Sunday, April 13, 2014

Who Belongs to Rhizo14?

I have been edging up to this post for the past few weeks, but a Rhizo14 Facebook discussion today (Saturday, 2014 April 12, -5:00 GMT) and a comment to my last post by Frances Bell have pushed me into it. The Facebook discussion was kicked off by Sarah Honeychurch asking, "How do we feel about others who were not part of rhizo14 using our autoeth? Somebody asking yesterday on Twitter Interesting question." In the thread, Frances Bell asked, "what does it mean to belong to rhizo14"? In a comment on my previous blog, Frances also said, "although I consider myself to be part of rhizo14 and did write a few words on the collaborative auto-ethnography, I do not consider myself to be part of the rhizo rhetoric writing group. Is that the only way to write rhizo14 without being considered to be 'writing about'? That was 'Frances' rhetorical question because I am going to be writing rhizo14 without permission ;)" Go, Frances. I can't wait to read what she, Jenny, and Maria have to say.

Anyway, I see two issues emerging in this conversation that I want to address in this post (maybe in two posts, depending—I haven't finished yet so I don't know):

  1. Who belongs in a cMOOC such as Rhizo14, and
  2. Who belongs in the group writing the authoenthography of Rhizo14?
I'll start with the first question. (By the way, I live next to a nature preserve in south Florida, and a raccoon just walked along the fence outside my balcony. I am also having an expensive Canadian whiskey and a fine cigar (I control my bad habits by having only the most expensive) under a brilliant south Florida sky. This will make all the difference in what I have to say.) I find nested parentheses so fractal and rhizomatic.

The first question: who belongs in a cMOOC such as Rhizo14?

For me, the short answer is anyone who shows up at any time (even after the cMOOC is officially ended) is in. But it's more rhizomatic, or complex, than that.

My discussion here will be highly informed by James Gleick's book Chaos, which discusses the rise of chaos theory, which I consider to be part of the emergence of complexity, along with relativity and quantum theories, in the 20th century. I think that complexity will come to inform almost all serious thought of the 21st century and most popular thought, but that remains to be seen. At any rate, it informs my thought at the moment, so you know where I'm coming from.

Asking who is in Rhizo14 and who is not creates a boundary issue, and as Gleick explains, boundaries are problematic in complexity thought. Boundaries are trivial in reductionist, mechanistic thought, either/or propositions: one is either inside the system or outside, and there is a clear line between the inside and outside, usually with a gatekeeper or social contract to manage the exchanges across the boundary. This concept, perhaps best expressed by John Locke but encoded in most of our Western laws, is clear and legible. It manages most of our thinking: social, economic, political, religious, educational, and more. A student is either a junior or a senior, but not both. Both is confusing and messy (read: complex), and we don't like confusing and messy.

Complexity, on the other hand, sees boundaries as problematic, non-trivial structures. We want discrete boundaries where all on this side is red (or any other characteristic you can think of) and all on that side is blue, but as Gleick illustrates in his book, nature doesn't seem to work that way. In the 1970s and 80s, scientists exploring turbulence with the new fractal geometries of Benoit Mandelbrot, non-linear mathematics, and new computers found that the boundaries within complex, dynamical systems are never discrete: some red always mixes with some blue at the boundaries of even the simplest of systems. I think this is the case with complex systems such as Rhizo14. Let's use an analogy to see how.

Think of a single-celled organism, an amoeba, which is about as close to simplicity as complex systems can get. At a certain scale, it appears that the amoeba has a distinct, discrete boundary, a membrane, between its inside and its outside, but if we zoom down a couple of scales, we find that the cell membrane is not so distinct or discrete. It is textured. It has thickness. It has pores where it can, and must, exchange matter, energy, information, and organization with its surroundings. Bacteria move through and across this boundary, doing helpful things and harmful things. Are the bacteria in or out? Are they part of the amoeba or not? We humans have more bacteria in our bodies than we have cells. Are they in or out, part of us or not? Neither the amoeba nor we can survive without the bacteria. We cannot survive without the membrane, either, and while clearly some things are on the inside doing much of the hard work to sustain the system, we cannot overlook the things at the boundaries that are moving information and energy in and out.

For me, most people in a MOOC are at the boundary. Our skin, after all, is our single, largest organ. We on the inside, including me, unkindly call those on the boundary lurkers, and we imagine that we on the inside are the hard-working, privileged heart of the MOOC, but it's at the boundary where most of the interesting things happen as energy, matter, information, and organization flow in and out of the system—in and out of amoeba, humans, and MOOCs. The boundaries are where our connections are formed. It seems to me that most of the people at the boundary of a MOOC don't even know they are in the boundary of the MOOC, but they are, and the heart of the MOOC should rejoice that they are there, for without them we would cease to beat.

So I want a fuzzy boundary where it's hard to tell who's in and who's out; I want even the bacteria. That is a fortuitous term because it carries a negative connotation, and I think many of us at the heart of Rhizo14 have negative feelings about those bacteria that take our treasured information and use it in other systems. But that, after all, is what is supposed to happen. We want our information out there, and once it is out there in the wider ecosystem, we lose control over it. I think of how the early MOOC pioneers must feel about how their treasured concept is being used in the wider higher education ecosystem, but the only way to prevent that would have been to trap the concept, if that was even possible, and then it would have died. The best response to what is happening to the concept of MOOCs is to continue to express it as well as you can, and I think that is what the Rhizo14 ethnography group should do: use our information as well as we can, put it out, and trust that our interpretation will add value to the larger system. And we must remember that whatever we write will be an interpretation even if somewhat privileged by proximity. We should also be mindful that proximity can be a disadvantage. The scale from which we observe anything affords us some information and blocks other information.

Some might argue that while we should allow the good bacteria in, we should guard against the bad bacteria. I agree, but I confess that I don't have a good sense of who is good and who is bad. As of yet, I do not feel injured by any use of the information by anyone.

Finally, I want to note that openness is the spirit of cMOOCs such as Rhizo14. All of us were invited in, entitled to rip, mix, and burn whatever we found, and enabled to take the information outside the MOOC to use in other systems, such as I'm doing in this blog. I want to remain in that open spirit, which makes me wonder: is this blog part of Rhizo14? What about part of the Rhizo14 auto ethnography? That's a complex question that I'll address in a second post.

Friday, April 11, 2014

RhizoRhetoric and Legibility

In a recent comment to this blog, Maha Bali linked me to Venkatesh Rao's post A Big Little Idea Called Legibility on his ribbonfarm blog, in which Venkat (Rao's blog name) discusses legibility, an idea developed in James C. Stewart's book Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Legibility has significant implications for rhizorhetoric—in no small part because writing is supposed to be legible. Illegibility is one of the core no-no's of good writing, especially academic writing such as most of the scholars in Rhizo14 produce.

Still, Stewart's concept of legibility goes far beyond penmanship to our need for clarity and simplicity, an issue that I've dealt with before, but I think Stewart's concept is—dare I say it?—clearer and broader in application. Stewart identifies legibility as a habit of mind to reduce the complexity of life to something simpler and more manageable. He gives the following recipe for legibility:
  • Look at a complex and confusing reality, such as the social dynamics of an old city [or Rhizo14]
  • Fail to understand all the subtleties of how the complex reality works
  • Attribute that failure to the irrationality of what you are looking at, rather than your own limitations
  • Come up with an idealized blank-slate vision of what that reality ought to look like [how a MOOC ought to behave]
  • Argue that the relative simplicity and platonic orderliness of the vision represents rationality 
  • Use authoritarian power to impose that vision, by demolishing the old reality if necessary 
  • Watch your rational Utopia fail horribly
Venkat adds that "the big mistake in this pattern of failure is projecting your subjective lack of comprehension onto the object you are looking at, as 'irrationality.' We make this mistake because we are tempted by a desire for legibility." We want things to be simple. We need it. We make things simple by dismissing all those messy details of complexity as irrational and irrelevant.

Though this drive for clarity and simplicity is not limited to Western culture, it is highly characteristic of Western intellectual life over the past 300 years, at least since the Enlightenment. In his book Chaos (1988), James Gleick notes that twentieth century scientists schooled in the reductionist, mechanistic science of Newton and Descartes "had learned not to see chaos", or what I am calling complexity. Any variations in scientists' real-world experiments from the expectations of their neat linear equations would usually be dismissed as "experimental error". In other words, when some piece of complex reality didn't fit the equations, they would chop off reality. One of the major realizations of scientific thought in the 20th century is that linear, simple processes in nature (there are some) are the exception and that non-linear, complex processes are the norm. As I understand it, then, Stewart's legibility explores how organizations in general and governments in particular try to twist complex and confusing reality into a simple and clear legibility that makes management and control much easier. Legibility is a basic human drive. We want clarity and the assumed control that results from it.

I want to argue here that scientists and government bureaucrats aren't the only ones blind to the complexity of reality—so are we liberal arts writing teachers. In fact, I think that most writing teachers lag far behind the scientists in accepting and coping with complexity. We teach legibility, and we teach our students not to see complexity, which tends to destroy legibility. I cannot think of a single composition textbook that I've used over the past 35 years that has not encouraged legibility. I turn to the three composition texts on my desk, and yup, they make the process and products of writing most legible: chopping up writing into a neat little process: prewriting/writing/rewriting, or some variation, yielding neat little products: description, narration, argumentation, comparison-contrast, and so on.  The texts have great advice: limit your topic (students who take this literally, as they are trained to do, simply stop writing at 500 words—that limits things), or identify a thesis which expresses your limited subject and point of view, or choose a pattern of development that best serves your purpose for writing. Hmm … if your purpose is simply to make an A and get out of this class, as it is for most students, then what pattern would work best?

Now, maybe this is the nature of textbooks: to make things explicit and legible so that students can learn, or at least pass the test, but it seems to work against a complex view of reality. This is important for me just now because I don't know how to approach the Rhizo14 MOOC as anything other than a complex, non-linear, multi-scale, rhizomatic event, and I believe in my heart that anything other than a complex, non-linear, multi-scale, rhizomatic document will not communicate to readers the dynamic reality of Rhizo14. The typical scholarly essay that I've been reading for the past 40 years, with its clear thesis and well-documented supporting detail, will not map so well to Rhizo14. The very form of traditional scholarly writing renders explicit and regular that which was/is implicit and irregular.

When Benoit Mandelbrot began looking at the coastline of England, he found that the regular shapes of traditional geometry were of little use in helping him calculate the actual length of that coastline, so he invented a new geometry (fractal geometry) which "mirrors a universe that is rough, not rounded, scabrous, not smooth. It is a geometry of the pitted, pocked, and broken up, the twisted, tangled, and intertwined" (Chaos, 94). I think that Rhizo14 is not rounded or smooth; rather, it is pitted, pocked, and broken up … twisted, tangled, and intertwined. I need a rhetoric that maps well to the twisted, tangled, and intertwined.

Deleuze and Guattari faced the same issue when they were writing A Thousand Plateaus and giving us the concept of the rhizome. In their first chapter Introduction: Rhizome, they speak of the book they are writing, but which I can easily extend to any text:
A book has neither object nor subject; it is made of variously formed matters, and very different dates and speeds. To attribute the book to a subject is to overlook this working of matters, and the exteriority of their relations. It is to fabricate a beneficent God to explain geological movements. In a book, as in all things, there are lines of articulation or segmentarity, strata and territories; but also lines of flight, movements of deterritorialization and destratification. Comparative rates of flow on these lines produce phenomena of relative slowness and viscosity, or, on the contrary, of acceleration and rupture. All this, lines and measurable speeds, constitutes an assemblage.
The first characteristic of this kind of writing (a book has neither object nor subject) does away with the dualism inherent in classical Western thought. It reintegrates the writer/s with the thing written about and the thing written, and I see this already happening in the Rhizo14 ethnography as the writers are part and parcel of the system they are writing about. The phrase writing about shows how difficult it is to avoid language that does not incorporate the subject/object dualism. The Rhizo14 writers are not writing about; rather, through their very writing, they are extending, perpetuating, informing Rhizo14 itself. Their writing, this post included, IS Rhizo14—it is not about Rhizo14. They are informed by Rhizo14, and they inform Rhizo14. And of course, this violates the tradition of objective academic writing in the 20th century, which still lingers too long in too many places. Most of the teachers at my campus, for instance, still restrict the use of first and second person (I, we, and you) in formal papers, as do the editors of too many scholarly journals. Teachers and editors are slowly accepting the presence of real people in academic writing, but the smell and noise seem to bother them. In short, academic rhetoric still has not quite accepted the reality of complexity thought that demonstrates the impossibility of separating the observer from the observed or from the observation.

Rhizorhetoric, on the other hand, insists that the observer is an aspect of the observed and the observation and that all together—the writer, the document written, the thing written about, and eventually, the readers written for—form a rhizomatic assemblage. Rhizorhetoric expects to find the thumbprint, accent, and notes from the writer/s on the document itself. It also expects to find the swelling marginalia from readers.

Rhizo14, then, does not fabricate a beneficent God to explain geological movements within the emergence of its text/s. It has no super-editor to excise the messy parts and to fit Rhizo14 into a simple, legible text. It has no lonely writer thinking his lonely thoughts. Rather, it has a collection of people looking at an assemblage from an incredible array of angles for many different reasons and different purposes and generating posts, tweets, marginalia, anecdotes, poems, sounds, stories, and more about what they see.

But do not be alarmed. I am not suggesting here that clarity, or legibility, are not welcome aspects of the Rhizo14 text, or of any text—they are—but they are not limits to that text. As Deleuze and Guattari note, the kinds of rhizomatic texts that emerge in Rhizo14 may have lines of articulation or segmentarity, strata and territories, but they also include lines of flight, movements of deterritorialization and destratification. The rhetorical space for Rhizo14, then, is enlarged to include legible territorializations (traditional scholarly essays) and illegible deterritorializations. And all this, lines and measurable speeds, constitutes an assemblage—a book, a Rhizo14 text.

And the lines of deterritorialization keep flashing. A former student of mine just linked me to a fantastic 3-D printed art installation that is reminiscent of baroque architecture, with all its texture. Rhizo14 needs a 3-D printer of words, images, and sounds. That just might print the document.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Rhizo-Rhetoric and the Problems of Unity and Multiplicity #rhizo14

Let's assume, then, that writing a work of some kind—I'll stop short of calling it a book—about Rhizo14 calls for a different kind of rhetoric, a rhizo-rhetoric. What would such a rhizo-rhetoric look like? That's a great question for me, and I'm hoping that the Rhizo14 community will help articulate some answers to the question, but I still want to create some pockets of resonance and sound some musical riffs that may echo for us as we work through this composition.

I want to explore deeper the problem of unity and multiplicity that I touched on in my last post. Traditional rhetoric assumes a single individual as the center of the rhetorical act: the creator of new knowledge and the effective communicator of that knowledge, both mediated through the skillful use of language to create, capture, and communicate knowledge. I want to suggest that the study of and creation of new knowledge about an entity such as Rhizo14 demands a rhizomatic view of the individual scholar and knowledge as multiplicities and not individual, unitary individuals. I think I can find support for this in Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus (1988), Michel Serres' book Genesis (1995), and Byron Hawk's A Counter-History of Composition: Toward Methodologies of Complexity (2007). I'll be pulling ideas from all of these thinkers, and while I'll try to distinguish one from the others, it might get messy. Multiplicity always resists such reductionism.

Multiplicity is the third of six "approximate characteristics of the rhizome" (7) listed by D&G. As I understand it, multiplicity has profound implications for rhetoric: for its concepts of author, knowledge, content, document format, and readers, but I'm focusing on the author here. What does multiplicity mean for the Rhizo14 ethnography? First, it means that we are neither individuals nor a collective, as both imply a unity of either the one or the many, a single person or a single group designated by names and counted by numbers—for instance: Clarissa or the twelve-member Rhizo14 ethnography group (I've no idea how many are in the group, but that number isn't accidental). As Serres says in Genesis, we want unified concepts, either the individual or the herd that we can name and count, and we don't like multiplicities. We are confused and find mysterious those things that we can designate only with indefinite articles: some fog or grass, some love or hate. Those things are hard to think with and too often relegated to poetics and ignored by rhetorics and logics. We want a definite list of names for authorship of our document. We want to know who is inside and who outside, who are the authors and who are the readers. We want to attribute and quote, designate and footnote. We want to place blame and give praise. We don't want some people who wrote some stuff about some of the things that happened sometime somewhere:
anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
Rather, we want only (Please note the diminutive only here. It is important.) specific people, preferably experts, who analyze the event, reduce it to its essential, salient facts and narrative thereby creating specific, usable knowledge and then arrange the dissected carcass of Rhizo14 in a clean, well-lighted document that interested readers can follow, thus transferring knowledge from the authors to the readers. I point out the diminutive only because I am not saying that I do not want this kind of writing. To say this would be to trash much of the scientific literature of the past three millennia, and that would be a travesty. I do want this kind of writing, but I also want more. The trouble is that traditional rhetoric gives me ONLY the above kind of writing. I want that kind and more. I want to expand my rhetorical reality. I want to expand beyond the single author, whether individual or group, analyzing a single event to compose a single document for a single audience.

I want an indeterminate authorship, a multiplicity, many unnamed, so that we can speak explicitly only of some of the writers of the Rhizo14 ethnography. I want to invite all to participate in the writing of this document, in the continued writing of this document, to invite marginalia, edits, amendments, disagreements, links, comments, new chapters, images, poems, stories, dreams, games, jokes, and more. Wikipedia has proven to my satisfaction that this kind of authorship can produce profound documents. We can choose to make authors anonymous or we can have a place to list all names, even of those who only read. I'm not sure that it matters. As D&G say: "To reach, not the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. We are no longer ourselves. Each will know his own. We have been aided, inspired, multiplied."

We must get away from a rhetoric that posits the analytical processes of the individual, discrete mind as the source of knowledge-making and language as the only platform for knowledge-making and expression. Rhizo-rhetoric demands more: We cannot reduce knowledge-making to a function of the single, rational mind. As Frank D'Angelo notes in his A Theory of Rhetoric (1975), rhetoric must include "the imagination, creativity, free association, fantasy, play, dreams, the unconscious, nonintellectual sensing, the stream-of-consciousness, and the self. … This new emphasis on writing which is relatively free of control and direction may be termed the new romanticism. It holds that not all our mental processes are rational" (159). D'Angelo gets it right, in so far as he can take it, but he is still positing a single, unitary consciousness. D&G and Serres are suggesting that we must expand our view of knowledge beyond any unit to include the multiple. Both the individual and its herd are multiplicities that extend beyond the limits of the sometimes useful fiction of the single unit.

I do not want to rid us of the useful fiction of the individual or group author. I just don't want to limit us to that unit. I want to explore the rhizomatic author, the multiplicity. And I want this because I don't think any single author can capture the rhizomatic nature of Rhizo14 or produce a document that invites readers to participate in and understand Rhizo14. I'm looking for a multiplicity, a cacophony of voices, a gaggle of purposes, a flock of tones, a clutch of points of view.

I fear that many will think I am eliminating the individual, either as single unit or group unit, and melding the individual into the amorphous whole, but I reject this either/or thinking. A multiplicity is something else, a third thing that includes both the single unit and the group unit and all the other stuff that is left out of those two reductions. A multiplicity includes all the in-between stuff, the nameless and uncountable stuff, and I want a rhetoric that helps me include that. I'm sure I cannot do it by myself. But—and here's a good point—I do have to do what I can do by myself. What does this mean?

I've illustrated this concept before, but it is worth repeating here. A multiplicity does not mean that I do not have the ability to emerge as an individual with describable characteristics that can be distinguished from other individuals. Rather, it means that I have the potential to emerge as a wide range of individuals depending upon my interactions with different contexts. Let's see how this works: consider the period, the bit of punctuation, at the end of this sentence. <— there it is. And if we pull this period out of its context to define it, to reduce it to its essential meaning: "the point or character (.) used to mark the end of a declarative sentence, indicate an abbreviation, etc.; full stop", then we reduce the period to almost meaningless. It becomes a silly, little dot. Here it is:


All by itself, the period is useless and meaningless, as all of us are, but as a part of a multiplicity such as this blog post, the period takes on real power, real agency, BUT only so long as it remains itself, only so long as it maintains its internal integrity, what we conventionally call its individuality, and allows other marks to remain themselves. The period cannot sag into a comma, nor can it lift itself up into an i. It must remain a . It must do period-things amongst the behaviors of the other grammatical and graphical marks. And all those other marks must do what they do. We writers in a multiplicity, then, must do what we do. We must know and maintain our integrity, and we must allow others to know and maintain their integrity. At its heart, then, a multiplicity is founded on an ethical stance: we must be true to ourselves, and we must make room for others to be true to themselves and then we must cultivate those connections that encourage the greatest growth for all of us.

I'm looking for a rhetoric that allows for this kind of authorship, among other things. I'm looking for a rhizo-rhetoric. Okay, that's enough. I'm traveling this week, and I've run out of time before I ever got to what I wanted to say about Byron Hawk's book. Next time.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Need for a Rhizomatic Rhetoric #rhizo14

I fully intended to write another post about power, and I will, but not today. My thoughts have been redirected by a marvelous Twitter chat some of the Rhizo14 group held this past Thursday. As a result of that chat, we are perhaps about to consciously write a rhizomatic document that explores the Rhizo14 MOOC.

Here's the set-up as I understand it: a group of Rhizo14 participants want to write something about the MOOC, and they are trying to discover what they will write, how they will write, where, and so forth. They started an auto-ethnography project on Google Docs to collect personal accounts of participation in the MOOC, and then they gathered in Twitter chats and on Facebook to discuss how to proceed. I decided to check in to see what was happening. I'm glad that I did. Somewhere in the chat I asked what a rhizomatic book might look like, and the idea resonated with others. I asked because it seemed that we were engaged in rhizomatic writing anyway, and I wanted to make that conscious, explicit. I hope we follow through as it will give all of us, but me in particular, a chance to explore a new way to write, a new way to think about scholarship. As we are all scholars, this could be rich.

My question, then, is what rhetoric informs this kind of writing? Is this different? Does the technology change how we conduct scholarship and write our findings? I want to suggest that this type of scholarship and writing requires a new rhetoric—it requires a rhizo-rhetoric.

I will take a clue from Clarissa Bezerra here and suggest that you listen to some music. My choice is The Beatles' Revolution 9. It will make sense, I think.

Well, rhizo-rhetoric has a nice roll of the tongue and is perhaps pleasing to the ear, but does it mean anything? Can it help us compose a useful, intelligent, elegant document in some fashion that is useful to others? This is basically my definition of rhetoric: the skillful use of language to connect to the world, to ourselves, and to others. So does rhetoric change when we write as a group using modern information technology? And what kind of document should emerge from such a rhetoric? Well, I hope to find out, but I want to start with some ideas that may speed our learning. I find more things when I'm looking for something, even if I'm looking for the wrong something. What, then, might we expect of a rhizo-rhetoric? I want to suggest a few things.

First, let's start with Deleuze and Guattari, the originators of this rhizome metaphor for how the world is structured and for how language might map that world in useful ways. As we might imagine, language and writing, or rhetoric, is a major consideration of Introduction: Rhizome, the opening chapter to their book A Thousand Plateaus. The very first paragraph introduces a most interesting problem for rhetoric: the writer. Deleuze and Guattari say:
The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus together. Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd. Here we have made use of everything that came within range, what was closest as well as farthest away. We have assigned clever pseudonyms to prevent recognition. Why have we kept our own names? Out of habit, purely out of habit. To make ourselves unrecognizable in turn. To render imperceptible, not ourselves, but what makes us act, feel, and think. Also because it’s nice to talk like everybody else, to say the sun rises, when everybody knows it’s only a manner of speaking. To reach, not the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. We are no longer ourselves. Each will know his own. We have been aided, inspired, multiplied.
As near as I can tell, Deleuze and Guattari begin by attacking, among other things, the very core of traditional rhetoric and scholarship: the subjective, discrete knower, the observer who stands aside from the object observed and knows it, defines it, from the outside, and then writes and talks about it. D&G don't waste time. This attack, if successful, undermines everything. It demands a new rhetoric, possibly a rhizo-rhetoric. We'll see.

The first point of change is obvious: multiple writers. This Rhizo14 ethnography will involve many writers making use "of everything that came within range, what was closest as well as farthest away." Just off the top of my head, and in alphabetical error: Maha Bali from Egypt, Frances Bell from UK, Clarissa Bezerra from Brazil, Dave Cormier from Canada, Simon Ensor from France, Keith Hamon from USA, Sarah Honeychurch from Scotland, Lenandlar Singh from Guayana, Vanessa Vaille from USA, and more who do not pop into my mind just now. Clearly, traditional rhetoric is inadequate to address the voice, the tone, the style, the point of view, the purposes, the persona of such a diverse assemblage.

But as they often are, D&G are more subtle than an assemblage of individuals—they make each individual an assemblage of identities. They state that each of them constitutes a larger assemblage: "Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd." And they are working hard toward the point where the individual becomes irrelevant, "to reach not the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. We are no longer ourselves. Each will know his own. We have been aided, inspired, multiplied." Maha Bali, then, is not just part of the assemblage, she is herself an assemblage. As am I.

A Dream Story
I had a dream last night. I was attending, perhaps crashing, a retirement banquet given in honor of one of my past creative writing professors. I entered a quite narrow banquet hall with high ceilings and one table stretching into the distance in either direction. The hall had a faintly Spanish or monastic feel, with adobe walls and large tile floors. People I did not know, but presumably ex-students such as myself, were already seated, eating and talking. I may have been late, but I was not anxious—just noting that I knew no one in my immediate area. Suddenly, my professor entered from the main entrance opposite me, and quite as suddenly, in dreamtime, he was seated a few seats down on my right, so I moved to greet him. He recognized me immediately with genuine joy and complimented me in a loud voice so that all in the vicinity turned and looked at me. I beamed. We spoke in learned voices about learned things, as all about us listened, and I became as much the center of focus as he was. I basked shamelessly in adoration, but as we spoke, I became uncomfortable. I was thinking that he looked too young for such an old fellow as he should be by now, and I wondered if he'd had a face-lift. Gradually as he spoke, I became more troubled. Then a very old fellow entered the hall and sat opposite me. I recognized him as the real professor. I spoke to him, but he did not recognize me at all. I awoke to come type it all down.

I tell you this dream story not for self-analysis, though some not-so-flattering interpretations come immediately to mind, but to ask you who composed this dream. The glib answer, of course, is I composed it, but as I look at the story now, I see many me's. There is the me (me1) who observed the dream, remembered it, and wrote it down here. At least, I think that is just one me, the me that I most often consciously identify with, but it could be two different me's—not sure. Anyway, there is also the me (me2) who performed in the dream and whom me1 watched. Then, there is the me (me3) who presented the dream. I do not know me3 at all, but I am assuming that me3 also composed the evening's entertainment as well as presented it. I've no rhetoric to explain how or why me3 thought it necessary to play a very rude joke on me2, who was blind to the whole thing until the denouement, and to teach a cruel lesson about the sins of self-aggrandizement to me1, who was just as blind until the end, and who didn't really understand much of the dream until he was a awake, which suggests that this could indicate yet another me, say me1.2). Like D&G, I am quite a crowd.

I suspect most of us are familiar with these different aspects of ourselves over which we spread a fiction of unity, coherence, and continuity. If we join the assemblages that each of us is with the assemblage of our groups, then we are left with quite a cluster, and it takes a thicker veneer to unify the multiple. We need a rhetoric that addresses this multiplicity, this swarm, this cacophony of voices, this interweaving of purposes and points of view. Such a rhetoric will help us make the observations and collect and interpret the data we need to make sense of what happens when such an assemblage writes.

I started a new paragraph, but from the opening sentence, I could tell that it would be long enough to warrant a new post, so I'll stop here with my first question about rhizo-rhetoric clearer in my head. Anyway, it's the end of the term, and I have documents to grade (yes, I have to put a grade on them, so I try to do it well).

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Question of Power and Technology in Online Spaces

Since the official end of Rhizo14, I've been spending much of my time grading papers and reading the precipitate from the cMOOC thunderstorm. The #rhizo14 garden is growing, meandering, carving new channels for itself—yes, mixing metaphors with wild abandon, and it is amazing to watch this happen. I live in south Florida, and in the hot afternoons, I can look westward toward the Everglades to see the huge white clouds boil up from the fecund rhizome of sawgrass, black water, and alligator to explode into the blue sky. Rhizo14 is exploding like that. What fun to watch, and even more fun to be part of.

Others see the explosion, too. Today I came across a New York Times editorial by David Brooks, The Leaderless Doctrine, which struck me as a fairly accurate description of the kind of shift that I see in cMOOCs and other online events. In his editorial, Brooks describes "a remarkable shift in how Americans see the world and their own country’s role in the world. For the first time in half a century, a majority of Americans say that the U.S. should be less engaged in world affairs." Brooks references a recent PewResearchCenter study which shows that this attitude is not traditional isolationism, at least not among Millennials, who actually want the U.S. to become more integrated with the world. Rather, the Millennials have lost faith in the power of big organizations to meaningfully address the world's issues: "Americans have lost faith in the high politics of global affairs. They have lost faith in the idea that American political and military institutions can do much to shape the world." Millennials have replaced faith in big government and big military with an "enormous confidence in personalized peer-to-peer efforts to promote democracy, human rights and development." Or to promote education, I might add. Brooks then suggests that a new liberal order is emerging in the U.S. that "is not a single system organized and defended by American military strength; it’s a spontaneous network of direct people-to-people contacts, flowing along the arteries of the Internet."

It sounds like one, gigantic MOOC to me, and it changes the rules of the game. Brooks adds that for the interconnected Millennials (I would use the term rhizomatic Millennials here) "the real power in the world is not military or political. It is the power of individuals to withdraw their consent. In an age of global markets and global media, the power of the state and the [military] tank, it is thought, can pale before the power of the swarms of individuals."

I don't think David Brooks is happy about this shift, but he is too much of a realist, I suppose, to insist that it isn't happening or that it isn't important. I think Brooks fears that this shift in how the Millennials envision and construct power will be a game changer. I hope it will be a game changer. I'm betting on it.

And this brings me to my real topic: power on the Internet, power in open and striated spaces, to use the terms of Deleuze and Guattari and Sîan Bayne (thanks to Frances Bell for this reference). The topic of power came up several times in Rhizo14, and I don't think I had a very good handle on it. I'm left wondering if there is something about online spaces that changes power: reduces it or enhances it, redistributes it. I suppose ultimately I want to know if we are ready to handle online power, if in fact there is any power to handle, and if the technology changes the mix.

In his editorial, Brooks seems to assume that power is an unavoidable element of human interactions, certainly geopolitical interactions, and I think I agree with him, mostly because I define humans as complex systems that must interact with enclosed and enclosing systems. We humans must exchange matter, energy, information, and organization with our enclosing systems (physical, social, economic, religious, governmental, etc.) just as our livers must exchange matter, energy, information, and organization within our own bodies. We don't have to exchange everything that we like to exchange, but we do have to exchange many things (air, water, bacteria, and food, come immediately to mind). I suppose we don't actually have to exchange language and culture, but if we didn't, then we would not be human in any sense applicable to my conversation here, so I'll ignore that rare case.

These exchanges involve us in power relationships, and I don't see how to avoid that. If I am to eat (exchange matter and energy with my ecosystem), then I must exert power (or my mother exerted that power on my behalf) to procure and eat food. The act of living engages me in a circular relationship within my surround: I take from it, and it takes from me. To exist at all, I need to develop and exercise the power necessary to exchange food that sustains me and to avoid food that can harm me. This is not trivial; rather, it is profound—far more significant for a happy life than anything I teach in my writing and literature classes. It is the most important learning.

So for me, all education is imbricated with power. Basically, we learn what to put in our mouths, what not to, and when, where, how, and why. It starts at birth, if not before, and it continues until we die, and it always involves learning to develop and to manage our own powers and to interact elegantly and productively with the power of others. Power, then, is relational (a concept I probably picked up from Frances Bell) even if we are thinking of our own, internal powers. It's easy to think of relations with other people and things, but we like to think of ourselves as a single entity, a unit or individual; however, to my mind, we are just one more complex system: a network of subsystems that share an arc of identity, a sense of shared experience, and tend to work together—though I think we are all aware of times when our minds/bodies seem to work against us, revealing the seams in the whole. (Damn, that's a long sentence. If I were grading this, I'd suggest a rewrite.)

Still, when we use the term power, especially in conversations about human relationships, perhaps most of us share Frances Bell's negative sense of the word. In her post Dimensions of power, knowledge and rhizomatic thinking, Bell writes, "My first thought when I hear the word power is of an individual exerting power over another – getting them to do something or stop doing something (possibly by raising a physical or verbal fist)." But if I think of power as the ability to stop or to cause changes in my ecosystem, then power is everywhere and in every relationship, and my task is to use this power as best I can.

Of course, the devil is in the definition of as best I can. For some, that might mean pushing as many other kids out of the sandbox as possible. For others, that might mean sucking up to, or ignoring, or hugging as many kids as possible. The point is: we have an incredible range of relations with others, all of which embody some distribution of and exercise of power. This power is unavoidable. If your mate walks into the room and refuses to speak to you or look you in the eye, you better be aware that some power play is on. A hug is as much an expression of power as a hit, and they are both relational.

So if power is integral to relationships, are relationships changed by technology? I think that's the question I'm trying to address. Okay, now that I have a question, I can start writing. Tomorrow.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Coda and #rhizo14

Well, didn't we have a party! I really enjoyed Rhizo14, and I thank everyone who joined in, especially the lurkers, who play a much unheralded role in the community as curriculum. I think they are the ones I most want to talk about.

Rhizo14 had such a wonderful wealth of marvelous conversations that I could not track them all. As Dave Cormier said in our unhangout yesterday, he will likely spend the next year hiking his way through the conversation, picking up the trail of things that he passed too quickly during the ride (a term I will steal from Clarissa). Like many others that I've read, I was greatly challenged and enriched by the conversations; yet, through it all, I felt some tension that I couldn't quite surface, but now that I'm a little quieter, I think it had to do with lurkers, those who join a MOOC but aren't vocal. If the statistics about MOOCs are correct, then roughly 80% of people fall into this category, reinforcing the overworked and generally misapplied 80/20 rule. I want to tease this out a bit.

For me, the tension surfaced first as issues with power and causality. Early in Rhizo14, a bit of controversy emerged about comments that appeared to exclude some in the MOOC. The controversy seemed to crystallize into an academics vs. non-academics argument and became something of a power struggle over who could legitimately be in what learning space. I didn't engage that conversation, but it created some tension for me as I wondered why such a boundary would emerge in what I took to be a fairly open learning space with room for all, but as I say, I did not engage the conversation closely enough to gain any clarity.

Then in a comment on one of my posts about the role of space in education, Scott Johnson made a comment about his struggles with the concept of potential in space:
The idea of a potential residing in space is very compelling and also hard to match with my notion of causality as an overarching power determining everything. Maybe we seek to send students in a productive path through a fertile field and need to back away and watch? What was caused by us and what emerged as a result of the students' balancing their path in an unfamiliar setting is hard to know.
 I was keenly struck by his comment that potential residing in space is "hard to match with my notion of causality as an overarching power determining everything", and a wheel turned just a bit. I began to wonder if our view of causality is what prevents us from seeing the community as curriculum. I think it's worth exploring.

As I can see it, the tension I felt is linked to our ingrained habit of thinking of causality as exclusively local. In other words, everything (an effect) is caused by something else (a cause) that is local, or nearby in space and time. The corollary of this definition is that nothing happens that is not caused by another local event. Things that have no local cause are relegated to magic and, thus, to unreality by our classically oriented scientific minds. For us, a body floating on the stage (an effect) must be supported by some wires somewhere (local cause).

In his book Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity (2002), Basarab Nicolescu says that modern complexity theory has "expanded the field of reality" by showing that local causality is not the only kind of causality, and he notes both global causalities and circular causalities. I have to expand my field of reality with these additional causalities to make sense of something like Rhizo14 where the community is the curriculum. Expanding my field of reality also helps me see the value of the 80% lurking in the shadows of the group.

As near as I can understand it, global causality refers to the pull of a larger ecosystem on a system. I sometimes think of local causality as a push, as when one billiard ball pushes into another ball and causes it to move. Global causality, then, is a pull, and I see this kind of causality in groups all the time. Studies show that if we put a group of students together for some task and leave them alone, the group will begin immediately to self-organize itself, rank ordering and grouping various students. This self-organization does not have to be locally caused by a teacher. The group will just do it almost as if by magic, but it is magic only if we lock ourselves into the push of local causality. If we open ourselves to the pull of global causality, then we see how any system (a group of students, a human body, a business organization, or a galaxy) will self-organize itself as the whole system pulls itself into functioning sub-systems, depending on the local pushes of the parts and the global pulls of the whole. The jostling of all the parts into useful arrangements can only be partially explained by local causality alone. We need global causality to expand the explanation. The mechanisms for this push and pull (local and global causalities) vary from system to system, but the dynamic interaction appears to hold across all systems, from the inanimate to the animate.

Unfortunately, 400 years of Newtonian physics and Cartesian science has focused us almost exclusively on local causality, relegating global causality to the mystical and magical. The only language we have for global causality is poetic, religious, and metaphoric. Fortunately, complexity theory is providing us with verifiable concepts such as emergence which are just beginning to help us say with more precision and confidence just what we mean by the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Complexity theory, which I use to encompass all the disparate ideas from relativity and quantum mechanics to information theory and post-structuralism, is expanding the field of reality and the vocabulary with which to map that expanded field.

Circular causality is another aspect of complexity thinking that expands the field of reality and helps me make sense of Rhizo14. In local causality, cause-effect interactions are regular and repeatable. A billiard ball strikes another ball in the same way if the locations, speeds, and trajectories are the same, and neither ball is essentially changed by the interaction. This is not the case in living systems, and probably not in the case of the billiard balls. When living systems push against each other, they change each other, and those changes are fed back into the subsequent interactions, or pushes, changing them essentially. As I interact with the Rhizo14 community, I am changed and Rhizo14 is changed, and those changes are fed back into our interactions so that the trajectory of our interactions cannot be explained solely by the pushes (local causality) but must include the nonlinear feedback of circular causality. Again, I have to expand my field of reality beyond local causality to understand what is happening in Rhizo14.

Local causality causes us to focus on the push of individuals in any group, so in something like Rhizo14, we tend to think that everything depends on, or is caused by, the few most active individuals (usually, that's whoever is talking the loudest and the most). Using the 80/20 rule, we focus on the 20% and ignore the 80%, just like in business, where we heavily compensate the 20% and barely compensate the 80%. Even in a group with a name like The Community as Curriculum, with community in its name, we habitually focus on the few. This is a mistake, I think. The few cannot make a community without the many. We privilege the few at the expense of the many. I continue to do it, even though I intellectually know better. As a soccer coach, I KNOW that the whole field of players is the most important feature of the game, but as a spectator, I still tend to follow, to privilege, the player with the ball. The player with the ball makes no sense without the other players on the field. Imagine the other players suddenly absent, and what are you left with? Some guy running and dribbling the ball around the field. Time to go home.

I think I can say my tension now: I still tend to privilege the individual, especially the loud, active, powerful individual, over the community. I still privilege local causality at the expense of global and circular causalities. I still unreasonably restrict my field of reality. For instance, I still want to say that Steve Jobs invented the iPhone and to privilege him with money and fame when I KNOW that it really took all of Apple and the rest of the electronics industry to do it. I want to say that Dave Cormier made Rhizo14 happen, when I know it was the community that did it, including the 80% who lurked. To really make sense of Rhizo14, I have to expand my field of reality to include the whole community and to find ways to privilege all parts of the community.

This sounds as if I want to minimize a Steve Jobs or Dave Cormier, but that is not the case at all. They, too, must be included in the field of reality, but I cannot understand the iPhone or Rhizo14 if I limit my vision to local causality, looking simply to those two causes to explain the effects. They are both necessary causes, but not sufficient. Likewise, the other active voices in Rhizo14, mine included, are necessary but insufficient causes. If I want to understand Rhizo14, I have to explore the global and circular causes (and likely other kinds of causes) that help illuminate a complex system. Focusing on local causes is easier, but including all causes provides a better picture, and that's what I want.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Intermezzo and #rhizo14

In her post Questions about rhizomatic learning, Jenny Mackness ponders the arrangement of space in Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome. She quotes D and G: "Nomad space is ‘smooth’, or open-ended. One can rise up at any point and move to any other" and "A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo." She then notes the difficulty envisioning such a space, saying that her "past experience has suggested that there are always boundaries that we come up against". I share her difficulty, and I think that it's the boundaries that cause the problem for both of us and for most others.

I start with boundaries as Paul Cilliers uses them in his article Why We Cannot Know Complex Things Completely (2007), where he argues that knowledge is not representational but relational: "a result of the dynamic interaction between all the meaningful components in the system" (85). This leads to a problem because any system, even the most trivial garden slug, has an approximately infinite number of dynamic relations that could be considered at any one time. We use context and boundaries to limit the number of considerations that we must make at any given time in order to form some useful understanding of whatever bit of reality we happen to be engaging, the garden slug for instance. We must limit and differentiate. As Cilliers says, "For meaning or knowledge to exist at all, there have to be limits" (87), or boundaries.

We learn these boundaries from parturition, when we are first separated from the mother and relationship and dynamic interaction become unavoidable. Perhaps we develop some sense of boundaries earlier, but I really have no expertise or even much idea about that. I am certain, however, that one of the first tasks after birth is for babies to differentiate themselves from their mothers. That may be the biggest bit of learning we ever do, and I suspect that everything else we learn follows from that first striation in the rhizome. After we form me and you, we form here/there, up/down, wet/dry, hungry/full, and all the rest. We start slicing and dicing our world, the rhizome, and we form our boundaries within the context of our social groups: mother/child dyad, family, clan, and larger.

These differentiations are always an act of power, and we learn to use our own idiosyncratic powers as well as the power of our groups to form our world. We do it so often and so automatically, that it comes to feel natural, and we are often shocked when we learn that others don't see the same things that we see, don't have the same meaning about the Eiffel Tower as we do.

The point that I think Deleuze and Guattari and others such as Serres are making is that reality is not striated naturally. All of the boundaries and structures that we trace onto the rhizome to make it meaningful and useable are acts of power, individual and group. We say, "up" or "down", and the rhizome says, "Whatever." The rhizome is "always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo", and up and down really depend totally on our point of view and the way we have sliced and diced things. Moreover, something in the rhizome resists our marking and differentiating, or is indifferent to our meaning-making, and flees our naming and knowing through lines of flight, deterritorializing here and reterritorializing in the most unexpected places, as when a grape deterritorializes in Argentina only to reterritorialize in me as a nice Merlot. We make the mistake of thinking that our naming and knowing, our differentializations, are permanent markers on reality. The rhizome teaches us otherwise.

This is, of course, very eastern in its feel—not quite buddhist, but damn near it. It is also very much a part of complexity theory. From what I read, modern physics says that everything in the Universe is interconnected to everything else (gravity, for instance, extends totally across the Universe), and the boundaries we make between this and that are mostly a matter of convention and convenience, not a matter of absolute truth. New laws and new boundaries are constantly emerging, which means that our knowledge should be constantly emerging, should be constantly renewed. This pleases me greatly, as I will never run out of things to learn, even if I should prove to be eternal as the fundamentalists insist. Can you imagine an eternity with nothing new to learn? God spare us.