Monday, January 7, 2008

Lynn Hoffman and the Rhizome Century

This following posting is provided by author, family therapist, and good friend, Lynn Hoffman. Lynn has been a significant figure within the field of family therapy from its early beginnings, a quick search engine query with her name will show some of the many books and articles she has written through the years. I see Lynn as a visionary. She has certainly been on the fore-front of many trends in the family therapy field, realizing their significance far before they reach their potential. Following is some of her current vision...


1. The Rhizome Century

Inspired by the writings of French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, community therapist Chris Kinman and I wish to add to our present Collaborative framework a new metaphor: that of the “Rhizome.” Unlike the “System,” which derives from engineering and technology, Rhizomes are tied to the natural world. This link with nature privileges a kind of communication that Bateson called “the grammar of the Creatura,” a language which is based on gestures, images, embodiment, and similitude. It leads to a usage which Bateson, maybe mischievously, termed “Syllogisms in Metaphor” or “Syllogisms in Grass” (Grass, of course, being another example of a Rhizome).

Moving on to social architecture, Deleuze and Guattari compare the Tree, with its top-down hierarchy of root, trunk, branch and crown, with the Rhizome, which has no up or down but lives in an eternal middle. These thinkers admire the rhizome’s ability to put out an underground root or aerial shoot and re-grow itself in another space. Some rhizomes are seen as pests, like crabgrass, others are valued like iris or daffodils, but they are hard to kill. Stamped out in one yard, they just sprout up next door. They continually create new “plateaus” or “assemblages,” from a horn of plenty like Baucus’ pitcher that never runs out of milk. The Tree, on the other hand,symbolizes a bureaucratic structure that is a characteristic of modern life.

I asked myself, what would rhizome-like human services look like? Could we find a different name for meetings or touchings, one not connected to problems but to inspirations, mysteries, and the search (which always has to take place behind one’s back) for “the good”? I came up with “Floating Islands,” because I had a book by that name as a child and it had no immediate relevance to helping anyone. But meetings called something like “Lifework,” might sound more serious.

2. Postmodernism

Many people in our field have been experimenting with similar web and net-like metaphors, starting with the late Harry Goolishian and Harlene Anderson. These two, in developing the term “not knowing,” challenged the expert position as part of their wish to form genuinely collaborative partnerships with the persons they worked with. They were also among the first of us to read about and create an interest in the relatively new concept of Postmodernism. Yet this concept was not so new. It furthered the warnings against “epistemological errors” and the reminders not to “cut up the ecology” that we inherited from Bateson.

Another rule-breaker was the late Tom Andersen, who developed the idea of the reflecting team, amended by Harlene to “reflecting process.” In this format, expressiveness and responsiveness were more highly valued than expert-derived solutions. In fact, the turn-taking between those who performed and those who did not, brought shifts in perspectives that themselves sparked off neew thinking. In using this more spontaneous stance, standard interventions withered, and examples of “clever therapy” began to disappear.

It was Lois Shawver, a psychologist who had been running a Listserve called Postmodern Therapy News, who first explained to me the source of the term “postmodern.” Although it had been first used by U.S. literary critics, who called themselves poststructuralists, it became reborn it as “an incredulity to metanarratives,” a definition used by French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard in his treatise “The Postmodern Condition.” Many conversational rules changed as a result, like the decision to follow “little narratives” rather than the big ones that gathered everything under the same roof. Reaching consensus in any discussion stopped being a holy grail, and ways to hold differences together without breakage began to feel possible.

Lois was also a pioneer in showing, on her Postmodern Therapies List, a new style of dialogue that Lyotard called “paralogy.” This was a noncompetitive type of exchange based on what Lyotard called the language game of Audition. Instead of “listening in order to talk,” Lyotard proposed that we “talk in order to listen.” This term had so many implications for therapists that I began to use it myself. Lois then came up with theterm “tiotoling,” a neologism based on initials, and it spread via the Postmodern Therapies List. But it was Lyotard himself who put the cherry on top: the game of Audition, he said, was “the game of the Just.”

I too had begun looking for practices that would be an expression of a postmodern stance. I asked psychologist Gisela Schwarz, whom I had met at a “Galveston Conference” in Texas, if she could splice me into her private practice in Austria, as a long distance, one-woman reflecting team. During the next two years, we completed several “paralogues,” as we called them, although we did not publish them except on Shawver’s online newsletter. I based the word on the term “paralogy” which Lyotard, had used to describe the conversational style characteristic of postmodernism.

Shawver, who always seemed to have a million strings to her bows, now teamed up with Andrew Lock, of Massey University in New Zealand. He had asked her to run a section on Professional Development as part of a Discursive Therapy course he had designed. I taught in that course for two years, and we used Lois’ Postmodern Therapies News project as material for students to chew on. This course never drew more than two students a year, and Lois and I finally withdrew, but not before I was able to record some online exchanges that represented a personal wish. I was hoping I could show that this type of forum could achieve a closeness comparable to a face to face encounter and, not incidentally, create a social web. I am still in email contact with one of those students, Clarke M., whose ability to communicate in vivid imagery was outstanding, and I hope to write up some of the conversations of that year. Also notable was the fact that Clarke’s co-student, Vicki D., had an adolescent son with autism, and without knowing it till relatively recently, had herself been struggling with Aspergers. I will never forget her efforts to explain to us, her teachers, how to communicate with her by using her cognitive strengths, and her deft labeling of the three of us as “neurotypicals.”

3. The Clairvoyant Philosophers

I was also impressed by Lois’ way of teaching the complex roots of Postmodernism. It was she who acquainted me with Wittgenstein’s early transformation from Logical Positivist to Questing Searcher, and his skepticism in regard to the role of language in shaping our belief in an “out there” reality. Lois also showed me how Lyotard’s invention of the term “Postmodernism” put a body on an invisible turn in the road. The many indications that an important paradigm shift was taking place had not fully been understood, even by academics. Although the giants that I call the “Clairvoyant Philosophers” had been poking about in that direction, I still had no real understanding of the cumulative nature of their vision.

These giants, to give you my personal choice only, included Gregory Bateson, whose “Syllogisms in Metaphor” changed not only my life but the way I worked in therapy. Another example was the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who, after he turned his back on his brilliant thesis on logical positivism, went off to explore the groundwork for what eventually became the Postmodern Turn. A third giant is French historian Michel Foucault. Foucault’s challenge to modernist interpretations of history was not only radical but influenced Michael White’s story-oriented Narrative approach. White also revised Tom Andersen’s Reflecting Team practice so that the ritual would enhance the comments exchanged by those attending. The aim of this performance was to transform what came in the door, to literally move it from one place to another.

A fourth giant was the Russian philologist Mikhail Bakhtin, whose revolutionary ideas on Dialogical vs. Monological thinking became the basis for the humane Finnish approach to acute psychosis called “Open Dialogue.” This was a sensible, down-to-earth method of dealing with first time psychosis. Psychologist Jaakko Seikkula and colleagues researched this approach in a now famous five year study at Keropoudas Hospital in Tornio. Their model acted to prevent chronification, which they believed was the greatest danger in cases of psychosis and which hospitalization and medication only intensified. By the end of the study, 80% of their population was working, studying or looking for a job. In the comparison hospital in Sweden, where the sample group was given “treatment as usual,” a similar percentage ended up on welfare or in the hospital.

This last section I want to give to our discovery of giants five and six: the celestial twins Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Let me try to show how their work crystallized our understanding of what we now call “The Gutenberg Moment.”

4. The Gutenberg Moment:

A few years ago, Chris Kinman began to read the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and began to publish essays on the Internet about their ideas. In an online booklet, called “Confluences,” he wrote about and took pictures to illustrate concepts like The Rhizome vs. The Tree, Abundance vs. Lack, the Body Without Organs (the non-medicalized body), the Nomad War Machine (how colonized people resist), and many more images which enlarged our human services vocabulary in unusual ways.

Chris and I had already been experimenting with gift-exchange structures and rhizome-like applications to community work for 15 years. In these latter days, we both feel that what is taking place on the World Wide Web is not only a parallel phenomenon but mind-shaking. The World Wide Web and the Internet are Rhizomes in the classic sense. They are already sprouting movements, formats, patterns, that are questioning, evading, and uprooting many of the gatekeeping structures that support our Modernist society. They are deeply impacting the field of Human Services: with online courses, self-published books, interviews controlled by the interviewee, List Serve conversations, blogs, meet-up spaces, and stations for many kinds of exchange, all floating in an invisible colloid that has no middle and no boundary and no end.

It is fascinating to read the many studies analyzing the nature of the new Web structures, which are also successful business structures. They describe the rise of decentralized organizations where no one person is “the head,” and there is not much specialization among parts. Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom (2006), in their brilliant book “The Starfish and The Spider,” compare hierarchical top-down organizations (the Spider) with the decentralized models (the Starfish) that are appearing on the Internet. Examples (not always pure) would be Ebay, Amazon, Google, Wikipedia, Craig’s List, and other such. The structure of the Starfish is rhizome-like. If you cut off one of its legs, it will grow a new leg. Cut it into pieces, and new starfish will appear. If you cut off a Spider’s head, it will die.

One famous starfish in the helping field cited by Brafman and Beckstrom is Alcoholics Anonymous, which is notably leaderless, self-creating and self-governing. It has only a few guidelines: an ideology renouncing will power, a structure free of rank, an atmosphere of “No Blame.” Another example is the annual event called Burning Man, where people gather in the desert and create unusual artifacts, dress in elaborate costumes, or don’t dress at all. The most amazing feature of such happenings is that they do away with money, except for donated items to do with hospitality, like coffee or ice. These are gift economies based on exchange. Such structures have the potential to undermine the Capitalist system, at least in their abstract aspects, without reference to Communism at all.

These are some of the questions that fascinate me and Chris. Behind them we will find many other ideas, thoughts, and murky muddles. Following our key image, the Rhizome, we can ask “Who knows what new assemblages will be waiting as we come in the door? Who knows what people will greet us who do not yet exist?”

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