Thursday, September 4, 2014

Prepositions as the Rhizomatic Heart of Writing

I never expected to be writing about prepositions, but it's the approach I've decided to take with the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography, so I want to sketch what I think I'm doing and why and how I'm doing it. This is a preliminary sketch, so expect abrupt turns of the page and new, emergent directions. In rhizomatic terms, expect lots of deterritorializations and reterritorializations. If you've ever heard the ruffle and rush of a covey of quail scattering in the cold, steel-blue dawn, then you're ready.

I became interested in the rhizomatic potential of prepositions after reading the conversation between Bruno Latour and Michel Serres in Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time (1995), in which Serres talks about his "'philosophy of prepositions'--an argument for considering prepositions, rather than the conventionally emphasized verbs and substantives, as the linguistic keys to understanding human interactions." It was an intriguing concept, but I didn't have a concrete way to engage it until the auto-ethnography emerged. A group of us decided to independently code the entries in the auto-ethnography, and then compare our codings. I jumped at the chance to work the prepositions, and I assumed that most of the other coders would base their coding systems on substantives and verbs as "the linguistic key to understanding human interactions." I had an intuition that prepositions, and prepositional-like elements, might be the linguistic engines that power the rhizome in language. What do I mean by that?

For me, rhizomes are first about connections: making connections, dropping connections, arranging connections into patterns. At its deepest level, the rhizome itself is all possible and potential connections (and even the impossible connections, in a kind of indiscriminate heterogenous coupling and tripling and clustering)—in Serres' terms, it's noise—but humans inevitably select, reduce, and map, bringing a few nodes into relief from the swelter of possible nodes and constructing patterns out of those nodes. Those patterns are what we mean by meaning. Language is one of the core tools we use to map our worlds and to create patterns—both helpful and harmful, rational and whimsical—and prepositional-like elements are the hooks, angels, hermes, and messenger particles that connect the actors (nouns) and actions (verbs) of our thought and arrange them. An early metaphor that emerged for me was prepositions as stage directors, positioning actors on the stage, giving directions about which way to move in relation to other actors, props, audience, and the stage itself, and ramping up the next scene. They are very busy, and they have to know everything. Yup—those little, largely ignored prepositions. Prepositions are the connective, connecting tissue that connects this to that in a pattern that works and makes sense. It's a really big job.

And connections beget connections. There is something here to do with desire, the energetic working of the rhizome through things. Prepositions are little desiring machines, to use Deleuze and Guattari, and they desire to connect, to break connections and to reconnect (to deterritorialize and reterritorialize down lines of flight), to emerge, dissolve, and reemerge. They are promiscuous at all levels: phrase, sentence, paragraph, section. This promiscuity works in my reading as I work to code the auto-ethnography (I think it's time to rehabilitate the term promiscuous, not to eliminate the sexual but to expand its field beyond the merely sexual). I have become the intersection of several documents that resonate with my thoughts about the role of prepositions in writing (notice how things appear when you look? they were in the noise all along. looking made them emerge). Simon Ensor sent me an article about ecological psychology on Wikipedia. Terry Elliot wrote a post GOODBYE, CLASSROOM. HELLO, CONNECTION JUKEBOX. that claims we are all "a magnificent and unique filter for the world. Your neurons fire in ways that no one else does or can. If you are attuned to that and share that, you will be adding signal and not noise to the world." Then, two people mentioned their attention shifting from nouns to verbs, Frances Bell in a comment on Maha Bali's wonderful post Network vs community – cc #rhizo14 autoethnog and Aaron Davis's post PLN, a Verb or a Noun?. Is everyone thinking about parts of speech? Finally, just now, tonight as I am struggling with what to say in this post, Simon Ensor writes in his post Spacetimecontinuum …:

I notice how connections suddenly come alive, dormant for indeterminate time they suddenly fire and images, words, ideas flow out.

This appears to be learning.

I start to review the tags that I throw unthinkingly on my blog posts, there is no getting around those key words -


I virtually never write, I never write what I think, imagine, or foresee I am going to write. I am written.

In more prosaic terms: how do prepositions drive the emergence of a sentence into meaning? How do they both coalesce (inward) the potential energy of nouns and verbs into coherent structures AND vibrate (outward) with enough heat to trigger the emergence of larger structures of meaning that flesh out our ideas? This is a very subtle trick, and I'd like to know more about it. Along the way, I think I will learn more about the rhizome and how it can lead to community and away from community. We'll see.

So I'm starting to read about prepositions, and I'm finding a fairly deep if not extensive body of work about them (or on them? which preposition do you prefer here: about or on? it makes a difference. you be the director and make the call). Of course, I'm having to learn a new vocabulary, pulled mostly from cognitive linguistics, where I'm bumping into George Lakoff again, and one of my first new words is polysemy (many possible meanings for a given word). It seems that prepositions just won't take a definition and stick to it. This is driving some really bright and otherwise normal scholars nuts, including Mr. Lakoff, as they search for boxes big enough to put a tiny preposition in. It's similar to what quantum physicists went through when they first started realizing that electrons just can't be pinned down to one place and one speed. Elementary particles such as electrons are frenetic, jittery, smudged, probabilistic entities that most likely exist here but could also be someplace across the universe. Messenger particles, hermes, angels. Prepositions, too, are frenetic. They most likely mean this, but they could mean something else as well. They could mean multiple things at the same time. They violate Aristotle's principle of the excluded third. How messed up is that?

Old-fashioned grammarians hate this kind of imprecision and waffling, but it's perfect if you want to explore the rhizome, as I do. This is very much like elementary particles: it's the frenetic jitteriness and vibrations of those tiny strings that make them imprecise (not reducible to a single, well-defined point) and that generates the energy that fuels the universe. Likewise, prepositions have a frenetic energy that fuels language such as this blog post.

Prepositions are easy to overlook. I first went through the auto ethnographic entries by Maha Bali and Sarah Honeychurch merely to identify all the prepositions they used. As I was going back through to code each preposition, I found more—not the weird ones, but the common ones: on, of, in, and the like. Easy to overlook, but we lose much when we do.

I don't want to suggest any disparagement of nouns and verbs, but prepositions have caught my attention for the moment. I want to see where they take me. So far, it's been a fun ride.

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