Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Rise of the iSwarm: A First Global Look at the Rhizo14 Auto-ethnography

I started my analysis of prepositions in an earlier post by analyzing two sentences from the auto-ethnography, one written by Maha Bali and one by Sarah Honeychurch. This quickly revealed to me that I was not going to manage this analysis by hand. The base text of the auto-ethnography (excluding the marginal comments) has a total of 23,717 words and 3,763 unique words. This is large. Moreover, I am interested in tracking the connections made among all the prepositions and all the entities in the text. The preposition of occurs 652 times, effectively creating 652 relationships among an as yet unknown number of entities. That's just one preposition. I can't track all of that with pen and paper or even a spreadsheet.

Fortunately, there are many fine analytical tools becoming available to digital humanists, and I have chosen to start with Voyant Tools by Stéfan Sinclair of McGill University and Geoffrey Rockwell of the University of Alberta. I don't know the tools, so I'm learning as I go along. Nothing like doubling your workload.

Anyway, I dipped my toes in the water with a quick analysis of one sentence each from Maha's and Sarah's contributions, and now I want to shift to the entire auto-ethnography, so let's start with a look at the text I am examining as it appears in Voyant, which takes full advantage of the Net to allow you to embed its various tools. I'm embedding the tools separately below, but you can engage the entire data with a set of tools here.

You'll see immediately that all the images have been stripped. Voyant analyzes text, not images, and that is fine for what I want to do, I think (apologies to Simon, Terry, Kevin, and others who think and write with images). I made several edits to the text that I should mention here. First, I regularized the name for Rhizo14, which had a handful of variations (#rhizo14, rhizo14, rhizo 14, rhizo, etc.) that led to aggregation issues that I want to avoid. Second, I corrected obvious misspellings and abbreviations in the text (for instance, I changed Maha's abbreviated ppl to people and soso to so so). However, I did not change the text in a text message exchange between Sarah and Maha that was added to the auto-ethnography, as I wanted to preserve its distinction. Not sure why.

Voyant starts with a count of the words in the text, listing them by number of occurrences. As I discovered in the analysis of Maha and Sarah's accounts, the word I is the most frequently used word in the entire text. Voyant creates a nice word cloud, which features the top 50 words:
The word frequency list looks like this:

Even by itself, I is clearly the dominant entity in the text, though it refers to at least 31 different people in the base text. The small words (prepositions, conjunctions, being verbs, along with the articles that I excluded from the list) make up most of the top 50 words, but the prominence of the first-person outweighs them all, especially if we include the words related to I, such as my, me, I'm, I'd, myself, and I've. All of those words occur 1,512 times, and if we add the first-person plural words we, us, and our, then we have a total of 1,655 self references in the text. That's almost 7% of all words. Hmm.

[BREAK for Untext]

I started this post in the second half of October, 2014, but at the end of the month, I stopped writing here to help Maha Bali and half a dozen other rhizoers write Writing the Unreadable Untext. It was a fascinating experience that I blogged about, and it helps me rethink what I want to say in this post about the prominence of first person in the auto-ethnography. I'll restart with the observation in the last paragraph that the auto-ethnography has at least 31 unique voices in the core text, which does not include the instructions and marginalia. The traditional approach, I think, would be to treat this auto-ethnography as 31 different stories with 31 different voices, and that is a useful approach that I will still pursue. However, the Untext demonstrates so well how quickly a swarm voice can emerge and dominate in a collectively produced document. In the Untext, we use lower case i to represent the first-person swarm in distinction to the first person singular or the first person plural voice. This was most revealing for me, and wildly fun.

Unlike the Untext, the auto-ethnography reinforces the notion of 31 individuals: it has 31 distinct stories with headings to identify 31 unique individuals. They all share a common topic—their experiences in Rhizo14—but the structure of the auto-ethnography brings into relief the unique perspective and voice of each author. Thus, even when we think of them as a group with perhaps a group voice, like a choir, we assume a unity, a unified voice, all arcing with complimentary, collaborative trajectories. And if this voice, this unified, coherent trajectory breaks down, then we fault the skill of the writers. This is the voice that we in Western culture understand and expect. It is the voice that I learned—absorbed, really—when, as I was preparing for my doctoral exams, I read most every Western rhetoric from Aristotle and Isocrates to Young, Becker, and Pike. This unified voice is at the core of Western rhetoric, so deeply embedded that most rhetorics do not mention it. They just assume it. This is the voice I am using now. The voice in this post is one version of Keith Hamon the scholar, who has a unique and recognizable voice, a peculiar filter of this world with a peculiar way of expressing the world. I like this voice, and I do not intend to abandon or denigrate it.

But I am fascinated with the swarm voice, the voice in the whirlwind, in the trees, in the surf. I have heard this voice while waiting for the concert to start or the light to change. I have watched this voice emerge in the Untext, and I cannot ignore it. I have to learn more about it.

I confess up front that I know almost nothing about the swarm voice, though I think I hear it in some of the writings of Deleuze and Guattari and perhaps of Serres. It's a voice that captures me, but I don't know why. It seems incoherent, which at first made me fault the writer and the writing, but now I'm wondering if I should fault the reader: me. I think the swarm voice is more common than we think. Indeed, I think I agree with Serres that the swarm voice, noise, is far more common than the familiar voices made legible and brought into relief by unity and focus, by our attention. This swarm voice is the voice of the street corner, the restaurant, the crowd. This is the hum we hear when we are attending to something more legible, more pronounced, more clearly enunciated.

This is a fine place to start an analysis of the auto-ethnography: with the swarm voice. I will address the first-person swarm and the hundreds of small words that push the hum into the world, but as soon as I do I encounter problems, the first of many I expect to deal with.

Let's consider the top 25 words in order of occurrence:


Note first that most of these top 25 words are short, one syllable, connector words. In fact, there is a direct relation between the frequency and the length of a word: the shorter a word, the more often it occurs in the auto-ethnography, as the following table and chart show. I grouped the first 300 words by 20 and calculated the average length.

Word GroupAvg Len

Even an English major can see the trend here. Short words occur more often, long words less often. That's likely true in most conversation and writing, but eventually, I will need to compare the frequency and length relationship in the auto-ethnography (AE) with some other documents to see if there is anything unusual about the AE, but later. I mention this here and now mostly because I can, but the point for me now is that the iSwarm is connecting to, and, of, in, on, for, as, with, but, and or other entities within the AE, and all of those entities are connecting to each other. Rhizo14 is a quantum hive of activity, all abuzz with energy. I think I knew that, but I like seeing it so clearly when shifting my vision up to the swarm scale, but what is the iSwarm connecting to?

Not until I get to word 9 it (295 occurrences) do I find another entity to which I might guess the iSwarm is connecting to, with, of, in, and so on. Actually, it seems a fine other entity to which iSwarm might connect first as it is as much a swarm word as is I, and at this scale, I cannot tell who is connecting to whom or what. Rather, it's like watching a swarm of bees and trying to determine which bees are connecting to which. There's a general hum here, but I cannot yet make out its contours and modulations. I really don't know how to listen to noise very well, but I'm learning.

I don't reach a definite entity until word 22 Rhizo14 (144 occurrences), which is also the first word longer than 4 letters and one syllable. As I've already noted, this is something of a manufactured word as I standardized the spelling of the names of the MOOC in the AE. Still, it demonstrates to me that one of the foremost connections of the iSwarm was to the quantum hive: Rhizo14.

I think.

I have an issue with calling Rhizo14 a definite entity. It suggests that a swarm of people (including the 31 people in the AE) connected to a thing that already existed quite apart from their connections to it. I don't think that is how it works. Rather, I think that Rhizo14 emerged as a somewhat coherent, identifiable, and addressable entity out of the swarm of hundreds of people, including these 31 auto-ethnographers. I really do think that the community (the swarm) was the curriculum (the emergent entity).

In this sense, then, I can say that Rhizo14 worked: it embodied the community as curriculum as a demonstration rather than as a teachable concept. Those of us who attended to it sufficiently and who were willing to engage the hum, the swarm noise, see the community as curriculum, even if we cannot quite say what it is. I'm hoping that following the desires of the prepositions in the AE will give me some language to say what I mean. I'm working on it. More about the iSwarm soon.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Rhizo14 Ethnography and Decalcomania

So Maha Bali and I started a Google Doc entitled Writing the Unreadable Untext to talk about the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography, and a half-dozen or more of our dearest Rhizo14 colleagues joined in. I want to write about this experience from the comfort and quiet of my own blog space, and if you have reached this post from the Google Doc itself, I want to offer an exploration of what I think happened in that document. If you haven't read Writing the Unreadable Untext, then read it first if you want to understand what I'm discussing here.

First, we did not write the auto-ethnography of Rhizo14, Dave Cormier's 2014 MOOC about rhizomatic education. Instead, we may have written an ethnography in the sense of "the … description of the customs of individual peoples and cultures" (my MacBook's online dictionary). In the above definition, I dropped the word "scientific" because I have not yet worked out precisely what kind of description we wrote, and I don't want to be side-tracked by a defense of our scientific rigor or lack of it. Rather, than analyzing Rhizo14 in the Unreadable Untext, we mapped it, and to my mind, we mapped it very well. What we have composed is a handprint of Rhizo14, a rhizome written small enough that you can get through it in less than an hour. If you want to know in a nutshell what Rhizo14 was about and how it felt to be in it, then read the Unreadable Untext.

Do you find yourself confused by the document? Good. Most of us felt confused by Rhizo14 from time to time. Are you looking for ways to put all those words, pictures, videos, marginalia, and other elements together in some kind of coherent fashion? Good. We had to do that in Rhizo14. Did you find yourself following a side trail that led to a flash of insight or to nowhere? Good. We did that in Rhizo14. Do you find yourself wondering who is speaking, if it's the same person who was just speaking, and if they are speaking to you? Good. That's what Rhizo14 was often like. Do you find yourself looking for the point, the thesis, the takeaway that you can repeat to your colleagues when they ask you what you are reading? Good. We often had trouble explaining to others why we were still in Rhizo14. Do you find yourself wanting to give up because making sense of all this is too difficult? Do you find yourself angry at the writers because making sense is their job, not yours as reader? Good, very good. You've now learned things about Rhizo14 that we could not have told you otherwise.

I think I can best understand what emerged in the Unreadable Untext by reference to Deleuze and Guattari's rhizomatic concept of decalcomania, a "process of transferring designs from prepared paper onto glass or porcelain", or "a technique used by some surrealist artists that involves pressing paint between sheets of paper" (same online dictionary) and most commonly known today in its shortened form decal. The Unreadable Untext is a decal: a pressing that transfers, in this case, a larger pattern onto another surface (a Google Doc) and at a reduced scale. (Thus, the Unreadable Untext is fractal, with self-similar and familiar patterns repeating imprecisely at different scales.) I am most familiar with decalcomania in the handprints that children make when they put wet paint on their hands and press them helter-skelter onto paper. The prints are, of course, familiar but not the same as the palms they echo. The prints are also more accessible. The deterritorialization of the children's unique palms and their reterritorialization onto the paper is evocative and convenient, but not identical. Like all studies, it leaves out some details in the original and adds others, but I can carry around 30 prints in my satchel, while I can't carry around 30 children. Similarly, you can read the Unreadable Untext at one sitting without having to spend six weeks in the MOOC.

Deleuze and Guattari discuss decalcomania in conjunction with cartography, or mapping, to describe in part how engagement of reality (what we did in Unreadable Untext) differs from analysis of reality (what other ethnographies do). In A Thousand Plateaus (1988) they say:
The rhizome is altogether different, a map and not a tracing. … What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real. … It is itself a part of the rhizome. The map is open and connectable in all of its dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification. It can be torn, reversed, adapted to any kind of mounting, reworked by an individual, group, or social formation. It can be drawn on a wall, conceived of as a work of art, constructed as a political action or as a meditation. Perhaps one of the most important characteristics of the rhizome is that it always has multiple entryways … A map has multiple entryways, as opposed to the tracing, which always comes back "to the same." The map has to do with performance, whereas the tracing always involves an alleged "competence." (12, 13)
So Unreadable Untext is a map, "an experimentation in contact with the real", and not a tracing, or an analysis. Untext is a performance, not a competent tracing with elucidations from point A to point B, pulling out of the noise of the swarm a logic that is clearly there, but that the swarm ignores and flows around. We were susceptible to constant modification, reworked. Our aim was performance, not competence. In a way of speaking, Untext is itself part of the rhizome called Rhizo14. You can enter Rhizo14 through Untext. You can wait until 2015 and enter Rhizo15 from there. You can enter Rhizo14 from this post or Terry's Zeega or Clarissa's post or Maha's post or the Collaborative Autoethnography for #rhizo14. This rhizome, Rhizo14 and its many offshoots, including Untext, "always has multiple entryways", unlike traditional analytical documents which enter only at the beginning, at the thesis, and travel one way to the conclusion like a digestive tract.

This performance has implications, ramifications—it multiplies and emerges. First, Untext has no center, no unified voice, no author in the traditional sense. We readers want a single author, a single author-ity; even if it is a group, we want unity. One voice. Untext is a swarm voice—if you prefer zombies, then it is a horde voice—but it is not a centered voice. It is not even uncentered. It swarms. As Deleuze and Guattari say:
To these centered systems, the authors contrast acentered systems, finite networks of automata in which communication runs from any neighbor to any other, the stems or channels do not preexist, and all individuals are interchangeable, defined only by their state at a given moment—such that the local operations are coordinated and the final, global result synchronized without a central agency.
Untext speaks as i. I, of course, am there in the text, as were others, but not as I; rather, as i. We lacked a word and made do with what was to hand. We was too unified, a coherent whole, a choir with one voice, Faulkner's small southern village, and not a swarm. I, too, carries way to much baggage from centuries of coherence and individualism and our own delusions that we exist. i had to do. I think it worked rather well, but we'll see if it persists. First-person swarm triumphs over first-person singular and first-person plural.

Our communications ran—still run—"from any neighbor to any other". The text was not decided before it was composed, and no one planned to speak to anyone else. Even when we were only two, Maha and I, we had no intention of communicating about anything. We wrote over each other, past each other. We surprised, echoed, drifted. Everything was lateral. Then others joined, and the hum grew louder. But not discordant, not if you are in the swarm. Local comments "are coordinated" and the final document—if there is to be a final document, I doubt it, so let's say the emerging document—is "synchronized without a central agency" as each voice looks to its immediate neighbor for cues about which way to move. Sensitivity leads to a swarm of swallows, both birds and gulps. I won't say that I am always graceful writing in the swarm, that any of i is always graceful, but i am learning, and i will do better next time. Even zombies can learn.

So if you can't identify a unified voice, which one do you believe? As my son once told me, "Dad, don't believe anyone, believe everyone." Truth no longer relies on the authority of the single voice. Rather, it relies on triangulation. Don't focus. Absorb the hum coming from all angles and washing over you, and listen for the pockets of resonance, to use a term from Marshall McLuhan. Triangulate to find something similar to the truth in the emergence of repetitive patterns. Walter Cronkite is dead.

And so is the thesis statement. It isn't there in the Untext. I really can't tell you what i meant to say. Each time I re-read Untext, I see something new. At last, I have reached the point my dear friend Boer tried to lead me when he said, "I don't want to write what I know. I want to write what I don't know so that I can read it and learn."

Finally, don't look for a context to this text. You must bring your own context (BYOC), which guarantees that whatever you find emerging from the text will be different from what the next reader with their different context finds. If your only context is three hundred years of Western analysis, then Untext will likely make no sense to you. Let it go.

But if it says something to you, if it creates a hum in your heart or head, then welcome to the rhizome. Let's swarm.