Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Rise of the iSwarm: A First Global Look at the Rhizo14 Auto-ethnography

I started my analysis of prepositions in an earlier post by analyzing two sentences from the auto-ethnography, one written by Maha Bali and one by Sarah Honeychurch. This quickly revealed to me that I was not going to manage this analysis by hand. The base text of the auto-ethnography (excluding the marginal comments) has a total of 23,717 words and 3,763 unique words. This is large. Moreover, I am interested in tracking the connections made among all the prepositions and all the entities in the text. The preposition of occurs 652 times, effectively creating 652 relationships among an as yet unknown number of entities. That's just one preposition. I can't track all of that with pen and paper or even a spreadsheet.

Fortunately, there are many fine analytical tools becoming available to digital humanists, and I have chosen to start with Voyant Tools by Stéfan Sinclair of McGill University and Geoffrey Rockwell of the University of Alberta. I don't know the tools, so I'm learning as I go along. Nothing like doubling your workload.

Anyway, I dipped my toes in the water with a quick analysis of one sentence each from Maha's and Sarah's contributions, and now I want to shift to the entire auto-ethnography, so let's start with a look at the text I am examining as it appears in Voyant, which takes full advantage of the Net to allow you to embed its various tools. I'm embedding the tools separately below, but you can engage the entire data with a set of tools here.

You'll see immediately that all the images have been stripped. Voyant analyzes text, not images, and that is fine for what I want to do, I think (apologies to Simon, Terry, Kevin, and others who think and write with images). I made several edits to the text that I should mention here. First, I regularized the name for Rhizo14, which had a handful of variations (#rhizo14, rhizo14, rhizo 14, rhizo, etc.) that led to aggregation issues that I want to avoid. Second, I corrected obvious misspellings and abbreviations in the text (for instance, I changed Maha's abbreviated ppl to people and soso to so so). However, I did not change the text in a text message exchange between Sarah and Maha that was added to the auto-ethnography, as I wanted to preserve its distinction. Not sure why.

Voyant starts with a count of the words in the text, listing them by number of occurrences. As I discovered in the analysis of Maha and Sarah's accounts, the word I is the most frequently used word in the entire text. Voyant creates a nice word cloud, which features the top 50 words:
The word frequency list looks like this:

Even by itself, I is clearly the dominant entity in the text, though it refers to at least 31 different people in the base text. The small words (prepositions, conjunctions, being verbs, along with the articles that I excluded from the list) make up most of the top 50 words, but the prominence of the first-person outweighs them all, especially if we include the words related to I, such as my, me, I'm, I'd, myself, and I've. All of those words occur 1,512 times, and if we add the first-person plural words we, us, and our, then we have a total of 1,655 self references in the text. That's almost 7% of all words. Hmm.

[BREAK for Untext]

I started this post in the second half of October, 2014, but at the end of the month, I stopped writing here to help Maha Bali and half a dozen other rhizoers write Writing the Unreadable Untext. It was a fascinating experience that I blogged about, and it helps me rethink what I want to say in this post about the prominence of first person in the auto-ethnography. I'll restart with the observation in the last paragraph that the auto-ethnography has at least 31 unique voices in the core text, which does not include the instructions and marginalia. The traditional approach, I think, would be to treat this auto-ethnography as 31 different stories with 31 different voices, and that is a useful approach that I will still pursue. However, the Untext demonstrates so well how quickly a swarm voice can emerge and dominate in a collectively produced document. In the Untext, we use lower case i to represent the first-person swarm in distinction to the first person singular or the first person plural voice. This was most revealing for me, and wildly fun.

Unlike the Untext, the auto-ethnography reinforces the notion of 31 individuals: it has 31 distinct stories with headings to identify 31 unique individuals. They all share a common topic—their experiences in Rhizo14—but the structure of the auto-ethnography brings into relief the unique perspective and voice of each author. Thus, even when we think of them as a group with perhaps a group voice, like a choir, we assume a unity, a unified voice, all arcing with complimentary, collaborative trajectories. And if this voice, this unified, coherent trajectory breaks down, then we fault the skill of the writers. This is the voice that we in Western culture understand and expect. It is the voice that I learned—absorbed, really—when, as I was preparing for my doctoral exams, I read most every Western rhetoric from Aristotle and Isocrates to Young, Becker, and Pike. This unified voice is at the core of Western rhetoric, so deeply embedded that most rhetorics do not mention it. They just assume it. This is the voice I am using now. The voice in this post is one version of Keith Hamon the scholar, who has a unique and recognizable voice, a peculiar filter of this world with a peculiar way of expressing the world. I like this voice, and I do not intend to abandon or denigrate it.

But I am fascinated with the swarm voice, the voice in the whirlwind, in the trees, in the surf. I have heard this voice while waiting for the concert to start or the light to change. I have watched this voice emerge in the Untext, and I cannot ignore it. I have to learn more about it.

I confess up front that I know almost nothing about the swarm voice, though I think I hear it in some of the writings of Deleuze and Guattari and perhaps of Serres. It's a voice that captures me, but I don't know why. It seems incoherent, which at first made me fault the writer and the writing, but now I'm wondering if I should fault the reader: me. I think the swarm voice is more common than we think. Indeed, I think I agree with Serres that the swarm voice, noise, is far more common than the familiar voices made legible and brought into relief by unity and focus, by our attention. This swarm voice is the voice of the street corner, the restaurant, the crowd. This is the hum we hear when we are attending to something more legible, more pronounced, more clearly enunciated.

This is a fine place to start an analysis of the auto-ethnography: with the swarm voice. I will address the first-person swarm and the hundreds of small words that push the hum into the world, but as soon as I do I encounter problems, the first of many I expect to deal with.

Let's consider the top 25 words in order of occurrence:


Note first that most of these top 25 words are short, one syllable, connector words. In fact, there is a direct relation between the frequency and the length of a word: the shorter a word, the more often it occurs in the auto-ethnography, as the following table and chart show. I grouped the first 300 words by 20 and calculated the average length.

Word GroupAvg Len

Even an English major can see the trend here. Short words occur more often, long words less often. That's likely true in most conversation and writing, but eventually, I will need to compare the frequency and length relationship in the auto-ethnography (AE) with some other documents to see if there is anything unusual about the AE, but later. I mention this here and now mostly because I can, but the point for me now is that the iSwarm is connecting to, and, of, in, on, for, as, with, but, and or other entities within the AE, and all of those entities are connecting to each other. Rhizo14 is a quantum hive of activity, all abuzz with energy. I think I knew that, but I like seeing it so clearly when shifting my vision up to the swarm scale, but what is the iSwarm connecting to?

Not until I get to word 9 it (295 occurrences) do I find another entity to which I might guess the iSwarm is connecting to, with, of, in, and so on. Actually, it seems a fine other entity to which iSwarm might connect first as it is as much a swarm word as is I, and at this scale, I cannot tell who is connecting to whom or what. Rather, it's like watching a swarm of bees and trying to determine which bees are connecting to which. There's a general hum here, but I cannot yet make out its contours and modulations. I really don't know how to listen to noise very well, but I'm learning.

I don't reach a definite entity until word 22 Rhizo14 (144 occurrences), which is also the first word longer than 4 letters and one syllable. As I've already noted, this is something of a manufactured word as I standardized the spelling of the names of the MOOC in the AE. Still, it demonstrates to me that one of the foremost connections of the iSwarm was to the quantum hive: Rhizo14.

I think.

I have an issue with calling Rhizo14 a definite entity. It suggests that a swarm of people (including the 31 people in the AE) connected to a thing that already existed quite apart from their connections to it. I don't think that is how it works. Rather, I think that Rhizo14 emerged as a somewhat coherent, identifiable, and addressable entity out of the swarm of hundreds of people, including these 31 auto-ethnographers. I really do think that the community (the swarm) was the curriculum (the emergent entity).

In this sense, then, I can say that Rhizo14 worked: it embodied the community as curriculum as a demonstration rather than as a teachable concept. Those of us who attended to it sufficiently and who were willing to engage the hum, the swarm noise, see the community as curriculum, even if we cannot quite say what it is. I'm hoping that following the desires of the prepositions in the AE will give me some language to say what I mean. I'm working on it. More about the iSwarm soon.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Rhizo14 Ethnography and Decalcomania

So Maha Bali and I started a Google Doc entitled Writing the Unreadable Untext to talk about the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography, and a half-dozen or more of our dearest Rhizo14 colleagues joined in. I want to write about this experience from the comfort and quiet of my own blog space, and if you have reached this post from the Google Doc itself, I want to offer an exploration of what I think happened in that document. If you haven't read Writing the Unreadable Untext, then read it first if you want to understand what I'm discussing here.

First, we did not write the auto-ethnography of Rhizo14, Dave Cormier's 2014 MOOC about rhizomatic education. Instead, we may have written an ethnography in the sense of "the … description of the customs of individual peoples and cultures" (my MacBook's online dictionary). In the above definition, I dropped the word "scientific" because I have not yet worked out precisely what kind of description we wrote, and I don't want to be side-tracked by a defense of our scientific rigor or lack of it. Rather, than analyzing Rhizo14 in the Unreadable Untext, we mapped it, and to my mind, we mapped it very well. What we have composed is a handprint of Rhizo14, a rhizome written small enough that you can get through it in less than an hour. If you want to know in a nutshell what Rhizo14 was about and how it felt to be in it, then read the Unreadable Untext.

Do you find yourself confused by the document? Good. Most of us felt confused by Rhizo14 from time to time. Are you looking for ways to put all those words, pictures, videos, marginalia, and other elements together in some kind of coherent fashion? Good. We had to do that in Rhizo14. Did you find yourself following a side trail that led to a flash of insight or to nowhere? Good. We did that in Rhizo14. Do you find yourself wondering who is speaking, if it's the same person who was just speaking, and if they are speaking to you? Good. That's what Rhizo14 was often like. Do you find yourself looking for the point, the thesis, the takeaway that you can repeat to your colleagues when they ask you what you are reading? Good. We often had trouble explaining to others why we were still in Rhizo14. Do you find yourself wanting to give up because making sense of all this is too difficult? Do you find yourself angry at the writers because making sense is their job, not yours as reader? Good, very good. You've now learned things about Rhizo14 that we could not have told you otherwise.

I think I can best understand what emerged in the Unreadable Untext by reference to Deleuze and Guattari's rhizomatic concept of decalcomania, a "process of transferring designs from prepared paper onto glass or porcelain", or "a technique used by some surrealist artists that involves pressing paint between sheets of paper" (same online dictionary) and most commonly known today in its shortened form decal. The Unreadable Untext is a decal: a pressing that transfers, in this case, a larger pattern onto another surface (a Google Doc) and at a reduced scale. (Thus, the Unreadable Untext is fractal, with self-similar and familiar patterns repeating imprecisely at different scales.) I am most familiar with decalcomania in the handprints that children make when they put wet paint on their hands and press them helter-skelter onto paper. The prints are, of course, familiar but not the same as the palms they echo. The prints are also more accessible. The deterritorialization of the children's unique palms and their reterritorialization onto the paper is evocative and convenient, but not identical. Like all studies, it leaves out some details in the original and adds others, but I can carry around 30 prints in my satchel, while I can't carry around 30 children. Similarly, you can read the Unreadable Untext at one sitting without having to spend six weeks in the MOOC.

Deleuze and Guattari discuss decalcomania in conjunction with cartography, or mapping, to describe in part how engagement of reality (what we did in Unreadable Untext) differs from analysis of reality (what other ethnographies do). In A Thousand Plateaus (1988) they say:
The rhizome is altogether different, a map and not a tracing. … What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real. … It is itself a part of the rhizome. The map is open and connectable in all of its dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification. It can be torn, reversed, adapted to any kind of mounting, reworked by an individual, group, or social formation. It can be drawn on a wall, conceived of as a work of art, constructed as a political action or as a meditation. Perhaps one of the most important characteristics of the rhizome is that it always has multiple entryways … A map has multiple entryways, as opposed to the tracing, which always comes back "to the same." The map has to do with performance, whereas the tracing always involves an alleged "competence." (12, 13)
So Unreadable Untext is a map, "an experimentation in contact with the real", and not a tracing, or an analysis. Untext is a performance, not a competent tracing with elucidations from point A to point B, pulling out of the noise of the swarm a logic that is clearly there, but that the swarm ignores and flows around. We were susceptible to constant modification, reworked. Our aim was performance, not competence. In a way of speaking, Untext is itself part of the rhizome called Rhizo14. You can enter Rhizo14 through Untext. You can wait until 2015 and enter Rhizo15 from there. You can enter Rhizo14 from this post or Terry's Zeega or Clarissa's post or Maha's post or the Collaborative Autoethnography for #rhizo14. This rhizome, Rhizo14 and its many offshoots, including Untext, "always has multiple entryways", unlike traditional analytical documents which enter only at the beginning, at the thesis, and travel one way to the conclusion like a digestive tract.

This performance has implications, ramifications—it multiplies and emerges. First, Untext has no center, no unified voice, no author in the traditional sense. We readers want a single author, a single author-ity; even if it is a group, we want unity. One voice. Untext is a swarm voice—if you prefer zombies, then it is a horde voice—but it is not a centered voice. It is not even uncentered. It swarms. As Deleuze and Guattari say:
To these centered systems, the authors contrast acentered systems, finite networks of automata in which communication runs from any neighbor to any other, the stems or channels do not preexist, and all individuals are interchangeable, defined only by their state at a given moment—such that the local operations are coordinated and the final, global result synchronized without a central agency.
Untext speaks as i. I, of course, am there in the text, as were others, but not as I; rather, as i. We lacked a word and made do with what was to hand. We was too unified, a coherent whole, a choir with one voice, Faulkner's small southern village, and not a swarm. I, too, carries way to much baggage from centuries of coherence and individualism and our own delusions that we exist. i had to do. I think it worked rather well, but we'll see if it persists. First-person swarm triumphs over first-person singular and first-person plural.

Our communications ran—still run—"from any neighbor to any other". The text was not decided before it was composed, and no one planned to speak to anyone else. Even when we were only two, Maha and I, we had no intention of communicating about anything. We wrote over each other, past each other. We surprised, echoed, drifted. Everything was lateral. Then others joined, and the hum grew louder. But not discordant, not if you are in the swarm. Local comments "are coordinated" and the final document—if there is to be a final document, I doubt it, so let's say the emerging document—is "synchronized without a central agency" as each voice looks to its immediate neighbor for cues about which way to move. Sensitivity leads to a swarm of swallows, both birds and gulps. I won't say that I am always graceful writing in the swarm, that any of i is always graceful, but i am learning, and i will do better next time. Even zombies can learn.

So if you can't identify a unified voice, which one do you believe? As my son once told me, "Dad, don't believe anyone, believe everyone." Truth no longer relies on the authority of the single voice. Rather, it relies on triangulation. Don't focus. Absorb the hum coming from all angles and washing over you, and listen for the pockets of resonance, to use a term from Marshall McLuhan. Triangulate to find something similar to the truth in the emergence of repetitive patterns. Walter Cronkite is dead.

And so is the thesis statement. It isn't there in the Untext. I really can't tell you what i meant to say. Each time I re-read Untext, I see something new. At last, I have reached the point my dear friend Boer tried to lead me when he said, "I don't want to write what I know. I want to write what I don't know so that I can read it and learn."

Finally, don't look for a context to this text. You must bring your own context (BYOC), which guarantees that whatever you find emerging from the text will be different from what the next reader with their different context finds. If your only context is three hundred years of Western analysis, then Untext will likely make no sense to you. Let it go.

But if it says something to you, if it creates a hum in your heart or head, then welcome to the rhizome. Let's swarm.

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.