Monday, March 31, 2014

Rhizo-Rhetoric and the Problems of Unity and Multiplicity #rhizo14

Let's assume, then, that writing a work of some kind—I'll stop short of calling it a book—about Rhizo14 calls for a different kind of rhetoric, a rhizo-rhetoric. What would such a rhizo-rhetoric look like? That's a great question for me, and I'm hoping that the Rhizo14 community will help articulate some answers to the question, but I still want to create some pockets of resonance and sound some musical riffs that may echo for us as we work through this composition.

I want to explore deeper the problem of unity and multiplicity that I touched on in my last post. Traditional rhetoric assumes a single individual as the center of the rhetorical act: the creator of new knowledge and the effective communicator of that knowledge, both mediated through the skillful use of language to create, capture, and communicate knowledge. I want to suggest that the study of and creation of new knowledge about an entity such as Rhizo14 demands a rhizomatic view of the individual scholar and knowledge as multiplicities and not individual, unitary individuals. I think I can find support for this in Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus (1988), Michel Serres' book Genesis (1995), and Byron Hawk's A Counter-History of Composition: Toward Methodologies of Complexity (2007). I'll be pulling ideas from all of these thinkers, and while I'll try to distinguish one from the others, it might get messy. Multiplicity always resists such reductionism.

Multiplicity is the third of six "approximate characteristics of the rhizome" (7) listed by D&G. As I understand it, multiplicity has profound implications for rhetoric: for its concepts of author, knowledge, content, document format, and readers, but I'm focusing on the author here. What does multiplicity mean for the Rhizo14 ethnography? First, it means that we are neither individuals nor a collective, as both imply a unity of either the one or the many, a single person or a single group designated by names and counted by numbers—for instance: Clarissa or the twelve-member Rhizo14 ethnography group (I've no idea how many are in the group, but that number isn't accidental). As Serres says in Genesis, we want unified concepts, either the individual or the herd that we can name and count, and we don't like multiplicities. We are confused and find mysterious those things that we can designate only with indefinite articles: some fog or grass, some love or hate. Those things are hard to think with and too often relegated to poetics and ignored by rhetorics and logics. We want a definite list of names for authorship of our document. We want to know who is inside and who outside, who are the authors and who are the readers. We want to attribute and quote, designate and footnote. We want to place blame and give praise. We don't want some people who wrote some stuff about some of the things that happened sometime somewhere:
anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
Rather, we want only (Please note the diminutive only here. It is important.) specific people, preferably experts, who analyze the event, reduce it to its essential, salient facts and narrative thereby creating specific, usable knowledge and then arrange the dissected carcass of Rhizo14 in a clean, well-lighted document that interested readers can follow, thus transferring knowledge from the authors to the readers. I point out the diminutive only because I am not saying that I do not want this kind of writing. To say this would be to trash much of the scientific literature of the past three millennia, and that would be a travesty. I do want this kind of writing, but I also want more. The trouble is that traditional rhetoric gives me ONLY the above kind of writing. I want that kind and more. I want to expand my rhetorical reality. I want to expand beyond the single author, whether individual or group, analyzing a single event to compose a single document for a single audience.

I want an indeterminate authorship, a multiplicity, many unnamed, so that we can speak explicitly only of some of the writers of the Rhizo14 ethnography. I want to invite all to participate in the writing of this document, in the continued writing of this document, to invite marginalia, edits, amendments, disagreements, links, comments, new chapters, images, poems, stories, dreams, games, jokes, and more. Wikipedia has proven to my satisfaction that this kind of authorship can produce profound documents. We can choose to make authors anonymous or we can have a place to list all names, even of those who only read. I'm not sure that it matters. As D&G say: "To reach, not the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. We are no longer ourselves. Each will know his own. We have been aided, inspired, multiplied."

We must get away from a rhetoric that posits the analytical processes of the individual, discrete mind as the source of knowledge-making and language as the only platform for knowledge-making and expression. Rhizo-rhetoric demands more: We cannot reduce knowledge-making to a function of the single, rational mind. As Frank D'Angelo notes in his A Theory of Rhetoric (1975), rhetoric must include "the imagination, creativity, free association, fantasy, play, dreams, the unconscious, nonintellectual sensing, the stream-of-consciousness, and the self. … This new emphasis on writing which is relatively free of control and direction may be termed the new romanticism. It holds that not all our mental processes are rational" (159). D'Angelo gets it right, in so far as he can take it, but he is still positing a single, unitary consciousness. D&G and Serres are suggesting that we must expand our view of knowledge beyond any unit to include the multiple. Both the individual and its herd are multiplicities that extend beyond the limits of the sometimes useful fiction of the single unit.

I do not want to rid us of the useful fiction of the individual or group author. I just don't want to limit us to that unit. I want to explore the rhizomatic author, the multiplicity. And I want this because I don't think any single author can capture the rhizomatic nature of Rhizo14 or produce a document that invites readers to participate in and understand Rhizo14. I'm looking for a multiplicity, a cacophony of voices, a gaggle of purposes, a flock of tones, a clutch of points of view.

I fear that many will think I am eliminating the individual, either as single unit or group unit, and melding the individual into the amorphous whole, but I reject this either/or thinking. A multiplicity is something else, a third thing that includes both the single unit and the group unit and all the other stuff that is left out of those two reductions. A multiplicity includes all the in-between stuff, the nameless and uncountable stuff, and I want a rhetoric that helps me include that. I'm sure I cannot do it by myself. But—and here's a good point—I do have to do what I can do by myself. What does this mean?

I've illustrated this concept before, but it is worth repeating here. A multiplicity does not mean that I do not have the ability to emerge as an individual with describable characteristics that can be distinguished from other individuals. Rather, it means that I have the potential to emerge as a wide range of individuals depending upon my interactions with different contexts. Let's see how this works: consider the period, the bit of punctuation, at the end of this sentence. <— there it is. And if we pull this period out of its context to define it, to reduce it to its essential meaning: "the point or character (.) used to mark the end of a declarative sentence, indicate an abbreviation, etc.; full stop", then we reduce the period to almost meaningless. It becomes a silly, little dot. Here it is:


All by itself, the period is useless and meaningless, as all of us are, but as a part of a multiplicity such as this blog post, the period takes on real power, real agency, BUT only so long as it remains itself, only so long as it maintains its internal integrity, what we conventionally call its individuality, and allows other marks to remain themselves. The period cannot sag into a comma, nor can it lift itself up into an i. It must remain a . It must do period-things amongst the behaviors of the other grammatical and graphical marks. And all those other marks must do what they do. We writers in a multiplicity, then, must do what we do. We must know and maintain our integrity, and we must allow others to know and maintain their integrity. At its heart, then, a multiplicity is founded on an ethical stance: we must be true to ourselves, and we must make room for others to be true to themselves and then we must cultivate those connections that encourage the greatest growth for all of us.

I'm looking for a rhetoric that allows for this kind of authorship, among other things. I'm looking for a rhizo-rhetoric. Okay, that's enough. I'm traveling this week, and I've run out of time before I ever got to what I wanted to say about Byron Hawk's book. Next time.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Need for a Rhizomatic Rhetoric #rhizo14

I fully intended to write another post about power, and I will, but not today. My thoughts have been redirected by a marvelous Twitter chat some of the Rhizo14 group held this past Thursday. As a result of that chat, we are perhaps about to consciously write a rhizomatic document that explores the Rhizo14 MOOC.

Here's the set-up as I understand it: a group of Rhizo14 participants want to write something about the MOOC, and they are trying to discover what they will write, how they will write, where, and so forth. They started an auto-ethnography project on Google Docs to collect personal accounts of participation in the MOOC, and then they gathered in Twitter chats and on Facebook to discuss how to proceed. I decided to check in to see what was happening. I'm glad that I did. Somewhere in the chat I asked what a rhizomatic book might look like, and the idea resonated with others. I asked because it seemed that we were engaged in rhizomatic writing anyway, and I wanted to make that conscious, explicit. I hope we follow through as it will give all of us, but me in particular, a chance to explore a new way to write, a new way to think about scholarship. As we are all scholars, this could be rich.

My question, then, is what rhetoric informs this kind of writing? Is this different? Does the technology change how we conduct scholarship and write our findings? I want to suggest that this type of scholarship and writing requires a new rhetoric—it requires a rhizo-rhetoric.

I will take a clue from Clarissa Bezerra here and suggest that you listen to some music. My choice is The Beatles' Revolution 9. It will make sense, I think.

Well, rhizo-rhetoric has a nice roll of the tongue and is perhaps pleasing to the ear, but does it mean anything? Can it help us compose a useful, intelligent, elegant document in some fashion that is useful to others? This is basically my definition of rhetoric: the skillful use of language to connect to the world, to ourselves, and to others. So does rhetoric change when we write as a group using modern information technology? And what kind of document should emerge from such a rhetoric? Well, I hope to find out, but I want to start with some ideas that may speed our learning. I find more things when I'm looking for something, even if I'm looking for the wrong something. What, then, might we expect of a rhizo-rhetoric? I want to suggest a few things.

First, let's start with Deleuze and Guattari, the originators of this rhizome metaphor for how the world is structured and for how language might map that world in useful ways. As we might imagine, language and writing, or rhetoric, is a major consideration of Introduction: Rhizome, the opening chapter to their book A Thousand Plateaus. The very first paragraph introduces a most interesting problem for rhetoric: the writer. Deleuze and Guattari say:
The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus together. Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd. Here we have made use of everything that came within range, what was closest as well as farthest away. We have assigned clever pseudonyms to prevent recognition. Why have we kept our own names? Out of habit, purely out of habit. To make ourselves unrecognizable in turn. 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. To reach, not the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. We are no longer ourselves. Each will know his own. We have been aided, inspired, multiplied.
As near as I can tell, Deleuze and Guattari begin by attacking, among other things, the very core of traditional rhetoric and scholarship: the subjective, discrete knower, the observer who stands aside from the object observed and knows it, defines it, from the outside, and then writes and talks about it. D&G don't waste time. This attack, if successful, undermines everything. It demands a new rhetoric, possibly a rhizo-rhetoric. We'll see.

The first point of change is obvious: multiple writers. This Rhizo14 ethnography will involve many writers making use "of everything that came within range, what was closest as well as farthest away." Just off the top of my head, and in alphabetical error: Maha Bali from Egypt, Frances Bell from UK, Clarissa Bezerra from Brazil, Dave Cormier from Canada, Simon Ensor from France, Keith Hamon from USA, Sarah Honeychurch from Scotland, Lenandlar Singh from Guayana, Vanessa Vaille from USA, and more who do not pop into my mind just now. Clearly, traditional rhetoric is inadequate to address the voice, the tone, the style, the point of view, the purposes, the persona of such a diverse assemblage.

But as they often are, D&G are more subtle than an assemblage of individuals—they make each individual an assemblage of identities. They state that each of them constitutes a larger assemblage: "Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd." And they are working hard toward the point where the individual becomes irrelevant, "to reach not the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. We are no longer ourselves. Each will know his own. We have been aided, inspired, multiplied." Maha Bali, then, is not just part of the assemblage, she is herself an assemblage. As am I.

A Dream Story
I had a dream last night. I was attending, perhaps crashing, a retirement banquet given in honor of one of my past creative writing professors. I entered a quite narrow banquet hall with high ceilings and one table stretching into the distance in either direction. The hall had a faintly Spanish or monastic feel, with adobe walls and large tile floors. People I did not know, but presumably ex-students such as myself, were already seated, eating and talking. I may have been late, but I was not anxious—just noting that I knew no one in my immediate area. Suddenly, my professor entered from the main entrance opposite me, and quite as suddenly, in dreamtime, he was seated a few seats down on my right, so I moved to greet him. He recognized me immediately with genuine joy and complimented me in a loud voice so that all in the vicinity turned and looked at me. I beamed. We spoke in learned voices about learned things, as all about us listened, and I became as much the center of focus as he was. I basked shamelessly in adoration, but as we spoke, I became uncomfortable. I was thinking that he looked too young for such an old fellow as he should be by now, and I wondered if he'd had a face-lift. Gradually as he spoke, I became more troubled. Then a very old fellow entered the hall and sat opposite me. I recognized him as the real professor. I spoke to him, but he did not recognize me at all. I awoke to come type it all down.

I tell you this dream story not for self-analysis, though some not-so-flattering interpretations come immediately to mind, but to ask you who composed this dream. The glib answer, of course, is I composed it, but as I look at the story now, I see many me's. There is the me (me1) who observed the dream, remembered it, and wrote it down here. At least, I think that is just one me, the me that I most often consciously identify with, but it could be two different me's—not sure. Anyway, there is also the me (me2) who performed in the dream and whom me1 watched. Then, there is the me (me3) who presented the dream. I do not know me3 at all, but I am assuming that me3 also composed the evening's entertainment as well as presented it. I've no rhetoric to explain how or why me3 thought it necessary to play a very rude joke on me2, who was blind to the whole thing until the denouement, and to teach a cruel lesson about the sins of self-aggrandizement to me1, who was just as blind until the end, and who didn't really understand much of the dream until he was a awake, which suggests that this could indicate yet another me, say me1.2). Like D&G, I am quite a crowd.

I suspect most of us are familiar with these different aspects of ourselves over which we spread a fiction of unity, coherence, and continuity. If we join the assemblages that each of us is with the assemblage of our groups, then we are left with quite a cluster, and it takes a thicker veneer to unify the multiple. We need a rhetoric that addresses this multiplicity, this swarm, this cacophony of voices, this interweaving of purposes and points of view. Such a rhetoric will help us make the observations and collect and interpret the data we need to make sense of what happens when such an assemblage writes.

I started a new paragraph, but from the opening sentence, I could tell that it would be long enough to warrant a new post, so I'll stop here with my first question about rhizo-rhetoric clearer in my head. Anyway, it's the end of the term, and I have documents to grade (yes, I have to put a grade on them, so I try to do it well).

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Question of Power and Technology in Online Spaces

Since the official end of Rhizo14, I've been spending much of my time grading papers and reading the precipitate from the cMOOC thunderstorm. The #rhizo14 garden is growing, meandering, carving new channels for itself—yes, mixing metaphors with wild abandon, and it is amazing to watch this happen. I live in south Florida, and in the hot afternoons, I can look westward toward the Everglades to see the huge white clouds boil up from the fecund rhizome of sawgrass, black water, and alligator to explode into the blue sky. Rhizo14 is exploding like that. What fun to watch, and even more fun to be part of.

Others see the explosion, too. Today I came across a New York Times editorial by David Brooks, The Leaderless Doctrine, which struck me as a fairly accurate description of the kind of shift that I see in cMOOCs and other online events. In his editorial, Brooks describes "a remarkable shift in how Americans see the world and their own country’s role in the world. For the first time in half a century, a majority of Americans say that the U.S. should be less engaged in world affairs." Brooks references a recent PewResearchCenter study which shows that this attitude is not traditional isolationism, at least not among Millennials, who actually want the U.S. to become more integrated with the world. Rather, the Millennials have lost faith in the power of big organizations to meaningfully address the world's issues: "Americans have lost faith in the high politics of global affairs. They have lost faith in the idea that American political and military institutions can do much to shape the world." Millennials have replaced faith in big government and big military with an "enormous confidence in personalized peer-to-peer efforts to promote democracy, human rights and development." Or to promote education, I might add. Brooks then suggests that a new liberal order is emerging in the U.S. that "is not a single system organized and defended by American military strength; it’s a spontaneous network of direct people-to-people contacts, flowing along the arteries of the Internet."

It sounds like one, gigantic MOOC to me, and it changes the rules of the game. Brooks adds that for the interconnected Millennials (I would use the term rhizomatic Millennials here) "the real power in the world is not military or political. It is the power of individuals to withdraw their consent. In an age of global markets and global media, the power of the state and the [military] tank, it is thought, can pale before the power of the swarms of individuals."

I don't think David Brooks is happy about this shift, but he is too much of a realist, I suppose, to insist that it isn't happening or that it isn't important. I think Brooks fears that this shift in how the Millennials envision and construct power will be a game changer. I hope it will be a game changer. I'm betting on it.

And this brings me to my real topic: power on the Internet, power in open and striated spaces, to use the terms of Deleuze and Guattari and Sîan Bayne (thanks to Frances Bell for this reference). The topic of power came up several times in Rhizo14, and I don't think I had a very good handle on it. I'm left wondering if there is something about online spaces that changes power: reduces it or enhances it, redistributes it. I suppose ultimately I want to know if we are ready to handle online power, if in fact there is any power to handle, and if the technology changes the mix.

In his editorial, Brooks seems to assume that power is an unavoidable element of human interactions, certainly geopolitical interactions, and I think I agree with him, mostly because I define humans as complex systems that must interact with enclosed and enclosing systems. We humans must exchange matter, energy, information, and organization with our enclosing systems (physical, social, economic, religious, governmental, etc.) just as our livers must exchange matter, energy, information, and organization within our own bodies. We don't have to exchange everything that we like to exchange, but we do have to exchange many things (air, water, bacteria, and food, come immediately to mind). I suppose we don't actually have to exchange language and culture, but if we didn't, then we would not be human in any sense applicable to my conversation here, so I'll ignore that rare case.

These exchanges involve us in power relationships, and I don't see how to avoid that. If I am to eat (exchange matter and energy with my ecosystem), then I must exert power (or my mother exerted that power on my behalf) to procure and eat food. The act of living engages me in a circular relationship within my surround: I take from it, and it takes from me. To exist at all, I need to develop and exercise the power necessary to exchange food that sustains me and to avoid food that can harm me. This is not trivial; rather, it is profound—far more significant for a happy life than anything I teach in my writing and literature classes. It is the most important learning.

So for me, all education is imbricated with power. Basically, we learn what to put in our mouths, what not to, and when, where, how, and why. It starts at birth, if not before, and it continues until we die, and it always involves learning to develop and to manage our own powers and to interact elegantly and productively with the power of others. Power, then, is relational (a concept I probably picked up from Frances Bell) even if we are thinking of our own, internal powers. It's easy to think of relations with other people and things, but we like to think of ourselves as a single entity, a unit or individual; however, to my mind, we are just one more complex system: a network of subsystems that share an arc of identity, a sense of shared experience, and tend to work together—though I think we are all aware of times when our minds/bodies seem to work against us, revealing the seams in the whole. (Damn, that's a long sentence. If I were grading this, I'd suggest a rewrite.)

Still, when we use the term power, especially in conversations about human relationships, perhaps most of us share Frances Bell's negative sense of the word. In her post Dimensions of power, knowledge and rhizomatic thinking, Bell writes, "My first thought when I hear the word power is of an individual exerting power over another – getting them to do something or stop doing something (possibly by raising a physical or verbal fist)." But if I think of power as the ability to stop or to cause changes in my ecosystem, then power is everywhere and in every relationship, and my task is to use this power as best I can.

Of course, the devil is in the definition of as best I can. For some, that might mean pushing as many other kids out of the sandbox as possible. For others, that might mean sucking up to, or ignoring, or hugging as many kids as possible. The point is: we have an incredible range of relations with others, all of which embody some distribution of and exercise of power. This power is unavoidable. If your mate walks into the room and refuses to speak to you or look you in the eye, you better be aware that some power play is on. A hug is as much an expression of power as a hit, and they are both relational.

So if power is integral to relationships, are relationships changed by technology? I think that's the question I'm trying to address. Okay, now that I have a question, I can start writing. Tomorrow.