are made unexceptional, opened up for debate, and challenged by participants as would any other argument. Rules are not separate from the components of the game, de-limiting its boundaries and constraining the choices of the debaters, rather there are a set of undefined limits external to the rules and largely an expression of the unwritten willingness of the participants to allow play to continue beyond certain expectations. Debates must conclude in a certain pre-defined amount of time in order for the hundreds of debates simultaneously occurring in sequence to remain roughly on schedule. The reaction of other participants to a violent or illegal act is unpredictable, and, therefore, while theoretically "in play" is ruled out by pragmatic considerations about the willingness of other participants to continue the debate round, or the judge to find such styles or approaches of argument persuasive. However, debaters have always pushed the envelope, from bringing in oppressed parties for first-person testimony to hip-hop rap of arguments to re-mixing or hacking their opponents speeches via performances which playfully "double" arguments in a space safe from capitalist cooptation to reproducing arguments pictorially to performative nudity and excretion. These examples are certainly at the extreme fringe of envelope-pushing and are not in any way representative of the debate community or what are understood to be socially acceptable practices, however they serve as a powerful demonstration for the innovative lengths that competitive pedagogy can foster, each with a complete theoretical versing in the literature base which defends such approach to rhetoric and performance.

This understanding of rules which sediment the boundaries of convention only to be swept away in the interplay of change, or which interpolate the opposition into conformity with the frame which it establishes, is thus similar to Deleuze and Guattari's concept of the inter-play between smooth and striated spaces, the latter which enables metrical progression, the former which enables a greater degree of experimental becoming. The negotiation of innovation cannot function without the establishment of a prior conformity--a negation insensible without a prior affirmation to ground its ontology--and thus we see a relationship of necessity between the assertion or understanding of prior rules and rhizomatically mobile technologies of challenge, resistance, critique, subsidence, as Deleuze and Guattari write,
   ... the two are linked and give each other impetus. Nothing is ever
   done with: smooth space allows itself to be striated, and striated
   space reimparts a smooth space, with potentially very different
   values, scope, and signs. Perhaps we must say that all progress is
   made by and in striated space, but all becoming occurs in smooth
   space. (1987, 486)

Just as the condition of debate which enables restriction of certain arguments contingently from frames of consideration, it enables every argument to potentially be internally mutant within multiple interlocking frameworks. As Elizabeth Pass writes, "Smooth spaces are dynamic, and transformation is more important than essence" (2001, par. 9). Even in the moment of assertion of a particular rule-set, value-set, criteria-set, evaluative framework, the concern for the "essence" of these arguments is minimal to non-existent; gaming makes the employment purely strategic and already folded into the flow of play. The argument that we need to act to stop violence means something radically different in a Kantian, utilitarian, and pure ontological framework. That same argument is internally dependent on value judgments about whether or not violence is good or bad, or whether acting to stop violence is the appropriate response to observing violence in the world. The frames change as debaters' arguments compete and negotiate within them. In a framework which is only concerned with representations, the fact that the plan, if enacted, would save a million children, counts for almost nothing. This conceptual result itself may be a reason to reject the framework, but nothing is a priori; it can only be weighed against other counter-veiling considerations for which privileging representations in decision-calculus is, in and of itself, a meritous proposition. These observations demonstrate an important proposition about the activity: part of what gives debate its creative vibrancy is its ability to consistently re-draw the boundaries of discrete conceptual objects, to leave fluid the criteria of relevance for research and inquiry while simultaneously intensively pursuing that scholarship. In debate, the fruits of critical theory and persistent interrogation are not intellectual paralysis or withdrawal from political advocacy, but more often than not a reciprocal engagement with creative experimentation.

Ethical Challenges within Policy Debate and the Social Limits of Gamespace

We have thus established that limits are inevitable bur not to be confused with rules which are not only mutable but strategic, spontaneous, and adaptive. The rules of policy debate against certain arguments represent genres of arguments themselves, limiting the scope of argumentative implication and the necessity of response to substantive objections via preclusion from the scope of relevant consideration. The inevitability of limits does not imply their essence or stasis; even speech times have changed over the decades. Merely that social understandings of debate practice within the community of participants recognize the existence of certain limits and of certain rules and believe that the former delimit the boundary of play whereas the latter represent simply another multiplicity forming the internal continuum of the nonlinear dynamics of the play space. However, the limits which I have thus far identified appear to be limits of necessity, continuous with the social mechanics of debate practices, yet at the same time inevitably both contingent and unavoidable. In other words, even if you change the speech times, you still recognize the speech times. Even if you abolish the speech times, you still recognize the necessity that at some point the person must stop talking in order for the opponent to respond. This raises the question: what are the possibilities of a socially introduced formation of limits, not established rules or conventions per se, bur boundaries which out of a perceived social necessity no participant will transgress? This is to ask, can we conceive of a limit to a space of play which is a limit to the willingness of participants to continue which has been produced entirely by social understandings of acceptable behavior, and how does that relate to the playful creativity of the disciplinary yet liberating "debate about debate"? In the debate community, these forms of arguments are known as ethics challenges.

Importantly, the phrasing of the scope of the previous question would include acts such as threatening the judge with violence, cutting the tongue out of your opponent, or burning their research prior to the debate. While these acts would obviously count as far outside the boundaries of socially introduced formation of limits, they are not theoretically impossible to accommodate in the same way that talking for an infinite period of time would be. However, these acts are, of a practical and externally legal necessity, impermissible based on the necessity of the social conditions of participation which enable the activity in the first place. These previously mentioned violations would also, in the context of a debate round, be intentional, targeted, specific and therefore represent a "smoothing" against the inevitable limits of striation which would likely provoke a far greater backlash of striation or abolition against many for a of debate space. Limits against these types of behavior thus represent a socially necessary component of the debate-space.

Ethical challenges, however, occur in a somewhat different context. They are not necessary but normative assertions not of the limits of debate, nor a framework for evaluating arguments bur rather an ethical framework for debate practice. A debater may make an ethical challenge against an opponent who is believed to have lied, mis-cited evidence, cut evidence out of context, and a whole host of other behaviors which one team understands as being socially regarded antithetical to debate, a social understanding resulting derived from abstract community norms. Debaters, as a rule, are taught to avoid such challenges unless absolutely necessary. They and their judges generally are not interested in these highly self-referential questions of debate-ethics. The norms to which they refer are necessarily inter-subjective and highly ambiguous. They are not written down or listed in a defining document or even anywhere (although there are documents of rules and evidence which are not generally understood as practical guides for debating), and they are rarely discussed by participants. Perhaps one of the reasons that these community norms exist in their current rhetorical black hole is that most people would just as soon assume a rough approximation of equivalency with their opponents and critic in terms of ethical limits of practice and get on with the business of debating. In most cases, this laissez-faire approach works fine: all participants have roughly the same idea of what would constitute unethical behavior; no one crossed any of these lines, and therefore the question of ethics was a non-issue. However, it is useful to examine the times when disputes arise in order to see how conflicts over opposing viewpoints of ethical debating are resolved within or exterior to the suddenly striated game space of the debate round.

Certainly, there may be those few who are not interested in ethics and are simply trying to get away with as much as they can get away with. These individuals might be called "shady," "liars," "card-clippers," or simply "cheaters." My discussion here is not about such individuals, but rather about cases where both teams believed that they were in the right and defended their behavior as ethical and in conformity with an assumed ethical system which they perceived was also being questioned. In such cases, the shared notion of universal yet unspoken community norms can be productive of not only a certain type of debater but of a certain method of "calling out" which attempts to not only administer a particular rhetorical punishment for a particular perceived offense (as well as demanding a further material punishment from the judge in the form of a competitive loss) but attempt to ground a form of humiliating exclusion from the protection of reciprocal guarantees of ethical behavior in the future that such community norms are designed to protect. In other words, "you broke the ethical rules, thus you can never expect others to play by them against you in the future." The debater suddenly has much more at stake than simply winning the debate round; loss could solidify status degradation to that of a quasi-pariah and undermine credibility in future debates. The implication of this sanction, enforced at the level of community awareness of the infraction, disseminated quickly by judges, participants, and observers, is that membership in the debate community is conditional on meeting certain standards of acceptable behavior, knowledge of which is both falsely assumed as universal yet differs dramatically between teams, regions, and even individuals.

Perversely, the same instinct towards laissez-faire that is the vitality of debates about argumentative framework turn personal and poisonous once an ethical accusation is introduced. All of a sudden, the element of gaming seems all wrong, and yet the debate continues, and depending on how participants argue their ethics challenges or counter-argue their innocence, the judges will have to decide who wins at the end of the round. However, owing to the extreme irregularity and lack of socialization around such invisible norms, these challenges are adjudicated according to uncertain criteria. Should the judge intervene to vote for the team that they truly believe have been wronged? Or is winning an ethics challenge necessarily tied up in "meeting the burden of proof" that such legal challenge would include? And if the former is true, should judges vote against unethical behavior even when no such challenge is presented?

The usual remedy of debaters, coaches, and judges to these sorts of issues is, "let the debaters sort it out." An argument is an argument, whether or not it is about carbon emissions or the rules of debate itself, and, as uncomfortable and personal as they may be, ethics challenges are not much different than a dressed up topicality or framework argument, in which the strategic charge of "cheating" is occasionally more casually levied. However, from an evaluative stand-point, this method smoothes over the space for preemptive striation, rhetorically positioning a "level playing field" which is simultaneously establishes a hierarchical order away from the gamespace which disenables the accused to exist outside of that already accomplished role-formation. This role of the accused is preemptively tainted with the ethos of nefarious intentions, and thus hamstrings their persuasive ability to defend themselves. Here, the open space of play invites a form of closure in the instance of the accuser's challenge, a form of figurative rather that playfully literal censorship which censors by effect--by instantiating a bias within the critic against one of the participants prior to the reciprocal engagement of play. Ethics challenges are not made to be argued against; they are made and justified by an intuition that they precede the right of the other team to have their speech evaluated as arguments, a right which after all, is only afforded to an ethical "members of the community." In a way, they are almost an argument against the judge, rather than the other team, who is often asked to "put away their reservations" and decide, "in their heart of hearts" (2) as it were, whether or not the transgression actually constitutes an ethics violation. Just as they falsely appeal to a notion of the (imagined) universal, they appear to force the judge to occupy the position of either safeguarding or risking the viability of the very fabric of the debate community itself, and since most people's intuition is understandably risk-averse, this is a bad spot for any accused to be in, regardless of the validity of the accusation. While criminal judges at least are asked to interpret a statute in a particular way, in policy debate, there is no set of written ethical norms. Debate critics are thus asked to intervene against the milieu of competing claims and counter-claims to irrevocably decide on based on the amorphous criteria of moral intuition alone. In other words, the very methods which judges employ to process appeals is stacked in favor of the accuser, with the hope that wolf will only be cried when the situation truly merits it. In a highly competitive community of intensely motivated individuals, such collective trust is a foolishly artificial presumption.

Ethical challenges pose a difficulty for our conception of the mechanisms of creative production and variance inhering within limits. If everything is in play, then shouldn't what seems to be just another limit, albeit of a different kind, serve as a provocation for adaptation and Creative resistance? We have already answered the question of how ethical challenges position the participants in striated space, but how does it fit into the nonlinear dynamics of shaping the praxis of the debate space itself? By bracketing the space of resistance outside of the debate, always post facto to the accusation of unethical play, the ethics challenge creates a closed mode of debating in which the ethical questions are always and necessarily prior. This closedness then may represent a boundary beyond which playful creativity is not comfortably or easily crossed. While restrictions cannot be understood as merely repressive, the ethics challenge itself is a closure of the establishment of other contingent limits since it presumes a claim to the "essence" of the activity, located in the policy debate community. As Paul Armstrong has argued, following Wolfgang Iser's theory of play,
   As a rule-governed but open-ended activity, play provides a model
   for deploying power in a nonrepressive manner that makes creativity
   and innovation possible not in spite of disciplinary constraints
   but because of them. Not all power is playful, of course, and some
   restrictions are more coercive than enabling. But thinking about the
   power of constraints on the model of rules governing play helps to
   explain the paradox that restrictions can be productive rather than
   merely repressive. Seeing constraints as structures for establishing
   a play-space and as guides for practices of exchange within it
   envisions power not necessarily and always as a force to be resisted
   in the interests of freedom; it allows imagining the potential for
   power to become a constructive social energy that can animate games
   of to-and-fro exchange between participants whose possibilities for
   self-discovery and self-expansion are enhanced by the limits shaping
   their interactions. (2000, 221)

Instead of enabling experimentation by restricting the space of play to focus on parsing criteria which are always internal to the process of negotiating contingent values and frames of relevance, ethical challenges which rely on a universalized, pre-supposed (yet non-existent) ethical rule set act as an end to creative play, shutting down the very process which allows the continuous re-shaping of interactions which they govern. This sterile notion of ethical boundaries has initiated a panoptic disciplinary function, where most debaters prefer to err on the side of caution and thus adapt their ethical practice to the most conservative version, rather than risk negotiating their practice from the preemptively disadvantaged end of the rhetorical hierarchy. In other words, debaters assume that if something might be unethical, better to be safe than sorry and avoid it altogether. This panoptic effect shrinks the perimeter of the space of play via a mechanism which is presumed external and non-negotiable to practice of debate. The result is a competitive incentive which may motivate ethics challenges in greater numbers and increase the number of practices which are needlessly understood as deviant.


Policy debate offers an insight into the adaptive nature of contingent rules of games and the limits which enable such adaptation within a space of play. In contrasting debates about argumentative frameworks with ethical challenges, I have sought to elucidate the ways in which rules are both productive of creative innovation by participants and potentially dis-empowering when conceived of as essential, prior and universal. Game theorists should thus resist the temptation to simplify gaming situations by an understanding of their defined rules without first asking more probing questions about the practices in which participants operationalize those rules and examining the modes of production which such rules encompass, enable, or preclude.

While rules are necessary to any understanding of games which particularize their play or establish the activity of participants within historically contingent conventions, the more important questions about rules are less about how they apply to a static snap-shot gaming situation and more about how the routinized praxes of gaming allow or disallow for their mutation over time. Games are not produced as stable essences, pre-ordained hierarchies built to last for an eternity but are rather meshworks of smooth and striated spaces that constrain and enable different options for play within particular situations by adept participants.

Limiting choices of game-participants is thus less relevant than the method of that limitation and how it comes to be understood within the community of participants over time. For a game such as debate which has always understood many features of its social practice as negotiable and intrinsically mutant, the accusation of an ethics challenge asserts a problematically insular value-set which establishes a sterile conceptual exteriority to the space of play. Just as social notions of ethical behavior in larger social communities change over time and are subject to challenges and counterchallenges, so must the assertion of values within a space of play recognize their own contingency. The vitality and scope of experimentation and innovation within and around any gamespace is to some degree dependent on the willingness of the participants to accept the established rules as immutable givens, or alternately, their abilities to assert conceptual mobility against the sedimentation of strait-jacketing norms of practice.



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Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minniapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P. 1987.

Huizinga, Johan. "Forward." Homo Ludens. Trans. Roy Hull. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1950. ix-x.

Bennett, Jane. "Agency, Nature and Emergent Properties: An Interview with Jane Bennett." Interviewed by Khan, Contemporary Political Theory, 8 (2009): 90-105.

Johnston, Ian. "'There's Nothing Nietzsche Couldn't Teach Ya About the Raising of the Wrist' (Monty Python): A Lecture in Liberal Studies." May 1999.

Mitchell, Gordon R. "Pedagogical possibilities for argumentative agency in academic debate" Argumentation & Advocacy 35.2 (1998): 41-60.

Sarratore, Steven T. "Design Games." Theatre Topics 9.1 (1999): 51-67. http://muse.

Schnurer, Maxwell. "Gaming as Control: Will to Power, the Prison of Debate and a Game Called Potlatch." Contemporary Argumentation and Debate 24 (2003): 46-60.

Keenan, Dylan, and Zagorin, Edmund. University of Michigan Debate Team Framework File. 3.

Rapaport, Anatol. Fights, Games and Debates. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1960.

Pass, Elizabeth. "E-Pedagogy: Deleuze and Guattari in the Web-Design Class." Kairos 6.2 (2001).

Armstrong, Paul. "The Politics of Play: The Social Implications of Iser's Aesthetic Theory." New Literary History 31 (2000): 211-23.

(1) The section of the essay owes an intellectual debt for many inspiring ideas about the evolution of games through rule-breaking, specifically using the soccer-rugby example, to a piece by Ian Johnston "There's Nothing Nietzsche Couldn't Teach Ya About the Raising of the Wrist" (Monty Python) A Lecture in Liberal Studies, May 1999 [available online as of January 2010]

(2) These are both actual quotations from speeches on ethical challenges during the 2009-2010 inter-collegiate policy debate season.
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Author:Zagorin, Edmund
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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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