Monday, March 24, 2014

The Need for a Rhizomatic Rhetoric #rhizo14

I fully intended to write another post about power, and I will, but not today. My thoughts have been redirected by a marvelous Twitter chat some of the Rhizo14 group held this past Thursday. As a result of that chat, we are perhaps about to consciously write a rhizomatic document that explores the Rhizo14 MOOC.

Here's the set-up as I understand it: a group of Rhizo14 participants want to write something about the MOOC, and they are trying to discover what they will write, how they will write, where, and so forth. They started an auto-ethnography project on Google Docs to collect personal accounts of participation in the MOOC, and then they gathered in Twitter chats and on Facebook to discuss how to proceed. I decided to check in to see what was happening. I'm glad that I did. Somewhere in the chat I asked what a rhizomatic book might look like, and the idea resonated with others. I asked because it seemed that we were engaged in rhizomatic writing anyway, and I wanted to make that conscious, explicit. I hope we follow through as it will give all of us, but me in particular, a chance to explore a new way to write, a new way to think about scholarship. As we are all scholars, this could be rich.

My question, then, is what rhetoric informs this kind of writing? Is this different? Does the technology change how we conduct scholarship and write our findings? I want to suggest that this type of scholarship and writing requires a new rhetoric—it requires a rhizo-rhetoric.

I will take a clue from Clarissa Bezerra here and suggest that you listen to some music. My choice is The Beatles' Revolution 9. It will make sense, I think.

Well, rhizo-rhetoric has a nice roll of the tongue and is perhaps pleasing to the ear, but does it mean anything? Can it help us compose a useful, intelligent, elegant document in some fashion that is useful to others? This is basically my definition of rhetoric: the skillful use of language to connect to the world, to ourselves, and to others. So does rhetoric change when we write as a group using modern information technology? And what kind of document should emerge from such a rhetoric? Well, I hope to find out, but I want to start with some ideas that may speed our learning. I find more things when I'm looking for something, even if I'm looking for the wrong something. What, then, might we expect of a rhizo-rhetoric? I want to suggest a few things.

First, let's start with Deleuze and Guattari, the originators of this rhizome metaphor for how the world is structured and for how language might map that world in useful ways. As we might imagine, language and writing, or rhetoric, is a major consideration of Introduction: Rhizome, the opening chapter to their book A Thousand Plateaus. The very first paragraph introduces a most interesting problem for rhetoric: the writer. Deleuze and Guattari say:
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.
As near as I can tell, Deleuze and Guattari begin by attacking, among other things, the very core of traditional rhetoric and scholarship: the subjective, discrete knower, the observer who stands aside from the object observed and knows it, defines it, from the outside, and then writes and talks about it. D&G don't waste time. This attack, if successful, undermines everything. It demands a new rhetoric, possibly a rhizo-rhetoric. We'll see.

The first point of change is obvious: multiple writers. This Rhizo14 ethnography will involve many writers making use "of everything that came within range, what was closest as well as farthest away." Just off the top of my head, and in alphabetical error: Maha Bali from Egypt, Frances Bell from UK, Clarissa Bezerra from Brazil, Dave Cormier from Canada, Simon Ensor from France, Keith Hamon from USA, Sarah Honeychurch from Scotland, Lenandlar Singh from Guayana, Vanessa Vaille from USA, and more who do not pop into my mind just now. Clearly, traditional rhetoric is inadequate to address the voice, the tone, the style, the point of view, the purposes, the persona of such a diverse assemblage.

But as they often are, D&G are more subtle than an assemblage of individuals—they make each individual an assemblage of identities. They state that each of them constitutes a larger assemblage: "Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd." And they are working hard toward the point where the individual becomes irrelevant, "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." Maha Bali, then, is not just part of the assemblage, she is herself an assemblage. As am I.

A Dream Story
I had a dream last night. I was attending, perhaps crashing, a retirement banquet given in honor of one of my past creative writing professors. I entered a quite narrow banquet hall with high ceilings and one table stretching into the distance in either direction. The hall had a faintly Spanish or monastic feel, with adobe walls and large tile floors. People I did not know, but presumably ex-students such as myself, were already seated, eating and talking. I may have been late, but I was not anxious—just noting that I knew no one in my immediate area. Suddenly, my professor entered from the main entrance opposite me, and quite as suddenly, in dreamtime, he was seated a few seats down on my right, so I moved to greet him. He recognized me immediately with genuine joy and complimented me in a loud voice so that all in the vicinity turned and looked at me. I beamed. We spoke in learned voices about learned things, as all about us listened, and I became as much the center of focus as he was. I basked shamelessly in adoration, but as we spoke, I became uncomfortable. I was thinking that he looked too young for such an old fellow as he should be by now, and I wondered if he'd had a face-lift. Gradually as he spoke, I became more troubled. Then a very old fellow entered the hall and sat opposite me. I recognized him as the real professor. I spoke to him, but he did not recognize me at all. I awoke to come type it all down.

I tell you this dream story not for self-analysis, though some not-so-flattering interpretations come immediately to mind, but to ask you who composed this dream. The glib answer, of course, is I composed it, but as I look at the story now, I see many me's. There is the me (me1) who observed the dream, remembered it, and wrote it down here. At least, I think that is just one me, the me that I most often consciously identify with, but it could be two different me's—not sure. Anyway, there is also the me (me2) who performed in the dream and whom me1 watched. Then, there is the me (me3) who presented the dream. I do not know me3 at all, but I am assuming that me3 also composed the evening's entertainment as well as presented it. I've no rhetoric to explain how or why me3 thought it necessary to play a very rude joke on me2, who was blind to the whole thing until the denouement, and to teach a cruel lesson about the sins of self-aggrandizement to me1, who was just as blind until the end, and who didn't really understand much of the dream until he was a awake, which suggests that this could indicate yet another me, say me1.2). Like D&G, I am quite a crowd.

I suspect most of us are familiar with these different aspects of ourselves over which we spread a fiction of unity, coherence, and continuity. If we join the assemblages that each of us is with the assemblage of our groups, then we are left with quite a cluster, and it takes a thicker veneer to unify the multiple. We need a rhetoric that addresses this multiplicity, this swarm, this cacophony of voices, this interweaving of purposes and points of view. Such a rhetoric will help us make the observations and collect and interpret the data we need to make sense of what happens when such an assemblage writes.

I started a new paragraph, but from the opening sentence, I could tell that it would be long enough to warrant a new post, so I'll stop here with my first question about rhizo-rhetoric clearer in my head. Anyway, it's the end of the term, and I have documents to grade (yes, I have to put a grade on them, so I try to do it well).

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