Logical Fallacies

We focus on counterargument for the third writing project. Recall that “countering,” as Harris terms it, doesn’t mean simply letting “the other side” have a say or merely disagreeing with an opposing view. That may be how argument on cable television (unfortunately) works these days, but it isn’t what academic argument is about. Rather, countering means locating a thread or idea or implication in another’s argument that will be useful to the development of your own argument. This oppositional or contradictory thread may be useful in locating a potential weakness of your own argument–a point that your reader might expect you to consider and possibly refute. The thread may well point to a weakness in the other’s argument that you can use to elaborate your own. In other words, you might find language in an argument that you don’t agree with but can put to work.

Given this view of countering, I have suggested that focusing on counterargument can serve as an effective revision strategy. After completing a draft that focuses on developing your argument, you can revise your argument by giving more time to the terms of another’s argument that contends or contradicts your own. One way to evaluate this other argument–and by extension, to reconsider the structure of your own–is to pay attention to its logic. Below are some common errors in logic that you might find in another’s argument (and therefore useful for countering) or may well find in your own. These errors are known as logical fallacies:

Ad hominem: At the man; attacking the person instead of his or her argument.

Ad populum: At the people; appealing to the people’s emotions, prejudices, etc.

Ad Authoritate: Appeal to authority; using a celebrity rather than expertise as authority.

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc: After this, therefore, because of this; faulty cause and effect, jumping to conclusions.

Non sequitur: It does not follow; conclusion does not extend from the argument.

Circular logic: Begging the question; using a statement to prove itself.

False dilemma: Giving only two options in a situation when others may be possible.

False analogy: Argument based on incomplete comparison.

Faulty generalization: A conclusion that inappropriately makes a claim for all based on conclusions about a few.

Hidden premise: An unexpressed assumption, hidden agenda.

Reductio ad absurdum: (reduction to the absurd); argument in which a position is refuted by following its implications logically to an absurd consequence.

For a comprehensive listing, see Taxonomy of Logical Fallacies.


Workshop: Counterargument

In addition to our reading into countering in Rewriting, this page from Harvard’s writing program on some of the basics of counterargument is useful. If countering in general terms means challenging or resisting or–as Harris puts it–finding the useful limitations of a critical perspective or assumption, then counterargument is when the writer turns the countering onto his or her own perspective. It is a rhetorical move in critical writing–useful in exploring, anticipating, and answering the limitations of one’s own argument.

Here is a sample from a student in a previous class of mine.

Writing Sample/Workshop: Counterargument

[last body paragraph and conclusion]

As an avid reader myself, I can understand Birkerts’ argument and his justification as to why the changes will be bad. Humanity has lived so long without change and expression through printed text that any shift will be believed to have a negative connotation. Creativity has always been expressed through the use of print, drawing, and writing. The fear that has heightened over the last couple of years has come to the attention of readers and writers because they don’t want to lose what they make their living off doing. Decreasing amounts of people read from books anymore and download anything they need off their ipad or kindle, leaving the printed book in the wind. “The reader tends to move across surfaces, skimming, hastening from one site to the next without allowing the words to resonate inwardly,” Birkerts fears the decreased attention spans that people will establish as they do more things at one time and skim over long documents (Birkerts 72). It seems that he believes that as attention spans decrease, the amount of writing will also decrease because people won’t want to write long novels anymore because they know that no one else will want to read them. Birkerts argument isn’t unreasonable; he is from a time when reading was a major source of social and educational purpose. In today’s age, everyone is attempting to have the latest technology; it’s not about who knows the most, but about who has the most. All people can do know is to cope with the changes and learn to like them. Growing up for me was full of reading and literature, so when I say we must adapt to the changes that technology brings, I say it very cautiously. It is very difficult for human beings to deal with change, most don’t like it and when it comes to something that they make a living off of, it is so much more difficult for them to deal with its effects. Birkerts believes that technology has the control over how readers absorb information; whereas with printed text “is static—it is the reader, not the book, that moves forward” (Birkerts 122). The Museum illustrates the creativity that can go into newer types of literature; Birkerts fears these innovations because they are so different from the type imaginative thinking that he writes with. Human beings assume that anything new will drastically change the way we live; leaving a negative impact on the entire world.

The world is always changing, not only in the societal sector, but the technological sector as well. These two sectors have become intertwined; influencing each other and causing important strides in the world. The more technology seems to advance, the greater the connection between people there will be. “The pace is rapid, driven by jump-cut increments, and the basic movement is laterally associative rather than vertically cumulative,” we are living in a time of fluidity and rapidity and everything must move faster (122). Cities and towns all over the world have become very technologically advanced, because of this; the people are constantly moving and evolving. Literature through technology is just one way people find time to enjoy reading, while still being on the move. Just because the amount that people read has recently diminished, it doesn’t mean that we are losing our intelligence, it just means we are adapting with the pace of the world and still learning what we can when we have time.

For this project, counterargument is an element that needs to show up in your essay, a rhetorical element we are focusing. However, counterargument can also be useful as a composting and revising strategy, as you move from ideas, to outline, to draft, to revised draft. It gets at one of our 4 revision questions: What Else? Imagine another perspective that is out there, or a different perspective from yours, or a perspective that your emerging argument responds to (a basic need for any argument or thesis). In other words, considering counterargument can help you sharpen the focus, purpose, stake of your argument and essay. So use the counterargument exercise (what’s the opposite of my argument? who disagrees with me and why?) to go back to your thesis and refine; to draft out an introduction; to revise one or more of your body paragraphs (strengthen by further complicating); potentially, to find a different and stronger argument.

If the opposite of your initial thesis/hypothesis turns out to be stronger or more compelling than your thesis, that’s a good thing–and a good thing to know in time to revise and change your essay and argument.


Three-Act Thesis

An analogy from film for writing an argument and developing a stronger thesis…

As a way to rethink the definition of a strong thesis in academic writing, I propose we consider the structure of another genre of writing, another writing machine: film writing. In film or screenwriting, the “thesis” is known as the turning point or premise or conflict or (sometimes) the hook of the film; it is the central problem or conflict that sets the action in motion and needs to be resolved by the end, also known as the climax of the film.

Link here for more on the basics of three-act film structure.

Wizard of OZ movie poster

Wizard of OZ movie poster (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The basic three-act structure of most films looks something like this [with The Wizard of Oz as a guide]:

  • Act 1: The Set Up
    • Normality (the given, normal, conventional life of the protagonist)
      • Dorothy’s bleak life in Kansas, desire to run away
    • Disturbance/Problem: something that disrupts the given/normal.
    • The tornado; knocked out; not in Kansas anymore
    • Turning point/hook (central problem plus surprise; a real but unusual conflict or problem that follows from the initial disturbance and needs to be solved or answered by the end of the film)
    • Welcome to Oz—must find the Wizard for help to get home.
    • (The resolution of this problem will be the climax of the movie)
  • Act 2: Complications
    • Further complications/problems/obstacles the protagonist faces in trying to resolve the central problem
      • All the trials along the way getting to see Wizard; getting broomstick.
    • Second Act turning point: a further or final problem that leads in to the climax
    • Wizard refuses help.
  • Act 3:   Climax and Resolution
    • Climax: the solving or answering of the central problem
      • Wizard revealed and agrees to take Dorothy in balloon; Good Witch helps her get home (no place like home.
    • Resolution: the ending of the film; the new reality/normality we are left with
    • Dorothy wakes up; implication: never left home? Will never want to leave home again.

My proposal is that a similar three-act structure can be an effective way to think about developing the narrative as well as the logic of an academic thesis. Why? Because the basis of a thesis is: the setting up of a problem (introduction); offering a surprising or unusual or unconventional way to think about that problem (thesis statement); considering complications along the way to solving the problem (supporting examples; counter-argument); the solving of the problem (conclusion as climax); larger implications—where this new way of viewing things leaves us (conclusion as resolution). I suggest that the following structure (or in rhetorical terms, heuristic) could be helpful both at the composting stage, when you are trying to develop ideas for the argument, working toward a thesis, as well as at the revision stage, after an initial draft, when you are working on refining your thesis.

One of the key lessons from film writing I want to borrow can help us with organization: everything in the film must relate to the turning point—the second act complications as well as the climax. At each stage of developing the script, the writer should be able to answer how a particular scene relates back to the turning point. It also emphasizes that strong writing not only relates to a central idea, but moves an audience through the argument, is dynamic (hence: three acts, action). Academic narratives deal with ideas, but still need action and movement to make the ideas/argument work; like a film, critical narratives need an audience engaged.

Another lesson can help us rethink the way a thesis needs to be imaginative, but not necessarily “original”—if by original we take that to mean an idea that no one else has thought or said before. In fact, a good premise or turning point in a film is not entirely new: it takes the old, the familiar, and provides a surprise, an unusual way of thinking about the old. The effect of the turning point in The Wizard of Oz is not Oz by itself, but Oz in relation to Kansas, the technicolor imagination of Oz rethinking the grey familiarity of home. This is also what we do with academic arguments: rethink conventional ways of thinking about various ideas, arguments, texts, problems.

  • Act 1: Introduction/set up
    • Given: normal or conventional view; the context of your focus; where things stand right now with the issue you are taking up
      • Frankenstein, both novel and film, has long been viewed by many in terms of the horror genre. Critics…
    • Problem: a disturbance to the conventional; some initial problems with things that perhaps have emerged more recently (other critics starting to take up); or contradiction/flaw in the conventional view that have been forgotten, neglected
    • However, as suggested by more recent films (or more recent criticism), Frankenstein for some is more in the science fiction genre and not about horror…
    • Thesis: your premise or turning point, a real but unusual or surprising way of thinking about the problem and setting out to solve it.
    • What if Frankenstein were to be viewed not in terms or horror or science but in terms of romance, something few would associate with the title? While I would agree there are important elements of both horror and science in the novel and its film adaptations, I would argue, instead, that the story is at heart a love story. Shelley’s real concern, it seems to me, is with the monstrosity of the human heart, the dangers not of science but of falling in love. In particular…
  • Act 2: Complications
    • First main example or complication directly relating to (and elaborating) the thesis/turning point
      • The danger of falling in love is perhaps first evident when…
    • Second example
    • This particular danger of love [discussed in last paragraph] becomes even more problematic when we see…
    • Second Act turning point: a further complication or even challenge for your thesis; counter-argument
    • However, there are good reasons to think of this work not as a love story; clearly there are key elements critics have rightly discussed in terms of horror and science. For example…While I don’t disagree with the sentiment (or critical point), it also seems to me that the very example she/he addresses has more to do with love than horror…
  • Act 3: Conclusion
    • Climax: how the problem of your thesis is finally solved/answered
      • The horror of science in this story is in fact made horrific by love, not the reverse. It is love that gets in the way of science and love that leads to the tragedy…
    • Resolution: where this leaves us—a reminder that a conclusion should not merely re-state what was given in the introduction; it should provide a more conclusive answer to the various complications (second act) as well as point the reader out to thinking about implications for other or related text. Thinking: what’s next?
    • Speculation on how this rethinking of Frankenstein as love story might be taken up in future film versions; or why the novel has not been traditionally viewed this way—why love has been neglected—and how it might lead to larger implications for rethinking the gothic/horror genre…

Template

You can use this to compost ideas for a draft; might also use this as a revision strategy, to re-outline your argument–test for the thesis thread–after you have a draft.

Act 1: Introduction/Set UP

Given:

Problem/Disturbance:

Thesis/Turning Point:

Act 2: Complications

Complication #1:

Complication #2, #3, etc.

Second Act Turning Point: [further complication; counter-argument]

Act 3: Conclusion

Climax: answer to question/solving of problem

Resolution: new normal—where this leaves us; larger implications


Birkerts: coda, critical application

Sven Birkerts concludes The Gutenberg Elegies by focusing on an opposition between “the solitary self” and “the collective.” For Birkerts, a true self is solitary and a true sense of self exists only in solitude; this condition of selfhood is cultivated best through the pages and linear lines of books. Birkerts sets against this condition of solitary selfhood the “condition of connectedness” that he associates with what he terms “the ever-expanding electronic web.” “They are not only extensions of the senses,” he argues about the technological improvements of the electronic age in his “Coda,” “they are extensions of the senses that put us in touch with the extended senses of others.”  In other words, the problem is not so much that we are, in the age of overwhelming information, overloading our senses by extending their range and reach; more troubling for Birkerts, we are extending ourselves and our senses into and among the extended senses of others. “Others” is the real pejorative term here (224). Birkerts fears contamination through connection.

This is where I disagree most strongly with Birkerts’ understanding of the “amniotic environment of impulses,” to use his telling metaphor of the web. I think Birkerts aptly characterizes the effect of this environment of impulses. He gets the technology right; the uncited echo of Marshall McLuhan’s defintion of technology as the “extensions of man” brings that home. We have, as McLuhan shows, always used technology to extend our senses–long before the age of electronic communication. Birkerts could be more precise in recognizing that such “extensions” would include the technologies of writing and print and bookmaking that informs the books that thus inform the selfhood he fears we are loosing. Books are part of an earlier hive of information and communication network. But no matter; he elsewhere in this book admits that his beloved book is, of course, a form of technology–even if that view is kept to a minimum. Birkerts gets not the technology wrong nor its implications (the extension of senses); he misses the point in fearing the connection to others. That is to say, I am troubled most by the “condition of connectedness” that Birkerts, it seems, forbids the act of reading. Why is connectedness the problem and solitariness the goal of our selfhood or of the creativity of reading and writing that informs it? Why must we think of creation in solitude?

Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein before it, indicates that Birkerts’ problem is in seeing connection as the problem. Rather, in connecting to others, literary texts connect readers to writers and written words they create. And, when we consider an electronic text, we find in many cases, the connections are even stronger.

This is not to say that there aren’t problems lurking in connectivitiy. I would agree with Birkerts to the extent that he worries about…. However, I think he goes too far in arguing that….In my view, creativity can only come through connection. The result, I understand, may be a literary text that undermines what we think of as a traditional novel or poem. Consider, for example, “This is Not a Poem.” That title might remind us that this re-visioning of the traditional relation between reader and writer (the reader here becomes a writer, even rewrites the writing) or between artist and viewer has been going on for some time. For further reading consider On the Virtues of Preexisting Material, by Rick Prelinger: A recent article that takes up the problem of originality in the digital age, and proposes that we think instead of collage and patchwork. He speaks of orphaned works of creation and quilts: the echoes of Frankenstein and Patchwork Girl are noticeable–as are the concerns of Plato.

[The text above is my example of a critical application of Birkerts, stitching in, through paraphrase and direct quotation, a key idea from his conclusion to then set up the focus I will use to read Patchwork Girl: in effect, using Birkerts' own terms and language (connectedness vs. solitariness) for my own thesis, though reversing his view, drawing distinctions. Also, entertaining counter-argument from Birkerts.]


Electronic Literature: polymorphous possibilities

In the electronic poem “the dreamlife of letters,” the phrase “polymorphous possibilities” floats and twirls around the screen. The poem is grouped in the Ambient text section of the archive. This type of text is described in this way:

Work that plays by itself, meant to evoke or engage intermittent attention, as a painting or scrolling feed would; in John Cayley’s words, “a dynamic linguistic wall-hanging.” Such work does not require or particularly invite a focused reading session.

I think this particular text, and this kind of text (ambient), represents something larger about electronic literature that you are likely to experience as you explore this new media type of literature this week. “Dreamlife” is interested in “letters.”  All verbal texts are, to some extent. Some texts more than others. This one takes its interest more deliberately, and perhaps (so I might argue) more fervently, than many others. When you read–or watch–this poem, you witness the polymorphous possibilities of language. The poem reminds us, it seems to me, of the fact that any poem, any text, is made of such things. And made from the possibility of making and unmaking words and combining and moving letters.

It doesn’t “invite a focused reading session.” This is true. And yet, poetry is hard for many people. Too hard, I think. Might we think of this poem reading more like a song: moving and morphing along? Does the poetry (or more broadly, the literary) reading experience need to be difficult? Must it be a focused reading session? What about, instead, an experience of reading? “Ambient” suggests that the environment and the experience of the text and its reading (its watching, its playing…) matters more than a conventional view of focusing on the meaning within a text.

Focus is a concern for Sven Birkerts; it point to a difference between linear print texts and many, if not all, of the electronic literary texts available at the archive. But what if focus implies, or derives, from participation rather than concentration? Isn’t poetry difficult, in part, when we are sitting too quietly or silently, waiting for it to speak to us? Consider some of the Oulipoems [constraint-based texts] which invite reader activity while also working something like a mad-libs game. It might surprise you, but these computer-generated texts are based on print poems from the mid-twentieth century, including the famous “Hundred Thousand Billion Poems” by Queneau. Andrew Piper refers to this group of poets in his chapter “By the Numbers.”

Can or should the experience of reading literature be something like a game? Or an algorithm? Can composing literature–poem or story or essay or argument–be processed like information, combined and re-combined like numbers or letters in a slot machine? What if it already is?

Or, perhaps hypermediacy means the hyperactivity of print culture, rather than its disappearance. Recall what Murray says–electronic text is the child of print culture. Here is one text, as sort of nightmare of digital communication: Out of Touch.

A text by Moulthorp (the hypertext author Birkerts reads in his chapter) titled Radio Silence–showing an interest in the ideas of play (rules for reading) and the interest in pattern.

A well-regarded hypertext–that emphasizes a different kind of linking nonlinearity: The Jew’s Daughter.

For links to other literary hypertexts, visit HTLit: Literary Hypertext.


Birkerts: process over product

In his chapter “Hypertext,” Birkerts continues his exploration of the differences between print and electronic texts, between words on a page and words on a screen. In “Into the Electronic Millenium,” he emphasizes the difference as one between linearity (print) and association (electronic)–earlier in the book, this opposition was described as  depth versus shallowness. Here, turning his attention to a literary hypertext created for a digital environment (Moulthorp’s Victory Garden), he continues the opposition, focusing it on a difference between process and product. As he puts it succinctly,

Writing on the computer promotes process over product and favors the whole over the execution of the part. (158)

Moving forward from page to screen, he believes, we move backwards from the book as a product to the process of writing and producing it. Along with this “profound” and “consequential” shift from literature and product to writing as process, Birkerts argues, “provisionality” is promoted and the traditional goal of the writer (he mentions the French novelist Flaubert) is lost. Attending to this loss, the reader of the book, turned into “process” at best, at worst a “sophisticated Nintendo game,” loses his or her sense of the private self (164).

These are familiar  keywords Birkerts uses in his argument: process, product, privacy, provisionality, perfection, potential. My criticism and concern for the implications of his argument might best be focused by adding another ‘p’ word to his list: pedagogy. It seems to me that in worrying about the ways that writing’s process becomes, potentially, revealed in a digital or electronic environment, Birkerts really worries the potential that anyone might become a writer. Here, my disagreement with Birkerts sharpens most into focus. In my view–recall, I am a teacher of writing, and a writer still learning my trade, as every writer does–provisionality and process are necessary ingredients for learning. One learns by learning the process; one writes by producing writing, not by having written, by having a product. The reader is always ready to turn into a writer, as Walter Benjamin put it in his essay on the “Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility.” We thus participate in writing. And participation is yet another concern, and another ‘p’ word, that Birkerts discusses. Instead of that, he wants to return to a time when the author perfected his writing by creating books that, in Birkerts’ phrasing, overpowered the reader.

Perfect, that is to say, completely finished, books might exist–though I haven’t read one. But even if they do exist, the problem becomes, for the writer, for the learner, how to get there while being imperfect? For learners, perfect books are dreamed of and always never written. Isn’t that what happened to Birkerts? These are some of the thoughts and concerns I take into the final pages of his argument and our initial exploration of electronic and hypertext writing.

I used Google Books, by the way, to do some keyword searching–for example, in Gutenberg Elegies. Here is an example (the word process appears 45 times).

As we explore more directly hypertext fiction and poetry this week, consider some basic background for hypertext fiction of the sort that Birkerts encounters. It is from that massive hypertext encyclopedia you know well, WikiPedia. Consider that as both the problem and potential of hypertext literary reading: what if novels or poems read like entires in WikiPedia: in what ways does that change literature? Here is the entry for Hypertext Fiction. We can also think back to McLuhan’s argument, one that I think Birkerts clearly has in mind, though he doesn’t directly quote from: the medium is the message; all media work us over completely. Birkerts believes that the author, not the medium, should be working the reader over. Hypertext, for him, is too much medium, not enough message. I assume he would say the same about the electronic literature archive–where the process, not the product, is on view in the ways the texts are described and categorized.

Do you agree?

For a view and vision of hypertext literature that can be said to disagree with the vision of Birkerts (and strongly) by way of agreeing, consider Shelley Jackson’s essay “Stitch Bitch.” There she argues favorably that hypertext is “what we learned to call bad writing.”


Hypertext: reading notes

Hypertext literally means “over text.” The connotation is a text that is somehow over-stimulated in being a text. In digital terms, it means an electronic text that has a linking mechanism in which a reader has some agency in going to related texts and choosing from multiple pathways through a text. The world wide web is basically a massive hypertext.

My hypertext reading notes.

Notes from the Museum (or memories, links, associations, allusions, illusions)

  • ophelia: intertextuality (hamlet, the nursery rhymes)–and the layering of texts made visible, dynamic with the mouse.
  • the ritual: this is not a poem, not a story, a ritual. What does text as ritual imply–how do we read a ritual? Note the ways the poem seems to escape control, or the way reader changes it. Material metaphor?
  • Zeus page: suggests to me that the narrative is about the differences of interpretation for what is art (of a sort found in a museum–but perhaps also for this narrative experience). So form and content merge, just as they would in museum, where ideas of art are also embodied.
  • Ages of Man (with 5 additional screens): a splintering, distraction of the narrative, or its extension?
  • Easy Choices: several stories within the story, with choices for the ending.
  • Stories: story within story again; also moving/changing text–another material metaphor: something about how stories move, or the mind, or reading. Immersion in the story process?

Jackson Pollock

Electronic Literature Collection

  • Stretchtext: Spastext[Stir Fry Text]  Material metaphor: focusing on writing, on the role of the reader.
    • Another of the Stir Fry Texts, Correspondence–identifies the real materiality of language that the writers are interested in; think Jackson Pollock with painting. What are the paintings “about”? Some art critics would say: about painting, the paint, the painter’s (and viewer’s) interaction with this medium.

Some critical links

  • Birkerts’s concern with hypertext as too much fluid process, the loss of authorial product, seems an obvious connection to most if not all of these hypertexts. Yet they also suggest to me an implication of fluid process that SB doesn’t address, one that I would consider to be a valuable and crucial aspect of literary reading, deep and otherwise: the reading is dynamic, it moves.
  • For a contrasting view of hypertext as valuable, if still messy, in its process, consider Shelley Jackson’s discussion of her own hypertext, Patchwork Girl.

 


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