Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Rhizomatic Snow Crash

I had a real snow crash this evening. Given that I was walking through a balmy twilight beneath an ultramarine south Florida sky, a snow crash was the last thing I expected, but there it was:

I have profoundly misunderstood cMOOCs.

Yes, that's a bit dramatic, but that's how it felt, dramatic, and judging by how often I read others complain about the low participation and completion rates in MOOCs, I think they misunderstand cMOOCs as well.

The feeling has been swelling in me for sometime now, almost like the first whimpers of a baby from another room, before you have even heard it, though your body is already aware. You aren't yet awake, but your feet are kicking off the covers. You can't yet say to your other what it is, you don't even know if it was a sound, but you're getting up, your mouth searching for mumbles as much for yourself as for the other. Then the cry and clarity. It's that sudden. A long, slow sudden. A snow crash.

Ideas have been accumulating as strange as snow on South Beach: spaces, noise, emptiness, lurking, flow, complexity, defining from the inside, soccer, complexus, a complex, a weaving, an embrace.

I have minimized cMOOCs, trivialized them, and missed their importance. I did it for good reasons, mostly because I was having such a fine time. As I've said before, several cMOOCs, including Rhizo14, have been among my richest educational experiences. I have delighted in the connections and conversations, but they distracted me. Rather, they focused me too narrowly. cMOOCs are complex, multi-scale systems, and I was treating them merely as a class, as my class and a fine class, but they are so much more. It's time for me to expand my head. Just now I have only hints and shadowy figures, but I think I can add flesh.

A few things precipitated, now that I think about it, though this could just be hindsight. Still:

Just two days ago, I read a blog post It is my own messy chaos: on a new understanding of learning spaces and connecting by Peter Bryant, in which he discusses how students are basically creating their own learning spaces to meet their own needs, and institutions can fit in, or not:
The new learning spaces exist inside and outside the academy. They provide an environment where learners can engage with faculty and then link with connected others and sources of information, contrary and advocating those coming from the curriculum. These learning spaces are being formed now, because of the needs of the learners to interact, share, vent, collaborate, understand and vindicate. They happen in cafeterias, Facebook pages, IM groups, happy pics in Snapchat and in text conversations. They don’t need flip top desks, they need Wi-Fi and devices, and most importantly they need platforms to connect. And in most cases they are outside of the academic or the academy. In fact, if they are owned or setup by the university, they are often turned into ghost towns. The learners own these new learning spaces, quite happy in the knowledge that they are the product for these sites and platforms. But they are in control of who accesses it, who sees it and whom they share it with. They choose what gets put on the walls and whether everyone can see it or just their closest friends. They choose if it is a site of rebellion, of collegiality, of relationships or of creativity.
This was inching toward crash, but not quite there. Then tonight I was reading Michel Serres' marvelous book Genesis (1995), in which he writes of the noise at rugby matches:
Background noise is the first object of metaphysics, the noise of the crowd is the first object of anthropology. The background noise made by the crowd is the first object of history. Before lan­guage, before even the word, the noise. … Sporting events are not entirely what we think. … Contrary to what you see, there is no audience at a rugby match, there is no distance between the group and its team. … The traces of the most deeply buried archaisms are not in the places we think, they are here, in front of us and in us, terrifically live. … Listen to what is shouted in the clamor of the stadium. The secret lies in that noise. That chaos-noise is primitive, like the wind of violence, unleashed, mastered, lost, retaken, delirious, and disciplined. It subsides and swells like action, but it is noise like action: disorder and danger to be controlled. … To say that the experience, the regulation that ensues, are cultural, means nothing, it is the source of culture. Just listen to these cries: they are the echo or the encore of the most deeply buried of archaisms. This ceremony is a religious one, by religion I mean the things forever forgotten, barbaric, wild things, for which we have lost the words and which come to us from far, far away, without a text. From bodies to the collective, in a lightning short­ circuit, without language, through the groundswell of violence and pandemonium.
I would say soccer match, but no difference, rugby will do. There is no audience at a rugby match [soccer match, cMOOC], there is no distance between the group and its team. I have been thinking and acting as if the cMOOC, the class, was merely those players on the field—the ones who talk on the Google Hangouts, chat in the back channels, tweet, blog, and discuss in Facebook, complete the assignments, even make up new assignments—those who play the ball. All the others are audience, lurkers, or worse, dropouts. This is such a sad view, so small, so trivial, that I am ashamed. Really. Ashamed.

And I knew better, somewhere. I have been to games large and small. I've been in the stands with the hundreds or thousands of others, and I have felt the energy that ripples through the stands, through all those people, and I know that energy is as much a part of the weave of the game as anything that happens on the field. And the larger that crowd, the more energy it has. I have been part of the chants and songs. I have watched the WAVE ripple around a stadium, feeling the percussion as it sweeps through me. That spectator energy is woven into the game, it IS the game as much as the energy of the players. I am not minimizing the players here; rather, I'm broadening my view to include the stands, and I insist that some of the most important things happen in the stands, on the sidelines. This is where the energy on the field is first pushed out, stored, processed, and amplified, and eventually carried beyond the stadium to the city, to everyone else. If the game (cMOOC) is to be successful, it is the spectators, the most valuable spectators—the ones who watch, who drop out for a bathroom or beer run, who come back, who murmur, yell at a good play, groan at a bad one, cheer and sing songs because their neighbors are doing it—it is those spectators who roll up the energy of the game, give it meaning, and push that meaning out into the wider world. It is those spectators who feed the energy from the wider world back onto the field itself and the few players. Without the spectators, the players would be silly boys kicking a meaningless ball. Without the players, the spectators would be a confused mob.

I have been putting all the value on the players and none on the spectators. This is an abomination. I really can't speak too strongly. It's as if we put all the emphasis on the mitochondria and none on the cellular membrane, but what are the mitochondria, the players, the active students, without the cellular membrane? It's the membrane that forms the space for the players. It's the membrane that shuttles energy onto the field and back off the field and into the wider world. If a cMOOC is to succeed in challenging and changing its ecosystem, it must do it through the spectators, the membrane, the lurkers. I thought that the boundaries of the game were the sidelines and end lines, but this isn't so. The spectators form the boundaries of the game. The field sidelines merely distinguish the zone across which the spectators and the players exchange energy and information. The game includes them both. The cMOOC includes them both. Without the mass of people on the boundary, a cMOOC would be nothing. A cMOOC, like a soccer match, is truly a body without organs, a smooth space, one assemblage, and that includes the spectators. It includes the students in Maha Bali's classes who did not attend one online session in Rhizo14, but who hear about it from Maha.

Listen to the noise of the crowd. We like to think that MOOC lurkers are silent, but this is not so. They are a murmur, a drone, a background out of which the players emerge and perform in relief, against which the players achieve some kind of meaning, without which the players would be meaningless. The players, in turn, provide focus and meaning for the spectators, a point on which to direct its attention and energy. The spectators and players are not symbiotic, they are one. We can separate the players from the crowd about as well as we can separate our hearts from our skin—a really bad idea. Distinguish, yes. Disjoin, no.

cMOOCs are large and open. Much larger and more open than I have thought, and I refuse to accept any longer the denigration of spectators in a MOOC. A cMOOC can't survive without them, and the more the merrier, hundreds or thousands. I say we try for a million registrants with only 20 completing the course. That's something to aim for, and it will have more impact than we can imagine.

I also say that the auto ethnography must find a way to engage the spectators more, including those fine presenters who quoted Rhizo14 without ever attending it. Our cellular membrane is deep and rich and textured, and ultimately most of what emerges from Rhizo14 will necessarily be filtered through it.

And this, I think, is the problem with traditional education: class walls do not a membrane make. Students hear the murmur, the noise from beyond the classroom walls, and they are drawn to it, as they should be. We keep them from it. We try to focus them on the drill and practice, when what they really want is to engage the show, play in the game, merge with the spectators. That's where all the fun is.

Who's Writing Rhizo14?

Well, I stole my own thunder. It happens.

I wanted to answer here the second of two questions about membership in Rhizo14, but instead I mostly addressed the question in a comment on Frances Bell's blog. You'd think that at my age I'd have more control, but Frances' post Ethics and soft boundaries between Facebook and other web services is such a fine read and engendered such a rich discussion, that I couldn't stop myself.

Anyway, the second question is "Who belongs in the group writing the authoenthography of Rhizo14?" I said much of what I wanted to say, but I think I'll repeat it here. In time to come, I may forget where I put those thoughts, and this blog has become as much my memory as my sandbox, and as it happens, I am addressing a slightly different question here than there, so even if you read this post, you would do well to read Frances' post and all the wonderful comments. It's what is so good about open, online spaces, even when they aren't so massive.

In my comments to Frances' post, I was addressing mostly the issue of power, and here I want to talk about membership, but power is implicated in membership. As in my previous post about who belongs in Rhizo14, membership in the Rhizo14 autoethnog group is a boundary issue, and complexity thinking views boundaries quite differently than reductionist thinking. Reductionism posits all agents as independent with discrete, clear boundaries between them, similar to a rack of billiard balls, with power arising in the interactions (the bumping and bouncing) between the balls. And note that all the relevant interactions can be observed, measured, and described objectively by an observer who is not on the table, who is not affected by and who does not affect the interactions.

Complexity thinking is different. The interactions among agents are matters of flows of energy, matter, information, and organization throughout a complex, multi-scale system. An agent is not merely acted upon as in the reductionist view, but an agent is formed and informed by the flows of energy, information, and organizational structures of the systems within which the agent lives and functions. And while we have some, restricted abilities to choose which systems and which energies and informations we will engage, we are not discrete entities, independent of an enclosing ecosystem. We must be part of the flow of some energy, matter, information, and organization, and those flows all implicate power. Power is the weave of the fabric we are all woven into, and it is difficult, often impossible, to isolate any single flow and to trace it back to a single source. Moreover, there isn't anyone observing outside the table. Whoever observes is part of the weave, and both they and the weave are changed as they are woven together in the observation.

So what does this mean for how we should decide who is in the Rhizo14 autoethnog group? First, let me point out emphatically that I am not denying the efficacy of the Classical views of interactions with their clear interactions between and among independent agents. The clarity of a reductionist epistemology has great affordances, but it also has its blindness, and I want to expand my view to see beyond the limitations of reductionism. I’ll try to illustrate this point by referring to Dave Cormier. I referred to Frances in my comments on her blog, so I'll pick on Dave here. I trust he will forgive me.

Dave has not declared himself part of the Rhizo14 autoethnog group, and if I recall, he expressed some misgivings about joining the group. This is a fine example of a clear, classical social contract. Independent agents agree on boundaries and behaviors between themselves: Dave outside the group and others inside. The result is that if and when the group produces a document of some kind, then Dave’s name will not appear on it as an author or in it as a participant. This understanding assumes discrete agents with clear boundaries, a simple view of group membership, power, and reality. This is all straightforward and simple, an easily understood arrangement, but for me, it's just too damned limited.

A complex view of power and reality—my view—says that Dave is already part of the autoethnog group and the document, even if he isn’t named in it. In whatever form that document eventually emerges, it has already been shaped by discussions that Dave started and engaged—flows of energy, information, and organization that in/form the document, the writing of it, the flow of it. Likewise, I suspect that Dave has himself been in/formed by the Rhizo14 discussion, so we have an instance of circular causality, a core mechanism of complex systems with their complex flows of power. Flows of energy, information, and organization have already woven us together in ways that I do not know how to disentangle. Yes, of course, the group can leave Dave out of any formal document—that is easy to do—but the formal document is really only a very small part of the Rhizo14 auto ethnography. From my point of view, most of the real work has been done on tweets, blog posts, Facebook discussions, and so on. Dave's voice is transcribed on some of those texts and informs most of the others.

So for me, it is a fiction to say that Dave Cormier is not part author of the Rhizo14 autoethnog. It may be a useful fiction for him and for others, but it is a fiction none-the-less. And of course, what is true about Dave Cormier is true about many others who have engaged the conversation about the autoethnog. They are all part of the authorial assemblage. This is problematic, but it cannot be addressed for long by simply returning to a traditional view of authorship. That view is breaking down. It is not unusual these days to find scholarly articles (especially scientific articles) with hundreds of authors. What the hell does that mean? What is happening? How many scholars can fit on the head of a pin?

Well, in virtual spaces, hundreds of thousands of scholars can fit into a single document. Consider Wikipedia as a single, coherent document. Who wrote it? Silly question, no? Consider the Linux operating system as a single, coherent document. Who wrote it? Another silly question, though we like to use Linus Torvalds as the place-holder author. It eases our mind to have a single, authoritative author (do you see how author is nested in authoritative?). We desperately need a single person—a Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates, or Barack Obama—to blame or credit for a thing, though Jobs didn't write the iPod, Gates didn't write Windows XP, and Obama didn't write Obamacare. We really need our fictions, and I agree that these fictions have been useful. However, I think they are becoming less useful.

I watched a TVO lecture by Douglas Thomas on A New Culture of Learning, in which he notes that students today view authority (read: authorship) differently than we scholars did when we were in school. We looked for the authoritative source of information. We wanted the man (yes, it was usually a man). If you wanted the news, you watched Walter Cronkite—he was the man, the source of authority. Today's students don't regard authority as a single source. Rather, they view authority as a process of triangulation, a process not a person. They browse the Web for many sources, including Wikipedia, and they triangulate opinion to form their own opinion, and they keep an eye on their Twitter streams in case some new info emerges. As my son, Cory, said recently to me: "Dad, don't trust anyone; trust everyone." A new concept of authority and authorship is emerging, a concept that absolutely depends on the information overload of one hundred thousand scholars on the head of a pin. I want to understand it. It's part of the DNA of rhizo-rhetoric.

This brings me to my own motivation for joining the Rhizo14 auto ethnography group: I’m interested in learning how this emerging assemblage will write this document, what authorial assemblage will actually emerge and how it will emerge. I think I can learn most from within the group, by helping to write, even here on this blog, and by being part of the assemblage. I want to define the process from the inside (a complexity point of view) and not from the outside (a reductionist point of view). I want to be part of the emergence of an authorial assemblage, and I want to feel what that is like. I just hope I am alert enough to recognize it when it happens and articulate enough to describe it.

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.