Tuesday, November 8, 2011

#change11 Defining the Rhizome

I just watched the Ed Tech Weekly interview with Dave Cormier about rhizomatic learning, and by the end of the hour, I found myself chafed by the attempt to encourage Cormier to define the concept. The interviewers Jeff Lebow and Jennifer Maddrell seem very pleasant, engaged educators who really wanted to understand Cormier's point, and I do not even slightly suspect them of badgering Cormier; rather, I think the very nature of academic language itself forces us to seek definitions first and then talk later. All of the participants wanted to distinguish rhizomatic learning as a particular learning theory or process or way of knowing (it can be all of those) that is distinct from, say, the positivist way of knowing or the constructivist way of learning. The hope, I think, is that the concept of rhizomatic learning can lead to specific teaching and learning behaviors that will improve education. I think there are a few problems with this attempt to wrangle the rhizome into something it isn't.

First, the rhizome is a metaphor, not a theory or a procedure based on a theory. When speaking of rhizomatics in the interview, Jeff Lebow says, "I think the metaphor is helpful." To my mind, this is spot on. A metaphor is a help in understanding something else, it is not the something else itself. Rhizomatic learning speaks of a more or less helpful way of looking at and thinking about learning. It is not a prescription for learning — it is at best a somewhat helpful description of how learning happens. Through the metaphor of the rhizome as first explored so nicely by Deleuze and Guattari in their book A Thousand Plateaus (1987) educators can look afresh at learning and see things that they had not seen before. At least, this has been the case for me.

For instance, the metaphor of the rhizome is a fine antidote to our tendency toward reductionism. This reductionism lies in the background of the interviewers' attempts to define rhizomatic learning, I think. Like most of us, they want a handy nugget that says, "Oh, yes, that is rhizomatic learning."  The metaphor of the rhizome, however, helps us to see that reductionism is always a fiction. No thing can ever actually be reduced to a discrete thing, or not in reality. We can think of ourselves as discrete and alone in the Universe, a train of thought that usually leads to all sorts of misery and suffering, but none of us are discrete, however convenient or persuasive the reductionist fiction might be.

I am not saying that we should avoid reductionist thinking. That is silly. As Morin has shown, science has scored huge successes through reducing an aspect of reality to a single point, studying it in great detail, and discovering things about this reduced entity that it could hardly have discovered in any other way. Reductionism has great focus and, thus, great power. Rhizomatic thinking, on the other hand, encourages us to replace the discrete thing into its ecosystem, to recontextualize it, and to integrate what we learned through our extreme focus into our knowledge of the whole. In short, we can learn a great deal by studying a single tree, but what we learn only makes sense in the context of a forest. We must see both forest and tree. The rhizome metaphor helps us to do that.

The second thing that bothers me is that a definition of rhizomatic learning reduces the rhizome to the status of one thing among other things: rhizomatic learning as opposed to constructivist or behaviorist learning. Here's the thing: the rhizome is not a thing, it is nothing. This is partly what makes the rhizome so difficult to discuss within a language made of nouns and verbs, or things doing things. This is partly why D&G are so difficult to read: they are trying to map a structure through a language primarily adapted to mapping different kinds of structures. Modern academic language is a fine tool for mapping linear, hierarchical, positivistic structures. Mapping the rhizome with this tool is a bit like building an igloo with hammers and screwdrivers. It can be done, I suppose, but … In their discussion of the rhizome, Deleuze and Guattari are not trying to focus our attention on the rhizome so much as they are trying to get us to relax our focus, our critical intellect, to capture the arcs, the asignifying ruptures, the starts and fits and interconnectedness of things. From this point of view, then, things are the precipitate of experience (to use Randall Collins' term) at the intersection of multiple arcs of existence at any given time. Think of a plate of spaghetti. Keith Hamon is one noodle strand intertwined and thoroughly embedded in the mass of noodles, and my sense of myself or your sense of me as a discrete entity totally depends upon where along the noodle strand you or I happen to be focusing and what other noodles intersect me there.

Reductionism wants to disentangle the single noodle of my life, stretch it out on an examination tray, name and number the parts, establish the tidy sequences of cause and effect, and finally declare that it understands me. And here's the thing: it will understand a great deal about me that could not have been understood so easily while I was tangled up in the plate of spaghetti. But it will also lose a great deal, if not most, of the contours, the arcs, the twists and turns, the connections and intersections, the forces and counterforces that truly make my life interesting to me, if not to others. Stretched out on the examination table, washed clean of sauce, separated from all the other noodles, and allowed to harden, the noodle of my life will be reduced to the bare facts. Boring. Reductionism reveals nicely what about me is like other spaghetti noodles, but it hardly captures the unique contours that make me interesting, or me.

Rhizomatic thinking, then, is a useful strategy for looking at learning in a different way. It includes positivist thought and reductionist thought and all the other systems of thought, but at the same time that the rhizome provides a rich context for those systems of thought, it is also shifting, deterritorializing and reterreitorializing, and thereby undermining the very systems of thought that it incubated. Our job is to build these structures within the rhizome because they are useful, while remaining very aware that their usefulness has a shelf life. The danger is when we become attached to a system, an ideology, and refuse to acknowledge that it no longer helps.

This makes me think of the night sky. We humans look at the panoply of stars, and we select a few with which to structure constellations, pictures and stories. Because from our vantage point the stars seem to shift so slowly — in our lifetimes hardly at all — then we are seduced into thinking that our pictures and stories are eternal. Modern astro-physics has taught us better. The rhizome of the universe is shifting at incredible speeds constantly, and eventually our treasured stories and pictures will no longer map well to reality. The stars will have moved. The challenge of the rhizome is to look afresh at those stars and to create new stories and new pictures. That's what the rhizome does.
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