Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Who's Writing the Rhizo14 Ethnography: The Problem of Authorship

I read through the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography this past week, in part to re-connect but also to see if it was moving anywhere (I won't say moving forward as that is far too linear a concept for anything out of Rhizo14), but the document itself has been largely inactive since April or so, and I've not seen it emerge in any other space. It is an exciting document with much potential, so I wonder why it isn't moving. This question is not an indictment or even a challenge, as I haven't done much with it myself, but it is a chance to think about the problems of authorship of such a document through such a writing process.

First, authorship has been problematic from the beginning, as the document itself demonstrates. Sarah Honeychurch created Collaborative Autoethnography for #rhizo14 in Google Docs on Feb 16, 2014, announcing that "We (Maha, Lenandlar, Vanessa, Sandra, Sarah, and anyone else who fancies joining us) intend writing a paper about #rhizo14 and will be including quotations from this document." Thus, the document was opened from its inception to anyone else who fancies joining us. A number of people did fancy joining, at least for a while and in a way. The document was initially shared publicly so that people could, and did, contribute anonymously; still, I can identify contributions either to the text and/or to the comments from these 35 different people, in the order that I could identify them, with no priority or rank implied:

  • Sarah Honeychurch
  • Arthur Oglesby
  • Kevin Hodgson
  • Sandra Sinfield
  • Apostolos Koutropoulos
  • Terry Elliot
  • Maha Bali
  • Monika Hardy
  • Ron Leunissen
  • Vance Stevens
  • Ellie Trees
  • Heli Nurmi

  • Barry Dyck
  • Bonnie Stewart
  • Simon Ensor
  • Aaron Johannes
  • Vanessa Vaile
  • Lou Mycroft
  • Lenandlar Singh
  • Clarissa Bezerra
  • Scott Johnson
  • Paul Gareth Smith
  • Tanya Lau
  • Keith Hamon

  • David Jones
  • Janet Webster
  • Nick Kearney
  • Jim Stauffer
  • Danielle Paradis
  • Rebecca J. Hogue
  • Frances Bell
  • Lenandlar Singh
  • Carol Yeager
  • Dave Cormier
  • Paige Cuffe

  • And if I include the eclectic Anonymous, then I have 36 contributors. Quite a rabble itself, but additionally complicated by some who did not want to be identified with the group and others who used the auto-ethnographic content without permission, though just whose permission they needed is somewhat confusing itself.

    So who is writing this document? I think my question itself is problematic, starting with the words who and document. I'll get to the verb writing later.

    For more than a half a millennium, western culture has tried to define the role of the author, limiting it to an individual or a definable group following a positivistic epistemology and mostly for the purposes of establishing property rights within the Western legal tradition. The history of this development is far beyond the scope of what I want to say in this post, but it's worth noting that our ideas about writers writing documents are culturally informed and have mostly to do with identifying what person or group produced what document and thus knowing whom to praise or blame and whom to pay or persecute.

    Western language and speech has a strong bias toward discrete, definable actors (nouns and pronouns) performing discrete, definable actions (verbs). We like stable relationships between one word and one thing, and we become uneasy when words begin to slip their meanings. We expect and want who in who is writing this document to refer to either a clearly definable individual (let's pick Sarah Honeychurch since she created the initial Google Document) or to a clearly definable group (maybe Sarah, Maha, Lenandlar, Vanessa, and Sandra; maybe all 36 above; maybe some other assemblage) and document to refer to a clearly definable electronic artifact. Collaborative Autoethnography for #rhizo14 doesn't seem to be playing this way, and that may be causing problems. We have a rabble writing a cacophony, and it's confusing and paralyzing.

    This is understandable. In his book Genesis (1995), Michel Serres explains much better than I can our problems with rabbles and swarms and rhizomes and the noise they make:
    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. For us they seem to enjoy a bit of the status of Being only when they are subsumed beneath a unity. Disaggregation and aggregation, as such, and without contradiction, are repugnant to us. Multiplicity, according to Leibniz, is only a semi-being. A cartload of bricks isn't a house. 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. (pp 2, 3)
    As Deleuze and Guattari say in A Thousand Plateaus (1980, p 3), we humans need to "fabricate a beneficent God to explain geological movements." Rhizo14 may feel the need to fabricate an author to explain a text or to write a text. Rhizo14 may feel the need to fabricate a specific text—one thing directly attributable to specific authors—to explain the rhizomatic movements of Rhizo14. We may feel the need to subsume the babble of voices beneath a unity, or the flights of tweets, texts, and doggerel into a single document. We want monads: a single, genius author or a single, collaborative group to produce a single document, or several single documents. We want a thesis, a single governing idea, best attributable to a single voice. We want One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. We have centuries of culture that tell us this is authorship, this is writing, this is how sensible documents are done.

    There is much power in this concept of writing, authorship, and text. First, it brings into relief a writer and a text against the background of noise and chaos. We can say, "Keith Hamon wrote this blog post", but it is just a manner of speaking. While there may be something of me in this post (if there is really even something of me in me), I am acutely aware of how much I am only orchestrating various strands that did not come from me but pass through me and will not end with me. I conventionally attribute other writers, of course, but only where I remember to do so, and my practice covers only the most obvious of my borrowings. I suspect that you could google each sentence in this post and find some source for a similar idea. I didn't attribute any of those. I've forgotten the sources for most of my ideas, and while I can find sources for all of my ideas, I'm not sure that they are my sources, but I am sure that it doesn't matter. All my ideas come out of the noise, attain a brief clarity and configuration (occasionally perhaps a novel configuration) in me, and then melt back into the noise which holds all ideas.

    Then, if we bring into relief a specific writer and a specific text, then we can trace and manage the power relations between this writer and others, this text and others. We can trace flows of status, money, prestige, fame or infamy, credit or blame, influence or anonymity. We can rank and point. We can name and demarcate. We can know if we are in or out, up or down. We can say that we are playing by the rules or not. We can have a profession and be paid for it. We can attain great clarity, and with clarity comes power. We can say, "I have seen the night sky, and these are the patterns in the stars, and these patterns make clear the meaning of life."

    I do not dismiss the virtues of this approach to writing, or to life in general. Clarity and power can lead to a secure sense of one's place in the universe, and that has immeasurable benefits. However, seeing the patterns in a few stars requires ignoring all those trillions of other stars, causing them to recede into the background. It means ignoring the background noise, which holds all the stars, all the patterns, all the meaning, and focusing on just a handful of stars and a bit of meaning. It's an awful dilemma, but while we gain much, we lose more. We in the West don't have good words and concepts for the background hum, the cosmic background radiation of the Big Bang, captured here in a recording by University of Washington physicist John Cramer:

    What do you do with such a sound? You can't dance to it. You can't wrap your head around it. You can only open yourself to it. You have to relax your normal cognitive structures—those insistent, almost automatic processes that frame reality, and bring a few stars, a subset of reality, into relief and render them sensible. But this Big Bang sound isn't a few stars. It's all stars. All galaxies. All things. We don't do so well with that. As Serres notes, it is disaggregation and aggregation without contradiction, and we are overwhelmed. All meaning is no meaning.

    Well, I didn't really intend to write about the Big Bang and all, so let me return to what may have been my point: we, at least we in the West, like to reduce documents to a single artifact and writers to a single person or group of persons. We are not comfortable with distributed documents that emerge out of the noise of many people talking, even though we experience such noise daily in cafeterias, bars, street corners, stadiums, auditoriums, and more. Mostly, we just try to ignore that background noise and talk over it. We don't think that it communicates to us beyond a general tone or timbre. Such documents certainly don't make sense in an academic setting. Who gets credit? Who gets tenure? Who publishes this? What do they publish? Does publication demarcate the document? Who demarcates the authors? This is just a cluster fuck in a mosh pit, and how will we ever determine the genealogy of such monstrous offspring?

    Well, that's the point, I think. Deleuze and Guattari and later Serres are saying that the noise, the rhizome, is the norm and that the clarity and power are the exceptions, the bits of amorphous reality that we wrench into relief for a time, but never for a thousand years. I want to say, then, that the Rhizo14 document is already being written, began before Sarah Honeychurch created the Google Doc, and that it is still being written by any number of people, including me in this post you are reading. It is being written in an academic conference by scholars who didn't even participate in Rhizo14. It is being written by students in Maha Bali's classes who don't even recognize the term Rhizo14.

    This kind of writing is not new, but it is not part of the Western rhetoric that I know. I recently read an article by Samuel Arbesman called The Network Structure of Jewish Texts in which he discusses the network nature—I would say the rhizomatic nature—of Jewish texts as revealed by Sefaria, "an open source database of Jewish texts", which Liz Shayne of UC Santa Barbara has graphically mapped (see some beautiful pix of rhizomatic structures in her article Sefaria in Gephi: Seeing Links in Jewish Literature). So who wrote the Talmud? It is the wrong question, for it assumes an author or limited authorial group and a specific text. The Talmud has neither. Rather, it is the accretion and emergence of cacophonous conversation over millennia. It is aggregation and disaggregation without contradiction. It is a rhizome. We likely don't have all of the Talmud, but we seem to have enough to continue the conversation. There will, of course, be clumps in the conversation, tubers and bulbs called scholarly papers or blog posts, just as there are clumps in the heavens called galaxies and clumps in our bodies called organs, and the clumps are important. They stand out in relief and give us a momentary clarity, but the clumps are not the whole thing, and eventually, they do return to the noise either as a consequence of time and entropy or a shift in our attention. Authors and their texts are convenient fictions, even useful at times, but fictions nonetheless.

    So what conversations about Rhizo14 are emerging?  What patterns can we create out of it? How do we map this conversation and traverse it as knowmads, mindful that knowmads cannot be monads? I'll have to think about that some more, unless of course one of you has a ready answer. I'd love to hear it.

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