The Technology of Making Sense

Think about how you make sense of things. Often, we try to pinpoint things, recognize them, name them. Oh, this is post-goth industrial noise pop. This is neo-noir. That's feminist. Or not. This is a certain technology, a certain mechanics of sense making, that assumes things are instantiations of bigger things. I am a man (so some say); man is type of human; human is a species; and so on, I suppose, but I'm not sure where it ends. Life? God? The cosmos?

Anyway, sense making is not a natural thing per se. It is constructed in the same way that Deleuze and Guattari suggest that desire is constructed. There are what they call fluxes — emergent flows — that are cut and distributed by machines. The act of making sense by categorizing or knowing something is just such a machine. It's a kind of technology that is taught in schools as just how we do things. Now, Bobby, can you put all the red blocks in the red bucket?

This seems innocuous enough, perhaps, but it is built on a vertical architecture, a hierarchy, a pyramid in which less and less is on top and it's the top that's in control. Sound familiar? It plays itself out in social dynamics (the leader of the group), knowledge economies (the expert knows; we don't), and of course in politics: the buffoons at the top make the laws as dictated by the ones on the very top — the uber rich.

In school, we learn two methods of sense making: deduction and induction. Deduction begins with a general rule or axiom and then derives and discovers subservient truths. In rhetoric, this is taught as the syllogism; in philosophy and math, axioms and their proofs. (I know some mathematician somewhere is reading this and yelling that I said something wrong.)

And then there is induction in which we begin with the particulars and climb and build our way up until we've constructed a category, principle, or axiom. In inductive reasoning, the final resting point is not as sure footed as it is in deductive reasoning. After all, it's not built on self-evidence but on transient, empirical evidence which, alas, we feel we can never finally trust.

Nonetheless, in both deductive and inductive reasoning, the architecture is built on a vertical axis. We move down from general principles to examples or else we move from particulars to general principles.

But, it seems to me, there are other axes of sense making such as horizontal associations (that are not siblings — that is, that are not secretly the same). Many years ago, some friends and I built an associations engine that linked art and artists across all disciplines — fine arts, TV and film, philosophy, puppetry, music, design — to each other. We created a vast taxonomy broken into disciplines and movements and time periods. But then we also built a keyword system of concepts and affects — delicious, erotic, repetition, repetitive, in your face — that forged non-didactic, non-categorical connections, associations that sprawled sideways rather than up and down.

I imagine, and try to operate with, a technology of sense making that is free to sprawl every which way. Rather than limiting sense making to categories, we open it up to the inchoate, the affective, open it up to fluxes. I think of Lohren Green's Poetical Dictionary which defines words by their pronunciation, etymology, established definition, and affective resonance. He doesn't see these things as opposed or in any way interfering with each other. He follows where the word goes — which takes him along vertical, horizontal, and every which way paths. The result is not nonsense; nor is it ineffable. On the contrary, it's quite articulate albeit in a slightly different tongue than we're used to (the traditional dictionary has an all too familiar, exceedingly arid tone).

Kids make sense differently, especially before they've been trained to use a hierarchical technology of sense making. Just think back when you were a kid and all the odd things you thought — the ways you mixed up and combined words, the ways you linked things together. This is what I think of when Deleuze and Guattari say the flux — these smears of associations that create sense, that are sense, but never cohere into a concept or category. The sense remains at the level of dreams.

William Burroughs considers his dreams his education. The films of David Lynch forge all kinds of sense that are not linear, hierarchical, or conceptual as they enact a certain dream cinematics. Buñuel, of course, did the same but he enacted bourgeois culture along the multi-axes and fluxes of dreams.

But as kids go to school, the machine cuts these fluxes. Suddenly, kids enter middle school and they become know-it-alls. No, Dad, that's not a cumulus cloud! Duh! As kids are rewarded for their ability to put things in buckets, they abandon their sprawling poetic sense making and flaunt their ability to classify. This is what we teach them it means to know. Education becomes the process of domesticating the wildness of their thinking, turning those insane, private, ineffable images into social, public, accepted knowing.

It'd be nice to teach a different mode of sense making, deploy a different technology, a different architecture that moves according to different mechanics and dynamics — a sense making that's allowed, and encouraged, to be weird.

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