42* Molehills

Rhizo 15 -- thoughts on an online course

Dave Harris

In May and June 2015, I participated in a MOOC called Rhizo15, ostensibly embodying 'rhizomatic education'. This was the 2nd iteration of the course (thanks to participants who pointed this out) , which lasted 6 weeks (although some participants carried on discussing the material and clearly had done so before).

I had encountered the term 'rhizomatic education' before, and was aware that for some people it represented a real breakthrough in online education, dispensing with educational hierarchies and empowering learners to pursue their own 'rhizomatic' paths. I wanted to see what this looked like in practice, and to explore some of the basic sociological criticisms of MOOCs, which are that participation is actually largely confined to people with considerable economic and cultural capital which can support their explorations and interests. Following a long interest in the links between openness and closure in distance education (dating from my PhD in 1985 and the subsequent book in 1987 on the UK Open University), I wanted to see how openness and closure of discussion and exploration was being managed by the participants in practice.

I was also interested in any links with the work of Deleuze and Guattari (D&G), and the discussion of the rhizome in their book A Thousand Plateaus (ATP) (Deleuze and Guattari 2004)  and elsewhere. I had always found puzzling the enthusiasm for D&G in 'progressive' educational circles. I read them as offering a sustained and densely-argued ontology turning on what might now be termed 'complexity theory', with the customary French rejection of categories like 'the human subject', 'personal expression', 'individual creativity' and the like. I was aware of considerable debate about what the work entails, both in terms of concrete analyses of, say, organizations (Fuglslang) and politics (compare Hardt with Badiou) (links refer to my own summaries). I have read enough of Deleuze and Guattari (see menu page) and their commentators to be aware that there is no agreed reading of texts like ATP (see my own summary here), and I wondered how advocates of rhizomatic education would manage these intense and complex debates.

I should say here that I think the work by D&G is so fearsomely dense (and elitist, expressing a classic French academic elitism of the 1950s and 1960s, and written in a private language) that anyone must try to manage it by making parts of it more familiar. I suggested in a Facebook post that it was like Weber's analysis of Puritanism -- too stark, uncompromising and other-wordly  unless 'managed' by turning it into a more familiar work ethic. I am aware that I have managed D&G at times by reading them as offering an undeveloped protosociology: in other sections I have just resigned myself to never understanding the arguments, which no longer matters now I am retired, or struggling to puzzle out what they might mean, with varying degrees of success, sometimes having to revisit earlier summaries. It is a matter of maintaining relative openness to their work.

While we are here, the readings offered by Deleuze and Guattari of others are also clearly managed in the most general sense. Our heroes develop their own perspectives  on encountering the work of others. These perspectives are challenged by others, of course: Badiou accuses Deleuze of 'managing' the huge number of films he cites in the name of validating certain concepts of time and movement Deleuze has abstracted from Bergson; Zizek is outraged by the  D&G reading of Lacan. While D&G both see Proust as a (proto)philosopher, Bourdieu reads him as an ethnographer. Commentators disagree of course.

There are no absolutes, and D&G (1994) begin by saying that
a concept is never simple but a combination,  ‘it is a multiplicity’ (15).  No single concept can express all the components of chaos, even universal ones,  by trying to reduce chaos by exercising contemplation, reflection or communication.  Concepts articulate, cut and cross cut through elements among the mental chaos which threatens to absorb them. D&G acknowledge that their own concepts are never general or universal, that concepts have a specific time and place, a history and a context linking them to other concepts that makes them appropriate, that the point is to press on and create new concepts, that concepts as related to the virtual, to the multiplicity, can only be expressed as ‘the proposition deprived of sense’ (1994: 22), that their philosophy is ‘in a perpetual state of digression or digressiveness’ (23) -- and has many other aspects that mean they are never complete and comprehensive. However, this does not mean that they are purely subjective, since they are created not by human subjects but by 'conceptual personae' who name parts of the underling reality that is being disclosed, and pursue implications on a 'plane of consistency'.

Nor can the value of concepts be resolved by intersubjective discussion and agreement:
'For this reason philosophers have very little time for discussion' (1994: 28).  No-one ever talks about the same thing, and the point is to go on and create concepts—'when it comes to creating, conversation is always superfluous' (28).  Philosophy is not endless discussion.  'To criticize is only to establish that the concept vanishes when it is forced into a new milieu' (28). Those who advocate debate and communication are 'inspired by ressentiment. They speak only of themselves when they set empty generalizations against one another (29). There are clear implications for the 'learning community' here, of course as we shall see.

D&G are not saying that anything goes, however (to link to a discussion later). They admire discussion driven by philosophy, but are aware of  pseudo-philosophies in modern society (which they see as a simulacrum): there is thus a need to dispose of ‘shameless and inane rivals’ (11), and oppose 
‘functionaries who, buying a ready made thought, are not even conscious of the problem and unaware even of the efforts of those they claim to take as their models’ (51). The challenge is to identify these rivals and functionaries, and, in particular, to make sure we are not supporting them by our readings of D&G.

 Encountering other educational enthusiasts had led me to suspect, to be frank, that much of the complexity, and any challenging readings, were simply being ignored or managed so that nothing was to be allowed to contradict the 'personally liberating' or 'progressive' reading. I think that in some cases, 'progressive' readings had been already joined on to 'post-structuralism' in a limited way, without challenging much of the cognitive structures of progressive thought (see Hodgson and Standish), and that Deleuze and Guattari, especially the two books in the project on capitalism and schizophrenia ( AntiOedipus and A Thousand Plateaus) had been added on, possibly after Foucault had expressed his admiration for Deleuze.

You can see how these themes panned out during my participation on Rhizo15. I should say immediately that I joined the course a week late. I participated only through the public Facebook groups Rhizomatic Learning -- a Practical Discussion and Rhizomatic Learning -- a Theoretical Discussion. I also received standard emails from the co-ordinator, Dave Cormier, some of which listed blogs by participants, and other resources: I read most of them. There was also discussion on Twitter, which I did not follow at all. Personal communications also seem to have taken place between participants. Even tracking the limited resources chosen proved difficult since some online materials linked to others which linked to others and so on. There clearly can be no claims that my sampling of the material was 'typical' -- I am merely 'exampling', with all the threats to validity that entails. I was able to make some limited comparisons with participating in another Facebook public group on Deleuze and Guattari, though.

There is an ethical issue too, turning on whether it is acceptable to cite the work of others without asking their permission. This is acute with online materials: is  it acceptable to cite Facebook posts, for example?  It could be argued that these are in the public domain, except that membership of the groups has to be approved. There could be an undoubted form of 'symbolic violence' in taking these posts as 'data', however.  Bourdieu's use of this term extends especially to those who claim they are using 'data' to do 'science', which would obviously deepen symbolic violence. I am not claiming this and am happy to see my contribution as but one in the more obscure aisles in the great supermarket of ideas. I claim to have treated the responses of others as 'data' only insofar as anyone does when reading the comments of others and trying to make sense of them in their own critical terms.
Here, I think being a sociologist can help in making us aware of the thin basis for any claim that we are doing 'science' -- we can criticize ourselves just as well as, if not better than,  any outsider and probably have fewer illusions about the status of our work!

I have pursued immanent critique, based on issues raised by the discussion itself, without claiming any superior external basis for critique in, say marxism, or, for that matter, in any superior reading of Deleuze and Guattari.

I have mostly quoted from these posts without naming contributors, except for Dave Cormier: I couldn't think of any way to refer to the coordinator of the course without identifying him. I have at least been honest in posting my own doubts and criticisms as I went, but there is a major difficulty in critiquing contributions as I explain: some participants adopted a highly personalized stance in their contributions and in their responses to the posts of others, which possibly made any criticism seem hurtful and unwelcome. I know of no way to counter this stance while pursuing critical analysis at the same time but I want to insist that I was not making criticisms of persons but of arguments, and then not for any malicious personal reasons of my own. If this is not permitted, than I can see a serious limit emerging to the claimed openness of MOOCs. 

I have divided my comments into fairly short sections as follows:

Rhizomatic Education -- definitions
Definitions from Wikipedia, Siemens, the UK Open University,
'dac-marlee-anne', Wheeler and Gerver -- all of them mention Dave Cormier and include his definitions . Connectivism and constructionism from Bali et al.  A collection of definitions of the rhizome from A Thousand Plateaus as additional stimuli for thought. An early critical discussion of community learning (see week 5).

How to 'manage' Deleuze and Guattari
Various readings which cope with the fearsome density and complexity of D&G writing. Everyone has to 'manage' the work somehow.  Readings briefly discussed: 'personal', 'toolbox', 'pragmatic' 'take-it-or-leave it', 'fascist or liberal', 'selective', 'metaphorical', 'poetic' and 'instrumental'. Discussions of the difficulties include reading the ambivalent work on children as creative.

Discussion of learning and subjectivity --  week 1
Unpacking 'subjectivity' in D&G to get to subjectivation as a process. Critique of the usual limited bourgeois notions of the individual subject (as sovereign consumer, homo economicus etc), maybe including Dewey's. Critique of learning by objectives as a line tracing, needing to be put on a map -- a concept map initially, then a rhizome. The virtual as the opposite of the objective AND the subjective, so we can escape the old tired binaries.

Discussion of counting and  measurement --week 2
Assessment as a case study of counting, showing the deleuzian analysis of the tendency towards metrication of the intensive. A possible devastating critique of universities asking if their own systems are fit for purpose (no). Numbering among the nomads building a war machine. So, there are some good aspects of numbers. Try some examples of scales of emotions etc.

Discussion of educational content -- week 3
Indirect discourse and collective enunciations -- 'content','order words' and 'power'. Have all your suspicions confirmed -- and maybe deepened. Adventurous encounters with the unknown is what 'forces us to learn'.

Discussion of the role of the pedagogue --week 4
Deleuze on pedagogy in the 'society  of control' and the artificial nature of pedagogic problems and solutions. Guattari on psychiatric  group therapy as pedagogy.  Learning as an encounter that forces us to think (philosophically). Pedagogy in the cinema. Learning to swim as a bodily exploration of the virtual. You thought it was just exercise?

Discussion of community learning -- week 5
Discussion of community learning on some participant blogs (some usefully critical). Deleuze's suspicion of the 'common sense' of communities and advocacy of 'misosophy' instead of philosophy. Brief reminder of Guattari on therapeutic communities. Macro and micropolitics in communities. Again, a deeper critical evaluation is promised.

Discussion of artefacts as guides to Rhizo 15 -- week 6
Art and artefact by the participants of Rhizo 15,including 'the untext' as collaborative writing , a collective sestina, a radio play and song, a treatment for a video mashup. Deleuze on art as philosophy,  especially art house and avant-garde cinema, including examples like Beckett's Film and Godard's Six Fois Deux (both available online). Rediscover Citizen Kane! Some of my own parodies as examples. What Deleuze said about working with Guattari specifically (including that there are no general principles in favour of collaborative writing with just anyone, or with friends who think like you do). An aside on visual ethnography and indirect free discourse via the films about Africa by Jean Rouch (also available online -- some of them. Not for the squeamish).

* I know there are only 8 files not 42 -- but there weren't a thousand plateaux either.