Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Rhizo14 Ethnography and Decalcomania

So Maha Bali and I started a Google Doc entitled Writing the Unreadable Untext to talk about the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography, and a half-dozen or more of our dearest Rhizo14 colleagues joined in. I want to write about this experience from the comfort and quiet of my own blog space, and if you have reached this post from the Google Doc itself, I want to offer an exploration of what I think happened in that document. If you haven't read Writing the Unreadable Untext, then read it first if you want to understand what I'm discussing here.

First, we did not write the auto-ethnography of Rhizo14, Dave Cormier's 2014 MOOC about rhizomatic education. Instead, we may have written an ethnography in the sense of "the … description of the customs of individual peoples and cultures" (my MacBook's online dictionary). In the above definition, I dropped the word "scientific" because I have not yet worked out precisely what kind of description we wrote, and I don't want to be side-tracked by a defense of our scientific rigor or lack of it. Rather, than analyzing Rhizo14 in the Unreadable Untext, we mapped it, and to my mind, we mapped it very well. What we have composed is a handprint of Rhizo14, a rhizome written small enough that you can get through it in less than an hour. If you want to know in a nutshell what Rhizo14 was about and how it felt to be in it, then read the Unreadable Untext.

Do you find yourself confused by the document? Good. Most of us felt confused by Rhizo14 from time to time. Are you looking for ways to put all those words, pictures, videos, marginalia, and other elements together in some kind of coherent fashion? Good. We had to do that in Rhizo14. Did you find yourself following a side trail that led to a flash of insight or to nowhere? Good. We did that in Rhizo14. Do you find yourself wondering who is speaking, if it's the same person who was just speaking, and if they are speaking to you? Good. That's what Rhizo14 was often like. Do you find yourself looking for the point, the thesis, the takeaway that you can repeat to your colleagues when they ask you what you are reading? Good. We often had trouble explaining to others why we were still in Rhizo14. Do you find yourself wanting to give up because making sense of all this is too difficult? Do you find yourself angry at the writers because making sense is their job, not yours as reader? Good, very good. You've now learned things about Rhizo14 that we could not have told you otherwise.

I think I can best understand what emerged in the Unreadable Untext by reference to Deleuze and Guattari's rhizomatic concept of decalcomania, a "process of transferring designs from prepared paper onto glass or porcelain", or "a technique used by some surrealist artists that involves pressing paint between sheets of paper" (same online dictionary) and most commonly known today in its shortened form decal. The Unreadable Untext is a decal: a pressing that transfers, in this case, a larger pattern onto another surface (a Google Doc) and at a reduced scale. (Thus, the Unreadable Untext is fractal, with self-similar and familiar patterns repeating imprecisely at different scales.) I am most familiar with decalcomania in the handprints that children make when they put wet paint on their hands and press them helter-skelter onto paper. The prints are, of course, familiar but not the same as the palms they echo. The prints are also more accessible. The deterritorialization of the children's unique palms and their reterritorialization onto the paper is evocative and convenient, but not identical. Like all studies, it leaves out some details in the original and adds others, but I can carry around 30 prints in my satchel, while I can't carry around 30 children. Similarly, you can read the Unreadable Untext at one sitting without having to spend six weeks in the MOOC.

Deleuze and Guattari discuss decalcomania in conjunction with cartography, or mapping, to describe in part how engagement of reality (what we did in Unreadable Untext) differs from analysis of reality (what other ethnographies do). In A Thousand Plateaus (1988) they say:
The rhizome is altogether different, a map and not a tracing. … What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real. … It is itself a part of the rhizome. The map is open and connectable in all of its dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification. It can be torn, reversed, adapted to any kind of mounting, reworked by an individual, group, or social formation. It can be drawn on a wall, conceived of as a work of art, constructed as a political action or as a meditation. Perhaps one of the most important characteristics of the rhizome is that it always has multiple entryways … A map has multiple entryways, as opposed to the tracing, which always comes back "to the same." The map has to do with performance, whereas the tracing always involves an alleged "competence." (12, 13)
So Unreadable Untext is a map, "an experimentation in contact with the real", and not a tracing, or an analysis. Untext is a performance, not a competent tracing with elucidations from point A to point B, pulling out of the noise of the swarm a logic that is clearly there, but that the swarm ignores and flows around. We were susceptible to constant modification, reworked. Our aim was performance, not competence. In a way of speaking, Untext is itself part of the rhizome called Rhizo14. You can enter Rhizo14 through Untext. You can wait until 2015 and enter Rhizo15 from there. You can enter Rhizo14 from this post or Terry's Zeega or Clarissa's post or Maha's post or the Collaborative Autoethnography for #rhizo14. This rhizome, Rhizo14 and its many offshoots, including Untext, "always has multiple entryways", unlike traditional analytical documents which enter only at the beginning, at the thesis, and travel one way to the conclusion like a digestive tract.

This performance has implications, ramifications—it multiplies and emerges. First, Untext has no center, no unified voice, no author in the traditional sense. We readers want a single author, a single author-ity; even if it is a group, we want unity. One voice. Untext is a swarm voice—if you prefer zombies, then it is a horde voice—but it is not a centered voice. It is not even uncentered. It swarms. As Deleuze and Guattari say:
To these centered systems, the authors contrast acentered systems, finite networks of automata in which communication runs from any neighbor to any other, the stems or channels do not preexist, and all individuals are interchangeable, defined only by their state at a given moment—such that the local operations are coordinated and the final, global result synchronized without a central agency.
Untext speaks as i. I, of course, am there in the text, as were others, but not as I; rather, as i. We lacked a word and made do with what was to hand. We was too unified, a coherent whole, a choir with one voice, Faulkner's small southern village, and not a swarm. I, too, carries way to much baggage from centuries of coherence and individualism and our own delusions that we exist. i had to do. I think it worked rather well, but we'll see if it persists. First-person swarm triumphs over first-person singular and first-person plural.

Our communications ran—still run—"from any neighbor to any other". The text was not decided before it was composed, and no one planned to speak to anyone else. Even when we were only two, Maha and I, we had no intention of communicating about anything. We wrote over each other, past each other. We surprised, echoed, drifted. Everything was lateral. Then others joined, and the hum grew louder. But not discordant, not if you are in the swarm. Local comments "are coordinated" and the final document—if there is to be a final document, I doubt it, so let's say the emerging document—is "synchronized without a central agency" as each voice looks to its immediate neighbor for cues about which way to move. Sensitivity leads to a swarm of swallows, both birds and gulps. I won't say that I am always graceful writing in the swarm, that any of i is always graceful, but i am learning, and i will do better next time. Even zombies can learn.

So if you can't identify a unified voice, which one do you believe? As my son once told me, "Dad, don't believe anyone, believe everyone." Truth no longer relies on the authority of the single voice. Rather, it relies on triangulation. Don't focus. Absorb the hum coming from all angles and washing over you, and listen for the pockets of resonance, to use a term from Marshall McLuhan. Triangulate to find something similar to the truth in the emergence of repetitive patterns. Walter Cronkite is dead.

And so is the thesis statement. It isn't there in the Untext. I really can't tell you what i meant to say. Each time I re-read Untext, I see something new. At last, I have reached the point my dear friend Boer tried to lead me when he said, "I don't want to write what I know. I want to write what I don't know so that I can read it and learn."

Finally, don't look for a context to this text. You must bring your own context (BYOC), which guarantees that whatever you find emerging from the text will be different from what the next reader with their different context finds. If your only context is three hundred years of Western analysis, then Untext will likely make no sense to you. Let it go.

But if it says something to you, if it creates a hum in your heart or head, then welcome to the rhizome. Let's swarm.

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