ENG102:
How to Research Literature
Week
9 Low-Stakes Writing Exercise
Limitations
and Counter-Arguments
In
your argument-driven writing for ENG102, you are interpreting texts rather than
presenting statements of fact or absolute truths. One of the tests of a strong
thesis statement is whether someone could reasonably disagree with your claim
and then be persuaded by your evidence and analysis. (If no one could disagree
with your thesis, you may be presenting a fact or description rather than an
argument.)
In
order to make your argument as persuasive as possible, you need to demonstrate
the roundness of your thinking. You can show your reader that you have
considered every angle by acknowledging the limitations and potential
counter-arguments to your own position. The goal of doing so is to demonstrate
the persuasiveness of your own position. (You may find in the process of
considering counter-arguments that your position is not the most convincing!
In this situation you can pivot, or you may determine that there is merit in
exploring the position even if it may be difficult to persuade your reader.)
Acknowledging limitations or counter-arguments is a smart rhetorical move as it
shows your deep understanding of the text and your sense of the broader stakes
in the scholarly conversation. It requires you to imagine an alternative
perspective based on the same piece of evidence. How could two readers approach
the same text and arrive at two different interpretations?
When
you work through an objection to your argument, you demonstrate to your reader
that you have anticipated the gaps or limitations in your own position and you
can explain to the reader why your argument is the most convincing interpretation.
Strong essays do not simply dismiss other perspectives or points of view (an
important note to remember if you are disagreeing with a critic’s perspective
in your own writing). You have to work through the objection to make the
case for the persuasiveness of your own perspective.
Here’s
an excerpt from F. Abiola Irele’s “The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua
Achebe’s Things Fall Apart” in which
he moves from engaging with a piece of textual evidence, to citing another
critic’s perspective, before defining his own contrasting interpretation. Read
through the excerpt below and see if you can track Irele’s rhetorical moves.
“In
the immediate context of the novel, Unoka’s refusal to conform to the
prevailing ethos of the tribe is of course considered in wholly negative terms.
More important, its subversive significance is forcefully repudiated by his
son, Okonkwo, who wills himself into becoming the antithesis of all that Unoka
represents, so that he comes to assume what can only be judged a fearful aspect:
‘He
was a man of action, a man of war. Unlike his father he could stand the look of
blood. In Umuofia’s war he was the first to bring home a human head. That was
his fifth head, and he was not an old man yet. On great occasions, such as the
funeral of a village celebrity he drank his palm-wine from his first human
head.’ (8)
It
is this portrayal of Okonkwo that prompted Thomas Melone to propose, in his
pioneering study devoted to the first four novels of Chinua Achebe, an
evaluation that both captures the essence of the character and exaggerates its
import; he describes him as a ‘complex and unsettling personality’. . . .
Unsettling Okonkwo certainly is, but not exactly complex; given his delineation
in Things Fall Apart, one would be inclined rather to consider him as a
‘flat’ character, to use E.M. Forster’s term. It is true that, in the
particular context in which we encounter the character, the novelist nudges us
to the edge of what could have been a powerful psychological portrait;
considering his problematic relation to his father, who throws a long shadow
over his life, Okonkwo’s inordinate obsession with self has all the makings of
a deep neurosis generated by a tenacious and consuming existential project,
self-realization. Things Fall Apart can be summed up as largely the
narrative of the process of self-fashioning by which Okonkwo is transformed
into the somber inversion of his father. But the mental condition into which he
falls as a result is not really explored, so that we are not led into the inner
workings of his mind as a fully realized individual” (466-67).
1) If you do not yet have a draft in
progress, or you’re intrigued by the passage from Irele above, work with the excerpt
provided to tease out a counter-argument. What primary text evidence could you
use to support your claim?

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