Sunday, January 29, 2012

#change11: Multiplicity and the Composition Classroom

Well, my musings on rhizomatic education are taking a very practical turn. I have returned to fulltime teaching at long last. My last fulltime teaching gig was at Reinhardt College in 1977. Wow.

I'm also getting back to writing. Since my last post, I have retired from the State of Georgia educational system, left Albany State University (not incidentally), packed my home of 25 years and moved to south Florida, spent Christmas in the Bahamas, and started a new teaching job with South University. I just didn't find the time to write, as I was too fragmented—perhaps, too multiple.

Anyway, I have new footing from which to consider the practical implications of rhizomatic education: my own classrooms. I talked earlier of the first two characteristics of the rhizome: connectivity and heterogeneity. These characteristics lead—quite directly to my mind—to the third characteristic listed by Deleuze and Guattari: multiplicity.

Another reason for balking is that I don't think that I yet understand what DnG mean by multiplicity, or a better way to say this is that the concept still has resonances that I'm not feeling. Still, a lack of understanding should be no reason for not writing—at least, for not writing in ones blog. Writing is where my understanding, such as it is, emerges.

It would be easy to start the discussion of multiplicity in my classrooms with the simple observation that my students are a multiplicity. There are about 80 of them spread rather unevenly across four different classes. Therefore, my students are multiple, more than one. I could aim for some unity by saying, however, that they are all students in one of my classes. This is a conventional way of categorizing reality, and most people will understand this, and yet it is the very concept that Deleuze and Guattari are working against. My statement: these 80 people are the multiple students in my classes is my use of language to categorize, summarize, and unify a multiplicity so that I can make sense of them, and probably so that I can exercise some authority over them. It's the bit of fascism in me that DnG insist is at work everywhere: "Groups and individuals contain microfascisms just waiting to crystallize" (10). But what am I to do? Deny that these 80 students are my students? What does that accomplish?

DnG suggest a different tack when they note that our significations and measurements of the rhizome, even with the big categories such as Good and Evil, are temporary, provisional markers: "Good and bad are only the products of an active and temporary selection, which must be renewed" (10). I must make these measurements and significations about the collection of 80 people because I am a meaning-creating, pattern-recognizing organism. I am, for example, the creature that looks at the night sky with its countless multiplicity of lights and sees scorpions, bears, scales, and warriors. Or at least that's what I saw 3,000 years ago when I stood on Mount Olympus in ancient Greece. Today, when I stand on Mount Palomar in California, I see quasars, galaxies, and star nurseries. But it's the same meaning-creating, pattern-recognizing activity, and both the mythic and scientific understandings—those different ways of naming and measuring—are "products of an active and temporary selection, which must be renewed."

Selections from what, we might ask. From the multiplicity, Deleuze and Guattari might answer. And what is the multiplicity? That from which we select and from which we form those patterns that give meaning/s to our lives.

But—and for me this is the big Sunday School lesson—our selections are never, ever the totality or the finality of the multiplicity. Our selections are always active and temporary, and when they cease to be active and temporary, then they become points of dogma about which we crystallize into little fascist camps. So the multiplicity is that grand ground of being from which all emerges? I can't quite get a handle on that idea, but that is precisely the point: I can't get a handle on the multiplicity. It's always bigger than my handles.

Of course, we humans don't like that. We like formulasGod Is Love and E=MC2 come to mind—that capture the multiplicity, make sense of it for us, and put it under our controlbut as DnG point out with their concept of asignifying ruptures, the multiplicity laughs at our attempts to control it.

This makes sense to us somewhat if we think of the multiplicity as St. Paul's God or Einstein's Universe, but multiplicity is more local than that. Each of my 80 students is also a multiplicity. Not only did they emerge from the multiplicity—both for themselves and for me—but they are, in fact, a multiplicity within themselves and within me. The multiplicity, then, works at all scales, both the macro and the micro. A single cell in each of their bodies is a multiplicity (as Wordsworth observed 200 years ago: To me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears). All of reality, at any point on any scale that we attempt to engage it, is the multiplicity—not part of the multiplicity or an aspect of the multiplicity or an emergence from the multiplicity, but the multiplicity itself. We touch the multiplicity when we touch anything.

The practical lesson for me in all this is that there is far more to know about each of my students than I can  ever hope to know, and my measurements of them through my pronouncements, names, and grades are active and temporary. Even these classes that I have invented under the auspices and within the structures of my sponsoring university are each an active and temporary selection. Each has utility, allowing us to gather, coordinate, and perhaps collaborate, but each is provisional.

The class, the syllabus, the collection of people. These are all temporary anchors that allow us to play the same game for a time, but as any boatsman will tell you: anchors are always provisional, tenuous, very useful to have and very useful to let go. A boat that seeks a permanent anchor is useless and probably a great danger to the sailors aboard.

Well, I really would like some help here with the concept of multiplicity. Those of you with a better philosophical reading than I have could chime in here, especially with a clarification of Bergson's concept of multiplicity, which Deleuze apparently used. Thanks.


  1. Hi Keith,

    An interesting read and you've got me thinking about real rhizomes (botany) and the conceptual construct in Rhizomatic learning. I think Metaphors can sometimes be more allusive than we originally intended. How does this fit in with Multiplicity (continuous or discreet) when a rhizome is physically one homogenous organism that spreads and replicates itself? Is this meant as the metaphor?

    BTW, welcome to the CCK12 forum. I've activated your account: It'd be nice to get a few different perspectives together on this one.

  2. Yes, metaphors are tricky—both allusive and elusive, but that may be their value. A botanical rhizome may well be homogenous. I am not enough of a biologist to say, but it seems so to me. However, Deleuze and Guattari are quite clear that their metaphorical rhizome is heterogenous, a mix of radically different organisms, or nodes, to use a term from networking. For instance, bacteria and humans, or wasps and orchids, or Macs and PCs. In DnG's rhizome, all points of all different natures can and must interconnect. This, to my mind, leads to their concept of multiplicity. Though it may lead away from biological rhizomes.

    Thanks for access.

  3. Mmm... it's hard to see where a good metaphor lies. Symbiosis would usually be between two species. Perhaps an ecosystem? Is that more like a network? If we remove a species (heterogenous node) from an ecosystem (network), the ecosystem adapts to the change, which in turns sets in motion more changes... a ripple effect. If a species changes, the same happens but usually more subtly. All nodes affect each other but are not necessarily inter-dependent, unless they're symbiotic.

    To me, the Rhizome metaphor cunjures up images of spreading and self-replication, but then Rhizomes exist within ecosystems and depend upon bacteria for transgenesis. Does transgenesis (sharing genes between organisms and/or species) make organisisms more heterogenous or more homogenous?

  4. What catches my eye in your post, Keith, is the observation that each of your students is himself/herself a multiplicity. It seems to me that one's personality is an attractor in a complex neural network and that "switching" is not limited to multiple personality disorder. I think it may be becoming more apparent how "plastic" brains/minds are. And yet as a teacher I sometimes wonder why it is sometimes so difficult to help others build their thinking and writing skills. Good luck in your new adventure. We miss you and speak of you often here at ASU.

  5. Thanks for the kind comments, Bruce, and for the sharp observations. Yes, I think we are all multiplicities, or as Randall Collins says in his book Interaction Ritual Chains (2005), we are each at any moment the precipitate of trajectories that intersect at this place and time. And few of those trajectories belong exclusively to ourselves. I like this image.

  6. an impt idea to keep at hand: "my pronouncements, names, and grades are active and temporary."

    Active and temporary. There's a profound lesson in that.

  7. Mary Ann, I'm interested in exploring with you how to make our assessments active and temporary. I think that our assessments too often follow a student and mark them for life, most profoundly in the student's own mind. How do we cope with that?