The Limits of Argumentative Reason: Rhetoric Advocating War with Iran

Last August my colleague Nicholas A. Russell at CSU Long Beach and I presented a paper at the 17th Biennial Conference on Argumentation held in Alta, Utah. That paper titled “Dangerous Desires: The Limits of Argumentative Reason in Public HIV/AIDS Health Campaigns,” was subsequently published in the conference proceedings Reasoned Argument and Social Change. In the essay we undertake a sustained attack on the usefulness of reason and rationality as a mechanism for judgement in contemporary argumentation. While historically reason has long been the standard of proper debate, we find ample reason to find it suspect. In our essay we draw upon a group of men who intentionally contract HIV/AIDS as a case study for the failing of rationality in typical AIDS prevention discourse aimed at this population.

Our argument suggests that reason should be subject to increased criticism for several reasons. First, drawing from Deleuze and Guattari we argue:

“Reason,” they argue, “is only a concept, and a very impoverished concept for defining the plane and the movements that pass through it” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1994, p. 43). For them, reason is a problematic concept because of its association with state politics: “realized reason,” they argue, “is identified with the de jure State” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987, p. 375). Reason is summoned to serve the interests of State politics, which in turn erase subjectivities (and desires) that are at odds with the state.(Russell and McHendry 640)

Reason is controlled by the state and the state, almost always, comes to determine what is and is not reasonable. We offer instead an alternative concept for understanding argumentative disputes: desire. We argue:

In its place, Deleuze offers a version of ethics based in the question: What modes of living do they facilitate? As such, by centering desire, as opposed to reason, we can see that bug chasers would avoid the question of “‘What must I do?’ (which is the question of morality) but rather… How can I go to the limit of what I ‘can do’?” (Smith, 2007, p. 67). In essence, this line of thinking asks what the body is capable of but these ways of living do not “depend on an object or belong to a subject” they are ways of living (Deleuze, 2001, 26). (642)

Desire offers the ability to trace out competing ways of living in an array of conflicting ethics in a complex world. Moreover, because desires are multiple, contradictory, and can overlap it allows for more ability to clash than chasing a singular definition of reasoned argument.

It seams clear, sadly, that many in both the professional right and left are beating the drum of war with Iran. As Israel increases its posturing (and feelings of legitimized threats from Iran) the U.S. seems poised to, perhaps, enter into another conflict in the Middle East. Given our over commitment of defense resources abroad and the fragile state of our recovery another military engagement hardly seems rational, but Iran has long been a target of desire: A rogue state, part of the axis of evil, and a budding nuclear power. Iran makes the perfect target for the United States of America to desire a conflict with. Its status as a stable state makes up for all of the inadequacies over the muddled and complex conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Underscoring the difficulty of using reason as a standard for assessing the drum beat of war with Iran is this exchange between Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and Rep. Tom Price (R-GA):

The central point of contention is whether or not Iran is a rational actor. Price is “stunned” and requests that Dempsey support his assertion. Dempsey offers a few bits of argumentation: (1) “The alternative is that we attribute to them that their actions are so irrational that they have no basis of planning.” (2) “The key is to understand how they act and not trivialize their actions by attributing to them some irrationality.” (3) “I don’t understand their rationality but I’m not them.” Price interjects “You believe it to be rational on their part to seek nuclear weapons?” Dempsey responds, “Absolutely not on my terms?”

Here we have a beautiful case study in the failing of rationality and the exercising of desire. Dempsey is expressing the limits of an official statist view of rationality being applied to Iran. Stated simply, viewed from the perspective of the interests of the United States of America there is no way to call Iran’s actions rational, but to force those standards upon them as a weighing mechanism for military action runs the risk of trivializing “their actions by attributing to them some irrationality.” Price clearly wants to have a singular view of rationality, his, and is stunned that any other standard of argumentation would be applied to considering military action with Iran.

Here is where desire is important. We can trace Price’s desire to see Iran as irrational, Dempsey’s desire to recognize them as a rational military actor, Iran’s desire to become a military actor, and so on all coming out as this conversation begins to cycle up in the public domain. Each actor is exercising multiple sets of desires, desires that likely are driven by a savage bloodlust and could end in military conflict, but we should be clear that any outcome is unlikely to be rational-what ever that means.

Price’s failure is not his desire to see Iran as irrational or for war with Iran if that is his true desire. The mistake is to expect a single standard of rationality to be a demarkation of the proper in contemporary argumentation.

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Filed under Cultural Studies, Deleuze, Rhetoric

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