Friday, April 11, 2014

RhizoRhetoric and Legibility

In a recent comment to this blog, Maha Bali linked me to Venkatesh Rao's post A Big Little Idea Called Legibility on his ribbonfarm blog, in which Venkat (Rao's blog name) discusses legibility, an idea developed in James C. Stewart's book Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Legibility has significant implications for rhizorhetoric—in no small part because writing is supposed to be legible. Illegibility is one of the core no-no's of good writing, especially academic writing such as most of the scholars in Rhizo14 produce.

Still, Stewart's concept of legibility goes far beyond penmanship to our need for clarity and simplicity, an issue that I've dealt with before, but I think Stewart's concept is—dare I say it?—clearer and broader in application. Stewart identifies legibility as a habit of mind to reduce the complexity of life to something simpler and more manageable. He gives the following recipe for legibility:
  • Look at a complex and confusing reality, such as the social dynamics of an old city [or Rhizo14]
  • Fail to understand all the subtleties of how the complex reality works
  • Attribute that failure to the irrationality of what you are looking at, rather than your own limitations
  • Come up with an idealized blank-slate vision of what that reality ought to look like [how a MOOC ought to behave]
  • Argue that the relative simplicity and platonic orderliness of the vision represents rationality 
  • Use authoritarian power to impose that vision, by demolishing the old reality if necessary 
  • Watch your rational Utopia fail horribly
Venkat adds that "the big mistake in this pattern of failure is projecting your subjective lack of comprehension onto the object you are looking at, as 'irrationality.' We make this mistake because we are tempted by a desire for legibility." We want things to be simple. We need it. We make things simple by dismissing all those messy details of complexity as irrational and irrelevant.

Though this drive for clarity and simplicity is not limited to Western culture, it is highly characteristic of Western intellectual life over the past 300 years, at least since the Enlightenment. In his book Chaos (1988), James Gleick notes that twentieth century scientists schooled in the reductionist, mechanistic science of Newton and Descartes "had learned not to see chaos", or what I am calling complexity. Any variations in scientists' real-world experiments from the expectations of their neat linear equations would usually be dismissed as "experimental error". In other words, when some piece of complex reality didn't fit the equations, they would chop off reality. One of the major realizations of scientific thought in the 20th century is that linear, simple processes in nature (there are some) are the exception and that non-linear, complex processes are the norm. As I understand it, then, Stewart's legibility explores how organizations in general and governments in particular try to twist complex and confusing reality into a simple and clear legibility that makes management and control much easier. Legibility is a basic human drive. We want clarity and the assumed control that results from it.

I want to argue here that scientists and government bureaucrats aren't the only ones blind to the complexity of reality—so are we liberal arts writing teachers. In fact, I think that most writing teachers lag far behind the scientists in accepting and coping with complexity. We teach legibility, and we teach our students not to see complexity, which tends to destroy legibility. I cannot think of a single composition textbook that I've used over the past 35 years that has not encouraged legibility. I turn to the three composition texts on my desk, and yup, they make the process and products of writing most legible: chopping up writing into a neat little process: prewriting/writing/rewriting, or some variation, yielding neat little products: description, narration, argumentation, comparison-contrast, and so on.  The texts have great advice: limit your topic (students who take this literally, as they are trained to do, simply stop writing at 500 words—that limits things), or identify a thesis which expresses your limited subject and point of view, or choose a pattern of development that best serves your purpose for writing. Hmm … if your purpose is simply to make an A and get out of this class, as it is for most students, then what pattern would work best?

Now, maybe this is the nature of textbooks: to make things explicit and legible so that students can learn, or at least pass the test, but it seems to work against a complex view of reality. This is important for me just now because I don't know how to approach the Rhizo14 MOOC as anything other than a complex, non-linear, multi-scale, rhizomatic event, and I believe in my heart that anything other than a complex, non-linear, multi-scale, rhizomatic document will not communicate to readers the dynamic reality of Rhizo14. The typical scholarly essay that I've been reading for the past 40 years, with its clear thesis and well-documented supporting detail, will not map so well to Rhizo14. The very form of traditional scholarly writing renders explicit and regular that which was/is implicit and irregular.

When Benoit Mandelbrot began looking at the coastline of England, he found that the regular shapes of traditional geometry were of little use in helping him calculate the actual length of that coastline, so he invented a new geometry (fractal geometry) which "mirrors a universe that is rough, not rounded, scabrous, not smooth. It is a geometry of the pitted, pocked, and broken up, the twisted, tangled, and intertwined" (Chaos, 94). I think that Rhizo14 is not rounded or smooth; rather, it is pitted, pocked, and broken up … twisted, tangled, and intertwined. I need a rhetoric that maps well to the twisted, tangled, and intertwined.

Deleuze and Guattari faced the same issue when they were writing A Thousand Plateaus and giving us the concept of the rhizome. In their first chapter Introduction: Rhizome, they speak of the book they are writing, but which I can easily extend to any text:
A book has neither object nor subject; it is made of variously formed matters, and very different dates and speeds. To attribute the book to a subject is to overlook this working of matters, and the exteriority of their relations. It is to fabricate a beneficent God to explain geological movements. In a book, as in all things, there are lines of articulation or segmentarity, strata and territories; but also lines of flight, movements of deterritorialization and destratification. Comparative rates of flow on these lines produce phenomena of relative slowness and viscosity, or, on the contrary, of acceleration and rupture. All this, lines and measurable speeds, constitutes an assemblage.
The first characteristic of this kind of writing (a book has neither object nor subject) does away with the dualism inherent in classical Western thought. It reintegrates the writer/s with the thing written about and the thing written, and I see this already happening in the Rhizo14 ethnography as the writers are part and parcel of the system they are writing about. The phrase writing about shows how difficult it is to avoid language that does not incorporate the subject/object dualism. The Rhizo14 writers are not writing about; rather, through their very writing, they are extending, perpetuating, informing Rhizo14 itself. Their writing, this post included, IS Rhizo14—it is not about Rhizo14. They are informed by Rhizo14, and they inform Rhizo14. And of course, this violates the tradition of objective academic writing in the 20th century, which still lingers too long in too many places. Most of the teachers at my campus, for instance, still restrict the use of first and second person (I, we, and you) in formal papers, as do the editors of too many scholarly journals. Teachers and editors are slowly accepting the presence of real people in academic writing, but the smell and noise seem to bother them. In short, academic rhetoric still has not quite accepted the reality of complexity thought that demonstrates the impossibility of separating the observer from the observed or from the observation.

Rhizorhetoric, on the other hand, insists that the observer is an aspect of the observed and the observation and that all together—the writer, the document written, the thing written about, and eventually, the readers written for—form a rhizomatic assemblage. Rhizorhetoric expects to find the thumbprint, accent, and notes from the writer/s on the document itself. It also expects to find the swelling marginalia from readers.

Rhizo14, then, does not fabricate a beneficent God to explain geological movements within the emergence of its text/s. It has no super-editor to excise the messy parts and to fit Rhizo14 into a simple, legible text. It has no lonely writer thinking his lonely thoughts. Rather, it has a collection of people looking at an assemblage from an incredible array of angles for many different reasons and different purposes and generating posts, tweets, marginalia, anecdotes, poems, sounds, stories, and more about what they see.

But do not be alarmed. I am not suggesting here that clarity, or legibility, are not welcome aspects of the Rhizo14 text, or of any text—they are—but they are not limits to that text. As Deleuze and Guattari note, the kinds of rhizomatic texts that emerge in Rhizo14 may have lines of articulation or segmentarity, strata and territories, but they also include lines of flight, movements of deterritorialization and destratification. The rhetorical space for Rhizo14, then, is enlarged to include legible territorializations (traditional scholarly essays) and illegible deterritorializations. And all this, lines and measurable speeds, constitutes an assemblage—a book, a Rhizo14 text.

And the lines of deterritorialization keep flashing. A former student of mine just linked me to a fantastic 3-D printed art installation that is reminiscent of baroque architecture, with all its texture. Rhizo14 needs a 3-D printer of words, images, and sounds. That just might print the document.
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