Last time I ended by asking about Elbow’s believing/doubting-game, “Do absurdity and hyperbole gain traction in the predominance of a doubting manner?” I think what I meant was, Do absurdity and hyperbole function most powerfully when we hold a doubting mindset? If believing goes along with things, grants ideas a chance, then absurdity and hyperbole must lose some of their shock effect under those conditions. Believers wouldn’t find them unbelievable; believers would assent (temporarily) in these moments when critique is on hold.
Later in the article, there comes another list even more ramshackle seeming than the basketball-themed chunk I worked through the other day.
There are more personal emotional fears that reinforce the monopoly of the doubting game and which must therefore be explored here. I think we all fear, to a greater or lesser extent, being taken over, infected, or controlled by a bad or wrong idea. The believing game asks us, as it were, to sleep with any idea that comes down the road. To be promiscuous. We will turn into the girl who just can’t say no. A yes-man. A flunky. A slave. Someone who can be made to believe anything. A large opening that anything can be poured into. Force-fed. Raped. (185)
Reading the essay (again, reading to decide its fit in a class I will soon teach), I hovered on this paragraph slightly longer than most because I found it difficult to play the believing game with it. Promiscuity, slavery, rape: here as tropes these are excessively blunt for explaining the risks in preferring one intellectual manner over another. Because Elbow’s list-work deals out these references in quick succession, I attempted to read it as a dare–a lure configured deliberately to remind readers that our believing has its limitations and that such limitations are often due for direct contemplation (e.g., attending to how hyperbole works on us). The paragraphs that follow confirm Elbow’s concern for believing as an inroads to dangerous ideas–dangerous ideas that the doubting game’s overeager critical impulse would shield from us: “What is needed is practice in learning to immerse the self gradually in the element perceived as dangerous–and it is just such a process that is constituted by the believing game” (186-187).
On the elliptical Thursday, lolling slowly-idly through spacetime (i.e., winding across 3+ miles, ending up nowhere). Reeaading Elbow’s “The Doubting Game and the Believing Game–An Analysis of the Intellectual Enterprise,” the well-known appendix essay in Writing Without Teachers (1973) and an essay I am considering assigning for the first meeting of ENGL516 next month. In a future entry, I may have more to say about the essay, its premises, and whether anyone still reads it or finds the believing/doubting dialectic useful anymore. But it’s this passage on basketball that (today) still strikes me as odd-fitting:
If you are playing basketball and someone starts carrying the ball around without dribbling or keeping score wrong, what you do next is not part of the game but part of real life. You can shoot him, you can try to have him locked up, you can cry, you can say you won’t play with him tomorrow, or you can try to persuade him to start playing again by talking to him. Here, I think, believing game has an inherent advantage over the doubting game. The activity of the believing game (trying to share perceptions and experiences) is more likely than the activity of the doubting game (trying to find holes in the other person’s view) to keep people willing to talk to each other if the game breaks down. (174-175)
This must be a pick-up game. There are no referees, no arbitrators of the game’s rules outside of the game itself. In fact, decorum is, in this case, so delicately kept by participants in the game that it is possible, if anyone in the game decides it is the best solution, to shoot the rule-breaker. That the miskept score or the carrying of the ball would warrant–under any circumstances–shooting the rule-breaker creates dissonance with the idea of hermeneutic propriety (the gains to be had in a generous intellectual manner more willing to try on ideas than to rush into critique). So it’s the extremism of the scenario that, in this particular passage, distracts me from the larger point Elbow seeks to make. The point is that the believing game could restore basketball-rationality to the scene. But it is startlingly difficult to believe these alternatives to verbal negotiation. Locking up the rule-breaker? Crying? This list leaves me with doubts about whether the believing game holds up when absurd, hyperbolic alternatives enter into play. Another way: do absurdity and hyperbole gain traction in the predominance of a doubting manner?