All entries for Sunday 28 May 2006

May 28, 2006

Academic connectors and academic dissectors

In a conversation this week, Kay Sanderson of the Warwick Skills Programme used a continuum to describe two character tendencies amongst academics and students: some people, it is said, are dissectors whilst others are connectors. Kay has much experience with getting students and researchers to think reflectively about their work. She has also had a long standing involvement with learning technology development, which for many, is tinged with a degree of dissatisfaction. I wonder if this dissatisfaction is related to the dissector/connector division?

Kay's analysis of my own work quite rightly places me towards the connector end of the line, meaning that my intellectual habits tend towards seeking out related phenomena in distinct realms, looking for connections, and searching for a common underlying dynamic. Other people tend towards the dissector extreme, they are primarily concerned with analysing a single phenomena by dissecting it continually into more fine–grained constituent parts.

The more speculative claim is that our systems of higher education are increasingly biased towards dissectors, and that this is a very bad thing indeed.

I'll leave that conjecture open and unassessed, as there are two more immediate questions that interest me:

  1. Are the two modes of operation in fact just two aspects of the same intellectual process? – inseparable;
  2. Does the application of one without the other lead to empty meaningless results?
  3. Are our learning technologies capable of supporting each mode in the right way and at the right time?
Connective synthesis and disjunctive synthesis

The notional connector person and their counterpart dissector are characterised as such because they tend to make things following one particular pattern. The product of their creativity being conceptual structure, developed within and expressed by various forms (texts, diagrams, programmes, maps).

The creation of concepts, of whatever pattern, is an act of synthesis:

Synthesis is always the addition of a further component to existing components. What gets added? A connection is created between the components, a procedure or route of exchange between the components. The connection is itself a component, a real thing. In art, these connections are often deliberately exposed and developed in new ways. However, when such a connective synthesis is turned towards a problem of understanding, we try to use connectors that are as neutral as possible. This is the rationalist deception. In other cases we claim to be merely discovering the connections that are already subsistent in the world. The components being connected are then predisposed to the connection, which bears little of the mark of human understanding, but which either is brought out through the application of the correct procedure, or alternatively suppressed. Sometimes this empiricism works well, having discovered a subterranean connection between worlds. Other times it results in foolish fantasy and fetishism. A second such synthesis is that of dissection: a disjunctive synthesis. A single component or slice of reality is decomposed into separable constituent parts, according to some arbitrary or self-evident facts of antithesis between them. It is important to understand that disjunctive synthesis is not the opposite of connective synthesis. Rather, it is a special case. A connection is always posited. The connection being the fact of difference. Breaking the world down is of course an essential part of living within and coping with it. But we must also distinguish two forms of dissector. If the difference is thought to be already and always present in the component, then no time or process is required with which to render the connection. It is ontologically apriori. Creationists are of course great dissectors. But we don't have to be mad theologists in order to dissect; in fact Nietzsche the great anti-theist claimed dissection to be of paramount importance. The difference between Nietzsche's dissection (selection/destruction/forgetting) and creationism is that for Nietzsche dissection is necessary in order to create a future world, rather than to conserve a past one. Whereas creationists imagine that there is a single blueprinted world of spatially separable identities, with his disjunctive synthesis, Nietzsche presents an active creation or engineering of reality that combines both disjunctive and connective synthesis in order to produce new additions to "all the names of history", new characters and new concepts forged through a conjunctive synthesis.

With the two syntheses defined, the inseperability of connection and dissection (question 1 above) is clear. But why should there be character types that favour one of the modes almost exclusively over the other? Surely the best approach would be to recognize the importance of each synthesis in its own time and place, whilst retaining a critical stance? There are no doubt many reasons why people become inflexible in their thinking, becoming trapped within an obsessive dissection or a delirial search for connections. I would like to raise the possibility that our learning technologies may be part of the problem.

Current learning technologies are good at either linear instructional exposition, communicating a topic by dissecting it, or the un-constrained expansion of connections. What they fail to do effectively is combine both strategies, dissection and connection. Consider how, on any given topic, the web contains a few linear texts, each presenting a constrained perspective on the topic. Each text makes assumptions about basic elements, about how the world is dissected. These dissections serve the particular narrative or connectivity of the text. From the perspective of content packages delivered within a VLE (virtual learning environment), the connections are even more linear and the dissections even less open. Such environments are constructed according to a pedagogy of instruction and completeness, with very clear and quantifiable start and end points to every topic. This is not the whole story with regards to that single topic. The web is also populated with many thousands of pages that relate to aspects of the topic in more or less direct ways. These thousands of other possible connections may act to dissect further, or to expand our understanding of existing dissections. However, most current learning technologies do not support any kind of non-linear relationship between the analysis of a topic into a well structured narrative (of connections), and the exploration and revision of the dissections from which that narrative is formed.

To that conjecture, I added the clause 'most current learning technologies'. I do believe that there are a couple of technologies that do encourage this kind of non–linearity, namely wikis and concept maps. Both of these tools allow us to do the following:

  • Create a set of topics in relative isolation from each other (the MindManager concept mapping tool even includes a 'brainstorming' tool to assist with this).
  • Create a proposed structure drawing upon these topics.
  • Extend the structure with new topics, or old topics further dissected.
  • Create new connections between the topics.
  • Revise topics without drastically effecting the overall structure of connections.
  • Revise the structure without drastically effecting the individual topics.
  • Track revisions and authoring actions.

In these ways, wikis and concept maps actually work to promote a more effective combination of the three syntheses (connection, disjunction, conjunction), and open that process up to the critical view of both students and tutors.

In order to encourage more complete and effective thinking and learning processes, we must teach students to reflect upon and exploit the different aspects of their conceptual activity. Current learning technologies may work against this. However, there are at least two emerging technologies that are designed to effectively combine connective and dissective activity.

Research Notes: The addictive synthesis in theatre

Follow-up to Research Notes: Rosi Braidotti on addiction and ethics from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

Our discussion of addiction with Rosi Braidotti led me to propose a positive, social and ethical form of addiction, which I will now call the addictive synthesis. The following day I discussed this with Jon Stevens of Theatre Studies, who has a wide ranging understanding of theatre, virtuality and actuality.

Theatre is a repetition without finality, a repetition/rehearsal (same word in French). The most effective theatre approaches the limit and retreats, taking the audience on that journey to the edge.

In the Spanish Tragedy, Hieronymo’s desperation to get his friends to understand his plight becomes so extreme that he actually cuts out his own tongue and throws it at them. Blood sprays across the front row. The horror seems real. The political implications (in the original staging) could well have seen this violence flood outwards from the stage and into a society seething with injustice and censorship. But the play drives on in its own narrative direction, pulling the players and the audience back from the edge of collapse.

Centuries later, when theatre has lost its ability to go to the edge and back, Artaud sought to recover this power (in his essay on theatre and the plague):

Above all we must agree that stage acting is a delirium like the plague, and is communicable. p.18

...conditions must be found to give birth to a spectacle that can fascinate the mind. It is not just art. p.18

The plague takes dormant images, latent disorder and suddenly carries them to the point of the most extereme gestures. Theatre also takes gestures and develops them to the limit. Just like the plague, it reforges the links between what does and does not exist in material nature. p.18

For theatre can only happen the moment the inconcievable really begins, where poetry taking place on stage, nourishes and superheats created symbols. p.18

Like the plague, theatre is a crisis resolved either by death or cure. The plague is a superior disease because it is an absolute crisis after which there is nothing left except death or drastic putrification. In the same way, theatre is a disease because it is the final balance that cannot be obtained without destruction. It urges the mind to delirium which intensifies its energy. p.22

Most importantly, this theatre is a mobile plague, sweeping across the country. The movement of the travelling company from one city to another is not incidental. The programme of repetitions/rehearsal is repeated in a new setting each time, a new audience, a new set of reactions and interactions. As the reputation of the players builds and preceeds them, the audience becomes even more receptive and superheated, in expectation of becoming infected. Imagine what it must be like for the players, repeating their words and moves, and each time anticipating the differences both subtle and extreme.

Now consider street theatre, even more an addiction played out in varying circumstances. And the theatre of cruelty – the programme of repetitions melds with the stage and its agents, a single exposed body stripped bare and made mobile.

The addictive synthesis is the life and drive within theatre.