On tools and concepts

Levi Bryant has been on a productive roll of late and writes

Being is a jumble that in and of itself provides no vectors of its joints. Concepts are lenses and apparatuses. The question to ask a concept is not “is it true?” but is closer to the sorts of questions we ask of a microscope, radio telescope, or hammer. Nothing in the world tells me what to attend to or what to see. The question to ask of a concept is “what does it allow me to see?”, “what risks does it involve?”, “what does it allow me to do?”, “what affective attitudes and personae or human types does it generate?”, “what social relations or new forms social collective does it create?”, “what practices does it invite?”, “what affective attitudes towards other persons and nonhumans does it produce?”, “what hierarchies does it embody?”, “what new paths of invention, practice, research and invention does it breech?”, and so on. Concepts are meant to work and only live in working. They aren’t meant to represent.

I think this is an important point to remember. Certainly this is something that Deleuze and Guattari have taught us, and I am reminded of Massumi in the User's Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia describing concepts as being like bricks: you can use them to build the courthouse or you can throw them through the courthouse window. I also see this as a classic point of difference between philosophy and rhetoric as laid out in the Phaedrus. If Plato's concern with rhetoric is that it need not be used in the pursuit of truth, then is the philosopher's concern with concepts not the same? Concepts can mislead. They can be misused or abused. Look at the literary studies deconstruction machine of the 80s. For this reason, the flipside of concepts must be ethics. The Truth doesn't require ethics, which are only necessary in situations where we don't know with certainty. The Truth can't be about what one should or shouldn't do; it has to be about what one must do. Plato's concern is obviously valid when rhetoric masquerades as the truth and tries to tell us what one must do. Clearly however, that's not what concepts are about. Concepts are about what one can do. As Levi continues, "Concepts are meant to work and only live in working. They aren’t meant to represent."

My example of concepts at work is a little bit sideways from Levi's discussion: learning analytics. Michael Feldstein has a recent post on the topic. Learning analytics mixes educational philosophy and psychology with cognitive science, pedagogy, and various computer-related disciplines–HCI, information design, game design, and so on. Fundamentally, learning anayltics is cybernetics: it's a feedback loop. It rests upon philosophical concepts of cognition, communication, and agency. As I've been saying concepts are fine as tools; in fact, they are necessary. But beyond that, when the mistake themselves for truth, they can become disastrous. Clearly we see this with gaming and gamification. Games are apparently a great learning environment.

You know what else is a great learning environment? Life. Schooling, institutionalized learning, in games or classrooms, is an attempt to conceptualize learning and put those concepts to work in order not only to intensify the learning process but to make it predictable. Don't worry. I'm not going to say that learning is "natural" and schooling is "cultural." We are well beyond such distinctions here (I would hope). However, I would contend that learning does not require concepts. One may develop concepts through learning. In fact, maybe learning can be defined as the invention of concepts, at least on the individual level. 

So here is one of my favorite quote from What is Philosophy?

The post-Kantians concentrated on a universal encyclopedia of the concept that attributed concept creation to a pure subjectivity rather than taking on the more modest task of a pedagogy of the concept, which would have to analyze the conditions of creation as factors of always singular moments. If the three ages of the concept are the encyclopedia, pedagogy, and commercial professional training, only the second can safeguard us from falling from the heights of the first into the disaster of the third-an absolute disaster for thought whatever its benefits might be, of course, from the viewpoint of universal capitalism. (12, my emphasis)

So if pedagogy analyzes the creation of concepts as singular moments, we might, from that position, reject learning analytics outright, as an attempt to circumvent pedagogy and leap from the encyclopedia to training. However, I don't want to reject learning analytics. I want to reconceive them as conceptual tools for doing the work of pedagogy. This of course begins with recognizing that analytics don't "represent" learning experiences. They don't tell us the truth about what we are learning. Instead they are tools (or in Nietzschean-Deleuzian terms, perhaps they are nomadic weapons that can project agency rather than boomeranging ressentiment back toward us as bad conscience).

Of course, what learning analytics as this new inter-disciplinary social science must recognize is that it's name contains a redundancy. Learning always requires analysis and reflection. Learning is some sense inherently a process of self-awareness, of seeing yourself doing something. Otherwise, all we have done is acquired a habit. Eventually, we learn our multiplication tables to the point where we can perform calculations by rote. Memorization and habit can be useful. However, if all we aquired is the rote knowledge that 5X5=25 then we wouldn't be able to multiply other numbers, right? What we learn is the concept of multiplication.

Now, to imagine a learning analytics that would work for writing instruction? That one escapes me in any practical sense. However, it would likely need to recognize that the activity of rhetoric, as the composition of relation, thought, and agency, precedes conceptualization.

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