Friday, January 17, 2014

Practical View of the Rhizome for #rhizo14

I've joined Dave Cormier's MOOC Rhizomatic Learning - The community is the curriculum (#rhizo14), and I want to respond to his challenge for Week 1 to provide an immediately accessible idea of what the rhizome is. This is quite a challenge because I'm not sure that the rhizome as a metaphor is so easily accessible for many people, in large part because it ignores so much of what we in Western culture take to be fundamentally true about the world. We might be able to paraphrase Nils Bohr's comment about quantum theory by saying, "Anyone who is not shocked by the rhizome has not understood it." Still, Bohr made that comment some time ago, and much about quantum theory and the rhizome (I see them as aspects of the same intellectual train of thought) has crept into popular consciousness. Anyway, I suspect that most of the people in Rhizo14 are already somewhat receptive to complexity thinking, or they wouldn't be in a MOOC such as this.

The rhizome as a metaphor for how the world structures itself comes from the 1980 book A Thousand Plateaus by French authors Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Because it is a metaphor, its meaning is more figurative than literal. For many reasons, I find it useful to contrast the rhizome as a metaphor for the universe to the Enlightenment metaphor that the universe is a clock. Of course, the universe is literally neither clock nor rhizome, but starting with either of those images will lead you to very different ideas about how the universe works. It will change your world view. The rhizome has certainly changed mine and continues to do so as I work deeper into it.

In general, Western culture has been shifting from the clock/mechanical metaphor to the rhizome/organic metaphor for understanding the world. For Descartes, Newton, Locke, and those others, the universe was a large mechanical device made up of distinct parts, moving and interacting in precise, measurable ways. Life was complicated (many parts, many interactions), but ultimately understandable and describable. To understand any system, all you had to do was break it down to its smallest parts and interactions (analyze it), and then put it back together. As Morin has noted in his book On Complexity (2002), this mechanistic/reductionist approach to the world and knowledge has been wildly successful, leading to the rich, technologically advanced, modern societies that we all now enjoy.

But it wasn't perfect. The insights of Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg and others have shown the limitations of the mechanical clock metaphor. Most importantly, the clock metaphor leaves out Life, which turns out to be really important to most people. We've noticed, for instance, that when you analyze a frog—breaking it down into its many parts and tracing the interactions—you learn lots of useful things, but you also lose something: Life. The frog is dead, and you can't put it back together as you could a clock. This is a big problem, and not just for the frog. We need a new metaphor for the universe that includes Life. The old clock metaphor is killing us, literally and figuratively. The rhizome is a really good organic metaphor for the universe and how it works, though you can find others that may work just as well.

So for me, the rhizome is a useful metaphor that is part of the shift in thought from the complicated (mechanical clock) to the complex (organic rhizome) that has been going on for the past century.

Unfortunately, most of our thinking and almost all of our institutions are still based on the clock metaphor. As Sir Ken Robinson shows so well in his RSA video, we still mostly construct schools on the archetypal mechanical model: the factory. Life does not work well in a clock model. In fact, it hates it. No one wants to be "a cog in something turning" (as Joni Mitchell sang), so we had Woodstock and quantum physics and relativity. The transition is still underway.

Even more unfortunately, this transition has not been orderly. It has proceeded rhizomatically rather than mechanically, with lines of flight going this way and that, connecting hippies with quantum physicists with soccer moms. My mechanical retelling of the story here leaves out all the interesting, rich, nuanced life of the tale, but I suspect that all of us know some part of it. Fortunately, a century or so into the shift, we can begin to see some of the broad arcs a little more clearly than even Deleuze and Guattari could see, but it can still be a disturbing view. It's why so many still have trouble shifting from the traditional, sequential, mechanical course of study to a new-fangled, networked, organic MOOC. All the old, familiar structures are gone, and the new structures are seldom obvious. This is almost always disturbing, unless you're one of those who like jumping out into the void without a parachute. Most of us don't, fortunately.

I came to the rhizome through building electronic networks for colleges and school systems, an approach that I share with Manuel Lima, a network design engineer at Microsoft, who in the RSA video below, provides an excellent and well-illustrated introduction to rhizomatic thinking—the kind of thinking you have to have if you want to understand how to make the Internet work. The video is also cool because of its mention of the rhizome and Deleuze and Guattari, if only in drawings.

I think Lima understands the rhizome, and he touches on a number of themes that you will find in complexity studies, especially how we are shifting from a tree structure of knowledge to a rhizomatic structure. (Note the problems with giving metaphors a too literal interpretation: both trees and rhizomes are organic, complex, living entities, but the tree is often used metaphorically to represent a rigid, hierarchical, mechanical view of life and knowledge. Avoid being too literal with any of these metaphors). The complicated view of knowledge breaks everything up into disciplines, while the rhizomatic view reunifies knowledge in an over-arching transdisciplinarity.

And note at the end of the video that Lima comes very close to saying that the rhizome is a universal structure that echoes from the micro scale to the macro scale, from neurons in a mouse brain to galaxies in a region of space. Thus, the rhizome is about as absolute a concept or structure as you can get a post-structuralist to commit to. I do not know if the rhizome will hold up for very long as a metaphor for reality, but I am convinced that it greatly expands the narrow, reductionist clock metaphor and can correct some of the imbalances, faults, and limitations of that metaphor. The rhizome gives us more places to go and more ways to get there than ever before. We can continue to construct and run schools on the model of factories, but we should not be surprised when the students and the knowledge, and even some of the teachers, squirt out the side doors (deterritorialize in lines of flight) and head naked for the hills, connecting to all those oh-so-interesting things outside the curriculum.

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