OK, Rhizomatic Learning Theory Is Just a Crock

17782574151_02eb592251_zThere are two parts of rhizomatic learning. One is intellectual and represents a European philosophical tradition that rises through the great upheavals of the 20th century but the other is biological, an analogy to the power of the root, the corm, the bulb, and the rhizome. I really don’t like the mishmash that Deleuze and Guattari make of the the two. I have been an observer of the natural scene for almost thirty years where I am now and longer. One truth I know is that when it comes to knowing, I am humbled every day. What D&G know about the natural world they are drawing their metaphors from is even less than humbling. (Sometimes it seems like an in-joke.  I can’t imagine anything more disingenuous.)

And how do I know this truth? Directly through my own experience and indirectly in part through the work of one of my fellow Kentuckians, Wendell Berry. Read what Berry has to say below and tell me that D&G are not absolutely full of shit. And don’t give me an ‘apples and oranges’ argument either.

Then read the poem and be suffused with light from someone who has no use for the vapid conjurings of metaphysicians who use spells and ward words like “multiplicity/contextualism/heterarchy/Plane of immanence/asignifying rupture/decalcomania” instead of the real magic below.

Berry on form and its usefulness

It is true that any form can be applied with a stupid rigidity… But a set form can be used also to summon into a poem, or into a life, its unforeseen belongings, and thus is not rigid but freeing — an invocation to unknown possibility. Form, crudely or stupidly used, may indeed be inimical to freedom. Well used, it may be the means of earning freedom, the price of admission or permission, the enablement to be free. But the connection may be even closer, more active and interesting, than that; it may be that form, strictly kept, enforces freedom. The form can be fulfilled only by a kind of abandonment to hope and to possibility, to unexpected gifts. The argument for freedom is not an argument against form. Form, like topsoil (which is intricately formal), empowers time to do good.

I think that this also applies to the forms we use in teaching, the scaffolds, the templates, the checklists.  Note the caveat:  stupid rigidity.  A clear and useful statement on the power of intelligent form, “Form, like topsoil (which is intricately formal), empowers time to do good.   D&G wouldn’t  know clarity from a hickory chicken. Dryland fish? Morel? OK, mushrooms–a real rhizome instead of the faux crap being fed to us by D&G.

So , after playing the believing game for this long, for anteing up, for having skin in the game, for pretending that these guys have anything to say to me except insofar as I can make it mean something through ugly hoop jumping, I …call…bullshit.

This is two years of thinking about this. Perhaps those who “understand” the private language can use it.  I can’t. I appreciate them bringing it my attention. Now I can safely ignore it.  And besides, my limited knowing indicates that there is nothing in this that substantively differentiates it from the connectivism/constructivism/whimmydiddlism that passes for guiding theory.

And this comes from me, a sheep farmer who happens to know that ‘theorizing’ can be the most practical verb in the language.  This doodah ain’t practical.  I tried to find examples of it and ended up discovering cool useful stuff that I tried to characterize into a rhizomatic whackamole black hole. I failed, but it was worth doing if only for myself. It was worth sharing even though almost no one shared.  Truth tell, it was just an exercise of my own rhizome that most folks just call a brain.

If you want theory that you can practice, read Wendell Berry’s poetry. It is useful, applied knowing.  And if it isn’t, then it will be clear what you can push back against.



(to remind myself)

Make a place to sit down.

Sit down. Be quiet.

You must depend upon

affection, reading, knowledge,

skill – more of each

than you have – inspiration,

work, growing older, patience,

for patience joins time

to eternity. Any readers

who like your poems,

doubt their judgment.

Breathe with unconditional breath

the unconditioned air.

Shun electric wire.

Communicate slowly. Live

a three-dimensioned life;

stay away from screens.

Stay away from anything

that obscures the place it is in.

There are no unsacred places;

there are only sacred places

and desecrated places.

Accept what comes from silence.

Make the best you can of it.

Of the little words that come

out of the silence, like prayers

prayed back to the one who prays,

make a poem that does not disturb

the silence from which it came.




  1. // Reply

    Bullshit calling noted.

    You’re quite right… D&G were not botanists. Nor farmers. Nor physicists (their crimes in referring to physics are even worst than their biological crimes).

    I get the kind of freedom that Berry is talking about from D&G. Coming to read their work a window opened for me through the vail of half-truths that I saw holding up the culture i was trying to understand. The half-truths were not replaced with ‘more-truth’ but rather with less. They offered me new ways to interrogate the things that I see.

    Your critique is interesting to me as it seems to pass back and forth between you claiming ‘limited knowing’ and ‘truth’. Any venture into any of the post-modernists looking for truth is likely to end up this way… they weren’t interested in it. I hope that what part I’ve had in your time thinking about D&G has been in some way productive.

    I think “it was just an exercise of my own rhizome that most folks just call a brain” is about as much I ever hope for anyway.

    Happy wanderings 🙂



    1. // Reply

      Maybe I wrote too much and had too little fun? I did not intend to diminish anyone else’s fun. Nope. Never. But if I did harsh anyone’s rhizomatic buzz, I will have to owe you one or several. Just let me know what I can do to make it right.

      1. // Reply

        Terry, you always add to the fun. No worries. Plus I am planting your sunflower seeds this week. Real people, real connections, 1000 miles away.

  2. // Reply

    Well … Then …
    I can’t defend D&G because I never got around to reading more than a snippet here and there. Maybe I have been forming my own personal definition, defined by activities and collaborations, and maybe I have been slotting those ideas into the field.
    Or not.
    I don’t rightly know, and I have been a little less concerned with the philosophical underpinning than what people do together to talk about what it means to learn and write and compose and create and get your head messy with it all. For that, I have appreciated a rhizome metaphor, as it seemed to represent connections and the unknown.
    As always, you speak what’s on your mind and as before, I always appreciate it.

    1. // Reply

      Agree with Kevin on the philosophical angle. I prefer to know how things work without inventing new terms. History of science, systems studies, anthropology, building and urban design. We invest our imaginations where we get the best return but I don’t mind a bit of pushing past my comfort or preferences. Dave seems taken by D&G and that alone is weird enough to keep me hanging in.
      Maybe not really knowing what rhizomatic really is opens a space in out mind for speculation? That there is a real process going on that releases us from hanging on too tightly to the things we think we know?

      1. // Reply

        Too much of a masquerade for me. And not a good one, more like the Poe kind.

    2. // Reply

      I like your attitude, Kevin. Don’t shout about what you do not understand, do find how a metaphor works for you.

    3. // Reply

      I have come to get a little jittery about all things linguistic. Perhaps that is what these dudes were saying, don’t get comfortable with words they will just break your heart. I think that is why I have been so keen on Zeega and Popcornmaker and lately comix. They seem to fly straighter or at least they feel more honest than words. It is the reason the loss of those tools are so devastating to me. I am just now hitting a semblance of apprentice work in a creative milieu that I love and … I know there are other ways to bring media to the table and I hope to do lots of that this summer with your help and kind consideration. And all of the help of all of the commenters here for this post. I am a lucky man to be sitting in my blog with the wisest kids in the room.

  3. // Reply

    Good post.

    Hope to speak soon.


  4. // Reply

    Terry, I committed myself to reading D&G and just don’t draw any energy from them so I’ve cut back to reading a page a day and hoping for something. Reading about complexity and ANT minus Latour feeds my need for ideas . Something about D&G feels inauthentic and disrespectful of the reader. Not just a scrambled message but a deliberate pissing around for no purpose.

    1. // Reply

      Thanks, Scott. I am glad you have found ways in and out of D&G that I have not. I am not good in that territory with only a few tracings on the back of an envelope. All the talk of ruptures and buggery might just be the translation working bad juju, but carry on. I think my tacit knowledge and experience is getting in the way and after a close reading I found myself saying, “I guess I won’t have those thirty minutes to live over again.” Hey, I let myself in for it, didn’t I? I know how poker works. Sometimes you get into a game where the limits are too big or the players too savvy. I always felt the commenter here were the smartest people in the room.

  5. // Reply

    Hi Terry,

    I’m curious if this is a departure for you from rhizomatic learning as a whole or just from the botanical metaphor? In the beginning of this post it seems that you are splitting the two but by the end it feels like you are walking away from the whole thing.

    With my interest in death as a metaphor in the rhizome I have a particular fascination of what it will mean if you walk away; even in part. Of course this is not your actual death but if we are talking about a significant transformation in your thinking that will draw you away from contributing in this vein I feel that deserves some …. thing…. more. Perhaps I am playing sorceress a bit. Perhaps this post will just piss you off as you want to just let dead ideas be. But I have so many questions?

    Wondering what Berry has to say about death I found this

    Interesting that he mentions roots and traveling.

  6. // Reply

    very refreshing, thank you! love it when a spade is called by its already given and perfectly serviceable name.

    I think there are very worthwhile insights made when traditional forms are messed with, (like the PhD in comic form,) but whether there’s any ‘theory’ in the descriptions of meaning-making that go under the various labels that educational discourse comes out with each decade to imagine it has discovered something about learning that previous generations hadn’t already experienced and articulated rather well.. well, I’ve always taken teacher talk with a few truckloads of salt….

    but how do we seriously theorise learning and teaching? I think a good teacher naturally wants to explain, not just describe, what they observe and engineer, and so reads all kindsa stuff, but can be easy led astray

    when you sit down quietly and really listen and observe what is happening in an educational space, the complexity is genuinely daunting to describe and explain, and various tools and metaphors are drawn on to generate some form of comprehensible story, and sometimes some of them work amusingly well, for a while… but to confuse description, counting and poetic musings with theory really is a nonsense

    I’ve encountered enough genuine theory to know how practical a good one can be, but even very good theory can be grossly misunderstood and badly applied (like the very intelligent explanation of pattern recognition in terms of ‘genre’ and ‘register’ in a certain school of linguistics that gets translated by some teachers who couldn’t be bothered reading much into demands on students to ‘shut up and write like this’). … enough to wound the language philosopher’s soul – deeply

    My reading of French philosophy hasn’t been so frustrating though, maybe because I’m not expecting it to help me actually explain educational encounters… I see the DaGs of this world as just trying to carve out a space in a very specific institutional tradition of thinking about what ‘knowledge’ is…. but I’m trying to think seriously about how learning develops, and I find the greatest practical help in theory of language, which seeks to see and explain the stuff we work with to make most of our meaning… every so-called theory of learning I’ve read really does gloss over language as though immaterial to knowing and being in the socially constructed world (prove me wrong, anyone please – I am seriously searching for theories of learning that don’t render language invisible!)

    if making meaning is a social, collaborative, growing kind of phenomenon, then a social semiotic theory is going to explain it better than a view that’s focused on the individual level of cognition (it ain’t my mind or your mind, but how our mind grows that’s really interesting) and the only real frustration I have with French philosophy is how it’s used and imagined to have explanatory power in contexts very other than the one it emerges from

    but what do I know? I know the sun just rose and it’s time I went for a stroll on the beach – to clear my mind;)

  7. // Reply

    Well, I hope you had some fun with us.
    That’s by far the most important part.

    1. // Reply

      I have enjoyed my time with you all. That is where I learned. I am always so lucky to surround myself with folks who are way smarter than I am. So I had fun with you guys and I learned from you and, if you will be so kind, I will continue to learn. I think that fun and play and us are what makes me live online and try to understand the nutso French bastards D&G. They are the ante up in the poker game of learning for rhizo15. I get to drink and play cards and cuss and smoke and otherwise make an ass of myself because I know you all will be patient and shake your heads and say, “Just let him get it out of his system.” I love learning with you guys. I’m just not going to call it rhizomatic anymore.

  8. // Reply

    If I showed you some pictures and songs that spoke to me about understanding would you shout at me that you could not put into words what they meant?

    If I wrote you a poem would you expect to be able to write an analysis of its fundamental truth?

    If you say no to these (and I hope you do) then you should stop trying to force D&G into a narrow box and being angry at them for not fitting into neat categories.

    1. // Reply

      I use language like I use a hoe. Perhaps I am wrong to expect words to be so instrumental. Words can cut like a sharp hoe and if I have cut I beg forgiveness. If you showed me songs and pictures that you told me spoke to you, I would not shout at you, but if I cared enough I might shout, “Help me understand.” Over and over I read them and their words seem purposely disingenous, but this is just how it seems to me. I am only letting people know that I don’t have the time or inclination to engage in more talk about D&G. I really have tried over the last few years to get what they have to say. It just didn’t work out.

      If you wrote me a poem I would say thank you and I would probably try to translate it and internalize it and come to terms with it because you cared enough to write it and share it. And if I misunderstood I would expect you to correct me even to shout at me because that’s what friends do. I would expect to know its fundamental truth to me, small “t”. I agree. I am trying to force their ideas into the only narrow box I own, my own mind. They don’t fit. They are sharp. They hurt and seem like weapons not tools. And having said all this, I must also say that you have come to terms with them. You have found a way to make them work for you. I made myself vulnerable to everyone by saying this, by admitting that I am angry at my failure. I came to #rhizo15 for the theory but I stayed for the company, your company. That means infinitudes more to me than any theory even my own. I am not angry with their ideas. I am angry it took two years to figure out that they just did not fit into my narrow box. I can be stubborn that way. In this post I wanted folks to know how I felt even if I was wrong, especially if I was wrong. I am not abandoning my friends just D&G. And I will do anything in the world to make you know that I meant no harm.

      1. // Reply

        I rather think you have already got it. We don’t need 57 varieties of understanding the limits of language or the annoyingly verbose aspects of self-referential French intelligentsia.

        They are just so French.

        I suppose having spent half my life in France, I tend to me more forgiving of tortured soixante huitards – there are much worse sort (it seems to me) than Deleuze.

        I reckon you are trying too hard – they are probably ok with a bit of wine and good food in some bistrot.

        Give me D&G everyday rather than Sarkozy, Petain or Le Pen.

        1. // Reply

          SImon you are so blasted right about including wine with D&G. Clearly the missing link.

      2. // Reply

        Funny. I came to Rhizo15 for the company and stay for it. If I get some theory out of it, it’s a bonus.

  9. // Reply

    I agree that D&G are deliberately unclear and elitist in their assumptions that we all know who the Christ Maurice Sachs was or why Lacan is wrong, what ‘genital thought’ is or whatever. Until I read you, I thought there was no sterner critic and mocker than me. However the really irritating thing is that there is sometimes a nugget in the bullshit so you have to keep sifting through. I rate the critique of structural linguistics, for example,and I am even warming to the ontology ( mostly after reading commentaries). So much bullshit though!

    1. // Reply

      Yeah, it’s like having very small diamond that’s fallen in a hole in the floorboards and you reach in and reach in and feel something sting you and you pull your hand out. You know that you can’t put a glove on because you will never feel it, but you also know the diamond is still there. What to do? What to do?

      1. // Reply

        I have the impression that u have just summarised A Thousand Plateau.

        Yeah, it’s like having ….that’s fallen in a hole in the floorboards and you reach in and reach in and feel …..so you ……and you pull your hand out.

        You know that you can’t put a glove on because you will never feel …, but you also know the …,is still there. What to do? What to do?

        The essence is in movement and in a false belief that diamonds exist or that they have anymore value than the searching.

        You are the hole, the floorboards, the diamond, the you, the glove, the feeling, the knowledge of what is undefinable.

        The interest for me is not in the finding but in the endless, restless, absurd but hopefully enjoyable search for what cannot be known.

        The search is the map. The reason? Who cares?

        1. // Reply

          I love this discussion.
          There’s so much love, respect and warmth in it.

          To me, this is far more important than any theory or philosophy.

          I hope we can keep on learning together in a fun and creative way.

          1. //

            I agree. It is in the comments here that we understand how we think and interpret and connect.

  10. // Reply

    I don’t think I ever took D&G seriously enough to get angry. Maybe mildly disgusted – but even then didn’t really care whether they wrote nonsense as I suspected, or whether I was just too plebeian to understand them. I was content that the rhizome metaphor captured Dave Cormier’s interest enough that he created a space around it where really smart people interacted. Hanging out with this crowd, listening to the wrangling, jumping into it occasionally, I’ve learned ways of looking at the world I doubt I could have accessed anywhere else.
    Not sure I can “sod rhizo” quite as readily as Simon. Maybe a rose by any other name… but this weed was the catalyst for our community. As such, I can forgive the smell.
    And yeah, what Kevin said, “what people do together”.

    1. // Reply

      Jim, I am incorrigibly flippant.

  11. // Reply

    I came for the play – and found some wonderful people – so many of them in this ‘reply’ stream!
    I love the cry of:
    ‘He’s in the altogether, the altogether, he’s absolutely bare!’
    But – being a cowboy, I never read D&G anyway – just loved the idea of smoothing out the negative striations – the controlling bumps and paths that limit us… Loved the idea of the nomad.
    Cheerio for now, Tellio!

  12. // Reply

    I came to rhizo because last summer in CLMOOC, everyone kept referencing rhizo. Well, CLMOOC was the best “class” I ever took, so I thought, “I should jump into rhizo15.” I learned in CLMOOC14 that the point was to make connections, have fun and learn. I met some of the most incredible people that I have ever encountered, and that class never really ended. So… I followed them in rhizo15, rather blindly and without concern for knowing what anyone was talking about. That’s what CLMOOC taught me – just jump in. Rhizo was a tad more serious than I expected, and I am sure I was/am unable to truly tap into what Dave was looking for in terms of intense academic involvement, but because I got to play in the playground with old friends, and make some new ones, it has been worth it. In my mind, rhizomatic learning meant lots of different buds/centers of learning popping up, rather than a top-down approach. Now [I think] I am finding out that it means something else. But I think I will just keep my own definition. I like it better. 🙂

    1. // Reply

      I’m with you, Susan. I have never read a single word of D&G, but have been (sorta) hanging out in #rhizo15 because I love the company, have encountered some interesting new resources, and have enjoyed conversations with intelligent, thinking people. It doesn’t require any deep, philosophical reading for me to know those are all good things.

      I also love the way you stir the pot, Terry. In the various spaces our worlds intersect, my reaction to your writing is often visceral. In this case, I have no opinion on D&G (not having read their work), so am simply a spectator in this discussion.

      1. // Reply

        I have spent a lot of time trying to understand a very little of what D&G have written, a little more trying to understand some of their motives, and a lot more acting as if I understood, a baby Emperor in his new clothes. I have not given up on the conversations just my faux expertise. Long live the friends from #rhizo15 and 14 and on and on.

    2. // Reply

      Susan, I think you are right not to lose sight of having a personal take on rhizomatic learning or anything else. I don’t mind the theorizing until I do. Then I just doodle-do.

    3. // Reply

      Define yourself and let the experts go hang. Yeah, that is damned good advice for better living.

  13. // Reply

    What a lovely poem. I am inspired my much of what is on this page – the heartfelt honesty in the post, the quotes and the responses.

    I understand the anger about the blunt tool that is D&G’s rhizome metaphor. There is ego in their theorising and it seems the debate is whether it’s worth the effort to push past that. I still don’t know. I am very grateful to have read this discussion though. It seems to have grounded and recentred my thinking. Dropping Wendell in there really rearranged things beautifully. Brought heart, body, ground back into focus.

    1. // Reply

      You sum it up much more calmly than I. So happy to have you join in the conversation. I felt the need for a careful grounding, one that was rooted in clarity and honesty, too, and am glad you can appreciate how apt Berry is here.

    1. // Reply

      I especially like your turn here, “When straightforward, everyday language fails us and we begin to push out from the edges of the tools we know how to use.” That is exactly what I tried to do. D&G want to privatize language. I want to push out its envelop as far as I can, hence all the multimodal, creative projects. Or as
      Berry puts it, “Make a poem that does not disturb the silence from which it came.”

  14. // Reply


    the passion of the responses to D & G amazes me… it’s not like people just walk away. thanks here for sharing this vulnerability.

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