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'ĂȘtre 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.
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