Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Rhizo Classroom: The Ethics at the Heart of the Rhizome

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.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Rhizo Classroom: Principles of Connection and Heterogeneity

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.