Thursday, November 10, 2011

#change11 The Nothing Rhizome

Change11 heated up for me this week, and I'm pleased. It was not planned, but it does have a design: a convergence of several arcs that can be traced back, if one is so inclined, for many years:

  • The paperwork associated with my impending retirement from Albany State University is over; thus, I am not so distracted now and can attend to the MOOC. This is an arc that stretches back thirty-five years to 1976 when I assumed my first position as an English instructor at Reinhardt College in the hills of north Georgia and started a professional life in academia.
  • My interest in networks, an arc that goes back to 1982 when I became the director of the Communications Center at the University of Houston-Victoria and installed a lab of DEC Pro 380s and connected them to the campus network.
  • A conversation in 2002 with my friend and philosopher Carl Hays about how networking structures were replacing hierarchical structures as the dominant metaphor for organizing society.
  • An email in 2009 with my friend and English scholar Dan Jaeckle about how the rhizome was a better metaphor than networks for understanding the emerging changes in society and about why I should read Deleuze and Guattari.
  • Change11 is my fourth MOOC. This arc stretches back three years to 2008.
  • Discovering in 2010 that Dave Cormier, one of the main guys in the Connectivism/MOOC thing that I was following, was also interested in rhizomatic thinking.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Take any one point in your life, and you can follow back from it multiple strands or arcs that seem to come from everywhere in your life to converge on this one moment to imbue it with more significance than you could ever muster through your own conscious intention and power. This convergence would seem so magical if it weren't so ordinary. It happens every moment of every day as the arcs and strands of our lives and others weave in and out to form each successive moment.

When we stop to think about this rhizomatic process, as Change11 has forced me to do this week, then we can gain a sense of some larger purpose or design or force at work. Something that seems bigger than ourselves. Being language-using creatures, we want to name it, though several of our religious traditions warn us explicitly not to do this. Naming God is a bad idea, but we do it anyway. George Lucas calls it The Force, which seems parsimonious. Religious traditions call it Yaweh, Allah, the Tao, or just God, which seems too parsimonious to me.  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin says noosphere, and James Lovelock says gaia. Others say it is emergence, just random, blind convergence, or a rigid nexus of cause and effect. All of these names capture something useful, I suppose, but not one of these names is adequate. Rhizome is not adequate, either, but it's the name Deleuze and Guattari came up with, and like the other names, it has some really good uses, providing some wonderful benefits and insights. But eventually, like all names, it will fall short. Signs always fall short of the things they signify, but for all that, signs are incredibly useful. So let's talk about rhizomes, exploring what the metaphor provides and what it does not provide.

As often happens with me, I've gone way too cosmic. Let's bring this down to something more concrete. In my previous post, I made several comments about the rhizome that Sui Fai John Mak and likely others found confusing. I will try to provide some clarity, though I've just noticed that Bonnie Stewart has provided an answer that is likely better than what I have in mind. Still, maybe the two answers together will be even better yet.

Mak asks what I meant by saying that the rhizome is nothing. As I understand the rhizome, it is not a thing in our usual sense of things: a discrete unit with a rather fixed set of describable features usually shared with other units of its type. Each thing may interact with other things, but it maintains its own identity. And perhaps most importantly, we humans always stand outside the thing—we are the viewing subject and it is the viewed thing. The rhizome is not a thing in this sense. That's what I meant by saying it is nothing. I am not saying that the rhizome is an absence, or emptiness, or vacuity. How so?

First, as Deleuze and Guattari make very clear, the rhizome is an assemblage. It is not a thing, but many things, though even that statement is misleading in the end, but let's use it for a moment. What makes an assemblage of many things a rhizome? First, they are all connected. D&G say pointedly: "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). Indeed, not only is every thing in the rhizome connected to every other thing in the rhizome, but to everything else anywhere. Rhizomes work against boundaries, hierarchies work within them, and this fuzziness of boundary is one of the qualities that works against the thinginess of rhizomes. APPLICATION: In a traditional classroom, student connections are very closely managed and quite limited. Students connect to the teacher and the teacher's content only. In a rhizomatic classroom, student connections are opened and expanded, starting with student-to-student collaboration and moving outward. Rhizomatic learning helps us see the sense of this reduction or elimination of boundaries. In MOOCs, the boundaries dissolve almost totally.

Second, the rhizome is heterogeneous. A rhizome is an assemblage of different, sometimes radically different, things. In speaking of language as a rhizomatic structure, D&G write that "there is no language in itself, nor are there any linguistic universals only a throng of dialects, patois, slangs, and specialized languages. There is no ideal speaker-listener, any more than there is a homogenous linguistic community. Language is, in Winreich's words, an essentially heterogeneous reality" (7). APPLICATION: Traditional education acts as if students are homogenous units to be educated in batches (usually by age), in the same way, at the same time. Rhizomatic education insists that students are heterogeneous and seeks way to educate them in different ways, at different times, in different contexts, about different things. In MOOCs, heterogeneity is so obvious as to hardly be worth noting. We are all in a MOOC for a dizzying array of reasons, even if many of us share some of those reasons.

Third, the rhizome is a multiplicity, an assemblage, but a kind different from a mere collection of things.   I find this point exciting but very slippery: "A multiplicity has neither subject nor object, only determinations, magnitudes, and dimensions that cannot increase in number without the multiplicity changing in nature. … Puppet strings, as a rhizome or multiplicity, are tied not to the supposed will of an artist or puppeteer but to a multiplicity of nerve fibers, which form another puppet in other dimensions connected to the first: 'Call the strings or rods that move the puppet the weave. It might be objected that its multiplicity resides in the person of the actor, who projects it into the text. Granted; but the actor's nerve fibers in turn form a weave. And they fall through the gray matter, the grid, into the undifferentiated. … The interplay approximates the pure activity of weavers attributed in myth to the Fates or Norns'" (8). APPLICATION: In a traditional class, a teacher assumes a specific lesson taught to specific students who are only and specifically here for the specific purpose of transferring specific information from the teacher to the student. In a rhizomatic class, a teacher assumes that each class is the convergence of perhaps infinite lines and arcs and trajectories of differing magnitudes and dimensions. More simply: each child shows up to the lesson on different nutritional, emotional, intellectual, cultural, aesthetic trajectories—just to name a few—and the energy of each of those trajectories affects the lesson. Then fold in the differing trajectories the teacher brings, the differing trajectories of the content of the lesson, the fluctuating trajectories of the language and other media the teacher employs. Traditional education assumes that through a clean, well-lighted lesson plan, a teacher can adequately control and manage a lesson toward a specific outcome, that her tests can reliably test the same thing in different students, that she can replicate the experience across different times, places, and people. Rhizomatic education insists that while lesson plans can be useful, we ignore and forget about the multiplicity of any moment at our peril. While we humans must reduce any reality to some handy, manageable concepts, or things, we should never forget that things are only more-or-less convenient fictions that the rhizome frequently disrupts.

Which brings us to the next characteristic of rhizomes: asignifying ruptures. However, this has become a very long post. I'll write later about the three other characteristics of rhizomes: asignifying ruptures, cartography, and decalcomania.

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