Presentation on the Guide to Theory
Center for Undergraduate Instructional Excellence
December 2002



“Bw/orgs and Rhizomes: Learning Critical Theory through the World Wide Web”

WHEN I FIRST PROPOSED MY TITLE, “Bw/orgs and Rhizomes: Learning Critical Theory through the World Wide Web,” I thought that what I would do for today’s presentation is discuss the theoretical ramifications of publishing an introduction to critical theory on the World Wide Web, which is what I did during my time as a fellow of the Center for Undergraduate Instructional Excellence (CUIE for short). I might have, that is, explained theoretically how the very nature of the Internet changes the way one approaches or lays out such an introduction to theory. I’m going to do a little of that here today, but I want also to spend some time showcasing the Guide itself. Hence, all the technology.

Were I to follow my original design, I would spend a good deal more time outlining the theories of Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (let’s call them D&G for short, though my partner was afraid that you might get this confused with fashion designers Dolce and Gabbana; I thought though, that you’d be safe enough). In particular, I would have discussed at yet more length D&G’s efforts to propose alternative models for understanding knowledge and selfhood in the postmodern age. In their hugely influential book, A Thousand Plateaus, they argue that they wish to counter the usual approach to the book as form of transmission. “The first type of book,” they write, “is the root-book…. This is the classical book, as noble, signifying, and subjective organic interiority” (5). The traditional notion of the book tends to work by a binary logic, they argue, setting up oppositions in which one term is valued over and against another, with an argumentative structure that resembles the image of a tree or tap root: one central line of argumentation with a series of rigidly subordinated tangents. That structure is actually the basic skeleton on which I ended up hanging a modular design that, in fact, as I will explain, actually contradicts and explodes the principles of the traditional tree structure. If you were to look up the Guide’s homepage, you would find that each theory is subordinated to the main homepage, with sub-homepages organizing material within a consistent 6-fold structure, much like the branches of a central tree trunk, expanding outward on each branch. Each section, for example the section on postmodernism, includes six main sub-sections subordinated to the two homepages (the main homepage and the subordinated homepage for Postmodernism). Under our sample section here, Postmodernism, one finds:

1. A General Introduction, which, in the case of Postmodernism, discusses the emergence of postmodernity from within a history of the human subject going back to ancient Greece;

2. A links page, which offers the best sites I know of that introduce theory in one way or another, either in terms of literature, culture, theory alone, or pedagogy.

3. A set of sample applications; in the case of postmodernism, for example, you can click on Dürer (in fact, in each section I provide a reading of the Dürer woodcut associated with that section of the Guide) or you can click on Star Trek, which offers a web page outlining the sorts of questions a student might pose in discussing a work like Star Trek from the perspective of postmodernism. The page also offers a sample clip from the show, which students can attempt to analyze using a series of questions that begin to address the sorts of issues explored by postmodern critics, for example:

    • Is there a way in which reality is being supplanted by its representation (á là the simulacrum)?
    • What is the status of the "human" as a category in the work? Are there ways in which the traditional notion of subjectivity is being questioned or reworked?
    • What is the place of the machine in this universe; has the machinic begun to threaten aspects of traditional human society?
    • In what ways has digital or media culture begun to affect such categories as subjectivity, perception, or representation?

You can then proceed to the application, in which I argue that the Borg is a simulacrum of our own late capitalist system of simulacrua, i.e. a version of our own multi-national, technological capitalism in which indeed, as the Borg endlessly exclaim, "everyone will be assimilated, resistance is futile." The Borg represents the greatest danger ever faced by the Federation, not because the Borg wishes completely to destroy the Federation's own empire, but because it reflects what Baudrillard calls "the primal... scene of capital: its instantaneous cruelty, its incomprehensible ferocity, its fundamental immorality" (Simulations 28-29). Star Trek can thus be said to explore two related concepts central to Lyotard's understanding of the postmodern condition: language games and the sublime. Star Trek's "prime directive," like Lyotard's theories of justice, demands non-intervention because of the incommensurability of different cultures or language games. On the other hand, what we might term the show's "sublime directive"—to go "where no one has gone before"—ensures that we never remain complacent in the limiting conventions of any one cultural realm or any one language game.” The analysis goes on from there.

4. You can then, if you wish, proceed to the “Lesson Plans” section in which I for example provide a lesson plan based on precisely this same Star Trek episode. I make clear what is necessary and/or optional in such an exercise, explain how I implement the plan in my own classes (offering the clip once again), and then reproduce the discussion I myself had in a similar class, naming the actual students who participated in order to give a sense for the dynamic of the exercise. In this class, for example, I suggested how much a technology as seemingly innocuous as writing has changed our understanding of the world. I asked the question: "What IS a tree?" As Natalie Garrett and others stated, a tree is a plant with bark, branches, and leaves that produces oxygen and processes the sun's energy through photosynthesis (those are their words). The class unanimously agreed with this definition. I then explained that studies of those oral cultures that still exist in the former Yugoslavia have asked the same question of non-literate people. Surprisingly, there too the response to the question was, for the most part, unanimous and yet completely different from our own: a tree is like a man whose arms reach up to heaven but whose roots are caught in hell. Why this incredible difference in response? Can we not even agree on an issue as fundamental as the answer to the question: "What is a tree?" Well, the REASON we, in a literate culture, can all unanimously agree with Natalie's definition is that we automatically turn to our communal literate source—the dictionary, which structures our experience of the world through the conventions of science and taxonomy [both reliant, as D&G argue, on a tree structure for epistemology] (hence the use by some students of a scientific language that, I would venture to say, these students do not use as readily in everyday speech). The question is this: if something like writing could so much change our understanding of reality, then how are such machines as the car, the telephone, the television, and the computer [we might add, the internet] radically changing the way we understand the world and ourselves.

So far, I should add, the web site itself tends to follow the taxonomic structure usually adopted by science, which is to say a tree structure, with six sub-categories in each of six theoretical schools, all subordinated under that umbrella term, “critical theory.”

What happened while I was on the CUIE grant, however, is that I received a second grant that allowed me completely to rethink this original tree structure. It’s the longest grant title I’ve ever heard of actually: an Indiana Higher Education Telecommunication System/ Indiana Partnership for Statewide Education Module and Course Development Program Grant (let’s call this one IHETS/IPSE for short). Through summer 2003, IHETS/IPSE funded a project that has been growing within and, to some extent, against my work for CUIE. This new work is also being aided by a Teaching for Tomorrow support group, a program that I’m participating in this year, as well as a Dean’s Incentive Teaching Grant that allowed me to hire a computer specialist to create properly interactive elements in the site. What these grants have allowed is a more radical approach to the theory introduction, an approach that resembles not a tree structure but D&G’s proposed alternate structure for understanding the book in the postmodern age: the rhizome or the Body without Organs (the latter of which I have written as the neologism Bw/org to tie the concept to the machine logic of the Internet; that is, the Borg). Some theorists of the internet have turned to D&G’s concepts to make sense of the weave structure of the World Wide Web, a structure that is, by most accounts, radically different than the sort of tree and root structures at home in the textual book.

D&G describe this alternate rhizomatic logic in terms of a series of principles, for example: 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” (7). D&G also cite a principle of multiplicity: “There are no points or positions in a rhizome, such as those found in a structure, tree, or root. There are only lines” (8); they go on to argue that such a situation is analogous to the metaphor of weaving. A third principle is that of asignifying rupture: “A rhizome may be broken, shattered at a given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines” (9). Finally, D&G mention a principle of cartography: “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… Perhaps one of the most important characteristics of the rhizome is that it always has multiple entryways” (10).

One goal of the redesigned web site is to emulate this new mode of representing knowledge in the postmodern condition. As I explain in my Psychoanalysis Modules page,

The Modules are designed to work aggregatively, so that each subsequent module tends to build on the concepts discussed in the previous modules; however, each is also designed to stand alone, and will sometimes be hyperlinked in other sections of the Guide to Theory. In this way, the modules seek to rethink the way most text-based introductions work. Like a text-based introduction, the modules can work progressively, as if one were thus turning the pages in a book. However, the structure is actually more akin to Deleuze and Guattari's notion of the rhizome: endlessly aggregative (at least in theory), connected to each other and to the rest of the site by multiple additional links. One can therefore progress through the modules in alternate ways; in the psychoanalysis modules, for example, one can concentrate on a single concept, psychosexual development, exploring how Freud, Lacan, and Kristeva each differ in significant ways when it comes to this issue. One can also explore connections between the modules on psychonalysis and those found in other locations in this site. The Freud module on transference and trauma, for example, is logically and actively linked to the Narratology module on Peter Brooks, allowing the user to think about the connections between psychoanalysis and narrative theory.

If you were to turn to the Freud Modules, you would see that they function less like a progressive argument than as plateaus (another favorite D&G term). As with D&G’s concept of the rhizome, any point can be connected to anything other, and must be. By themselves, the modules are rather small, albeit more in-depth than the shorter definitions that exist alongside them, available at any point as a line of flight (to use a metaphor beloved by D&G). However, the modules function as part of a much larger rhizomatic structure that is, theoretically, endlessly extensive, linked, indeed, to everything else within the site and to a much larger web structure associated with my various classes at Purdue; indeed, the Lesson Plans sections were designed to link the Guide to Theory, in proper rhizomatic fashion, to the many web resources that I make available in my various class web sites. Add to all that the plethora of links to outside web sites, many of which in turn link back to my own site, and you, indeed, have a structure that may be broken, shattered at a given spot, but that will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines, to echo D&G.

Taken alone, any one module is minimal; taken together, the web site has already reached 80,000 words and will, eventually, exceed 100,000, which is the usual length of an academic book. The site will also be endlessly extendable as I discover the need to add new definitions alongside the courses I teach. Part of the IHETS/IPSE grant, in fact, included beta-testing on two sections of a Fantasy and Science Fiction course that used the various Modules as one of the primary resources of the course, with each week dedicated to a particular concept that the class applied to pop-cultural examples (like the Star Trek example I have already mentioned). The ultimate goal of such a modular design is to ensure that the map be open and connectable in all of its dimensions; it can be torn, reversed, adapted to any kind of mounting, reworked by an individual, group, or social formation, as D&G write of the rhizome. And, indeed, various sections of the guide have already been put to use in classes across the United States and in other countries. With usage already at about 1,000 unique visitors per day from over 100 different countries, each coming in at multiple entryways and proceeding along completely different lines of flight, with sections of the guide already a linked part of other web-based courses and informational sites, you can begin to see how we are dealing with a rather different animal than a text-based book. Indeed, I’ve chosen an animal as the site’s main icon: Dürer’s rhinoceros. What interests me about this rhino—and what makes him a perfect emblem for this site on critical theory—is that Dürer had never actually seen a rhino: this, then, is an animal in theory, one which demonstrates the crucial disconnect between reality and representation, a disconnect that drives much of critical theory. You might even say that my website’s structure is not only rhizomatic but also (as this talk has led me to think of it) rhinomatic. What we are seeing, indeed, thanks to the rather incredible transformation that the internet has effected in only a decade of popular existence, is a new animal, rhizomatic, rhinomatic, or what have you, a new way of understanding knowledge and of structuring the learning experience. You could say that my ultimate goal in teaching theory through the World Wide Web is to convince a new audience—a body without organs, if you will—that the future is now and that such an approach to pedagogy marks a new era of not only web-based learning but also epistemology.