Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Anarchy as Freedom To

I found myself perplexed about the use of the word power in Wednesday's (2015.02.11) #moocmooc Twitter chat, especially by the implication that anarchy is defined primarily by resistance to power and, hopefully, freedom from power. I appreciate Nick Kearney(@nickkearney) pointing out that anarchy as a word starts from a rejection of rulers (though my dictionary says that the word comes from the Greek anarkhos, from an- ‘without’ + arkhos ‘chief, ruler’, so without a ruler, which is not quite the same thing), but either way I have to define power too narrowly to make that concept of anarchy work. I prefer not to define anarchy as freedom from but as freedom to. These prepositions and the directions they imply are important, I think.

My first problem is that I don't think freedom from power is possible, as I define power most broadly as the forces that bind the world together, making life and everything else possible. It takes power at all scales (strings to galaxies) for anything to emerge and to act within a Universe with its own powers to emerge and act. Almost none of the power in the Universe is discretionary—that is, it can't be switched off. It exists, and we exist because of it and through interaction with it.

I know full well that when people speak of power they usually mean human social power in all its political, economic, educational, familial, and religious manifestations. I suppose that it makes sense in many discussions to distinguish natural forces from human powers, but something about this troubles me: when does natural force become human power? or to ask it more precisely: when does natural force cease and human power emerge? Is this a sliding scale with blind natural forces at one end and human powers at the other? Perhaps, but I balk at privileging the human this way and even more at differentiating the human too much from the natural.

Perhaps power is an emergent property that comes with agency and consciousness, when we can choose to act or not, but I'm not so fond of this either as it suggests that most of the Universe for most of the time lacked and still lacks agency, just blindly, stupidly clumping until some random, fortuitous magic happens and self-replicating clumps emerge, leading eventually to creatures with agency and consciousness. This view reduces reality to interactions of matter and energy, leaving out information and organization, which I think have been there all along. So I suspect agency and consciousness, like power, from the beginning. Power, not just dumb forces, from the beginning and through everything.

Still, the MOOCMOOC chat was about power in education, a very human enterprise, so I'll try to stick to that. For me, education requires power. For instance, it took great power (electrical, material, organizational, informational, intellectual, and more) for us to gather on Twitter Wednesday to discuss how to avoid power. The flows of power through that one conversation are truly staggering. We had to assemble a dizzying array of international organizations starting with the Internet, but including dozens of software, hardware, and transport multinationals, each a nexus of streams of power (I relied mostly on Apple, the richest company ever with a well-earned reputation for amassing and enforcing its power). And don't overlook the power of English—currently making as huge a power grab as humanity has ever witnessed—as our Twitter conversation likely would not have taken place without the affordances of that particular power stream. The college and university buildings and our houses or coffee shops that housed us as we chatted are all configurations of power. Sugars ran the streams of my veins and fed my neurons with power so that I could think and move my fingers and converse. I simply don't know how to think about education—or anything else—free from power. For me, power is implicated in every educational effort at every scale.

So if it isn't power in general that we complain about, what particular kind of power is it that we want to avoid? It's a bit too glib to say we complain about any power that we just don't like, but that isn't such a bad place to begin thinking about this. Let's start with the obvious: we don't like power which injures or destroys us or our groups, though the psychological and medical literature is full of exceptions to this generalization. We especially don't like those harmful powers that we think are intentional. Injury in a hunting accident is bad enough, but injury from an intentional shooting is worse. The first injury can be mitigated somewhat, the other cannot and is likely exacerbated.

Next, we don't like power that constrains us, even without injuring us. I generally don't like anything that prevents me from doing whatever I want to do, but I especially don't like those things which intentionally and regularly prevent me from doing what I want to do. My current school falls into this category.

Finally, we don't like power that moves us, even without injuring us, in directions and into spaces (physical, virtual, and mental) that we don't want to go. I generally don't like groups that expect me to participate in their activities for no reason other than my proximity. I don't like those things which intentionally and regularly make me do what I don't want to do. My current school falls into this category as well.

There are probably other kinds of power we don't like, but this should be sufficient for this discussion. We don't like power that stops or constrains our own desired flow of power, but we are least offended by power that flows from totally random acts of chance, more so by power that flows from good intentions, even more by power of carelessness and ignorance, and finally most by the power of foul intentions. As we perceive outside power impinging more on our own power flows, to the point of overwhelming our own power, and as we perceive the exercise of that power as more intentionally harmful, then we object more to that power. That power is more oppressive.

But we don't all find the same power oppressive. While most of us in the Twitter chat enjoyed the power flows opened by the technology and the conversation, some of us—including me—found the 140 character limit to be an oppressive exercise of power. That's the way most things are for me: a mix of power flows that enable and oppress, and I find it most difficult to separate the flows. All human engagements are complex flows of power and desire—some enabling, some oppressive—like different streams feeding into the flow of a river. Separating those streams of power is difficult once you're in the river, especially a really big river such as a nation, a business, or a university.

Moreover, what I find oppressive (140-character limit), others may find liberating. Or I myself may find the 140-character limit oppressive sometimes and liberating at others. How do I sort this bad power from good power? And what do I do with it after I've sorted it?

Iain McGilchrist's book The Master and his Emissary (2009) and Deleuze and Guattari's concept of desire, especially in Anti-Oedipus (1977) help me think about power. From D&G I take the notion that all human engagements, from the most intimate to the most world-wide, result from the desire to connect, to couple, with others to create something new: new pair-bonds and babies to new schools, businesses, and nations, or new MOOCs such as #moocmooc15. These desires—themselves complex flows of often conflicting drives—depend on material, energy, informational, and organizational power to explore an environment and to connect.

It so happens, though, that this flow of desire is not mine alone. As D&G note even those desires that I think of as mine are really flowing through me, coming from beyond me and eventually going on beyond me. My desires are mine more in the sense that a wave belongs to a surfer, or in the sense that my breath belongs to me. The breathing is mine, the breath is not. The desiring is mine, the desire is not. The desire, like the air, comes to me already scented by my environment. I add my own scent, my own desiring, but the stream is not mine alone.

My desiring is not alone, either. Others are desiring as well—sometimes a great many others—and the force of their desiring can overwhelm me, turning my desires back upon themselves and diverting them, perverting them. For instance, I can desire certain activities, directions, and results in #moocmooc15, but others have their own desires, the weight and force of which can frustrate me, leading me to act out or to disengage. I'm much more likely to act out if I cannot disengage. These things happen all the time.

Let's make this concrete. I find MOOCs such as #moocmooc15 and #rhizo14 free spaces mostly because I am free to engage and free to disengage, but once I engage, I cannot ignore the group's power. When engaged with a group, even if merely lurking, I cannot avoid exchanging energy, matter, information, and organization with the group. The group has weight, power. I am stained by the group. Of course, I stain the group in turn, but in terms of gravity, the group outweighs me.

Unless, of course, I have some other power, and this is perhaps what people resent most when they complain about power. Let's say I was Paulo Freire come back from the dead. I could probably sway #moocmooc15 and turn the discussion all by my miraculous self. Or if I was Bill Gates with a billion dollar grant to standardize MOOCs, then I might sway #moocmooc15 again. Or if I was the NSA and decided that MOOCs are subversive and a danger to national security, then again I might turn, even silence, the discussion (I think the billion dollars from Gates is the more unlikely exercise of power here, though the Freire resurrection might be pushing it). I don't know that I as a #moocmooc15 participant could really resist the various powers of Freire, Gates, or the NSA, though in the Romantic novel I'm writing about myself, I do.

Really, I can't even resist the power of #moocmooc15. I've just spent hours writing this post as part of my engagement. Is anarchy, then, my freedom to engage or to walk away? Ursula K. Le Guin seems to suggest as much in Omelas, though she doesn't seem to happy about it.

Well, you've probably noticed that I've not reached closure here. I'm not even sure what clarity I've achieved, but it was fun thinking about it.
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