I don’t understand X

A lot of factors contribute to the fact that debaters today are expected to know about more diverse subject areas than at any time in the past. When I was in high school 15 years ago you had to know about a few different critiques, and most of them could be defeated by pragmatism and cede the political. Nowadays that is no longer the case.


As a result, one of the questions I get the most is “can you explain X”. And don’t get me wrong, a lot of the content on this site comes from those kind of questions so I’m not trying to chastise you. It has become increasingly difficult to keep up, and so I want to create a little guide for how to figure these things out that people can follow on their own. We will use as examples a few of the most recent questions I have been asked: affect, semiocapitalism, and meta-narratives.


Most people when faced with something they don’t understand do one of two things

  1. Ask someone
  2. Check wikipedia


These aren’t so much “wrong” as they are limited. Most often the concepts you are confused about are pretty obscure, so odds are low you know a lot of people who are very familiar with them. Wikipedia can sometimes be useful, but it’s sort of a gamble in that often the explanations are short, poorly thought out, wrong or all three. So what should you do?


  1. Youtube

Why youtube? Well first it’s key to understand the differences between primary and secondary sources (cue Clark). A primary source is where the author is providing direct, firsthand information on something (an event, a concept or theory). A secondary source is someone else reporting on a different work (discussing 2 books with conflicting explanations of X historical event, or a review of Y’s theory of capitalism). Good cards generally come from primary sources- primary source authors generally make the strongest form of the argument. The flipside is that primary sources are often more difficult to read- the authors assume a certain amount of familiarity with the field within which they work.


So why is youtube good? Well 2 main reasons

  1. Lectures- you can find recorded lectures of people trying to explain the concept to a uninformed audience. Examples





There are tons more like this, that is just a taste. The point is- you can find a lot of great explanatory info that way, and its often much easier than trying to read a primary source. Some of them are short, and the visuals are important so you should watch on your computer. For others you can google “youtube mp3 downloader” and download them to listen to like a podcast while traveling to tournaments or taking the bus.


2. A lot of times “concept X” is pretty hard to understand on its own, you need to understand a few of the surrounding concepts to really get a grasp on it. These are often factored in to a youtube lecture, whereas in an article the author may be assuming you already have a grad degree in comp lit to even be looking at their work.



In addition to just searching, its a good idea to just subscribe to some channels and keep your learning going year round. Some suggestions


Crashcourse– they do a ton of useful videos on topics from philosophy, psychology, economics to just about everything

WisecrackOne of my favorites. They have a lot of awesome content, and keep coming up with ingenious author quals for Slovenian Deodorant model Slavoj Zizek

The RSA– They have a lot of great lectures (also available as a podcast) and some get turned into cool RSA Animate videos 

The School of Life– Some of their videos have profanity and adult themes, but they are excellent at breaking down philosophers 



Tip 2: Googling correctly


Let’s say you can’t find a youtube video on the concept you want, then you need to turn to google. You don’t, however, want to google badly with searches like : affect or semiocapitalism. You want to narrow the results a bit, try a search like “explaining affect theory” or ” understanding semiocapitalism” etc. Try and play around with some terms that you think , were you to write a beginners introduction to a topic, you would use in the title.





The key is to not look for “definitions” because usually the 1-2 sentence definition isn’t really going to help you. What you are ideally looking for is an article that attempts to explain the concept with lots of examples/references so that even if you don’t get the first 3, maybe the 4th example will illuminate it for you.


As useful as these tips are, there isn’t really a shortcut. If you want to jump into something complex like a Wilderson article without any background in the schools of thought he draws on and critiques, its gonna be tough- there is just no way around it. But the fact that something is “tough” to read isn’t a bad thing- it’s usually a sign that the the line of thought you are pursuing is worthwhile- so don’t be discouraged. Most people in high school don’t instantly take to complex philosophies- it takes some struggle.









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