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.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Connections, Flows, and Freire in #moocmooc

I'm taking a break from prepositions—at least from writing about them—to talk about MOOCMOOC and critical pedagogy. MOOCMOOC assigned reading for this week included Chapter 2 of Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1993). It's been many years since I read Freire, and it's pleasant to see how my latest readings are re-informing my understanding of him now. The most surprising idea to emerge from this week's reading was his reliance on movement and flow in his critique of the traditional banking model of education. He doesn't actually discuss flow as such—the term doesn't appear in the translation of Chapter 2 that I read—but I see the concept informing much of what he does discuss.

For instance, early in Chapter 2 he talks about inquiry as a practice necessary for humanity: "For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other" (1). His words imply movement: knowledge emerges … restless, impatient continuing … human beings pursue. Inquiry is not passive, cannot be passive, but is active, moving, flowing. It reminds me of Deleuze and Guattari's flows of desire that drive all human activity—and I would say desire drives all natural activity.

One of the big problems with the banking model of education is that it stops the flow of inquiry physically, mentally, socially. Students are anchored in seats and forbidden to talk to their neighbors (real or virtual), they can't look on each others papers. The banking model has a very truncated, highly controlled flow that stops with the individual student: teacher > student—STOP, with the only expectation that the student can send the information back to the teacher on a test, but with no expectation that the information has any immediate use. The information will be useful in the distant, adult future, which for children especially is the same thing as never.

All students, of course, have drives for inquiry: they all desire to connect to their worlds and their societies to understand better, to engage that world, but the banking model dams all of those desires, those flows toward connection and engagement with the real world, restricting students to the sanctioned flow of information. The problem is, as Freud has helped us to see, those desires for connection may be dammed but they are not eliminated. They squirt out around the sides of the dams, cutting new channels, and flowing into the dark, forbidden corners of school hallways, lavatories, and playgrounds. Desires will not be denied, but they can be perverted, and that is mostly what the banking model of education does. It perverts the natural desires of students to connect to their worlds and understand it. It tries to stop the flows of desire that all students have to connect to each other and to their worlds, desires that are obvious to anyone who has engaged or observed a kindergarten class.

Freire points out that the main way to open the natural desire to inquire into the world is to change the flow between student and teacher: "The raison d'etre of libertarian education, on the other hand, lies in its drive towards reconciliation. Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students" (1). Not until we teachers reconnect to our own desires for genuine inquiry of the world, can we hope to remove ourselves as an impediment to our students' desires for inquiry, for sustained engagement of the world. In their chapter about rhizomes in their book A Thousand Plateaus (1988), Deleuze and Guattari distinguish between mapping the world and tracing the world. The banking model is focused on tracing sanctioned simulacra of the world, while genuine inquiry focuses on mapping. Deleuze and Guattari explain the difference between the two in ways that illuminate Freire for me:
What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real. … It fosters connections between fields, … 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. Perhaps one of the most important characteristics of the rhizome is that it always has multiple entryways … as opposed to the tracing, which always comes back "to the same." The map has to do with performance, whereas the tracing always involves an alleged "competence." (12, 13)
Inquiry has to do with performance, whereas the banking model always involves an alleged competence. You can't measure competence unless you freeze a flow into a traceable model against which to measure the student's tracing. Inquiry is always oriented away from the model toward an experimentation in contact with the real.

I think Freire speaks directly to this experimentation in contact with the real when he says that "only through communication can human life hold meaning. The teacher's thinking is authenticated only by the authenticity of the students' thinking. The teacher cannot think for her students, nor can she impose her thought on them. Authentic thinking, thinking that is concerned about reality [italics added], does not take place in ivory tower isolation, but only in communication. If it is true that thought has meaning only when generated by action upon the world, the subordination of students to teachers becomes impossible" (4). When both the teacher and the students, together, are flowing beyond the classroom and into contact with the real, then can they have genuine communication. In other words, their speech is not just tracing, but mapping the real.

Stopping the flow of our lives is painful, violent, and fatal. Freire is quite clear about this, as are Deleuze and Guattari: "Oppression—overwhelming control—is necrophilic; it is nourished by love of death, not life. The banking concept of education, which serves the interests of oppression, is also necrophilic. Based on a mechanistic, static, naturalistic, spatialized view of consciousness, it transforms students into receiving objects. It attempts to control thinking and action, leads women and men to adjust to the world, and inhibits their creative power. When their efforts to act responsibly are frustrated, when they find themselves unable to use their faculties, people suffer" (4).

The only way out, the only path of liberation, is to open the flows of inquiry and communication in contact with the real. As Freire says, "Authentic liberation—the process of humanization—is not another deposit to be made in men. Liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it" (5).

This physical, mental, and social practice of inquiry and communication to engage and transform the world joins not only the teacher and student but also the objects of inquiry. The things learned themselves join the flow of inquiry and engagement, both making and marking the connection of the student/teachers and teacher/students to each other and to the real world. We all become mediated by the world, changing both ourselves and our worlds, as Freire says:
It is a learning situation in which the cognizable object (far from being the end of the cognitive act) intermediates the cognitive actors—teacher on the one hand and students on the other. Accordingly, the practice of problem-posing education entails at the outset that the teacher-student contradiction to be resolved. Dialogical relations—indispensable to the capacity of cognitive actors to cooperate in perceiving the same cognizable object—are otherwise impossible. … Through dialogue, the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student with students-teachers. The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow. In this process, arguments based on "authority" are no longer valid; in order to function authority must be on the side of freedom, not against it. Here, no one teaches another, nor is anyone self-taught. People teach each other, mediated by the world, by the cognizable objects which in banking education are "owned" by the teacher. (6)
Life, then, our own lives right here and now, make sense only as mediated by the world, by cognizable objects. This mediation is not static, but a flow which the banking model tries to dam and restrict. These flows of desire to engage the world, the real world, are not ours alone. Rather, they flow through us. All humanity desires to engage, and we share in those desires with the world. When we open those flows, we are authentically engaged with the world and become real, here and now people. Freire says, "Education as the practice of freedom—as opposed to education as the practice of domination—denies that man is abstract, isolated, independent and unattached to the world; it also denies that the world exists as a reality apart from people. Authentic reflection considers neither abstract man nor the world without people, but people in their relations with the world. In these relations consciousness and world are simultaneous: consciousness neither precedes the world nor follows it" (6).

Education can flow with this desire to engage and to know, or it can try to subvert that desire for its own ends or the ends of State, Church, or Business. Damming the desires of people to inquire into the real does not stop those desires but tragically turns the desires in on themselves, cutting people off from the real and locking them into their own fantasies. What Freire calls genuine inquiry and D&G call mapping frees us from the dammed, perverse desires. As Deleuze and Guattari say, "The map does not reproduce an unconscious closed in upon itself; it constructs the unconscious. It fosters connections between fields, the removal of blockages" (12).

As it happens, Freire, Deleuze, and Guattari are just trying to save our souls.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Desires of Prepositions

I've been using the phrase desires of prepositions without explaining what I mean. Partly I did this because I've had to work my head around the idea. It started with an intuition and some amusement over the juxtaposition of two terms that are usually not used together in the same conversation, much less the same sentence or phrase. (Aside: I just googled "desires of prepositions" with the quotes, and Google returned only 8 hits. Seven of them were mine, and only 1 from another source, a 09/21/2009 post entitled HERO�NO HONOR, EH? Weenie Yellow Polka� by Judge Bean on At least I have company.) Though I'm confident that I will continue to enlarge the idea in my own head and writing, I think I'm clear enough now to clarify what I mean by desires of prepositions and to connect it to the conversation about Rhizo14.

I think that my last several posts explain how I'm using the term preposition and how I picked up on the importance of prepositions from comments Michel Serres made to Bruno Latour in their book Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time (1995). My online dictionary defines a preposition as:
a word governing, and usually preceding, a noun or pronoun and expressing a relation to another word or element in the clause, as in “the man on the platform,” “she arrived after dinner,” “what did you do it for?”
(By the way, I'm pleased to see an online dictionary ending a sentence with a preposition. Gratifying that.)

Prepositions, then, govern and connect mostly substantives to other elements within a sentence. As I've said elsewhere, prepositions are the stage directors of sentences, positioning the actors, pacing the action, and in general, structuring and making sense of the scene/sentence. Prepositions make clear to the reader (audience) the trajectories of the elements in a sentence (the actors and actions on the stage). I like this stage metaphor (though a movie screen would work as well, I think), for it animates sentences which we seem to think static, frozen in a line of text on a printed page. And this is what prepositions do within the sentence: they couple this with that, putting everything into motion. Actually, other sentence elements such as conjunctions, punctuation marks, spacing, the position and proximity of syntax also couple things and mark those relationships for the reader/audience, but for now, I'm limiting my discussion to prepositions. I'll discuss all connective grammatical elements later.

For me, the big idea is that prepositions form and flavor the connections within a sentence. They are a big part of the structure that informs a sentence and makes it mean something, and they both create that structure and mark that structure for us to hear/see/read. Prepositions do much of the hard work of forming patterns and marking those patterns. I believe that pattern making, pattern marking, and pattern recognition is the heart of making meaning, of creating and using knowledge, and thus, of education. Prepositions choreograph the movement of actors and actions on the stage. Without them we have little pattern and little meaning, just a collection of actors sitting in a heap or wandering aimlessly on stage. Consider the first sentence that I used from Maha's contribution to the collaborative autoethnography (CAE):
Funny enough, even though I have been thinking about this since #rhizo14 started and writing about it throughout on my blog, fb, twitter, I am having a lot of difficulty writing here.
If we remove the connections created by the prepositions, then we reduce the sentence to a near empty stage:
Funny enough, even though I have been thinking and writing, I am having a lot writing here.
If we remove all the connector elements, including punctuation and spacing, we are left with almost nothing:
Even reduced to the basic subject/verb/direct object as in this string of letters, we can see that some hint of connectivity remains as the verb connects the subject and direct object and all three elements appear in standard English order. However, without structuring elements such as prepositions, language is near meaningless. While we usually focus on the substantives and verbals to determine the meaning of a sentence, it is the little words—the prepositions, conjunctions, punctuation, spaces, syntax, and so forth—that do much of the heavy work of meaning creation.

I am not diminishing the importance of substantives and verbals here; rather, I am elevating the importance of the little words, specifically the prepositions. We have a cultural habit of focusing on the big words, the substantives and verbals, the actors and actions. This habit extends to language experts who more often than not define the little words in terms of their relationships to the big words. For instance, in Maha's sentence, the word throughout would most likely be called an adverb because it is modifying the verb writing even though the word is often used as a preposition. The little words are defined by the big words they modify rather than by what they do: connect things, couple. To my mind, throughout is coupling just as about and on are, and all three should be defined in their own right and not in terms of their relationship to the big words.

What do connector words do? They map the flow of a sentence out into a meaningful structure. In the sentence above, Maha has something, but she spins that notion out, enriches it, starting her sentence by noting her amused chagrin at her situation, then setting up a contrast with her previous ability to think and write about Rhizo14 in her online spaces, which provides much setting for her scene and several props, and finally rounds out her thoughts by adding that she's having difficulty with writing in the CAE. To my mind's eye, the sentence unpacks itself, in large part through the prepositions, much as a dandelion stretches out into the air.  Maha's sentence takes a handful of dust, debris, and concepts, and sets them spinning about themselves in a little constellation that creates meaning—not out of nothing, but meaning that did not exist before Maha mapped her concepts in this particular dance.

I take the concept of mapping from Deleuze and Guattari's discussion of the rhizome in A Thousand Plateaus (1988), where they distinguish it from tracing, and this mapping segues nicely into desire, another concept from Deleuze and Guattari, especially in their book Anti-Oedipus (1977). Think about the forces that push and pull the dandelion as it stretches into its own space within its own ecosystem, or the forces that push and pull Maha's words into its own shape within its own conversational space. The dandelion desires to connect to the earth, water, sunlight, other plants, and all of those things desire to connect to the dandelion. Following the lead of Deleuze and Guattari, that is what I mean by desire: the forces that push and pull everything to connect and create new structures, new meaning. I'll try to unpack this, mostly for me.

Desire is commonly understood in human terms as a drive for something that we do not have. In other words, it is defined by lack, by something that is apart from us, or transcendent, not something that is part of us, or immanent. Deleuze and Guattari reverse this understanding. In their book Deleuze and Geophilosophy (2004), Mark Bonta and John Protevi note that desire is "not subjective hankering after what you do not have"; rather, desire "is the material process of connection, registration and enjoyment of flows of matter and energy coursing through bodies in networks of production in all registers, be they geologic, organic, or social" (76). I would add that these flows include organization and information in addition to matter and energy, as Edgar Morin points out in his analysis of complexity in his book On Complexity.

According to Bonta and Protevi, Deleuzian desire takes two main forms:
  1. paranoid (fascist), which "forms whole subjects who cling to their identities in a social production network that must not change and that reinforces the rigid (tribal or imperial) coding and channeling of flows" (76), and 
  2. schizophrenic (revolutionary), which "rides the [uncoded flows of] energies released by capitalism and takes them far beyond the pathetic reterritorializations on family and private property maintained by psychoanalysis and the capitalist State" (76).
I think that McGilchrist's book The Master and the Emissary gives us another, more flexible way to characterize connections with his left-brain/right-brain analysis. We connect either to manipulate (left-brain) or to relate (right-brain); though these are extreme ends of a sliding scale. Few connections are totally left-brain or right-brain, but it helps us to clarify the distinctions between them if we push them to extremes which seldom occur. I think I will post something about this later, but not now.

The problem with desire, for Deleuze and Guattari, is that priests (religious, psychoanalytic, economic, and state) manage desire by defining it in transcendent terms: lack (you desire only what you don't have), pleasure (you desire only what makes you feel good), and jouissance (you really only want transcendent pure pleasure, which you can never have or have only in Heaven). Desire, then, is traditionally defined in terms of lack by those who want to control it. Deleuze and Guattari define desire in terms of immanent drives that flow through us, connecting us to others and to larger socio-political structures. And this is a key property of desire: they are not our own; rather, they flow through us. Deleuze and Guattari say that our desires are already part and parcel of the socio-political systems that we are part of. I insist that desires are part and parcel of all reality. They are the flows of energy, matter, organization, and information that flesh us out, unpack our DNA, and seek to connect us to other unpacking entities and their flows of energy, matter, organization, and information.

Of course, I am extending desire beyond the socio-political to include pretty much everything. For me, desire is that tendency or affinity of things to connect to other things, to couple, and to create new things. Quarks desire quarks and create atoms. Atoms desire atoms and create molecules. People desire people and create societies. This is far different from how desire is usually used. Under the influence of Freud and Marx, we have pretty much defined desire in terms of sex and money, and the physical sciences have abandoned the term as too anthropomorphic. Deleuze and Guattari limited their discussion of desire to the human realms of society and politics, largely in response to Freud and Marx and to the socio-political upheavals of the 1960s, I think. Desire works nicely in this context, and I may come to regret trying to extend desire beyond the merely human, but I'm willing to fail. The idea attracts me, so I'll do it, but I recognize that when I speak of atoms desiring atoms, most people will prefer talking about the probabilistic tendencies of atoms to bond with certain other atoms that they randomly encounter. No problem. My concept of desire includes those couplings as well; though, I don't care much for leaving it all to random chance. To my mind, if there were only two quarks in all the universe, they would desire and find each other, coupling to create one lonely particle. That may be the saddest, shortest story I've ever told, but I believe it.

These couplings are important, given that everything in the universe exists because of them. The couplings produce everything, and this production is important to Deleuze and Guattari who posit desiring machines as the point of coupling and production, or to my mind, the point of creation. The key to keep in mind is that they are not speaking metaphorically. Nor am I. D&G start Anti-Oedipus:
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. This is not a metaphor. As I've already said, prepositions really don't mean much by themselves. They attain meaning in the connection, in the coupling that they perform. This is when their meaning emerges. Prepositions mark the point at which the flow of desire passes from this to that, here to there, connecting and coupling, leading to the production of something new. Something given flows in (all those linguistic, informational and organizational as well as energy and material flows) and something transformed flows out. This is how the rhizome grows, moves, deterritorializes and reterritorializes, and prepositions provide us with an explicit marker of the flow of desire through our conversations. It is a production machine, which means that it both makes the connection and marks the connection.

Consider again Maha's sentence above:
Funny enough, even though I have been thinking about this since #rhizo14 started and writing about it throughout on my blog, fb, twitter, I am having a lot of difficulty writing here.
The prepositions couple Rhizo14 to her thinking and writing, which are both coupled to her blog, Facebook, and Twitter and coupled to the duration of Rhizo14, and finally she herself is coupled to difficulty. This is a great amount of coupling in so short a sentence, and it opens up a rich stage on which Maha plays out her story. The prepositions take the nouns and verbs of Maha's thought and orchestrate a beautiful scene within a clear setting with spatial, virtual, and temporal dimensions that combines and redirects different trajectories into transformed trajectories that can feed into the trajectories of whoever reads her sentence. Of course, the trajectories of my sentences here can then flow back (feedback) into Maha's sentences. Likewise, Maha's entire sentence is a desiring machine that couples with the other sentences in her paragraph, which couples with the other paragraphs, which couples with the other autoethnographies, and so on. Flow feeds on flow, desire on desire, and this coupling produces … well, everything. This is the rhizome unfolding, and I would be silly to think that I, or even the iSwarm, control all these flows. We nudge and twist our thoughts within a field of thoughts, but they are alive and resist our nudging, twisting in sometimes unexpected ways. Like just now. I really did not plan to write that last sentence. Or the next one. Or this one. On and on. I touch the flow here and there and it responds, but I don't really control it. Nor it me. We dance.

In his introduction to Anti-Oedipus, Mark Seem highlights a central question and insight of the book: "What is the function of desire, Anti-Oedipus asks, if not one of making connections?" (xxii). Prepositions make connections, and thus make and mark the flow of desire, and this is their function.

This gives me a very helpful way of thinking about Rhizo14. What desires, what flows of drives and affinities, led people to connect to each other last February, 2014? What desiring machines enabled these couplings? What flows kept people in Rhizo14? What flows turned people away from Rhizo14? Did other, more demanding desiring machines couple them with other, more engaging flows? How?

And then I have to ask how well do the autoethnographies map to what actually happened? If I follow the couplings in the AEs, will I learn something about the couplings in Rhizo14? Do people really know what drives aided or failed them in coupling to Rhizo14? I know, for instance, that I am largely unaware of the epic wars waged by my immune system along the waterways and landscapes of my own body. What other drives am I missing? Deleuze and Guattari insist that most of our drives and desires operate quite aside from our consciousness, pushing and pulling us in directions that we only mark and rationalize after the fact.

Okay, so this is what I mean by the desires of prepositions. It makes sense to me, but help me push it around. Test it.

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.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Prepositions and Meaning

In his Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time (1995) with Bruno Latour, Michel Serres suggests that prepositions mean almost nothing or almost anything, which turns out to be about the same thing. In my last post, I considered how the preposition into in the Rhizo14 collaborative auto-ethnography (CAE) linked a wide range of entities and actions to create an incredibly rich, self-organizing, auto-poietic system, and in this post I want to explore if into really means almost nothing or anything.

I start with a list of definitions of into from my Mac's online dictionary:
  1. expressing movement or action with the result that someone or something becomes enclosed or surrounded by something else: cover the bowl and put it into the fridge | Sara got into her car and shut the door | figurative : he walked into a trap sprung by the opposition. 
  2. expressing movement or action with the result that someone or something makes physical contact with something else: he crashed into a parked car.
  3. indicating a route by which someone or something may arrive at a particular destination: the narrow road that led down into the village.
  4. indicating the direction toward which someone or something is turned when confronting something else: with the wind blowing into your face | sobbing into her skirt.
  5. indicating an object of attention or interest: a clearer insight into what is involved | an inquiry into the squad's practices.
  6. expressing a change of state: a peaceful protest which turned into a violent confrontation | the fruit can be made into jam.
  7. expressing the result of an action: they forced the club into a humiliating and expensive special general meeting.
  8. expressing division: three into twelve equals four.
  9. informal (of a person) taking a lively and active interest in (something): he's into surfing.
This is a somewhat confusing situation, especially if you are looking for some common denominator, some core meaning, from which all these different meanings reasonably emerge. It's possible that the creators of this dictionary have listed the meanings in some order of primacy, thus suggesting that physical movement resulting in enclosure is the first or privileged meaning of into.

But how does one get from physical enclosure [Meaning 1] to division [Meaning 8] or a change of state [Meaning 6]? Perhaps close study of the history of into could suggest some pathways among all these meanings, but polysemy, or different meanings of a single word, is still problematic. This many different meanings challenges our conventional sense of meaning as a defining, essential characteristic of a given word. In the past, scholars seem to have assumed a single, privileged, core meaning for each word with other meanings branching from this one meaning. This strikes me as a symptom of a reductionist mindset that obscures the complex realities of language.

I have only the abstract of a 2008 presentation by Dagmara Dowbor entitled "The case of over revisited: Results from a corpus-linguistic analysis and further proposals", but Dowbor states much better than I the problem I see with past studies of polysemy: the belief in a core, context-independent meaning that forms the essential characteristic and proper usage of a given word. Dowbor writes:
The multiply studied and discussed word over has been known to be associated with a number of related yet distinct meanings or senses, such as ‘higher than’, ‘across’, ‘more than’, ‘covering’, and many others. Previous studies (e.g. Brugman (1981), Lakoff (1987), Kreitzer (1997), Tyler and Evans (2001)) have described and discussed the different senses of over, which have been claimed to form a radial network of interrelated senses, with the core sense at the center. The extended senses are said to be motivated by our spatiotemporal experience, and a number of those distinct senses have to be learned and stored in long-term memory, while many others are variants of those and can be inferred. Different criteria have been proposed for what counts as a distinct sense: it has been claimed, for instance, that there must be instances of the sense that are context-independent (e.g. Tyler and Evans 2001).
Dowbor argues that the meaning of words, especially polysemous prepositions, is always context dependent:
The major claim of the current study is that over has one single lexical meaning denoting a schematic spatial configuration and thus provides a structuring device or source concept that can be exploited for a great variety of purposes, which makes it polyfunctional and yields, through the application in different contexts, its meaning extensions. The present study demonstrates the results of a thorough corpus-linguistic investigation, which confirms that none of the different usages of over are context- independent, as claimed by previous studies, but that instead, it is the context that establishes those meaning extensions by adding different kinds of specifications and thus gives substance to the single schematic meaning of over, giving rise to complex conceptualizations.
I do not have more of Dowbor's work, but what I quote here points me in the direction I want to go: the meaning of a preposition is not context-independent; rather, meaning emerges from the dynamic context of substantives, verbals, and connector words along their various trajectories in the conversation at hand. This dynamic interaction unpacks the meaning of each word—the substantives and verbals as well as the connector words such as into. Meaning, then, always depends upon how a word unpacks itself within a conversation. I am not suggesting that a word, into for instance, does not bring some meaning to a conversation. It does, but this given meaning is something like the word's DNA: its history of shared usage which increases its chances of being used similarly in a similar conversation. A word, then, is predisposed to certain kinds of usages in certain kinds of situations, and we cannot ignore that predisposition, that DNA, when examining the word or when choosing to use it in conversation.

Still, the DNA of previous usage does not sufficiently explain the meaning of a preposition, or any other word, in a conversation. Consider, for instance, the first occurrence of into in the CAE:
If you would like to remain completely anonymous, you would need to work without logging into your Google Account.
Which of the nine definitions listed above precisely and completely captures the meaning of into in this case? I don't think any of them completely captures what into in this sentence means, and at the same time almost all of the nine definitions can resonate in this sentence, especially if we enlarge the context to include the entire CAE or the entire Rhizo14 event rather than merely this one sentence. Let's see if we can unpack the meaning of into in this sentence.

In this sentence, into does express avoiding an action that would result in a person being enclosed figuratively within Google [1], though I think the more accurate meaning is attached to rather than enclosed in. Not a precise match, but close enough, especially given that almost all who read this sentence glossed the word into and did not scrutinize it as closely as I am doing here. The use in this sentence also expresses avoiding a figurative movement that results in a figurative connection to Google [2]. This shift from the physical to the figurative is common with prepositions, and most of them have a long history of such figurative usages. Meaning [3], a route to a particular destination, is plausible if we stretch the figurative: if one wants to avoid being identified, then one should avoid the Google route to the CAE as that pathway is too public and leaves too many breadcrumbs. Meaning [4] indicating the direction one is turned toward when confronting something else also works in this figurative way: if you don't want to be identified, then don't turn your face this way when working in the CAE.

Meaning [5] indicating an object of interest still resonates in this sentence, though perhaps more faintly: if you are interested in CAE but want to remain anonymous, then don't log into your Google account. Meaning [6] indicating a change of state is perhaps fainter still, but not completely absent: if you want to remain anonymous and still participate in the CAE, then don't change from without Google to within Google. Meaning [7] expressing the result of an action, or in this sentence the result of an inaction, resonates well with me: don't log into Google, and your work in the CAE will remain anonymous. I have trouble with meaning [8] indicating a process of division; though even here, I can stretch it into something like if you divide yourself or parse yourself into your Google identity, then others will know who you are. If you want to remain anonymous, then don't divide into your Google self and present it to others. A stretch? Yes, but the vibes are still there if I look for them. Finally, meaning [9] as taking a lively and active interest in something resonates much better. If you are into CAE and into Google, but you want to remain anonymous, then disengage your interest in Google.

So what is the point here? For me, the point is that meaning is not reducible to a single, discrete packet that gets transferred from one person to another through a given word. I think Maha wrote this sentence on Feb 19, 2014, interestingly enough as an anonymous contributor (if she didn't, I apologize for the inference, but what I want to say does not absolutely depend on who the author is). When Maha wrote: "If you would like to remain completely anonymous, you would need to work without logging into your Google Account", she likely chose the word into out of her own language habits and the social convention of talking about logging into network accounts. I could argue that the social convention of saying logging into is the given meaning provided in this sentence and that the meaning doesn't somehow emerge in Maha's use of the existing phrase with its existing meaning in this new sentence, but I don't think this captures meaning. While the word into brings a history of usage (it brings its DNA) to the sentence, that does not capture the meaning. Rather, the meaning emerges as into unpacks itself within the context of the sentence, the list of instructions, the CAE, and Rhizo14, and beyond. Just as we cannot reduce the meaning of a person to their DNA (skin color, height, gender, etc.), we cannot reduce the meaning of a word to its DNA. We cannot understand a person or a word without understanding their respective DNAs, but that understanding is not sufficient. Rather, we must also understand how the DNA unpacks itself in complex interaction with its environment. The meaning of the word or the person emerges from the beginning configuration of DNA and the unpacking of that DNA over time and through usage.

Another point for me is that a word such as into resonates with all these meanings drawn both from its history of usage and its usage within a given conversation. Words do have a certain kind of homeorhesis, a tendency of complex systems to return to a trajectory, that makes them just stable enough, long enough, to be useful in a given conversation, but they are seldom a single, discrete line through history. Rather, they are a more or less coherent tangle of threads that more or less follow a given trajectory, a kind of chreod, a best pathway through a landscape, like a mountain stream finding its way down to the valley. The stream can branch, or fork, twist and turn, even double-back, as it works its way through whatever configuration space it finds itself. The history and meaning of words is like this to my mind: a long strand through culture—sometimes tightly woven, sometimes fraying—and my use of that word adds to its trajectory, either reinforcing its current trajectory or bumping it it in a new direction. Shakespeare bumped lots of words from their current trajectories in Sixteenth Century England, and as the landscape of culture changes, words twist and turn into new paths to make their way through.

This polysemy of prepositions is both their weakness and their power. It's a weakness because prepositions are one of the most difficult aspects of English for foreign speakers, and even native speakers usually don't understand the logic, if any, of how they use prepositions. However, polysemy points to several features that make prepositions so powerful and useful in language.

First, prepositions are the premier connectors, or couplers, in language. For instance, into connects most any I to any other entity or action. Want to engage a learning space such as Rhizo14? Into is into that: "I came into the space with no understanding of Rhizomatic Learning".  Want to connect to a class of first-year Education students? Into is into that as well: "My project – if you can call it that – for Rhizo14 has been to bring as much of this busy fizzy messy stuff as possible into my first year #becomingeducational module and see what it sparks in first year students who in the end want to become educationalists." Want to connect to Paulo Friere or not connect to your colleagues? Into can do it: "I have had an insight into what Paulo Freire advocates in Education and Change." and "Being in a small town I frequently run into those I worked with and it’s awkward and unpleasant." Prepositions are promiscuous, agnostic, heterogenous couplers that will connect most anything to most anything else. This is very powerful.

Then, prepositions are pre-eminently stainable. They take on the hue and flavor of whatever they connect, easily managing the flow of energy, matter, and information from one entity to another. Prepositions are the organic vehicles for decalcomania, the process that Deleuze and Guattari mention as one of the six characteristics of the rhizome. Consider the phrase "the desires of prepositions". the preposition of means almost nothing by itself, but in this phrase it takes stains both with desires and with prepositions to enable the flow of information from desires to prepositions and back again. Thus, desires informs the meaning of prepositions, and vice versa. Of is the coupler that enables this connection and exchange of information which creates new information, new knowledge. As an aside: I just googled the phrase "the desires of prepositions" and I find only references to my own writing in this blog. Perhaps this is a completely new construction. That's powerful, and prepositions make it possible.

What's the point for the Rhizo14 CAE? For me, this demonstrates that if meaning is emergent for something so small and insignificant as the preposition into, then the meaning of Maha, Sarah, Simon, Clarissa, or Terry is even more a complex process of emergence that cannot be captured in a core statement, a core bit of DNA. Here is one of the primary benefits of ethnography, including auto-ethnography: ethnography allows us to explore the emergence of meaning in any group or individual. Unlike traditional analysis which tries to identify the core characteristics, the DNA, of a group or individual, ethnography starts inside and pushes outward following the paths of unpacking DNA (marked grammatically by prepositions in the CAE, by the way). Traditional analysis looks for the single, reproducible mechanism that got people into Rhizo14 and kept them there so that, for instance, Rhizo14 can be reproduce in Rhizo15, but I've looked back over the CAE, and I see a hundred different pathways (multiple trajectories for each CAE author) that led to Rhizo14 and a thousand pathways leading out of Rhizo14 (someone should do a study of all the scholarly documents produced out of Rhizo14, never mind the trajectories through other classes and departments and online discussions).

While we cannot trace all the pathways through even a rhizome so small and contained as Rhizo14, we should expect and look for the couplers that make those pathways possible. What are the prepositions that connect people to people, ideas, and structures? Are those couplers (Twitter, for instance) as malleable, stainable, and as promiscuous as prepositions? What are the ethical implications of couplers that can create both beneficial and damaging connections? Lots of questions here.

Finally, I've heard some discussion in Rhizo14 about not being able to speak for others, about not being all-inclusive in regards to the Rhizo14 experience. This is a genuine and valid concern, and of course, we should try to include as much as possible, but we should not allow incomplete knowledge to silence us. We always speak from positions of relative ignorance with incomplete knowledge. We can hardly capture all the shades of meaning of the preposition into, so how can we hope to capture the meaning of all the participants in Rhizo14? We can't. Rather, our task as scholars is to speak as well as we can given the incomplete patterns that we can construct. And to say no more than that.

For now, I'll say no more than this.