Debating the Koch brothers – Ben Lerner’s “The Topeka School”

by Varun Gauri

In my last speech of my last high school debate round, at the finals of the Ohio championships, I claimed victory because our opponents, a team from the local private academy, our nemesis, neglected or “dropped” our argument that taxing cigarettes would certainly, absolutely, trigger nuclear war. Therefore, I declared, whatever you, dear judge, think of that argument or of our fast-talking style, a notorious debate technique known as “the spread,” there is no choice but to declare us winners. The rules of the game are binding.

“In the middle of the spread” are the last words of Ben Lerner’s widely acclaimed novel The Topeka School, which centers on a Kansas high school debater (Adam Gordon, seemingly a Lerner stand-in), as well as his partying friends, in the narrative retellings — de-centered, non-chronological, tense-shifting, montage-like — of his psychologist parents, his young debating self, a troubled family friend, and the debater as parent and “well-known poet,” who Lerner is. The primary thematic concern of the novel is the role of language in personal and public life. “A quote like that can save your life,” says the debater’s father, speaking of his colleague Klaus, whose family died in the Holocaust.

“The spread,” both a concentration and deformation of language, is a prominent image throughout this mesmerizing novel, standing in for the “thousands of generations technical progress” that make automobiles and other modern marvels possible, but also widespread alienation and predation in the modern world (“corporate persons deployed a version of the spread all the time”). Even poets will deliver “nonsense as if it made sense.” There appears to be an “instinct to spread,” given that language and culture, like the intermingling personal and professional relationships among the debater’s parents’ colleagues, commingle self-referentially, incestuously. They are quotation machines. For the person ensnared in the spread, “there is no outside, but one vast interior.” The novel, as it progresses, enacts the poetic spread by constructing an ever thicker, and continually illuminating, web of internal quotations and references. Some novels are praised for their “world building.” This novel is a hypnotizing feat of consciousness building.

Resisting or indulging in the “spread,” understood as those parts of oneself that become “interchangeable corporate persons; cliches, types,” and trigger male violence and aggression, becomes Adam Gordon’s obsession. He feels compelled to write this novel, a “genealogy of his speech, its theaters and extremes.” The core problem is that language is almost always less transparent than people believe. Often, it fails to access the “mixture of the somatic and semantic” that is human life, with its “persistence of the mind of childhood — its plenitude and purposelessness.” Lerner sometimes refers to this plenitude as “the surplus.”

Adam’s parents are therapists, practitioners of the talking cure. But talk therapy and psychoanalytic theory seems versions of the spread, and disappoint. “We thought that if we had a language for our feelings we might transcend them. More often we fed them,” says Adam’s father. Most poignantly, therapy fails Adam’s troubled friend Darren, a “man-child” whose limited cognitive and linguistic abilities make him an outsider, totemized, mocked, and occasionally tolerated in Adam’s posse. The posse largely consists of boys who like to use concentrated language, such as rap and hip hop, or plain insults, as weapons (“linguistic prowess could do damage and get you laid”). Darren’s fate lends the novel, otherwise insistently cerebral, its pathos.

But Lerner has broader ambitions. He believes that understanding the spread illuminates not only private consciousness but current predicaments in our public life. The Koch brothers, from Kansas, deploy the spread in state and eventually national politics. A championship debater Adam studies with goes on to become a “key architect of the most rightwing governorship Kansas has ever known” and an “important model for the Trump administration.” Corporations use the spread strategy in their deliberate obfuscations — some types of “disclosure were designed to conceal; they exposed you to information that, should you challenge the institution in question, would be treated like a “dropped argument” in a fast round of debate—you have already conceded the validity of the point by failing to address it when it was presented.”

Is this correct? Does the tendency of language to spread explain American political dysfunction, our alienation from authority, and our current societal polarization? It would be unfair to evaluate a novel’s “argument” using standards from social science. But Lerner invites philosophical assessment, citing Freud, Lacan, Marx, Hegel, and Rawls, among others. Lerner is also explicit. Toward the end of the novel, the well-known poet, now a parent, struggles, unsuccessfully, to communicate with an angry, obtuse, father, also now a parent, on a playground. Adam says, “I’m the father, I’m the archaic medium of male violence that literature is supposed to overcome by replacing physicality with language.” In other words, language is the only, or at least primary, human tool for restraining violence, which will otherwise “recur periodically – like cicadas,” says Klaus.

Is language up to the task? No, Lerner says. He lays out the reason clearly. Just as the currency of mocks and insults elevates the status of white, middle-class boys in Topeka, powerful figures, especially politicians and corporations, use language to dominate. The spread facilitates domination by overwhelming and disarming the listener. Moreover, Lerner goes out of his way to show that language is an assembled inheritance, historically laden with class, gender, and colonial codes. Human beings exercise less agency than they think. The spread is always acting through them, so much so that the forms of violence that Darren inflicts and receives are always there, at least in potential form. Did Darren actually hurl a weapon? “Understand he would not have thrown it except he always had.” At key moments, Lerner switches to the present tense, the eternal present, to enact teleological logic.

Although the novel does not cite him, it operates in Foucault’s theoretical world. For Foucault, preexisting social practices and their representations enable certain actions and constrain others. For instance, Adam’s friend Jason, whose mother is Iranian, suffers an identity confusion due to “the insufficiency of available categories (at Topeka High, you were, in the minds of most white people, white, black , Mexican, or Asian”). Famously, Foucault views disciplinary practices, such as psychotherapy, as techniques of control, purportedly reason-based, but actually riddled with blind spots. The character of Adam’s mother, a famous therapist relentlessly earnest in her psychoanalytic feminism, seems to fit the bill; she is “reading Adrienne Rich” but helpless as teenagers fight. Just as Foucault contends that excavation and genealogy, rather the pursuit of truth, can liberate the subject, to an extent, from historical binds, Adam’s father is interested in “destroying human language to reveal the river of nonsense coursing just beneath its ‘good, sound rules.’” Foucault refers to this excavation and provocation as “agonism,” a term linked to ancient Greek wrestling. When Adam Gordon confronts a male high school rival, who is a wrestler, in a big box store, both of them, uneasy,“in the shock of mutual recognition,” attempt to unman each other by referencing each other’s families, their origin stories.

The problem with this kind of argument, coursing through The Topeka School, is that legitimate authority and moral behavior become difficult if not impossible to identify. The novels suggests that language creates public authority to the extent, and only to the extent, that it facilitates mutual recognition (“any kind of formally pressurized language game held social weight”). A person can ask questions about legitimate authority, but there are no reasons to be given, no answers, beyond the accumulated pressure of history and practice. Near the end of the book Adam poses a question to a police officer behaving arbitrarily: “Do you have authority? Where does your authority come from again?” We do not get to hear the police officer’s response.

But in real life we would get some kind of answer, and we would make a judgment about its legitimacy. When the adult Adam encounters the antagonistic father on the playground, Adam is furious, transported to adolescent rage. He envisions them as “two sovereignless men in a Hobbesian state of nature on the verge of primal confrontation.” But this makes no sense. The encounter takes place on a New York City playground. The decisions these men would make would involve calculations about what they can get away with, the definition of “assault,” how the police would react, how much a lawyer would cost. In our present American lives, people almost always act under the shadow of the law, the fact of widespread human social cooperation. We do not live in a state of nature, with violence or spreading the only way out. Lerner’s tendency toward grandiosity, his inclination toward the poetic spread, get the better of him in these scenes.

How do people make, and believe, their own distinctions between virtue and vice, good and evil, democracy and authoritarianism, equality and racial oppression, arbitrary and legitimate authority? It turns out there are engines of human sociality beyond language. Biologists and psychologists have demonstrated that empathy, self-control, and the moral sense are innate, and predispose humans, and probably other animals, to cooperate. There is more pulling us toward each other than the spread.

Like Adam Gordon, I lost the final debate round of my career. In my case it was 3-2, rather than 4-1 (of course, I was debating in Ohio, not the national championships). Also like Adam, I lost my nerve, or perhaps my will to power, during the round. Against the advice of Adam’s coach, and in opposition to the political inclinations of his judges and audience, Adam made a social democratic argument, highlighting “the need for societies to free up human capacities from profit-seeking and the need for new regimes of language starting right here, in this debate.” I merely told myself, before the round, in a private moment in an empty classroom, that I didn’t need to be doing this kind of combat anymore. In our own ways, we each opted for sociality, rather than domination. It wasn’t that hard to refuse to spread.