Rhizomes, Deleuze and collaborative models (and online ‘textbooks’) part 1.

I’ve been thinking about how to design online textbooks that are intrinsically collaborative, can be ‘authoratative’ where necessary and don’t revolve around a central, linear narrative. It’s a concept, this lack of linear narrative, that is coming up more and more. People are talking about having websites, groups, communities… all kinds of things that are not tied by spokes to a central core but can move around in relation to each other. I want to talk a bit about this, clear an idea out of my head and throw in out there for you folks to help me work on.

rhizomatic - Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari used the term “rhizome” to describe theory and research that allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation.

I’ve spent much of my ‘free time’ lately looking at models of collaboration. Stephen put up a very cool set of distinctions between linear models of collaboration from a whiteboard he’s drawn on when he was in Australia/New Zealand. I was also looking at a new posting from Nancy White detailing the 8 competencies of online interaction (in conjunction with some fantastic photos… she has such a nice feeling for the transcendent image). The word that popped into my head was ‘rhizomatic’. That’s what’s been bugging me about the profusion of dots and lines connecting with each other to describe collaborative communities. They all look rhizomatic. First a bit of an introducation to rhizomatic structures and what both the metaphor/real have to tell us about how we all can/do communicate, and then back to texts. warning – i am not an expert at this… just a lowly philosopher wannabe.
I was looking for a nice webpage to give a clear defintion of rhizomes the other day and came across this little beauty. It was (i hope) written a while ago, but it does a nice job of detailing the distinction between arbolic and rhizomatic structures. Deleuze and Guitarri’s A Thousand Plateaus is not a book for… casual reading… but the ‘translation’ of it given here is sufficient to detail its connection to the way we talk about collaboration.

Table A.

Deleuze and Guattari’s Rhizomatic Versus Arbolic

Rhizomatic Arbolic
Non-linear Linear
Anarchic Hierarchic
Nomadic Sedentary
Smooth Striated
Deterritorialized Territorialized
Multiplicitous Unitary and binary
Minor science Major science
Heterogeneity Homogeneity

(copied from thing.net)
A thousand plateaus is meant to be a rhizomatic book. This is part of the reason it is so difficult to read. Much like a first journey through the later Wittgenstein, the brain yearns for a clear description of what it is that the writer is trying to ‘prove’. What is the position being taken? How can I agree or disagree with what I being ‘told’? It is, indeed, the very thing that I teach my students is key to writing what is known as a ‘good academic paper.’ Tell ‘em your gonna tell ‘em, tell ‘em, tell ‘em you told ‘em. The problem is, as wittgenstein implied through his later work, we can’t really talk about definitions ‘of the words we can’t talk about’ without pinning down things that can’t really have definitions. His classic example is meaning. Try, if you will, to give a philosophically sound definition of the word, and you will likely end up in a tautology. There is a common sense response? I agree. We do know what it means… oops. There it is again. :)
This is one of the ‘the polluted inheritances of the enlightenment.’ We are committed, partially due to the quest for Truth and partially because our technologies (sequential pages in books etc…), to thinking our way through building things in linear ways to answer specific problems. When things build up on their own however – see the way that a blogging community tends to do this (another fantastic set of slides from nancy) – we see a more rhizomatic structure poking through the rigid structures of linear, enlightenment style thought.So, now, how do we build a text this way. The term text, of course, is problematic. It too has a polluted inheritance that suggests something with a certain smell and structure (mmm… old book smell). This is, for those of you who don’t like neologisms, why it is so necessary to control and often change the language we use in order to get new ideas out of the garage. For the next few months I’m going to be experimenting with ways of building rhizomatic texts… I’m looking for folks to come on this journey with me, as its a little tough to create a rhizomatic community by myself. :)tech note: I had orginally hoped that wikis would be the answer to this, but am now not so sure. I’m very open to suggestion on the platform for this exploration. I’m currently leaning towards elggish drupalness… but am not permanently sold on that either.

8 thoughts on “Rhizomes, Deleuze and collaborative models (and online ‘textbooks’) part 1.

  1. A more than cursory glance at the project would reveal that this project is about digital identities and is addressing the issue of the fractured nature of the self when our online identities become distributed across multiple sites and services.

    Rhizome is a Deleuzian concept that has been used and taken by many active in the field of art, science and philosophy. It is used in the project as a cipher for understandings of digital identity as:

    – decentralised
    – unpredictable
    – connected
    – branching in many directions
    – having multiple entry points
    – with no single true view – only partial perspectives
    – and constituted as a multiplicity of dimensions where we lose the illusion of the objective all seeing eye/I
    From this we are using the metaphor of cartography, the map, where we have no privileged entry point and is always open to change.

    The references we use for this conceptual entry point to understanding digital identity are at the moment:

    Deleuze & Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

    Sermijn, Devlieger and Loots (2008). The Narrative Construction of the Self: Selfhood as a Rhizomatic Story. Qualitative Inquiry, (14)4:632–650.


  2. Hi, that’s very interesting and links wonderfully to an assignment I’m currently working on. (Deleuze in online/e- learning ). Glad I cam across this and I shall make good use of the idea of non-linear textbooks. However, I wonder if we can gain/grant qualifications in an utterly smooth space without any striations… what learning outcomes are students assessed for or is it all about the learning journey? Do tutors guide online forums or is this too much of a striation? So much to consider. I shall definitely keep on reading your posts, they are thought provoking as well as they are encouraging me to think that little bit further.
    Thanks, Barbara
    Barbara Scanlan

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