Thursday, January 8, 2015

Immanent Mappings or Transcendent Tracings?

I thought I might be finished talking about prepositions and meaning, but more ideas keep coming that inch me closer to talking about the desires of prepositions.

In my last post, I argued that the meanings of words—perhaps the meanings of all words, but certainly the meanings of prepositions—are context-bound. Prepositions do not have a context-independent meaning. A preposition, of course, brings to a conversation a history, a trajectory of usage that makes it readily useful, and it is this history of usage that most dictionaries try to capture, especially dictionaries like the Oxford English Dictionary (The OED) that explicitly list the history of an English word beginning with its roots in languages of the past. This trajectory of usage is the DNA of the preposition that unpacks more or less well in any given conversation, or given context. But the unpacking in the current conversation is just as important, probably more important, than the DNA the preposition brings to the conversation.

This is similar in my mind to how the life of a person is more dependent on how their DNA unpacks itself within its environment (context) than on the DNA itself. The meaning of a person and a preposition, of course, depends on the sub-strata of DNA, but it is by no means limited to that DNA. This habit of definition is the source of most unfair prejudices and discriminations because it appeals to some transcendent category to define the person or preposition rather than to the immanent unpacking of the DNA. For example, Maha noted in the recent #fedwiki that men still hold a prejudice against women in technology. Men too often assume that because Maha's DNA made her female, then she must not know much about technology. They are unfairly defining Maha and all other women by a transcendent category, ignoring that Maha has unpacked her own DNA in a very technology-competent manner. For me, this habit of defining by transcendent categories has some benefits but also many debits. It leads to too much damaging behavior like last year's Gamergate debacle.

The meaning of a preposition, then, depends on the immanent unpacking of the word within a conversation as its trajectory weaves in and out of the trajectories of all the other words in the conversation, but it is more than that. The meaning also depends upon the trajectories and relative points of view of the interlocutors. Consider the follow CAE sentence from iKevin:
I came into the space with no understanding of Rhizomatic Learning other than some references the past summer with our Making Learning Connected MOOC project, and I leave the space still a bit murky about the term.
Into shows up here with a figurative extension of the first meaning indicating a movement that results in enclosure within something. That is without question a fine beginning for constructing some meaning out of this collection of words, this string of DNA (I'm coming to think of sentences still as linear, but linear in the way that DNA is linear: a double-helix in which position and order is important but no more important than how the DNA unpacks itself as it feeds into and back from its environment, or context), but into doesn't really begin to mean much until it interacts with the rest of the sentence, the paragraph, iKevin's entire account, the CAE including marginalia. Look at the sentence. If you cannot identify the space iKevin refers to, then you have a weak or even inaccurate understanding of what into means here. That iKevin is referring to the virtual space of a cMOOC about Rhizomatic Learning stains the meaning that emerges from into. That iKevin is somewhat confused by Rhizomatic Learning and that he has experience in other MOOCs also shades the emergent meaning of into. That iKevin goes into and then out of the space, suggesting a narrative journey, shades the emergent meaning of into.

I could go on adding more references from the enclosing paragraph, account, CAE, etc, but this makes the point for me: into doesn't mean much until it connects iKevin to Rhizo14 and weaves through his own mental state, his history with MOOCs, his profession, and so much more. When I pull all of that together, then I start to understand what iKevin means by coming into the space. And it isn't exactly the same meaning that emerges when iBonnie says, "I think this was honestly the thing that drew me fully into the group". The two uses are similar in a fractal sort of way: recognizable, but not the same.

I'm using the terms transcendent and immanent on purpose as they help me bridge to the discussion about the desires of prepositions, an idea that depends much on Deleuze and Guattari's concept of desire. For me, then, the meaning of a preposition is immanent, an inherent part of its use within a sentence. This has serious consequences for how I think about words. First, it challenges the notion of a word as a signifier which is a common sense of words. As a signifier, a word is never the thing it means. The meaning of a word is always defined as this means that: for example, horse means a large, four-legged, domesticated animal used for draft and transportation. The word horse does not mean itself; rather, it means something that transcends or is beyond itself. The word points to something else and has little to no meaning beyond that pointing, reference, or signifying. I think most of us think of words this way.

What if the word, however, just means itself, signifying nothing else? I'm suggesting that the meaning of a preposition is the coupling the preposition performs within a sentence. The preposition does not signify something other than its coupling, the connection it forms in this instance—just as in has just coupled instance to preposition, coupling,  forms, and connection. In fact, in coupled all of these together in a swarm. This coupling and connecting into a swarm, it seems to me, is at the heart of the rhizome, and in language, prepositions are the little couplers, the connectors, the desiring engines, that link any point to any other point. As Deleuze and Guattari say in A Thousand Plateaus (1980), "Principles of connection and heterogeneity: any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be" (7). Prepositions are those linguistic engines by which the rhizomatic conversation territorializes, deterritorializes, and reterritorializes—connecting to anything other. What if the purpose of language is not to signify, but to connect? What if connection came first, as with music, and signifying came later?

The desires of prepositions are extremely potent forces, and they are immanent, not transcendent. Prepositions do not signify something beyond their own coupling. Deleuze and Guattari say it pointedly: "Writing has nothing to do with signifying. It has to do with surveying, mapping, even realms that are yet to come" (4,5). They amplify this a page later:
A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles. A semiotic chain is like a tuber agglomerating very diverse acts, not only linguistic, but also perceptive, mimetic, gestural, and cognitive: there is no language in itself, nor are there any linguistic universals, only a throng of dialects, patois, slangs, and specialized languages. There is no ideal speaker-listener, any more than there is a homogeneous linguistic community. Language is, in Weinreich's words, "an essentially heterogeneous reality." There is no mother tongue, only a power takeover by a dominant language within a political multiplicity. Language stabilizes around a parish, a bishopric, a capital. It forms a bulb. It evolves by subterranean stems and flows, along river valleys or train tracks; it spreads like a patch of oil.
Prepositions and other connector words such as conjunctions are the immanent coupling engines of desire by which a conversation both "stabilizes around a parish" and "evolves by subterranean stems and flows, along river valleys or train tracks".

I do not know how well this idea will wear, but I'm interested in it enough to pursue it for awhile longer, in part because I think that the connections marked in the CAE by prepositions map the connections in Rhizo14. This may seem like a return to signifying something beyond the words, but I'm not so sure. When speaking of language, Deleuze and Guattari distinguish mapping from tracing, which always refers to the transcendent thing beyond itself. Mapping is immanent for Deleuze and Guattari, an "experimentation in contact with the real." As they explain:
The rhizome is altogether different, a map and not a tracing. Make a map, not a tracing. The orchid does not reproduce the tracing of the wasp; it forms a map with the wasp, in a rhizome. What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real. The map does not reproduce an unconscious closed in upon itself; it constructs the unconscious. It fosters connections between fields, the removal of blockages on bodies without organs, the maximum opening of bodies without organs onto a plane of consistency. It is itself a part of the rhizome. The map is open and connectable in all of its dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification. It can be torn, reversed, adapted to any kind of mounting, reworked by an individual, group, or social formation. It can be drawn on a wall, conceived of as a work of art, constructed as a political action or as a meditation. (A Thousand Plateaus, 12)
Anyone who participated in the swarm piece Writing the Unreadable Text or the #fedwiki has a visceral sense of using language to map rather than to trace reality. They are aware of writing that "is itself part of the rhizome … open and connectable in all of its dimensions" and that "can be torn, reversed, adapted to any kind of mounting, reworked by an individual, group, or social formation." This mapping is worth exploring, and I think the desires of prepositions will take me well into the space.
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