This Academic Life
  Running in form
Jeff Galloway, a well-known running expert whom my local running guru recommended, has a section in his classic Book on Running devoted to "form." Form is about muscle efficiency, posture, and the like, and (so he says) "will make anyone's running smoother and more enjoyable." And he's right, as I have discovered over the past few days while out running in the morning; if I pay a little attention to the angle of my arms and the straightness of my back, the whole experience works better, and I have fewer odd aches afterwards. (My knee is another story, but that's less a "form" issue and more about the perversity of my arches -- and a place where technical supplements like inserts and braces have come in really handy.)

Form isn't the right way to run. You can run any way you want to. But the experience of numerous runners over the years, supplemented -- or maybe just legitimated -- by medical research, indicates that a little form work (Galloway recommends doing "form work," i.e. deliberately focusing on form, every three days or so, so that you can make corrections and help good form become more of an automatic procedure) can make a big difference. Think of this as a type of pragmatics: certain practices work in certain contexts, and by experimenting a bit, and by incorporating phronetic wisdom from other runners, you can enhance your experience.

What this means, I think, is that form is principally a way of enhancing efficiency: making sure that the workout that one's muscles get is as effective as it can be, so that benefits are maximized and undue pain and soreness is minimized. But this also means that form is defensive: it protects you from harmful exertion and lasting damage. And form is thereby productive of the wonderfully freeing openness that gets people like me addicted to their morning runs -- the body goes on autopilot, so the spirit can swirl and melt [I'm thinking of Isaac Asimov's description in The Gods Themselves of how the para-men come together in a kind of unification that results in a complete loss of individuality for the sake of and for the actual constitution of something transcendent] and the soul can be exposed. The body is exercised; the spirit flows; and the soul is dissolved into the world as a whole (which, as Wittgenstein reminds us, is a strictly meaningless concept -- although an important one).

Readers of my previous postings will have grasped where am going with this, because I often start with running and the body and move into social interaction, especially as it relates to pedagogy. And this time is no exception. I think that "form" in social interaction, and in particular, "form" in argument and discussion -- a particular kind of aggressive form -- can serve the same three functions. As a teacher and as an interlocutor more generally, whether inside or outside of the classroom, I am meticulous about form precisely because it seems to me the best way of achieving connexion -- but only if it's done right. It's not the only way, of course, but it works for me and I offer my reflections as a bit of phronetic wisdom for people to take or leave as they please.

What I mean by "form" here is well-captured by Oswald Spengler in his discussion of "nobility":

"There are streams of being which are "in form" in the same sense in which the term is used in sports. A field of steeplechasers is "in form" when the legs swing surely over the fences, and the hooves beat firmly and rhythmically on the flat. When wrestlers, fencers, and ball-players are "in form," the riskiest acts and moves come off easily and naturally. An art-period is in form when its tradition is second nature…Practically everything that has been achieved in world-history, in war and in that continuation of war by intellectual means that we call politics; in all successful diplomacy, tactics, strategy; in the competition of states or social classes or parties; has been the product of living unities that found themselves "in form."" (Decline of the West, volume II, pp. 330-331 in the standard Knopf edition of the Atkinson translation)

Lots to chew on here, especially Spengler's use of competitive and combative examples to make his point. A well-turned double play in baseball illustrates a team "in form" just as a well-handled volley in tennis does, and argumentative dynamics are no different; one can seize on the weak spot in a chain of reasoning and press it masterfully, perhaps causing the whole edifice to fall apart -- or perhaps provoking an equally well-formed response, in which the cycle continues. And I'd submit that this is inherently competitive, even if one is not directly engaging an opponent; running "in form" is implicitly a competition with one's own past practices and with such forces as gravity and the terrain. [A well-defined competitive situation is one in which being "in form" gets you closer to victory; too much bloody randomness, as in American football -- a situation brought on by a) the insignificantly small number of games that constitute the "season" and b) the fact that no one knows all of the rules, so how a call is adjudicated is largely arbitrary from situation to situation -- makes a mockery of actual competition. But I digress; the merits of American football versus American baseball, an elegant game in which player performance statistics are actually meaningful, is fodder for another post entirely.]

The point I want to extract here is that being "in form" is inextricably linked with a dynamic of competition, and also has its own special kind of nobility. Performing at a high level of competence, whatever the activity, means nailing something squarely on the head, executing a move with grace and dignity and command, better than others have done…even if the move is something that appears wholly spasmodic to the uninitiated. There is a nobility -- a being "in form" -- to the writhing, elemental kind of dancing popular with the kids at the clubs these days, and practitioners can and do distinguish between competent and virtuoso performances. The absurdity comes when one tries to formalize the criteria on which one makes such a determination; then we get the judging of gymnastics and figure skating, which devolves into pure silliness almost immediately. Practical judgments are more than sufficient.

Argument is part of a subclass of activities that can be "in form" in that it is interpersonally competitive in addition to being merely intrinsically competitive the way that all of these practices are. A well-played argument is a dynamic contest. But the thing to keep in mind here is that there is a difference between being "in form" and "winning"; one can win an argument through sloppy reasoning and misdirection, which is what usually happens in (say) public political debates. (And the commentators know this, since they "score" the debate largely on moves that have zippo to do with the form or content of the argument.) The same happens in professional sports; there can be sloppy games won by one's team that are denigrated by connoisseurs, while a well-played contest that one's team loses (say, most of the games of the 2001 World Series) can be appreciated for its (so to speak) technical qualities.

So: competition is, as it were, an excuse to practice being "in form" about the activity in question. And in argument, the activity in question is interpersonal social interaction itself. Which means that argument must be connected to connexion somehow…and I think that it is.

Let me be more specific. Logical (s)wordplay serves three functions:

1) exercise. Just like running "in form," arguing "in form" keeps the (mental) muscles tuned up and sharp, and prevents mishaps. To avoid straining something, I can stick with logical derivations, and not exceed the conclusions that are warranted by the material that I am able to muster. In particular, this would mean not speaking in the kind of metaphysical nonsense-talk that characterizes so much of everyday speech, and not as it were exceeding the authority of language by making categorical claims about the essences of things. That doesn't mean that I don't have such claims in mind, but they are part of my (illogical, ultimately non-sensical: ethics and aesthetics are one) value-presupposition instead of part of my argument narrowly construed.

In engaging in an argument, you have to point out when people make these kinds of mistakes, when they fall completely off of the bus and find themselves in the land of I Can Say Whatever I Want To Because It Makes Me Feel Better (Probably Because It Conforms To My Strongly-Held Political Positions). If you don't, you're complicit in their mistake -- and you have given up an opportunity to help them improve their form, and/or to help you improve yours by coming back at you with a defense or rebuttal. This is aggressive, sure. But it's also the way that the game is played. Jamie Lee Curtis' character telling Kevin Kline's character that "Aristotle is not Belgian" in A Fish Called Wanda is just par for the course; calling someone on a claim is mainly an opportunity for and an invitation to further sparring. I don't know what the opposite would be…yes, one could go into an argument hoping to simply smile a lot. But then it wouldn't be an argument. A baseball game in which one team came to play and the other was more interested in posing for the cameras would not make for a very exciting game of baseball, IMHO. And it wouldn't tune up anyone's capabilities, or exercise anyone's (mental) muscles.

2) exercise is not the only benefit of a good argument, though. A good argument also provides defense for the parties involved. Adhering to logical conventions (and they are conventions, mind you, not transcendental absolutes) provides some measure of protection for the players, as there are rules about what kinds of moves are legal and permissible and what is out of bounds. This protects everyone involved in two ways:

a) sensitive issues can be discussed without necessarily inflaming irrational passions, because some kinds of displays are simply ruled out from the beginning. "I think that's racist!" Okay, sure; now demonstrate that, articulate some criteria, explain why it ought to matter, etc. Everything is up for grabs inasmuch as everything has to be submitted to the same procedures of examination, but the parties involved know that the examination will not proceed haphazardly.

b) adhering to rules and such provides some measure of distance and insulation from the issues involved. I am making an argument about something, which means that I am translating the inchoate mess in my head into something approximating rational language (and language is either rational or poetic; guess which one is appropriate to an argument?). Hence I always have an out: at the end of the day this is just an argument, just a part of the intersubjective social world -- certainly something produced by me, and something that I am committed to during the specific exchange in question (and perhaps afterwards, if the argumentative sequence seemed to be a useful tool to get me where I wanted to go). In other words: something I can step away from.

I think that the defensive aspects of argument are in this way akin to the defensive aspect of formal dancing (or dancing with any rules at all, as opposed to people just kind of moving in the same general space). To prevent things from getting way out of control, we have rules. So someone can enter what would otherwise be a very threatening situation -- lots of physical contact, invasions of personal space, etc. -- and feel safer than they would in the absence of those rules. But at the same time, they are in fact in that situation of exposure and potential connexion, buoyed (as it were) by the presence of conventional rules that enable them to focus on their performance instead of on how unsettled they feel.

[Magic commented to me at one point that he didn't think that arguments persuaded via logic. I agree. I don't think that arguments persuade at all, and I am not interested in using logical argumentation to persuade -- which seems quite absurd to me in any event. But there is something important about the argumentative dance itself, and that's what I am trying to get at here.]

3) the third benefit of argument is, not surprisingly, connexion. But not because logic produces a connexion, or because you can somehow logically maneuver someone into a relationship. Instead, argument sustains people getting into risky situations, situations wherein they risk their soul without really knowing it…situations in which they suddenly find themselves completely out and exposed and vulnerable. And it happens by accident: engage, engage, engage, bang. But everyone has to be "in form" for it to work; otherwise, the mind takes over and shuts the connexion down because it isn't making sense. A particularly important moment for such a connexion comes when you score a point, or someone scores a point against you: touché. Which is when that of God in me embraces that of God in you across the divide over which we have been sparring, and my soul acknowledges your soul as somehow kindred. And then we spin off again, continuing the dance -- but our souls, perhaps, remain tied together.

"Oddly enough, our arguments and battles unify us because they reinforce the fundamental moral symbols with which we all function." -- Andrew Abbott, Chaos of Disciplines, p. 202.

Convinced? :-)

[Posted with ecto]

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"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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