A review of rhizomatic learning in Mendeley

I’ve committed to taking the work i’ve been doing around rhizomatic learning to the next level this year. I don’t necessarily know what that’s going to look like, but hopefully it will at least mean a few more papers and some better thinking. One of the steps that I’ve taken in the last few days is to setup a mendeley group dedicated to rhizomatic learning and seeing what we can do about gathering the scant existing publications together into one place. So far the response has been very good, and a considerable about of stuff has been gathered.

But what to do with it all?

A lit review
If you go over to the group page on Mendeley http://www.mendeley.com/groups/2055423/rhizomatic-learning/ you’ll see a number of papers, a bunch of people, a brief description of the group and a link. That link goes to a googledoc. It’s occurred to me that the only way i’m going to be able to organize my own thoughts about the papers that are being put into group is to have some contextual piece that will walk people through it. I may, over time, become familiar enough with all the papers to not need this crutch. But i will certainly need it over the short term, and it would seem that it could be useful for others.

There is something terribly ironic about applying this much structure to a concept that in some ways IS structural resistance itself. But, much like D&G suggest in their own introduction to A Thousand Plateaus, we have to do something. If i’m going to further my own work, share work with others, then we need some kind of context within which we can work some kind of exchange.

My own goal is to see if it is possible to create a practical teaching/learning approach grounded in the philosophy represented in those articles. Something that starts way over in the netherworld of french post 1960 philosophy, and finishes in someone’s classroom. I’m starting to get asked the question… “how would i do this in my school/classroom”. I don’t know if there are answers to this question, but i’m going to try and find out 🙂

The language challenge
Rhizomatic learning is based, however enigmatically, in the work of Deleuze and Guattari. They are French and, to put it broadly, difficult to define. Some would call them postmodern or post-structuralist philosophers, but they did not particularly seem to like those terms. I will not delve into that debate here, suffice it to say that they have a particular way of looking at the world, and an entire language built up around how to talk about that. Some of that language they inherited from philosophers and psychoanalysts before the, some, frankly, they simply made up or so profoundly changed from their usual meaning that they might as well have made them up.

This special language makes any work on rhizomes (and associated concepts) a very difficult one. I feel very passionately about the narrative that emerges from D&G’s work and believe that it has a very important story to tell about education, learning, complexity and uncertainty. I always tend to get caught, however, between speaking in technical terms about the philosophy behind it, and speaking in terms that people unfamiliar with the French Philosophical context will accept at face value.

Lets try… decalcomania – one of the characteristics of the rhizome

according to wikipedia it

“is a decorative technique by which engravings and prints may be transferred to pottery or other materials.”

It evolved to a surealist practice of

tracing without an original

which seems more appropriate to the usage that D&G mean for it. Awesomely, the same wikipedia entry claims that decalcomania is the root work of Cockamamy, which was a deliberate mispronunciation. It was also shortened to ‘decal’. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decalcomania This, then, is the accepted usage of the word.

According to a quote stolen from a colleague (Keith Hamon) for Deleuze and Guattari decalcomania is

“forming through continuous negotiation with its context, constantly adapting by experimentation, thus performing a non-symmetrical active resistance against rigid organization and restriction.”

I recently described it as

“They grow and spread via experimentation within a context”

Without using the term decalcomania at all.

They are similar, certainly, but its not an easy voyage from one to the other. Plus, the word shape itself (with ‘mania’ at the end) suggests that its meaning may be more esoteric and psychobabbely. This without even opening up the discussion about the actual biological nature of the rhizome.

And i’ve lost some of the deeper political meaning with my translation. I had a similar conversation a few weeks ago with my concerns over the translation of ‘war machine’ from ‘machine de guerre’. http://davecormier.net/war-machine-nom-de-guerre-french-translation

Working through the language in a group is going to be a struggle. Those of us crossing disciplines always get into trouble over this i suppose, but I’m not sure what to do about it.

A way forward
So i’m going to go ahead and keep adding to my lit review document. And whether it’s a document that i finish three years from now, by myself, or something where a bunch of others join in and we publish it somewhere with 20 authors is of no great concern to me. I’ll poke away at it, feel free to do the same yourself.

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

18 thoughts on “A review of rhizomatic learning in Mendeley”

  1. Can you tell me a story Dave that captures this – the language is a barrier and explaining the words does not help me

  2. This seems like a great project. As a fan of systems thinking I can’t resist the image of a rhizome as integrated within its surroundings. (Or maybe “competent in its surroundings” is a better term than “integrated” to give the rhizome some level of autonomy and avoid the everything is everything cliche?) And who can turn away from a confusion of terminologies?

    Haven’t read A Thousand Plateaus yet but will get to it ASAP. Are there restrictions on how far afield we can go with suggestive supports and references? Like mutual causality mixes well with connectivism though the theories themselves may disagree and claim no connection themselves.

  3. “Working through the language in a group is going to be a struggle. Those of us crossing disciplines always get into trouble over this i suppose, but I’m not sure what to do about it.” Why is there not a standard dictionary of these theoretical terms? Most sciences, like computing and botany, have specialised dictionaries explaining what each word means. I often get the impression that people in esoteric philosophical disciplines don’t always have a precise idea of what the terms they are using are supposed to mean, especially when it crosses into nebulous “art” worlds and deliberate subversion of norms (e.g. Ettinger).

  4. @e I’m going to just suppose that you are pulling my leg. In case you aren’t, the simple answer is – you are quite right that people in esoteric philosophical disciplines don’t always have a precise idea of what terms mean…

    The question “what does meaning mean?” is not an easy one to answer.

    The ‘war machine’ example is an interesting one. It’s a translation. My claim is that the english expression feels very different than the french one. Who’s to say if i’m right or wrong?

  5. Dave and e,

    Not having agreed upon names or definitions may be an advantage to the process of exploration here. Without fixed terms I’m forced to explain myself by borrowing other meanings to make points. If nothing else this further forces me to seek what seem like similarities or fertile connections. Why fix things in place so early on?

    To me, the term “rhizome” is suggestive of a means by which knowledge is passed around in a social setting, as is the image of a river flowing by, or a group of plants in leaky pots sharing nutrients. I’d much rather explore in the realm of the unnamed than the decided upon.

  6. I would accept the idea that everybody in the discipline is wandering about in the dark and they don’t even know what they are saying, if not for the fact that they are all preternaturally quick to latch onto any pseudo-concept or buzzword raised by the other dark-wanderers. If they can do this, and have grasped it, and can then talk about it, then evidently it’s something that can be defined, and my point about the usefulness of a dictionary stands. If it is not something that can be defined, then they are all bullshitting and the discipline is a massive fraud.

  7. Hurray! you just invented a new troll! A ‘definition’ troll. awesome.

    “if i have grasped it, and I can talk about it, then it can be defined”

    no. Depending on the detail you wish for the definition of course. If you’re comfortable with me saying ‘learning is change in a person, good or bad’, then fine. Learning can be defined. But that’s not much of a definition.

    But if you’re not happy with that definition… then I encourage you to try and find a standard definition that most people would be happy with AND can actually do work with. Because to me, if your definitions are good, then you should be able to decide how to do things BASED on that definition.

    I’ve never seen one for learning. (or love, fun or lots of other things lots of people talk about)

    If there absence makes them unscientific… and that to you means that they are a ‘massive fraud’ that is a definition that you are welcome to.

    Definitions are contextual, embedded in bias and are often ‘for’ something. So i might define learning to my son as one thing when he’s trying to drive a car or something else when he’s learning how to find a mate. They are both appropriate usages of the word ‘learn’ but not terribly the same.

    I see the world as complex, and difficult to explain. You see the world as only relevant where it can be easily explained. We are different. 🙂

  8. Dave and e,

    This may not help.

    Beyond a definition of Rhizomatic learning as a curiosity I believe we are looking at how it may be brought forth and understood and for that it might be better to speak of models rather than definitions. I’d go for a description of how it operates at a gross level at this stage over having a finely tuned body of definitions describing its parts.

    In “Simulation and its Discontents” edited by Sherry Turkle, Natasha Myers speaks of models as envisioned by scientific historians David Kaiser and Maria Trumpler as

    >>>’not just representations or results: they are “enactments” and they are “built to be engaged, inhabited [and] lived.” Scientists do not just hold their models in their minds; they carry their models within their bodies. The engaging and laborious experience of building and working with models is the means through researchers incorporate knowledge of the form and structure of their models. In this process, scientists’ bodies become instruments for learning and communicating their knowledge to others.’ <<<

    Maybe we should learn to dance the Rhizomatic before we freeze it into a series of fixed locations of where we should put our feet?

  9. This may help:

    Quoted from: “An Overview of the Methodological Approach of Action Research”

    >>Principles of Action Research

    What gives action research its unique flavour is the set of principles that guide the research. Winter (1989) provides a comprehensive overview of six key principles. [iv]

    1) Reflexive critique

    An account of a situation, such as notes, transcripts or official documents, will make implicit claims to be authoritative, i.e., it implies that it is factual and true. Truth in a social setting, however, is relative to the teller. The principle of reflective critique ensures people reflect on issues and processes and make explicit the interpretations, biases, assumptions and concerns upon which judgments are made. In this way, practical accounts can give rise to theoretical considerations.

    2) Dialectical critique

    Reality, particularly social reality, is consensually validated, which is to say it is shared through language. Phenomena are conceptualized in dialogue, therefore a dialectical critique is required to understand the set of relationships both between the phenomenon and its context, and between the elements constituting the phenomenon. The key elements to focus attention on are those constituent elements that are unstable, or in opposition to one another. These are the ones that are most likely to create changes.

    3) Collaborative Resource

    Participants in an action research project are co-researchers. The principle of collaborative resource presupposes that each person’s ideas are equally significant as potential resources for creating interpretive categories of analysis, negotiated among the participants. It strives to avoid the skewing of credibility stemming from the prior status of an idea-holder. It especially makes possible the insights gleaned from noting the contradictions both between many viewpoints and within a single viewpoint

    4) Risk

    The change process potentially threatens all previously established ways of doing things, thus creating psychic fears among the practitioners. One of the more prominent fears comes from the risk to ego stemming from open discussion of one’s interpretations, ideas, and judgments. Initiators of action research will use this principle to allay others’ fears and invite participation by pointing out that they, too, will be subject to the same process, and that whatever the outcome, learning will take place.

    5) Plural Structure

    The nature of the research embodies a multiplicity of views, commentaries and critiques, leading to multiple possible actions and interpretations. This plural structure of inquiry requires a plural text for reporting. This means that there will be many accounts made explicit, with commentaries on their contradictions, and a range of options for action presented. A report, therefore, acts as a support for ongoing discussion among collaborators, rather than a final conclusion of fact.

    6) Theory, Practice, Transformation

    For action researchers, theory informs practice, practice refines theory, in a continuous transformation. In any setting, people’s actions are based on implicitly held assumptions, theories and hypotheses, and with every observed result, theoretical knowledge is enhanced. The two are intertwined aspects of a single change process. It is up to the researchers to make explicit the theoretical justifications for the actions, and to question the bases of those justifications. The ensuing practical applications that follow are subjected to further analysis, in a transformative cycle that continuously alternates emphasis between theory and practice. <<

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  11. Looking forward to following this thread. I’ve been using the concept of rhizomes & the work of D&G (very loosely joined) to explain to librarians how knowledge and search is really organized, as opposed to the hierarchical, Aristotelian either/or of the exisiting systems (Dewey etc.). It seems to make sense at the time, though no one has reported back that they’ve read “A Thousand Plateaus” on my recommendation.

  12. I’m late to this conversation, but it is important, and I want to participate. I’ve just joined the Mendeley group, and I’ll add references soon. Like Dave, I want very much to operationalize in my classrooms the enigmatic concepts of Deleuze and Guattari, and I’m so pleased that Dave has put this together.

    But just now, I want to address the issue of definition that has emerged in this conversation, as definition is relevant to Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome. e finds the lack of definition troubling, but I think s/he is troubled because s/he is looking for one kind of definition only: that which reduces a concept to its essential characteristics. This kind of definition draws on the reductionist, essentialist habits of mind that have informed western thought for the past several centuries, and that—it really should be noted—have fueled the scientific and technological successes of these centuries. These successes have been so brilliant that we have largely come to regard any other kinds of thought as babble and hocus-pocus.

    However, as Nicolescu notes in his book A Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity (2002), the poverty of a strict reductionism is becoming apparent, and paradoxically, that poverty is best revealed by the very science that gave us reductionism in the first place: physics, which in its classical, reductionist era sought a Theory of Everything (TOE). In other words, classical, reductionist physics wanted to define the entire Universe as the regular, inviolable interactions of three elements and four fundamental forces. One can immediately see the seductive appeal of such a definition. If we could reduce the entire universe to a few elements and forces, then imagine the power we would have. But as relativity, quantum theory, chaos and complexity theories have demonstrated, such a reductionism is at best hopelessly naive and at worst dangerous and destructive.

    The problem is that our techniques for defining are mired in reductionist, essentialist frameworks. We in the Academy can hardly imagine, and we certainly cannot speak, in any other manner. This is one of the very issues that I think Deleuze and Guattari were addressing. How do we speak intelligently about a world that is not so amenable to classical, reductionist definition? How do we speak intelligently and understandably about a rhizome, about a world that is not static, and thus amenable to reductionist definitions, but dynamic: forming through continuous negotiation with its context, constantly adapting by experimentation, thus performing a non-symmetrical active resistance against rigid organization and restriction?

    I have some sympathy for e’s point of view. It is so much easier, it promises so much power and control, and it avoids the hard work of recursively mapping the shifting ground. Unfortunately, while it has some really fine successes, it doesn’t get us very far in addressing the big issues that all this classical science and technology have left is with. It leaves us with a distorted and impoverished view of reality.

    I should add some thoughts about complex, as opposed to reductionist, definition, and follow-up on Scott Johnson’s excellent comments above, but that will lengthen an already too long comment. Still, I have some ideas about how the Cynefin framework can help us think about definitions, and I’ll try to add that soon to my own writing space.

    Thanks again to Dave for an always lively and engaging conversation.

  13. “Engestrom, Wenger and Emergent Learning”
    December 16, 2012 by jennymackness

    Watched the interview here with Yrjo Engestrom. At one point he his son and friends skateboarding together then breaking off into smaller groups and texting from newly discovered locations. Bringing information back to the group is done in bee hives and I remember doing it as groups of us kids scattered on our bikes to regroup later. Can’t put a name to this process. It’s purposeful, has known procedures and seeks to a goal but seems open ended and based on expectation of…useable outcomes?

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