As I read David Cormier‘s take on rhizomatic learning for the #change11 Mooc (massive open online course), it occurred to me that while Deleuze and Guattari’s notion and discourse of the rhizome have obvious value for forming a critical challenge to traditional learning, translating the rhizome into actionable/productive terms is no easy task. In this youtube of a hangout discussion, Cormier describes the frustration of defending his approach from a positivist perspective that would rule at as illegitimate and insubstantial the entire enterprise of rhizomatic learning. However, there is a productive moment in this challenge: if discourses like rhizomatic learning are to have an impact and make a real difference, they need to offer something more than an invocation of post-Fordist processes/necessities and/or celebrations of network effects on learning.
Certainly, the zen-like shock of challenging students to discover their own learning purposes, goals, and outcomes in the context of the a rhizomatic garden/course produces an immediately stimulating and gratifyingly romantic effect. However, the challenge of Deleuze and Guattari is that their work refuses simply binaries or easy answers to navigating the intellectual challenges of force, power; desire, discourse; or learning. If rhizomatic learning can make a contribution and do justice to the fertile philosophical milieus from which it sprang, it must be about something more than “shocking the squares” in education (whether discovered amongst student, faculty, or administration). When ‘change’ or ‘revolution’ becomes a conclusion or morality, it can itself mark a closure or impotence.
The multiplicity that is Deleuze/Guattari regularly agree: the problem is not meaning , vision, or truth; we get those things for free … when we create machines that work.
Machines that Work
We begin with the first two principles of the rhizomatic:
These two principles found the basic axiomatic of the rhizome as an ecological model of network effects. Over against a positivist objections to rhizomatic learning, we would assert that meaning and truth are the easiest parts of the process. You make connections between connectable nodes and you get order for free.
A concrete example from complexity theory and Stuart Kaufmann. Imagine a pile of 400 buttons. Tie to random buttons together with a thread. Repeat. Eventually, at about 200 repetitions you will reach a phase transition:
These phase transitions are like the messy process of learning that tends to lead to epiphanies and even products or deliverables. Yet, a significant challenge of learning is maintaining creativity and focus not only in the face of struggle and adversity, but also in the face of success; and, certainly, in the face of the wrong kinds of success.
In fact, the pedagogical theory of “threshold concepts” addresses just this kind of state change for learners: “‘Threshold Concepts’ may be considered to be “akin to passing through a portal” or “conceptual gateway” that opens up “previously inaccessible way[s] of thinking about something” (Meyer and Land ).” Interestingly, the conceptual framework and strategies of threshold concepts is most typically employed in traditional “knowledge-acquisition based” disciplines. I introduce this example to suggest that rhizomatic learning need be no less programmatic in its goals than traditional learning. It merely recognizes that the “random-walk” of the actual learning and the “network effect” of contemporary learning environments are better models for how to arrive at authentic learning. Although this in no way invalidates the “truth” of best practices, principles, or the validity/necessity of disciplinary forms of knowledge.
Discipline, structure, force, power, and even coercion are important parts of how any work gets done whether social, technical, or historical. Consider the kinds of constraint that make art possible or the limited/limiting processes of something like an unconference. Kaufmann teaches us that emergent order and fitness of systems is discovered at a point of “phase transition between order and chaos.”
All this is as much to say that it would be a tactical error and intellectual failure to allow rhizomatic learning to become fixated on the critique of traditional models of learning: even insofar as identifying itself primarily as a less directed model of learning (a tendency to which any institutional worker is liable). The rhizomatic ecology or the nomad’s war machine are only liberatory insofar as they are a more effective and a more intensive way of arriving at the balance between order and chaos that leads to authentic learning.
Deleuze and Guattari may indeed be the philosophers of flow, but we should also remember they were profoundly influenced by Nietzsche who steadfastly maintained: “All creators are hard!“