I've been working on the idea of complex ethics, and I still have more to write, but I want to take a post to reflect on a larger issue. It seems to me that my writing about ethics is part of a larger effort to rethink the way I make sense of the world. I'm trying to rethink how I make meaning, and this has been made clear to me in several posts that I've read lately.
I'll start with a post by Jordan Greenhall in Venessa Miemis' emergent by design blog entitled "Kickstarter for a New Civilization". Greenhall argues for rebooting human civilization, starting with new sensemaking tools and strategies. He notes that while traditional science "has been a powerful sense making apparatus for the past 500 years", it is no longer adequate for the complexity confronting humanity. In a subsequent post, "Constructing the New Narrative", Greenhall identifies narrative as core to developing new sense-making tools for a complex world:
It is clear that in an increasingly complex world where your personal experience can account for only the tiniest sliver of potential experience, it is only through narrative — and its ability to allow individuals to benefit from the experiences of other individuals — that we can hope to collectively make sense of our world and become individually capable of navigating that world successfully.
Unfortunately, too much of our collective narrative, according to Greenhall, has been hijacked by malware. It's time to reboot.
Of course, rebooting narratives is not new, as I am reminded in Bonnie Stewart's post "temporarily embarrassed millionaires", in which she makes an intelligent call to reboot the education narrative, especially adult education, in the style of maritime Canada's Antigonish Movement. I think her call is timely, and I will attend to it to see if there is room for me to contribute. I suspect there will be. In the comments after the post, Bonnie links to Nathan J. Robinson's Current Affairs post "WHY IS “THE DECIMATION OF PUBLIC SCHOOLS” A BAD THING?", in which Robinson explains how we must change the narrative about public education if we are to cope with the changes in US public education that seem forthcoming from a Trump administration. Again, it's time to reboot, and I argue that while a pending Trump administration may heighten our sense of urgency, we've needed to reboot public education for some time.
Of course, in her blog Reflecting Allowed, Maha Bali has been calling regularly for rebooting the narratives that we live and work by. I could reference any number of Maha's posts, but I'll use the most recent, as of this post. In the post "On Noticing Absence (also #OER17)", Maha argues that absence is an important part of our narratives, a point too often ignored by data analytics, for instance, which are strongly biased toward what is present, not what is absent. We need information theory that accounts for no signal. Then in "On Noticing Absence in Algorithms part 2", she explores her issues with the persistent narrative about computer technology replacing teachers in education. Again, I sense that it's time to reboot our narratives.
So if I have to explain what I'm doing with this series of posts about complex ethics, then I think I am trying to reboot my narrative about how and why I should make choices that perturb the world. Our ethics are one of the ways we make sense of the world, and my ethics need rebooting. I believe the world is complex, not simple, and I need ethics that are complex rather than simple. Most of the ethics that I know are far too simple to meet the needs of this complex world. I thank my online community for clarifying that need for me.
I keep reading and developing my thoughts about complexity ethics, and as usual, the topic gets richer and richer. Emergence is a wonderful process that leads to more and more complexity. Emergence works in our readings and studies, as it seems to work in all complex systems. This is a principle of complexity with profound implications for education: the more we learn, the more we have to learn. Learning creates more learning. Learning a topic does not limit the topic, it does not reduce the amount we have left to learn; rather, it expands it. For every one thing we learn about history, we uncover 10 more things to learn (My numbers here are suggestive, not precise. The real ratio could be one to a million or billion or gazillion.). Beware of any curriculum that says this is the list of five things you need to know about biology, for instance. Rhizomatic education expands rather than limits knowledge. Education is lifelong—especially if you are thinking in terms of species and planets and not just individual humans.
And the more we write, the more we have to write. Writing about rhizomatic ethics, for instance, does not limit the topic. I don't have less to write now than I did when I started a year or so ago. I have more. The rhizome proliferates. It has asignifying ruptures, such as this one I am following now. I did not intend to discuss emergence when I sat down at my computer this morning in late November, 2016; rather, I intended to summarize my thinking about complexity ethics, or rhizomatic ethics, to introduce a discussion of how ethics emerges from and stains our choices about which flows of energy, matter, information, and organization to engage and how to engage them. But I wrote the topic gets richer and richer, and that comment led me to muse how Emergence is a wonderful process that leads to more and more complexity, and all of a sudden I was following a line of flight across the rhizome to something else. This touches, of course, on a practice I use in my writing classrooms: just move your fingers. Writing begets writing. Start with silliness, if you must, and something will emerge. One of the biggest issues facing my students is their overwhelming desire to finish, to write one complete, finished draft so that they can move on. Limiting comes later in writing, after you've expanded. You can't limit what isn't there. Trying to limit nothing leads to writer's block. Moving your fingers gets you going down a path, sometimes a silly path, but that's okay. Trim the silliness later after good stuff emerges. And have faith that sometimes the silliness morphs into the good stuff. Have faith in the magic of asignifying ruptures.
But I'll leave emergence and get to my summary. I'm insisting that complexity theory, which for me includes Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome, has much to say about ethics. (I use the terms complexity theory and rhizomatic theory interchangeably—complexity when I'm mostly talking about modern scientific thought and rhizomatic when I want to emphasize Deleuze and Guattari.) I can say this because I believe that all entities are complex, open systems, or rhizomes, that exist as a complexus, as Morin calls it, a weave, or better yet, a convergence of various flows of energy, matter, information, and organization like threads in a magic carpet called I from the inside and you or it from the outside.
I'm coming to believe that ethics is part of the very weave of reality; rather, the weaving of reality. Ethics is active, not passive. It's part of the process, not the meta-rules for the process. I'll start with the physics of it. In his 1968 book Energy Flow in Biology: Biological Organization as a Problem in Thermal Physics, Harold J. Morowitz notes two important ideas about complex, open, self-organizing entities:
"that energy flow alone can give rise to order in a system" and
"that energy flow is necessary to maintain order once it has been achieved" (26). Morowitz convinces me that complex, open systems (including humans) emerge, express, and maintain their lives as flows of energy. I prefer to speak of energy, matter, information, and organization as Morin does, but I suspect that the four are simply different views of the same flow. Einstein has already equated energy and matter, and information and organization certainly implicate each other. Claude Shannon's information theory exchanges energy for information in its discussion of entropy, and as Paul Cilliers says in his 1998 book Complexity and postmodernism: Understanding complex systems, "By replacing ‘energy’ with ‘information’ in the equations of thermodynamics, [Shannon] could show that the amount of information in a message is equal to its ‘entropy’." (8). I do not know of any information without energy, so as a shorthand, I'll speak of energy alone when I mean all four. I really do not know which came first: the Word or the Light, but they both seem necessary now.
So a view is emerging for me of humans as the nexus of various flows of energy, matter, information, and organization. I can say that a human biologically starts with the joining of egg and sperm (please, don't involve me in the U.S. abortion debate here), which creates a cache of electrochemical energy and information in the form of DNA. We can, at one scale, see this as a single flow as a zygote begins to unpack itself like a head of broccoli or an erupting thundercloud, but we should be aware that this process is a convergence of multiple flows of energy, matter, information, and organization from the initial fertilized ovum AND within the context of the enclosing womb (for a wonderful unpacking of this concept, see Siddhartha Mukherjee's lucid book The Gene: An Intimate History (2016). As the internal flows push the zygote outward, they immediately engage in interactions and exchanges with the womb, with the ecosystem, and flows of energy, matter, information, and organization are fed into the zygote to interact with and to modulate the emerging activities, processes, and structures of the zygote. The egg has just enough stored energy to jumpstart the process, but the emerging zygote must swiftly connect to flows of energy from the womb, its ecosystem, if it is to thrive. This drive outward fed by flows inward continues until the death of the system.
Of course, starting with the egg and sperm is a matter of habit and convenience, which points to one of the most challenging aspects of complexity thought: boundary issues. Traditional Western thought likes to posit clear, distinct boundaries—lines in the sand, walls, disciplines, jobs, narratives with distinct beginnings and final endings, and so forth, but boundaries of open systems, of rhizomes, are not so well defined or stable. They are messy and problematic. As Cilliers notes:
[I]t is often difficult to define the border of a complex system. Instead of being a characteristic of the system itself, the scope of the system is usually determined by the purpose of the description of the system, and is thus often influenced by the position of the observer. This process is called framing. (p. 4)
My own interest in genealogy has shown me that I can shift scales to frame different flows and trace a very different beginning for myself beyond the union of sperm and egg some 65 years ago. Given a frame of about 5,000 years, my DNA results show that I am overwhelmingly the result of DNA flows from Europe (97%), mostly the UK, but also from the Middle East (3%). And, of course, if I really want to find my beginning, I must go all the way back to a savannah in ancient Africa some 150,000 years ago. Though if I shift to another scale or frame, then I must go back to some primordial soup about four billion years ago. I do not have the resources to trace the flow of me at that granular a scale over such time and geographical distances, but I have no doubt that the flows are there. It's a bit like believing in a river even though I can see only a little way up and down the river at any one time. Calling the one bit of river that I can see THE RIVER is short-sighted and naive, but that is sort of what I do when I look in the mirror and say, "That is THE Keith Hamon." Well, it's just a part of me, just a snapshot of a very long flow of me that extends into the past and into the future.
I am the moving precipitate, as Randall Collins terms it, that flows across all the situations I find myself in, with boundaries like a cloud. As a thundercloud, I emerge as the self-eco-organizing conflux of flows of wind, temperature, electricity, water, vapor, light. As these flows merge and interact, I achieve a strange kind of autonomy through what Morin calls a principle of self-eco-organization. Self-eco-organization is an emergent phenomenon grounded on countless interactions that from our human scale and point of view usually appear as mechanical, deterministic, and mindless. Neurons fire or don't fire in our physical brains, and we can describe these patterns of firing in deterministic terms: one neuron fires, and if it fires with enough strength, another fires, and so on until a thought emerges. Clear cause and effect, nothing mysterious. If pursued by itself, such a reductionist view undermines the idea of autonomy of complex open systems. I reject that view.
Rather, I accept the idea of self-eco-organization that posits an autonomy in terms of determinism. For me, it works like this: as complex open systems, we must engage in various flows of energy, matter, information, and organization, yet at many points we are able to choose the manner and degree of our engagement. For instance, as a functioning human (humor me here), I have no choice but to breathe air; however, as my meditative, administrative, and soccer practices have taught me, the manner of my breathing is a choice that can dramatically change both my internal and external state at any given place and time. If I control my breathing, then I change myself and my situation. This choice to control defines my autonomy, a function of my self-organizing, but this autonomy is always a tense dialog between necessity and freedom. I must breathe if I am to remain a functioning me, but I can choose to breathe differently. Self-eco-organization. Freedom informed by necessity. Necessity informed by freedom. Keith Hamon as an emergent property of both freedom and necessity.
Many people want to focus exclusively on either the freedom to become what we want or the necessity to be what we are, but complexity thought insists that our autonomy emerges from the interplay of both freedom and necessity. To be dramatic, we all hang on a cross suspended between two thieves: absolute freedom on one hand and absolute fixed necessity on the other. Both thieves lead to death: either to the hot chaos of absolute freedom or the cold order of necessity. Both conditions destroy complex open systems. Both fire and ice, as Dante and Frost have noticed, lead to death.
However, as Morin notes—and this is the real magic—fire and ice also lead to life. Rather, the flow between fire and ice leads to life. It's the miscegenation between hot chaos and frozen fixity that creates life, just as the coupling of cold and hot air masses engenders thunderstorms. As Morowitz more scientifically explains it, energy flows from a heat source (in our case, the Sun), through a swarm of particles (in our case, the Earth), animating it, and then into a heat sink (Space). (I'm glossing here. For the details, read his book). While living, we are poised, vibrating, between extremes of heat and cold, and that vibration is life. That vibration is the turbulence of flows of energy, matter, information, and organization through a nexus that I, for instance, call Keith Hamon.
So what the hell does the flow of animating energy have to do with ethics? I'm glad I finally asked.
The choices we make about the flows of energy that we engage and how we engage them always have an ethical consideration, an ethical stain. The choices I can make about breathing air, for instance, lead to changes in my internal and external states that enhance some aspects and dampen other aspects of my internal/external state (I should think of them as conjoined twins—one state not possible without the other).
As energy, matter, information, and organization flow through me, they are modulated, translated, modified. They are refracted like light through a prism, which is different when it is released back into the ecosystem. Those modulated energy flows also involve choices, and the modulated flows perturb the ecosystem and eventually feedback to perturb me, but only after having been modulated yet again by the other complex, open systems (including other humans) that they have flowed through.
Energy does not flow through us blissfully unperturbed (with the possible exception of neutrinos, for whom the entire universe is essentially a transparent medium through which they flow unperturbed, making them very difficult to detect and impossible to catch); rather, the flows are turbulent. Flows percolate through us. We are not smooth conduits. No system is. Information flows in, but it does not flow out the same, as our parlor games teach us when we try to relay a simple story along a chain of partiers. This post you are reading emerged from my readings of Edgar Morin, Deleuze and Guattari, Paul Cilliers, Harold Morowitz, my online rhizo group, and countless others, but those information flows were modulated, distorted, perhaps tortured by the turbulent rapids of my own information processing whirlpools. Simply because I mention the names Morin, Deleuze, and Guattari, no one should assume that I am faithfully channeling their information. All information that flows through me is stained by me, changed, modulated, and that stain carries with it an ethical dimension. The stain of modulation perturbs me, it perturbs the information flow, and it perturbs the ecosystems I inhabit—even those I'm not conscious of. Things are different because Keith Hamon read Edgar Morin—even Edgar Morin is different, though he will likely never know that Keith Hamon read him. Keith Hamon bears some ethical responsibility for that difference. You, reader, now bear some responsibility because you read this. Each of you will refract this post this way or that, leaving your own stain upon it. All those stains carry ethical implications.
The prism pic above is, of course, wrong. It suggests that energy flows in pure and is then refracted. No flows reach us pure and unperturbed. All flows of energy, matter, information, and organization are already refracted and turbulent by the time we engage them, having passed through other complex open systems, other rhizomes, that left their stains first. We are then stained by and in turn stain again. Sunlight is perturbed by the Sun's own inner thought processes, is refracted by the cold soup of space, and then buffeted by Earth's atmosphere before it ever reaches me. Sunlight is further refracted by the plants I eat that capture sunlight through photosynthesis and by the animals I eat that first ate the plants that ate the sunlight. Sunlight, a fundamental energy flow, is perturbed all along the way, until I finally turn sunlight into shit. Shit is sunlight stained.
Many may complain that not all those perturbations have ethical import, that there is nothing ethical, for instance, about light filtering through the atmosphere. I suspect all perturbations do carry ethical implications, but it isn't an argument I wish to engage just now; rather for now, I insist that all human perturbations carry ethical stains. My choices about food (which food, how much, where and when to consume, and how to recycle that food) carry ethical stains. Ethics is not the only consideration, of course. We humans also have economic, biological, social, religious, and countless other considerations, but ethics is part of the mix and is ignored at our peril, in large part because these flows of energy connect us to everything and everyone else.
The energy, matter, information, and organization that flow through me also flow through everyone and everything else. Those flows are not linear, but nonlinear—in both the mathematical and metaphorical senses. They percolate, recycle, and ripple. I, then, perturb everything else and everything else perturbs me. We are, as Deleuze and Guattari say, connected heterogeneously: "any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be" (ATP 7). Those connections and the exchanges across them carry ethical stains.
Those flows and connections are multi-scalar. In other words, the flows of blood through my veins is connected to the flows of light from the Sun. Of course, the perturbations of my blood flow is so small compared to the flow of sunlight, like the ripple made by a small stone in a raging river—untraceable almost as soon as it occurs. Still, the connection is there, and this brings us to the third characteristic of the rhizome: multiplicity. Everything is a multiplicity: a complex, open system composed of myriad complex open systems arranged in a complex open ecosystem and all fed by flows of energy. Systems within systems. We host and are hosted. We are parasites, to use Serres' term in his 2007 book The Parasite, which carries a wonderful triple meaning in French: guest, leech, and noise. We are fed and we feed in return, from the microscale to the macro, and this feeding always carries ethical considerations. And because we are multiplicities, this feeding is never simple or discrete. We feed both from and to at the same time and across multiplicities. There is no unity, only flows of feeding energy, and some flows for awhile swirl in a configuration recognizable and functioning as Keith Hamon. Or as you.
Because there is no unity but only flow, we must expect asignifying ruptures (D&G's fourth characteristic of the rhizome) as one complex open system deterritorializes and reterritorializes, following lines of flight across the rhizome. To follow light again, plants feed on sunlight, and light ruptures into chlorophyll. Animals eat plants, and light and chlorophyll rupture into flesh, movement, desire. I eat animals, and light, chlorophyll, and flesh rupture into movement, desire, thought, and shit. Of course, the asignifying ruptures don't stop there. In fact, they never stop. They just morph along the flow. Each asignifying rupture carries an ethical stain—among other stains, to be sure, but ethical nonetheless.
And this brings me to the last of the six characteristics of the rhizome: mapping and decalcomania, which to my mind address what Cilliers identifies as two of the core issues confronting complex open systems:
Complex systems have to grapple with a changing environment. Depending on the severity of these changes, great demands can be made on the resources of the system. To cope with these demands the system must have two capabilities: it must be able to store information concerning the environment for future use; and it must be able to adapt its structure when necessary. The first of these will be discussed as the process of representation; the second, which concerns the development and change of internal structure without the a priori necessity of an external designer, as the process of self-organisation. (Complexity and postmodernism 10)
The ethics of mapping and decalcomania merits its own blog post, and this post is already too long, but I'll make it just a bit longer. For Cilliers, representation addresses how complex systems "gather information about that environment and store it for future use" (p. 11), or in other words, how the system creates meaning. Note here that Cilliers is not limiting meaning creation to humans; rather, ALL complex systems create meaning, a defining characteristic of complex systems, or rhizomes. To my mind, mapping and decalcomania are the terms D&G use for this inherent process of creating meaning and self-organizing in light of this meaning. I will write more about this process, but for now, I want to emphasize that creating meaning (mapping our worlds) and self-eco-organizing (responding to our meanings) carry ethical implications.
For me, the implications for education are clear: everything we do in education is stained with ethics. Actually, that is not quite correct, as it makes it sound as if ethics is something added on. It is not. Maybe I should say that everything we do in education expresses our ethics. Everything we do has a particular stain. We make choices that support the complex, open systems involved in education (students, teachers, organizations, communities, food services, traffic flows, local and national stories, and so on) or that undermine those systems. Most often, what we do supports some systems and undermines others. That ambiguity is part of the complex nature of ethics, and complexity theory helps me to see why complexity ethics is different from traditional ethics. I will write that post later.
But for now, I think I'm ready to write my summary: As complex, open systems interacting with other complex, open systems, we humans make choices about the flows of energy, matter, information, and organization that we engage and how we engage them. Our choices perturb those flows, dynamically and variously supporting and undermining our internal and external states, and those perturbations, those stains, always carry ethical implications.
I wish you all happy Holy Days. May the Word and the Light, however they flow through you, bring you peace, kindness, and safety.
I made some rather large claims in my last post about ethics being at the heart of the rhizome, woven into the very fabric of reality, which implies that ethics is woven into everything that happens within education. I think my last post was a bit too vague, so I want to elaborate in this post. I lean very heavily here on my understanding of Edgar Morin's argument in his book On Complexity (2008).
I start with Morin's idea about the autonomy of complex, living entities, such as humans. According to Morin, all living entities, certainly humans, are open systems that exchange energy, matter, information, and organization with their eco-systems and within themselves. These exchanges bind us to and make us dependent upon our ecosystems at the same time as they distinguish us from our ecosystems. Humans channel these flows of matter, energy, information, and organization from their environment, through themselves, and back out into their environment, usually after some transformative, internal processes. These exchanges work across all scales that we are aware of: from the unfolding of our DNA to our roles in society, history, and the world. As open systems, we are simultaneously integral parts of the environment and distinguishable entities in our own rights. We are complex entities emerging in a complex environment, overcoming entropy through the constant exchanges with and flows through our ecosystems.
The degree to which we manage these exchanges—the degree to which we open and close ourselves to flows of energy, matter, information, and organization—determines our relative autonomy. We can resist and disengage from exchanges that threaten harm, and we can seek and engage with exchanges that promise benefits. I think all open systems can to some degree manage their exchanges, but certainly humans have this ability, this obligation. We can decide much about what we will take in and what we won't, and the growing complexity of our cultures and technologies have only expanded the range of exchanges that we can and must manage.
For me, this is easily illustrated. For instance, like most animals, we humans have a skin that manages many exchanges between ourselves and our ecosystems. Those exchanges—say between our skins and sunlight—can be of ultimate importance. Too little or too much sunlight, and we suffer, even die. Just enough sunlight, and we flourish as an autonomous entity absolutely dependent upon sunlight. We learn to make choices about our exposure to sunlight, and those choices enrich our lives or destroy it. Our autonomy is measured by our capacity to make choices about how much sunlight we are willing to expose our skin to.
Add the human technologies of clothing and of complex social groups to this skin/sun exchange, and our choices governing the amount of skin we expose to sunlight become much richer and more nuanced, more complex. How much skin we choose to expose or to cover also defines our autonomy, which does not depend on whether we show a lot of skin or show little; rather, autonomy depends on our capacity to decide how much to show. The person who chooses to be naked and the person who choses to be fully clothed are both expressing their autonomy within the context of some social group, some ecosystem. The person who is forced to be naked or fully clothed has lost their autonomy. Our ability to make choices helps define autonomy and, to my mind, entangles us in ethics. Almost always.
As we humans begin life, all our choices are made for us by caretakers. If not, we usually don't survive, which points to the absolute necessity of making choices about which matter, energy, information, and organization flows we engage and which we avoid. Parents insure that appropriate food enters our mouths and inappropriate things do not. Most of us then spend much of the rest of our lives learning what things to ingest and what things to avoid. Of course, some of us never learn completely, which too often leads to unhappiness, disruption, and even death.
The management of the flow of food is obvious, but we also must learn to manage the flows of information and organization that we ingest, process, and feedback into the ecosystem. We must learn a language, and then learn what to say and what not to say and when and where. We must learn up and down, inside and out, near and far, then, now, and tomorrow. We must learn fact, truth, and lie. We have many choices to make, and these choices all carry ethical considerations because they all perturb both our internal and environmental states and processes. Our choices promote or degrade to some degree our own well-being and the well-being of the environments that sustain us. These perturbations are unavoidable; therefore, we should be aware of the effects of our choices and seek to promote the wellbeing of ourselves and our environments.
For me, then, complexity science renders explicit the situation of humans as complex, open systems: we must engage in some flows of energy, matter, information, and organization, and we should learn to manage our engagements to the degree that we can. Making choices about what flows to engage and how to perturb our environments and our internal states always carries an ethical dimension. In their essays in Mason's Complexity Theory and the Philosophy of Education (2008), Kuhn and Morrison seem to want to limit complexity theory to the mechanics of matter, energy, information, and organization flows. I see no reason to limit complexity theory this way, though I understand that most scientists may do so under the delusion that ethics has no place in science. This is one of the main errors in modern thought that Morin addresses, a condition he calls "blind knowledge". Paul Cilliers, who also appears in Mason's book, also seems to have no problem including ethical considerations in his complexity theories, and his thought will appear in my exploration of how complexity science—or more broadly, complexity thought—helps frame a complex ethics.
So what does this have to do with education? When we frame education rhizomatically, as a complex, open system, we see that formal education is one thread in our process for learning how to manage the flows of matter, energy, information, and organization through our environments and ourselves. Of course, we—especially in higher ed—tend to focus on the flows of information that we present to students for engagement, but a little closer scrutiny reveals that we are always involved with all flows at all scales. When I'm in a classroom with my students, I exchange air and germs with them, smells, sounds, light, temperature, organization in the arrangement of the classroom and the lesson, social structures, poems, stories, plays, beliefs, and infinitely more. And because the class is a rhizome, all nodes across all scales are connected to all other nodes, just as Deleuze and Guattari tell us. Thus, we are confronted with more choices than we can be aware, far more choices than we can make, yet we are called to make them. Our situation as a complex, open system absolutely demands it. Not making choices is still making them. Not being conscious of our choices is still making them. The flows of information, matter, energy, and organization are incessant and demanding. We have no choice but to choose, even if we choose death. As I am beginning to see it, no concept of education is more entangled with ethics than complexity education.
So if there are more choices than we can make, then how do we make them? Another post.
I am exploring the practical consequences of the rhizome for the college classroom, and originally I thought I would go through Deleuze and Guattari's six characteristics of the rhizome (connection, heterogeneity, multiplicity, asignifying rupture, cartography, and decalcomania) to disentangle the implications for my classrooms one at a time. That approach has not worked for me, in large part, I think, because it breaks up the rhizome into smaller, simpler parts to make dissecting easier. Dissection is not working so well for me, as I suspect it didn't work so well for D&G. After their initial introduction of the rhizome, they complain, "We get the distinct feeling that we will convince no one unless we enumerate certain approximate characteristics of the rhizome" (ATP 7). It seems that they felt forced into analyzing the rhizome for the sake of readers who expect analysis and who won't accept the concept otherwise.
Anyway, I am changing my approach: instead of proceeding by each characteristic of the rhizome, I will proceed by issues in the classroom and draw implications from the rhizome as a whole. I'm also taking this approach because of some recent readings that have focussed my attention on certain issues, particularly ethics. For this post, then, I want to focus on ethics in the classroom and in educational research, drawing on writings from Maha Bali's blog Reflecting Allowed, Mark Mason's book Complexity Theory and the Philosophy of Education (2008), Edgar Morin's On Complexity (2008), and of course, Deleuze & Guattari.
I start with the notion that ethics are woven into the fabric of the rhizome, into the complex universe itself. Here's why I think so: all nodes of any system, any rhizome, are connected to one another, and these connections have ethical as well as other implications because the connections among nodes are the pathways and mechanisms by which nodes, however defined, exchange matter, energy, information, and structure with one another. These connections and exchanges make our universe possible, and the exchanges have consequences for the systems that emerge from them.
Though most of us assume that the connections and exchanges among two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, say, are rather mechanical with no ethical implications (an assumption that I'm questioning more and more), we can easily see that the connections and exchanges among three people do have ethical implications (though some deterministic materialists would deny ethics even here). I'll share a story: recently, Maha Bali, an Egyptian woman, connected Pete Rorabaugh and me, two American men living in Georgia, through Twitter, asking how the both of us had survived the recent hurricane that passed through our state. Now, this newly connected molecule (two hydrogens and one oxygen—let's call it a professional friendship) may or may not hold and become a viable part of some larger system, but most of us can recognize the possibilities of exchanges of information and organization and the ethical implications of those connections and exchanges. We may come to see this new molecule as good, bad, or indifferent. It may hold or dissolve. However, it plays out, the ethical implications are obvious to most of us. Interconnectivity and the concomitant exchanges of energy, matter, information, and organization carry ethical implications throughout a system, certainly at the human scale (professional friendships, for instance) and perhaps across all scales (molecules or galaxies, for instance).
So when D&G say of the rhizome that "any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be" (7), they are suggesting to me that all nodes of a system interconnect to exchange information, organization, energy, and/or matter. Those exchanges always have an ethical component. I think this may be true of atoms, but I'm certain it is true of humans. I, obviously, am ethically entangled with Pete and Maha, but also with the person who checks out my purchases at the food store. I am certainly ethically entangled with my students, and my interconnections and ethical responsibilities do not end when I leave the store or the classroom, though they may change. I must be keenly aware of the ethical implications of all exchanges of information, organization, energy, and matter, and I am never relieved of this responsibility. For me, all exchanges among humans have ethical implications, and we all exchange—however slightly—with everyone else. You breathe my air, I breathe yours. We both have ethical obligations entangled in that air and its exchange between you and me.
I am limiting myself here to the ethics of exchanges among humans. As I've hinted above, I'm not quite comfortable doing that. My readings in actor network theory and object oriented ontology suggest that this unreasonably and unwisely privileges humans over the rest of the universe and distorts or dismisses the agency and the ethical implications of nonhuman nodes in our networks. I note an increasing sense in my world that humans should recognize the ethics implicated in their exchanges with animals and with the Earth. It is just a short step, then, for me to think that animals have ethical exchanges among themselves and with us and, if so, then all exchanges among all things have ethical implications. Still … for now, let's talk mostly about the ethical implications of heterogenous interconnectivity among humans and their educational systems.
Perhaps no one has taught me more about the ethics of academic exchange than has Maha Bali, and if you want to understand at ground level the ethics of the rhizome, then read her blog Reflecting Allowed. One of her latest posts ("Behind the Scenes of the Growth of @Vconnecting" 04 Sep 2016) details how she and Rebecca Hogue started Virtually Connecting mostly out of their desire to connect to each other over the Net to exchange information and organization (as well as some love, which really isn't a side-note to the VC story. Love and passion are vastly underrated and even dampened in most educational settings. Too bad.). I have been connecting with both Maha and Rebecca and with others since #rhizo15, and we have produced several papers and presentations about our online schooling. I have read closely Maha's discussions of marginality in her blog and in several documents she has co-authored with Shyam Sharma, and I am amazed at how our worldwide network connections are highlighting the ethical issues of rhizomatic heterogenous connectivity. Of course, I have always been connected to Maha—we eventually exchange the same air and water despite the distance between us—but now I am conscious of our connections through our exchanges of information, and I am painfully aware that I need to improve my ethical stance toward those who are different than I. We white, western men make assumptions about how to connect and exchange information that can offend and even injure others, as Maha's most recent post highlights. I need to step up my game to play well in this online space.
And the old ethics are not likely to help me much. Too often, the old ethics assume a simple, closed system: a homogenous community with rules that first include some and exclude others and then manage the behaviors and beliefs of only the included. Those ethics are no longer sufficient, or in D&G's terms, they are too arborescent. Such an ethic "plots a point and fixes an order" (7). The online world forces us to recognize the complex, rhizomatic nature of our communities. We have always connected heterogeneously, but we could ignore it behind our fictions of clan, community, and nation. The Internet has exposed those fictions, and now we must learn to cope with the heterogeneity that has always been there. We've much to learn. I think rhizomatic complexity can help, but that is not so obvious to everyone.
In his introduction to Complexity Theory and the Philosophy of Education, Mark Mason notes that while Keith Morrison and Lesley Kuhn are intrigued by complexity theory and its implications for education, they are also troubled by what they perceive as a lack of a moral or ethical stance. Mason says:
While complexity theory challenges educational philosophy to reconsider accepted paradigms of teaching, learning and educational research, the theory is not without its difficulties. These, as Morrison elucidates in the chapter, lie in complexity theory’s nature … in that it is a descriptive theory that is easily misunderstood as a prescriptive theory, that it is silent on key issues of values and ethics that educational philosophy should embrace. (3) … [Kuhn] offers a number of caveats to educational researchers working in the framework of complexity, perhaps the most interesting of which is her reminder that while complexity theory is descriptive, education is a normative activity. (23)
Mason concludes his essay by saying:
Education, learning and teaching are, at their core, normative activities, but complexity theory is silent on justifying values; it reports evolution, it analyses—and suggests how to analyze—phenomena, but it does not speak to morals. It describes the amoral law of the jungle. (42)
This is a serious charge, but I suspect that it may follow both from a too narrow restriction of ethics as a human phenomenon and of complexity as a scientific method rather than a way of thinking. First, ethics is not limited to the human. The jungle is not amoral. Second, complexity is not merely a scientific theory. As Morin demonstrates, complexity is a way of thinking, knowing, and behaving.
I will develop these thoughts in a subsequent post. Unfortunately, I recently had surgery on my hand and typing is laborious, but I will be unwrapped soon.
In their "Introduction: Rhizome", Deleuze and Guattari waste no time in opening up the tidy little boxes we have constructed around reality in general and our classrooms in particular:
1 and 2. Principles of connection and heterogeneity: any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be. This is very different from the tree or root, which plots a point, fixes an order. (ATP 7)
Yes, this is very different. Among other things, D&G challenge the notion of causality that lies at the heart of Western thought and structures every aspect of the traditional classroom. Since the Enlightenment, the West has mostly adhered to a billiard ball concept of causality: ball A bumps into ball B, causing it to move or to move in a different direction. This is a very linear and traceable concept of causality that frames every event as the immediate result of a preceding, well-defined, proximate, and knowable event. Moreover, and in terms of this post, this linear causality makes a very tight, almost exclusive connection between cause and effect: A causes B. If you want to know why B happens, find A, plot the point, fix the order, and B pops out. That's pretty much it, and it's a very tidy way of viewing reality. And by the way, this kind of thinking has helped us put a man on the Moon. Over the past 300 years, we have used this kind of reasoning to reduce ignorance and superstition and to learn more than Sir Isaac Newton could have ever imagined, but as Edgar Morin points out, this linear logic has its own blindness that is becoming intolerable. We have to see more, and we have to see differently if we want to address issues as large and open as global warming and poverty.
Only in closed systems can we reduce reality enough to limit the connections of A and B to merely themselves. It takes great power and control to reduce the interactions of A and B exclusively and explicitly to each other, to say A always and only causes B, and B always and only results from A. I am overstating my point here to make a point, as most of us recognize in our sober moments that the world is never this simple, yet we still have the tendency to act as if it is and to make policy as if it is. We want to know exactly what one, single thing causes cancer and exactly what one, single thing will cure it. We want to know what one pill will lead to weight loss, stop terrorism, erase laugh lines, and restore the economy and sexual potency (the last two often confused, but not necessarily the same thing). I, for instance, want to know exactly what one thing will cause my students to write standard, academic English prose. If such an answer were possible, I would gladly take it. So I have great compassion for and understanding of our desires for simple answers, but when any point A can be connected to any other point, and must be, then linear causality becomes too simple and blinds us to the rich complexity of things and events. Traditionally, we have aimed for closed, highly controlled classrooms in which simple answers to simple questions can be simply traced and simply assessed. If we could just keep the world out, then it might work.
This undermining of linear causality is not new with D&G. To my mind, it is a part of the general trend in 20th century thought toward complexity. Bohr and Einstein famously argued about it, and postmodern philosophy has taken it to heart. In his article "Complexity Theory and Its Implications for Educational Change", Mark Mason notes Foucault's emphasis on "polymorphous correlations in place of simple or complex causality". Polymorphous correlations is a better way to conceptualize causality when "any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be." So what are the implications of a view of the world that says we can hardly ever reliably trace a single connection between one Cause A and one Effect B, when doing so ignores Events C-Z and all those other aspects of reality that are not "necessarily linked to a linguistic feature" and that we can't even name?
D&G give us some clues fortunately, and I feel free to run with their points. First, they note the paucity of language: "not every trait in a rhizome is necessarily linked to a linguistic feature" (7). We don't have names for everything, probably not even for most things. We live in a very big space, and we are able to map so very little of it with our languages. The rhizome always exceeds our abilities to say, yet we long for universal truths—scientific, spiritual, and social—that say it all, once and for all. That would be nice, I suppose, but it seems to be beyond the grasp of language, any language.
Then, even our language is fragmented, diverse, and in a sense shattered. D&G say, "semiotic chains of every nature are connected to very diverse modes of coding (biological, political, economic, etc.) that bring into play not only different regimes of signs but also states of things of differing status." (7). We have diverse modes of coding that map different aspects of reality, bringing into focus at any one time "things of differing status." To my mind, this is actually a strength of language that makes it more capable and potent. It makes for a rich and subtle linguistic fabric than can map to more of reality. We can map with political language and see one view of reality and then map with biological language to see another view. This way we get more views and see more, but we lose the one True view. I think it is a more than fair trade, but fundamentalists of every stripe will disagree.
I'm not happy with where this post is going, but I don't want to lose it, so I'll stop here. It may be useful later.
In the first chapter of their book A Thousand Plateaus (1987), Deleuze and Guattari introduce us to rhizomatic structures and processes in the world, listing six characteristics that help illuminate the rhizome. They introduce the characteristics with a single sentence:
We get the distinct feeling that we will convince no one unless we enumerate certain approximate characteristics of the rhizome. (7)
For me, this sentence has been easy to step over and move beyond—easy to ignore because it is a transitional statement, and a short one at that, intended to move us quickly from D&G's statement of the problem with arborescent thought and writing to their exploration of the solution: the rhizome. Unfortunately, in my hurry to get to the heart of their discussion, I have ignored the transition. I think this has been unfortunate.
I'm impressed that D&G are positioning themselves rhetorically, framing the chapter "Introduction: Rhizome" as an argument: they want to convince someone, perhaps us, that the rhizome is real and worth considering as a contrast to arborescent thought, and to do so, they must support their assertion with "certain approximate characteristics of the rhizome." In other words, they must provide evidence and some kind of argument, perhaps a persuasive argument. This resonates all the way back to Gorgias and Isocrates, and I suppose it should be no surprise. After all, Deleuze was a philosopher who took quite seriously and vigorously the task of investigating the workings of the world and to argue for certain approximate interpretations of and stances toward the world and against other interpretations and stances. Moreover, the chapter focuses heavily on the workings of language as the key dynamic by which both arborescent and rhizomatic thought and structures are expressed and worked out. Language, of course, has its rhetorical implications. So rhetoric is implicated throughout the chapter.
As they often do in ATP, however, D&G undercut their rhetorical stance with the cheeky opening phrase "we get the distinct feeling that …". It's as if they understand the need to give us characteristics of the rhizome as some kind of persuasive support, but they see the humor in trying to argue in arborescent thought structures for that which is not arborescent. Few structures are more thoroughly arborescent than a Western-style argument with a central thesis—supported by logical, relevant details—that positions a coherent author against a coherent audience in an attempt to cause the audience to think or behave differently. This is the bedrock of Western academic, scientific, and legalistic discourse, and I don't think that D&G want to become entangled in it. Of course, they still want to cause us to think differently. They have a problem.
I get the sense that they avoid rhetorical persuasion as much as possible in favor of demonstration: they will write the rhizome and hope we get it with only the barest, cheeky nod to standard, rhetorical argument. As I mentioned in an earlier post, they begin their demonstration by a-centering the writer's voice, becoming a multiplicity themselves, and by a-centering their topic, making "use of everything that came within range, what was closest as well as farthest away" (3). They a-center the reader who wants a reasonable argument to follow, some "lines of articulation or segmentarity, strata and territories", but instead confronts a rapid flash of images, snatches of doggerel, formulae, tidbits of music, psychology, biology, physics, mathematics, and various other "lines of flight, movements of deterritorialization and destratification" often expressed in non-grammatical structures: "When rats swarm over each other" (7). This working out of the rhizome in language produces "phenomena of relative slowness and viscosity, or, on the contrary, of acceleration and rupture", and their text is like this for me: slowing down at times into a coherent idea that I can focus on, absorb, and turn into sense, but then immediately speeding up and sheering away to a new space in ways that I cannot follow immediately.
Of course, a persistent reader will eventually be able to follow by constructing a pathway that reliably, even if wrongly, takes them from one image to the next. Readers always do this when reading any text, but D&G make me conscious that I am mapping their text, and they make me work for it. I know that I do not know how they get from rats to bodies without organs, and I must map my own way. Of course, in most prose writing, we want the author to map the way for us and make it easy to arrive at the point. This kind of explicit clarity is a hallmark of academic writing. We want the author to say clearly, "Trace after me." D&G make more rigorous demands of readers. It's as if they expect us to be kindergarteners who can pass through a plain, smooth cardboard box into medieval castles, deepest space, or computer chips. ATP, then, may be a book as much for beginners as for experts. Maybe more so.
This a-centering of reader, writer, and topic does not lead to an orderly, Western argument, the kind I demand that my students write. Rather, it leads to what D&G call an assemblage:
All this, lines and measurable speeds, constitutes an assemblage. A book is an assemblage of this kind, and as such is unattributable. It is a multiplicity—but we don't know yet what the multiple entails when it is no longer attributed, that is, after it has been elevated to the status of a substantive.
D&G are writing an assemblage, not an argument, even though they know that the situation demands an argument, that their own tradition demands an argument. What's more, their readers expect an argument and anything other will likely confuse them. So D&G do other, and it confuses their readers. They are not giving us a text to trace; rather, they are giving us a text to map.
This assemblage/not-argument works in different ways. It works toward and includes the regular, the explicit, the nameable, signifying, the clearly delineated. It also flees the regular, always leeching into the uncharted, the unnamed or renamed, asignifying, the non-delineated, the implicit (in its latin root sense of being entwined), rats swarming, birds flocking. D&G make clear that an assemblage faces both ways:
One side of a machinic assemblage faces the strata, which doubtless make it a kind of organism, or signifying totality, or determination attributable to a subject; it also has a side facing a body without organs, which is continually dismantling the organism, causing asignifying particles or pure intensities to pass or circulate, and attributing to itself subjects that it leaves with nothing more than a name as the trace of an intensity.
In my fascination with the wide open, smooth spaces of the rhizome, I forget too often that the rhizome also includes the unified organism, the orderly structures, which emerge from the noise of the rhizome, but which are always pulled back into the noise. There is a voice in the whirlwind, but when it subsides, the whirlwind moves on. There is voice in the whirlwind of "Introduction: Rhizome", but the text is not "closed in upon itself, except as a function of impotence" (8). The text is "elevated to the status of a substantive", an entity in its own right with strata, a kind of organism or signifying totality attributable to a subject (I like the ambiguity here of the term subject, which to me suggests both the authors and their topic.).
The assemblage, then, is two-faced, and most of us dislike two-faced rhetoric. We want people to say what they mean, and mean what they say, but D&G seem to want to have it both ways. Why? Because they know that the connections between language and reality are imprecise and shifting. In a real sense, people can never say precisely what they mean. Likewise, they cannot precisely mean what they say. Language is a tool for mapping approximately, not tracing exactly. In the section about connection and heterogeneity, D&G say:
[N]ot every trait in a rhizome is necessarily linked to a linguistic feature: semiotic chains of every nature are connected to very diverse modes of coding (biological, political, economic, etc.) that bring into play not only different regimes of signs but also states of things of differing status. Collective assemblages of enunciation function directly within machinic assemblages; it is not impossible to make a radical break between regimes of signs and their objects. (7)
They are messing with our usual notions about language here. First, like any useful map, language leaves out a lot of reality: "not every trait … is necessarily linked to a linguistic feature". So even if we could say exactly what we mean, we can't say all that we mean—unless we mean very, very little—likely too little to note. Then, different languages, or "semiotic chains", map reality differently, or map different realities, bringing "into play not only different regimes of signs but also states of things of differing status." Saying what you mean depends very much on the language that you use. Language is not static and unchanging with firm, explicit linkages to aspects of reality. "Even when linguistics claims to confine itself to what is explicit and to make no presuppositions about language, it is still in the sphere of a discourse implying particular modes of assemblage and types of social power" (7). Finally, D&G rupture the connection between language and reality when they say that "it is not impossible to make a radical break between regimes of signs and their objects." This is a backhanded way to say what they mean, and perhaps it is a nod on their part to our common notion that our words, signs, reliably point to real things. If there wasn't some dependable connection between words and things, then I would feel very silly writing this post. On the other hand, if the connection between words and things was static and inviolable—as it now is with Latin, for instance—then nothing new could be said (I am no Latin scholar, but I suspect that even Latin is not quite as dead as we think it is).
This helps me understand the two-faced aspect of an assemblage: it is that creative zone of complexity between cold, reliable, striated, fixed order on one hand (the simple/complicated domain of closed systems) and hot, unreliable, smooth, chaotic disorder on the other hand (the chaotic domain of totally open systems). Life thrives in the temperate zone between cold simplicity and hot chaos. This is a two-faced zone, suspended between order and disorder, or any other binary that you choose to name, and it is the dynamic tension of this suspension that enables life. Systems need to be stable enough to function as coherent systems and yet flexible enough to adjust to both internal and external forces and changes inherent in open systems. Resilience requires successful negotiation of this tension between integrity on the one hand and flexibility on the other. It's a balancing act that I find stressful and difficult.
The big rhizo-lesson for me is that everything is an open system—even our Universe is likely an open system within the Multiverse. Closed systems such as sock drawers, traditional classrooms, and the minds of fundamentalists of all flavors are rare in the Universe, sustained at great cost and power, and always doomed to having their walls breached or to being sealed off and ignored.
D&G neatly capture this tension in the sentence I started this post with: "we will convince no one unless we enumerate certain approximate [italics added] characteristics of the rhizome." I don't know if the original French words carry the same connotations, but in English I sense a wonderful tension between the juxtaposed terms certain and approximate that I think echoes what D&G are discussing here. This is so two-faced: on the one hand, certain, fixed, absolute knowledge that is beyond doubt, and on the other hand, approximate, inexact, indefinite, loose knowledge that is close to the actual but with plenty of wiggle room. The term certain also resonates with the sense of some but not all, which also works well in this context.
So D&G will arrange for somewhat of an argument for the rhizome, but not all of it. They expect the argument to emerge much like Castaneda's herb garden in the runoff of certain uncertain rains. There are certain points to be made, but they don't make them; rather, they let the points emerge, including points that they didn't know were there.
I think there are lessons here for my writing classes (both composition and literature—one class about one's own writing, the other class about another's writing), and I hope to tease out these lessons by exploring the six characteristics of the rhizome. Of course, I'm reading other things as well, so I may never finish, but if D&G are correct, then I'll never say all of it anyway.
Comments on my last post spoke against applying the rhizome to higher education. I've thought about the objections, but making the rhizome practical still makes sense to me, and really, this blog is all about me trying to make sense of things. Still, the comments gave me pause enough to wonder if others have tried to tease out the practical implications of the rhizome for their own disciplines, so I did a bit of research and found lots of attempts, including this fine article called RHIZOMATIC SYSTEMS & THE EMERGENCE OF INTELLIGENCE (On Slime Mold, Robots and Deleuze & Guattari) (03 May 2005) by Garnet Hertz, who attempts to apply the rhizome to the fields of artificial intelligence, artificial life, information/computer science, and robotics. I think Mr. Hertz provides some interesting ways to proceed, so I will.
Hertz notes that the rhizome has influenced numerous fields of study, but in this article he is interested in the efforts "to construct intelligence apart from a biological substrate" (2), a broad scientific effort which to date has relied mostly on arborescent modes of thought, those tree systems that D&G use in A Thousand Plateaus to contrast with rhizomes. Hertz describes this mode of thought as:
a system that is hierarchical, centered around a core belief, reductivistic, increasingly specialized, non-cyclical, linear, and ripe with segmentation and striation. Similar to a tree-like description of biological evolution or genealogy, arborescent systems start from a central origin and continue to evolve by branching into successively specialized generations. Vertical in nature, the arbolic is ordered, structured and “scientific”: it has a distinct train of thought, a clear inheritance, an order. (1)
This kind of thought and approach has not proven so effective in helping scientists create artificial intelligence. They still cannot create a device, for instance, that can amble across a crowded room without creating chaos, something a cockroach with vastly less computing power than IBM's Deep Blue can accomplish. Why? Because Deep Blue is mostly tracing known pathways, while the cockroach is mapping reality in its infinite variations. And as Hertz notes: "The real world is such a complicated [I prefer the term complex here] system that it is almost impossible to not leave something out while creating an abstraction of it" (8). Yes, Deep Blue can beat anyone at chess, but only because it has enough computing power to cycle through all available possible scenarios and moves, all tracings, very quickly. Deep Blue still couldn't get across an elementary school classroom. Children and cockroaches can—usually.
It may take all the computing power in the universe to enable an arborescent system to walk across a room. Rhizome to the rescue. According to Hertz, rhizomatic systems are:
non-linear, horizontal, nomadic, deterritorialized and heterogeneous. The rhizome cuts across and between the order of vertical space, connecting multiple points simultaneously in a network of nodes. Connected to each other at arbitrary points, the rhizomatic system is more concerned with the multiplicitous interlinking of concept, action and being. Although it lacks a central dogma of a trunk/brain, it is a horizontal, bottom-up system that produces an emergent system of metabehavior that is strong, robust, and intelligent... in the non-standard sense of the word. Within nature, rhizomatic systems like ants or grassy weeds eventually win … If intelligence could exist without a central brain, the rhizome would be it. (1, 2)
You don't need enormous computing power to walk across the room—you just need rhizomatic thought. You need a few simple strategies that map quickly and well as reality emerges around you. Being able to trace all known paths, even very quickly, is almost no help at all; rather, you must be able to map new paths as they emerge. Think birds in a flock, or players on the futbol pitch. Linear, arborescent thought is almost useless here. Fortunately, our brains are rhizomes. As D&G point out: "Many people have a tree growing in their heads, but the brain itself is much more a grass than a tree" (15, ATP).
Hertz insists that "Individual organisms collect together into a swarm of particles that, despite having absolutely no centralized brain, is capable of complex tasks" (4), and offers as proof Toshiyuki Nakagaki's successful efforts in 2000 to teach slime mold to find the shortest path through a maze. "Without any standard cognitive powers, the swarm of slime emerged into a clever mass capable [of] solving the navigational puzzle without a leader, brain, command center, map or plan" (4). It seems likely that our own brains could likewise be described as "a swarm of particles" [neurons] … "without a leader, … command center, map or plan". Hertz could have offered as proof our own brains. There is no homunculus in our brains orchestrating all our mental activity; rather, the brain is a self-organizing swarm, ceasely mapping reality and its own internal resonances, mostly in unconscious ways out of which our conscious knowledge emerges. As I've quoted in this blog before, Olaf Sporns demonstrates that "cognition is a network phenomenon". Cognition is a rhizome.
And rhizomatic cognition trumps arborescent cognition when it comes to mapping and coping with the emergent real. A recent article "Reservoir Computing Properties of Neural Dynamics in Prefrontal Cortex” by Pierre Enel, Emmanuel Procyk, René Quilodran, and Peter Ford Dominey in PLOS Computational Biology (June 10 2016) demonstrates that primates, including humans, can learn and cope with novel situations that cannot be anticipated (programmed) by nature. A review of the technical article in Neuroscience News.com says:
This study shows that this seemingly miraculous pre-adaptation comes from connections between neurons that form recurrent loops where inputs can rebound and mix in the network, like waves in a pond, thus called “reservoir” computing. This mix of the inputs allows a potentially universal representation of combinations of the inputs that can then be used to learn the right behaviour for a new situation.
If you have ever watched waves in a pond, then you have watched the rhizome. Arborescent thought cannot map waves in a pond. Or rather, arborescent thought maps waves in a pond the same way a stick figure maps a person. You get the idea, but you would never confuse a stick figure for a person. At least, I hope not. However, you do confuse the map in your mind for the person. We do that all the time. That rhizomatic map seems so full-bodied and multi-dimensional. Of course, the map still isn't the person, but let's save that issue for another post.
So what does this mean for education? First, it does not mean that we should abandon arborescent thought, which has formed the basis of much of Western education and society for at least the last few centuries. Arborescent thought has driven our philosophy, industry, education, and politics, and it has yielded great benefits. Most of us of will never know starvation or homelessness because of arborescent thought. Society has benefitted much from the ability to create and harness machines and processes that trace programmed paths with great precision, speed, and reliability. For instance, I like the linear, arborescent process that makes it possible for me to push a key on my keyboard and the letter z pops up on the screen. Thanks be to the tree.
Arborescent thought can work very well and to great benefit in the simple and complicated domains where explicit, known paths can be traced to given goals. Much of education—to make a point, let's call it training—can be structured this way. Do A and then B, and always get C. Every student should do A and then B, and every student should get C. Those who arrive at C in the allotted amount of time and through their own efforts pass. Those who don't fail and must repeat. This is very much like the industrial form of education that Sir Ken Robinson has so famously attacked, but while arborescent, industrial education has many faults that are becoming increasingly obvious, it does have a kind of efficiency and efficacy. Modern societies are nearly universally literate, if literacy is measured at a fairly low level. This is real, measurable progress when compared to 300 years ago. If we want more, however, then arborescent education is not enough. If we want creative, engaged, resourceful students, and not just barely literate students, then we have to climb down out of the tree of knowledge and step onto the open, grassy plains of the savannah. We can keep the tree for a landmark, for a resting place, but we have to move beyond the arborescent and into the rhizomatic.
We do not have to settle for either one or the other. We can have both: arborescent and rhizomatic. The main point for me, and what I get from reading D&G, is that we should not rely solely on arborescent knowledge, learning, and thought. We must also, even mostly, rely on the rhizome. The ancient Jewish writers told us this centuries ago: pursued alone or above all else, the Tree of Knowledge leads away from the Garden, away from Eden. The dualism of the arborescent separates us from the rhizome. It replaces the right brain with the left, the master with the emissary, to use Iain McGilchrist's terms. From our perch at the top of the Tree of Knowledge, we can see the vast, open plains of grass, and we can be deceived into thinking that we can remain apart from it and master it. The grassy rhizome knows better.
I have been writing in this blog about Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome since 2009 and over the past two years with some rhizo scholars in Dave Cormier's MOOCs. Several times I have tried to apply the rhizome to higher education in general and to my discipline, writing and rhetoric, in particular. I think this may be a fine time to try that again as a number of scholars have gathered online for #rhizo16, but that class has been postponed. So what I propose is an exploration of the six characteristics of the rhizome in terms of higher education with a special emphasis on each of our various disciplines.
My good rhizo friend Simon Ensor recently posted a link to a short video entitled Three Minute Theory: What is the Rhizome?, which I think is worth embedding here even though I take issue with a few statements that I will get to in later posts.
As they frame their discussion of the rhizome in A Thousand Plateaus (1987), Deleuze and Guattari say wryly, "We get the distinct feeling that we will convince no one unless we enumerate certain approximate characteristics of the rhizome," and the rest of their essay explores six characteristics of that which is difficult to describe:
principles of connection and
principle of multiplicity,
principle of asignifying rupture,
principles of cartography and
D&G bundle the first and last two characteristics together, which should not be ignored, but I start with their framing, such as it is and as if anyone could frame a rhizome. There's a Zen task for you: go frame a rhizome.
Actually, frame is the wrong term—I should use intensity. For me, the most conspicuous intensity in their writing the rhizome is writing itself. Writing and language, in its various forms and expressions, especially the book, resonate with great intensity in "Introduction: Rhizome". As they are restructuring the hierarchies of Western philosophy, D&G are also rewriting Western rhetoric. I suspect this is not an accident; rather, restructuring requires rewriting because the structures that we use to arrange our lives are bound closely to and are co-evolutionary with our language. They are co-emergent—not the same thing, but one is not possible—at least not as it is—without the other. The culture we have constructed depends on our language, which in turn depends on our culture. And like any rhizome, we cannot extricate one bit from the other. For thousands of years, we have been quite adept at writing the hierarchical, tree structures we have lived by. If we are to write the rhizome, then we must write differently—a different language for a different structure. I suspect this writing differently is one of the reasons most people find D&G so difficult to read.
D&G start by disassembling the three pillars of Western rhetoric: the author, the subject matter, and the reader. They smash the author and subject matter in the first paragraph:
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 that came within range, what was closest as well as farthest away. We have assigned clever pseudonyms to prevent recognition. Why have we kept our 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. (A Thousand Plateaus 3)
Since the Greeks began laying the groundwork of Western rhetoric some three thousand years ago, a coherent author and a coherent subject matter have been assumed core principles of effective rhetorical practice. It's still taught in college writing classes today: a clear, coherent voice with a thesis, a point to make about some single topic. This makes sense to us. D&G don't make sense. So who wrote this, D or G? Neither, not even both, but more—a rhizome, a swarm. So to whom do we send the check? assign the blame? award the credit? No one, even though we do anyway "because it's nice to talk like everybody else". What are we talking about? "Everything that came within range, what was closest as well as farthest away". Well, okay … but I'm a coherent reader with a coherent set of beliefs, and I don't know who is talking or what they are talking about.
If you are coherent, you probably won't understand D&G, or worse, you will misunderstand them—mainly because you will insist on making them coherent. If you want to read the rhizome, then you as reader must be as smashed as the authors and topic. You must assume a clever pseudonym—your own name will work—to make yourself unrecognizable in turn and to render imperceptible what makes you act, feel, and think—even to yourself.
Now look over the edge. It's a long way down. Or maybe it's just inches. Distance is such a slippery concept in the rhizome. Jump.
Of course, the rhizome is not the point of "Introduction: Rhizome". It can never be the point. To write the rhizome, the writer, the reader, and the shared topic must all be acentered. Though not mentioned directly in the first paragraph as the authors and topic are, the reader is still there and all three are being acentered—author and topic by inflection, readers by innuendo. Most readers do not respond well to dissolution and loss of identity. Most everything in society points us away from dissolution. We want, need, and demand a clear, self-actualized identity, and we resist attempts to dissolve that identity. We do not want to reach the point where one no longer says I or even the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. We do not want to lose ourselves. We have a huge investment here, and this could be worse than the Crash of '29.
And anyway, D&G say/s, "We are no longer ourselves. Each will know his own." Isn't this a contradiction? No, not in the rhizome.
When the writer and subject are acentered, then they can assume no position, or can assume any position, right? If you've read D&G, then you see where this is going: "any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be" (7).
The rhizome is not the point or the subject here. Actually, there is something of a problem with the term subject. Is subject the writer or the topic? Or both. D&G write about the subject:
A book has neither object nor subject; it is made of variously formed matters, and very different dates and speeds. To attribute the book to a subject is to overlook this working of matters, and the exteriority of their relations. It is to fabricate a beneficent God to explain geological movements. (3)
Here, subject clearly means the author. Or does it? I don't know if French subject/suget carries this ambiguity, but when we English writing teachers speak of the subject we are referring to the topic of a piece of writing. Perhaps D&G were playing with this ambiguity when they say a few paragraphs later: "There is no difference between what a book talks about and how it is made. Therefore a book also has no object" (4). Or no subject. It also has no author, or subject. It also has no reader. Well, any point can connect to any other point in a rhizome and must.
Well, this lands us in a difficult place, especially if we want to make sense of the rhizome for higher education, or any education. And D&G note that we have worked hard over the millennia to avoid this place. We have rather studiously avoided writing the rhizome, the voice in the whirlwind, the acentered voice of God and the cosmic microwave background radiation. That way lies insanity and enlightenment—usually indistinguishable. The stars must have patterns, logical patterns about sensible stories that explain things.
So we have written sensible books with roots, D&G say:
A first type of book is the root-book. The tree is already the image of the world, or the root the image of the world-tree. This is the classical book, as noble, signifying, and subjective organic interiority (the strata of the book). The book imitates the world, as art imitates nature: by procedures specific to it that accomplish what nature cannot or can no longer do. The law of the book is the law of reflection, the One that becomes two. (5)
We have abstracted the world to create a better image, an image that we can control and use, and we thereby split the world in two. We did God better. God created one world, we created two. And we made ourselves "the beneficent God to explain geological movements" (3). Language was the technology that allowed us to become as gods. It is what separated us from our creation. One view, one position, one author, one topic, one reader.
The second type of book is more intricate, but no less damaging:
The radicle-system, or fascicular root, is the second figure of the book, to which our modernity pays willing allegiance. This time, the principal root has aborted, or its tip has been destroyed; an immediate, indefinite multiplicity of secondary roots grafts onto it and undergoes a flourishing development. This time, natural reality is what aborts the principal root, but the root's unity subsists, as past or yet to come, as possible. We must ask if reflexive, spiritual reality does not compensate for this state of things by demanding an even more comprehensive secret unity, or a more extensive totality. (5, 6)
With the radicle-system, we become inclusive and are fascinated with the sophistication of all those tendrils floating this way and that. We forget that they all return to the root, that we still demand unity. Michel Serres says it best, I think, in his book Genesis (1995):
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. (2, 3)
We don't like this semi-being. We want a coherent individual who is a member of a coherent group. We want a unity. We want a unified discipline that we can teach to students we can identify, but as Serres wryly notes, "Nevertheless, we are as little sure of the one as of the multiple" (3). We want the one root or the radicle, but the world keeps presenting us with something else: the rhizome, the cosmic background radiation, the noise, God. Damn.
So here's what I'm proposing: let's frame the rhizome within higher education. What are the implications for our very classes, our curricula, if we take this acentering seriously?
And let me say that I don't think D&G mind us framing the rhizome at all. The rhizome includes tubers and bulbs. It's expected. It's how we make sense of things—we frame it. The issue for D&G, I think, certainly the issue for me, is when we think our frame is all that there is—that the frame is the Truth. It isn't. It's just a frame, a device to help us see better. But we make a big mistake if we forget that the rhizome stretches far beyond and "whistles far and wee".
I want to summarize my thoughts about object oriented ontology (OOO) before returning to the rhizome.
First, I'm pleased with my little side trip, having gained many useful insights, but I am also disappointed. I find at the heart of OOO a concept that stops me: the notion that objects are withdrawn from each other, bound up and isolated in an unapproachable, unknowable substance. This idea has disturbed me since first reading it in Levi Bryant's The Democracy of Objects (2011), and after rereading the book, I was no happier with it, but I couldn't quite say why. I had run up against my lack of training in philosophy.
Fortunately, Terence Blake left a comment on one of my OOO posts pointing me to his own critiques of OOO. As a trained philosopher, Blake is clearer about the problems with withdrawn objects, and I lean on his work in this post. First, let's look at what Levi Bryant has to say about withdrawn objects.
In the opening chapter of his book, Bryant introduces withdrawal to address the problem of correlationism, or the idea that reality is defined in terms of human knowledge of reality:
In my view, the root of the Modernist schema arises from relationism. If we are to escape the aporia that beset the Modernist schema this, above all, requires us to overcome relationism or the thesis that objects are constituted by their relations. Accordingly, following the ground-breaking work of Graham Harman's object-oriented philosophy, I argue that objects are withdrawn from all relation. The consequences of this strange thesis are, I believe, profound. … [A]ll objects translate one another. Translation is not unique to how the mind relates to the world. And as a consequence of this, no object has direct access to any other object. (26) … [A]ll objects are withdrawn, such that there are no objects characterized by full presence or actuality. Withdrawal is not an accidental feature of objects arising from our lack of direct access to them, but is a constitutive feature of all objects regardless
of whether they relate to other objects. (32)
For Bryant, then, any object has access only to the qualities of other objects, but not to the substance of those objects. Furthermore, an object always and necessarily translates those qualities into its own internal schema, translating the perturbations of an object into information that makes sense to itself:
[A]ll objects are operationally closed such that they constitute their own relation and openness to their environment. Relations between objects are accounted for by the manner in which objects transform perturbations from other objects into information or events that select system-states. These information-events or events that select system-states are, in their turn, among the agencies that preside over the production of local manifestations in objects. (31)
It seems to me that Bryant is so interested in preserving the integrity of the objects in his object oriented ontology that he is willing to isolate objects as absolutely discrete entities and to post signs that say Don't touch! This is a trick that does very little for me.
Pluto Seen from New Horizons' Fly-by
Bryant is claiming a coil of volcanic powers (to use his terms) that forms the hidden substance of any object. Other objects, including humans, cannot access this substance directly. Rather, they can only infer this substance from the perturbations that emanate from the object. For me, this is somewhat like the early astronomers who inferred the existence of Pluto "after analyzing perturbations in the orbit of Uranus" (Wikipedia), even though they could not see Pluto. In some sense, then, Pluto was at that time withdrawn from the astronomers, but not in the sense that Bryant seems to say. For Bryant, the real substance of Pluto is always withdrawn. The result is that even as we get closer to Pluto through our technology, OOO can claim that the real Pluto always recedes from us, somewhere into its core, like a squid into its inky depths, as Timothy Morton says it.
Of course, I cannot prove that the substance of Pluto doesn't lie somewhere inside, but if I can never access it, interact with it, or know what it is, then what have I gained by positing it? Moreover, what do I learn about the world by saying that the gravity or iciness of Pluto are some of its qualities but not its substance? If you tell me that there is some absolute reality, but I can never experience it in any way—not physically, intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually—then I am at a dead-end with a dead-end belief. Moreover, given that my substance is as withdrawn from Pluto as the substance of Pluto is from me, then Pluto and I can never really engage each other. Finally, no objects can ever engage each other. I can't engage you, you can't engage me. Not really. Rather, our qualities merely perturb one another. I can't even engage myself. Not really. I'm alone and so are you, and we can't even imagine how alone we are. End of story.
Damn, that's depressing.
But then the end of the road with no place left to go is usually depressing and best reserved, I think, for teenagers. Fortunately, I think I can find some ways back to light. I don't think that withdrawal is a completely dark idea that always terminates in the murky depths.
While I don't think that some inaccessible substance lies at the core of all objects, I do accept that no object is completely present to any other object at any one time. Objects always exceed what we can experience or know. I've mentioned this concept before in many posts, but not quite in this way. I have usually said that there is more in the Universe than we will ever know—you know, the Universe being infinite. Now, I'm willing to say that there is more in any object than we will ever know—not because of an inaccessible core that recedes, but because an object emerges, realizing itself within an environment over the arc of its development. New features can emerge in interactions with each new environment, revealing more and more of the object as it continues to unfold. If the object lasts forever, then it will emerge forever, always revealing more.
I picked up this idea from Timothy Morton's book HyperObjects, itself an OOO book so I don't think that Morton makes this same claim about hyperobjects, but that doesn't really matter to me. I'm not so interested in understanding OOO and its various theorists as I am in understanding what I think. I think that I can really experience an object but never completely. For instance, I can really understand and experience my wife, not just the incidental qualities about her; however, I will never understand and experience her completely. I will never, ever be able to capture and reduce her to a completely known and experienced thing. Moreover, as long as I engage and attend to her, there will be more to know and to experience. This is very satisfying to me.
It also isn't object oriented ontology. For me, this idea of withdrawn objects is a show stopper, and I'm genuinely confused about what it provides the object oriented ontologists.
So what is the lesson for education? This: there is more to know and experience about anything and everything than we can ever know or experience. Keep learning. I probably have more to learn about OOO, but I doubt I will focus on it.
As the first of four theses of a flat ontology, Levi Bryant says that object oriented ontology "rejects any ontology of transcendence or presence that privileges one sort of entity as the origin of all others and as fully present to itself." So what does this mean for philosophy in general and for higher education in particular?
For philosophy, object oriented ontology makes two key claims, as Bryant details them:
First, humans are not at the center of being, but are among beings. Second, objects are not a pole opposing a subject, but exist in their own right, regardless of whether any other object or human relates to them. Humans, far from constituting
a category called “subject” that is opposed to “object”, are themselves one type of object among many. (249)
Hence the title of Bryant's book: The Democracy of Objects. Humans are first and foremost objects among other objects. Do not think that humans are just objects, as that pejorative and diminutive just does not do justice to what Bryant means by the term object. Do not think that Bryant is trying to eliminate the human. He isn't. Humans are full-fledged objects with all the rights pertaining thereunto, and those rights are considerable. First, objects define themselves from the inside out, their substance being the generative powers and capabilities at their core. When speaking of the "virtual proper being" of objects, a concept he develops from Deleuze's study of the virtual, Bryant says:
The virtual consists of the volcanic powers coiled within an object. It is that substantiality, that structure and those singularities that endure as the object undergoes qualitative transformations at the level of local manifestations. (95)
To my mind, this defining from the inside out is most significant, and I envision it most easily in the case of DNA, those "volcanic powers coiled within" each cell of my body and which kickstarted me some 65 years ago and have informed me ever since. My DNA is "that structure and those singularities that endure" as I have undergone "qualitative transformations at the level of local manifestations", or my DNA is the energy, information, and organization source that endured as I grew up, matured, and created a life—or became the object I am today.
I differ from Bryant and his flavor of OOO by including my ecosystem. I am comfortable starting any definition of myself with the DNA coiled within my cells, but I don't want to limit my definition to my DNA. For me, any useful definition of me as an object must include the unpacking of my DNA along a particular arc through a particular environment. Bryant distinguishes the "volcanic powers" within from the "qualitative transformations at the level of local manifestations", which I'm comfortable with, but then he seems to limit the definition of an object to its withdrawn interior. I reject that as I don't know of any object that exists independently of an ecosystem; thus, defining an object independently of its ecosystem seems ultimately pointless to me. Defining ONLY from the inside out is as problematic for me as defining ONLY from the outside in, which is what all dictionaries do.
My reading of Edgar Morin's concept of complexity convinces me that I can understand an object only if I understand the exchange of matter, energy, information, and organization between that object and the objects in its surround. Yes, an object (even a rock) has inherent, internal powers that are necessary for defining that rock, but they are not sufficient.
I think this concept of the withdrawn object may be a show-stopper for me.