Sunday, February 26, 2012

Intentionality in the Rhizome, #cck12

Yesterday, I tried to explain why I think that Connectivism may be guilty of focusing too much on the network and not enough on the individuals in the network. I suggested that Edgar Morin may have the correct stance: it isn't either the network or the individual; rather, it's each that must be accounted for in the examination of the other.

This is not some philosophical compromise or a happy medium in which opposing viewpoints each get a little something to save face; rather, it's a radically different way of viewing reality. I'll explain by starting with an objection to something that Frances Bell said in reply to my comments about intentionality being another point of entry into the rhizome: "I agree that intentionality emerges from more than just an individual ‘forming intentions’ and to some extent may be seen as a local network effect." To be fair, this is basically an introductory statement to her real point about connectivism overplaying the network effect, so I do not suggest that it adequately expresses Bell's point of view, but I can say that it represents the common view about human cognition, including intentionality. For most people, intentionality is a function of the individual brain or mind, even if it involves some local neural networks. If we want to understand any given intention, then we need only look to the individual who has, or creates, or forms, or expresses that intention.

I disagree with this point of view. I insist that if we look only to the individual, then we simply cannot understand the intention. Why? Because as Olaf Sporns says in his book Networks of the Brain, cognition is a function of networks. Olaf devotes much of his book to the neural networks that are the most obvious scale of the networks that support cognitive activity such as intentionality, but he quite clearly opens the discussion to the networks functioning at higher and lower scales. Networks depend upon other networks and form the basis for yet more networks. Limiting a study to one scale can be a useful fiction that allows for great focus and parsimony, but it is not reality—it's a fiction. And I say that in the very best sense of the term and with the utmost respect for fiction. I happen to believe that good fiction is the best we humans can do.

But … I start to wander.

Back to intentionality as a function of the individual. We simply cannot reduce intention (or any other cognitive function, such as learning) to the given individual said to be forming the intention or doing the learning. We can understand any given intention only as the complex interaction of an open system (the individual) with its eco-system. As an open system, any individual is defined in great part by the flow of energy, matter, organization, and information between itself and its eco-system. While the brain of the individual forms a necessary substrate for intentionality, it is not sufficient for intentionality. Rather, intentionality requires the dynamic interaction—what Morin calls stabilized dynamics (On Complexity, 11)—between the individual and his physical, social, emotional environment. Morin goes on to say that "the intelligibility of the system has to be found, not only in the system itself, but also in its relations with the environment, and that this relationship is not a simple dependence: it is constitutive of the system. Reality is therefore as much in the connection (relationship) as in the distinction between the open system and its environment" (11). Thus, if we want to understand anyone's intentions, then we must understand not only their individual reasoning but also the dynamics between them and the world. It's an impossible task to understand even one single intention completely, a human condition for which I am most grateful. We will never have an end to learning. Never. There are simply too many connections to follow, and each intention is the nexus of innumerable arcs, trajectories, flows, and asignifying ruptures.

But, God, can we create some magnificent fictions, full of real insight, beauty, and helpful hints about reality. If Deleuze and Guattari are correct, then we use cartography and decalcomania to accomplish these fictions.

So to sum it all up: yeah, it's all in the connections. Probably even more so than Siemens and Downes know or can imagine. Those connections, of course, include non-human, even non-living, entities.

But the Oscars are on, and my wife wants me to watch them with her, so let's talk tomorrow about how cartography and decalcomania aid the individual in managing the flow of organization and information between the individual and her world.


  1. Thanks for that Keith - although I am a bit puzzled as I can't quite see that we disagree;) I didn't think I was suggesting that we only look to the individual.
    Can I ask you a question please? My understanding of connectivism is that it deals inadequately with the nature of connections - what do you think about that and how are connections treated in rhizomes? Is there support for discussion of the quality and nature of connections?

  2. Sorry for my misreading, Frances. I suspected as I was writing that I might be attributing to you a point of view that you did not have; otherwise, you would not likely be participating in a discussion of connectivism.

    Still, it provided me a chance to say something about Connectivism's focus on connections, so I took it. If I totally misrepresented you, then I do apologize, and I will do better in the future. I'll blame it on my rush to return my attention to the Oscars. :-)

    As for how Connectivism treats connections and understands those connections, I don't know that it says much about the nature of connections, and to my knowledge, Deleuze and Guattari's discussion of the rhizome in says very little. For instance, in their discussion of decalcomania, they suggest that patterns echo throughout an eco-system. They say very little about the medium through which that pattern moves or the mechanisms that trigger such an echo. They are suggestive rather than descriptive.

    I don't know that D&G were interested in that level of specificity about the rhizome, but we living educators should be, including Siemens and Downes. How do connections within a network constitute knowledge? What physical, organizational, and informational substrates are necessary for knowledge to occur, for knowledge to echo in a different place?

    We want to say that knowledge is somehow transmitted, like a token from hand to hand, and yet we know that doesn't quite fit what we are learning about how neural networks function. There is no token. So what is there? Decalcomania seems to suggest that the mind is a sensitive fabric that can assume the shapes, colors, configurations of reality, while at the same time reality is a corresponding sensitive fabric that can assume the shapes, colors, configurations of our minds, both singular and collective.

    But these are suggestions, and it seems to me that Connectivism is still very much in the suggestion phase. I like that phase, but sooner or later, someone has to put teeth in the argument.

    Well, I must get to class. I'll write more, and thanks so much for your insightful comments.

  3. I don't find the transmission model of knowledge to be useful. Also I agree with you that patterns and sub-nets are important. However, I do think that thinking about the quality and nature of connections is important (if problematic). I worry about bold claims made for 'analytics' - just because something is measurable doesn't mean to say the measure is particularly useful on its own. There is a lot more going on than knowledge in networks. People and things exercise power whether they know it or not.