Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Two-Faced Rhizome, #rhizo16

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.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Cognition Is a Rhizome

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, RenĂ© 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 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.