Thursday, October 9, 2014

A Background for Studying Prepositions in Rhizo14 Auto-Ethnography

I picked up the idea to work with prepositions in the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography from the book
Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time (1995) by Michel Serres with Bruno Latour. A discussion of how this idea emerged in the conversation between Serres and Latour will clarify, I think, why the prepositions appeal to me so much.

First, some context: the book is a record of conversations in which Latour questions Serres to learn more about his methods, with the hope of clarifying Serres' often confusing writing. I had the notion that Latour was hoping to clarify for himself his own fascination with Serres and thereby clarify Serres for others. Latour begins with Serres' early years at school and pushes through to his latest works. If you want to tackle Serres' work, then you should read Latour on Serres. I find it most enlightening.

The short section about prepositions arises in The Third Conversation: Demonstration and Interpretation. Latour starts this chapter by saying his "questions today will focus on formal proof, on demonstration—on what enables you [Serres] to decide whether an interpretation you offer is right or not" (77) [italics in the original distinguish Latour from Serres]. Serres begins with a very pragmatic, almost utilitarian view of philosophical demonstration and interpretation by insisting that an interpretation should address a specific problem, usually a problematic text, with local tools to clarify the obscurity. If the text becomes more clear, then the interpretation is useful, or good. If not, then the interpretation is not so useful. Serres gives an example by clarifying a sonnet by Verlaine, using the modern concepts of coenesthesia and random noise to illuminate the crazy path of the wasp in the poem. He explains, "I've never proposed an interpretation nor posed a question without there first being a problem (78) … The moment you bring transparency and clarity to a problem, the interpretation is probably a good one; what was inexplicable becomes illuminated" (79).

Latour counters that Serres' interpretation does not mention the numerous other interpretations of Verlaine's sonnet, presumably as a good, faithful scholar should—Serres doesn't even quote the poem. Serres replies,
If one had to recopy everything one had read, books would become alarmingly obese. Even more important, this repetition would make them not very informative (80) … On the other hand, honesty consists of writing only what one thinks and what one believes oneself to have invented. My books come only from me. … New ideas come from the desert, from hermits, from solitary beings (81) … to be without master or disciple, as you describe it, assuredly comes from an ethical decision. (83)
I think this points to the first of the big problems with Serres' writing that Latour uncovers: Serres strips his writing of context, including scholarly context, choosing to work in the desert. To use the futbol metaphor that I've used before: Serres is looking for the space on the field, the empty place where he can have a chance at being creative. This space becomes important both for explaining Serres and for explaining why readers find him so difficult. Serres refuses to supply much of the context for his writing, shifting that burden to the reader. Given that Serres' context is encyclopedic, covering the arts and sciences from ancient times to the modern, this is an awful burden for most readers, who simply give up trying to understand him.

Why does Serres want this open space, unencumbered by citations, references, established theories and systems, and other scholarly structures? It is easy for traditional scholars to suspect that Serres is just being slovenly in his studies and explications, but he says that philosophers should be creative, should be laying the groundwork for the future:
Now, philosophy is an anticipation of future thoughts and practices. If not, it would be reduced to commentary—to a sub-category of history, and not the best one either … Not only must philosophy invent, but it invents the common ground for future inventions. Its function is to invent the conditions of invention [italics in original] (86) … One can work, think, and discover without any strategy at all. Believe me, none of my books is the result of a tactic (87) … A single answer to all questions seems improbable; a single key will not open all locks. Why would you want invention to follow a single track, always collective and dialectical? … There are connections and ruptures; there are the solidary and the solitary and surely others besides, who take flight and alight at crossroads (88) … No doubt the greatest difficulty [in understanding Serres' writing] lies in my wish to be encyclopedic, followed by my desire for synthesis, in the hope of going everywhere, of not missing anything, in order to gradually build a world. (89)
Serres, then, wants to play his ball into open space, free from the already fixed positions and strategies in the crowded part of the field, free to engage whatever presents itself in an open space with whatever resources he finds to hand, or to foot as the case may be. Any soccer player will tell you that creating and playing into space is a difficult concept to learn, and only the most accomplished players master it. The analogy may hold for philosophers, as Serres insists, but following an accomplished player into open, empty space makes for difficult futbol and even more difficult reading, and this is the source of the difficulty in reading Serres, in playing his game.
Don't you think the philosopher is pulled between two poles—that of maximal accumulation of all knowledge and experience and, at the other extreme, the cancellation of all knowledge and experience, starting from zero? … Philosophy is not a body of knowledge nor a discipline among the usual sciences, because it insists on this balance between everything and nothing (90) … Philosophy doesn't consist of marshaling ready-made solutions proffered by a particular method or parading all those problems in a category resolved by this method. Because there is no universal method. Which is the reason … for drawing an appropriate method from the very problem one has undertaken to resolve. Thus, the best solutions are local, singular, specific, adapted, original, regional. This is the source of the disparity you were complaining about, which makes for difficult reading (91) … My demonstrations were always carried out according to the same norms but never using the same terms. In a more or less inductive way and in contrast to unifying theories, I always started with elements that were different, drawn from the text or the problem before me, using means that were both analogous and relational … So, I never arrived at a beginning, an origin, a unique principle of interpretation—all of which are classically seen as making coherence, system, meaning. Instead, I arrived at a cluster of relations, differentiated but organized. … Synthesis in this case, is differentiated from system or even from a methodological unity. A cluster of highly different relations becomes a body. (99)
I apologize for the long quote, but Serres says it better than I can. Because Serres plays into open space, he must invent the game anew, facing a local situation—a configuration of ball, players, field, and trajectories—not quite like any generalized configuration he has ever faced before or even trained for. And in that instance when engaging the open space, the creative player must bring all that she has learned of the game and simultaneously must forget, or transcend, all that she has learned to engage this new game that space has opened to her. It is in this moment that a supremely creative player such as Pele will do the totally new and unpredictable and invent the overhead bicycle kick that will become a part of the standard repertoire of all skilled players after him. Pele, of course, was never trained to perform this kick, but he was prepared for this kick through his training. He was poised, then, between the rigors of his exhaustive training and vast experience and the freedom of forgetting his training and going beyond it. This, I think, is what Serres hopes for philosophy, at least for his philosophy. So what does this have to do with prepositions?


Well, this brings us to the second great difficulty in reading Serres that Latour uncovers: Serres' explications, commentaries, and analyses are dynamic. His writing focuses on unstable, unfixed prepositions rather than on the traditional philosophical focus on substantives and verbals. This gives Serres' writing a dynamic quality that many readers find jumpy, jittery, and confusing. They are accustomed to looking for the substantive (being, nothingness, gender, connectivism, Marxism, etc.) that identifies Serres' thought, that places him within the context that he's trying to avoid. Prepositions don't fix thought; rather, they trace dynamic, shifting arcs and trajectories among concepts, pulling them out of their fixed orbits and flinging them into the asteroid belt. To see how, I want to focus on the final sentence quoted above: A cluster of highly different relations becomes a body. This is where prepositions come into play.

I need to start with an image. For instance, think of futbol as a cluster of relations (players, ball, field) that becomes a body (a game). Think of Rhizo14 as a cluster of relations (mostly scholars) that becomes a body (a MOOC of sorts). Think of this blog post as a cluster of relations (words, sentences, concepts) that becomes a body (a post). In each case, we start with an open space—an empty field, open class, or blank screen—but soon enough, games deterritorialize and reterritorialize into this space: the ball arrives on an arc, a trajectory, a first and then second player, each on different trajectories, the field itself begins to emerge with more relevant and pressing boundaries. Similarly for Rhizo14, scholars arrive from their different trajectories and intersect at different space/times across the Net, finding their own shape and dynamics within various space. Likewise for this post: writers, readers, and words arrive on different trajectories, concepts, actors (substantives) and actions (verbs) appear on different arcs and clusterings, and the post itself begins to emerge with more relevant and pressing boundaries, finding its own shape, both familiar and unique, within the boundaries of the screen. The skillful player, the philosopher, engages the new relationships emerging and creates a new game that is similar enough for all her training to be useful but new enough to demand that she transcend her training.

In this moment of engagement with a new soccer game or a new blog post, we should not ask if the player is a defender, a midfielder, or a striker, if the scholar is a connectivist, a constructivist, or behaviorist, or if the writer is composing narrative, description, argumentation, or explanation. We should not look for a fixed position or a guiding theory. We should not seek to define the moment from the outside with fixed substantive and verbal concepts; rather, we should allow the definition to emerge from the intersection or interweaving of all these different trajectories. In soccer, this interweaving is embodied in passing and running in relation to a moving ball; in writing, it is embodied and expressed in prepositions and other such elements in relation to moving substantives. Serres uses a long analogy drawn from rugby to explain himself, but he might as well be talking about futbol:
Configurations or fixed places are important when the players don't move—just before the game begins, or when certain established positions are called for at various points in the game … They begin to fluctuate as soon as the game begins, and the multiple and fluctuating ways of passing the ball are traced. The ball is played, and the teams place themselves in relation to it, not vice versa. As a quasi object, the ball is the true subject of the game. It is like a tracker of relations in the fluctuating collectivity around it. The same analysis is valid for the individual: the clumsy person plays with the ball and makes it gravitate around himself; the mean player imagines himself to be a subject by imagining the ball to be an object—the sign of a bad philosopher. On the contrary, the skilled player knows that the ball plays with him or plays off him, in such a way that he gravitates around it and fluidly follows the positions it takes, but especially the relations that it spawns. (108)
In writing—this post for instance—prepositions trace the relations, the movement of the ball, and as such, they mean almost nothing prior to the movement and the emerging relation. They have almost no meaning, which means they can assume almost any meaning. As Serres says, "Do you notice that, in relation to other parts of speech, the preposition has almost all meaning and almost none? It simultaneously has the maximum and minimum of meaning, exactly like a variable in classical analysis" (106). To my way of thinking, a preposition brings just enough DNA to unpack into a somewhat new meaning each time it is used to trace the dynamic connection between or among substantives. Like X in math, a preposition has DNA, a history of usage and meaning, but in any particular formula, it can assume a variety of meanings depending on the operations, operands, and relations it is tracing. The DNA, the dictionary definition, is the least meaning, the least one can say of X or a preposition. How the DNA unpacks as it zips among all its dynamic relationships is where most of its meaning emerges.

For Serres, all ideas can be considered and connected (think rhizomatically, here, for as Deleuze and Guattari say, "any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be" (A Thousand Plateaus, 7)), and the connections and relations are more important for Serres than are the substantives. This kind of topographical dynamism, then, allows Serres to connect the ritual of human sacrifice to the ancient god Baal to the Challenger disaster, but this greatly confuses (and probably offends) many readers who see no connection between the senseless murder of innocent people to appease a blood-thirsty god on one hand and technological progress and heroic death on the other. In his open spaces, Serres can trace a connection between these two events. Serres speaks of angels and Hermes as the dynamic messengers that map the connections among all the things and concepts of the world. Prepositions, then, are the angels of language that connect and map the connections among our concepts, and these fluctuating, dynamic connections interest Serres more than the concepts themselves.

What does this say about Rhizo14 and the auto-ethnography? It provides me a stance toward Rhizo14 and toward writing the auto-ethnography. I want to begin with a problem, a variable X that needs solving, but I don't want to bring the problem to the auto-ethnography. Rather, I want the problem to arise from the auto-ethnography itself. This means gazing at the auto-ethnography, meditating on it. It's something like staring into a cloud chamber in the Large Hadron Collider: observing the particles that flash and arc, following their trajectories, and noting those that connect with others and those that don't connect at all. Looking for patterns, and noting where I can see patterns (create meaning) and where I cannot see patterns. The no-patterns are problems for me, but I'm confident that answers, the patterns, are contained within the auto-ethnography that will illuminate an issue if I can assemble the elements and map the relations among them. I can see the patterns emerge if I will use the terms, the tools, and the relations at hand within the auto-ethnography itself to conduct a local interpretation which may just lead to a global demonstration, to some knowledge that can be carried beyond Rhizo14.

Also, I want to avoid bringing an agenda or theory to work on the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography. Like Serres, I want to avoid "a divine sun that sheds light on everything, with a beginning that will deploy itself in history … or with a principle—in order to deduce, through logic, a generalized logos that will confer meaning on it and establish the rules of the game for an organized debate" (103). I want to avoid especially connectivism, the educational theory that has most attracted me over the past few years. Sure, I can over-code Rhizo14 with connectivism—or constructivism, behaviorism, actor-network theory, or a dozen other isms, but I want to avoid that. I want to make a lateral move, both prepared by and forgetting what I know. I do this because a prepared theory can blanch a landscape, rendering it totally in the light of the theory. Serres makes a striking comparison between a given theory and an atomic bomb: the light of the exploding bomb illuminates all of the landscape below it, destroying all local detail and turning it into  a featureless plain, under one sun, one explanation, one point of view. Even as agile a theory as connectivism can eliminate some important details in Rhizo14 that may be obscured, rubbed out in the brilliance of its application. Rather, I want to look at what's there, follow the prepositions along the relations that they trace, looking for the elements that pull Rhizo14 together into an assemblage (again, note the connections to Deleuze and Guattari). I want to follow the prepositions until a cluster of highly different relations becomes a body.

Let's begin with the sentences from Maha and Sarah:
  • Funny enough, even though I have been thinking about this since #rhizo14 started and writing about it throughout on my blog, fb, twitter, I am having a lot of difficulty writing here.
  • I’m in the early stages of a part time PhD in collaborative learning and I got interested in MOOCs from that point of view, as well as because my Uni signed up with FutureLearn last year.
What is here? What trajectories and relations? Both Maha and Sarah are playing into a new and open space. Maha is on a trajectory of thinking and writing about Rhizo14 ever since it started, but she's hitting some turbulence with her writing in late February, 2014, as Rhizo14 is formally ending. Sarah's interest in Rhizo14 traces from the early arc of her PhD program and a joint effort of her university with FutureLearn. Both, then, engage the same ball, Rhizo14, but they are tracing different trajectories: one from a research agenda and one from a graduate program and professional obligations. One is having issues handling the ball just now, the other seems comfortable.

With just two sentences from two Rhizo14 participants, I'm already forming a quite complex cluster of highly different relations that become a body. You can see the angels in red in the two sentences above and how they trace the complex connections within just those two sentences. I hope to follow the prepositions throughout all the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography, using the Voyant tools to trace the totality of paths. As you might imagine, I can go lots of different ways, but I first want to map out the total track of the ball (Rhizo14) through the entire game to see if I can map how each participant clusters about the ball. I have faith that some patterns will emerge and that they will tell me things that I don't know now.

Obviously, I am learning anew, with new tools, and I find this most exciting. About as much fun as I have had in a long time, and I thank especially Maha and Sarah for thinking to do the Rhizo-14 auto-ethnography and making it happen. I know others have helped as well, but I think those two have driven the effort. Good job.
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