Friday, January 30, 2015

Deleuze, Serres, and the Desires of Prepositions

What I propose here is a travelog, the flow and emergence of an idea. I want to ride the Chattooga River of my blog posts over the past year, and along the way, I want to map the desires of prepositions and determine what the desires of these little words have to do with the ways we conduct higher education. The Chattooga starts as a small stream in the mountains of North Carolina, but it quickly becomes a raging, uncontrollable river as it snakes and twists its way between Georgia and South Carolina. Along this boundary between the two states, the Chattooga has some of the most challenging and dangerous rapids in the United States, but soon in flows into the Tugaloo River and becomes more calm. By the time the Tugaloo flows into the Savannah River, the Chattooga has become a placid and respectable. This narrative structure may work for me, or it may not. Let's see.

Like the Chattooga, my ride begins in the headwaters, on a mountain, with a trickle, a spring that bubbles up from somewhere deep. This particular stream broke the rocks one year ago at the Southern Humanities Conference at the end of January, 2014, and with the MOOC Rhizomatic Learning: The Community Is the Curriculum (Rhizo14), that ran through February and into early March, when I contributed to a collaborative autoethnography (CAE) about Rhizo14 started by Sarah Honeychurch and Maha Bali. MOOCs were on my mind, and I did not yet know that I had not finished either SHC or Rhizo14, but had just begun the flow of ideas that they spun me into.

My thinking started innocently enough, as I wrote a couple of posts about who was in Rhizo14 and who wasn't. Boundaries are a tricky issue online, and the Rhizo14 group was questioning who belonged in, who belonged out, and how we could tell the difference. I thought I brought some clarity to the idea of boundaries, and my thoughts were tight and tidy.

As is often the case, however, the quiet trickle of a meditative mountain stream leads to a precipitous fall. Falls are beautiful unless you are in them, and then they can be scary. In April, I suffered a great fall, a sudden realization that I did not understand the nature of connectivist-style MOOCs, those massive open online courses that I had been engaging since 2010 and was trying to describe in the Rhizo14 autoethnography. I was walking one balmy, South Florida evening, thinking about Rhizo14, when all my thoughts fell suddenly away. The ground collapsed beneath me, and I had the unshakeable conviction that I had no idea what I was doing or talking about. This seems overly dramatic, I know, but that's how it felt as I described in my April 23 post A Rhizomatic Snow Crash. I had to find a new way to think, because my current thinking was not getting it done.

I started with noise, a concept I had gleaned from Michel Serres' book Genesis (1995). After all, genesis is a fine place to start, in the beginning with the swarm, with the chaos, with the undifferentiated whole. I was determined to go way back, to start again, for as Serres says, "Background noise is the first object of metaphysics, the noise of the crowd is the first object of anthropology. The background noise made by the crowd is the first object of history. Before lan­guage, before even the word, the noise." I can report truthfully that my head was very noisy.

My first realization was that there is no position outside the noise, no objective stance away that says the noise is over there apart from me, and I can assess it and judge it from over here apart from over there. If you've ever run a wild river such as the Chattooga, then you understand noise. On the Chattooga, you are always inside the noise, part of the noise. The noise flows through and around you. There is no transcending the noise of the river, nor is the noise transcendent. The noise is always immanent. Actually, transcendent as something beyond and immanent as something inherent mean nothing in the noise. The noise simply is, and you are simply in it, differentiated more or less at different times, but never distanced. Your own noise is included in the noise but not inclusive of it.

And this was my second realization: if I am to define what cMOOCs are, then I must define from the inside out, not from the customary outside in. This is a tip I had picked up from Edgar Morin's book On Complexity (2008), but my ride over the falls made it obvious to me and helped me understand it, from the inside. There are things you can learn in the swirl, tug, and fall of the river that you just can't learn standing on the banks.

Early in May, in a post entitle Experience and the Ludic in Rhizomatic Education, I hit the ludic rapids that often emerge just below the falls. The rapids introduced the concept of play, very active play, and not merely play as the fun behavior of children, though it certainly includes that, but play as mapping and performance as Deleuze and Guattari discuss in their chapter "Rhizome" in A Thousand Plateaus (1988) and play as the basis of much of culture as Huizinga insists in his book Homo Ludens (1970). Play, or performance, is all about mapping new pathways in contact with the real, as Deleuze and Guattari put it. And it all starts from inside the great noise. When you are riding the Chattooga, you are in the noise and in contact with the real, and you realize that play is both exhilarating and deadly serious. You can drown here.

I was happy for the play. I might not actually get anywhere, but it could be a fun trip. And as I was riding the rapids, I was connecting to other Rhizo14 alumni, specifically Maha Bali of Egypt, Shyam Sharma of Nepal, Simon Ensor of France, Clarissa Bazerra of Brazil, and Frances Bell of England in posts such as Sliding Out through Rhizo14. My play space was enlarging. My raft was getting bigger, and it was filled with interesting playmates. The noise was a rich and fecund field out of which voices arose, faded, and emerged again, yelling excitedly as the raft twisted, rocked, and threatened to flip.

At the end of May, I realized that my wild river of ideas had begun in a trickle of tears even before Rhizo14 in my January presentation to the Southern Humanities Conference in Richmond, VA. I wrote a post Emergence and Crying in Public about crying as I presented an emotional paper and tender thoughts flowed through me and down my face. It seems the springs of the Chattooga really do originate deep in the heart of the mountain in waters flowing all the way from the last ice age and before. As it happened, Linnéa Franits of Utica College was on that same panel with me, and she shared with me her own account of crying in public in her article "Mothers as Storytellers" in the Lewiecki-Wilson and Cellio book Disability and Mothering: Liminal Spaces of Embodied Knowledge (2011), a collection of—get this—autoethnographies. Okay … so flows start way back long before you are aware of them, and when you grab a flow, other flows start converging. Flows want to connect. It's how flowing rivers and flowing ideas work. Trajectories of different flows synchronize and respond to each other. Most curious.

I desired to keep riding this flow to learn where it might go, but I had not used the term desire yet. That was to come.

In early June and still in the rapids, Ronald L shared with me Nicholas C. Burbules' article The Limits of Dialogue as a Critical Pedagogy (2000), which explores and challenges "the claims made on behalf of dialogue as an inherently liberatory pedagogy". In my post, Turbulence and Dialog in Rhizo14, I said:
Dialogue is an open-ended engagement in that zone between order and chaos, and while we want the dialogue to end in order (a meaningful consensus), chaos is always at hand and possible. Dialogue, then, is dynamically poised between promise and terror, meaning and nonsense, consensus and strife, resolution and dissolution. Dialogue is turbulent, and while consensus is possible, it is not always probable. And it is not necessarily desirable.
If you want to understand that dialogic tension that drives most of reality, ride the Chattooga River. You are dynamically poised between promise and terror, sense and nonsense, resolution and dissolution. That's exactly where I was in my thinking. Eyes wide and holding on. And my raft was getting bigger, accommodating more mates. And notice the title of my June post: Turbulence in Rhizo14. As I look back on it, I can't help but think that I was already writing this post, but perhaps that is just an illusion of narrative.

In July, I joined CLMOOC, mostly because of my Rhizo14 colleague Kevin Hodgson. In response to one of the CLMOOC prompts and a chance mention, I critiqued Pierre Dillenbourg’s introductory chapter "What do you mean by ‘collaborative learning’?" in his 1999 book Collaborative-learning to see if he could provide me with an analytical approach to MOOCs. I devoted three long posts trying to make his methods work for me, but I couldn't do it, and my raft was stuck on a rock for much of the month of July. This is a dangerous place to be in rapidly moving current, as you risk capsizing trying to re-enter the stream.

Fortunately, I made it back into the stream by the end of the month with the post Who's Writing the Rhizo14 Ethnography. I re-read the Rhizo14 CAE and saw that not much new had happened with it. Others seemed to be as stuck in the rocks as I was.

A couple of days later in an August post entitled Educational Research: At the Heart of Things, I connected the Rhizo14 CAE with complexity studies after reading an article by Brent Davis and Dennis Sumara entitled Complexity as a theory of education (2008). This proved to be a major stream feeding into my own, and as usually happens when streams join together, they swell into a wider, deeper, and more stable river. The rapids were receding, and I was starting to make progress toward the desires of prepositions. Complexity studies carry the flows of many disciplines, and although it is by no means a well-defined discipline, it brings many useful concepts such as emergence. This would be most helpful.

Then, in the first week of September, half a year after Rhizo14, I announced in a post called Prepositions as the Rhizomatic Heart of Writing that I would approach the Rhizo14 CAE through a study of its prepositions. That I should use prepositions seems so obvious to me now, but at the time, it was not. I really had no idea how to proceed, but I had an intuition based on Serres' "argument for considering prepositions, rather than the conventionally emphasized verbs and substantives, as the linguistic keys to understanding human interactions." To my mind, "prepositions are the connective, connecting tissue that connects this to that in a pattern that works and makes sense." If I could follow the prepositions in the CAE, then I was certain that they would tell me something I might not otherwise learn.

This was the approach to complexity that I needed, and with this decision, my river run settled into its longer, slower phase as the water calmed. At last, I thought I knew what I was doing, and I could get on with the business of doing rather than just surviving. Now I merely had to learn how to follow prepositions and note where they might lead.

In a post called bluntly enough Coding Prepositions in the Rhizo14 Autoethnography, I started by coding prepositions in the CAE, taking about as simple an approach as is imaginable: I used the Google spreadsheet from Maha Bali to list all the prepositions in the CAE, listed the dictionary definitions as the categories for each definition, and matched a definition/category to each preposition. This wasn't such a bad way to begin as, one, it was somewhat similar to the coding my Rhizo14 colleagues were doing, and two, it forced me into some fairly close reading of the CAE, but the category approach had a couple of problems that became obvious almost immediately.

First, I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data. I had 652 instances of the preposition of in a 23,717 word document. A spreadsheet was simply inadequate for handling this kind of big data. I needed a better tool.

Then, my category choices were very problematic. At times, a given instance of a preposition might fit several categories. I thought about just assigning several categories, but that felt messy, and I didn't want to do it. At other times, some prepositions didn't seem to fit any of the dictionary definitions that I had gotten from my MacBook's online dictionary. I thought about using a better dictionary with more definitions—say, the Oxford English Dictionary, but I was quickly souring on the idea of discrete categories. It seemed wrong, and I was a bit lost and somewhat afraid that my river was about to spread out into a trackless swamp.

By mid-September, my thinking had taken two fortunate turns which appear in the post A Tale of Two Sentences: Rhizo14 Auto-ethnography. First, I decided to analyze two sentences rather than all of them. While I often attack reductionism as the preferred, blessed approach to all issues, I still recognize that it has its utility: it allowed me to focus on a manageable sub-scale (two sentences) with the promise of extrapolating my findings to the larger scale of the CAE. Then, I decided to use Voyant Tools, a suite of text analysis tools by Stéfan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell. I would have to learn to use the tools as I was trying to apply them to the CAE, but it was clear that the spreadsheet was hopeless. These two shifts led to my first real sense of what prepositions do in conversation:
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.
I can see now, though I still couldn't see in mid-September, that I was flowing into the desires of prepositions. For me now, the journey seems inevitable at this point, but I still had some paddling to do.

During the entire trip from the mountain stream, over the falls, through the rapids, and into the deep river, I was reading and talking to my Rhizo14 cohort. Some of the reading and conversations I have mentioned, much of it I haven't. Most all of it had to do with complexity, with some articles about prepositions thrown in. This reading was, of course, dredging the river for me, making it deeper. A deep river loses its turbulences, but it gains something in tides and currents—slower forces, but just as strong—in the long run, stronger.

In the second week of October, I wrote A Background for Studying Prepositions in Rhizo14 Auto-Ethnography, seemingly a bit late in the trip for a background, but I think I sensed that I was on the verge of some new ideas for me, and I needed to sort through some things, or maybe just take a deep breath before paddling on. I say for me because I really don't think many people have truly original ideas—maybe just a handful per society per century, but this doesn't matter really, and I take it as no diminution of my own discoveries here. For me, they were new, and that's really good news. Anyone can have new ideas, even children. In fact, I suspect that children have more new ideas than anyone, and that's why they learn so much so fast. Of course, we educators knock that shit out of their heads with our rote, regimented curricula, but most children do start off quite well.

I returned to meditating on Serres and Latour and made a big decision: I would try to define from the inside out. I would try to avoid applying a given theory and problem to Rhizo14 CAE and instead let the theory and problem arise from it. Rather than applying connectivism, say, to the CAE, I would try to meditate on the arcs of the prepositions and let patterns emerge as they might. Most importantly, I would not dismiss those arcs that made no pattern that I could see. I would have faith that the pattern is there somewhere and that Rhizo14 is intelligible. Forgetting your theoretical training is, of course, impossible to do, but as Derrida says, perhaps tongue in cheek, if we do only the possible, we don't do much. I make no claim to having actually accomplished it, but it set me on the path to righteousness and got me much further down the river. It allowed some new stuff to emerge.

Later in October, I met with Simon Ensor, Frances Bell, and Terry Elliot online, and the issue of Gamergate caught my attention, so I wrote a post Left/Write and the Desires of Prepositions that re-awakened my interest in Iain McGilchrist's ideas about the different world views of the left and right brain, and for the first time I wrote about the "desires of prepositions". I realized that, although both left and right brain connect to the world for different reasons—the left to manipulate and possess, the right to relate—they both desperately want to connect, regardless of their different reasons. The desire for connection comes first. And one of those little light bulbs turned on to reveal prepositions doing the same thing. Prepositions find their entire purpose in connecting. Well, yeah. It was such an obvious thing, that I'm a bit embarrassed that I hadn't seen it sooner, but there it is late in October.

On October 30, Maha Bali and I started writing a Google Doc called Writing the Unreadable Untext. We had such fun that we invited some of our Rhizo14 buddies to join in the mayhem, and we all discovered our swarm voice over the next several days. The swarm voice was all about connecting, swarming about each other, bringing in this and that. The Unreadable Untext is a map, "an experimentation in contact with the real", and not a tracing or an analysis. It 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. As we wrote the Untext, we were susceptible to constant modification, reworked. Our aim was performance, not competence. It was all very Deleuzional.

Not until the middle of November in a post called Rise of the iSwarm: A First Global Look at the Rhizo14 Auto-ethnography did I connect the swarm idea with prepositions. Prepositions create swarms. I didn't know that, but there it was. I could see it in the numbers and patterns I generated with the Voyant tools. I slipped into a strong current, confident that this was going somewhere.

By mid-December, I had mapped one of the less frequently occurring prepositions into (33 occurrences), and the resulting image was so very pleasing to me. It settled into my heart and head like an old, dear friend that I had just met for the first time.


Prepositions are really all about connecting things into a swarm. How satisfying.

Of course, this is only a static snapshot of the swarm, and I do not yet have the tools that will create a more dynamic image or movie, but imagine looking at a swarm of locusts out on the plains. Now imagine that you can identify 33 of those locusts and that you can track them through their own small-scale swarm and through the large-scale swarm. That's what I have in mind, and I'm convinced that I can do it, though I haven't yet. In fact, I believe Voyant Tools can handle this if I just learn how to rig it.

Early in January, I tackled the problem of polysemy in prepositions. It seems that most everyone has recognized that prepositions can mean any number of things, but not many seem to know what to make of that. Meaning as a characteristic of a word itself and independent of a context seems an unshakeable tenet of faith. But the abstract of a 2008 presentation by Dagmara Dowbor entitled "The case of over revisited: Results from a corpus-linguistic analysis and further proposals" provided me with a more complex understanding of meaning as something that is always context-dependent. At least in the case of prepositions, meaning is not context-independent. I tied this in my mind to some earlier articles I had read by Paul Cilliers that discussed how meaning in general is always context-dependent, and I realized just how unsatisfactory the dictionary's list of often disconnected meanings for a single preposition really is. Prepositions don't really mean much until they are in a sentence coupling this to that. It is the coupling that meaning emerges from. (Ending an English sentence with a preposition is a major faux pas, but I'm convinced that it's because it brings too much attention to a little word that most grammarians want to bury in the middle of the sentence. This may not be factual, but it seems true.)

A few days later, I reworked this insight, trying to connect it to Deleuze and Guattari's concept of desire by showing that the meaning of a preposition is immanent rather than transcendent. I don't know that this use of immanent and transcendent will stand examination, but what I meant is that the meaning of a preposition is inherent in the coupling marked by the preposition. It is not dependent on some appeal to something beyond the coupling. I don't know that this was the correct way to connect prepositions to Deleuze and Guattari's concept of desire, but it's what I had at hand, and I explored it. A better connection can likely be made through D&G's concept of mapping, but that's for later.

This brought me finally to the post The Desires of Prepositions written just 10 days ago, when I finally made a stab at defining what I meant by the desires of prepositions. As I understand Deleuze and Guattari, they see desires as the complex flows of drives through reality, the flows that couple different things to produce new things. The opening paragraph of Anti-Oedipus (1977) says best what desire is:
It is at work everywhere, functioning smoothly at times, at other times in fits and starts. It breathes, it heats, it eats. It shits and fucks. What a mistake to have ever said the id. Everywhere it is machines—real ones, not figurative ones: machines driving other machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections. An organ-machine is plugged into an energy-source-machine: the one produces a flow that the other interrupts. The breast is a machine that produces milk, and the mouth a machine coupled to it. The mouth of the anorexic wavers between several functions: its possessor is uncertain as to whether it is an eating-machine, an anal machine, a talking-machine, or a breathing machine (asthma attacks). Hence we are all handymen: each with his little machines. (8)
Prepositions, then, are desiring machines. They are the couplings that connect words together into a flow of information that flows into us, through us, and out of us, coupling ideas to ideas, ideas to us, and us to others. We desire to know, to connect, to couple with ideas and people and this wonderful world, and that coupling produces all the new things that the Universe appears to be so fond of.

It occurs to me now—just two days before I deliver this talk to the SHC and publish it on my blog—that I could have traced the prepositions in my blog posts as I am tracing them in the CAE, and that way, my presentation could have embodied my presentation. I like that, but old habits die hard, and this narrative occurred to me first.

So what did I learn about the ways that we teach and learn in higher education? Perhaps the biggest lesson is that desire for connection flows through all of us. I hear regular complaints that college students are apathetic and don't want to learn. This isn't true.  Everyone wants to connect to new things and to learn, as is obvious to anyone who has ever visited a kindergarten class. Kids will wallow with anyone, with anything, or with any idea to produce something new. Anyone who can create a castle out of a cardboard box has no problems with creativity. For the most part, kids are all about connecting. (This, of course, has dire implications during cold and flu season as kids spread diseases easily, but the easy spread of germs just illustrates the ease of connectivity among kids).

My second insight is that we educators mostly mishandle the desires to connect and learn, the flows, that our students already have. While all students want to learn new things, they may not immediately want to learn our things. Because we have only a short time to cover our material, to trace the flow of our information, we disregard the flows of energy and information that the student is already in. We ignore their trajectories. It's worse than ignoring, we are willfully ignorant of their trajectories, assuming that the only value in our class is the trajectory of our own information. We make too little attempt to coordinate and connect student trajectories to our trajectories. Regardless of our subject matter, all of us have a few students who show up ready to jump into the flow of our information, but too many students don't show up ready, and we make too little attempt, especially given the constraints of traditional classroom structures, to identify their trajectories and fit them to our trajectories.

Or better yet, to fit our trajectory to their trajectories. Why not? I teach college writing in a professional school with not a single English major. Most of my students think of Composition I and II as required hoops to jump through, at best, or damned obstructions to their professional goals, at worst. If I can't show them how good written communications complements their professional trajectories, then I have lost them. I have to start with them where they are and try to flow with them and help them flow with me.

We also mishandle student desires to learn by truncating our own desires to learn. Too many teachers quit learning in their classrooms. They choke off and turn back upon itself the natural desire to connect to ideas and to people. They see the flow in the classroom as one way—from themselves to the student—and they don't see themselves joining that flow. This kind of flow is devoid of all desire, and why should we expect our students to want travel such a dry, rocky stream? It is passionless, with no excitement.

Then, what have I learned from tracking prepositions? First, I have come to appreciate how complex and multidimensional writing is. Prepositions couple the flow of one idea to another to create new ideas. Like a flock of birds or a swarm of bees, prepositions orchestrate the flow of ideas in a text. This has always been so, but static print concealed this dynamic flow of ideas through text. Modern technology has made this flow of desire more apparent. The Untext written by the Rhizo14 cohort was a visceral demonstration of the iSwarm voice and the swarm of ideas that flow through a text as a swarm of writers desire to connect to each other and to new ideas. Just today, I participated in a #MOOCMOOC Twitter chat. The swarm of ideas and the emergent iSwarm voice was obvious, graphically displayed for all to see. We have traditionally thought of English text as linear, but it is linear in the way DNA is linear. It is an expression of a genetic flow, and it's the unpacking and expression of that flow that creates meaning. We need new reading and writing skills and strategies to handle flowing text.

I've also learned that prepositions are both makers and markers of coupling. They join and those joints are trackable. This gives me a new strategy for engaging texts, a strategy that I intend to employ much in the coming months. I do not yet know if others have used this strategy, but I hope so. I'd like to see how they track prepositions, or some other part of speech, to unpack a text.
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