Friday, November 11, 2011

#change11 The Nothing Rhizome Pt 2

Yesterday, I started addressing a question from Sui Fai John Mak about why I would call the rhizome nothing, and I found myself wandering through the first three of the six characteristics of the rhizome that Deleuze and Guattari list in their book A Thousand Plateaus (1987):

  1. Connectivity (an obvious connection to Connectivism)
  2. Heterogeneity
  3. Multiplicity
Today, I want to continue the conversation by working through the final three characteristics:
  1. Asignifying ruptures
  2. Cartography
  3. Decalcomania
I suppose that asignifying ruptures most clearly capture Deleuze and Guattari's push back against power, especially the power we humans exercise through signifying, through naming things. They say that asignifying ruptures work "against the oversignifying breaks separating structures or cutting across a single structure" (9). We humans are excellent at breaking up reality into manageable pieces by analyzing and segmenting and naming and numbering and quantifying, and these are all useful mental processes that help us build airplanes, buildings, institutions, societies, and so on, but they are also fictions and power structures from which the rhizome flees through deterreritorialization and reterreritorialization. Or as Robert Frost says much more plainly: something there is that doesn't love a wall. Any slice of reality contains within it both the classifications we humans create to manage that reality and the lines of flight that undermine those classifications. As D&G say: "Every rhizome contains lines of segmentarity according to which it is stratified, territorialized, organized, signified, attributed, etc., as well as lines of deterritorialization down which it constantly flees. There is a rupture in the rhizome whenever segmentary lines explode into a line of flight, but the line of flight is part of the rhizome" (9). APPLICATION: Traditional education exerts much energy in classifying, stratifying, organizing, and naming students, teachers, subjects, disciplines, classes, tests, theories, etc. John is an A student, Mary is a C student, and Bubba is an F student. Manuel is a rising senior, and Jinchaun is a freshman. George is a Professor, and Dave is an Assistant Professor, and Stephen is a Dean. I teach essay writing: descriptive, persuasive, argumentative (sometimes the same as persuasive, sometimes listed separately. I don't know why), comparison (or comparison/contrast), expository, formal, informal, research, literary, cause/effect, and more. You can google essay forms or essay types and find oodles of classifications, all more or less arbitrary and, as near as I can tell from 30 years experience in teaching writing, all more or less useless. I've never found an essay that I really liked—say, something by Annie Dillard—that fit any of these groups very well. Rhizomatic education, then, recognizes that reality leaks out in lines of flight from our attempts to peg it, to name it, to pin it, wriggling on the wall, and tries to accomodate those lines of flight. The Change 11 MOOC just suffered a couple of asignifying ruptures with Nancy White's social artists and Dave Cormier's rhizomes and nomads, but unlike a traditional class, we MOOCers work with those lines of flight, riding along with them, ignoring them, or refuting them, as we are so inclined, but not knocked over by them. Indeed, we set up the MOOC to encourage just such ruptures. Rhizomatic learning does not deny the virtues of our analytical mind, but it recognizes that reality ain't really like that and can squirt out of our categories at the weirdest times.

These first four characteristics, I think, explain why lots of people are so confused when they first join a MOOC: a MOOC is an explicitly and intentionally rhizomatic structure:
  1. Connection: any MOOCer can connect to any other or to anyone else not in the MOOC. We don't simply connect to the teachers: Professors Cormier, Downes, and Siemens. We connect more to each other, and for me that has been Jeffrey, Glen, Bonnie, Sui Fai John, Jenny, and others, none of whom are willing or able to tell me what I should be learning or if I have learned it. This is great unless you are thoroughly conditioned to having someone tell you what the learning is all about. Well, rest yourself. You can decide what to learn and what to ignore. Trust yourself.
  2. Heterogeneity: We MOOCers are not the same. We are not homogenized. While we all share an interest in higher education and how it might be changing, that common interest is too vague to provide much guidance in where we are supposed to be going and how we are supposed to get there. We came in on different paths, and we are almost certainly passing through this MOOC on different paths. Cool—unless, of course, you are worried about falling behind. Well, rest yourself. You can't fall behind, as you are likely the only one of 2,000 scholars going your way.
  3. Multiplicity: We MOOCers are each the convergence of different life trajectories that we bring to the mix of all the other life trajectories in the MOOC. We focus on a few of those trajectories to gain some sense of what we are trying to do here, but the open structure of the MOOC allows all those trajectories to emerge in the mix. It can be overwhelming if we try to cover it all. Well, rest yourself. You can't cover it all.
  4. Asignifying ruptures: We MOOCers know that the conversation can take some abrupt, even startling, turns and flights into ideas and concepts that we never anticipated, or even knew about. This can be exciting and challenging or terrifying and frustrating, as not everyone likes snowboarding over a ledge without knowing where the trail's going, or if there even is a trail. Well, rest yourself. You don't have to follow every trail—in fact, you can't—and next week, we'll be back on a trail that works for you.
MOOCs just don't have any of the traditional structures and signposts that people expect when they sign-up for a course. A MOOC isn't a course—it isn't a thing as we usually define things. Rather, a MOOC is an assemblage, a multiplicity. We are legion, and that can be tough to deal with.

But after thoroughly confusing our sense of reality, Deleuze and Guattari give us a couple of strategies for dealing with rhizomes such as a MOOC, and it is just here that I want to note a slight disagreement with, or rather an amendment to, something that Dave Cormier said to George Siemens in his Change 11 presentation. When they were discussing the rhizome as a metaphor and George was pushing for clarification on how rhizomatic learning handled knowledge, Dave said that rhizomatic learning did not address epistemology, or something to that effect—sorry, I'm too lazy to find it in the recording just now. While rhizomatic learning certainly has no systematic epistemology, I still think it has something to say about ways of knowing.

The first strategy for knowing in a rhizomatic structure is cartography, or mapping. Mapping is a process of constantly monitoring and testing reality, assessing the feedback, and adjusting the map. Mapping assumes that reality is shifting; therefore, knowledge must shift, if it is to remain useful for engaging reality. Most of us don't like shifting knowledge—we want the correct answer, the eternal answer. We want what Deleuze and Guattari call tracings, or "an overcoding structure or supporting axis, something that comes ready-made" (12). The Truth. Mappings are different. 
What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real. … It is itself a part of the rhizome. The map is open and connectable in all of its dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification. It can be torn, reversed, adapted to any kind of mounting, reworked by an individual, group, or social formation. It can be drawn on a wall, conceived of as a work of art, constructed as a political action or as a meditation. … A map has multiple entryways, as opposed to the tracing, which always comes back "to the same." The map has to do with performance, whereas the tracing always involves an alleged "competence." (12, 13)
 APPLICATION: Traditional learning proceeds by fixed curricula and lesson plans about authoritative knowledge with regular measures to determine how competently a student has traced the lines of the lesson. Knowledge in traditional education is a tracing of what is already known. Rhizomatic learning is a mapping, an engagement with reality, a fixing of points of reference, measurements and tests, assessment of feedback, and then an adjustment of the points of reference or creation of new points, with no hope of ever fixing the points of reference, and with total recognition that the very act of mapping itself is part of the reality under examination. This totally collapses the Cartesian dualism that underlies our modern scientific point of view that posits an object for us subjects to trace, or know. Rhizomatic learning says this is not the way to engage reality. It certainly isn't the way to engage a MOOC. When entering a MOOC we must anchor to some point (almost any will do initially: a person, a blog, a presentation, a bit of reading) from which to establish a vantage point. That anchor and vantage point may work for the entire MOOC, or we may switch, but we need that first anchor. What we cannot do is look for some syllabus through which we can trace a course of learning. It ain't there. We must map the MOOC: fix a vantage point, fix other points from there, check distances from where we are to someplace else we might want to be, look for the steps to get to the new place, and strike out, asking others along the way, confident that our goal will shift. That's how you learn in a MOOC.

The second strategy for knowing in a rhizomatic structure is decalcomania, or pressing patterns. Most of us know decalcomania as the process where children put paint on their hands and press the paint onto paper, leaving blue, purple, yellow, and red handprints. Deleuze and Guattari suggest that patterns emerge in the rhizome through a pressing, not a transfer but more an echo. They are careful to say that it is not mimicry, which is tracing. Rather it is a blossoming of a sympathetic, self-similar, fractal pattern. Almost the same, but not quite. APPLICATION: In traditional learning, knowledge is transferred in little nuggets called facts from the teacher's brain to the student's brain; or in progressive classes, the teacher enables students to create their own little nuggets. In rhizomatic learning, the brain is  an amazingly sensitive organ for echoing the patterns that it recognizes in its environment, for feeding those patterns back into its environment, and then taking in the new patterns. Deleuze and Guattari say:
Thought is not arborescent, and the brain is not a rooted or ramified matter. What are wrongly called "dendrites" do not assure the connection of neurons in a continuous fabric. The discontinuity between cells, the role of the axons, the functioning of the synapses, the existence of synaptic microfissures, the leap each message makes across these fissures, make the brain a multiplicity immersed in its plane of consistency or neuroglia, a whole uncertain, probabilistic system. … Many people have a tree growing in their heads, but the brain itself is much more a grass than a tree. (15)
The grass of the brain is very sensitive to the moving of wind and rain, echoing the pattern of each, but there is no transfer of pattern. The wind does not transfer its pattern to the grass. In a MOOC, we echo the knowledge (a blog, a presentation, a tweet) that we press against. That echo is never exact, never the thing itself transferred from another mind to our mind. Rather, it is a sympathetic reterritorialization, more or less similar, of a pattern that we perceived. Our minds then operate on that newly emerged pattern, that knowledge, reworking it to fit into the knowledge and patterns already in our minds, looking for consistency and resonance however we define those qualities (rationally, emotionally, aesthetically, etc.), and then feed those patterns back into the ecosystem, deterritorialized and reterritorialized, where they are taken up, or not, and reworked, and fed back into the system, over and over and over. This describes the messy process of learning in a MOOC, and for me, it describes it better than does behaviorism and constructivism do, though they have insights as well.

Well, I've gone a long way around to tell Sui Fai John Mak why I think a rhizome is nothing. I hope the answer works for him, but at any rate, I hope he understands now why I like rhizomatic learning. As a metaphor, a way of mapping but NOT precisely tracing, the rhizome helps me understand learning in a MOOC much better than most any other theory or metaphor that I know. And with people such as Dave Cormier and Bonnie Stewart, the metaphor is just getting richer.


  1. Hi Keith,
    Thanks for such rich elaboration on rhizome and rhizomatic learning in MOOC. Love how you have envisioned it & charted out the map for "us" to visualise and recognise. You mentioned that "Deleuze and Guattari give us a couple of strategies for dealing with rhizomes such as a MOOC" and "The first strategy for knowing in a rhizomatic structure is cartography, or mapping. Mapping is a process of constantly monitoring and testing reality, assessing the feedback, and adjusting the map." Would this mapping be based on individual's sensemaking and/or collective/connective crowdsourcing? I greatly appreciate your time in responding to my question, and surely this has added my understanding of rhizome - that is not a thing (nothing). John :)

  2. Hi Keith, thank you for this introduction of Deleuze & Guattari. The rhizome philosophy is attractive but D&G are using this French philosophical argot that makes their ideas dark and un clear to me. (Too much Frencg philosophers in my education:) in the past)

  3. John Mak and Jaap, thanks for the comments. I wish I understood D&G more, but I'm working on it. Jaap, I actually share your reservations about their language, though I think I'm beginning to understand why they write as they do. I think they are trying to counter the clean, well-lighted, objective prose dominant in Western prose for the past several centuries. They do a damned good job of it — I can hardly understand anything they say on the first reading.

    And yes, John Mak, they are talking about an individual's sensemaking, but as informed by the interactions between the individual and her environment and discourse communities. I don't think they believe that any individual makes sense alone, but only in the complex interactions with their environment. At least, that's how it makes sense to me. As Morin says, it's dialogic — never resolved, just talked about from now on. So let's keep talking.

    Merry Christmas.