Monday, January 16, 2017

Rhizo Classroom: Human Intention

I've been rethinking my take on ethics in light of complexity theory, and from the beginning, I've realized that I have a major issue with intention. My old view of ethics assumed human intention as an essential aspect of ethics. In other words, we should not be held ethically accountable for actions that are not the result of our conscious intentions. If I make an unconscious boo-boo, I am somehow freed from the ethical liability of my unfortunate actions if not from their consequences. My new, emerging view challenges that assumption. My new view assumes that ethics apply regardless of our intentions. Ethics are an integral aspect of all the choices we make about how to engage the various flows of energy and information available to us and how we redirect or stain those flows. Our choices cross all scales, from the atomic to the cosmic, and are seldom conscious. They are ethical nonetheless.

I really need to sort this out, and I think it will take much more than this one post, but here's a start.

First, I want to minimize the privilege of human consciousness as the crowning jewel of the Universe. My readings in actor-network theory and object oriented ontology have convinced me that consciousness is a useful tool that provides us humans with some real affordances, but it also blinds us to the integrity and value of the rest of creation. Tardigrades, whales, and lichen can all exist quite well enough without us, and in fact, it is becoming increasingly difficult to identify any real value that we provide the rest of creation. While consciousness has provided some benefits to humanity (I, for instance, value writing this blog and value reading the blogs of others—both activities the fruit of human consciousness)‚ I cannot make a strong argument about the benefits of this blog for the rest of creation. In short, creation is not a mere backdrop for a strutting consciousness. Complexity theory (itself a product of consciousness) helps me see that consciousness is one complex, open system like all other complex, open systems. It has its own integrity, but not at the expense of other systems. Indeed, without those other systems and without the fundamental flows of energy and information, consciousness would not exist. Furthermore, it is outrageous hubris for me to think that human consciousness is the crown jewel of the Universe. We humans are hardly a cloud of electrons floating in an obscure atom on the fringe of some barely noticeable molecule of a galaxy. Given the persistent insistence of emergence—the unfolding of ever more complex entities—how can I assume that we humans are the final, crowning achievement of Life? That strikes me as utter silliness. We have always been the blindly firing neurons in some larger mind, the cells in some larger organ. There is no final end to life, and even if there is, we ain't it. If we are the culmination of life, then it seems like an awful waste of a really big, rich multiverse.

So for me, ethics is not dependent upon human consciousness; however, this does not mean that human consciousness is irrelevant. Along with all complex, open systems, consciousness makes real quantitative and qualitative contributions to the flow of information and energy and the emergence of life in the Universe. I know that eventually I will have to prove that statement, but for now, I'll let it stand as is. Furthermore, in many situations, human consciousness is a most important player. To rephrase Ian Bogost's quip, while all entities equally exist, in any given situation they do not exist equally. In education, for instance, human consciousness figures prominently, though I intend to argue that even here it is not as important as we typically think. Still, I am not dismissing human consciousness. I'm just trying to speak of ethics without depending upon human consciousness.

Even when speaking of human actors, intention is not as prominent or as important as I have believed. I am reminded of a post by Maha Bali "Contextualizing Microaggressions" in which Maha says:
I was so relieved the day I learned the term “microaggression”. It described all the little ways in which micropower is enacted on a daily basis to reinforce more macro power dynamics. It helped me see how critical pedagogy as a grand narrative is enacted in our lived experiences. It’s a useful term. And it’s also very useful to know, as Yolande Flores Niemann says on her interview w Bonni Stachowiak on Teaching in Higher Ed podcast, that most microaggression is not intentionally malicious – I think it’s an internalized form of discrimination that is so subtle those of us who enact it aren’t at all aware of what we are doing. Much of it is reflexive. But becoming aware is important. And it’s also important when you are on the receiving end of it to conextualize it.
I agree with Maha that "most microaggression is not intentionally malicious" and that most of us "aren't at all aware of what we are doing". However, the absence of intentional malice does not relieve us and our actions of the ethical stains. I suspect that Maha might agree with me when she insists that "becoming aware is important", but I'm further insisting that ethics apply even if we remain unaware. The ethics of microaggressions apply even if both the aggressor and the victim are unaware, even in those cases where the victim is so accustomed to the microaggression that they no longer notice or where they actually support the microaggression as natural and/or deserved. All human interactions carry an ethical stain regardless of the intentions of the actors.

This does not mean that intentions are irrelevant. Intentions, if present, add to the complex ethics of the interaction; however, their absence does not remove the ethics. So ethics do not depend on intention, but they are perturbed by intention. Intentions count -- they just don't count for everything. Often, they don't even count for much.

Minimizing the importance of human intention to ethics also allows me to extend ethics beyond human actors to include other actors in nature. I recently read How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (2013) by Eduardo Kohn, and Mr. Kohn convinced me that we humans should seriously consider the abilities of other creatures, plant and animal, to think about their world and how they interact with it. In other words, we should consider other creatures as actors in their own rights. While Kohn does not specifically address ethics from the forest's perspective, and while I know that I do not yet have a workable view on non-human ethics, I want to be open to it. It seems reasonable to me that other creatures—certainly mammals, but likely all creatures—can assess their situation in the world, weigh their options, and make ethical choices. By ethical, I mean that they can make choices that support their flows of energy and information and enhance their inner and outer states.

I reminded of a YouTube video I saw of a leopard that hunts and kills a monkey only to discover that the monkey is carrying an infant, now bereft of its mother.


To my mind, the interactions among the leopard, the mother monkey, and the infant all carry ethical considerations because of the range of options inherent in the situation, and the choices each actor made in the little drama. We can start with the mother monkey who chose to keep her infant though abandoning it might have increased her chances of avoiding the leopard. Then the leopard must choose between benefitting from her hard won and perhaps desperately needed meal and caring for an abandoned infant. The infant monkey has the narrowest range of choices given its infant status. It simply clings to its mother, even after she is dead.

As I see it, each actor has choices to make that extend beyond mere self-preservation, or the law of the jungle. I cannot pretend to know the ethics of monkeys and leopards, but I do see here the choices these actors made, and I think they could have made other choices. I don't think they are merely following hard-wired instincts. This leopard chose to tend to the infant, another leopard might have chosen to attend to the meal.

Of course, I may be wrong about leopard ethics, but this little vignette has allowed me to clarify what I am coming to mean by ethics: the choices we make about the flows of energy and information that we engage and how we stain and redirect those flows to perturb all the actors, including ourselves, in a given situation. The leopard is caught between two competing flows: food on the one hand and care of infants on the other. I don't want to anthropomorphize this choice, but I can say that both flows are vitally important to the leopard and her world, but she finds herself in a situation where she cannot engage both simultaneously. For whatever reasons a leopard might have, this leopard chooses to leave her meal to the hyenas and to attend to the infant monkey.

So is this a good or bad ethical choice, a skillful or unskillful choice, a helpful or harmful choice? Can we assess the value of the ethics in this situation? I cannot. While it's easy to turn this little movie into a Hallmark moment or a Jungle Book scene, the leopard has lost her meal, and likely she will lose the infant. The leopard is in a complex situation with multiple flows (don't forget the hyenas waiting in the wings—now, there's a flow of energy, matter, information, and organization for you), and she has to decide rather quickly which flows to engage and to redirect so as to best benefit the complex, open situation she finds herself in. For whatever her leopard reasons, her maternal considerations outweigh her nutritional considerations in this situation.

And this brings me to a next consideration for a subsequent post: ethics is not just about making choices but about making good choices rather than bad choices, skillful rather than unskillful, beneficial rather than harmful. Ethics are supposed to help us assess the value of our options and to choose wisely. Can complexity theory guide us here? I think so.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Rhizo Classroom: Rebooting the Narrative

I've been working on the idea of complex ethics, and I still have more to write, but I want to take a post to reflect on a larger issue. It seems to me that my writing about ethics is part of a larger effort to rethink the way I make sense of the world. I'm trying to rethink how I make meaning, and this has been made clear to me in several posts that I've read lately.

I'll start with a post by Jordan Greenhall in Venessa Miemis' emergent by design blog entitled "Kickstarter for a New Civilization". Greenhall argues for rebooting human civilization, starting with new sensemaking tools and strategies. He notes that while traditional science "has been a powerful sense making apparatus for the past 500 years", it is no longer adequate for the complexity confronting humanity. In a subsequent post, "Constructing the New Narrative", Greenhall identifies narrative as core to developing new sense-making tools for a complex world:
It is clear that in an increasingly complex world where your personal experience can account for only the tiniest sliver of potential experience, it is only through narrative — and its ability to allow individuals to benefit from the experiences of other individuals — that we can hope to collectively make sense of our world and become individually capable of navigating that world successfully.
Unfortunately, too much of our collective narrative, according to Greenhall, has been hijacked by malware. It's time to reboot.

Of course, rebooting narratives is not new, as I am reminded in Bonnie Stewart's post "temporarily embarrassed millionaires", in which she makes an intelligent call to reboot the education narrative, especially adult education, in the style of maritime Canada's Antigonish Movement. I think her call is timely, and I will attend to it to see if there is room for me to contribute. I suspect there will be. In the comments after the post, Bonnie links to Nathan J. Robinson's Current Affairs post "WHY IS “THE DECIMATION OF PUBLIC SCHOOLS” A BAD THING?", in which Robinson explains how we must change the narrative about public education if we are to cope with the changes in US public education that seem forthcoming from a Trump administration. Again, it's time to reboot, and I argue that while a pending Trump administration may heighten our sense of urgency, we've needed to reboot public education for some time.

Of course, in her blog Reflecting Allowed,  Maha Bali has been calling regularly for rebooting the narratives that we live and work by. I could reference any number of Maha's posts, but I'll use the most recent, as of this post. In the post "On Noticing Absence (also #OER17)", Maha argues that absence is an important part of our narratives, a point too often ignored by data analytics, for instance, which are strongly biased toward what is present, not what is absent. We need information theory that accounts for no signal. Then in "On Noticing Absence in Algorithms part 2", she explores her issues with the persistent narrative about computer technology replacing teachers in education. Again, I sense that it's time to reboot our narratives.

So if I have to explain what I'm doing with this series of posts about complex ethics, then I think I am trying to reboot my narrative about how and why I should make choices that perturb the world. Our ethics are one of the ways we make sense of the world, and my ethics need rebooting. I believe the world is complex, not simple, and I need ethics that are complex rather than simple. Most of the ethics that I know are far too simple to meet the needs of this complex world. I thank my online community for clarifying that need for me.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Rhizo Classroom: Ethics All the Way Down

I keep reading and developing my thoughts about complexity ethics, and as usual, the topic gets richer and richer. Emergence is a wonderful process that leads to more and more complexity. Emergence works in our readings and studies, as it seems to work in all complex systems. This is a principle of complexity with profound implications for education: the more we learn, the more we have to learn. Learning creates more learning. Learning a topic does not limit the topic, it does not reduce the amount we have left to learn; rather, it expands it. For every one thing we learn about history, we uncover 10 more things to learn (My numbers here are suggestive, not precise. The real ratio could be one to a million or billion or gazillion.). Beware of any curriculum that says this is the list of five things you need to know about biology, for instance. Rhizomatic education expands rather than limits knowledge. Education is lifelong—especially if you are thinking in terms of species and planets and not just individual humans.

And the more we write, the more we have to write. Writing about rhizomatic ethics, for instance, does not limit the topic. I don't have less to write now than I did when I started a year or so ago. I have more. The rhizome proliferates. It has asignifying ruptures, such as this one I am following now. I did not intend to discuss emergence when I sat down at my computer this morning in late November, 2016; rather, I intended to summarize my thinking about complexity ethics, or rhizomatic ethics, to introduce a discussion of how ethics emerges from and stains our choices about which flows of energy, matter, information, and organization to engage and how to engage them. But I wrote the topic gets richer and richer, and that comment led me to muse how Emergence is a wonderful process that leads to more and more complexity, and all of a sudden I was following a line of flight across the rhizome to something else. This touches, of course, on a practice I use in my writing classrooms: just move your fingers. Writing begets writing. Start with silliness, if you must, and something will emerge. One of the biggest issues facing my students is their overwhelming desire to finish, to write one complete, finished draft so that they can move on. Limiting comes later in writing, after you've expanded. You can't limit what isn't there. Trying to limit nothing leads to writer's block. Moving your fingers gets you going down a path, sometimes a silly path, but that's okay. Trim the silliness later after good stuff emerges. And have faith that sometimes the silliness morphs into the good stuff. Have faith in the magic of asignifying ruptures.

But I'll leave emergence and get to my summary. I'm insisting that complexity theory, which for me includes Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome, has much to say about ethics. (I use the terms complexity theory and rhizomatic theory interchangeably—complexity when I'm mostly talking about modern scientific thought and rhizomatic when I want to emphasize Deleuze and Guattari.) I can say this because I believe that all entities are complex, open systems, or rhizomes, that exist as a complexus, as Morin calls it, a weave, or better yet, a convergence of various flows of energy, matter, information, and organization like threads in a magic carpet called I from the inside and you or it from the outside.

I'm coming to believe that ethics is part of the very weave of reality; rather, the weaving of reality. Ethics is active, not passive. It's part of the process, not the meta-rules for the process. I'll start with the physics of it. In his 1968 book Energy Flow in Biology: Biological Organization as a Problem in Thermal Physics, Harold J. Morowitz notes two important ideas about complex, open, self-organizing entities: "that energy flow alone can give rise to order in a system" and "that energy flow is necessary to maintain order once it has been achieved" (26). Morowitz convinces me that complex, open systems (including humans) emerge, express, and maintain their lives as flows of energy. I prefer to speak of energy, matter, information, and organization as Morin does, but I suspect that the four are simply different views of the same flow. Einstein has already equated energy and matter, and information and organization certainly implicate each other. Claude Shannon's information theory exchanges energy for information in its discussion of entropy, and as Paul Cilliers says in his 1998 book Complexity and postmodernism: Understanding complex systems, "By replacing ‘energy’ with ‘information’ in the equations of thermodynamics, [Shannon] could show that the amount of information in a message is equal to its ‘entropy’." (8). I do not know of any information without energy, so as a shorthand, I'll speak of energy alone when I mean all four. I really do not know which came first: the Word or the Light, but they both seem necessary now.

So a view is emerging for me of humans as the nexus of various flows of energy, matter, information, and organization. I can say that a human biologically starts with the joining of egg and sperm (please, don't involve me in the U.S. abortion debate here), which creates a cache of electrochemical energy and information in the form of DNA. We can, at one scale, see this as a single flow as a zygote begins to unpack itself like a head of broccoli or an erupting thundercloud, but we should be aware that this process is a convergence of multiple flows of energy, matter, information, and organization from the initial fertilized ovum AND within the context of the enclosing womb (for a wonderful unpacking of this concept, see Siddhartha Mukherjee's lucid book The Gene: An Intimate History (2016). As the internal flows push the zygote outward, they immediately engage in interactions and exchanges with the womb, with the ecosystem, and flows of energy, matter, information, and organization are fed into the zygote to interact with and to modulate the emerging activities, processes, and structures of the zygote. The egg has just enough stored energy to jumpstart the process, but the emerging zygote must swiftly connect to flows of energy from the womb, its ecosystem, if it is to thrive. This drive outward fed by flows inward continues until the death of the system.



Of course, starting with the egg and sperm is a matter of habit and convenience, which points to one of the most challenging aspects of complexity thought: boundary issues. Traditional Western thought likes to posit clear, distinct boundaries—lines in the sand, walls, disciplines, jobs, narratives with distinct beginnings and final endings, and so forth, but boundaries of open systems, of rhizomes, are not so well defined or stable. They are messy and problematic. As Cilliers notes:
[I]t is often difficult to define the border of a complex system. Instead of being a characteristic of the system itself, the scope of the system is usually determined by the purpose of the description of the system, and is thus often influenced by the position of the observer. This process is called framing. (p. 4)
My own interest in genealogy has shown me that I can shift scales to frame different flows and trace a very different beginning for myself beyond the union of sperm and egg some 65 years ago. Given a frame of about 5,000 years, my DNA results show that I am overwhelmingly the result of DNA flows from Europe (97%), mostly the UK, but also from the Middle East (3%). And, of course, if I really want to find my beginning, I must go all the way back to a savannah in ancient Africa some 150,000 years ago. Though if I shift to another scale or frame, then I must go back to some primordial soup about four billion years ago. I do not have the resources to trace the flow of me at that granular a scale over such time and geographical distances, but I have no doubt that the flows are there. It's a bit like believing in a river even though I can see only a little way up and down the river at any one time. Calling the one bit of river that I can see THE RIVER is short-sighted and naive, but that is sort of what I do when I look in the mirror and say, "That is THE Keith Hamon." Well, it's just a part of me, just a snapshot of a very long flow of me that extends into the past and into the future.


I am the moving precipitate, as Randall Collins terms it, that flows across all the situations I find myself in, with boundaries like a cloud. As a thundercloud, I emerge as the self-eco-organizing conflux of flows of wind, temperature, electricity, water, vapor, light. As these flows merge and interact, I achieve a strange kind of autonomy through what Morin calls a principle of self-eco-organization. Self-eco-organization is an emergent phenomenon grounded on countless interactions that from our human scale and point of view usually appear as mechanical, deterministic, and mindless. Neurons fire or don't fire in our physical brains, and we can describe these patterns of firing in deterministic terms: one neuron fires, and if it fires with enough strength, another fires, and so on until a thought emerges. Clear cause and effect, nothing mysterious. If pursued by itself, such a reductionist view undermines the idea of autonomy of complex open systems. I reject that view.

Rather, I accept the idea of self-eco-organization that posits an autonomy in terms of determinism. For me, it works like this: as complex open systems, we must engage in various flows of energy, matter, information, and organization, yet at many points we are able to choose the manner and degree of our engagement. For instance, as a functioning human (humor me here), I have no choice but to breathe air; however, as my meditative, administrative, and soccer practices have taught me, the manner of my breathing is a choice that can dramatically change both my internal and external state at any given place and time. If I control my breathing, then I change myself and my situation. This choice to control defines my autonomy, a function of my self-organizing, but this autonomy is always a tense dialog between necessity and freedom. I must breathe if I am to remain a functioning me, but I can choose to breathe differently. Self-eco-organization. Freedom informed by necessity. Necessity informed by freedom. Keith Hamon as an emergent property of both freedom and necessity.

Many people want to focus exclusively on either the freedom to become what we want or the necessity to be what we are, but complexity thought insists that our autonomy emerges from the interplay of both freedom and necessity. To be dramatic, we all hang on a cross suspended between two thieves: absolute freedom on one hand and absolute fixed necessity on the other. Both thieves lead to death: either to the hot chaos of absolute freedom or the cold order of necessity. Both conditions destroy complex open systems. Both fire and ice, as Dante and Frost have noticed, lead to death.

However, as Morin notes—and this is the real magic—fire and ice also lead to life. Rather, the flow between fire and ice leads to life. It's the miscegenation between hot chaos and frozen fixity that creates life, just as the coupling of cold and hot air masses engenders thunderstorms. As Morowitz more scientifically explains it, energy flows from a heat source (in our case, the Sun), through a swarm of particles (in our case, the Earth), animating it, and then into a heat sink (Space). (I'm glossing here. For the details, read his book). While living, we are poised, vibrating, between extremes of heat and cold, and that vibration is life. That vibration is the turbulence of flows of energy, matter, information, and organization through a nexus that I, for instance, call Keith Hamon.

So what the hell does the flow of animating energy have to do with ethics? I'm glad I finally asked.
Source: rna-mediated.com/light-drives-
adaptation-nothing-drives-evolution-3/

The choices we make about the flows of energy that we engage and how we engage them always have an ethical consideration, an ethical stain. The choices I can make about breathing air, for instance, lead to changes in my internal and external states that enhance some aspects and dampen other aspects of my internal/external state (I should think of them as conjoined twins—one state not possible without the other).

As energy, matter, information, and organization flow through me, they are modulated, translated, modified. They are refracted like light through a prism, which is different when it is released back into the ecosystem. Those modulated energy flows also involve choices, and the modulated flows perturb the ecosystem and eventually feedback to perturb me, but only after having been modulated yet again by the other complex, open systems (including other humans) that they have flowed through.

Energy does not flow through us blissfully unperturbed (with the possible exception of neutrinos, for whom the entire universe is essentially a transparent medium through which they flow unperturbed, making them very difficult to detect and impossible to catch); rather, the flows are turbulent. Flows percolate through us. We are not smooth conduits. No system is. Information flows in, but it does not flow out the same, as our parlor games teach us when we try to relay a simple story along a chain of partiers. This post you are reading emerged from my readings of Edgar Morin, Deleuze and Guattari, Paul Cilliers, Harold Morowitz, my online rhizo group, and countless others, but those information flows were modulated, distorted, perhaps tortured by the turbulent rapids of my own information processing whirlpools. Simply because I mention the names Morin, Deleuze, and Guattari, no one should assume that I am faithfully channeling their information. All information that flows through me is stained by me, changed, modulated, and that stain carries with it an ethical dimension. The stain of modulation perturbs me, it perturbs the information flow, and it perturbs the ecosystems I inhabit—even those I'm not conscious of. Things are different because Keith Hamon read Edgar Morin—even Edgar Morin is different, though he will likely never know that Keith Hamon read him. Keith Hamon bears some ethical responsibility for that difference. You, reader, now bear some responsibility because you read this. Each of you will refract this post this way or that, leaving your own stain upon it. All those stains carry ethical implications.

The prism pic above is, of course, wrong. It suggests that energy flows in pure and is then refracted. No flows reach us pure and unperturbed. All flows of energy, matter, information, and organization are already refracted and turbulent by the time we engage them, having passed through other complex open systems, other rhizomes, that left their stains first. We are then stained by and in turn stain again. Sunlight is perturbed by the Sun's own inner thought processes, is refracted by the cold soup of space, and then buffeted by Earth's atmosphere before it ever reaches me. Sunlight is further refracted by the plants I eat that capture sunlight through photosynthesis and by the animals I eat that first ate the plants that ate the sunlight. Sunlight, a fundamental energy flow, is perturbed all along the way, until I finally turn sunlight into shit. Shit is sunlight stained.

Many may complain that not all those perturbations have ethical import, that there is nothing ethical, for instance, about light filtering through the atmosphere. I suspect all perturbations do carry ethical implications, but it isn't an argument I wish to engage just now; rather for now, I insist that all human perturbations carry ethical stains. My choices about food (which food, how much, where and when to consume, and how to recycle that food) carry ethical stains. Ethics is not the only consideration, of course. We humans also have economic, biological, social, religious, and countless other considerations, but ethics is part of the mix and is ignored at our peril, in large part because these flows of energy connect us to everything and everyone else.

The energy, matter, information, and organization that flow through me also flow through everyone and everything else. Those flows are not linear, but nonlinear—in both the mathematical and metaphorical senses. They percolate, recycle, and ripple. I, then, perturb everything else and everything else perturbs me. We are, as Deleuze and Guattari say, connected heterogeneously: "any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be" (ATP 7). Those connections and the exchanges across them carry ethical stains.

Those flows and connections are multi-scalar. In other words, the flows of blood through my veins is connected to the flows of light from the Sun. Of course, the perturbations of my blood flow is so small compared to the flow of sunlight, like the ripple made by a small stone in a raging river—untraceable almost as soon as it occurs. Still, the connection is there, and this brings us to the third characteristic of the rhizome: multiplicity. Everything is a multiplicity: a complex, open system composed of myriad complex open systems arranged in a complex open ecosystem and all fed by flows of energy. Systems within systems. We host and are hosted. We are parasites, to use Serres' term in his 2007 book The Parasite, which carries a wonderful triple meaning in French: guest, leech, and noise. We are fed and we feed in return, from the microscale to the macro, and this feeding always carries ethical considerations. And because we are multiplicities, this feeding is never simple or discrete. We feed both from and to at the same time and across multiplicities. There is no unity, only flows of feeding energy, and some flows for awhile swirl in a configuration recognizable and functioning as Keith Hamon. Or as you.

Because there is no unity but only flow, we must expect asignifying ruptures (D&G's fourth characteristic of the rhizome) as one complex open system deterritorializes and reterritorializes, following lines of flight across the rhizome. To follow light again, plants feed on sunlight, and light ruptures into chlorophyll. Animals eat plants, and light and chlorophyll rupture into flesh, movement, desire. I eat animals, and light, chlorophyll, and flesh rupture into movement, desire, thought, and shit. Of course, the asignifying ruptures don't stop there. In fact, they never stop. They just morph along the flow. Each asignifying rupture carries an ethical stain—among other stains, to be sure, but ethical nonetheless.

And this brings me to the last of the six characteristics of the rhizome: mapping and decalcomania, which to my mind address what Cilliers identifies as two of the core issues confronting complex open systems:
Complex systems have to grapple with a changing environment. Depending on the severity of these changes, great demands can be made on the resources of the system. To cope with these demands the system must have two capabilities: it must be able to store information concerning the environment for future use; and it must be able to adapt its structure when necessary. The first of these will be discussed as the process of representation; the second, which concerns the development and change of internal structure without the a priori necessity of an external designer, as the process of self-organisation. (Complexity and postmodernism 10)
The ethics of mapping and decalcomania merits its own blog post, and this post is already too long, but I'll make it just a bit longer. For Cilliers, representation addresses how complex systems "gather information about that environment and store it for future use" (p. 11), or in other words, how the system creates meaning. Note here that Cilliers is not limiting meaning creation to humans; rather, ALL complex systems create meaning, a defining characteristic of complex systems, or rhizomes. To my mind, mapping and decalcomania are the terms D&G use for this inherent process of creating meaning and self-organizing in light of this meaning. I will write more about this process, but for now, I want to emphasize that creating meaning (mapping our worlds) and self-eco-organizing (responding to our meanings) carry ethical implications.

For me, the implications for education are clear: everything we do in education is stained with ethics. Actually, that is not quite correct, as it makes it sound as if ethics is something added on. It is not. Maybe I should say that everything we do in education expresses our ethics. Everything we do has a particular stain. We make choices that support the complex, open systems involved in education (students, teachers, organizations, communities, food services, traffic flows, local and national stories, and so on) or that undermine those systems. Most often, what we do supports some systems and undermines others. That ambiguity is part of the complex nature of ethics, and complexity theory helps me to see why complexity ethics is different from traditional ethics. I will write that post later.

But for now, I think I'm ready to write my summary: As complex, open systems interacting with other complex, open systems, we humans make choices about the flows of energy, matter, information, and organization that we engage and how we engage them. Our choices perturb those flows, dynamically and variously supporting and undermining our internal and external states, and those perturbations, those stains, always carry ethical implications.

I wish you all happy Holy Days. May the Word and the Light, however they flow through you, bring you peace, kindness, and safety.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Rhizo Classroom: The Flow of Ethics

I made some rather large claims in my last post about ethics being at the heart of the rhizome, woven into the very fabric of reality, which implies that ethics is woven into everything that happens within education. I think my last post was a bit too vague, so I want to elaborate in this post. I lean very heavily here on my understanding of Edgar Morin's argument in his book On Complexity (2008).

I start with Morin's idea about the autonomy of complex, living entities, such as humans. According to Morin, all living entities, certainly humans, are open systems that exchange energy, matter, information, and organization with their eco-systems and within themselves. These exchanges bind us to and make us dependent upon our ecosystems at the same time as they distinguish us from our ecosystems. Humans channel these flows of matter, energy, information, and organization from their environment, through themselves, and back out into their environment, usually after some transformative, internal processes. These exchanges work across all scales that we are aware of: from the unfolding of our DNA to our roles in society, history, and the world. As open systems, we are simultaneously integral parts of the environment and distinguishable entities in our own rights. We are complex entities emerging in a complex environment, overcoming entropy through the constant exchanges with and flows through our ecosystems.

The degree to which we manage these exchanges—the degree to which we open and close ourselves to flows of energy, matter, information, and organization—determines our relative autonomy. We can resist and disengage from exchanges that threaten harm, and we can seek and engage with exchanges that promise benefits. I think all open systems can to some degree manage their exchanges, but certainly humans have this ability, this obligation. We can decide much about what we will take in and what we won't, and the growing complexity of our cultures and technologies have only expanded the range of exchanges that we can and must manage.

For me, this is easily illustrated. For instance, like most animals, we humans have a skin that manages many exchanges between ourselves and our ecosystems. Those exchanges—say between our skins and sunlight—can be of ultimate importance. Too little or too much sunlight, and we suffer, even die. Just enough sunlight, and we flourish as an autonomous entity absolutely dependent upon sunlight. We learn to make choices about our exposure to sunlight, and those choices enrich our lives or destroy it. Our autonomy is measured by our capacity to make choices about how much sunlight we are willing to expose our skin to.

Add the human technologies of clothing and of complex social groups to this skin/sun exchange, and our choices governing the amount of skin we expose to sunlight become much richer and more nuanced, more complex. How much skin we choose to expose or to cover also defines our autonomy, which does not depend on whether we show a lot of skin or show little; rather, autonomy depends on our capacity to decide how much to show. The person who chooses to be naked and the person who choses to be fully clothed are both expressing their autonomy within the context of some social group, some ecosystem. The person who is forced to be naked or fully clothed has lost their autonomy. Our ability to make choices helps define autonomy and, to my mind, entangles us in ethics. Almost always.

As we humans begin life, all our choices are made for us by caretakers. If not, we usually don't survive, which points to the absolute necessity of making choices about which matter, energy, information, and organization flows we engage and which we avoid. Parents insure that appropriate food enters our mouths and inappropriate things do not. Most of us then spend much of the rest of our lives learning what things to ingest and what things to avoid. Of course, some of us never learn completely, which too often leads to unhappiness, disruption, and even death.

The management of the flow of food is obvious, but we also must learn to manage the flows of information and organization that we ingest, process, and feedback into the ecosystem. We must learn a language, and then learn what to say and what not to say and when and where. We must learn up and down, inside and out, near and far, then, now, and tomorrow. We must learn fact, truth, and lie. We have many choices to make, and these choices all carry ethical considerations because they all perturb both our internal and environmental states and processes. Our choices promote or degrade to some degree our own well-being and the well-being of the environments that sustain us. These perturbations are unavoidable; therefore, we should be aware of the effects of our choices and seek to promote the wellbeing of ourselves and our environments.

For me, then, complexity science renders explicit the situation of humans as complex, open systems: we must engage in some flows of energy, matter, information, and organization, and we should learn to manage our engagements to the degree that we can. Making choices about what flows to engage and how to perturb our environments and our internal states always carries an ethical dimension. In their essays in Mason's Complexity Theory and the Philosophy of Education (2008), Kuhn and Morrison seem to want to limit complexity theory to the mechanics of matter, energy, information, and organization flows. I see no reason to limit complexity theory this way, though I understand that most scientists may do so under the delusion that ethics has no place in science. This is one of the main errors in modern thought that Morin addresses, a condition he calls "blind knowledge". Paul Cilliers, who also appears in Mason's book, also seems to have no problem including ethical considerations in his complexity theories, and his thought will appear in my exploration of how complexity science—or more broadly, complexity thought—helps frame a complex ethics.

So what does this have to do with education? When we frame education rhizomatically, as a complex, open system, we see that formal education is one thread in our process for learning how to manage the flows of matter, energy, information, and organization through our environments and ourselves. Of course, we—especially in higher ed—tend to focus on the flows of information that we present to students for engagement, but a little closer scrutiny reveals that we are always involved with all flows at all scales. When I'm in a classroom with my students, I exchange air and germs with them, smells, sounds, light, temperature, organization in the arrangement of the classroom and the lesson, social structures, poems, stories, plays, beliefs, and infinitely more. And because the class is a rhizome, all nodes across all scales are connected to all other nodes, just as Deleuze and Guattari tell us. Thus, we are confronted with more choices than we can be aware, far more choices than we can make, yet we are called to make them. Our situation as a complex, open system absolutely demands it. Not making choices is still making them. Not being conscious of our choices is still making them. The flows of information, matter, energy, and organization are incessant and demanding. We have no choice but to choose, even if we choose death. As I am beginning to see it, no concept of education is more entangled with ethics than complexity education.

So if there are more choices than we can make, then how do we make them? Another post.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Rhizo Classroom: The Ethics at the Heart of the Rhizome

I am exploring the practical consequences of the rhizome for the college classroom, and originally I thought I would go through Deleuze and Guattari's six characteristics of the rhizome (connection, heterogeneity, multiplicity, asignifying rupture, cartography, and decalcomania) to disentangle the implications for my classrooms one at a time. That approach has not worked for me, in large part, I think, because it breaks up the rhizome into smaller, simpler parts to make dissecting easier. Dissection is not working so well for me, as I suspect it didn't work so well for D&G. After their initial introduction of the rhizome, they complain, "We get the distinct feeling that we will convince no one unless we enumerate certain approximate characteristics of the rhizome" (ATP 7). It seems that they felt forced into analyzing the rhizome for the sake of readers who expect analysis and who won't accept the concept otherwise.

Anyway, I am changing my approach: instead of proceeding by each characteristic of the rhizome, I will proceed by issues in the classroom and draw implications from the rhizome as a whole. I'm also taking this approach because of some recent readings that have focussed my attention on certain issues, particularly ethics. For this post, then, I want to focus on ethics in the classroom and in educational research, drawing on writings from Maha Bali's blog Reflecting Allowed, Mark Mason's book Complexity Theory and the Philosophy of Education (2008), Edgar Morin's On Complexity (2008), and of course, Deleuze & Guattari.

I start with the notion that ethics are woven into the fabric of the rhizome, into the complex universe itself. Here's why I think so: all nodes of any system, any rhizome, are connected to one another, and these connections have ethical as well as other implications because the connections among nodes are the pathways and mechanisms by which nodes, however defined, exchange matter, energy, information, and structure with one another. These connections and exchanges make our universe possible, and the exchanges have consequences for the systems that emerge from them.

Though most of us assume that the connections and exchanges among two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, say, are rather mechanical with no ethical implications (an assumption that I'm questioning more and more), we can easily see that the connections and exchanges among three people do have ethical implications (though some deterministic materialists would deny ethics even here). I'll share a story: recently, Maha Bali, an Egyptian woman, connected Pete Rorabaugh and me, two American men living in Georgia, through Twitter, asking how the both of us had survived the recent hurricane that passed through our state. Now, this newly connected molecule (two hydrogens and one oxygen—let's call it a professional friendship) may or may not hold and become a viable part of some larger system, but most of us can recognize the possibilities of exchanges of information and organization and the ethical implications of those connections and exchanges. We may come to see this new molecule as good, bad, or indifferent. It may hold or dissolve. However, it plays out, the ethical implications are obvious to most of us. Interconnectivity and the concomitant exchanges of energy, matter, information, and organization carry ethical implications throughout a system, certainly at the human scale (professional friendships, for instance) and perhaps across all scales (molecules or galaxies, for instance).

So when D&G say of the rhizome that "any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be" (7), they are suggesting to me that all nodes of a system interconnect to exchange information, organization, energy, and/or matter. Those exchanges always have an ethical component. I think this may be true of atoms, but I'm certain it is true of humans. I, obviously, am ethically entangled with Pete and Maha, but also with the person who checks out my purchases at the food store. I am certainly ethically entangled with my students, and my interconnections and ethical responsibilities do not end when I leave the store or the classroom, though they may change. I must be keenly aware of the ethical implications of all exchanges of information, organization, energy, and matter, and I am never relieved of this responsibility. For me, all exchanges among humans have ethical implications, and we all exchange—however slightly—with everyone else. You breathe my air, I breathe yours. We both have ethical obligations entangled in that air and its exchange between you and me.

I am limiting myself here to the ethics of exchanges among humans. As I've hinted above, I'm not quite comfortable doing that. My readings in actor network theory and object oriented ontology suggest that this unreasonably and unwisely privileges humans over the rest of the universe and distorts or dismisses the agency and the ethical implications of nonhuman nodes in our networks. I note an increasing sense in my world that humans should recognize the ethics implicated in their exchanges with animals and with the Earth. It is just a short step, then, for me to think that animals have ethical exchanges among themselves and with us and, if so, then all exchanges among all things have ethical implications. Still … for now, let's talk mostly about the ethical implications of heterogenous interconnectivity among humans and their educational systems.

Perhaps no one has taught me more about the ethics of academic exchange than has Maha Bali, and if you want to understand at ground level the ethics of the rhizome, then read her blog Reflecting Allowed. One of her latest posts ("Behind the Scenes of the Growth of @Vconnecting" 04 Sep 2016) details how she and Rebecca Hogue started Virtually Connecting mostly out of their desire to connect to each other over the Net to exchange information and organization (as well as some love, which really isn't a side-note to the VC story. Love and passion are vastly underrated and even dampened in most educational settings. Too bad.). I have been connecting with both Maha and Rebecca and with others since #rhizo15, and we have produced several papers and presentations about our online schooling. I have read closely Maha's discussions of marginality in her blog and in several documents she has co-authored with Shyam Sharma, and I am amazed at how our worldwide network connections are highlighting the ethical issues of rhizomatic heterogenous connectivity. Of course, I have always been connected to Maha—we eventually exchange the same air and water despite the distance between us—but now I am conscious of our connections through our exchanges of information, and I am painfully aware that I need to improve my ethical stance toward those who are different than I. We white, western men make assumptions about how to connect and exchange information that can offend and even injure others, as Maha's most recent post highlights. I need to step up my game to play well in this online space.

And the old ethics are not likely to help me much. Too often, the old ethics assume a simple, closed system: a homogenous community with rules that first include some and exclude others and then manage the behaviors and beliefs of only the included. Those ethics are no longer sufficient, or in D&G's terms, they are too arborescent. Such an ethic "plots a point and fixes an order" (7).  The online world forces us to recognize the complex, rhizomatic nature of our communities. We have always connected heterogeneously, but we could ignore it behind our fictions of clan, community, and nation. The Internet has exposed those fictions, and now we must learn to cope with the heterogeneity that has always been there. We've much to learn. I think rhizomatic complexity can help, but that is not so obvious to everyone.

In his introduction to Complexity Theory and the Philosophy of Education, Mark Mason notes that while Keith Morrison and Lesley Kuhn are intrigued by complexity theory and its implications for education, they are also troubled by what they perceive as a lack of a moral or ethical stance. Mason says:
While complexity theory challenges educational philosophy to reconsider accepted paradigms of teaching, learning and educational research, the theory is not without its difficulties. These, as Morrison elucidates in the chapter, lie in complexity theory’s nature … in that it is a descriptive theory that is easily misunderstood as a prescriptive theory, that it is silent on key issues of values and ethics that educational philosophy should embrace. (3) … [Kuhn] offers a number of caveats to educational researchers working in the framework of complexity, perhaps the most interesting of which is her reminder that while complexity theory is descriptive, education is a normative activity. (23)
Mason concludes his essay by saying:
Education, learning and teaching are, at their core, normative activities, but complexity theory is silent on justifying values; it reports evolution, it analyses—and suggests how to analyze—phenomena, but it does not speak to morals. It describes the amoral law of the jungle. (42)
This is a serious charge, but I suspect that it may follow both from a too narrow restriction of ethics as a human phenomenon and of complexity as a scientific method rather than a way of thinking. First, ethics is not limited to the human. The jungle is not amoral. Second, complexity is not merely a scientific theory. As Morin demonstrates, complexity is a way of thinking, knowing, and behaving.

I will develop these thoughts in a subsequent post. Unfortunately, I recently had surgery on my hand and typing is laborious, but I will be unwrapped soon.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Rhizo Classroom: Principles of Connection and Heterogeneity

In their "Introduction: Rhizome", Deleuze and Guattari waste no time in opening up the tidy little boxes we have constructed around reality in general and our classrooms in particular:
1 and 2. Principles of connection and heterogeneity: any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be. This is very different from the tree or root, which plots a point, fixes an order. (ATP 7)
Yes, this is very different. Among other things, D&G challenge the notion of causality that lies at the heart of Western thought and structures every aspect of the traditional classroom. Since the Enlightenment, the West has mostly adhered to a billiard ball concept of causality: ball A bumps into ball B, causing it to move or to move in a different direction. This is a very linear and traceable concept of causality that frames every event as the immediate result of a preceding, well-defined, proximate, and knowable event. Moreover, and in terms of this post, this linear causality makes a very tight, almost exclusive connection between cause and effect: A causes B. If you want to know why B happens, find A, plot the point, fix the order, and B pops out. That's pretty much it, and it's a very tidy way of viewing reality. And by the way, this kind of thinking has helped us put a man on the Moon. Over the past 300 years, we have used this kind of reasoning to reduce ignorance and superstition and to learn more than Sir Isaac Newton could have ever imagined, but as Edgar Morin points out, this linear logic has its own blindness that is becoming intolerable. We have to see more, and we have to see differently if we want to address issues as large and open as global warming and poverty.

Only in closed systems can we reduce reality enough to limit the connections of A and B to merely themselves. It takes great power and control to reduce the interactions of A and B exclusively and explicitly to each other, to say A always and only causes B, and B always and only results from A. I am overstating my point here to make a point, as most of us recognize in our sober moments that the world is never this simple, yet we still have the tendency to act as if it is and to make policy as if it is. We want to know exactly what one, single thing causes cancer and exactly what one, single thing will cure it. We want to know what one pill will lead to weight loss, stop terrorism, erase laugh lines, and restore the economy and sexual potency (the last two often confused, but not necessarily the same thing). I, for instance, want to know exactly what one thing will cause my students to write standard, academic English prose. If such an answer were possible, I would gladly take it. So I have great compassion for and understanding of our desires for simple answers, but when any point A can be connected to any other point, and must be, then linear causality becomes too simple and blinds us to the rich complexity of things and events. Traditionally, we have aimed for closed, highly controlled classrooms in which simple answers to simple questions can be simply traced and simply assessed. If we could just keep the world out, then it might work.

This undermining of linear causality is not new with D&G. To my mind, it is a part of the general trend in 20th century thought toward complexity. Bohr and Einstein famously argued about it, and postmodern philosophy has taken it to heart. In his article "Complexity Theory and Its Implications for Educational Change", Mark Mason notes Foucault's emphasis on "polymorphous correlations in place of simple or complex causality". Polymorphous correlations is a better way to conceptualize causality when "any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be." So what are the implications of a view of the world that says we can hardly ever reliably trace a single connection between one Cause A and one Effect B, when doing so ignores Events C-Z and all those other aspects of reality that are not "necessarily linked to a linguistic feature" and that we can't even name?

D&G give us some clues fortunately, and I feel free to run with their points. First, they note the paucity of language: "not every trait in a rhizome is necessarily linked to a linguistic feature" (7). We don't have names for everything, probably not even for most things. We live in a very big space, and we are able to map so very little of it with our languages. The rhizome always exceeds our abilities to say, yet we long for universal truths—scientific, spiritual, and social—that say it all, once and for all. That would be nice, I suppose, but it seems to be beyond the grasp of language, any language.

Then, even our language is fragmented, diverse, and in a sense shattered. D&G say, "semiotic chains of every nature are connected to very diverse modes of coding (biological, political, economic, etc.) that bring into play not only different regimes of signs but also states of things of differing status." (7). We have diverse modes of coding that map different aspects of reality, bringing into focus at any one time "things of differing status." To my mind, this is actually a strength of language that makes it more capable and potent. It makes for a rich and subtle linguistic fabric than can map to more of reality. We can map with political language and see one view of reality and then map with biological language to see another view. This way we get more views and see more, but we lose the one True view. I think it is a more than fair trade, but fundamentalists of every stripe will disagree.

••••••••••

I'm not happy with where this post is going, but I don't want to lose it, so I'll stop here. It may be useful later.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Two-Faced Rhizome, #rhizo16

In the first chapter of their book A Thousand Plateaus (1987), Deleuze and Guattari introduce us to rhizomatic structures and processes in the world, listing six characteristics that help illuminate the rhizome. They introduce the characteristics with a single sentence:
We get the distinct feeling that we will convince no one unless we enumerate certain approximate characteristics of the rhizome. (7)
For me, this sentence has been easy to step over and move beyond—easy to ignore because it is a transitional statement, and a short one at that, intended to move us quickly from D&G's statement of the problem with arborescent thought and writing to their exploration of the solution: the rhizome. Unfortunately, in my hurry to get to the heart of their discussion, I have ignored the transition. I think this has been unfortunate.

I'm impressed that D&G are positioning themselves rhetorically, framing the chapter "Introduction: Rhizome" as an argument: they want to convince someone, perhaps us, that the rhizome is real and worth considering as a contrast to arborescent thought, and to do so, they must support their assertion with "certain approximate characteristics of the rhizome." In other words, they must provide evidence and some kind of argument, perhaps a persuasive argument. This resonates all the way back to Gorgias and Isocrates, and I suppose it should be no surprise. After all, Deleuze was a philosopher who took quite seriously and vigorously the task of investigating the workings of the world and to argue for certain approximate interpretations of and stances toward the world and against other interpretations and stances. Moreover, the chapter focuses heavily on the workings of language as the key dynamic by which both arborescent and rhizomatic thought and structures are expressed and worked out. Language, of course, has its rhetorical implications. So rhetoric is implicated throughout the chapter.

As they often do in ATP, however, D&G undercut their rhetorical stance with the cheeky opening phrase "we get the distinct feeling that …". It's as if they understand the need to give us characteristics of the rhizome as some kind of persuasive support, but they see the humor in trying to argue in arborescent thought structures for that which is not arborescent. Few structures are more thoroughly arborescent than a Western-style argument with a central thesis—supported by logical, relevant details—that positions a coherent author against a coherent audience in an attempt to cause the audience to think or behave differently. This is the bedrock of Western academic, scientific, and legalistic discourse, and I don't think that D&G want to become entangled in it. Of course, they still want to cause us to think differently. They have a problem.

I get the sense that they avoid rhetorical persuasion as much as possible in favor of demonstration: they will write the rhizome and hope we get it with only the barest, cheeky nod to standard, rhetorical argument. As I mentioned in an earlier post, they begin their demonstration by a-centering the writer's voice, becoming a multiplicity themselves, and by a-centering their topic, making "use of everything that came within range, what was closest as well as farthest away" (3). They a-center the reader who wants a reasonable argument to follow, some "lines of articulation or segmentarity, strata and territories", but instead confronts a rapid flash of images, snatches of doggerel, formulae, tidbits of music, psychology, biology, physics, mathematics, and various other "lines of flight, movements of deterritorialization and destratification" often expressed in non-grammatical structures: "When rats swarm over each other" (7). This working out of the rhizome in language produces "phenomena of relative slowness and viscosity, or, on the contrary, of acceleration and rupture", and their text is like this for me: slowing down at times into a coherent idea that I can focus on, absorb, and turn into sense, but then immediately speeding up and sheering away to a new space in ways that I cannot follow immediately.

Of course, a persistent reader will eventually be able to follow by constructing a pathway that reliably, even if wrongly, takes them from one image to the next. Readers always do this when reading any text, but D&G make me conscious that I am mapping their text, and they make me work for it. I know that I do not know how they get from rats to bodies without organs, and I must map my own way. Of course, in most prose writing, we want the author to map the way for us and make it easy to arrive at the point. This kind of explicit clarity is a hallmark of academic writing. We want the author to say clearly, "Trace after me." D&G make more rigorous demands of readers. It's as if they expect us to be kindergarteners who can pass through a plain, smooth cardboard box into medieval castles, deepest space, or computer chips. ATP, then, may be a book as much for beginners as for experts. Maybe more so.

This a-centering of reader, writer, and topic does not lead to an orderly, Western argument, the kind I demand that my students write. Rather, it leads to what D&G call an assemblage:
All this, lines and measurable speeds, constitutes an assemblage. A book is an assemblage of this kind, and as such is unattributable. It is a multiplicity—but we don't know yet what the multiple entails when it is no longer attributed, that is, after it has been elevated to the status of a substantive.
D&G are writing an assemblage, not an argument, even though they know that the situation demands an argument, that their own tradition demands an argument. What's more, their readers expect an argument and anything other will likely confuse them. So D&G do other, and it confuses their readers. They are not giving us a text to trace; rather, they are giving us a text to map.

This assemblage/not-argument works in different ways. It works toward and includes the regular, the explicit, the nameable, signifying, the clearly delineated. It also flees the regular, always leeching into the uncharted, the unnamed or renamed, asignifying, the non-delineated, the implicit (in its latin root sense of being entwined), rats swarming, birds flocking. D&G make clear that an assemblage faces both ways:
One side of a machinic assemblage faces the strata, which doubtless make it a kind of organism, or signifying totality, or determination attributable to a subject; it also has a side facing a body without organs, which is continually dismantling the organism, causing asignifying particles or pure intensities to pass or circulate, and attributing to itself subjects that it leaves with nothing more than a name as the trace of an intensity.
In my fascination with the wide open, smooth spaces of the rhizome, I forget too often that the rhizome also includes the unified organism, the orderly structures, which emerge from the noise of the rhizome, but which are always pulled back into the noise. There is a voice in the whirlwind, but when it subsides, the whirlwind moves on. There is voice in the whirlwind of "Introduction: Rhizome", but the text is not "closed in upon itself, except as a function of impotence" (8). The text is "elevated to the status of a substantive", an entity in its own right with strata, a kind of organism or signifying totality attributable to a subject (I like the ambiguity here of the term subject, which to me suggests both the authors and their topic.).

The assemblage, then, is two-faced, and most of us dislike two-faced rhetoric. We want people to say what they mean, and mean what they say, but D&G seem to want to have it both ways. Why? Because they know that the connections between language and reality are imprecise and shifting. In a real sense, people can never say precisely what they mean. Likewise, they cannot precisely mean what they say. Language is a tool for mapping approximately, not tracing exactly. In the section about connection and heterogeneity, D&G say:
[N]ot every trait in a rhizome is necessarily linked to a linguistic feature: semiotic chains of every nature are connected to very diverse modes of coding (biological, political, economic, etc.) that bring into play not only different regimes of signs but also states of things of differing status. Collective assemblages of enunciation function directly within machinic assemblages; it is not impossible to make a radical break between regimes of signs and their objects. (7)
They are messing with our usual notions about language here. First, like any useful map, language leaves out a lot of reality: "not every trait … is necessarily linked to a linguistic feature". So even if we could say exactly what we mean, we can't say all that we mean—unless we mean very, very little—likely too little to note. Then, different languages, or "semiotic chains", map reality differently, or map different realities, bringing "into play not only different regimes of signs but also states of things of differing status." Saying what you mean depends very much on the language that you use. Language is not static and unchanging with firm, explicit linkages to aspects of reality. "Even when linguistics claims to confine itself to what is explicit and to make no presuppositions about language, it is still in the sphere of a discourse implying particular modes of assemblage and types of social power" (7). Finally, D&G rupture the connection between language and reality when they say that "it is not impossible to make a radical break between regimes of signs and their objects." This is a backhanded way to say what they mean, and perhaps it is a nod on their part to our common notion that our words, signs, reliably point to real things. If there wasn't some dependable connection between words and things, then I would feel very silly writing this post. On the other hand, if the connection between words and things was static and inviolable—as it now is with Latin, for instance—then nothing new could be said (I am no Latin scholar, but I suspect that even Latin is not quite as dead as we think it is).

This helps me understand the two-faced aspect of an assemblage: it is that creative zone of complexity between cold, reliable, striated, fixed order on one hand (the simple/complicated domain of closed systems) and hot, unreliable, smooth, chaotic disorder on the other hand (the chaotic domain of totally open systems). Life thrives in the temperate zone between cold simplicity and hot chaos. This is a two-faced zone, suspended between order and disorder, or any other binary that you choose to name, and it is the dynamic tension of this suspension that enables life. Systems need to be stable enough to function as coherent systems and yet flexible enough to adjust to both internal and external forces and changes inherent in open systems. Resilience requires successful negotiation of this tension between integrity on the one hand and flexibility on the other. It's a balancing act that I find stressful and difficult.

The big rhizo-lesson for me is that everything is an open system—even our Universe is likely an open system within the Multiverse.  Closed systems such as sock drawers, traditional classrooms, and the minds of fundamentalists of all flavors are rare in the Universe, sustained at great cost and power, and always doomed to having their walls breached or to being sealed off and ignored.

D&G neatly capture this tension in the sentence I started this post with: "we will convince no one unless we enumerate certain approximate [italics added] characteristics of the rhizome."  I don't know if the original French words carry the same connotations, but in English I sense a wonderful tension between the juxtaposed terms certain and approximate that I think echoes what D&G are discussing here. This is so two-faced: on the one hand, certain, fixed, absolute knowledge that is beyond doubt, and on the other hand, approximate, inexact, indefinite, loose knowledge that is close to the actual but with plenty of wiggle room. The term certain also resonates with the sense of some but not all, which also works well in this context.

So D&G will arrange for somewhat of an argument for the rhizome, but not all of it. They expect the argument to emerge much like Castaneda's herb garden in the runoff of certain uncertain rains. There are certain points to be made, but they don't make them; rather, they let the points emerge, including points that they didn't know were there.

I think there are lessons here for my writing classes (both composition and literature—one class about one's own writing, the other class about another's writing), and I hope to tease out these lessons by exploring the six characteristics of the rhizome. Of course, I'm reading other things as well, so I may never finish, but if D&G are correct, then I'll never say all of it anyway.