Sunday, November 13, 2011

#change11 Rhizomatic Knowing

I woke up this Sunday morning thinking about rhizomatic knowing, but the house is full of guests and the coffee is already on, so I don't have long to write.

I want to flash on something that Bon Stewart calls a helicopter view of reality and that I refer to as a God view (Deconstruction: I'm the child of a Pentecostal minister, schooled on the church pew since birth, so God is almost always somewhere in any discussion I have), because this assumed position or vantage point has much to say about what we think we know.

As you may have noticed, I like working with metaphors, or images, as a gateway into thought, so let's play. Envision your life as a plate of spaghetti, and yourself as one noodle in that plate, with a history (a long and happy one, we hope) twisting and intertwining with all the other noodles in your life. Got the image? Ok, find your noodle, the noodle that will represent your life, and for the sake of the game, place your noodle somewhere in the middle of the spaghetti mess.

If you are like most of us, you are almost certainly viewing the plate of spaghetti and your own life from outside, from up above, from a helicopter view, or a God view. From this view, you can see the whole plate of spaghetti, even the table it sits on, and your noodle from start (birth) to finish (death), and you can meticulously identify each twist and turn and convolution in the string of your life, and you can point to, name, and quantify each point of contact with all the other noodles on your plate. You can determine which other noodles (or meatballs, but let's not push this metaphor too far) had significant, lasting impacts on your life. You can make assessments about why things turned out as they did. From this view, you can see and trace causes and effects. This is very useful.

It is also a fiction. You are not God, you don't even have a helicopter. I think this is one of the main points Deleuze and Guattari are trying to make. Giving yourself Godview is a fiction—a sometimes useful fiction, but always a fiction.

To envision what you can actually see in your plate of spaghetti, you have to float down from your privileged vantage point on High and take your place along one point on your noodle. That point is conveniently called Now. Okay, from this point, look about yourself at the plate of spaghetti. It should look very different, Now and Here. You peer back down the length of your noodle, and it twists and turns like a goat path into the past. You can no longer see your birth. You can't see the noodles that impacted you then, though you are reasonably sure your mother was there and likely your father, at least for one brief and shining moment. You look forward along the length of your noodle into the future. Hmm … now you can see even less as your noodle takes a sharp veer into tomorrow. So you look about at the various other noodles (people, events, sounds, colors, countries) intersecting with you at Now, and all those noodles have their own obscure trajectories, a few of which you have some memory, but most of which are just obscure. This is your real, actual view of life. This is what Deleuze and Guattari want to remind you of: that life is a complicated mess of interwoven noodles, a rhizome.

I use the term complicated just here on purpose: complicated suggests to me the intricate arrangement of  many parts. But let's take the plate of spaghetti one iteration beyond by making it not only complicated but complex. Take all those static noodles in the plate of spaghetti and put them in motion so that they become a roiling mass of worms or snakes. Or if you find that image too distasteful, then turn each noodle into an electric arc, a streaming asteroid, a flaming, flashing star, whatever dynamic image works for you, but just put the whole plate in motion so that each once static noodle begins to make its way through the mass of other noodles, being acted upon and in turn acting upon others. Think about the effects of electromagnetic forces that operate powerfully over short distances (physical, emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic distances) and the gravitational forces that operate over all distances so that your one noodle or arc is pushed and pulled—certainly by the noodles closest to you (family, colleagues, friends, favorite philosophies, etc.) but ultimately by every other noodle in the spaghetti mass. Now, extend your plate of spaghetti out in all directions to encompass all of the Universe and all of history because all of that has exerted some gravitational influence on you in the Here and Now. And because you are likely a teacher, complexify your plate of spaghetti by adding it to the thirty other plates of spaghetti from your students, and then look at me squarely and tell me that you really understand all of this roiling, arcing, flashing, dynamic mess/mass.

Well, I don't think you do. I'm positive that I don't. Rather, we build our fictions through abstractions, focuses, reductions, bulbs, agglomerations, tubers, shoots, and so forth, that help us filter the swelter of reality into something that makes sense, into something that is manageable. It's the best we can do, but—and this is another strong point from Deleuze and Guattari—this fiction-making process is always an exercise of power. We create these fictional systems for ourselves and for others. We have to, but it is always an exercise of power however well intentioned: an attempt to wrangle reality, the rhizome, into a more manageable shape, often into our own image. This fascist tendency (D&G's term) is always there, and the rhizome always eventually flows around it. The Greek gods, kings and kingdoms, democracy, algebra, the Free Market, English, Spanish, Impressionistic painting, behaviorism, constructivism, connectivism, and rhizomatic learning have all been more or less useful fictions at one time or another. Deleuze and Guattari do not argue that we should avoid this fiction-making. Rather, they argue that we should never forget that these things are fictions. They are more or less useful ways of engaging reality—the Rhizome—but they never capture reality. They never really give us the total control over ourselves, others, and the World that we seek.

To my mind, this is a profound spiritual truth expressed in totally secular terms. And you can quite reasonably ask, so what? Well, that's another post … or ten. But people are stirring. Time to go.
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