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.

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