Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Multiplicity of the Classroom

The third principle of the rhizome in Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus is multiplicity. I'm still struggling with this concept, but I am forming a clearer image of what it means for me and my classes.

Each person in a class, students and teacher, is a rhizome, a multiplicity, and as such, they are not reducible to a single term such as student or teacher, though that reduction may have some temporary utility as a convenient shorthand. Deleuze and Guattari note this convenience in their witty opening to ATP: "Why have we kept our own names? Out of habit, purely out of habit. … To render imperceptible, not ourselves, but what makes us act, feel, and think. Also because it's nice to talk like everybody else, to say the sun rises, when everybody knows it's only a manner of speaking. … We are no longer ourselves. Each will know his own. We have been aided, inspired, multiplied" (ATP, 3). Isn't that clever? A name serves not to reveal us to others but to hide us, "to render imperceptible … what makes us act, feel, and think."

How does a name do that? By reducing the multiplicity of any person to a single point, a label, a name that deceives us into the belief that we know that person if we know their name. All names, even numbers, are expedient fictions, a shorthand that allows us to quickly navigate the world, but we must always be watchful, sensitive to the multiplicity clustered about the pinpoint of each name. "The number is no longer a universal concept measuring elements according to their emplacement in a given dimension, but has itself become a multiplicity that varies according to the dimensions considered (the primacy of the domain over a complex of numbers attached to that domain). We do not have units of measure, only multiplicities or varieties of measurement" (ATP, 8). When we say that this is John, an A student, and this is Mary, an F student, then we have reduced complex multiplicities to a few features in a very narrow context.

Neither is course content reducible to a few bullet points on a PowerPoint. Like people, knowledge is a multiplicity, connected to all else, and any boundary between this knowledge and that is, at best, an expedient fiction. As teachers, we must be most sensitive to the connections between knowledge and our students, recognizing that each connection is likely different, a multiplicity of connections. Each student is an assemblage of unique intellectual, emotional, social, sexual, religious, economic rhizomes that interconnects and interplays with the course content rhizome in its own unique way, and then that resulting assemblage interconnects more or less with all the other class assemblages, including the teacher's, to create a unique class assemblage that makes this ENG 1101 course different from any of my other ENG 1101 courses now, past, or future.

This reminds me of Shunryu Suzuki's wry comment in his book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few." I don't believe that Suzuki is attacking expertise; rather, he is noting that expertise often depends on the facility of the expert to reduce the complexities of a situation to a few options for quick resolution or clarification. Expertise, then, may permit the expert to move quickly into and out of a situation, but it also blinds the expert to the swirl of multiplicity around the situation.

I don't know if reductionism is necessary for negotiating reality, but I'm sure it is a convenient habitual practice. The problem is that we forget that it is a fiction, a powerplay to gain physical, intellectual, political, social, religious, aesthetic control over reality, but it is not reality. Students are not students. They are so much more. Both teachers and students must be sensitive to the multiplicity of each other, even as we construct the fictions, the mantras, the formulas that help us through daily life.

This makes me think of the available spectrum of light. We see only a narrow bit of the total spectrum, but it is foolish of us to think that there is nothing else to see. What would we see of the world if we could process the total spectrum? Reductionists foolishly limit the rhizome just to what they can see; however, the rhizome, any rhizome, is infinitely rich, able to elevate and challenge our minds. The available light spectrum is, of course, sufficient to go to the grocery store or to take a test, but the spectrum is wide, even wider than we suspect. What could we see at wavelength -1?

We territorialize the rhizome, perhaps we must, but we must always be ready to follow the deterritorialization. As Deleuze and Guattari note: "It is not enough to say, 'Long live the multiple.' … The multiple must be made, not by always adding a higher dimension, but rather in the simplest of ways, by dint of sobriety, with the number of dimensions one already has available—always n - 1 (the only way the one belongs to the multiple: always subtracted). Subtract the unique from the multiplicity to be constituted; write at n - 1 dimensions. A system of this kind could be called a rhizome" (ATP, 6).

Reductionism always leads to impotence, to the dryzome of the thing being reduced. Reduction of a frog to its constituent parts with a scalpel always kills the frog. Reduction of the frog with language conceals fifty million years of evolution, ecosystems, and your own education. As Wordsworth noted in his great Ode: "To me the meanest flower that blows can give Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears." As Pirsig noted in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: "For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses." All rhizomes proliferate, they wallow in promiscuity, assemble, collapse only to reassemble again. "When rats swarm over each other" (ATP, 7).

All students, all teachers, all systems of knowledge are bounded infinities, are assemblages of rhizomes. In classes, they are legion, infinity compounded infinitely. Writing teachers, then, must accept that any forms are provisional, expedient fictions to perform specific tasks within specific contexts. They are not eternal. The perceptive teacher must be open to the interplay of even the most formalized of structures with students. We must be able to follow the rhizome, "the line of flight or deterritorialization according to which [rhizomes] change in nature and connect with other multiplicities" (ATP, 9). That's where all the fun is.


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Writing the Rhizome Classroom

I spent the morning replying to emails from a colleague. He is concerned about the direction our writing across the curriculum program is taking, and I was trying to answer his concerns. This reminded me that I really must connect all this conversation about rhizomatic structures to the classroom, especially the writing classroom. The theory is fun, but if I cannot make it relevant to an actual classroom, then I must question the usefulness. So what would a classroom as rhizome look like or behave like, especially a writing classroom?

Let's start where Deleuze and Guattari start, with connectivity and heterogeneity. "Any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be. This is very different from the tree or root, which plots a point, fixes an order" (ATP, 7). The principles of connectivity and heterogeneity totally overturn any form of hierarchical command and control structure which ranks, orders, fixes, and names all points within the hierarchy and which determines which points are inside the hierarchy and which are outside.

Actually, the rhizome does not overturn hierarchy. Rhizome does not contest or overpower hierarchy in any way; rather, it simply renders hierarchy irrelevant and flows around it. The rhizome Internet, for instance, treats any form of censorship as a fault which it isolates and flows around. The rhizome tree forms a knot around an infestation or a break and continues to grow around the offending wound. From a rhizomatic perspective, then, hierarchy is a wound which attempts to overpower the rhizome. The rhizome, in turn, is a force which attempts to isolate and flow around the wounds of the hierarchy.

Traditionally, a classroom is a hierarchical structure for impressing student minds with sanctioned, authoritative information and skills. The teacher sits at the top of the pyramid and brings all value to the class. The teacher represents the gatekeeper, determining who is in the class, within the hierarchy, and who is not. Especially at lower grades, the teacher censors the connectivity of students to anyone or anything other than the teacher and the teacher's information, thus violating the rhizomatic principle that any student of a rhizome class can be connected to anything other, and must be. (This certainly means that students must be able to connect to, be in conversation with, the other students in the class, and not only to the teacher, but it also means that students must be able to connect to anything other. Any point in a rhizome can connect not only to any other point in the rhizome but to anything other. In the universe.) The teacher signifies who is an A, who is a B, a C, a D, and an F student. The teacher determines which information, which behaviors, and which activities are valid and which are not. In the hierarchical class, the teacher represents all the power, ultimately of the State or the Academy, and the student is pressed into shape—is signified, named—by that Power.

A rhizomatic classroom is in/different, even when it adopts hierarchical structures for a time. In a rhizomatic classroom, the teacher is one point among others, not the only point with any power, sitting smugly, angrily, fearfully, or benignly at the top of the pyramid. The teacher is one learner among other learners. We hear this often today in the expression that we teachers should move from playing the sage on the stage to the guide on the side, a glib mnemonic that captures, as it also obscures, the shift from command-and-control power structures to connect-and-collaborate force structures. The teacher is one force among others. The teacher's information is one force among others. The teacher may carry greater force by dint of size, learning, and experience, but the students also carry forces from their own knowledge, skills, and experience, and they, too, exert force on each other and on the teacher as the teacher exerts force on them. They all become a rhizomatic solar system or galaxy, perhaps with some bodies exerting more or less gravitational force than others, but with all of them exerting some gravitational pull on all others, and even if remotely, on all other things in the universe. There is no rank order or fixed position in the rhizomatic classroom, though there can be a coherent dance and interplay. In the rhizomatic solar system, we planets find a trajectory and path because of the force of the Sun's gravitational pull, but the Sun finds its own trajectory and path, in part, because of our gravitational pull on it. And we all planets, moons, and Sun stay in our dance because of our gravitational pull each on all the others. Power, then, works in one direction in one way to create something dead, a dryzome. Force works in all directions in all ways to create something living and beautiful, a rhizome.

As a writing teacher, then, I may exert more force as a more experienced and capable writer (though I have been fortunate to have students whose writing force equaled or exceeded my own), but my colleagues/students also exert their own forces. My role is to engage those forces, dance with them, and intensify them before they spin out of my orbit to engage other forces.

My job is not to determine who/what is in the class and who/what is not. Indeed, our class blogs, wikis, chats, textings, aggregators, etc. have enabled more connections to more people, more languages, and more systems of knowledge than we have wit to comprehend. We connect to any person, any topic, any knowledge, any language that we can engage.

My job is not to signify and rank order students. Rather, my job is to help them determine what forces (what assemblages that they muster together in written language, what texts) work well among other forces (audiences and texts and knowledge assemblages) and what texts do not work well. Why POS works so well in this text among these other texts and readers and yet does not work so well in this text with these readers. LOL.

My job is not to censure or sanction knowledge, but to explore knowledge and to develop an eye for what works well and what doesn't, what plays well and what plays less well and for whom. LOL.

My task is to facilitate a beautiful dance in written language, to "write, form a rhizome, increase your territory by deterritorialization" (ATP, 11). As Deleuze and Guattari say: "We're tired of trees. We should stop believing in trees, roots, and radicles [hierarchies]. They've made us suffer too much. All of arborescent culture is founded on them, from biology to linguistics. Nothing is beautiful or loving or political aside from underground stems and aerial roots, adventitious growths and rhizomes" (ATP, 15). I have no State power to appeal to, no State regime of knowledge to pass along, no authoritative and blessed mother tongue. Writing always works through collective assemblages of enunciation. "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" (ATP, 7).


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Function of Writing

Our interest in writing should be on what it does rather than what it means, the physical rather than the spiritual: "As an assemblage, a book has only itself, in connection with other assemblages and in relation to other bodies without organs. We will never ask what a book means, as signified or signifier; we will not look for anything to understand in it. We will ask what it functions with, in connection with what other things it does or does not transmit intensities, in which other multiplicities its own are inserted and metamorphosed, and with what bodies without organs it makes its own converge" (4). This is the point at which writing connects with both play and work. Both play and work are doing something, usually with others. Thus, we cease to look at writing as an artifact to be examined and deconstructed or as an expression of an individual mind to be understood or as a reflection of the world to be interpreted; rather, writing is an assemblage of energy and force arising out of other assemblages of energy and force and interacting with yet other assemblages of energy and force. It is the interaction of those assemblages, the interplay or inter-work done by the writing, that should interest us. We should ask what other assemblages of writing this writing interplays with, how it acts upon those assemblages and is, in turn, acted upon by them: what assemblages of commerce, thought, government, religion, or society this writing interplays with and how it acts upon those assemblages and how it is, in turn, acted upon by them. As an assemblage of energy, writing is a billiard ball of approximate size and shape struck by a cue of approximate size and shape with approximate force in an approximate direction on an approximate table of approximate size, shape, density, and level amongst other balls of approximate size, density, and shape in an approximate arrangement. Our interest is to watch the progress of the ball, how it strikes the rails and other balls, how it paces along, strikes, sheers, veers, and rolls, how it rearranges the table in its progress.

Now imagine an infinitely large table curving away forever with balls rolling in and out as they are struck by other cues with lesser or greater force and as the table curves, drops, and sheers this way or that, and then imagine a multi-dimensional table, or plane, or field, with balls of different size and intensities, weight, gravitational pull, and illumination, extending in bounded infinity, out through interstellar space or inside your head, and you begin—or at least, I begin—to capture a sense of an essay, a story, a novel, a book as a rhizome stretching, pulling, pushing, merging, sheering its way through other systems of energy in a marvelous dance of light. "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine," but only amongst all the other lights, building intensity, fading, interplaying, a dance of lights.

This note is my little light. It arises from the light of A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and FĂ©lix Guattari, specifically from the first chapter, "Introduction: Rhizome," of that book. It also arises from my own education, my own reading, the history of the United States, my marriage, my two sons, my vacation in the Bahamas where it is written, my impatience with the people waiting to go to the beach, my own practice of writing, my knowledge of note-taking and essays, and from infinitely more assemblages; and even now, as merely a faint light that serves only to illuminate my own thinking about writing and rhizomes, the level of this note's interplay, its intensity, is almost more complex than I can imagine as it careens and arcs through the rhizome of my own mind, striking chords with other assemblages of ideas, desires, emotions, plans, intentions, images, and doggerel. God forbid that I should put this on my blog and that others should read it, or that I should incorporate some of these thoughts in a presentation that I may make in Feb, 2010, at the Southern Humanities Conference in Asheville, NC. Who knows what weird scenes inside the gold mine may emerge if it should strike a chord, elevate an intensity, in the writing or thought or presentation of some other. Who can tell what bits of 2009, Christmas-time Bahamas may emerge in the cold hills of North Carolina by way of 1980s France. This single quark emerging from a collider cloud is already leaving traces of its path, and while it is most likely to lose its singular identity and traceability in some other writing or presentation, it is now emerged and is now in interplay with other systems, other assemblages. At present, it is just a note in TextEdit on my MacBook Pro laptop, but soon—or so I intend—a post to my blog, when I can reconnect to the Net. I can infuse, for more reasons than I have wit or clarity to enumerate, more energy into this little light of mine to see where it goes. Or not.

My interest in this bit of writing is its effects, what it does, with how well it plays or works, with whether or not it builds in intensity or is subsumed into some other assemblage of thought, or writing, or presentation, or blog, or glass of wine, or day on the beach. Have I struck it well? Does it have impulse and energy, a promising trajectory? Is it likely to go somewhere, to resonate, intensify? And, anticipating North Carolina, is this writing, this note, play or work? It feels like play just now, and I'm most interested in seeing how well it plays, or works, with other ideas I'm forming about rhizomes and writing, but is this just quibbling? Is it not work? I'm vacationing in the Bahamas, so some of the people here—my family, a sheer force against me (next to, not necessarily opposed to, but perhaps that, too)—think I am working and definitely not playing. They are waiting for me—a different assemblage with different energy decidedly disinterested in French philosophy and obscure plant reproduction—but they won't wait for long. I can feel their energy even as the force of Deleuze and Guattari is fading. What a strange thing writing is. I think I'll go to the beach for now.

But later, I'll have to think/write more about the distinctions between play and work. This note is both, but what does that mean? Deleuze and Guattari say not to ask that question of a text, do not ask what it means. So what is the function? What does it do? Will this  note function differently as work than as play? That's promising.

Footnote at time of posting: As it turns out, I didn't make it to the beach, but what the hell! I'm in the Bahamas and life is wonderful.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Connectivity Two

Well, the very first characteristic of a rhizome stopped me, and I had to start reading again. In what sense did Deleuze and Guattari mean that "any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be" (Thousand Plateaus, 7)? I have a hint of an answer, and I'm working on some other answers, but keep in mind that I am not suggesting that what I say here is what DnG meant when they wrote the above comment. I don't know what they meant, and in some ways, their meaning is irrelevant to me. All I want to talk about—perhaps all I can talk about—is how I interpret what they say. Here's one way:

I think initially I was stymied by my assumption that DnG were saying any point of a rhizome can be directly and simultaneously connected to any other point without any intervening or intermediary points. My mechanistic view of physical reality balked at this, or in DnG's terms, I was trapped in arborescent thinking. In aborescent, or hierarchical, structures, each node occupies a fixed point in the overall structure and connects directly only to those nodes immediately above and below it. Its relation to all other nodes in the structure are mediated, and thus controlled, by the nodes through which it must pass in order to connect and communicate to those remote nodes. Moreover, two points cannot occupy the same space. Arborescent thinking has a very strict economy: one point, one space. A point can occupy only one space, and no two points can occupy the same space—a place for everything, and everything in its place. Any point is responsible for the points below it and responsible to the point above it.

Arborescent thinking, then, creates a rigidly delineated arrangement of any thing, physical or mental. Rhizome thinking is different, though it can incorporate arborescent thinking (Arborescent thinking does not include rhizomes, however). In a rhizome way of thinking, no given point is fixed in any given place. Rather, a point is a nexus of potential places, properties, trajectories, and speeds, a swelter of probabilities that emerge and shift as the point interacts with the field of other points. Moreover, all those points are exerting some influence, some connection, however small, on every other point in the field, all at the same time. And the field is ultimately very large: the entire Universe. Everything is, in fact, connected to every other thing.

Everything, then, is a shimmering potential of probability that emerges into our consciousness for an instant and then arcs on to some other expression. Nothing is static, nothing stays in its place. No place for anything, and nothing in its place.

Well, maybe.

This connection of any one point to all other points is easy to see in digital information, where any piece of data can easily be connected to any other piece of data. For instance, at Amazon readers are constantly applying new tags to books. Indeed, any book in Amazon can have as many tags, identifiers, as people wish to give it. Thus, Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus need no longer be filed in a hierarchical taxonomy under French philosophy, but can be filed as well under modern psychology, poststructuralism, friends of Michael Foucault, stuttering, and weed management. DnG can be connected to most any idea that any reader, however deranged or sane, can imagine.

These connections are hypertext, and they are magical. I'll let Michael Wesch's marvelous video say it for me again:

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Rhizome: Connectivity

In Internet: Towards a Holistic Ontology, Chuen-Ferng Koh says that Deleuze and Guattari identify six characteristics of rhizomes and that these six characteristics should rightly be considered simultaneously so that "they can proliferate in the reader's mind" as a whole. Clearly, one should avoid the tendency to bifurcation in making these intrinsic characteristics of the rhizome distinct from one another and from the rhizome. I admit that I am not clever enough to do that yet. Anyway, the six characteristics in a list are (lifted from the web site Capitalism and Schizophrenia):
  1. Connectivity – the capacity to aggregate by making connections at any point on and within itself.
  2. Heterogeneity – the capacity to connect anything with anything other, the linking of unlike elements
  3. Multiplicity – consisting of multiple singularities synthesized into a “whole” by relations of exteriority
  4. Asignifying rupture – not becoming any less of a rhizome when being severely ruptured, the ability to allow a system to function and even flourish despite local “breakdowns”, thanks to deterritorialising and reterritorialising processes
  5. Cartography – described by the method of mapping for orientation from any point of entry within a "whole", rather than by the method of tracing that re-presents an a priori path, base structure or genetic axis
  6. Decalcomania – forming through continuous negotiation with its context, constantly adapting by experimentation, thus performing a non-symmetrical active resistance against rigid organization and restriction.
One of the first features of a rhizome that we find quite odd is that all nodes in the rhizome are in fact connected to all other nodes. As Koh puts it: "in a rhizomatic system each point can and must have connections to all others, unconstrained by any bifurcating order." Unlike hierarchical systems which assign a rank and file to each node, thus constraining relationships among them, rhizome structures do not constrain the relationships among any nodes. All nodes are related to all other nodes.

How is this possible?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Enter the Rhizome: Non-duality

My good friend Dan Jaeckle introduced me to the concept of the rhizome as first expressed by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in their 1987 book A Thousand Plateaus, the second volume of their two volume work Civilization and Schizophrenia. I do not presume to be a scholar of French philosophy, nor do I presume to understand Deleuze and Guattari very well; however, the rhizome has captured my imagination as a marvelous description of the structures that I have been calling networks. I have been writing about networks for the past two years, and basically, I have been contrasting them to hierarchies. The gist of my argument has been that, in response to modern technology in general and information technology in particular, humankind is undergoing a shift from hierarchy as the dominant mode for structuring human reality to networks as the dominant mode. This shift is as deep and as extensive a shift as humankind has ever undergone, and it will change everything.

However, I have for sometime felt an uneasiness with trying to say all that I wanted to say about this new structure with the term network. I've not been systematic enough in my thinking to say what my uneasiness was all about, other than that network didn't seem to capture just what I meant. Rhizome may be the concept I'm looking for. Whether it captures it all or not, I cannot yet say, but I'm already convinced that it will expand and sharpen my ability to speak about the structures that are coming to dominate the way people think, communicate, and organize their affairs.

I have already corrected one error in my thinking: rhizomes (or networks) are not the opposite of hierarchies, or as Chuen-Ferng Koh says in Internet: Towards a Holistic Ontology, "It is important not to see the rhizome in binary opposition to the tree … The concept of the rhizome was set up precisely to challenge dichotomous branching."

Rhizomes are inclusive of hierarchies. Hierarchies, however, do not include rhizomes, at least not formally. I think it certain that rhizomes have existed in the most rigid of hierarchical structures throughout history, but on a clandestine, ad hoc, submerged basis that is almost never recognized by the power structure of the hierarchy and never sanctioned. Indeed, one of the formal characteristics of hierarchies is that they are exclusive of all that is not within the hierarchy, and they invest great resources in marking the boundaries between the organization and the rest of the world. Hierarchies are always mindful of managing their entry and exit procedures, and they tend to make the barriers to entry and exit rather high.

Rhizomes are not opposite to hierarchies so much as they simply ignore hierarchies, cutting in arcs across hierarchical boundaries and levels, connecting nodes at various levels within the hierarchy to each other and to nodes totally outside the hierarchy. Hierarchies find such connections and collaborations highly disruptive and treasonous.

Rhizomes are indifferent to entry and exit barriers. Whoever will can enter the rhizome, and whoever won't can exit. In either case, the rhizome is largely unaffected. Its formal characteristics persist.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Homo Ludens: The Nature of Play 2

After outlining the formal characteristics of play, Huizinga narrows his focus to what he calls "the higher forms" of play, a clarification that I take to mean the more formal play—mostly of adults—in more advanced societies. Huizinga then explores the two basic aspects under which we confront the higher forms of play:
  • as a representation of something
  • as a contest for something
Representation means displays of some kind from peacocks strutting their plumage or a child acting a super hero to actors becoming a character on a stage or a shaman becoming a god in a sacred ritual. This act of re-presenting some aspect of reality through play is far more than mere imitation of reality; rather, it allows both the players and viewers to participate in the reality being represented. At its most sublime, then, play merges into and shares formal characteristics with ritual: "The Platonic identification of play and holiness does not defile the latter by calling it play, rather it exalts the concept of play to the highest regions of the spirit. We said at the beginning that play was anterior to culture; in a certain sense it is also superior to it or at least detached from it. In play we may move below the level of the serious, as the child does; but we can also move above it — in the realm of the beautiful and the sacred" (38). I think that Huizinga makes a mistake in characterizing the play of children as not serious. He may be speaking more of his opinion about children than his opinion about play.

Huizinga does not address play as a contest in the introduction.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Homo Ludens: The Nature of Play

It's time to start a new book: Homo Ludens: A study of the play element in culture by Johan Huizinga (New York: Harper & Row, 1970). I have a new job—I am the coordinator for the Quality Enhancement Plan at Albany State University in Albany, GA—and this new book is related to that job. My co-coordinator, Tom Clancy, and I are studying the use of play in promoting writing within a classroom. We think that if students can learn to enjoy writing more then they will write more, perhaps even better. We'll see. Anyway, Homo Ludens appears to be one of the seminal books about play, a very serious, unplayful book about play.

The title of Chapter 1, Nature and Significance of Play as a Cultural Phenomenon, is misleading to me as it suggests that play is a phenomenon of culture, when actually Huizinga says that play precedes culture and that culture is rather a phenomenon of play. "Human civilization has added no essential feature to the general idea of play (19) … In culture we find play as a given magnitude existing before culture itself existed … The great archetypal activities of human society are all permeated with play from the start (22) … The object of the present essay is to demonstrate that it is more than a rhetorical comparison to view culture sub specie ludi" (23). First play and then culture. Play appears to be one of those basic boiling pots of mind and heart out of which we prepare the various stews of culture: law, war, poetry, myth, philosophy, business, religion, and art.

Huizinga carefully limits his discussion of play to its cultural aspects, ignoring psychology and physiology. However, he does criticize psychological and physiological explanations of play that incorrectly assume "that play must serve something which is not play, that it must have some kind of biological purpose" (20). For Huizinga, play is its own justification. People and animals play for the fun of it, and that is sufficient within itself.

He reinforces this notion of play as a discrete and fundamental characteristic of humans and animals when he notes that "this fun-element … characterizes the essence of play. Here we have to do with an absolute primary category of life, familiar to everybody at a glance right down to the animal level" (21). Play is not the opposite of seriousness, for some play is very serious, even deadly serious. It is not comedy, wit, folly, or jest, though it may share elements with those. Play is not an element of the great antitheses of wisdom/folly, truth/falsehood, good/evil, virtue/vice, beauty/ugliness. "The play-concept must always remain distinct from all the other forms of thought in which we express the structure of mental and social life" (25). In the end, then, Huizinga doesn't like any explanations about why we play, but he doesn't given an answer either. Basically, he just says we play because it's fun.

He moves from this magical beginning to note that play must have a mental aspect, and usually not rational. "In acknowledging play you acknowledge mind, for whatever else play is, it is not matter (21) … Play only becomes possible, thinkable, and understandable when an influx of mind breaks down the absolute determinism of the cosmos. The very existence of play continually confirms the supra-logical nature of the human situation" (22).

Once Huizinga has assumed the fundamental nature of play, he begins to describe its formal characteristics:
  1. Free: Play is free, "is in fact freedom" (26). It is a superfluous, not required activity that people engage in willingly or not at all.
  2. Extraordinary: In the sense "that play is not ordinary or real life" (26); rather, it "stands outside the immediate satisfaction of wants and appetites" and is "a temporary activity satisfying in itself and ending there" (27).
  3. Limited: Play is limited in place and duration. It has a playground and a playtime. "It is played out within certain limits of time and place. It contains its own course and meaning" (28). Hence, its close connection to ritual, which also takes place in a hallowed place and time.
  4. Orderly: Play "creates order, is order … The least deviation from [order] spoils the game," and hence the connection to aesthetics, for "play has a tendency to be beautiful" (29). All play has rules, and violating the rules ends the game.
  5. Tense: Play has a tension in that the player is trying to do something well or at least better than another player be it solving a puzzle, hitting a ball, or scoring goals. Play tests our prowess.
  6. Communal: Play often leads to groups of players or fans who define themselves apart from others, adopting costumes and colors and other secret markers.
Play, then, is "a free activity standing quite consciously outside 'ordinary' life as being 'not serious', but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means" (32).

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Biased Writing

I thought I would write about our next essay, Matt Lynch's The Homeless Lack a Political Voice, But Not American Ideals, but I'm still annoyed with our previous essay by Joseph Perkins. If Mr. Perkins was writing in my ENGL 1101 class, I would chop up his paper, return it with no grade, and demand that he fix his preposterous claims and provide legitimate support for them. His prose is clean, but his ideas are mangled and shoddy. To my mind, the ideas are much more important than the prose, and Mr. Perkins' ideas fail.

Note first that Mr. Perkins is challenging the idea that much of contemporary homelessness is caused by government economic policy: "I decided to investigate for myself whether economic policies were to blame for the growing legions of street people who seemed to have invaded America's cities" (585). So what does he do to investigate? He spends one night in a train station in one American city: "So I spent a night at New York's Grand Central Station, which was a favorite gathering place for many of the city's homeless" (585). This is serious? Hardly.

To see how ridiculous Perkins' investigation is imagine that one of the students in our ENGL 1101 class—Ms. Stanton, say—wants to learn if the divorce rate among college students is affecting their studies. So she investigates the students in our ENGL 1101 class (we're down to 5 who attend regularly), and she finds out that no one in our class is divorced: 4 have never been married and 1 is happily married (I'm making this up, I don't know what she would find out about divorce in our class, but it doesn't really matter for my point). She then writes her paper and states with a voice of authority that divorce rates among American college students have no impact on their studies.

Really? Can Ms. Stanton look at the 5 college students in our class and make any kind of reliable generalization about all college students in the United States? Of course not, but that's what Perkins does. He looks at one group of homeless people in one place on one night, and then he draws conclusions about all homeless people in the country. This is ridiculous, and it's insulting that Mr. Perkins seems to think that we're gullible enough to accept his argument. Only those people who already accept his conclusions will accept Perkins' investigation as legitimate. However, even if you agree with Perkins, you should still have the integrity and honesty to say to him, "Look, Perkins, I, too, think homelessness is a personal problem, but your evidence lacks any credibility or authority. If you're going to join the conversation, then say something worth listening to."

And what about Perkins' investigation techniques? Did he interview the people in Grand Central in a systematic way? Did he follow up their case histories? I don't think so. As far as I can tell, all he did was look at them and almost reflexively categorize them as either crazies or addicts. He claims that he saw "dozens upon dozens of pitiable men and women who were suffering from some dysfunction or another. Some were afflicted with mental problems. Others were drug or alcohol abusers" (585). I'm not sure, but I don't think that being a newspaper columnist qualifies a person to so quickly and reliably diagnose the problems of dozens and dozens of people milling about in a train station. Rather, it seems more likely that Perkins was simply relying on his own stereotypes about people: "Oh, yeah, there's a crazy bag lady, and there's a pill freak. I can't see the pills, but he fits the type." Really?

And even if Perkins can reliably categorize all these people on sight, how does he know that they are homeless to begin with? Maybe they are just waiting for a train. And even if they are homeless, how does he know that mental illness or drug abuse caused their homelessness? Being mentally ill or addicted does not inevitably lead to homelessness. I know lots, "dozens upon dozens," of people who are mentally ill or addicted or both and who still live in homes. Why aren't they homeless?

Even the conclusions that Perkins draws from his pitifully puny investigation are suspect. For instance, he insists that homelessness results from individual failure, not from the failure of government economic policies: "Clearly their homelessness owned not to economic dislocation, but simply to self-destruction" (585). Really? Mental illness is self-destruction? People choose mental illness? Do people even choose addiction? I don't think so. Perkins observations don't "clearly" show anything about homelessness, which is a much more complicated issue than Perkins insists. Homelessness is not "simply" or "clearly" the result of willful and deliberate self-destruction, at least not based on the data that Perkins presents.

Finally, Perkins' logic is faulty even with the authoritative and valid data that he uses in this essay. He references a 1992 report from the U. S. Conference of Mayors that says "28 percent of the homeless population in the cites were mentally ill and 41 percent substance abusers" (586). So what's his conclusion? "This means that at least seven of ten street people have either a mental or chemical problem" (586). Perkins simply adds 28% and 41% and comes up with "at least seven of ten" (even though it's only 69%). Really? Couldn't even a high school student figure out that some of those mentally ill homeless people are also substance abusers, that they are the same people? Indeed, I'm willing to bet that most of the mentally ill are also substance abusers and vice versa; thus, the total is likely to be far less than 70%. With just a little research, I could find out accurate numbers, and so could Perkins. He was just too lazy and hoping we wouldn't notice his sleight of hand. This is sloppy writing, and it undermines his argument.

If a reader notices that a writer is cheating with his evidence, then the reader is much less likely to believe the writer. You lose faith, and once you lose faith, you just don't want to listen to the person any more. I don't want to listen to Joseph Perkins. I don't trust him anymore. How about you, scholars? What can you do to insure that you maintain the confidence of your readers in your own writing?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Homelessness & Gunslingers

Like drug abuse, homelessness is one of those issues that draws clear divides in America. Probably one-third of America believes that homelessness, like drug abuse, is a person's own fault and that society has no responsibility to help people who make poor choices. About an equal one-third believe that homelessness, like drug abuse, is usually the result of some kind of social injustice and that society has a responsibility to help these unfortunate people. The remaining third just wish the problem would go away and won't think about it until forced to by a political referendum in Washington or a panhandler on the street corner. Or a teacher in an English class. :-) Joseph Perkins does think about the issue in his essay Homeless: Expose the Myths, and he falls quite clearly on the conservative, individualistic side.

Mr. Perkins clearly believes that homelessness is the individual's own fault. In paragraph 4, Perkins says of the homeless people he observed one night in New York's Grand Central Station:

Some were afflicted with mental problems. Others were drug or alcohol abusers. Clearly their homelessness owed not to economic dislocation, but simply to self-destruction.

For Mr. Perkins, and others like him, homelessness is the result of willful self-destruction on the part of the individual. Though he doesn't say so explicitly in this essay, the conclusion of this attitude is that if people choose to self-destruct, then society should let them. This is similar to the attitude of those who think the best response to a suicidally depressed person is to forget counseling and medication and instead give them a gun and aim it for them. This is an understandable attitude for school boys to take on the play ground, but is it any way to run a country? I don't think so—at least, not a country that I want to live in.

Mr. Perkins is appealing to a common and deep American myth: the rugged individual, the gunslinger who needs no one and who makes it by his own grit, muscle, and ingenuity. It's an appealing vision that we see in the movies all the time, from John Wayne to Clint Eastwood and Sylvester Stallone.

But there is another vision of how to behave in society, one captured by a figure as big as Clint Eastwood: Jesus. There is no image of Jesus in Scripture that supports the abandonment of the suicidally depressed, certainly no image of Jesus giving the depressed person a gun to finish the job with. Instead, Jesus repeatedly says that he came to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless, and he repeatedly calls us to do the same (see Luke 4:18-19, Matthew 19:16-30, Matthew 25:31-46).

Mr. Perkins doesn't like this image of Jesus; rather, he likes the Jesus who cleanses the Temple (John 2:13-22), the Jesus who kicks ass and takes no prisoners. He likes the Clint Eastwood Jesus, the conservative, gunslinger Jesus. He doesn't like the sissy Jesus who wants to take care of the homeless, the hungry, the sick, and the incarcerated. He also overlooks the obvious: only one story about Jesus kicking ass like a gunslinger and many stories about Jesus healing the sick and feeding the hungry, or that Jesus only attacked the wealthy and powerful, never the poor and weak.

I, for one, just can't reconcile Mr. Perkins' bias against the homeless with the model of human behavior represented by the life of Jesus. Jesus said quite clearly to take care of "the least of these." The homeless are definitely the least of these, so let's take care of them. The question is how. I'll tackle that in another post.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Drugs and Education

I think that in their comments to the last blog post, Corey and Tyler brought us to the conclusion reached by Linda Kunze in the final essay we are reading about drugs. Toward the end of Drug Use: The Continuing Epidemic, Kunze talks about how the country might respond to the abuse of drugs, "Although there are no easy answers to this age-old problem, early education seems to be the only truly effective weapon the nation has" (366). I think she is right.

Clearly the abuse of drugs is a problem for society. Drug abuse has killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of people, destroyed the lives and families of millions more, and cost society billions in lost productivity and property. I don't think anyone disagrees with or can ignore these facts. I also don't think that anyone will deny that society has the responsibility to address the damage caused by drug abuse. The problem is figuring out what response is best.

Figuring out this problem is made all the more difficult because of our emotional involvement with the situation. As we can already see even in the small population of our class, almost all of us have been touched either directly or indirectly by drug abuse. Very few of us are truly indifferent to and objective about drug abuse; rather, we are passionate and engaged. This makes it harder to think rationally and to engage in considerate thoughtful dialog with those who oppose our passions. I remember when a few of my sister's more unsavory drug associates showed up at her funeral. My family and I were horrified and outraged. After all, these were the very people we blamed for her death. I can easily understand Justin's willingness to shoot on-sight anyone associated with illicit drug use, but as that a good path for society to follow? In my sane moments, I think not.

To my mind, the way we are handling drug abuse is similar to how we've tried to handle mental illness, a problem that society has addressed in different ways. In ancient times, mentally ill people were charged with demon possession and either cast out from the group or executed. In the Middle Ages, society became a bit more compassionate and reasonable and just put the mentally ill in prisons. In the 20th Century, we finally began to treat mental illness as a medical condition, not as criminal behavior. Likewise, I don't think we should treat drug abuse as criminal behavior. I am convinced that we can achieve a far better society if we decriminalize all drug use and manage the production and distribution of drugs through the government rather than through the Black Market, or even legal markets. This does not mean that I am in favor of or that I condone drug abuse, no more than I am in favor of or condone mental illness. I just think there are better ways to treat these problems than by shooting people or putting them in prison.

I noticed in the news recently that Mexico has decriminalized the use of marijuana, deciding that they have much bigger issues to deal with in their war against the drug cartels. Is this a good first step toward using education rather than bullets to curtail drug abuse? Is it something the US should consider?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Drugs and Personal Values

Gore Vidal's essay Drugs gives us a stark contrast to Morton Kondracke's position that we should not legalize the use of street drugs. Vidal argues that legalization is the only sane choice to make and that because it's the sane approach, he wryly concludes, we aren't likely to take it.

So we have two rather bright fellows arguing from opposite sides: one saying that legalizing drugs is insane and the other saying that it's the only sane thing to do. How do we resolve this conflict of opinions? By careful analysis and then looking to our own souls and values, I think, as with most important social discussions.

From my reading, both Kondracke and Vidal are after the same result: they both want a better society. They both are looking for a way to better handle a situation that damages society. They both agree that drug use can be harmful to significant numbers of people, but that criminalizing and fighting drug use also has harmful social consequences. They differ in which they see as the greater harm. Kondracke believes that legalization will only increase the number of people using drugs and becoming addicted to them, thus increasing the damage to society. Vidal believes that those who want to use drugs and become addicted already use them, and not legalizing drug use perpetuates a corrupt system that benefits only criminals and drug enforcement agencies. Kondracke, then, believes that the best way to manage street drugs is through law enforcement and prosecution. Vidal believes that the best way to manage street drugs is through legalization and removing the profit motive.

Which approach fits best with your values? I think I side with Vidal. Why? First, because I don't think there is much chance of Kondracke's position succeeding, not in a society that I want to live in. We Americans basically like the freedom to do as we please, and we don't like an overly oppressive government. I know of only one example of a country as large as ours eradicating illegal use of drugs: Communist China. When the Communists came to power in China in 1948, China was known world-wide for its opium dens. Being strict moralists, the Communist Chinese didn't like this reputation or situation, so they empowered their police force to shoot on sight anyone suspected of illegal drug use. They slaughtered thousands of people, including many innocents, but within a few years, the opium dens were gone, and the drug trade and use was almost non-existant. So the Communist Chinese traded illegal drug use for an oppressive police state. I think that was a poor trade, and I don't want the United States to make a similar trade.

Instead of shooting people on sight for drug trade and use, we put them in jail. I'm not sure this is much better. Prison is the very best training a pot-head can get for mastering a career in crime. A prison record pretty much precludes a pot smoker from ever getting a legitimate job after prison and teaches them all they need to know about making a living through crime. Prisons are great factories for producing criminals.

And they are expensive. Our prison population is a monstrous drain on our national resources. According to a US Senate report, "The combined expenditures of local governments, state governments, and the federal government for law enforcement and corrections total over $200 billion annually." This is serious money. And what is the major cause of this booming business? The same report says, "Changes in drug policy have had the single greatest impact on criminal justice policy." We are putting more users in jail (4 out of 5 drug convictions are for use, not trafficking).

I simply don't think that putting millions of users in jail is benefiting society as much as we think it is, and I am not willing to authorize the police and military to shoot drug users and traffickers on sight. So for me, the War on Drugs has been a monumental failure, and I favor trying a new approach: decriminalize drugs to remove the profit motive both for the Mafia and the prison industry, educate society about the dangers of indiscriminate and excessive drug use, and treat those who develop a drug problem.

And I don't fear an explosion of new drug users as Kondracke does. Like Vidal, I think that anyone who wants to use street drugs already does. My own experience and, I suspect, the experience of most young people today confirms that if you want drugs then you can easily get them.

Finally, by eliminating the whole War on Drugs effort and mentality, we can expand our approach to managing drugs to include not only street drugs but medical drugs. Our use of medical drugs is out of control. My youngest sister became addicted to OxyContin when she was given the drug by one of our nation's biggest drug pushers: her family doctor. My sister didn't drink alcohol, and she didn't smoke marijuana, but she grew to crave her pain killers. After years of struggling with her addiction, she died of an overdose about a year ago on September 5, 2008. The War on Drugs did not help my sister or the millions like her who are addicted to pain killers, tranquilizers, and sedatives pushed on them by pharmaceutical companies and doctors who are out to make a killing, literally. From my perspective, the War on Drugs has done little to improve society and has in many ways corrupted society and confused society about the real issues. Let's try a different approach, an approach based on personal freedom, personal responsibility, and common sense.

So what say you, scholars? You now have opposing points of view. So who do you favor, Kondracke or Vidal? Which side appeals to your basic values and fits your own experiences? You've heard my values and experience, now share yours.