Thursday, October 23, 2014

Left/Write and the Desires of Prepositions

It's difficult to tell where the rhizome will lead you.

So I'm studying prepositions, and learning some Sunday School lessons along the way. Once you take rhizomatic learning seriously, then it gets out of control quickly, as rhizomes will do. As Faulkner once said of writing novels, you just follow the main characters, scribbling furiously.

I was in a video chat with Frances Bell, Simon Ensor, and Terry Elliot last Friday, and along the way, Frances brought up the issue of Gamergate, which at first did not ring a bell with me, but then I looked it up and realized that I had been vaguely aware of the issue, though certainly not in command of the specifics. I've tried to find a neutral, balanced account of the issue, but it is too heated at the moment, so I'll refer you to the Wikipedia article Gamergate controversy, which may not be unbiased, but at least its biases are being publicly discussed and are perhaps correctable if anyone wants to jump in.

At any rate, I don't want to talk about Gamergate; rather, I'm using it to explore the ethical and power implications of connectivity especially as expressed through prepositions. Let me start with my own bias: I generally think that connectivity is a good thing, a positive thing. I like it before I even think about it. Other people do not. I'm a tree hugger and people hugger; others are not. When I think of how prepositions connect entities within a sentence and how the meaning of the preposition depends almost entirely on the relationship that it is establishing and mapping, I am happy to the point that I tend to overlook the dark side: not all connections are good, positive, useful, productive. Some connections are damaging, and this dark side of connecting is what Gamergate seems to be about.

In some ways, then, prepositions are the bit of technology—the routers and wires and protocols—that connect people, mostly for good, but way too often for bad. See? I told you this would be a Sunday School lesson about good and bad. So how does connecting go bad? Or is that the wrong question? Is connecting inherently good or bad, or is the value of a connection worked out in some other dynamic. I also happened to recently read Iain McGilchrist's The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning: Why are we so unhappy? (2012), which provides a shorter (10,000 words) version of his wonderful book The Master and His Emissary (2009), and this has given me a way to think about connectivity and our ways of emerging in the world and engaging the world and how we so often do awful things.

Basically, McGilchrist claims that the divided brain has different ways of viewing the world—loosely associated with right and left hemispheres—and both are necessary for creating a workable world view. Loss of either view can impair the way we humans interact with the world, leaving us and those around us unhappy, if not damaged. We humans want to connect to the world, but these connections, our experiences of the world, are "mediated by neural tissue, a lot of it in the brain, and … that neural tissue inevitably governs the nature of, indeed places constraints upon, what it is we are able to find in the world, in predictable ways. … We can only know the world as we have inevitably shaped it by the nature of our attention." Thus, our realities are a joint production of the interactions between the world and what it brings and our brains and what they bring. "We bring about a world in consciousness that is partly what is given, and partly what we bring, something that comes into being through this particular conjunction and no other. And the key to this is the kind of attention we pay to the world." This leads to a circular causality: "We make the world we live in by attending to it in a certain way, by our disposition towards it. Having done so, our experience of it then determines how we attend, and so on."

So we humans want to connect to the world and to each other, and our connections are mediated by the dynamic tension between two ways of connecting to the world. This dynamic tension provides us with the almost infinite shades of gray (sorry, I couldn't stop myself) that characterize our points of view. McGilchrist captures the differences between the two mental poles—between the right brain and left brain—in the image of a hand extended to connect to someone or something else. The left brain extends a hand to grasp and manipulate, while the right brain extends a hand to connect and relate. If you are like me, then you already like the right brain approach better, but this is something of a mistake, as McGilchrist explains:
The left hemisphere … plays the narrow-beam, precisely focussed, attention which enables us to get and grasp. … The right hemisphere underwrites sustained attention and vigilance for whatever may be, without preconception. Its attention is not in the service of manipulation, but in the service of connection, exploration and relation. … One way of looking at the difference would be to say that while the left hemisphere's raison d'être is to narrow things down to a certainty, the right hemisphere's is to open them up into possibility. In life, we need both. In fact for practical purposes, narrowing things down to a certainty, so that we can grasp them, is more helpful. … Another way of thinking of the difference between the hemispheres is to see the left hemisphere's world as tending towards fixity, whereas that of the right tends towards flow.
So we humans create and connect to a world through the buzz of our own internal, conflicting, antagonistic, and agonistic ways of viewing the world: right and left. McGilchrist insists that "in life we need the contributions of both hemispheres." The left brain gives us focus and stability to make use of the world—to cross the street safely, for instance. McGilchrist characterizes the left brain world this way:
The purpose of the left hemisphere is to allow us to manipulate the world, not to understand it. … the left hemisphere's world takes over once whatever it is is represented—literally 're-presented' after the fact: once it is familiar and known, as an instance of something, a concept. … The left hemisphere abstracts and generalizes … is not in touch with reality but with its representation of reality, which turns out to be a remarkably self-enclosed, self-referring system of tokens. … The left hemisphere sees truth as internal coherence of the system, not correspondence with the reality we experience. … [For] the left hemisphere, … it has to be 'either/or', black or white, never a life within a full color spectrum.
He characterizes the right brain world like this:
The right hemisphere's world is present—or more precisely 'presences' to us, as Heidegger puts it … The right hemisphere's world remains truer to each embodied instance, and appreciates the unique. I'd say the defining quality of the right hemisphere's world is that it is all in relations, what I call 'betweenness'. This starts with its having a relationship with the world at large, not seeing it as a separate object, ripe for manipulation. … The right hemisphere is perfectly happy with 'both/and'.
Both views are important, but for McGilchrist, and for me, the right brain view is superior, the master, and the left brain view is the master's emissary. "There is something of supreme value which each contributes to our experience of the world. But as far as understanding the world goes … the right hemisphere, the so-called minor hemisphere, is in fact the one that knows, and more importantly the one that understands, more."

McGilchrist illustrates the superior role of the right brain with an explanation of how the brain parses reality and turns it into language:
Some elegant research into gesture and speech reveals that thought begins and ends in the right hemisphere, passing through the necessary staging post of the left hemisphere, where it is put into serial sentences. … That middle stage, of making the parts temporarily explicit, before they are once more reintegrated into the whole, is crucial. Yet it cannot be the endpoint. … So the meaning of an utterance begins in the right hemisphere, is made explicit (literally folded out, or unfolded) in the left, and then the whole utterance needs to be 'returned' to the right hemisphere, where it is reintegrated with all that is implicit—tone, irony, metaphor, humor, and so on, as well as a feel of the context in which the utterance is to be understood. … Meaning emerges from engagement with the world, not from abstract contemplation of it. … It comes from the world as process, not from the world as a thing, and relies on patient and consistent attention to whatever might remind us of what meaning might be like.
So humans connect with outstretched hands and with outstretched words, and the hands and the words can look the same, but some hands are to manipulate and use and some hands are to connect and relate. Manipulation, the left brain approach to connection, is not necessarily bad, especially if it is framed by the right brain approach, but it can easily turn bad. The left brain approach turns everything, including our closest loved ones, into objects to be manipulated, and if not framed by the right brain, this manipulation can easily become cruel. The left brain cuts, dices, and arranges (analyzes) with little regard for the consequences for the object being dissected. This is handy at times, but left to its own devices, it becomes awful. Serres says that "the mean player imagines himself to be a subject by imagining the ball to be an object [a left brain function]—the sign of a bad philosopher." As McGilchrist says:
The left hemisphere is not in touch with the world. It is demonstrably self-deceiving, and confabulates—makes up a story, when it cannot understand something, and tells it with conviction. … Unlike the right hemisphere, which tends toward self-doubt, it takes a distinctly flattering view of its own capabilities.…It is not reasonable. It is angry when challenged, dismisses evidence it doesn't like or can't understand, and is unreasonably sure of its own rightness. It is not good at understanding the world. Its attention is narrow, its vision myopic, and it can't see how the parts fit together. It is good for only one thing—manipulating the world.
This is not a complimentary view of the left brain, but most of us probably thought of someone in our lives who fit this description. Here's the problem, though: we ALL fit this description. If McGilchrist is correct, then each of us carries within us a little fascist bureaucrat just waiting to sign the papers sending all those we don't like to the gas chamber. The problem is that this same little fellow is very good at doing those routine things that need doing to get us through each day. We need him, but we also need to frame him carefully, for left to his own devices, he tends to manipulation and abuse in his own self-serving mania. As Deleuze and Guattari admonish in the rhizome chapter of A Thousand Plateaus: "Groups and individuals contain microfascisms just waiting to crystallize" (9, 10). As Richard L. Rubenstein says in his book The Cunning of History (1975), all modern states have become increasingly adept at fascist efficiencies which alienate, objectify, and destroy millions of humans. (As a close friend of his son, I knew Rabbi Rubenstein briefly, and I recommend this book and The Age of Triage (1983) if you want to understand how otherwise good people can do awful things to each other.)

To return to Gamergate and to prepositions, this inherent and untempered desire of some people to manipulate the world for their own ends seems to characterize the abuse that has driven other people from the commons of the Internet to avoid the attack. When we do not temper our desire to manipulate, then we become locked in our own world, self-deceiving, unreasonable, angry, self-righteous, myopic, disconnected from the world and from the hurt that we cause in that world, and capable of great cruelty and violence—whether intentional or accidental. Extended hands and prepositions both desire to connect, but connection that is not framed and guided by relationship is only manipulation, and manipulation without mutually nurturing relationship is violence and aggression.

I think I have achieved some internal consistency in this post (a left brain ability), so now let me return to the right brain connections to the real world that started this post. I recall an issue in Rhizo14 when someone insisted that if people were going to discuss Deleuze and Guattari then they should have read them first. Some Rhizoers thought this reasonable advice, but others thought that it was elitist and exclusive. Such disagreements happen in social networks, and we are all capable of being drawn into them. From this distance now, it seems to me that the initial person was trying to manipulate the conversation to their ends, recommending rules that they likely believed would elevate the conversation to a more productive and scholarly level. I can hardly disagree with this intent, and though I have come to appreciate the conversation that has, in fact, emerged in Rhizo14, I still miss talking about Deleuze and Guattari. Anyway and unfortunately, there was not enough support from a long and cultivated relationship, not enough good faith, to help others overcome the seeming exclusion implied in this statement, an exclusion probably not intended by the author, but certainly felt by the audience. This is a great misfortune, as it caused some to disconnect from Rhizo14.

Fortunately for me, and for reasons that I cannot quite grasp, I have developed a rich network of relationships with many Rhizoers which allow me to be of use to them and to make use of them in return. For instance, I am manipulating the auto-ethnography to my personal and professional ends, BUT returning to the group what I make of it. I think I am using left brain and right brain, and I think that will cultivate rich relationships that will become even more useful and enjoyable to me.

Almost all of us in Rhizo14 have written things that confused others and that could be construed into an insult, but we seem to have developed more faith in our continuing relationships. Basically, we are convinced that our connections are for mutual relationship and not simply for manipulation; thus, we can continue dancing even though we occasionally step on each other's toes. It takes some balance, but I find it worth doing.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

A Background for Studying Prepositions in Rhizo14 Auto-Ethnography

I picked up the idea to work with prepositions in the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography from the book
Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time (1995) by Michel Serres with Bruno Latour. A discussion of how this idea emerged in the conversation between Serres and Latour will clarify, I think, why the prepositions appeal to me so much.

First, some context: the book is a record of conversations in which Latour questions Serres to learn more about his methods, with the hope of clarifying Serres' often confusing writing. I had the notion that Latour was hoping to clarify for himself his own fascination with Serres and thereby clarify Serres for others. Latour begins with Serres' early years at school and pushes through to his latest works. If you want to tackle Serres' work, then you should read Latour on Serres. I find it most enlightening.

The short section about prepositions arises in The Third Conversation: Demonstration and Interpretation. Latour starts this chapter by saying his "questions today will focus on formal proof, on demonstration—on what enables you [Serres] to decide whether an interpretation you offer is right or not" (77) [italics in the original distinguish Latour from Serres]. Serres begins with a very pragmatic, almost utilitarian view of philosophical demonstration and interpretation by insisting that an interpretation should address a specific problem, usually a problematic text, with local tools to clarify the obscurity. If the text becomes more clear, then the interpretation is useful, or good. If not, then the interpretation is not so useful. Serres gives an example by clarifying a sonnet by Verlaine, using the modern concepts of coenesthesia and random noise to illuminate the crazy path of the wasp in the poem. He explains, "I've never proposed an interpretation nor posed a question without there first being a problem (78) … The moment you bring transparency and clarity to a problem, the interpretation is probably a good one; what was inexplicable becomes illuminated" (79).

Latour counters that Serres' interpretation does not mention the numerous other interpretations of Verlaine's sonnet, presumably as a good, faithful scholar should—Serres doesn't even quote the poem. Serres replies,
If one had to recopy everything one had read, books would become alarmingly obese. Even more important, this repetition would make them not very informative (80) … On the other hand, honesty consists of writing only what one thinks and what one believes oneself to have invented. My books come only from me. … New ideas come from the desert, from hermits, from solitary beings (81) … to be without master or disciple, as you describe it, assuredly comes from an ethical decision. (83)
I think this points to the first of the big problems with Serres' writing that Latour uncovers: Serres strips his writing of context, including scholarly context, choosing to work in the desert. To use the futbol metaphor that I've used before: Serres is looking for the space on the field, the empty place where he can have a chance at being creative. This space becomes important both for explaining Serres and for explaining why readers find him so difficult. Serres refuses to supply much of the context for his writing, shifting that burden to the reader. Given that Serres' context is encyclopedic, covering the arts and sciences from ancient times to the modern, this is an awful burden for most readers, who simply give up trying to understand him.

Why does Serres want this open space, unencumbered by citations, references, established theories and systems, and other scholarly structures? It is easy for traditional scholars to suspect that Serres is just being slovenly in his studies and explications, but he says that philosophers should be creative, should be laying the groundwork for the future:
Now, philosophy is an anticipation of future thoughts and practices. If not, it would be reduced to commentary—to a sub-category of history, and not the best one either … Not only must philosophy invent, but it invents the common ground for future inventions. Its function is to invent the conditions of invention [italics in original] (86) … One can work, think, and discover without any strategy at all. Believe me, none of my books is the result of a tactic (87) … A single answer to all questions seems improbable; a single key will not open all locks. Why would you want invention to follow a single track, always collective and dialectical? … There are connections and ruptures; there are the solidary and the solitary and surely others besides, who take flight and alight at crossroads (88) … No doubt the greatest difficulty [in understanding Serres' writing] lies in my wish to be encyclopedic, followed by my desire for synthesis, in the hope of going everywhere, of not missing anything, in order to gradually build a world. (89)
Serres, then, wants to play his ball into open space, free from the already fixed positions and strategies in the crowded part of the field, free to engage whatever presents itself in an open space with whatever resources he finds to hand, or to foot as the case may be. Any soccer player will tell you that creating and playing into space is a difficult concept to learn, and only the most accomplished players master it. The analogy may hold for philosophers, as Serres insists, but following an accomplished player into open, empty space makes for difficult futbol and even more difficult reading, and this is the source of the difficulty in reading Serres, in playing his game.
Don't you think the philosopher is pulled between two poles—that of maximal accumulation of all knowledge and experience and, at the other extreme, the cancellation of all knowledge and experience, starting from zero? … Philosophy is not a body of knowledge nor a discipline among the usual sciences, because it insists on this balance between everything and nothing (90) … Philosophy doesn't consist of marshaling ready-made solutions proffered by a particular method or parading all those problems in a category resolved by this method. Because there is no universal method. Which is the reason … for drawing an appropriate method from the very problem one has undertaken to resolve. Thus, the best solutions are local, singular, specific, adapted, original, regional. This is the source of the disparity you were complaining about, which makes for difficult reading (91) … My demonstrations were always carried out according to the same norms but never using the same terms. In a more or less inductive way and in contrast to unifying theories, I always started with elements that were different, drawn from the text or the problem before me, using means that were both analogous and relational … So, I never arrived at a beginning, an origin, a unique principle of interpretation—all of which are classically seen as making coherence, system, meaning. Instead, I arrived at a cluster of relations, differentiated but organized. … Synthesis in this case, is differentiated from system or even from a methodological unity. A cluster of highly different relations becomes a body. (99)
I apologize for the long quote, but Serres says it better than I can. Because Serres plays into open space, he must invent the game anew, facing a local situation—a configuration of ball, players, field, and trajectories—not quite like any generalized configuration he has ever faced before or even trained for. And in that instance when engaging the open space, the creative player must bring all that she has learned of the game and simultaneously must forget, or transcend, all that she has learned to engage this new game that space has opened to her. It is in this moment that a supremely creative player such as Pele will do the totally new and unpredictable and invent the overhead bicycle kick that will become a part of the standard repertoire of all skilled players after him. Pele, of course, was never trained to perform this kick, but he was prepared for this kick through his training. He was poised, then, between the rigors of his exhaustive training and vast experience and the freedom of forgetting his training and going beyond it. This, I think, is what Serres hopes for philosophy, at least for his philosophy. So what does this have to do with prepositions?

Well, this brings us to the second great difficulty in reading Serres that Latour uncovers: Serres' explications, commentaries, and analyses are dynamic. His writing focuses on unstable, unfixed prepositions rather than on the traditional philosophical focus on substantives and verbals. This gives Serres' writing a dynamic quality that many readers find jumpy, jittery, and confusing. They are accustomed to looking for the substantive (being, nothingness, gender, connectivism, Marxism, etc.) that identifies Serres' thought, that places him within the context that he's trying to avoid. Prepositions don't fix thought; rather, they trace dynamic, shifting arcs and trajectories among concepts, pulling them out of their fixed orbits and flinging them into the asteroid belt. To see how, I want to focus on the final sentence quoted above: A cluster of highly different relations becomes a body. This is where prepositions come into play.

I need to start with an image. For instance, think of futbol as a cluster of relations (players, ball, field) that becomes a body (a game). Think of Rhizo14 as a cluster of relations (mostly scholars) that becomes a body (a MOOC of sorts). Think of this blog post as a cluster of relations (words, sentences, concepts) that becomes a body (a post). In each case, we start with an open space—an empty field, open class, or blank screen—but soon enough, games deterritorialize and reterritorialize into this space: the ball arrives on an arc, a trajectory, a first and then second player, each on different trajectories, the field itself begins to emerge with more relevant and pressing boundaries. Similarly for Rhizo14, scholars arrive from their different trajectories and intersect at different space/times across the Net, finding their own shape and dynamics within various space. Likewise for this post: writers, readers, and words arrive on different trajectories, concepts, actors (substantives) and actions (verbs) appear on different arcs and clusterings, and the post itself begins to emerge with more relevant and pressing boundaries, finding its own shape, both familiar and unique, within the boundaries of the screen. The skillful player, the philosopher, engages the new relationships emerging and creates a new game that is similar enough for all her training to be useful but new enough to demand that she transcend her training.

In this moment of engagement with a new soccer game or a new blog post, we should not ask if the player is a defender, a midfielder, or a striker, if the scholar is a connectivist, a constructivist, or behaviorist, or if the writer is composing narrative, description, argumentation, or explanation. We should not look for a fixed position or a guiding theory. We should not seek to define the moment from the outside with fixed substantive and verbal concepts; rather, we should allow the definition to emerge from the intersection or interweaving of all these different trajectories. In soccer, this interweaving is embodied in passing and running in relation to a moving ball; in writing, it is embodied and expressed in prepositions and other such elements in relation to moving substantives. Serres uses a long analogy drawn from rugby to explain himself, but he might as well be talking about futbol:
Configurations or fixed places are important when the players don't move—just before the game begins, or when certain established positions are called for at various points in the game … They begin to fluctuate as soon as the game begins, and the multiple and fluctuating ways of passing the ball are traced. The ball is played, and the teams place themselves in relation to it, not vice versa. As a quasi object, the ball is the true subject of the game. It is like a tracker of relations in the fluctuating collectivity around it. The same analysis is valid for the individual: the clumsy person plays with the ball and makes it gravitate around himself; the mean player imagines himself to be a subject by imagining the ball to be an object—the sign of a bad philosopher. On the contrary, the skilled player knows that the ball plays with him or plays off him, in such a way that he gravitates around it and fluidly follows the positions it takes, but especially the relations that it spawns. (108)
In writing—this post for instance—prepositions trace the relations, the movement of the ball, and as such, they mean almost nothing prior to the movement and the emerging relation. They have almost no meaning, which means they can assume almost any meaning. As Serres says, "Do you notice that, in relation to other parts of speech, the preposition has almost all meaning and almost none? It simultaneously has the maximum and minimum of meaning, exactly like a variable in classical analysis" (106). To my way of thinking, a preposition brings just enough DNA to unpack into a somewhat new meaning each time it is used to trace the dynamic connection between or among substantives. Like X in math, a preposition has DNA, a history of usage and meaning, but in any particular formula, it can assume a variety of meanings depending on the operations, operands, and relations it is tracing. The DNA, the dictionary definition, is the least meaning, the least one can say of X or a preposition. How the DNA unpacks as it zips among all its dynamic relationships is where most of its meaning emerges.

For Serres, all ideas can be considered and connected (think rhizomatically, here, for as Deleuze and Guattari say, "any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be" (A Thousand Plateaus, 7)), and the connections and relations are more important for Serres than are the substantives. This kind of topographical dynamism, then, allows Serres to connect the ritual of human sacrifice to the ancient god Baal to the Challenger disaster, but this greatly confuses (and probably offends) many readers who see no connection between the senseless murder of innocent people to appease a blood-thirsty god on one hand and technological progress and heroic death on the other. In his open spaces, Serres can trace a connection between these two events. Serres speaks of angels and Hermes as the dynamic messengers that map the connections among all the things and concepts of the world. Prepositions, then, are the angels of language that connect and map the connections among our concepts, and these fluctuating, dynamic connections interest Serres more than the concepts themselves.

What does this say about Rhizo14 and the auto-ethnography? It provides me a stance toward Rhizo14 and toward writing the auto-ethnography. I want to begin with a problem, a variable X that needs solving, but I don't want to bring the problem to the auto-ethnography. Rather, I want the problem to arise from the auto-ethnography itself. This means gazing at the auto-ethnography, meditating on it. It's something like staring into a cloud chamber in the Large Hadron Collider: observing the particles that flash and arc, following their trajectories, and noting those that connect with others and those that don't connect at all. Looking for patterns, and noting where I can see patterns (create meaning) and where I cannot see patterns. The no-patterns are problems for me, but I'm confident that answers, the patterns, are contained within the auto-ethnography that will illuminate an issue if I can assemble the elements and map the relations among them. I can see the patterns emerge if I will use the terms, the tools, and the relations at hand within the auto-ethnography itself to conduct a local interpretation which may just lead to a global demonstration, to some knowledge that can be carried beyond Rhizo14.

Also, I want to avoid bringing an agenda or theory to work on the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography. Like Serres, I want to avoid "a divine sun that sheds light on everything, with a beginning that will deploy itself in history … or with a principle—in order to deduce, through logic, a generalized logos that will confer meaning on it and establish the rules of the game for an organized debate" (103). I want to avoid especially connectivism, the educational theory that has most attracted me over the past few years. Sure, I can over-code Rhizo14 with connectivism—or constructivism, behaviorism, actor-network theory, or a dozen other isms, but I want to avoid that. I want to make a lateral move, both prepared by and forgetting what I know. I do this because a prepared theory can blanch a landscape, rendering it totally in the light of the theory. Serres makes a striking comparison between a given theory and an atomic bomb: the light of the exploding bomb illuminates all of the landscape below it, destroying all local detail and turning it into  a featureless plain, under one sun, one explanation, one point of view. Even as agile a theory as connectivism can eliminate some important details in Rhizo14 that may be obscured, rubbed out in the brilliance of its application. Rather, I want to look at what's there, follow the prepositions along the relations that they trace, looking for the elements that pull Rhizo14 together into an assemblage (again, note the connections to Deleuze and Guattari). I want to follow the prepositions until a cluster of highly different relations becomes a body.

Let's begin with the sentences from Maha and Sarah:
  • Funny enough, even though I have been thinking about this since #rhizo14 started and writing about it throughout on my blog, fb, twitter, I am having a lot of difficulty writing here.
  • I’m in the early stages of a part time PhD in collaborative learning and I got interested in MOOCs from that point of view, as well as because my Uni signed up with FutureLearn last year.
What is here? What trajectories and relations? Both Maha and Sarah are playing into a new and open space. Maha is on a trajectory of thinking and writing about Rhizo14 ever since it started, but she's hitting some turbulence with her writing in late February, 2014, as Rhizo14 is formally ending. Sarah's interest in Rhizo14 traces from the early arc of her PhD program and a joint effort of her university with FutureLearn. Both, then, engage the same ball, Rhizo14, but they are tracing different trajectories: one from a research agenda and one from a graduate program and professional obligations. One is having issues handling the ball just now, the other seems comfortable.

With just two sentences from two Rhizo14 participants, I'm already forming a quite complex cluster of highly different relations that become a body. You can see the angels in red in the two sentences above and how they trace the complex connections within just those two sentences. I hope to follow the prepositions throughout all the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography, using the Voyant tools to trace the totality of paths. As you might imagine, I can go lots of different ways, but I first want to map out the total track of the ball (Rhizo14) through the entire game to see if I can map how each participant clusters about the ball. I have faith that some patterns will emerge and that they will tell me things that I don't know now.

Obviously, I am learning anew, with new tools, and I find this most exciting. About as much fun as I have had in a long time, and I thank especially Maha and Sarah for thinking to do the Rhizo-14 auto-ethnography and making it happen. I know others have helped as well, but I think those two have driven the effort. Good job.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Tale of Two Sentences: Rhizo14 Auto-ethnography

I have to start somewhere with the actual prepositions in the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography, so I will cherry pick a sentence from the accounts written by Maha Bali and Sarah Honeychurch.

A few months ago, I became aware of some online textual analysis tools from Voyant Tools, but this is the first chance I've had to use them. I am by no means competent with them yet, but they are already proving useful and promise to be even more useful. I recommend that you check them out if this sort of thing interests you. I will imbed some of the tools in this post to give you a sense of what Voyant has to offer. The tools are live, and should the written texts change, the results would change. That could be helpful.

Anyway, Voyant first gives me a summary of Maha Bali's text:

and a list of her word frequencies:

Then I get a summary of Sarah Honeychurch's text:

And a list of Sarah's word frequencies:

So Maha wrote 977 words, of which 398 were unique (59% duplicates, 41% unique). Her top 10 words include 2 prepositions: to (21/2.2%) and on (16/1.6%). However, at least 9 instances of to are infinitive markers (ex: to express, to echo); thus, on is the most common preposition for Maha.

Sarah wrote 532 words, of which 267 were unique (50% duplicates, 50% unique). Her top 10 words include 3 prepositions: to (15/2.8%), in (14/2.6%), and of (14/2.6%). Again, however, 8 instances of to are infinitive markers (ex: to miss, to talk); thus, in is the most common preposition for Sarah.

So Maha is on and Sarah is in. Let's see if this is meaningful; though of course, it first means that I will use on to choose and analyze a sentence from Maha and in to choose and analyze a sentence from Sarah. Let's consider Maha's first sentence with the prepositions highlighted:
Funny enough, even though I have been thinking about this since #rhizo14 started and writing about it throughout on my blog, fb, twitter, I am having a lot of difficulty writing here.
This 33 word sentence has 5 (15%) prepositions, including an on, so it seems a fine sentence to begin with. I mentioned in my last post that I've been thinking of prepositions as stage directors, placing the actors on the stage and indicating any movements in relation to each other and to the stage. The stage for this sentence might look something like this:
Maha Bali's First Sentence

The basic movement of the sentence/scene is simple and runs along the bottom line of the image above: Funny enough, I am having a lot of difficulty writing here. This core sentence places Maha center screen as the main actor not only of this sentence/scene but of the entire movie, as evidenced by the occurrence of the word I 45 times (4.6% of 977 words). After all, this is an auto-ethnographic piece, which almost by definition makes the writer the main actor. There is not much action here, as even the writing is more indicative of framing thoughts than of manipulating a keyboard. So the sentence/scene is more a mood piece, presenting the main actor in some perplexity (funny) at having difficulty with writing (though, the implied wry humor of the term funny should definitely not be ignored, as it hangs like quiet laughter just off camera). Finally, the one preposition in this part of the scene, of, is more conceptual than  active, denoting or pointing to a quality of the rather empty noun lot and, by extension, to writing. Here, of connects qualities to concepts rather than to any active times or spaces. Moreover, this preposition is not very functional given that it is unnecessary. Maha could have easily written: Funny enough, I am having great (or much) difficulty writing here, to replace the casual construction a lot of and eliminate the preposition. This core sentence, then, presents us with the main actor and a bit of emotional and mental atmosphere, but not much else.

All of the stage craft is done in the rather long, parenthetical subordinate clause: even though I have been thinking about this since #rhizo14 started and writing about it throughout on my blog, fb, twitter. This is the part where the prepositions arrange the movie set, defining the space and time in which Maha thinks and writes, connecting her to a setting, other entities, and other actions. The twin prepositions about function as references or pointers linking Maha's thinking and writing to the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography, which is a major player in Maha's movie. The complementary prepositional elements since and throughout provide the temporal scope of Maha's movie: from the beginning of Rhizo14 proper through to the end. Finally, the preposition on provides the virtual space where Maha's writing takes place: her blog, Facebook, and Twitter. This is quite economical stage craft, placing Maha in a specific space and time and connecting her to the Rhizo14 MOOC and to the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography, major entities in her movie.

Now, let's look at a sentence from Sarah's account:
I’m in the early stages of a part time PhD in collaborative learning and I got interested in MOOCs from that point of view, as well as because my Uni signed up with FutureLearn last year.
This 36 word sentence/scene has 7 prepositions (19.4%), including 3 instances of in. In addition, I could easily include the conjunctive phrase as well as (relation/additional) and the adverb up (process/completion), but I will arbitrarily limit this discussion to the 7 traditional prepositions. Sarah is also setting a stage for herself, but this is her second sentence, and the first sentence introduces Rhizo14, a major player in her movie: I can’t remember how I found out about rhizo14, probably from Dave’s blog. Her second sentence, the one I am using here, explains how she became interested in MOOCs such as Rhizo14.

Sarah Honeychurch's Second Sentence
Sarah is tracing the origin of her interest in MOOCs first to a PhD program in collaborative learning and then to her university's recent agreement with FutureLearn, a UK online learning group. As with Maha's sentence, Sarah's use of I 26 times (4.9%, about the same frequency as Maha) places her center screen in her movie. Again, she's writing an auto-ethnography. She is supposed to be the star of the movie. The scene begins by situating Sarah in the early stages of a PhD program in collaborative learning through the use of 3 successive prepositions: in with its spatial, temporal, and membership connotations, of with its thing > type relation, and in which has both thing > type relation and reference connotations (she could have easily used the preposition about here). For Sarah, then, Rhizo14 is occurring at the same time as her PhD program and is occupying some of the same intellectual space as collaborative learning. At its conclusion, the sentence extends this setting by adding Sarah's university and its partnership with FutureLearn with the conjunctive phrase as well as and the preposition with. The preposition in connects Sarah's interest in MOOCs to her PhD program and to her university activities. When first considered, the sentence has a rather odd structure: Sarah's interest in MOOCs is framed at the beginning of the sentence by her PhD program and at the end by her university activities, but given the use in 3 times and given the common connotation of enclosure for that preposition, it's easy to see how this structure, even if unconscious on Sarah's part, is appropriate: her interest in MOOCs is in, within, inside her PhD program and university activities.

It's also odd that not one of the uses of in in this sentence primarily implies enclosure; rather, they imply a thing/type relation, a reference relation, sequence, and membership. Still, the sense of enclosure is also there, humming behind the main thought, latent, potential, ready to hand if a reader wants to look closely enough, listen carefully enough. And this sense of enclosure enriches the entire scene, giving it more meaning for those who want it without imposing its meaning on more glib readings.

This captures for me a basic function of prepositions: to start in the center and to extend outward in space, time, and relational structures. This is defining from the inside out. This is defining in terms of relationships rather than in terms of identifiable qualities of the thing itself. This approach to prepositions in particular and to sentence structure in general implies that meaning is not an identifiable quality of a word but is an emergent property of how words relate to other words.

This will sustain more thinking and writing. I'm traveling on the road for the next two weeks, and my posting may be erratic, but I want to send this up before I become distracted. I have much more to say about meaning as an emergent property of many words rather than an irreducible quality of one word, but this is a decent start and gives me some concrete things to work with. And yes, even though I'm a southerner, I know that I'm not supposed to end sentences with a preposition, so: this is a decent start and gives me some concrete things to work with, ya'll.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Coding Prepositions in the Rhizo14 Auto-ethnography

I promised in my last post to talk about why and how I was coding the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography with prepositions. Maha Bali subsequently pointed out in a tweet that she still doesn't know how I plan to code prepositions. She's right. I spent all of my time yesterday talking about why and very little about how. I ran out of steam last night, so I want to correct that.

I'll start by talking about what I did, which may not be logical, but I'll try to put things back together at the end. Also, I am not so methodical. I tend to do all steps at the same time so that for a long while my work is very messy. Order emerges slowly. The reasonable order implied below by first, second, third steps is a fiction of my writing, not what actually happened.

First, I read the entries by Maha Bali and Sarah Honeychurch to identify all the prepositions. I thought this would be a simple task, but it was not. I missed many of them, even obvious ones such as on, in, and so forth. They are little words, bare snippets, and easy to overlook. Moreover, I think my brain is accustomed to overlooking them, trained instead to look for the substantives and verbs, the actors and actions in a sentence. The connective words tend to recede into the background, lost in the noise, while the actors strut across the stage in shining, privileged relief. It's a bit like being the bellboy who delivers the note to Tom Cruise in some movie. No one remembers the bellboy's face, and he never has a name; they are blinded instead by His Magnificence center-screen. Prepositions are the bit players in sentences, but the sentences don't work without them. I'm having to retrain my brain to notice them. I find this very odd.

Then, I had trouble with some prepositions that can also function as other parts of speech. For instance, consider in in Maha's text:
  • So I will dip in (adverb)
  • a horrible day in Egypt (preposition)
Obviously I would include the second in, but what about the first? In traditional grammar, it is an adverb because it modifies the verb; yet to my mind, it seemed to be doing a prepositional thing: expressing movement through space/time to connect entities. I will have to do more research to confirm this, but I suspect that traditional grammarians are privileging the substantives and verbals and defining the little words, the bit players, by their relationships to the main actors and actions, rather than defining the little words in their own rights. Thus, in is a preposition when it relates to some substantive, connecting it to some other main part of the sentence; it is an adverb when it relates to a verbal. It seems that the identity of little words depends not so much on their own behavior and role as on their relationship to the main words, the important words. I decided to include the adverbial in along with the prepositional in. I admit up front that sometimes my choices to include or not may appear arbitrary, but I hope to develop some rigor through working with the choices. Rigor may come, or not.

Note the non-grammar definition of substantive:
  1. having a firm basis in reality and therefore important, meaningful, or considerable.
  2. having a separate and independent existence.
This seems to capture the general English attitude toward nouns: they have a firm basis in reality, a separate and independent existence, they are real things, and thus they are important, meaningful, or considerable, worthy of consideration. Prepositions don't have that definite solidity. They have the slimmest basis in reality and almost no separate and independent existence, so they must be unimportant, meaningless, and unworthy of consideration, right? Well, it seems that I once thought so. This will require a post of its own, a line of flight, later. I know I have readers who speak languages other than English, so I'm curious about how those languages treat the little words. Is this an English thing? a Western thing? a universal thing? I don't know.

Anyway, as I collected my prepositions (including the prepositional type words, but I will just call them all prepositions for simplicity), I worked with various coding schemes. This was difficult, as I do not have a sufficient background in linguistics to do this from scratch, so finally, I took a shortcut: I simply listed all the dictionary definitions for a given preposition and devised codes for each definition. I used the dictionary built in to Google Docs (I should investigate to see who supplies these definitions) as it was readily to hand, and it seemed as reliable as any other, but this could be very wrong. I did not check that closely. Still, that's what I did for expediency, and so the word in lists and codes like this for me:

Coding for the preposition "in"
I then applied my codes to each preposition in each sentence in Mali and Sarah's entries in the auto-ethnography. I'll use Sarah this time:

Note that I coded in the early stages as time/enclosed, indicating that in indicates a temporal enclosure, placing Sarah within one of the successive stages of a PhD program. This code is a bit too loose and could easily be managed otherwise. I could as easily use a code such as time/succession to indicate that Sarah is at a particular time in a succession of times. Which would be correct? Well, they both are. Is one better? I don't think so. So how do you code in, in this case? Is it a particle or a wave? It's both, and maybe something else as well. My reading suggests that cognitive linguists are having the same issues with devising boxes big enough to contain all the possible meanings of these little words. It seems we can say the most with the least, and that makes things interesting, problematic, very rhizomatic.

So I am not at all settled with my codes. First, I think the dictionary definitions are somewhat arbitrary, which makes my codes arbitrary of necessity. If I stick with this line of thinking, I'll have to do lots of work here. Then, I just noticed that I've been using mostly substantives for codes (space, time, relation, reference, etc.), thus privileging the substantives again and creating static snapshots of what is basically a dynamic connection within a sentence. I could use verbs, which would re-animate the code, but it still privileges a different class of words and a different semantic structure. I'll have to think through all of this, and I'm not there yet, but I'm reading my way onto some possible paths.

I want to continue writing, but I have lots of end-of-term documents to grade, so I'll stop here. Next I want to give an example of how I'm parsing and analyzing a sentence with these codes, with the hopes that the other coders will begin to see some connections between what is emerging here with prepositions and what they are doing with their own codes. This line of research is going somewhere nice for me, but I still don't know if it will play well with the other over-codes.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Prepositions as the Rhizomatic Heart of Writing

I never expected to be writing about prepositions, but it's the approach I've decided to take with the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography, so I want to sketch what I think I'm doing and why and how I'm doing it. This is a preliminary sketch, so expect abrupt turns of the page and new, emergent directions. In rhizomatic terms, expect lots of deterritorializations and reterritorializations. If you've ever heard the ruffle and rush of a covey of quail scattering in the cold, steel-blue dawn, then you're ready.

I became interested in the rhizomatic potential of prepositions after reading the conversation between Bruno Latour and Michel Serres in Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time (1995), in which Serres talks about his "'philosophy of prepositions'--an argument for considering prepositions, rather than the conventionally emphasized verbs and substantives, as the linguistic keys to understanding human interactions." It was an intriguing concept, but I didn't have a concrete way to engage it until the auto-ethnography emerged. A group of us decided to independently code the entries in the auto-ethnography, and then compare our codings. I jumped at the chance to work the prepositions, and I assumed that most of the other coders would base their coding systems on substantives and verbs as "the linguistic key to understanding human interactions." I had an intuition that prepositions, and prepositional-like elements, might be the linguistic engines that power the rhizome in language. What do I mean by that?

For me, rhizomes are first about connections: making connections, dropping connections, arranging connections into patterns. At its deepest level, the rhizome itself is all possible and potential connections (and even the impossible connections, in a kind of indiscriminate heterogenous coupling and tripling and clustering)—in Serres' terms, it's noise—but humans inevitably select, reduce, and map, bringing a few nodes into relief from the swelter of possible nodes and constructing patterns out of those nodes. Those patterns are what we mean by meaning. Language is one of the core tools we use to map our worlds and to create patterns—both helpful and harmful, rational and whimsical—and prepositional-like elements are the hooks, angels, hermes, and messenger particles that connect the actors (nouns) and actions (verbs) of our thought and arrange them. An early metaphor that emerged for me was prepositions as stage directors, positioning actors on the stage, giving directions about which way to move in relation to other actors, props, audience, and the stage itself, and ramping up the next scene. They are very busy, and they have to know everything. Yup—those little, largely ignored prepositions. Prepositions are the connective, connecting tissue that connects this to that in a pattern that works and makes sense. It's a really big job.

And connections beget connections. There is something here to do with desire, the energetic working of the rhizome through things. Prepositions are little desiring machines, to use Deleuze and Guattari, and they desire to connect, to break connections and to reconnect (to deterritorialize and reterritorialize down lines of flight), to emerge, dissolve, and reemerge. They are promiscuous at all levels: phrase, sentence, paragraph, section. This promiscuity works in my reading as I work to code the auto-ethnography (I think it's time to rehabilitate the term promiscuous, not to eliminate the sexual but to expand its field beyond the merely sexual). I have become the intersection of several documents that resonate with my thoughts about the role of prepositions in writing (notice how things appear when you look? they were in the noise all along. looking made them emerge). Simon Ensor sent me an article about ecological psychology on Wikipedia. Terry Elliot wrote a post GOODBYE, CLASSROOM. HELLO, CONNECTION JUKEBOX. that claims we are all "a magnificent and unique filter for the world. Your neurons fire in ways that no one else does or can. If you are attuned to that and share that, you will be adding signal and not noise to the world." Then, two people mentioned their attention shifting from nouns to verbs, Frances Bell in a comment on Maha Bali's wonderful post Network vs community – cc #rhizo14 autoethnog and Aaron Davis's post PLN, a Verb or a Noun?. Is everyone thinking about parts of speech? Finally, just now, tonight as I am struggling with what to say in this post, Simon Ensor writes in his post Spacetimecontinuum …:

I notice how connections suddenly come alive, dormant for indeterminate time they suddenly fire and images, words, ideas flow out.

This appears to be learning.

I start to review the tags that I throw unthinkingly on my blog posts, there is no getting around those key words -


I virtually never write, I never write what I think, imagine, or foresee I am going to write. I am written.

In more prosaic terms: how do prepositions drive the emergence of a sentence into meaning? How do they both coalesce (inward) the potential energy of nouns and verbs into coherent structures AND vibrate (outward) with enough heat to trigger the emergence of larger structures of meaning that flesh out our ideas? This is a very subtle trick, and I'd like to know more about it. Along the way, I think I will learn more about the rhizome and how it can lead to community and away from community. We'll see.

So I'm starting to read about prepositions, and I'm finding a fairly deep if not extensive body of work about them (or on them? which preposition do you prefer here: about or on? it makes a difference. you be the director and make the call). Of course, I'm having to learn a new vocabulary, pulled mostly from cognitive linguistics, where I'm bumping into George Lakoff again, and one of my first new words is polysemy (many possible meanings for a given word). It seems that prepositions just won't take a definition and stick to it. This is driving some really bright and otherwise normal scholars nuts, including Mr. Lakoff, as they search for boxes big enough to put a tiny preposition in. It's similar to what quantum physicists went through when they first started realizing that electrons just can't be pinned down to one place and one speed. Elementary particles such as electrons are frenetic, jittery, smudged, probabilistic entities that most likely exist here but could also be someplace across the universe. Messenger particles, hermes, angels. Prepositions, too, are frenetic. They most likely mean this, but they could mean something else as well. They could mean multiple things at the same time. They violate Aristotle's principle of the excluded third. How messed up is that?

Old-fashioned grammarians hate this kind of imprecision and waffling, but it's perfect if you want to explore the rhizome, as I do. This is very much like elementary particles: it's the frenetic jitteriness and vibrations of those tiny strings that make them imprecise (not reducible to a single, well-defined point) and that generates the energy that fuels the universe. Likewise, prepositions have a frenetic energy that fuels language such as this blog post.

Prepositions are easy to overlook. I first went through the auto ethnographic entries by Maha Bali and Sarah Honeychurch merely to identify all the prepositions they used. As I was going back through to code each preposition, I found more—not the weird ones, but the common ones: on, of, in, and the like. Easy to overlook, but we lose much when we do.

I don't want to suggest any disparagement of nouns and verbs, but prepositions have caught my attention for the moment. I want to see where they take me. So far, it's been a fun ride.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Educational Research: At the Heart of Things

In a 2008 article entitled Complexity as a theory of education, Brent Davis and Dennis Sumara discuss the unique qualities of educational research, especially in light of complexity theory, suggesting to me that complexity plays a unique and insistent role in educational research. Complexity has been on my mind for a few years now, especially in its metaphorical expression as a rhizome and specifically as a way to approach the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography, so I want to map Davis and Sumara's ideas to rhizomatic thinking in Rhizo14.

Davis and Sumara begin by noting the appropriateness of complexity thought for educational research. Both are relatively young and emerging systems of thought and they share some common approaches to the study of reality.

First, both complexity and educational theories approach systems that learn. Davis and Sumara say, "Brains, social collectives, bodies of knowledge, and so on can all become broader, more nuanced, capable of more diverse possibilities." I'm sorry that Davis and Sumara seem to limit learning to higher order life systems with sophisticated neuronal structures such as brains, as it seems to me that almost all scales of the universe are capable of becoming broader, more nuanced, capable of more diverse possibilities. For instance, the antibodies and antigens that help make up my innate immune system learn to recognize and defeat new attacks on my body, and as far as I know, they learn this without benefit of a brain. Of course, the pathogens attacking me also learn how to get around my innate defenses and any medicine that I might add to the mix. I don't think bacteria have brains either. So for me, learning is one of the fundamental processes of reality as entities at all scales exchange not only energy and matter, but also information and organization, in order to adapt to and thrive within their environments. Learning theories go to the heart of everything and every theory. Thus, educational theory should be informing all other theories, from sociology and psychology down to chemistry and physics, rather than always pulling its frameworks from those other theories. Educational theory is not derivative, it is generative. Down to the core.

Still, Rhizo14 certainly meets Davis and Sumara's concept of a learning system, and their implied definition of learning might guide investigation of Rhizo14: did Rhizo14 learn, becoming broader, more nuanced, and capable of more diverse possibilities? If not, why not? If so, why and how? Did Rhizo14 exchange information and organization within itself and with its environment? If so, how and why? If not, why not? What values emerged from this exchange? What was the new, emergent information? What was the new, emergent organization? What are the salient characteristics and values of this emergent information and organization?

The term emergent leads to another shared characteristic of complexity and educational theories: emergence. Davis and Sumara say, "each of these phenomena is emergent—that is, each arises in the interactions of many sub-components or agents, whose actions are in turn enabled and constrained by similarly dynamic contexts." Learning has always been an emergent event, but courses such as Rhizo14 make emergence explicit and attempt to ride the emergent wave, assuming that emergence is the source of broader, more nuanced, more diverse possibilities.

Emergence is certainly relevant to the study of a cMOOC such as Rhizo14. The course arose in the interactions of many sub-components or agents, whose actions [were] in turn enabled and constrained by similarly dynamic contexts. Any study of Rhizo14 must be constantly aware of the sub-components and agents that embodied the course and must be aware that each of those sub-components and agents are themselves emergent entities informed by yet another scale of sub-components and agents, all the way down to the core, and learning takes place on each scale and between scales. In other words, information and organization is exchanged in circularly causal loops within a scale and across scales. Learning is unbelievably complex, and while any particular study of learning will out of cognitive necessity focus on a particular human scale (usually an individual or a social group), it must acknowledge that its particular scale is not discrete, but is an integral part of scales within it and without it. Any processes on one scale are fully understandable only in context.

And this brings me to another objection to Davis and Sumara's treatment of complexity: a failure to recognize the transcendent. Perhaps Davis and Sumara are too influenced by the very reductionistic sciences that they are trying to move beyond, but they seem to me trapped just here. Davis and Sumara can see emergence coming up from the core in the sub-components and agents, but they don't recognize in this article the scales above us, the transcendent scales. Western culture has a strong bias—scientific, social, and religious—toward seeing humanity as the highest expression of either nature or the gods. We regularly hear that the human brain is the most highly advanced, most complex structure in the Universe. Being scientific these days, we've traded the soul for the human brain, but the effect is about the same: humans are the pinnacle of creation, the apple of Nature's eye, blessed above all else. What a profound failure of imagination and insight!

Many spiritual traditions, but also complexity science itself, suggest the limitation of this point of view. With ever better tools, science has continued to push out the immanent and transcendent scales of reality: inward/downward to vibrating strings and outward/upward to multi-verses. Just when we think we've hit rock bottom or soared to the absolute ends of the Universe, we find more layers. We humans are somewhere in the middle. Not insignificant, but not so important either, and our normal, unsupported vision is limited to a very narrow scale, a very narrow band of the light spectrum. We don't see the infra-red or the ultra-violet, so we think it isn't there, but it is. Complexity thought says that any scale of reality depends both on the scales below/within it and the scales above/without it. And there are always scales beyond. There is always a transcendent.

Now I do think that it is somehow easier for us, in the West especially, to see the scales below/within us, but this may just be our reductionistic habits and heightened sense of importance over the past few centuries. Still, educational studies must be conscious of and allow for the influences of scales beyond the individual learner or the group learners. The enclosing ecosystem always pulls the emerging learner or group into shapes and processes that it might not otherwise assume, and of course, the ecosystem is then affected itself by the emergence of this new structure within. Imagine a new and beneficial organ emerging in your body to provide some new capability. The organ cannot take any shape it chooses, but must find its shape and place with the existing body, which must rearrange itself to benefit from the new organ. The local causality of the new organ is not enough to explain it. We must include the circular and global causalities also at work.

There is always a higher body, and if cMOOCs such as Rhizo14 are beneficial, affording us new capabilities, then they will shape themselves within existing systems while changing the shapes of those systems. They will exchange information and organization with a transcendent scale of reality. Thus, Rhizo14 should ask what local causes were at work within Rhizo14 to make it behave as it did, but also what circular causalities were at work among the various scales and what global causalities pulled Rhizo14 into its emergent shapes. For instance, a number of Rhizo14 participants wanted to discuss Deleuze and Guattari's concept of the rhizome and how it informs our thinking about education, but that conversation was short-circuited and other conversations emerged. This was certainly not caused simply by any local decision, though local decisions can be identified; rather, it was a pull, a global cause, that emerged from the group and transcended any individual decision or cause. How did that work? How does that work? Leaders in the group emerge. How? Why? In short, there are wonderful dynamics at play in a cMOOC such as Rhizo14 that can only be accounted for by reference to scales beyond the individual or even the group. Of course, that pushes into the fog, the noise, enclosing us. It's a bit akin to a single neuron in a human brain trying to understand the consciousness that emerges on a scale several levels beyond it. It may not even know that it is a part of consciousness. We likely don't know what entities we are part of on the scales beyond us, either, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't be open to those scales and recognize their influences on us.

I'll explore more of Davis and Sumara again.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Who's Writing the Rhizo14 Ethnography: The Problem of Authorship

I read through the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography this past week, in part to re-connect but also to see if it was moving anywhere (I won't say moving forward as that is far too linear a concept for anything out of Rhizo14), but the document itself has been largely inactive since April or so, and I've not seen it emerge in any other space. It is an exciting document with much potential, so I wonder why it isn't moving. This question is not an indictment or even a challenge, as I haven't done much with it myself, but it is a chance to think about the problems of authorship of such a document through such a writing process.

First, authorship has been problematic from the beginning, as the document itself demonstrates. Sarah Honeychurch created Collaborative Autoethnography for #rhizo14 in Google Docs on Feb 16, 2014, announcing that "We (Maha, Lenandlar, Vanessa, Sandra, Sarah, and anyone else who fancies joining us) intend writing a paper about #rhizo14 and will be including quotations from this document." Thus, the document was opened from its inception to anyone else who fancies joining us. A number of people did fancy joining, at least for a while and in a way. The document was initially shared publicly so that people could, and did, contribute anonymously; still, I can identify contributions either to the text and/or to the comments from these 35 different people, in the order that I could identify them, with no priority or rank implied:

  • Sarah Honeychurch
  • Arthur Oglesby
  • Kevin Hodgson
  • Sandra Sinfield
  • Apostolos Koutropoulos
  • Terry Elliot
  • Maha Bali
  • Monika Hardy
  • Ron Leunissen
  • Vance Stevens
  • Ellie Trees
  • Heli Nurmi

  • Barry Dyck
  • Bonnie Stewart
  • Simon Ensor
  • Aaron Johannes
  • Vanessa Vaile
  • Lou Mycroft
  • Lenandlar Singh
  • Clarissa Bezerra
  • Scott Johnson
  • Paul Gareth Smith
  • Tanya Lau
  • Keith Hamon

  • David Jones
  • Janet Webster
  • Nick Kearney
  • Jim Stauffer
  • Danielle Paradis
  • Rebecca J. Hogue
  • Frances Bell
  • Lenandlar Singh
  • Carol Yeager
  • Dave Cormier
  • Paige Cuffe

  • And if I include the eclectic Anonymous, then I have 36 contributors. Quite a rabble itself, but additionally complicated by some who did not want to be identified with the group and others who used the auto-ethnographic content without permission, though just whose permission they needed is somewhat confusing itself.

    So who is writing this document? I think my question itself is problematic, starting with the words who and document. I'll get to the verb writing later.

    For more than a half a millennium, western culture has tried to define the role of the author, limiting it to an individual or a definable group following a positivistic epistemology and mostly for the purposes of establishing property rights within the Western legal tradition. The history of this development is far beyond the scope of what I want to say in this post, but it's worth noting that our ideas about writers writing documents are culturally informed and have mostly to do with identifying what person or group produced what document and thus knowing whom to praise or blame and whom to pay or persecute.

    Western language and speech has a strong bias toward discrete, definable actors (nouns and pronouns) performing discrete, definable actions (verbs). We like stable relationships between one word and one thing, and we become uneasy when words begin to slip their meanings. We expect and want who in who is writing this document to refer to either a clearly definable individual (let's pick Sarah Honeychurch since she created the initial Google Document) or to a clearly definable group (maybe Sarah, Maha, Lenandlar, Vanessa, and Sandra; maybe all 36 above; maybe some other assemblage) and document to refer to a clearly definable electronic artifact. Collaborative Autoethnography for #rhizo14 doesn't seem to be playing this way, and that may be causing problems. We have a rabble writing a cacophony, and it's confusing and paralyzing.

    This is understandable. In his book Genesis (1995), Michel Serres explains much better than I can our problems with rabbles and swarms and rhizomes and the noise they make:
    We are fascinated by the unit; only a unity seems rational to us. We scorn the senses, because their information reaches us in bursts. We scorn the groupings of the world, and we scorn those of our bodies. For us they seem to enjoy a bit of the status of Being only when they are subsumed beneath a unity. Disaggregation and aggregation, as such, and without contradiction, are repugnant to us. Multiplicity, according to Leibniz, is only a semi-being. A cartload of bricks isn't a house. Unity dazzles on at least two counts: by its sum and by its division. That herd must be singular in its totality and it must also be made up of a given number of sheep or buffalo. We want a principle, a system, an integration, and we want elements, atoms, numbers. We want them, and we make them. A single God, and identifiable individuals. The aggre­gate as such is not a well-formed object; it seems irrational to us. The arithmetic of whole numbers remains a secret foundation of our understanding; we're all Pythagorians. We think only in mo­nadologies. (pp 2, 3)
    As Deleuze and Guattari say in A Thousand Plateaus (1980, p 3), we humans need to "fabricate a beneficent God to explain geological movements." Rhizo14 may feel the need to fabricate an author to explain a text or to write a text. Rhizo14 may feel the need to fabricate a specific text—one thing directly attributable to specific authors—to explain the rhizomatic movements of Rhizo14. We may feel the need to subsume the babble of voices beneath a unity, or the flights of tweets, texts, and doggerel into a single document. We want monads: a single, genius author or a single, collaborative group to produce a single document, or several single documents. We want a thesis, a single governing idea, best attributable to a single voice. We want One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. We have centuries of culture that tell us this is authorship, this is writing, this is how sensible documents are done.

    There is much power in this concept of writing, authorship, and text. First, it brings into relief a writer and a text against the background of noise and chaos. We can say, "Keith Hamon wrote this blog post", but it is just a manner of speaking. While there may be something of me in this post (if there is really even something of me in me), I am acutely aware of how much I am only orchestrating various strands that did not come from me but pass through me and will not end with me. I conventionally attribute other writers, of course, but only where I remember to do so, and my practice covers only the most obvious of my borrowings. I suspect that you could google each sentence in this post and find some source for a similar idea. I didn't attribute any of those. I've forgotten the sources for most of my ideas, and while I can find sources for all of my ideas, I'm not sure that they are my sources, but I am sure that it doesn't matter. All my ideas come out of the noise, attain a brief clarity and configuration (occasionally perhaps a novel configuration) in me, and then melt back into the noise which holds all ideas.

    Then, if we bring into relief a specific writer and a specific text, then we can trace and manage the power relations between this writer and others, this text and others. We can trace flows of status, money, prestige, fame or infamy, credit or blame, influence or anonymity. We can rank and point. We can name and demarcate. We can know if we are in or out, up or down. We can say that we are playing by the rules or not. We can have a profession and be paid for it. We can attain great clarity, and with clarity comes power. We can say, "I have seen the night sky, and these are the patterns in the stars, and these patterns make clear the meaning of life."

    I do not dismiss the virtues of this approach to writing, or to life in general. Clarity and power can lead to a secure sense of one's place in the universe, and that has immeasurable benefits. However, seeing the patterns in a few stars requires ignoring all those trillions of other stars, causing them to recede into the background. It means ignoring the background noise, which holds all the stars, all the patterns, all the meaning, and focusing on just a handful of stars and a bit of meaning. It's an awful dilemma, but while we gain much, we lose more. We in the West don't have good words and concepts for the background hum, the cosmic background radiation of the Big Bang, captured here in a recording by University of Washington physicist John Cramer:

    What do you do with such a sound? You can't dance to it. You can't wrap your head around it. You can only open yourself to it. You have to relax your normal cognitive structures—those insistent, almost automatic processes that frame reality, and bring a few stars, a subset of reality, into relief and render them sensible. But this Big Bang sound isn't a few stars. It's all stars. All galaxies. All things. We don't do so well with that. As Serres notes, it is disaggregation and aggregation without contradiction, and we are overwhelmed. All meaning is no meaning.

    Well, I didn't really intend to write about the Big Bang and all, so let me return to what may have been my point: we, at least we in the West, like to reduce documents to a single artifact and writers to a single person or group of persons. We are not comfortable with distributed documents that emerge out of the noise of many people talking, even though we experience such noise daily in cafeterias, bars, street corners, stadiums, auditoriums, and more. Mostly, we just try to ignore that background noise and talk over it. We don't think that it communicates to us beyond a general tone or timbre. Such documents certainly don't make sense in an academic setting. Who gets credit? Who gets tenure? Who publishes this? What do they publish? Does publication demarcate the document? Who demarcates the authors? This is just a cluster fuck in a mosh pit, and how will we ever determine the genealogy of such monstrous offspring?

    Well, that's the point, I think. Deleuze and Guattari and later Serres are saying that the noise, the rhizome, is the norm and that the clarity and power are the exceptions, the bits of amorphous reality that we wrench into relief for a time, but never for a thousand years. I want to say, then, that the Rhizo14 document is already being written, began before Sarah Honeychurch created the Google Doc, and that it is still being written by any number of people, including me in this post you are reading. It is being written in an academic conference by scholars who didn't even participate in Rhizo14. It is being written by students in Maha Bali's classes who don't even recognize the term Rhizo14.

    This kind of writing is not new, but it is not part of the Western rhetoric that I know. I recently read an article by Samuel Arbesman called The Network Structure of Jewish Texts in which he discusses the network nature—I would say the rhizomatic nature—of Jewish texts as revealed by Sefaria, "an open source database of Jewish texts", which Liz Shayne of UC Santa Barbara has graphically mapped (see some beautiful pix of rhizomatic structures in her article Sefaria in Gephi: Seeing Links in Jewish Literature). So who wrote the Talmud? It is the wrong question, for it assumes an author or limited authorial group and a specific text. The Talmud has neither. Rather, it is the accretion and emergence of cacophonous conversation over millennia. It is aggregation and disaggregation without contradiction. It is a rhizome. We likely don't have all of the Talmud, but we seem to have enough to continue the conversation. There will, of course, be clumps in the conversation, tubers and bulbs called scholarly papers or blog posts, just as there are clumps in the heavens called galaxies and clumps in our bodies called organs, and the clumps are important. They stand out in relief and give us a momentary clarity, but the clumps are not the whole thing, and eventually, they do return to the noise either as a consequence of time and entropy or a shift in our attention. Authors and their texts are convenient fictions, even useful at times, but fictions nonetheless.

    So what conversations about Rhizo14 are emerging?  What patterns can we create out of it? How do we map this conversation and traverse it as knowmads, mindful that knowmads cannot be monads? I'll have to think about that some more, unless of course one of you has a ready answer. I'd love to hear it.