Monday, January 19, 2015

The Desires of Prepositions

I've been using the phrase desires of prepositions without explaining what I mean. Partly I did this because I've had to work my head around the idea. It started with an intuition and some amusement over the juxtaposition of two terms that are usually not used together in the same conversation, much less the same sentence or phrase. (Aside: I just googled "desires of prepositions" with the quotes, and Google returned only 8 hits. Seven of them were mine, and only 1 from another source, a 09/21/2009 post entitled HERO�NO HONOR, EH? Weenie Yellow Polka� by Judge Bean on At least I have company.) Though I'm confident that I will continue to enlarge the idea in my own head and writing, I think I'm clear enough now to clarify what I mean by desires of prepositions and to connect it to the conversation about Rhizo14.

I think that my last several posts explain how I'm using the term preposition and how I picked up on the importance of prepositions from comments Michel Serres made to Bruno Latour in their book Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time (1995). My online dictionary defines a preposition as:
a word governing, and usually preceding, a noun or pronoun and expressing a relation to another word or element in the clause, as in “the man on the platform,” “she arrived after dinner,” “what did you do it for?”
(By the way, I'm pleased to see an online dictionary ending a sentence with a preposition. Gratifying that.)

Prepositions, then, govern and connect mostly substantives to other elements within a sentence. As I've said elsewhere, prepositions are the stage directors of sentences, positioning the actors, pacing the action, and in general, structuring and making sense of the scene/sentence. Prepositions make clear to the reader (audience) the trajectories of the elements in a sentence (the actors and actions on the stage). I like this stage metaphor (though a movie screen would work as well, I think), for it animates sentences which we seem to think static, frozen in a line of text on a printed page. And this is what prepositions do within the sentence: they couple this with that, putting everything into motion. Actually, other sentence elements such as conjunctions, punctuation marks, spacing, the position and proximity of syntax also couple things and mark those relationships for the reader/audience, but for now, I'm limiting my discussion to prepositions. I'll discuss all connective grammatical elements later.

For me, the big idea is that prepositions form and flavor the connections within a sentence. They are a big part of the structure that informs a sentence and makes it mean something, and they both create that structure and mark that structure for us to hear/see/read. Prepositions do much of the hard work of forming patterns and marking those patterns. I believe that pattern making, pattern marking, and pattern recognition is the heart of making meaning, of creating and using knowledge, and thus, of education. Prepositions choreograph the movement of actors and actions on the stage. Without them we have little pattern and little meaning, just a collection of actors sitting in a heap or wandering aimlessly on stage. Consider the first sentence that I used from Maha's contribution to the collaborative autoethnography (CAE):
Funny enough, even though I have been thinking about this since #rhizo14 started and writing about it throughout on my blog, fb, twitter, I am having a lot of difficulty writing here.
If we remove the connections created by the prepositions, then we reduce the sentence to a near empty stage:
Funny enough, even though I have been thinking and writing, I am having a lot writing here.
If we remove all the connector elements, including punctuation and spacing, we are left with almost nothing:
Even reduced to the basic subject/verb/direct object as in this string of letters, we can see that some hint of connectivity remains as the verb connects the subject and direct object and all three elements appear in standard English order. However, without structuring elements such as prepositions, language is near meaningless. While we usually focus on the substantives and verbals to determine the meaning of a sentence, it is the little words—the prepositions, conjunctions, punctuation, spaces, syntax, and so forth—that do much of the heavy work of meaning creation.

I am not diminishing the importance of substantives and verbals here; rather, I am elevating the importance of the little words, specifically the prepositions. We have a cultural habit of focusing on the big words, the substantives and verbals, the actors and actions. This habit extends to language experts who more often than not define the little words in terms of their relationships to the big words. For instance, in Maha's sentence, the word throughout would most likely be called an adverb because it is modifying the verb writing even though the word is often used as a preposition. The little words are defined by the big words they modify rather than by what they do: connect things, couple. To my mind, throughout is coupling just as about and on are, and all three should be defined in their own right and not in terms of their relationship to the big words.

What do connector words do? They map the flow of a sentence out into a meaningful structure. In the sentence above, Maha has something, but she spins that notion out, enriches it, starting her sentence by noting her amused chagrin at her situation, then setting up a contrast with her previous ability to think and write about Rhizo14 in her online spaces, which provides much setting for her scene and several props, and finally rounds out her thoughts by adding that she's having difficulty with writing in the CAE. To my mind's eye, the sentence unpacks itself, in large part through the prepositions, much as a dandelion stretches out into the air.  Maha's sentence takes a handful of dust, debris, and concepts, and sets them spinning about themselves in a little constellation that creates meaning—not out of nothing, but meaning that did not exist before Maha mapped her concepts in this particular dance.

I take the concept of mapping from Deleuze and Guattari's discussion of the rhizome in A Thousand Plateaus (1988), where they distinguish it from tracing, and this mapping segues nicely into desire, another concept from Deleuze and Guattari, especially in their book Anti-Oedipus (1977). Think about the forces that push and pull the dandelion as it stretches into its own space within its own ecosystem, or the forces that push and pull Maha's words into its own shape within its own conversational space. The dandelion desires to connect to the earth, water, sunlight, other plants, and all of those things desire to connect to the dandelion. Following the lead of Deleuze and Guattari, that is what I mean by desire: the forces that push and pull everything to connect and create new structures, new meaning. I'll try to unpack this, mostly for me.

Desire is commonly understood in human terms as a drive for something that we do not have. In other words, it is defined by lack, by something that is apart from us, or transcendent, not something that is part of us, or immanent. Deleuze and Guattari reverse this understanding. In their book Deleuze and Geophilosophy (2004), Mark Bonta and John Protevi note that desire is "not subjective hankering after what you do not have"; rather, desire "is the material process of connection, registration and enjoyment of flows of matter and energy coursing through bodies in networks of production in all registers, be they geologic, organic, or social" (76). I would add that these flows include organization and information in addition to matter and energy, as Edgar Morin points out in his analysis of complexity in his book On Complexity.

According to Bonta and Protevi, Deleuzian desire takes two main forms:
  1. paranoid (fascist), which "forms whole subjects who cling to their identities in a social production network that must not change and that reinforces the rigid (tribal or imperial) coding and channeling of flows" (76), and 
  2. schizophrenic (revolutionary), which "rides the [uncoded flows of] energies released by capitalism and takes them far beyond the pathetic reterritorializations on family and private property maintained by psychoanalysis and the capitalist State" (76).
I think that McGilchrist's book The Master and the Emissary gives us another, more flexible way to characterize connections with his left-brain/right-brain analysis. We connect either to manipulate (left-brain) or to relate (right-brain); though these are extreme ends of a sliding scale. Few connections are totally left-brain or right-brain, but it helps us to clarify the distinctions between them if we push them to extremes which seldom occur. I think I will post something about this later, but not now.

The problem with desire, for Deleuze and Guattari, is that priests (religious, psychoanalytic, economic, and state) manage desire by defining it in transcendent terms: lack (you desire only what you don't have), pleasure (you desire only what makes you feel good), and jouissance (you really only want transcendent pure pleasure, which you can never have or have only in Heaven). Desire, then, is traditionally defined in terms of lack by those who want to control it. Deleuze and Guattari define desire in terms of immanent drives that flow through us, connecting us to others and to larger socio-political structures. And this is a key property of desire: they are not our own; rather, they flow through us. Deleuze and Guattari say that our desires are already part and parcel of the socio-political systems that we are part of. I insist that desires are part and parcel of all reality. They are the flows of energy, matter, organization, and information that flesh us out, unpack our DNA, and seek to connect us to other unpacking entities and their flows of energy, matter, organization, and information.

Of course, I am extending desire beyond the socio-political to include pretty much everything. For me, desire is that tendency or affinity of things to connect to other things, to couple, and to create new things. Quarks desire quarks and create atoms. Atoms desire atoms and create molecules. People desire people and create societies. This is far different from how desire is usually used. Under the influence of Freud and Marx, we have pretty much defined desire in terms of sex and money, and the physical sciences have abandoned the term as too anthropomorphic. Deleuze and Guattari limited their discussion of desire to the human realms of society and politics, largely in response to Freud and Marx and to the socio-political upheavals of the 1960s, I think. Desire works nicely in this context, and I may come to regret trying to extend desire beyond the merely human, but I'm willing to fail. The idea attracts me, so I'll do it, but I recognize that when I speak of atoms desiring atoms, most people will prefer talking about the probabilistic tendencies of atoms to bond with certain other atoms that they randomly encounter. No problem. My concept of desire includes those couplings as well; though, I don't care much for leaving it all to random chance. To my mind, if there were only two quarks in all the universe, they would desire and find each other, coupling to create one lonely particle. That may be the saddest, shortest story I've ever told, but I believe it.

These couplings are important, given that everything in the universe exists because of them. The couplings produce everything, and this production is important to Deleuze and Guattari who posit desiring machines as the point of coupling and production, or to my mind, the point of creation. The key to keep in mind is that they are not speaking metaphorically. Nor am I. D&G start Anti-Oedipus:
It is at work everywhere, functioning smoothly at times, at other times in fits and starts. It breathes, it heats, it eats. It shits and fucks. What a mistake to have ever said the id. Everywhere it is machines—real ones, not figurative ones: machines driving other machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections. An organ-machine is plugged into an energy-source-machine: the one produces a flow that the other interrupts. The breast is a machine that produces milk, and the mouth a machine coupled to it. The mouth of the anorexic wavers between several functions: its possessor is uncertain as to whether it is an eating-machine, an anal machine, a talking-machine, or a breathing machine (asthma attacks). Hence we are all handymen: each with his little machines. (8)
Prepositions, then, are desiring machines. This is not a metaphor. As I've already said, prepositions really don't mean much by themselves. They attain meaning in the connection, in the coupling that they perform. This is when their meaning emerges. Prepositions mark the point at which the flow of desire passes from this to that, here to there, connecting and coupling, leading to the production of something new. Something given flows in (all those linguistic, informational and organizational as well as energy and material flows) and something transformed flows out. This is how the rhizome grows, moves, deterritorializes and reterritorializes, and prepositions provide us with an explicit marker of the flow of desire through our conversations. It is a production machine, which means that it both makes the connection and marks the connection.

Consider again Maha's sentence above:
Funny enough, even though I have been thinking about this since #rhizo14 started and writing about it throughout on my blog, fb, twitter, I am having a lot of difficulty writing here.
The prepositions couple Rhizo14 to her thinking and writing, which are both coupled to her blog, Facebook, and Twitter and coupled to the duration of Rhizo14, and finally she herself is coupled to difficulty. This is a great amount of coupling in so short a sentence, and it opens up a rich stage on which Maha plays out her story. The prepositions take the nouns and verbs of Maha's thought and orchestrate a beautiful scene within a clear setting with spatial, virtual, and temporal dimensions that combines and redirects different trajectories into transformed trajectories that can feed into the trajectories of whoever reads her sentence. Of course, the trajectories of my sentences here can then flow back (feedback) into Maha's sentences. Likewise, Maha's entire sentence is a desiring machine that couples with the other sentences in her paragraph, which couples with the other paragraphs, which couples with the other autoethnographies, and so on. Flow feeds on flow, desire on desire, and this coupling produces … well, everything. This is the rhizome unfolding, and I would be silly to think that I, or even the iSwarm, control all these flows. We nudge and twist our thoughts within a field of thoughts, but they are alive and resist our nudging, twisting in sometimes unexpected ways. Like just now. I really did not plan to write that last sentence. Or the next one. Or this one. On and on. I touch the flow here and there and it responds, but I don't really control it. Nor it me. We dance.

In his introduction to Anti-Oedipus, Mark Seem highlights a central question and insight of the book: "What is the function of desire, Anti-Oedipus asks, if not one of making connections?" (xxii). Prepositions make connections, and thus make and mark the flow of desire, and this is their function.

This gives me a very helpful way of thinking about Rhizo14. What desires, what flows of drives and affinities, led people to connect to each other last February, 2014? What desiring machines enabled these couplings? What flows kept people in Rhizo14? What flows turned people away from Rhizo14? Did other, more demanding desiring machines couple them with other, more engaging flows? How?

And then I have to ask how well do the autoethnographies map to what actually happened? If I follow the couplings in the AEs, will I learn something about the couplings in Rhizo14? Do people really know what drives aided or failed them in coupling to Rhizo14? I know, for instance, that I am largely unaware of the epic wars waged by my immune system along the waterways and landscapes of my own body. What other drives am I missing? Deleuze and Guattari insist that most of our drives and desires operate quite aside from our consciousness, pushing and pulling us in directions that we only mark and rationalize after the fact.

Okay, so this is what I mean by the desires of prepositions. It makes sense to me, but help me push it around. Test it.

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