Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Networks as Frames

I'm always thinking about writing as complex, network phenomena—to the point that I can hardly think of writing any other way. It doesn't seem to matter what level or scale I use to think about writing—the neuronal through the writing process of a single person to a book to the socio-historical movement of languages and genres—it's networks all the way down and up and across. Rhizomes, really. I do think Deleuze and Guattari have a most useful understanding of the structure of reality that they capture graphically in the term rhizome, but that term is a bit foreign to most, almost quirky, while network has a better exchange rate. Network, then, is for me one of those large concepts that frames and informs my other concepts.

And it seems useful to know how one is framing ones reality. Perhaps the biggest lesson, though, is to realize that one is, in fact, framing reality. Actually, that is not quite right. I am not framing reality, though I am absolutely necessary for reality's frames. Rather, I am part of the dialog that frames reality. This is an important aspect of rhizomatic thinking: any frame for reality emerges out of the interactions of nodes—the dialog of nodes—within that reality. Thus, the frame itself is an emergent, and temporary, part of the reality it frames. I see everything as networks because that kind of dialog and frame explains so many things to me. Things that were unclear are now clear. Things that were incoherent are now coherent.

Apparently, others find network structures useful for understanding their favorite slice of reality. In his book Networks of the Brain (2010), about which I have already written much in this blog, Olaf Sporns frames cognition and consciousness in terms of networks on multiple scales, from a chain of neurons, to the interactions of brain regions, and onward to the connections of brains to other brains and to human artifacts. As Sporns says plainly: "cognition is a network phenomenon" (181). In his book Interaction Ritual Chains (2005), Randall Collins frames microsociology in terms of networks at the micro and macro levels of human interaction. Collins says plainly that "the center of microsociological explanation is not the individual but the situation" (3). This situation is for Collins much like what I mean by networks: the interaction and retro-interactions of nodes within a system, across that system, and with other systems. Manuel Castells' book The Rise of the Network Society (2010), frames macrosociology in terms of networks, showing how the interactions of large social groups is a complex, network phenomenon.

Network ideas are certainly common in conversations about rhetoric and education. James Berlin says in his book Rhetoric and Reality that "Transactional rhetoric is based on an epistemology that sees truth as arising out of the interaction of the elements of the rhetorical situation: an interaction of subject and object or of subject and audience or even of all the elements—subject, object, audience, and language—operating simultaneously" (15). Other rhetoricians and academicians accept this way of structuring reality as a dynamic, complex network.

I find this idea that meaning, or reality, is an emergent property of communal dialog implicit and explicit in much that I've been reading about rhetoric, or the skillful use of language, especially in education. In his 1970 classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paolo Freire refers to the "banking concept of education" that turns students "into containers, into receptacles to be filled by the teacher. The more completely he fills the receptacles, the better a teacher he is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are. Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor." This communal way of speaking about education, of course, frames what can be said and thought about education and what can be done in education. And the frame is so convincing that it feels as if Nature itself is structured this way. Of course students know next to nothing, and of course teachers know next to everything, and of course the teachers must deposit that knowledge into the students. What else could education be but this?

Freire spends much of his book poking holes in this language, but for me his salient point is that the reality of our educational system is an emergent property of the interactions among the constituent nodes within that system. Those interactions involve, of course, language and rhetoric as one, but not the only, type of meaning-creating interaction. Freire identifies the dominant language with the politically dominant group, and in this, I think he is mostly correct, and the heart of his message is that revolution depends in some part in over-turning this language. If we shift the meaning-creating interactions among ourselves and our artefacts, then we can shift our reality. This shift is accomplished partly, sometimes in large part, through a shift in language.

Like Freire, Nedra Reynolds also explores how community dialog can frame reality. In her 1998 essay Composition's Imagined Geographies: The Politics of Space in the Frontier, City, and Cyberspace, she shows how something as apparently concrete as geography is itself a product of communal dialog, especially when that language is applied to a specific discipline such as English Composition. "Spatial metaphors have long dominated our written discourse in this field ('field' being one of the first spatial references we can name) because, first, writing itself is spatial, or we cannot very well conceive of writing in ways other than spatial." Again, for me, the salient point is that the reality of English Composition emerges in large part from the dialog of the community that discusses it, lives it, and interacts within it.

This view of meaning and reality as emergent properties of a dialogic community seems to me to be at the heart of a connectivist rhetoric. I think such a frame brings some amazing explanatory power and a pleasing, aesthetically beautiful coherence to a swelter of confusing aspects of today's reality. I could easily climb atop my soapbox and proclaim the Gospel of the Net. This iGospel or eGospel has a certain appeal to it, and many of its evangelists are growing rich and powerful from it, but I must keep in mind that network is but one way of framing reality, one way among other ways. Network has a temporary advantage perhaps—a heightened currency—but in the end, network, too, will be supplanted by other ways of viewing the world. Better ways perhaps, though I can't see it at the moment.
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