Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Connectivism and Ideology Too

I'm still troubled by some of the claims that James Berlin makes in Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class, but I think I prefer to start with what makes sense to me.

I see that a connectivist rhetoric – and I just realized that defining such a rhetoric is probably the point of this post – belongs to the rhetorical tradition that Berlin calls social-epistemic. First, why wouldn't a connectivist rhetoric belong to the cognitive or expressionistic schools? To explain why, I will borrow an insight from Saul Newman who, in his book From Bakunin to Lacan: Anti-Authoritarianism and the Dislocation of Power (2001), identifies essentialism as the key political and, perhaps, philosophical problem of our age. Essentialism states that for any entity there are "inherent characteristics or properties which any entity of that kind must possess," and most importantly, these inherent, defining properties "are universal, and not dependent on context."

By Berlin's definitions of cognitive and expressionistic rhetorics, both are essentialist. Cognitive rhetoric, for example, asserts that "the real is the rational" (482) and that this essentially rational world is empirically knowable to an essentially rational mind, or as Berlin says it:
Although the heuristics used in problem solving are not themselves rational, the discoveries made through them always conform to the mensurable nature of reality, displaying "an underlying hierarchical organization" (10) that reflects the rationality of the world. Finally, language is regarded as a system of rational signs that is compatible with the mind and the external world, enabling the "translating" or "transforming" of the non-verbal intellectual operations into the verbal. There is thus a beneficent correspondence between the structures of the mind, the structures of the world, the structures of the minds of the audience, and the structures of language. (482,483)
 For the cognitivists then, reality and our knowledge of it is essentially rational and mensurable. The non-rational and immeasurable is nonsense and hardly worth discussing. The expressionists, meanwhile, draw heavily from traditional anarchism to posit a core of pristine human spirit that is corrupted by "economic, political, and social pressures to conform – to engage in various forms of corporate-sponsored thought, feeling, and behavior" (Berlin, 486). As one expressionist Donald Murray says in his book A Writer Teaches Writing (1968): "The writer is on a search for himself. If he finds himself he will find an audience, because all of us have the same common core. And when he digs deeply into himself and is able to define himself, he will find others who will read with a shock of recognition what he has written" (4).

Like Berlin's social-epistemic, connectivism tries to avoid essentialism. If Newman is correct in his analysis, then this puts both the social-epistemic and connectivism in the same camp with the poststructuralists. This may surprise no one.

As I understand them, both social-epistemic rhetoric and connectivism see reality and especially our knowledge of that reality as a function of complex networks, or what Deleuze and Guattari call a rhizome. According to Berlin, social-epistemic rhetoric insists that "the real is located in a relationship that involves the dialectical interaction of the observer, the discourse community (social group) in which the observer is functioning, and the material conditions of existence. Knowledge is never found in any one of these but can only be posited as a product of the dialectic in which all three come together" (488). In his article Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age (2004), George Siemens says that "Personal knowledge is comprised of a network, which feeds into organizations and institutions, which in turn feed back into the network, and then continue to provide learning to individuals" (5). I've not read anything by connectivist thinkers that specifically addresses the nature of reality, but their theory of knowledge easily fits the non-essentialist mold.

The most coherent expression of this non-essential view of reality and knowledge that I know about comes from Edgar Morin's book On Complexity (2008), which I have quoted many times in this blog and must quote again:
The intelligibility of the system has to be found, not only in the system itself, but also in its relationship with the environment, and … this relationship is not a simple dependence: it is constitutive of the system. Reality is therefore as much in the connection (relationship) as in the distinction between the open system and its environment. This connection is absolutely crucial epistemologically, methodologically, theoretically, and empirically." (11)
Here, then, is where I think I most agree with Berlin. Reality and our knowledge of that reality are both functions of complex networks, and therefore by extension, writing is a function of complex networks. There it is. That is the starting point of a connectivist rhetoric, and it throws me into that briar patch that we call – mostly out of convenience – poststructuralism. Along with Berlin and his social-epistemics, I think. Though if Berlin is a real poststructuralist, then he will deny the association, and rightly so.

My job, then, is to start filling in the details of this connectivist rhetoric. Not a bad summer's project. One of the first ways to do that is to explore how this rhetoric differs from Berlin's social-epistemic rhetoric. More about that later.

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