Friday, May 27, 2016

Framing the Rhizome, #rhizo16

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:
  1. principles of connection and
  2. heterogeneity,
  3. principle of multiplicity,
  4. principle of asignifying rupture,
  5. principles of cartography and
  6. decalcomania.
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".

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Inky Depths of OOO

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.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Inside Out of OOO

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.