Friday, January 26, 2018

#MeToo: The Post-Humanity of Rhizo-Rhetoric

So is #MeToo expanding rhetoric beyond the humanist focus on the individual to the posthumanist inclusion of the human/nonhuman swarm and ecosystem? I think so.

But let me point out that this expansion does not dismiss the individual and her unique experience. Each individual experience has its own meaning, and our traditional rhetoric gives us a rich set of tools for reading that experience. I am exploring the idea, however, that a different constellation of meaning emerges at the hyper-text scale of #MeToo, and that I, at least, don't have the set of tools required for reading that text. Somewhere George Siemens said that "literacy is the ability to engage in the dominant discourses of the current age." #MeToo is one of the dominant discourses of the current age, and I think I'm missing a big part of it. I suppose that makes me illiterate, so there is plenty of room here for me to learn. Cool.

Byron Hawk claims that Deleuze captures this shift in rhetoric from the simple individual human to the complex posthuman swarm in his concept of expressionism, which Hawk opposes to expressivism. According to Hawk, expressivism "is centered on the individual body" and leads to a social-epistemic rhetoric that "is centered on a dialectic among distinct, pre-existing elements in the world" (158). This rhetorical focus on human individuals in dialectical opposition to each other leads to a rhetoric that operates "from an opposition between human intention as active and material context as static and passive, thus privileging human action" (158). Expressivism rather unconsciously assumes traditional rhetorical elements and arrangements: humans engaging other humans through texts for the purposes of persuading, informing, and entertaining. Humans are the only actors on stage, and everything else is inert scenery and prop, interesting mostly as a backdrop to human agency. Much of the discussion about #MeToo has assumed this arrangement and focused on political and social positions assumed by various people, winners and losers in the discussion, and probable outcomes and consequences for people.

Hawk says that Deleuze undermines this focus by "seeing any body, organic or inorganic, not as a whole but as a constellation of parts that participate in multiple systems" (158). From this point of view, a text "can be only the expression of a world, of an entire system, of life, not just one element or function within it" (158).

#MeToo, then, is the expression of the world, of an entire system, not just one element within it. I cannot think of #MeToo as a collection of individual tweets, a bag of marbles. Yes, I can look at the bag of marbles and, for instance, divide them into big ones and littles ones, or red, green, and blue ones. I have the rhetorical and analytical skills to do that, and I will generate some useful knowledge that way, but if I exclusively focus on #MeToo at that scale, then I miss the larger and, for me, the more important text. #MeToo is the world struggling to understand how it organizes and interacts with itself, especially in terms of the relationships between women and men.

This larger text is problematic for other readers as well. In her article for The New Yorker entitled "The Rising Pressure of the #MeToo Backlash", Jia Tolentino explores the tendency of people (men and women both) to flatten #MeToo into a single, simple text with a single, simple message which they can then position themselves for or against, just as the traditional rhetorical strategies have taught them to do. Tolentino complains that this strategy undermines the real power of #MeToo:
This is an unprecedented moment of flux on an impossibly complicated topic; this movement is not even three months old yet. The fact of a hashtag flattens these stories, makes them seem unified, but they are profoundly individual. If we stop looking for straightforward collective agreement, we might find we need it less than we think.
I, too, must stop looking for straightforward collective agreement. I really don't need it. Instead, I'm trying to see #MeToo as a fractal: a swarm of self-similar and coherent pieces but not identical pieces. #MeToo has a swarm message that we want to reduce to a simple, political slogan, and in many ways, it doesn't matter if the slogan supports or opposes #MeToo. While they have utility in narrow applications, all slogans undermine and distract us from the swarm message.

But we so much want attractive slogans delivered by attractive voices. An Ozy story "Aly Raisman Is the #MeToo Hero that American Sports Needed" by Nick Fouriezos follows the typical rhetorical strategy of reducing the 156 witnesses in the trial against women's gymnastic physician Larry Nassar to one attractive voice: Aly Raisman. This is traditional Western journalism based on traditional rhetoric that gives us a single, identifiable voice to deliver a single message that we can agree with, disagree with, or ignore. Fouriezos' strategy is quite obvious. He characterizes the testimonies of 156 witnesses (a swarm) as "a public bloodletting only made possible by the decision from Judge Rosemarie Aquilina to give every victim the voice they had been denied." His treatment of Aly Raisman, however, is largely positive. Her voice is clear, courageous, and convincing. And her voice is clear, courageous, and convincing—make no doubt—but so are the stories of the other 155 athletes. Fouriezos mostly misses that swarm text, as do his readers. I want this larger, swarm text, this hyper-text.

Or let's call it a rhizo-text to match rhizo-rhetoric. Let's see if rhizo-text works.

To approach this larger rhizo-text, Hawk uses Heidegger's discussion of tool to reconceptualize technê, especially as handicraft, or craft or art, in rhetoric. For Hawk, technê is not something that a human does to a text through the use of various tools (pens, paper, typewriters, word processors, Twitter, etc); rather, technê is poiesis, "the arising of something from itself, … a bringing forth" (176). Technê is a constellation of agents that includes humans but does not privilege humans. Hawk says:
Technê as handicraft or as rhetoric and poetics is set in the context of physis: nature, the ecology as a whole, including humans, is the ground and thus highest form of technê, which is simply one aspect of co-responsibility. This recognition is a key to moving beyond instrumentality and humanism. Heidegger asks, “Does this revealing happen somewhere beyond all human doing? No. But neither does it happen exclusively in man or decisively through man” (["Question Concerning Technology"] 24). A human does not create by itself. It enters into a situation, and the new form taken by that constellation plays out its own potentiality. (176)
So I begin to see #MeToo rhetorically as millions of agents (in this case, overwhelmingly women and Twitter) entering into a new situation arising from their own interactions. The text written by this new constellation—this #MeToo—is playing out its own potentiality, which arises from its own DNA, its own experiences, knowledges, skills, and trajectories, and equally from the ecosystem within which it finds itself.

It's easy for those of us who engage #MeToo to credit only the humans who are writing it, but we miss much if we do not also credit Twitter and other social media. #MeToo could not have emerged at all and it would not be emerging as it is without nonhuman agency. #MeToo, then, is a posthuman document, as Hawk explains using the work of N. Katherine Hayles':
Hayles characterizes posthumanism as locating thought and action in the complexity of distributed cognitive environments. … For Hayles, “modern humans are capable of more sophisticated cognition than cavemen not because moderns are smarter, . . . but because they have constructed smarter environments in which to work” (How We Became Posthuman 289). Posthumanism does not usurp the human, then, but situates it in the development of distributed cognitive environments. Hayles writes, “No longer is human will seen as the source from which emanates mastery necessary to dominate and control the environment. Rather, the distributed cognition of the emergent human subject correlates with—in Bateson’s phrase, becomes a metaphor for—the distributed cognitive system as a whole, in which ‘thinking’ is done by both human and nonhuman actors” (290). (176, 177)
This reorganizes our conception of rhetorical voice as the expression of a single human or group of humans exercising her or their will upon a text and thereby upon another group of humans. That view, though at times useful, is too limiting. Rhizo-texts are written rhizomatically and must be read rhizomatically. Deleuze and Guattari address this very issue in the first paragraph of the first chapter of A Thousand Plateaus:
The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus together. Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd. Here we have made use of everything came within range, what was closest as well as farthest away. We assigned clever pseudonyms to prevent recognition. Why have we kept own names? Out of habit, purely out of habit. To make ourselves unrecognizable in turn. To render imperceptible, not ourselves, but what makes us act, feel, and think. Also because it's nice to talk like everybody else, to say the sun rises, when everybody knows it's only a manner of speaking. To reach, not the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. We are no longer ourselves. Each will know his own. We have been aided, inspired, multiplied. (3)
They are trying to explain here that the two of them are a swarm and must be read as a swarm, and they make clear that their swarm includes not just other people but other things, non-humans. They proliferate and run like oil on pavement, or seeds in a stream, like rhizomes.

And here is a point I must address: a single writer is a swarm, just as a million writers are. In this #MeToo series of posts, I've been contrasting the million voices of rhizo-rhetoric to the single voice of traditional rhetoric. This is misleading. A single voice is also a swarm, but it's easy to see how traditional rhetoric could create a fictional unity of that voice.

So even if this unified voice is a fiction, what's wrong with that? In some senses, nothing is wrong with it. It is, if nothing else, convenient. As D&G wryly note, they use their own names—unifying, signifying labels—"purely out of habit … because it's nice to talk like everybody else, to say the sun rises, when everybody knows it's only a manner of speaking." And yet, everything is wrong with it. These signifying labels, these fictional singularities, "prevent recognition [and] render imperceptible, not ourselves, but what makes us act, feel, and think." Thus, the Fouriezos article gives us a unified voice in Aly Raisman, but it prevents recognition of and renders imperceptible the 155 other voices. It gives us a text rather than the rhizo-text. It gives us the human rather than the post-human.

Let me end this post where I began it by noting that I am not denigrating the human or humanistic rhetoric. This is the tradition I was trained in and have practiced for most of my life. The humanistic tradition has its profound insights, its utilities, its affordances, and its limitations. All my posts in this blog have been generated from that rhetorical perspective and can be read from that perspective. So I am not denigrating; rather, I am expanding. In part, I am expanding because texts such as #MeToo force me to confront their rhizomatic nature while traditional articles, essays, poems, and posts do not—even though their rhizomatic nature is present. I see a thousand plateaus before me, and I want to walk there awhile.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

#MeToo: The Ecology of Rhizo-Rhetoric

I'm examining the new kinds of documents that I see emerging on the Net, and I'm focusing on #MeToo, as it is currently the strongest and most visible of the kinds of documents I'm thinking about, but it certainly isn't the only one. In my last post, I looked at #MeToo as a hyperobject as Timothy Morton defines them. In this post, I want to begin thinking of #MeToo in terms of rhetoric. After all, I'm defining #MeToo as a text, and rhetoric should have something to say about any text.

As I recall from my years of reading rhetoric, most rhetoricians do not approach writing and communication from the view of complexity. Most in fact try to reduce writing to the simple or complicated domains, with fairly simple models and heuristics for producing useful texts. However, by the late 20th century, rhetoricians and literary theorists were beginning to push rhetorical thought into the complex domain. For instance, in his book A Counter-History of Composition: Toward Methodologies of Complexity (2007), Byron Hawk traces the emergence of complexity in modern thought, particularly in modern rhetoric, through the concept of vitalism. For Hawk, vitalism begins with Aristotle, takes a turn in rhetoric toward Romantic expressivism, and eventually flowers in the 20th century through the science and philosophy of complexity. Hawk does an admirable job of showing how a rich concept can influence science, philosophy, and rhetoric and how each of these disciplines can feed into and off of the other. Even if you are not so interested in rhetoric, his argument illuminates the history of an idea the informs much of modern thought.

I don't intend to recount Hawk's book, but I do want to explore several of his ideas in terms of #MeToo. The first idea is that complexity rhetoric, or what I have called in previous posts rhizo-rhetoric, is ecological rather than atomistic, or complex rather than simple.

Hawk starts his discussion of vitalism with Aristotle's concept of entelechy, which seems to lay the intellectual groundwork for ecological thinking for Hawk. For Hawk and Kenneth Burke, whom Hawk quotes, entelechy is "essentially a biological analogy. It is the title for the fact that the seed ‘implicitly contains’a future conforming to its nature, if the external conditions necessary to such unfolding and fulfillment occur in the right order. Were you to think of the circumstances and the seed together, as composing a single process, then the locus of the entelechy could be thought of as residing not just in the nature of the seed, but in the ground of the process as a whole" (Burke, The Rhetoric of Religion, 1961, pp. 246-247). Entelechy, then, embeds both seeds and rhetoric into a complex ecology, into a rhizome, and this idea that all things unfold through the interaction of internal resources and external environments begins to lay some groundwork for me to understand #MeToo.

To read #MeToo, then, I must frame it in a complex ecology, a rhizome, that considers both the text itself and the ecosystem of the text as a single process. #MeToo, of course has its internal resources, its DNA, arising from the experiences of millions of women and men and their abilities to express those experiences, but the unfolding and unpacking of that DNA happens within an ecosystem that seeks to express its own DNA and that may or may not support #MeToo. The environment is a co-creator of #MeToo, and this is made very clear when we learn that the MeToo meme was actually created a decade ago by a black activist named Tarana Burke who, according to Ebony magazine, started MeToo "as a grassroots movement to aid sexual assault survivors in underprivileged communities 'where rape crisis centers and sexual assault workers weren’t going.'” I don't know why #MeToo emerged now instead of 10 years ago. Perhaps because Tarana Burke is not a well-known movie star with thousands of Twitter followers. Maybe because Twitter was just created a decade ago and was not yet the force in social networking that it has become. Perhaps those reasons and many more, but the main point for me is that ten years ago the environment was not right for #MeToo. The #MeToo seed had fallen on dry, barren ground, and it did not emerge even though there were just as many millions of women who could speak to the issue. In 2017, the seed fell into fertile soil and sprouted. Then exploded.

Hawk says of this ecological frame for rhetoric:
The basic logic of entelechy is that the overall configuration of any situation, including both natural and human acts and forms, combines to create its own conditions of possibility that strive to be played out to completion. The combination of the four causes in nature is not just a push from behind but also a pull toward the future, the striving to develop potential. In more contemporary evolutionary terms, an ecological situation produces the structural conditions for certain types of plants or animals to develop and thrive and they strive to fill those gaps, to enact that potentiality. Humans as an efficient cause cannot be abstracted from this larger contextual ground set up by the other causes and the ecology or potentiality they enact. A human might have an internal, psychological, or intellectual motive, but a huge variety of cultural, linguistic, and material factors help create and enact that motive. As part of nature, humans can help realize the situational potential via the technê available to them through the complex ecological arrangement, and it is in this larger movement that rhetoric operates. (126)
First, note that an ecological understanding of rhetoric undermines the traditional concept of writing as an individual who through innate knowledge and skill creates texts that engage others, usually to meet some purpose of the writer, some need of the reader, or some issue in the world, or all three. Writers write to act on the world and to make things happen, and if I consider individual tweets and texts, then this can be a useful frame for thinking about #MeToo. For instance, consider Alyssa Milano's original tweet that kicked off the current #MeToo text:
I can describe this single tweet as Alyssa Milano writing a message to persuade her followers to express their own sexual harassment and the extent of sexual harassment in our society. Obviously, millions did, and the #MeToo text emerged and morphed around the world, far exceeding Milano's expectations. But this original tweet is neatly captured and usefully illuminated by a traditional rhetorical analysis that frames the communication as a writer writing to some reader about some issue to make something happen. You can easily model this with the communications triangle that I use in my college writing classes:
A writer, a reader, a subject, all joined by a text—in this case, a tweet. You can even change the terms to pull from different strains of communication theory:

I do not dismiss the immediate, though limited utility of framing writing like this, but for me, this frame is woefully inadequate for reading and understanding #MeToo. It's first problem is scale. It is too focused on the single tweet from Alyssa Milano, the single artifact of a single writer. #MeToo is much bigger than this one tweet. If this was the only tweet in #MeToo, then we would have no #MeToo, and I would be looking at other hyper-documents. I'm discussing #MeToo because it is a swarm of millions of tweets, texts, messages, articles, television discussions, and acceptance speeches that push #MeToo into the higher scale of hyperobjects. This higher scale makes #MeToo interesting and gives it its power, and the single Milano tweet is interesting to me only because of this higher level text. Indeed, I did not follow Milano on Twitter at the time of her tweet, so I would never have seen it had #MeToo not emerged.

The communications triangle also focuses too much on the individual writer. Yes, Milano wrote the first tweet in October 2017, and her voice is an integral, necessary part of #MeToo, but it is hardly sufficient to account for or to embody #MeToo. Milano's voice has been subsumed by the general hum that is #MeToo. While focusing on a narrow instance of #MeToo can be illuminating, it is ultimately distracting. Researching the behavior of a single neuron in the human brain can reveal much, but it doesn't reveal mind or consciousness, both of which emerge at a hyperscale above the single neuron. This is the scale at which I become aware of #MeToo, but traditional rhetoric inadequately frames this scale for me. I need a larger frame, a more ecological frame.

Hawk looks to artificial life studies to expand the frame of rhetoric from the single writer to a swarm of agents, both human and not:
In a paper delivered in 1992 at the third Workshop on Artificial Life, Mark Millonas wrote, “The notion that complex behavior, from the molecular to the ecological, can be the result of parallel local interactions of many simpler elements is one of the fundamental themes of artificial life. The swarm, which is a collection of simple locally interacting organisms with global adaptive behavior, is a quite appealing subject for the investigation of this theme” (quoted in Mark Taylor 153). … Essentially the study of life through artificial means extends the shift from examining characteristics of living beings to examining functions of living systems. (156, 157)
For me to read #MeToo, then, my rhetorical strategies must shift from framing the "characteristics of living beings", or individual writers, to framing the "functions of living systems", or swarms of writers. I have to see a complex, powerful document such as #MeToo as emerging from "simple locally interacting organisms with global adaptive behavior".

Many may object to characterizing the millions of people, mostly women, who wrote #MeToo as "simple locally interacting organisms with global adaptive behavior". It sounds demeaning—like ants in a pile—but I think that is a trick of scale.

Each individual #MeToo writer is simpler than #MeToo in two ways. First, they are simple in comparison to the complexity of the larger scale document that emerged from the aggregation of each tweet. An individual ant is a complex, capable creature at its own scale, but it is more simple and less capable in comparison to the ant colony. Likewise, the #MeToo writers are complex, capable people at the human scale, but they are more simple and less capable than the hyper-human scale that #MeToo works in. No single #MeToo text, not a tweet from Alyssa Milano or a speech from Oprah Winfrey, can match the power and force of a million tweets. #MeToo is a hyper-text that functions at a scale above the human, a hyper-human scale, a cyborg scale, and no individual human can measure against it.

But there is no need to measure against it. This is not an exercise in comparison, and it certainly isn't a denigration of individual people; rather, #MeToo is a celebration of the kinds of powerful texts emerging in a posthuman world.

Then each #MeToo document (tweets, text messages, posts, and more) is simpler than the #MeToo text. This is especially true of individual tweets. Most of the tweets are simple responses to Milano's call to retweet, and each can be characterized in simple terms of a stimulus-response as we might characterize the firing of a neuron in response to some stimulus. The responses, in turn, stimulate what becomes a cascade of responses across Twitter, and #MeToo emerges. I do not dismiss the benefits of learning about an individual stimulus-response pattern. Understanding stimulus-response is necessary for understanding the functions of the brain, for instance, or for understanding Twitter, but it is insufficient for understanding consciousness or #MeToo, both of which emerge at a scale beyond stimulus-response and create characteristics not inherent in the stimulus-response pattern. Mapping the trajectory of a single stimulus-response is enlightening and helpful, but it is not sufficient to map the trajectories of millions of stimuli-responses. One thing happens when a single neuron fires, but something else altogether different happens when millions of neurons fire.

Reducing #MeToo, or mind, to a single stimulus-response is both misleading and denigrating. First, it denigrates by denying the validity or even the possibility of emergent properties at the hyper scale. Many will deny the possibility of meaning emerging at the hyper-human level of #MeToo, and will insist that #MeToo is no more than, at best, a group of concerned women expressing their individual outrage or, at worst, a group of liberal fanatics bitching and moaning about not much. Even though the first opinion supports #MeToo and the second attacks it, they both undermine the real power of #MeToo which emerges at a scale above the individual.

Then, reducing #MeToo denigrates by glossing over the complexity of the individual interactions that we render simple. For instance, the term stimulus-response treats the complex behavior of an individual neuron as if it's no more than one billiard ball bumping into another. A single neuron firing is itself a complex event within a complex ecosystem. An individual neuron is a network of many parts, and it has the intelligence to collect data from its environment, to assess that data, and to change its internal state to respond to that data. It has many of the same complex characteristics at the neuronal scale that we humans have at the human scale. In other words, a neuron only looks simple from the great remove of the human scale. As Olaf Sporns proves in his 2010 book Networks of the Brain (not network singular), a neuron firing is a damned complex network in its own right, and we misunderstand it if we treat only as a simple mechanism. Likewise, a single woman retweeting #MeToo is a damned complex network in her own right. She is not just one more woman championing or complaining in a tweet but a complex constellation of experiences and knowledges, some too deep for words. To reduce these women to a simple group or to a simple response misleads and undermines our understanding of #MeToo.

This ecological approach drops both Hawk and me at the doorstep of post-humanism, which I will discuss in a next post.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Reading the "MeToo" Text as Hyperobject

In her EducauseReview article “Antigonish 2.0: A Way for Higher Ed to Help Save the Web“, Bonnie Stewart says:
The web is a big part of where we live now. But we neither understand it nor know how to use it for learning. What we need is not a revolution, but a way to develop the local and global literacies needed to foster functional democratic participation.
She echoes Paul Cilliers when she says that “we neither understand it [the Web] nor know how to use it for learning.” In his 1998 book Complexity and Postmodernism: Understanding Complex Systems, Cilliers notes that our powerful technologies allow us to extend our technical capabilities beyond our understanding. He says:
The heart of the matter is that our technologies have become more powerful than our theories. We are capable of doing things that we do not understand. … We can create new sub-atomic particles without knowing precisely whether they actually exist outside of the laboratory. We can store, and retrieve, endless bits of information without knowing what they mean. … We have to deal with what we do not understand, and that demands new ways of thinking. (2)
The literacy that Stewart calls for is one of these new ways of thinking, especially when confronting the “endless bits of information” that engulf us. For me, new communication spaces have emerged, with different notions of community, different rules of engagement, and very different texts, and I don’t know how to use this space or to think about it. The texts are here. Now I need a literacy to understand them. I don’t think I will make it that far in this post, but I do hope to map the textual field itself so that I can begin to think about how to render literate such texts as "MeToo". I’m suggesting here that online texts—the billions of text messages, tweets, and Facebook messages, the currently dominant streams among countless others—function as a hyperobject, as Timothy Morton calls it, or a rhizome (Deleuze and Guattari), or noise (Michel Serres), or silence (Paul Goodman and the Buddhists). Approaching those texts from the perspective of hyperobjects may just help me engage them better.

I find it difficult to wrap my head around these new texts. The data alone is staggering. Google Books engineer Leonid Tacher says that, as of 2010, Google believed there are about 129,864,880 books in the world containing roughly two trillion words. That’s all the books from ancient times through 2010 that still exist. As large as that conversation is, it is dwarfed by texting, just one of our new online writing spaces. As of 2017, the world is sending 22 billion texts a day, or 8 trillion texts every year, and this number does not include the app-to-app messages in Facebook, Twitter, and other social applications (Burke). These numbers suggest, then, that texting alone is multiplying many times each year the total amount of text ever produced by humankind. Add Facebook, Twitter, and other channels, and you can begin to see the problem. Or be overwhelmed by it.

Michel Serres explores our problem with such monstrous entities as the chattersphere--the term I will use for all the writing currently filling the Net--in his book Genesis, written in French in 1982 before the sphere had emerged. In Genesis, Serres proposes a “new object for philosophy” (2), noise, which he says is the ground of reality, the reality out of which we create our realities. However, though noise is the usual state of things, we modern humans do not like it. It seems unreal to us. Serres says:
We are fascinated by the unit; only a unity seems rational to us. We scorn the senses, because their information reaches us in bursts. We scorn the groupings of the world, and we scorn those of our bodies. ... Unity dazzles on at least two counts: by its sum and by its division. That herd must be singular in its totality and it must also be made up of a given number of sheep or buffalo. We want a principle, a system, an integration, and we want elements, atoms, numbers. We want them, and we make them. A single God, and identifiable individuals. The aggre­gate as such is not a well-formed object; it seems irrational to us. The arithmetic of whole numbers remains a secret foundation of our understanding; we're all Pythagorians. We think only in monadologies. (2, 3)
So here is the problem: the world is a swarm, but we want order and unity. The world is complex, even chaotic, but we want simple, or no more than complicated. The world is noise, or low art, but we want distinct, discrete sounds, individual texts, high art, to make sense of it all. We believe and we have been taught that we need this high art to make sense of it all. But what if we attend to the noise, the rhizome, the hyperobject, the zombie swarm, or low art? Let’s see.

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942
So multiplicity is irrational and repugnant. It is low-class, low art. One Edward Hopper Nighthawks is a masterpiece, high art; a million Nighthawks is just a swarm of tee shirts gone mad, commercial and noisy, flapping this way and that. We can deal with the Hopper corpus, a group of paintings elegantly arrayed about a single painter. That makes sense. We can even put him and his paintings in a context: 20th Century American Realism. That’s tidy, rational, simple: little boxes within little boxes. You can put that on a test, and the correct answer is obvious. But a million Nighthawks stretched over flaccid bellies, waving over hard bellies, oozing and winking into classrooms, churches, nightclubs, and sidewalks—this is chaos, swarm, noise, and very definitely low art. It can and should be dismissed.

Most of my colleagues in English departments believe that we can and should dismiss texting, tweeting, and Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram messaging. That is chaos, swarm, noise, and very definitely low art. But what if we don’t dismiss this absolutely monstrous amount of text that is generated each day, each minute, each year? And if it lacks unity, definition, even context, as Serres suggests, then what is it and how do we speak of it? I'm only now beginning to learn some ways to talk about these texts.

In speaking of the rhizome, Deleuze and Guattari note wryly that despite the unspeakable nature of the rhizome, we must speak of it. They say, “We get the distinct feeling that we will convince no one unless we enumerate certain approximate characteristics of the rhizome.” This enumeration, of course, is dangerous, for if we enumerate the uncountable, then we distort rather than clarify. Nonetheless. In his 2013 book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, Timothy Morton lists his own “approximate characteristics” of what he calls hyperobjects:
  • viscosity: Hyperobjects “'stick' to beings that are involved with them." 
  • nonlocality: "[A]ny 'local manifestation' of a hyperobject is not directly the hyperobject." 
  • temporal undulation: Hyperobjects "involve profoundly different temporalities than the human-scale ones we are used to. In particular, some very large hyperobjects, such as planets, have genuinely Gaussian temporality: they generate spacetime vortices, due to general relativity." 
  • phasing: "Hyperobjects occupy a high-dimensional phase space that results in their being invisible to humans for stretches of time." 
  • interobjectivity: Hyperobjects "exhibit their effects interobjectively; that is, they can be detected in a space that consists of interrelationships between aesthetic properties of objects." 
I think I can use these characteristics to start teasing out the ways to think about the chattersphere as low art. I’ll use the recent, high profile "MeToo" text—first because I like it and in general support its political and social aims (neither of which I will discuss here, so don't look for it) and second because it is a timely example of just the kind of text I'm trying to understand.

The first characteristic of hyperobjects that Morton discusses is viscosity. He insists that objects such as the "MeToo" text are always closer to us than they appear and that they stick to us. This viscosity may not be obvious at the local human scale. For instance, one might encounter a "MeToo" tweet and feel no immediate connection. I first encountered a "MeToo" message on Facebook while looking for recent photos of my granddaughter, and I wondered vaguely what the author was responding to. I assumed the middle-aged, professional relative of mine was expressing her wish to be included in some family event, and I moved on to find my photos.

I did not consciously feel that her message was sticking to me or that I was sticking to it, but Morton says that the Facebook message and I are entangled and remain entangled despite any distance between us and despite any conscious awareness on the part of either of us. This entanglement has a viscous quality about it that is obscured at the human scale but becomes obvious at the scale of hyperobjects. "MeToo" is here, and I am always in it even when I am not conscious of it. Morton writes: "I do not access hyperobjects across a distance, through some transparent medium. Hyperobjects are here, right here in my social and experiential space. Like faces pressed against a window" (Kindle Locations 528-534).

I can see this looming stickiness rather easily in objects such as global warming and evolution, but not so well in a tweet or Facebook message. For that, I have to fight against an intuitive sense of reality that plainly demonstrates that a message, even my own, and I are distinct and that I act on the message and it does not act on me. I am the subject, and it is the object, a text, a thing. I do not feel the viscous honey between us. When I'm off my device, I don't feel the message against my fingers, my eyeballs, oozing into my consciousness. I don't think of the message. So are the message and I really sticking to each other? And what is this stickiness, this viscosity?

First, this stickiness is not an aspect of human cognition. It's there, Morton says, between objects whether or not humans are involved or even aware. And when we humans do become aware of the viscosity between objects, then it has something of the uncanny and daemonic about it. And one doesn't have to be a believer in the spirit world to believe in this "spooky action at a distance," as Einstein called it (though one doesn't have to exclude the spirit world, either). Rather, we only need believe in gravitational and electromagnetic fields to see what Morton is talking about:
What the demonic Twin Peaks character Bob reveals, for our purposes, is something about hyperobjects, perhaps about objects in general. Hyperobjects are agents. They are indeed more than a little demonic, in the sense that they appear to straddle worlds and times, like fiber optic cables or electromagnetic fields. And they are demonic in that through them causalities flow like electricity. (Kindle Locations 563-570)
This viscosity, then, is for me like a field, or a mesh of fields, that emanate from objects such as messages and tweets, extending their reach and connections beyond the visually obvious to enfold them into each other, and into me—think gravitational fields that extend from one end of the universe to the other. This means, literally and physically, that the black hole hyperobject at the center of our galaxy impinges on me and I slightly on it and that causalities flow like electricity, or gravity, across the fields between the black hole and me. Of course, my everyday senses are not sensitive enough to pick up or distinguish the perturbations of this hyperobject, but let that black hole move or explode, and all hell will break loose. Literally.

Morton says that all objects from quanta to galaxies have this viscous connection with all other objects. Let the black hole of a Trump tweet, for instance, explode, and all hell breaks loose. Then I notice the chattersphere, but it was always already there, always already impinging on me, looming over me, sticking to me. So I became aware of the "MeToo" text in a Facebook message, but I quite likely had already seen it and failed to register it. It was just noise.

That pejorative, diminutive, dismissive “just” troubles me. It was noise, and I have trained myself to ignore noise and to treat it as a nuisance if I can’t ignore it. But the noise is always already here. It is the parasite that informs and shapes my every message. It’s the zombie swarm that I live in, and it presses into me and sticks to me, even when I am not aware of it, perhaps especially when I am not aware. I have to ease into this.

As I remember it, I next encountered "MeToo" in another Facebook message, this time by Bonnie Stewart. This time I realized something else was going on, so I googled "MeToo" and learned something about it. I added a comment to Bonnie’s conversation, and then realized that I had stumbled into the text I was wanted to discuss in this post. I began rewriting.

Now, of course, I can see "MeToo" spreading in waves--or is it particles?--across my field of vision. I can hear it echoing all around--in front and behind, below and above, left and right (however you want to define those terms). The text never quite leaves me. Unlike my favorite Keatsian ode, I cannot close the book and put it on the shelf. I cannot put it away, for there is no away. "MeToo" is in my pocket, on the television, in the conversation of friends and family, and now in this post. I’m finishing this post at a family wedding in the Bahamas, and I’m discussing "MeToo" with my niece, a twenty-something real estate investor from Michigan. She is very much in control of her successful life, and "MeToo" doesn’t mean much to her. She’s perplexed about my interest in it, but only mildly interested in learning why. After all, she is the sister of the bride, and a beach party and dinner await.

Texts such as "MeToo"—and there are thousands of them that have swarmed and gone viral since the advent of social media—restructure our relationship with text. First, "There is no metalanguage." There is no outside point of view from which to determine what a text is. We are all inside the text, which is coming at us no matter which way we turn. As Morton says, we are intra-uterine and inter-uterine, enwombed, maybe entombed, and there is no nice doctor in a white lab coat outside to explain what's happening from his objective point of view. Everything presses in on us from every side and time, and we cannot get away from it. This means for me there is no outside point of view from which to determine what "MeToo" is and is about.

I can write only from inside "MeToo", and this changes everything I know about writing, as I have been schooled in the Western rhetorical tradition which posits a single, objective, authoritative subject that speaks apart from and passes judgement upon objects under consideration. Writing inside "MeToo" decenters my authority, my outside booming voice, and speaks from inside, from many points of view. I must think about "MeToo" from the inside, and I think that the swarm can say things that cannot be said from the outside. If I want to understand "MeToo", then I have to understand not only principal humans such as Alyssa Milano, but also all the other participants, lurkers, prodigals, technologies, memes, organizational structures, and more. This is a noisy swelter that defies total clarity, but the chattersphere is a swelter, a swarm, a virus gone viral. We can focus on some specific aspects of Twitter — say the use of the Twitter application — but we can never forget that the Twitter app is an object in its own right that seeks and expresses its own position within the complex system of online messaging, just as I do, just as Milano does, just as all the other objects do. Bruno Latour will be happy.

The second characteristic of hyperobjects such as the "MeToo" text is nonlocality, a term Morton borrows from quantum physics, noting that the non-intuitive perspective needed to see hyperobjects such as global warming or, in our case here, "MeToo" was developed in the complexity sciences such as quantum, relativity, and chaos theories. Morton says:
Hyperobjects are contradictory beasts. Moreover, the aesthetic-causal realm in which hyperobjects appear to operate is in some sense nonlocal and atemporal. Or at any rate, such gigantic scales are involved— or rather such knotty relationships between gigantic and intimate scales— that hyperobjects cannot be thought as occupying a series of now-points “in” time or space. They confound the social and psychic instruments we use to measure them— even digital devices have trouble. … Nonlocality means just that— there is no such thing, at a deep level, as the local. Locality is an abstraction. (Morton, Kindle Locations 886-891)
Stop to read a single tweet from "MeToo", and you can no longer see the text. It recedes behind the dazzling brightness of the single tweet, dazzling in the sense of an atomic blast. For an instant, all is bathed in the light of that one tweet, and we forget that this tweet is not the text. It isn’t even the twittersphere. Morton says, “Hyperobjects compel us to think ecologically” (Kindle Locations 901-902) because “hyperobjects [are] nonlocal: … massively distributed in time and space” (Kindle Location 910). “Locality is always a false immediacy” (Kindle Locations 913-914).

Our literary sensibilities were formed in the print age, which made it easier to focus on the immediate book to hand, that tangible artifact that we could take from a shelf, see the poem there in our hands, and then return to the shelf. We could put it away, but as Morton notes, there is no away. Because of our shift to an ecological mode of thought, we have learned that we cannot send our trash and our nuclear waste away. Morton notes wryly:
For some time we may have thought that the U-bend in the toilet was a convenient curvature of ontological space that took whatever we flush down it into a totally different dimension called Away, leaving things clean over here. Now we know better: instead of the mythical land Away, we know the waste goes to the Pacific Ocean or the wastewater treatment facility. … There is no Away on this surface, no here and no there. (Kindle Locations 610-614)
"MeToo" is in our pockets, closer than our lovers, as close as our thoughts and prayers, and yet it is not here. That tweet from Milano is not in your pocket. Not even Twitter knows where it is. Rather, it is distributed throughout the Cloud, smudged, dispersed, acentered, both lost and found, found everywhere and existing nowhere. You cannot explain the here of this tweet without reference to the beyond, and yet looking at the here blurs the beyond. Looking beyond blurs the here. You can’t know both the velocity and the location of any tweet or text. Something is always uncertain, and despite the beliefs of the New Critics, texts never include all that you need to understand them.

And yet, in a weird fractal way, they do include it all, like a hologram. A tweet is a gateway to the twittersphere, and as David Bohm says in his book Wholeness and the Implicate Order (1985) each entity is implicated in all entities and all entities in each. The tweet then occupies a middle ground between here and there and forms a parallax with other tweets, a weird lens that hides as much as it reveals, that makes local and remote at the same time and at different times.

Time brings us to Morton’s third characteristic of hyperobjects: temporal undulation. Since Einstein, we’ve had to accept that space and time are not the stable fields within which all things are born, live, and die. They aren’t even separate fields but one spacetime, and it’s quite possible that spacetime emerges from all the things in the universe rather than being the inert medium within which everything is suspended. This view, of course, requires a peculiar, non-human point of view that is obscured at the human scale where time and space seem so reliable, fixed, and ordinary—the reliable, stable media through which we move.

Hyperobjects such as "MeToo" help us to see that time is not fixed into a regular, universal procession, and this gives those objects an uncanny feel. They drop us into the Twilight Zone of a Dali painting where clocks drip down the canvas. The "MeToo" text is never stable, but undulates like an octopus. It is both now and then. A "MeToo" text ripples across the chattersphere immediately into our pockets and at the same time recedes into the past and future, away from us. I see it now, immediately from Bonnie Stewart, yet it trails clouds of glory from a million other women in the chattersphere, pushing like chi into the future, fading away into the past. Each iteration of the meme carries its own import and impact, its own context and trajectory without ever losing the DNA of its genealogy. Each pseudopod of "MeToo" is imbricated with the past of a million gropes, wheedles, and demands and with the potential of hopes, potentials, and risks.

Unlike my favorite Keats sonnet, "MeToo" is not a stable text. Actually, a Keats sonnet is not stable either, but it has been easy to imagine it so during its 200 years in print. An electronic hyperobject such as "MeToo" allows us to see the contours of a conversation that warps time as it waves in and out of now, connecting us to both the past and future. The flow of time about "MeToo" is not regular. Rather, time percolates, sometimes oozing as a Facebook message arrives from someone I’ve known a long time, sometimes rushing along a torrent of tweets from a thousand people that I do not know. The conversation is morphing before my eyes: sometimes with a Keatsian indolence, sometimes as frenzied as e.e. Cummings or tupac shakur. I need a literacy that does not require a stable, definitive text from a stable, authoritative voice.

I need a literacy that expects a text to change and stretch over time, a text that changes and stretches time. Hyperobjects distort our sense of time, stretching and foreshortening. The future of the "MeToo" text looms over me, calling for a response, exerting a weird causality on me. The future of this conversation is as present as the past and recedes into obscurity in both directions. I must respond, but to what am I responding? My training demands a stable text to analyze, an authoritative voice to engage, but I have none. The stable text is a dead text (lawyers and critics beware). We do not linger on websites that read the same thing today as yesterday. We move on, searching for a morphing text. There is no single lesson, no moral of the story, in the "MeToo" text. There is no unity. Rather, there are a million voices raised across a vast field of spacetime, perturbing my sense of how space and time and objects are arranged. I am in the swarm. Sometimes I catch the fleeting arc of a single voice in a tweet or Facebook message, and of course, I want to reduce the conversation to that voice, to that person, but behind the piercing clarity of that voice I hear the rustle and hum of a million other voices, including voices of dissent: a colleague who messages “Not me!”, a troll who tweets, “What the fuck!”, a niece – a mid-20s woman – who writes:
For some reason all this "me too" stuff bothers me. Oh yeah it must be because every time Ive spoken up about times I've been sexually assaulted I have lost "friends", been called things( liar, jealous, a slut/ whore, drunk), and stopped getting invited to social gatherings. To this day I still see people engaging with people who have sexually assaulted me after I have shared my story with them. I am not a victim. I am a survivor. Ain't no "me too" coming from this side..
But it did come. She spoke, and her voice filled the swarm, amplified, adding to the weight and power. Her future calls to me, pulls. Causality is not just a push from the past, and I need a new literacy, caught dumb within the swarm. I am pulled here and there, now and then, and I need new sense-making tools.

I need a literacy that can accommodate the phasing of "MeToo", the fourth characteristic of hyperobjects. Morton says:
Hyperobjects are phased: they occupy a high-dimensional phase space that makes them impossible to see as a whole on a regular three-dimensional human-scale basis. We can only see pieces of hyperobjects at a time. The reason why they appear nonlocal and temporally foreshortened is precisely because of this transdimensional quality. We only see pieces of them at once, like a tsunami or a case of radiation sickness. If an apple were to invade a two-dimensional world, first the stick people would see some dots as the bottom of the apple touched their universe, then a rapid succession of shapes that would appear like an expanding and contracting circular blob, diminishing to a tiny circle, possibly a point, and disappearing. (Kindle Locations 1262-1267)
This is it precisely: I do not get "MeToo" tweet by tweet, message by message, in some orderly fashion that helps me resolve it into a whole. Rather, I get a strange, fragmented, fractal of a message, a tweet or two, then a rush of a million tweets, and then silence, then another rush. "MeToo" engulfs me, swallows me, and then it is gone. I see it on TV. I hear it in a podcast. My brother-in-law yells "MeToo" at a rehearsal dinner in a joking manner that indicates that he knows the conversation, but I can’t be sure that he knows what it means. I know that I don’t know what it means. I know bits, silvery bits like fish flashing in the clear Bahamian waters before vanishing.

But the vanishing, just like the appearing, is a matter of my perception. "MeToo" is still here and there, now and then. I lose touch with it, but it does not go away. There is no away. Rather, it is so large a text, that I lose track of it, even though it is still humming about me. It is a poem that I cannot put down, an ear worm that I cannot turn off, radio waves still singing through me even when my device is down. “MeToo” phases in and out and around, always humming in the noise, sometimes pronounced, articulate, and clear, but always droning. The background noise is not incidental, not a nuisance or a distortion. It is the text.

I encounter “MeToo” as one object to another, each with its own agency. We share an interobjectivity. I engage “MeToo” across what Morton calls the Mesh, that “shared sensual space” that mediates the interactions of objects and where objects present-for each other. “MeToo” and I confront each other, each interpreting the other, responding to the other, acting upon the other with whatever resources we have to hand. “MeToo” is an object for me, but I am equally an object for “MeToo”. I may claim priority in this relationship given my access to human intellect and its affordances—and I traditionally have thought this way—but “MeToo” has its own affordances and resources. “MeToo” has millions of other humans woven through it, and the drone of all those voices drowns my voice. Even if I were a genius, those millions of minds would be smarter, more resourceful, more nimble than mine alone. “MeToo” has the power of the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, and other technological behemoths at its disposal and is exercising them all at once. Perhaps most importantly, “MeToo” is massive. It is a swarm, and it simply outweighs me. It’s like comparing my gravitational pull on the Earth to the Earth’s gravitational pull on me. My pull is negligible.

This interobjectivity, then, challenges and undermines my role as the subject that analyzes an object. I have no privileged position to assume and from which I can analyze “MeToo”. I have no metalanguage. I have no outside, away from “MeToo”, isolated from and superior to “MeToo”. I have only the inside and the ontological rift between “MeToo” and me. I have no way to engage without being a part of—without “MeToo” and me aesthetically falling into each other while simultaneously receding ontologically from each other. I am not “MeToo”, nor is it me, but we are both inevitably entangled in our aesthetic interactions as each presents to the other and as those presentations modify what each then presents again. As “MeToo” and I know, then we are known in turn. To know this text is to be known by this text. I am revealed as I reveal. Analysis and knowledge are not one-way, but interactive and interobjective. As I know, so am I known.

All the great spiritual traditions know this, but our Western scientific tradition has forgotten it. Slowly, complexity science is correcting this mistake. When Alyssa Milano tweets the new numbers of the “MeToo” conversation, she reveals something about herself. When a troll trashes “MeToo”, he exposes more about himself. When my niece dismisses “MeToo” for a day at the beach, she reveals as well. My discussion here about “MeToo” is now part of the conversation, and as much as it makes “MeToo” known, it likely reveals more about me. “MeToo” has its own agency, and it stains me as much or more than I stain it. I cannot try to understand it—or at least I cannot try to engage it elegantly—without becoming something else forever entangled in “MeToo”. Likewise, “MeToo” is now something else, stained however slightly by me. There is no away for either of us.

And now there is no away for you, my reader, as you, too, are stained by “MeToo” and by me.

I’ve come to think that all texts have always been like "MeToo", have been hyperobjects. The Shakespeare texts are certainly hyperobjects, his memes having spread throughout not only English culture but world culture. We are stained by Shakespeare, and in turn, his texts are stained by us. They are rhizomes spreading in the rich soil of society, but as this Google Ngram Viewer shows, it has taken hundreds of years for the “sound and fury” meme to percolate through the print substrate to reach most every literate English-speaking person alive, the phrase peaking in English texts about 1950 after an initial spike in the 1640s.

In contrast, “MeToo” has saturated culture almost as much within a matter of weeks. Thus, while we could avoid the hyperobject nature of a Shakespearian text in the slow age of print, we cannot avoid the hyperobject nature of “MeToo” in the hyperfast age of social media. I think, then, that I will have to re-read Shakespeare, this time not as a discrete, self-contained object that I can analyze but as a viscous, nonlocal, undulating, and constantly phasing hyperobject that reveals as much about myself as it does about Hamlet.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Complex Classes: Heterogeneity and Homogeneity

Over the last few posts, I have characterized complex classes as a multiplicity of actants open to flows of Light and Word which animate dynamic interactions among the actants and other systems. In this post I explore heterogeneity, or diversity, with necessary discussion of homogeneity and unity. I think, too, that I will shift from the term actant to interactant which better expresses the dynamism that allows an actant to self-eco-organize itself into a functioning node in a system. In educational terms, interactant captures the dynamism that a learner and a class must have in order to learn.

Deleuze and Guattari say that the interactants in a rhizomatic system are heterogeneous. This heterogeneity, however, is much broader than classrooms full of diverse people from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. Though such a diversity is certainly included, it is still a collection of humans. Interactants are not limited to the human. Complexity thinking such as actor-network theory and object oriented ontology makes ample room for non-human interactants, which seem to be a part of all our complex systems. In his essay On actor-network theory, Bruno Latour corrects the misconception that actor-network theory, for instance, is mostly about human social networks:
[Actor-network theory] aims at describing … the very nature of societies. But to do so it does not limit itself to human individual actors but extend[s] the word actor -or actant- to non-human, non individual entities. Whereas social network adds information on the relations of humans in a social and natural world which is left untouched by the analysis, AT aims at accounting for the very essence of societies and natures. … Social networks will of course be included in the description but they will have no privilege nor prominence …. (p. 2)
An attempt to describe or understand or engage the modern complex class must account for the heterogeneity and diversity of its interactants. For instance, an account of modern learning must account for smartphones, which are potent interactants present in all modern classrooms. Chairs, desks, lights, books, tablets, lunch, recess, and hallway conversations are also interactants in classrooms, and the humans are constantly perturbed by the non-humans, constantly engaged in dynamic, nonlinear interactions. And yes, it must also account for different people speaking different languages from different contexts.

Even in those systems that we might think of as homogeneous—our own bodies, for instance—we find heterogeneity. Our bodies start as zygotes of rather homogeneous cells, but quickly differentiate themselves as they unpack their DNA and express themselves as hearts, lungs, brains, muscle, and skin in a unique configuration that distinguishes us from, say, mouse zygotes and from other humans. Be thankful for heterogeneity. Let us be thankful for heterogeneity and diversity.

Deleuze and Guattari explore heterogeneity in terms of language, which is "an essentially heterogeneous reality" (p. 7). They say:
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. (p. 7)
Speaking of heterogeneity in terms of language is particularly important to me as it explains the necessity for heterogeneity and diversity within a complex system. Without diversity, a complex system cannot self-eco-organize. It cannot find its way through its ecosystem. It cannot grow, evolve, adapt. In short, it cannot learn. Heterogeneity is necessary for a language to thrive, to live, and to change in order for us to adequately respond to our complex, heterogenous world.

Said another way, a complex, diverse world requires an equally complex, diverse language to map it. Anthropologist Franz Boas was correct that a rich vocabulary maps a rich world. For example, Eskimos have so many more words for snow than we southerners do. That rich, heterogeneous vocabulary allows them to map a rich, heterogenous reality that most of us reduce to a simple, homogeneous snow. We southerners are the losers, as George Orwell explored so well in 1984: if you want to limit and control people, then limit and control their language. A healthy class needs more interactants with more languages to map more of the world. In his 2001 article "Diversity, Knowledge, and Complexity Theory: Some Introductory Issues", Pierpaolo Andriani says that "Ashby’s (1960) principle of requisite variety states that the internal variety of a system should match the variety of the external environment" (258). He says that diversity is important for adaptability, or the ability of the system to learn and to cope with changes in its environment. Especially relevant to school organizations, Andriani goes on to note that a distributed network based on self-organization principles is a diversity-increasing type of organization (265) whereas the firm type of organization is diversity reducing (267). Too many classes still play down or try to paste over the diversity within the class rather than cultivating that diversity. This is unfortunate.

By Trey Ratcliff,
(CC BY-NC-SA-2.0)
In short, heterogeneity is necessary both for a fuller, richer world and for a fuller, richer understanding of the world with a wider range of possible responses for those who want to engage their world as it is becoming. Diversity makes any complex system at most any scale more capable of making its way in the world. One of the wonderful things about being a human rather than a slime mold, for instance, is that we humans have a vastly wider range of possible responses to reality, and we have that range of responses in large part because we have a more complex neural fabric that enables us to comprehend more of reality, configure that reality in more ways, and respond in more ways. Slime molds see very little of the world and can respond in few ways. Though still complex creatures, they are far simpler than we humans are. Poor them. It confuses me, then, when groups of people want to limit what we can see and how we can respond. Who wants to be slime mold?

Denial of heterogeneity makes sense mostly when a group wishes to disengage from the world by reducing its understanding and its range of possible responses to the world. The problem with homogeneity, of course, is that all walls (even classroom walls) eventually crumble or become, at best, pleasant tourist destinations as the rhizome flows around them, eager to get on with the business of creating the world. Homogeneity will not hold on Earth—at least, not until we freeze into the cosmic heat sink a few billion years from now. Until then, heterogeneity far from equilibrium and damn-near chaos rules and enables not only life but learning.

That being said, homogeneity and unity are also necessary for life and learning. Like heterogeneity, homogeneity has its place and its affordances. It has its unity. As is the case with most characteristics of complexity, heterogeneity does not stand alone as a discrete, sanctioned quality; rather, it emerges in dialog with homogeneity. It is tempered, perturbed, and engaged by homogeneity. All complex characteristics of complexity must be conceived and worked with as dynamic interactions, not as static things or qualities. Thus, the characteristic under discussion here, for which I do not know a single term, is diversity in terms of unity, or unity in terms of diversity, heterogeneity in terms of homogeneity. Neither diversity nor unity alone is the correct understanding; rather, diversity and unity. That is the correct understanding, as Shunryú Suzuki might say.

I can understand this diversity in unity by considering my own body. I am, of course, me, a unity (Yes, the me is grammatically incorrect, but rhetorically it helps me make my point), but I am also a liver, heart, brain, lungs, skin, and more, a diversity. I am both unity and diversity.

Craig Alan, David Bowie, 48x48 oil on canvas,
A shift in scale or perspective can also help me see this homogeneity within heterogeneity. The diverse people in the Craig Alan painting, David Bowie, become homogeneous dots, and while from this perspective I lose the heterogeneity and individuality of each person, I gain an image no one of those people could produce alone—unless, of course, a costumed David Bowie is in the crowd. The pattern, the new meaning, emerges from the inter-relationships of the interactants, and their heterogeneities are subsumed under a homogeneity that enables them to express something different and us to see something different.

This may seem no more than a trick of perspective, but I don't think that is the correct understanding. Rather, this is an instance of emergence, when the interactions of usually diverse interactants at a micro-scale lead to the emergence of new phenomena at a macro-scale. Get enough people, starlings, fish, neurons, or quarks together and interacting, and something new will emerge that cannot be reduced to an analysis of the constituent parts.

Complexity scientists are working on this issue of emergence. For instance, in her article "A Theory of Reality as More than the Sum of Its Parts", Natalie Wolchover covers neuroscientist Eric Hoel's concept of causal emergence which mathematically accounts for how agency at a macro-scale emerges out of the interactions at micro-scales. Let's say we want to explain how an idea emerges in the brain as a pattern of firing neurons. If we look at individual neurons, we can become hopelessly lost in the indeterminacy of the event. While the given idea requires a pattern across 12 neurons, the brain decides on the fly which 12 neurons (within certain constraints) to use. Hoel illustrates his concept with an approachable example of how it might work in our brains:
Imagine a network consisting of two groups of 10 neurons each. Each neuron in group A is linked to several neurons in group B, and when a neuron in group A fires, it usually causes one of the B neurons to fire as well. Exactly which linked neuron fires is unpredictable. If, say, the state of group A is {1,0,0,1,1,1,0,1,1,0}, where 1s and 0s represent neurons that do and don’t fire, respectively, the resulting state of group B can have myriad possible combinations of 1s and 0s. On average, six neurons in group B will fire, but which six is nearly random; the micro state is hopelessly indeterministic. Now, imagine that we coarse-grain over the system, so that this time, we group all the A neurons together and simply count the total number that fire. The state of group A is {6}. This state is highly likely to lead to the state of group B also being {6}. The macro state is more reliable and effective; calculations show it has more effective information.
In other words, some new, and more useful information has emerged at the macro-scale that did not exist at the micro-scale. This is not just a trick of perspective. Rather, something emerges that did not exist before. The constituent parts at the micro-scale, of course, are necessary for the emergent property at the macro-scale, but they are not sufficient to fully explain it. If physicist Lee Smolin is correct, then even new physical laws can emerge at macro-scales. I confess that I do not know very well how to cultivate and engage a class of diverse individuals into a unified, functioning whole and to attend to the learning and properties that emerge both at the individual scale and the class scale. This scale shifting is difficult for me, and understanding and expressing the dynamics between the scales is even more difficult. I'm glad Hoel is working on it.

Of course, we can focus at any time on either diversity or unity, heterogeneity or homogeneity. As Edgar Morin explains, we can reduce the complexity of any system either to a whole or to parts. Such a focused reduction has its affordances. Homogeneity and unity, for instance, can be a convenient shorthand to reference any group with some shared characteristic that we are focusing on, and we humans do it all the time. Homogeneity is quite likely a necessary mental construct to help us cope with the overwhelmingly rich diversity of our complex world. When I'm driving along a wooded road in central Georgia, the trees are homogeneous: just a bunch of trees. This is a benefit while I'm driving, as too careful a consideration of the heterogeneity of the trees will distract me from driving. We simply cannot process all the information flooding our senses every moment; so we ignore what we can and lump much of the rest together into coarse categories that homogenize the swarm and reduce its collected interactants to one or two characteristics that we can manage.

Likewise, heterogeneity and diversity can, among other things, help us focus on smaller and smaller parts to explore the interactions among them. We can come to understand how muscle is attached to bone and how the muscle fibers twitch. The last three centuries of Western science have had an unparalleled run of successes based on such a reductionist approach to reality.

However, such reductions to either the part or the whole eventually lead to wrong understandings when pursued exclusively. Homogeneity alone leads to stereotype and loss of individuality; heterogeneity alone leads to fragmentation and loss of unity. The affordances of both unity and diversity are short-term, provisional, and limited, but we want to make them permanent and absolute.

The problem is compounded because we usually cannot see both at the same time. At any one time, we can see people as diverse individuals or as homogeneous members of groups. For me, this limitation of vision is something like Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle which says that "we cannot measure the position (x) and the momentum (p) of a particle with absolute precision." Likewise, we can see either the individual or the group, but we have difficulty seeing both at the same time. Too often, we forget that we are seeing only part of the picture, and we fall into error when we insist that the part we see is the whole picture. It never is. We must allow the whole to inform the parts and the parts to inform the whole. They do anyway.

Instructional ethics, then, must map the heterogeneity and homogeneity of complex learning. It must map whatever emerges from the dynamic interaction between diversity and unity that hums within every heart, every student, every class.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Open and Closed Education

I'm almost done with my next post in a series of posts about complex classrooms, but I want to interrupt the series to talk about open education.

It seems that a raucous discussion erupted a couple of months ago about the definition of open. As near as I can trace the discussion, Dave Wiley started on April 4, 2017, with a post "How Is Open Pedagogy Different?" that defines open pedagogy rather narrowly as the use of open educational resources (OER). He says:
Open pedagogy is the set of teaching and learning practices only possible or practical in the context of the 5R permissions. Or, to operationalize, open pedagogy is the set of teaching and learning practices only possible or practical when you are using OER.
In an earlier 2013 post of his, Wiley defines the 5Rs as those educational resources that are granted free access and use of materials so that students are:
  • Free to access 
  • Free to reuse 
  • Free to revise 
  • Free to remix 
  • Free to redistribute
Jim Groom then tweeted about his discomfort with Wiley's definition, and this kicked off a rather vigorous Twitter storm among Wiley, Mike Caulfield, Jim Groom, and others. In an April 8, 2017, post "I Don't Need Permission to be Open", Jim Groom moved out of Twitter to state more precisely his problem with Wiley's strict definition of open, asking "when did open become boiled down to a strict set of permissions?"

Then, in an April 21, 2017, post "When Opens Collide", Wiley reconsidered his narrow definition and conceded that other definitions of open pedagogy did exist. Basically, he differentiated between open resources as he had defined it and open web as others such as Tantek had defined it. For Wiley, open implies permissions about the access and use of resources. For others such as Groom, open implies the freedom to access and use without any permissions. Wiley then concludes by stating that open is an insufficient principle upon which to base a pedagogy. He says:
“Open” – regardless of whether you come from the open content or open web tradition – does not have anything to say about the nature of learning. Maybe the thing that’s become the clearest to me as I’ve laid awake at night thinking about these issues is that you can’t actually build a pedagogy on a foundation of open (well, not one that isn’t incredibly impoverished). Your foundational commitments in terms of pedagogy should be to an understanding of how learning happens. Once we have made fundamental commitments in terms of a theory of learning, then we can add open to our list of facilitating methods in order get better leverage.
I do not know what Groom, Caulfield, and others think of this final position of Wiley's, but I find it problematic for the complex classroom that I've been trying to describe. Open is, in fact, one of the "foundational commitments … of pedagogy" as I am coming to understand pedagogy. Open is not merely a facilitating method used by schools in order to get better leverage, though it can be that as well. Rather, open is core to any kind of learning, regardless of theory. All learning theories assume openness even if they don't account for it.

My understanding of learning assumes that living systems—including kindergarteners and college freshman, mostly—are open to flows of energy and information in their environment. As I've argued so far in this blog, it's these flows of energy and information, Light and Word, that quicken systems into life and render them capable of using Light and Word to self-organize and, most importantly for this discussion, to perceive their environment and to learn how to engage the environment to maintain and to improve their condition. As far as I know, all living systems share to some degree this ability to learn: to change our internal organization and to respond differently to our environments.

This ability to learn absolutely depends upon a degree of openness to the environment on the part of the learning system. Any system that is not open to Light and Word cannot learn—mostly because it will die. Any pedagogy that does not understand or account for this openness is "incredibly impoverished".

Open, then, is foundational, but so is closed. In fact, both open and closed are necessary for life, identity, autonomy, and learning. Our autonomy is defined in large part by our freedom to choose what and how much energy and information we will engage (open) and what we will not engage (closed). Our knowledge and beliefs depend upon this dynamic tension between open and closed, and either extreme is deadly. Both totally open and totally closed kill a living system. Open leads to chaos and dissolution, closed leads to frozen stasis. Neither works for long; however, life tends to emerge more readily and robustly in those zones far from equilibrium (the totally closed end of the continuum), just bordering on chaos (the totally open end). Like life, learning also appears to be more robust and vibrant in those zones far from equilibrium. Traditional education, however, has tended to favor the closed, equilibrium end.

I have a six-month-old granddaughter (my first and only grandchild so far), and these days I usually find a way to work her into many of my conversations. Just now, she is an incredibly open system. She'll put most anything into her mouth, for instance, and her parents are working very hard to guard her against ingesting harmful things. She's mostly open, they are mostly closed. Moreover, they are teaching her daily what to ingest (open) and what not to ingest (closed). If my experience is any guide, then these are lessons that she will continue for the rest of her life. Learning what to put in her mouth and what not is foundational learning, a dynamic interplay of opening and closing to learn which openings and which closings most maintain and enrich her life. Learning to distinguish a Petrarchan sonnet from a Shakespearean is a refinement upon this dynamic—different in degree but not in kind. All learning begins with choices about opening and closing.

Of course, different pedagogical theories try to account for how we individually and socially ingest information, process it into knowledge, use it to respond to others, and feed it back into our environments. I suspect that like most teachers Wiley spends much time deciding what information flows to open his classes to and how to limit competing information flows (how to stay on task). These decisions are foundational, and he needs a theory that helps him or his classes make such decisions—assuming he invites his classes to participate in such decisions. Any learning theory that ignores how a class will open and close itself—how it will sustain and define itself—is impoverished from the beginning. Open is not an add-on. It's where learning begins.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Complex Classes: Dynamic Interactions

I am trying to define what I mean by complex classes, or classes in the complex domain, with the hope that a clearer understanding of complex classes will say something useful about the ethics we can bring to those classes. So far I have characterized complex classes as a collection of actants open to flows of Light and Word, or energy, matter, information, and organization. Well enough, but it's still too easy to view this collection as a bag of marbles: inert, uninteresting units, joined only by the bag they happen to be in. Of course, too many of us can say that we've been in classes like that, and likely, we can also say that we've been in classes where the bag was loosened and the marbles scattered in chaos. Those are the kinds of classes that I'm critiquing: those that are too rigid or too chaotic for any useful learning to emerge. I criticize them because I think learning emerges most readily in the complex domain, far from the equilibrium of simple or complicated domains and just this side of chaos. I hold this true for all things that learn, which just might be everything in the Universe. It's certainly true for kindergartners.

A fourth characteristic of complex systems, or rhizomes, is that actants interact dynamically. In his Prologue to his book Complexity and Postmodernism, Paul Cilliers says:
In a complex system, … the interaction among constituents of the system, and the interaction between the system and its environment, are of such a nature that the system as a whole cannot be fully understood simply by analysing its components. Moreover, these relationships are not fixed, but shift and change, often as a result of self-organisation. This can result in novel features, usually referred to in terms of emergent properties. (Prologue)
Complex classrooms, then, have no fixed relationships among its actants or among other, external clusters of actants; rather, all actants can shift and change in their relationships with all the other actants. This, of course, upsets the traditional classroom which tries to control and fix the relationships among the actants: teachers and students, and peripherally, administrators, staff, parents, and others. In complex classrooms, interactions do change. Sometimes a student teaches while the teacher learns.

Dynamic interactions are not just a characteristic of complex systems; rather, they are constitutive of those systems. No dynamic interactions means no complex system. Cilliers says:
Complexity is the result of a rich interaction of simple elements that only respond to the limited information each of them are presented with. When we look at the behaviour of a complex system as a whole, our focus shifts from the individual element in the system to the complex structure of the system. The complexity emerges as a result of the patterns of interaction between the elements. (p. 5)
The dynamic interactions begin with the infusion of Light and Word into the complex system. We can see the results of this infusion of energy in a pot of oatmeal, for instance: as we add heat to the pot, the oatmeal slowly begins to roil and turn the closer it gets to the boiling point, becoming animated. Similarly, as we turn up the flows of energy and information in a class of students, they become animated and begin to roil and turn, to interact dynamically with each other and with the information. This inflow of energy and information is a starting point. Consider our bag of inert marbles. Now imagine that they are animated by the flows of energy and information such that they are able to process that energy and information, store energy and information, and respond to each other and to their environment. This is the magic that happens in living systems, all of which are complex. As animated actants, the marbles can and must interact dynamically with each other and with their environment (remember that Deleuze and Guattari say that "any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be" (7)), and dynamic interactions are not limited to simple physical jostling, things bumping into things like marbles in a bag, though jostling and bumping are certainly included. Rather, dynamic interactions are any perturbation of energy, matter, information, or organization, and usually all of them together, between any two actants. In other words, actants in a complex system are able to recognise and respond to perturbations of energy and information from within their system and without. They can feed, process, and feedback, rearranging themselves--self-eco-organizing--to meet the demands of their situations. This dynamic interactivity fundamentally defines the system at all scales: it defines communities, schools, classes, students, organs, tissues, and molecules--all the way down and all the way up.

And it defines a complex system both from inside and outside. Derrida writes convincingly to me that the inside and outside are not so distinct, and I keep his point carefully in mind. Still, distinguishing the inside (the individual, to use human terms) from the outside (society) is often useful. Indeed, it is necessary to distinguish any system from its surround. It's necessary for autonomy and identity. However, as Morin says, autonomy and identity are not a separation but a distinction:
The notion of human autonomy is complex because it depends on cultural and social conditions. To be ourselves, we need to learn a language, a culture, knowledge, and this culture itself needs to be varied enough to allow us a choice among the stock of existing ideas, and to think in an autonomous way. So this autonomy is nourished by dependence. We depend on an education, a language, a culture, a society, a brain, which is itself the product of genetic programming, and we depend also on our genes. (On Complexity 44)
Autonomy, then, in terms of dependence—another of complexity's wonderful and productive contradictions. We work out our own lives, our own salvations, between the extremes of autonomy and dependence. We must have both, and our negotiations between these two extremes are another source of the dynamism inherent in any complex system.

In his book Complexity and Postmodernism, Cilliers anticipates Morin, saying of human social systems in particular:
Individuals are engaged in a constant exchange of information. Remember that a specific node in a neural network has limited significance, that it is the patterns of interconnections that encode information and generate meaning. Similarly, no human individual’s existence is meaningful in isolation: ‘the self does not amount to much’ (Lyotard 1984: 15). The individual is constituted by its relationships to others. (pp. 119-120)
Lyotard's conclusion that the self does not amount to much immediately rearranges our traditional thinking about classrooms, certainly in the United States with its extreme focus on the individual student. I suspect that we have wasted incalculable time and energy by limiting student interactions with other students and by employing assessment regimes that focus on one student/one grade. We tend to strip away all the interactions that define a student and make a student an interesting, engaging person, in order to focus on one test score, one data stream, one set of perturbations. We end up removing most of what makes a student interesting and worthwhile to others and probably all of what makes a student valuable to themselves.

Of course, schools are not alone in reducing people to a small bag of convenient characteristics. All organizations tend to do the same: businesses, governments, churches, teams, and even families. And of course, engaging any person, or actant, in terms of all their dynamic relationships is impossible, as any dedicated ANT researcher knows. No one can know another that well--not even Rumi and his Beloved. We can't even know ourselves that well. Still, we must keep in mind that when we reduce any actant, any student, to one or two interactions, then we distort them, likely to the point that we lose what is most important about them. It's like dissecting a frog to learn how its liver works: we might learn something useful, but the frog is dead. We can focus our attention to analyze, but we must always remember to pull out to a larger view. Only from the higher view can we see the morphing patterns formed by dynamic relationships. As both Cilliers and Morin note, this runs counter to three hundred years of a highly successful Western science and technology which reduces reality to fundamental parts in order to analyze it. As Cilliers puts it:
The study of complex dynamic systems has uncovered a fundamental flaw in the analytical method. A complex system is not constituted merely by the sum of its components, but also by the intricate relationships between these components. In ‘cutting up’ a system, the analytical method destroys what it seeks to understand. (p. 2)
This is not to deny the benefits of such analyses. Modern science and technology have demonstrated beyond question that analysis has its insights and can generate much actionable knowledge. Still, as Morin explains so well, this analysis blinds us to all outside our analyses. Cilliers also speaks of the problems with taking snapshots of complex systems to freeze the dynamic interactions so that we can study the moving parts:
Despite the fact that we cannot represent the essence of a complex system in determinate terms, we cannot resist, or perhaps even avoid, the construction of some kind of interpretation of the nature of the system at a given moment. These interpretations, however, are in principle limited. We are always constrained to taking snapshots of the system. ... The danger lies in falling under the spell of a specific picture and claiming a privileged position for it. Since it would not only deny the limitations of the specific angle, but also prevent further explorations [italics added by me], this spell must be broken by relentlessly showing the contradictions that result from fixing the boundaries from one perspective. Pointing out the contradictions that follow from such a closure is an activity that Derrida calls 'deconstruction'. (p. 80)
A complex class is never in equilibrium. Rather, it is always mapping new knowledge and know-how, if only figuring out how to avoid doing the next assignment or how to cheat without getting caught. I can recall only one class in near equilibrium: I once visited a high school classroom to troubleshoot a network connection only to find a teacher lecturing conscientiously to about 10 students, all with their heads down, asleep at their desks. I watched in stunned amazement for a few moments before the teacher finally shrugged and said, "Well, they're all being quiet." The class had achieved a perfect equilibrium—at least until the bell rang.

And therein lies the problem with complete equilibrium: so long as we live within this complex world, equilibrium doesn't hold. On Earth and among living things, equilibrium is the exceptional state. We are all infused with too much energy and information from too many directions, and no classroom can filter all that energy and information to focus the class on one flow of information from one source in one direction: student to teacher. The attempt at such focus requires an excessive exercise of power, which itself becomes another flow of energy and information which can disrupt learning as quickly as anything else.

Indeed the very idea of learning is dynamic, far from equilibrium. Learning demands dynamic change—an expansion beyond that which we already know. Learners are expanding beyond their old knowledge, or at least reinforcing and strengthening their old knowledge. Learning means rearranging and strengthening one's internal state to adequately respond to and cope with outside streams of energy, matter, information, and organization. These streams are never totally under the control of any student, parent, teacher, curriculum, or school.

Not only are students in a classroom dynamic because of the inflows of energy and information and the constant reorganization of their own internal states, but also because students are actants in multiple clusters. A student has multiple acting roles (child, sibling, parent, spouse, lover, team member, friend/enemy, buyer/seller, acolyte, proselyte, nerd, peer leader/follower, and countless others) that make incessant, often conflicting demands on the student. Moreover, as Cilliers notes, these clusters are all dynamic and "interact with other clusters, both directly as well as through the individual members they share with each other" (p. 7). Student families are part of my classes, and my classes are part of those families, even in college. Usually the interpenetrations are subtle—a tension in the class that I cannot identify and usually gloss over—but sometimes the tension is insistent and disruptive. A few terms ago, the father of one of my students was killed in the line of duty as a police officer. This was a community event that the class could not gloss over and had to deal with. Cilliers says:
Clusters should not be interpreted in a spatial sense, or seen as fixed, hermetically sealed entities. They can grow or shrink, be subdivided or absorbed, flourish or decay. The clusters are dynamic and interact with other clusters, both directly as well as through the individual members they share with each other. (p. 7)
Clusters, in other words, are rhizomes, and all the points (or actants) in a rhizome interact with all others. My students' social, home, and work lives are in my classes everyday, whether I acknowledge them or not, deal with them or not. They are ready and potent streams of energy and information that the class can harness and co-opt for its own learning purposes.

Complex systems must be dynamic in order to self-organize, or said another way, classes must be dynamic in order to learn. Cilliers says, "A complex system, such as a living organism or a growing economy, has to develop its structure and be able to adapt that structure in order to cope with changes in the environment" (p. 11). Later in his book, Cilliers elaborates: "The capacity for self-organisation is a property of complex systems which enables them to develop or change internal structure spontaneously and adaptively in order to cope with, or manipulate, their environment" (p. 89).

Dynamic interaction, then, has direct consequences for learning: all complex systems can adapt and learn, a characteristic for a future post in this series, but students can learn and adapt only because they are dynamic systems. Cilliers explores this dynamism in terms of Derrida's concepts of trace and différance. A trace is an interaction among actants in a system—for instance, neurons in a brain or students in a classroom—a pathway that is more or less dynamic. The more dynamic an interaction is, the more the pathway is walked, then the stronger the trace and the more weight it carries within the system. In human terms, weighted traces are, for example, the strongly held beliefs, deep friendships, rituals and habits, frequently travelled highways, voting preferences, buying patterns, and so on that give shape and meaning to our lives. We are born with the potential for these traces, but not the traces themselves. We develop those, we learn them. They are the dynamic structures that become provisionally different from the other possible but latent traces and pathways that we could have developed. These two concepts, traces and différance, help both Derrida and Cilliers illuminate the dynamics among actants within a system and among systems. Cilliers says, "Both concepts, trace and différance, are employed to say something about the inner workings of language, or rather—since language becomes the model of any system of interacting signs—of all complex systems" (pp. 44, 45). Cilliers summarizes the impact of trace and différance within complex neural networks this way:
If an ensemble of neurons … generates a pattern of activity, traces of the activity reverberate through the network. When there are loops in the network, these traces are reflected back after a certain propagation delay (deferral), and alter (make different) the activity that produced them in the first place. Since complex systems always contain loops and feedback, delayed self-altering will be one of the network's characteristics. This characteristic has much in common with the notion of différance—a concept that indicates difference and deference, that is suspended between the passive and active modes, and that has both spatial and temporal components. (p. 46)
I can easily imagine a classroom as a complex neural network optimally functioning far from equilibrium, dynamically tracing pathways among multiple actants—humans of all sorts, tools, spaces and times, processes, other systems—individual learners autonomously distinguishing themselves through dependent connections, spinning out traces to be explored and mapped. And here I find myself back with Deleuze and Guattari's concept of the rhizome, especially its fifth characteristic: cartography, or mapping as distinguished from tracing (they are not using the term trace in the same sense as Derrida—rather, they are talking about mapping one's own pathways rather than tracing the pathways of someone else). The traditional, autocratic, simple classroom attempts to create only one, static, sanctioned trace or pathway: from teacher to student. Traces among students are discouraged and the one path between teacher and student is not dynamic: it flows only one way. Students are supposed to copy or trace (in D&G's sense) the path provided by the teacher. They are not encouraged to map new pathways or traces (in Derrida's sense) for themselves. I'm encouraged by new learning methods that embrace and cultivate both the dynamism of the trace between teacher and student and the multiple traces among students and their communities. Students bring their knowledge and their multiple connections to class anyway, so why not recognize those traces and work with them? Co-opt the energy and information before it runs over you.

I should pause here to note that I am not opposed to tracing (D&G) existing traces (Derrida). While the aim of education for me is to enable learners to map (D&G) their own traces (Derrida), copying existing pathways provided by mentors and teachers, learning existing knowledge, is just as important as being able to create new knowledge. Indeed, from the learner's point of view, tracing existing knowledge and mapping new knowledge are much the same thing. Learning existing knowledge means that the knowledge is still new to the learner. Learning is always mapping the new rather than tracing the old.

And tracing the old has at least two benefits. First, learners can be guided and supported by mentors and teachers who have already walked the path and understand its affordances and dangers. This kind of support can be invaluable for both timid and reckless learners—one afraid to step onto the path and the other heedlessly running down the path.

The second benefit is even more powerful and brings me to another characteristic of complex classes: they must have a memory system. Memory is another example of the dialogical nature of complexity: complex systems are capable of both dynamic interactions and stable memories. Both are critical for the identity and persistence of the system, and they are opposites. They are not reconciled or synthesized. Rather, complex systems such as humans and classrooms are suspended in the tension between these two opposites, sometimes intent on forming new models of reality, sometimes intent on strengthening old models. Learners must be able to form new models of their realities, and they must be able to conserve their old models. Humans are limited both by what we know and by what we don't know. Humans are empowered both by what we know and by what we don't know. These contradictory statements are all true. We need both dynamic change and stubborn stability. We are all liberals and conservatives.

But more about memory later in another post. To my mind, dynamic interactions are first—but that may just be my progressive, liberal bias. For me, all the actants in a complex classroom connect and interact in shifting patterns. They must. Any instructional ethics must map and remap this swelter of connectivity and interactivity.