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Author Topic: Matt Kennedy -- From Andy Liu  (Read 5728 times)
Posts: 3

« on: August 14, 2014, 12:56:47 PM »

I just received this from Andy Liu about his old partner Matt:

For Matthew Kennedy
Andrew Liu

I knew that Matt had long ago moved to New York, where Iíve lived for the last thirteen years (on and off), so yesterday afternoon when I found out he had died, I spent the next few hours feeling lousy that I never made the effort to see him. In crude terms, I felt like I had slept through an expensive plane ticket or that I had forgotten to pay my taxes. It was on my to-do list, it really was. I just had never gotten around to it. We talked by phone a few times, mostly when I was overseas, but we never met face to face in the city. I honestly believed there was going to be plenty of time for that.

Debating with Matt feels like such a vivid memory. And yet, when I started going through his Facebook photos, I realized how much he had changed since we last talked. I canít really speak about the Matt Kennedy who died two nights ago, because I hadnít seen him in person for, by my count, well over eight years. All I can do is share some recollections from our brief time debating together, memories that, I realize, probably only mean something to me now -- although possibly also to the members of the greater debate community who remember him (the other person to probably ask about Matt is James Thomas, but I have no idea where he is now, nor how to find him).

I donít want to excuse myself for not reaching out to him over the years, but besides the basic truth that thereís no good deluding myself post facto into thinking I could have Ďsavedí him -- as if he needed saving -- looking at his photos made me realize that we were always such different people. Thinking back on our time together, it was probably a long shot that we were going to remain in meaningful contact after debate. We were going to lead divergent lives, even if we lived only two miles away. In other words, it isnít really strange that we stopped talking regularly almost immediately after we debated. Really, it was strange that we became friends in the first place.

Matt and I debated together the second half of my senior year, from the Coast Swing over 2004/2005 New Yearís through CEDA Nationals at San Francisco State University in March. I attended Columbia University in New York, and he attended California State University-Fullerton. We decided to debate together because we were not getting along very well with our partners at the time. The spring was going to be my last term in debate, after seven years, and it would be turn out to be Mattís last full season.

Back then I thought that because we were both ďcritique peopleĒ we would get along famously. That idea sounds hopelessly naive today, of course, because clearly thereís more to life than liking the same books (and we didnít even really like the same books). I thank the movie High Fidelity for that insight. Matt talked with a high pitch and a frantic intensity, both out of rounds and even more quickly in his speeches. I often felt like he spoke too quickly for judges to flow. I speak with a deep, monotonal Pacific Northwest drawl, probably the slowest debater from my generation. His speed and clarity made me jealous.

He wore Louis Vuitton bags. I wore t-shirts I found on the street. He was short. I was tall. He was white and from Georgia. Iím Taiwanese and from Seattle. He was gay. I acted, in his words, ďreally straightĒ (actual conversation). We never lingered on those differences, though, because we recognized in each other a shared, almost desperate passion for philosophy and social theory, and maybe the best thing you can say about debate is that it can bring together people through intellectual commonalities and in spite of superficial dissimilarity. 

From that December until March, I spent more time talking to Matt, in person or by phone, than anyone else on earth, and I feel pretty confident that the reverse was true. I slept on his couch as we prepared for the Coast Swing, and I did so again in the days leading up to the tournament at Berkeley (February) and CEDA nationals. We drank and smoke a bit, but mostly we just talked books all day long. I think Agamben was popular that year. We were both fully formed individuals with particular styles and preferences, and we were just going to wing it from tournament to tournament. We could prepare as much as possible, but up to a certain point, we were probably better off served just empowering the other to do what they did best. To this day I still wonder whether we navigated the balance well enough (I know we didnít) and how we couldíve done it better. I felt like we were close to turning some corner, but we didnít have enough time together to really learn to debate as a team. And who knows, maybe that was never going to happen anyway.

We did well at first, which surprised us both, I think, as we coasted on an element of surprise and the strength of two individual styles that didnít really add up to much more. Then, we bombed a few tournaments before rallying to finish with a respectable run that ended, effectively, both of our careers.

We were terribly inconsistent. Once we started losing a lot, I realized that beneath the veneer of intellectual proximity, we were very different individuals. I was originally attracted to debating with Matt because he was a bit of an oddball, but a smart one, and I liked that. As we tried to get to know each other better, I learned more about how he struggled with himself on an almost daily basis.

I need to choose my words carefully here. At the time I knew him, I donít think Matt liked himself very much, and I donít think he would have disagreed with that. He was a gay man who tortured himself over who he was, and itís a cliche and a stereotype to put those two things together, so maybe I shouldnít even bring it up. I donít know. And maybe those feelings had changed greatly over the years and he was very happy in New York. I think New York may have been the perfect place for someone like him. But hearing about his death and looking at his photographs, I thought, Matt must have still felt a lot of the pain he was managing when I last talked to him. I remember that he often tried to change his own identity, including his own name, his hair color, his language (he was fluent in Japanese). He had a powerful enough brain to do this all with panache, and while I felt a little uneasy and unsure of how to respond to those aspects of his personality, I also thought maybe Matt knows exactly what heís doing and everything will work out for him.

When I was twenty-one and not emotionally equipped to talk frankly with someone like him, I said very little. I thought to myself, Iíll deal with my issues, and heíll deal with his own. Weíll all be fine, whichÖ today, feels idiotic. Looking back, itís hard not to think I should have just swallowed my ego and told him I loved him as he was and he didnít need to change just to please his parents or any bully or anyone else (of course, not that I couldíve saved him, nor that he needed to be saved).

Okay, enough speculation. Again, I donít know the Matt who died a few nights ago, only the Matt I debated with nine years ago. So let me just share a few personal memories from that period.

Matt was a singular combination of technical naivete and explosive talent. Sometimes, he would just drop voting issues because he didnít know what to do about them. Other times, I sat back and let him win the round by himself. 

Two quick war stories.

In the preliminaries at the Coast, when we had barely debated together, we matched up against an eventual first-round team. They ran an unconditional counterplan and then kicked it in the rebuttals. I thought this was a no-brainer, and I told Matt I was going to talk about unconditional counterplans in my 2AR. He had no idea what I was talking about, so I just did it anyway. It worked out for us, luckily, and afterwards, he told me he had never gone for a procedural in his life. It was the biggest kick for him to win on the most mundane and boring of debate arguments. He was accustomed to simply suffocating both the opponent and the judge with as much Slovenian psychoanalysis and French literary theory as possible, which were, to him, the most natural things to come out of his mouth. To win on a counterplan procedural must have felt so ďnormalĒ to him that it was exhilarating (amusingly, he would ďgo hardĒ for counterplan theory in his 1ARs afterwards, in a way that was totally not winnable, but hey, he sounded pretty believable).

By contrast, our biggest round, by far, was winning the octafinals at CEDA against the West Georgia Liberation Front (sorry James and Joe, but you know itís all love). This round was immortalized in the ďDebate TeamĒ documentary released the next year, in which itís transparent just how much the director hoped that the WGLF would win the entire tournament (maybe it would have been more marketable). Matt was the star of the round, or at least co-stars with James Thomas and Joe Koehle. I was, of course, ecstatic with the outcome, but anytime anyone asked me about the round years later, I told them that that had been Mattís round, that he had won it all by himself. All I did was sit at the same desk as he did. I donít tell that story with any bitterness, though. I remember it with admiration, for itís an incredible luxury to watch your partner pull off an upset on a major stage without you doing anything but looking serious.

Afterwards, he told me was just happy that he wasnít responsible for losing the final round of my debate career. I didnít engage him too much in that conversation, either because I was too busy preparing for quarters or was too morose after losing quarters to tell him that I was grateful that he took us there all by himself. I also probably just assumed he would be back next year. Iím not clear about what happened on the China topic, but I donít think he finished the fall semester. And I donít know if he thought about career milestones or anything after he quit debate, but that W. Georgia round must certainly go down as his biggest personal achievement, the culmination of years of false starts and uneven emotions. Iím glad we shared it together, but it strikes me as crazy that we never really had a nostalgic conversation about it afterwards and that now we never will.

I recall we had conversations in which he said he was glad to have debated with me because he felt like he was learning new things and that we were making intellectually rewarding and challenging arguments. He didnít even care if we won or lost, and he when we bombed at Northwestern (where he got a speaker award anyway!) he was mostly just sad that I wasnít having my ideal senior year.

Itís easy now to chalk certain things up to early twenty-something naivete, but I think we both believed that debate was a truth-seeking activity. Iím about to wrap up my PhD, and at a time when I once assumed I would understand the world better than I ever have before, I look back on those debate days and think that my confidence in my knowledge of the world must have reached an all-time high back then. What Matt and I shared was a collective belief that if we combined our specialized fields of expertise ó his, an interest in psychoanalysis, and mine, some sort of quasi-Marxist political theory ó we could figure out debate once and for all. To admit these thoughts is, of course, highly embarrassing today, but it would be disingenuous for me to deny that they fueled us at the time.

A certain form of Americanized critical theory has been dying a slow death for years, it seems apparent to me now, but at the time, the mid-2000s, it felt like the thrill of reading translated French, Italian, and German philosophers was a bottomless well. I donít really know how much policy debaters feel about their research, but Matt and I were always pushing each other to cut and highlight the perfect (three page-long) card, and we were optimistic that if we just read and discussed books long enough, weíd arrive at a perfect synthesis of ideas that combined literature, philosophy, race, class, gender, and, uh, environmental analysis (energy topic) into some well-articulated, magically fruitful, and endlessly flexible theory of everything we ever read. Debating together for one semester was an intellectual rush, albeit a fleeting one, and when it was over, it ended almost too suddenly for us to know how to deal with it. He wasnít going to graduate, like I was about to, and we werenít classmates or even in adjacent time zones, so we werenít going to regularly hang out after the season ended. I think that, like many debate seniors, I actively sought to make up for lost college time after March, and probably because my life had been so consumed by debate up until then, I just naturally assumed there would be countless opportunities to see Matt again.

I think I just wanted to move on from debate, much like Matt eventually severed ties with much of the activity. For me, the whole ordeal was an ambivalent one, as Iím sure it has been for countless ex-debaters. Iíd attend a tournament with anticipation, then I would feel, why am I still doing this? But it was hard to find the same exhilarating intellectual and competitive rush elsewhere.

I also think that I was afraid that if I hung out with Matt, we would revisit our short-lived debate partnership, and for whatever reason, those months represented painful memories. We did all right, but in my estimation, we underperformed, and we put ourselves in a tight situation wherein we had little room to grow and really no mechanism to reflect and stay connected afterwards. None of this was his fault, I think I was just in my own head.

Perhaps it is natural to assume that every big win signaled that we were approaching something like a mutual understanding, that we were more comfortable with one another. But honestly, rounds like that West Georgia one made me feel the opposite way. At the end of the round, I would sit back and let Matt say and do whatever he wanted and pray for the best. Many times, we wound up winning and usually for reasons beyond my comprehension. During those moments, I would look at him with awe, and I would think, ďman, Matt Kennedy, who ARE you?Ē Now, I am sad that Iíll never really know who he became in the intervening years.

We were very different people, and we would not have tried to become friends if not for debate. But it wouldnít be fair to say it was only a marriage of convenience. I sympathized with his marginality. Debate, as is well documented, is a very straight white male activity. That isnít an indictment of the community itself -- some of the most generous and intelligent people I know -- itís just a residue of history. Itís both difficult for racial and sexual minorities to feel comfortable but also very empowering for them to learn, you know, the masterís tools and all that. As I try to recall some of our times together, I canít help but recall times when a judge would immediately respond poorly to Mattís mannerisms. He flailed his arms, he spoke too quickly and with too large a vocabulary. A few times, the judge would pin a loss on Matt in such an inexplicable manner that I felt -- and he must have felt -- it was rooted in homophobia. I could see in his face that he felt mortified, but instead of talking about it, which must have embarrassed him, he would instead say letís get trashed or letís get high. And looking back, I think that instead of simply saying ďdonít worry about it, letís move on,Ē I shouldíve told him not to give a fuck about a judgeís half-assed opinion (I know communication is the great equalizer and all that, but I also think the debate activity fetishized ďfairnessĒ so much that thinkers like Matt were made to feel bad and like it was his own fault when the judge just didnít understand a good yet complex argument). But I know that when I have come across racism in my life that, even if the well-meaning white friend tells me not worry about it or you try to laugh it off, you still feel, at least for half a second, inadequate and less than human. I can only imagine what it felt like for Matt to be told, in coded language, to debate less gay.

When I flip through his Facebook photos, I am in awe at how much Matt could fully immerse himself into a totally different social scene in New York, one where he may never have ever mentioned his time in debate and where he never had to use his years of accumulated expertise on Marxist psychoanalysis. He was probably never going to feel like he perfectly fit in with the debate community, and he had to leave debate to feel loved, and if thatís the case, then, as far as I am concerned, he couldnít have left soon enough.

I have one vivid memory from those weeklong prep sessions in Fullerton. Matt was walking around his kitchen when he mentioned a conversation he recently shared with a female member of the CSUF debate team. She had started dating someone and felt anxious and hopeful about the relationship. He said that he and she would often sit around and night and talk about how much they just wanted someone to love and to love them. Who knows why I remember this conversation so clearly, except I was probably struck by how sweet yet banal it felt. Matt was a man who, if you gave him a chance, could tear apart everything wrong with policy debate and Hollywood movies and mediocre philosophy --  he was born with a powerful, powerful brain. But he also, I think, just wanted what most of us want: the simple happiness of having someone to love and who loved you back. I recall another time we talked about Judith Butlerís argument that the gay community should think about renouncing marriage as heteronormative. ďFuck Judith Butler,Ē he said. He wanted to feel in love and one day get married himself.

He was a sweet guy. He had childish sensibilities. He was maddeningly frustrating at times. He was obsessive compulsive about certain arguments, and he was irresponsibly careless with others. He was brilliant and made me insecure about my own intelligence. I miss the friendship we shared, even if it was shortlived. I found his death heartbreaking.
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