Sunday, 10 March 2019

Rhizomes and Constellations

When I was a child, my mum used to complain about the bamboo in her garden. She would pull it up from one place, and it would pop up in another. No matter how much she tried to contain it, the complex underground system of roots was vast and unpredictable. The plant, of course, is a rhizome - a continuously growing subterranean system, connected through roots, nodes and buds - familiar to us through other plants too, such as couch grass, ferns, ginger, funghi and the humble buttercup.  My presentation to #BrewEdLeeds was about rhizomes, to a rhizome - as the Twitter network can be seen to operate in a similar way to bamboo. Individuals ('nodes') join together, intersect, connect, and at times emerge into the sunlight, blooming and flourishing - if only for a short time.  Attempts to 'pull them up' may be thwarted as people resist the institutional hierarchies that constrain them; unlikely, and chance connections may be made. A surprising symbiosis may be formed, as those on different sides of the educational fence come together - perhaps for a project of shared values like #BAMEed or #WomenEd.  The 'earth' around us in the Twittersphere may be fertile and provide good conditions for growth, or at other times prove toxic and kill off attempts at solidarity.  (Of course we cannot leave aside platform capitalism and the monetisation of our activities in this online space, but a desire to work in a spirit of affirmative ethics (Braidotti, 2013) encourages me to both critique and appreciate Twitter at the same time).

Rhizomatic processes challenge the notion of curriculum as enacted today in a call to teach 'the best that has been thought and said.' As Cormier (2008) states '...the rhizomatic viewpoint returns the concept of knowledge to its earliest roots. Suggesting that a distributed negotiation of knowledge can allow a community of people to legitimize the work they are doing among themselves and for each member of the group, the rhizomatic model dispenses with the need for external validation of knowledge, either by an expert or by a constructed curriculum. Knowledge can again be judged by the old standards of "I can" and "I recognize." If a given bit of information is recognized as useful to the community or proves itself able to do something, it can be counted as knowledge. The community, then, has the power to create knowledge within a given context and leave that knowledge as a new node connected to the rest of the network.'

Deleuze and Guattari resist the idea of concepts and metaphors in their writing; yet several years ago Lou Mycroft and I claimed the rhizome as a way of both making sense of our interconnected professional lives and the way in which education can be re-imagined for life in the twenty-first century.  The need for agency is pressing and apparent; as teachers leave the sector, students at all levels are instrumentalised and commodified, and frustrations emerge in wide-spread mental health issues.  By working nomadically, outside of formal hierarchies and through the energy of new projects and ideas, rhizomic emergences (just like weeds) can thrive both in wastelands and pristine gardens. They pay no heed to artificial boundaries of sectors, buildings, organisations and funding bodies (Mycroft and Sidebottom, 2018).

What can be done with a few people contributing a fiver and a few hours of their time never ceases to amaze me.  BrewEd, and movements like it, are nomadic in their resistance to the territorialisation of time and space; there is faciliation and guidance, but no centre.  Spin-offs, re-mixing, riffs and repeats are welcome and expected.  It is, however, worth paying heed to Deleuze and Guattari's (1987) warnings of 'reterratorialisation'; when the system works to bring back movements into majority lines, by a process of 'recoding.'   A central organising system, or incorporation of a movement would be examples of this. Think about how many times something spontaneous and fun has been ruined by overly zealous moves to systemise it, organise it or somehow make it better?

Constellations, in the artistic sense, are cross-disciplinary, mixed methods installations which draw together disparate artists, usually around a central theme. They are usually temporary; coming together to create something challenging, activist and often beautiful, with value emanating from the whole rather than the component parts. In a project-based constellation, we draw on the idea that the 'work is the institution' rather than the institution driving the work. By thinking nomadically, you are able to work to your own values - perhaps across multiple constellations at any one time. (Mycroft and Sidebottom, 2018).

Image: Tangled Mess by Paul Rodecker

Braidotti (2013) explores Spinozan principles of potentia and potestas, to help rhizomatic practitioners walk the tightrope of working differently in traditional spaces. Potestas is defined as ‘politics as usual’, meaning not (necessarily) party politics but the exercise of hierarchical power; conventionally defined as ‘leadership’. Potentia is a politics of hope (Mycroft and Weatherby, 2017), opening up spaces for thinking and working together differently. It contains within it the notion of ‘affirmation’, direct from Spinoza (Braidotti, 2016), which respects the history of standpoint politics, whilst at the same time encouraging a move beyond the places of pain that drive them, to a post-identitarian future.  Potentia alone sounds enticing, but we live in a world of power hierarchies where we need to temper the mix with potestas, in order to have any impact. (Mycroft and Sidebottom, 2018).

My closing question to #BrewEdLeeds was - how can we work as rhizomes and constellations in order to gain agency and make change? One answer was that 50 people thinking, connecting, and raising money together in a pub on a Saturday is one way in which we're already doing exactly that.


Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Growth Rings

It was a year of words
So full, that some spilled over
To be corralled into formal shapes
others gravitating
to half-forgotten sediment
breaking down letter by letter,
fragments landing rich and fertile
covering the leaf litter words of rotten men
to re-emerge with the surprise of exclamation marks
punctuating shoots of joy.

A year of multiple rhythms
And odd ellipses of silence
three dots heavy with their own message
and closing doors of full stops.
Words infused by marching characters
softly changed as if brushed against pollen
rhizomic webs of reciprocity
appearing different in the slanting light
crystallising new perspectives.

If you mark the good years
with wide concentric rings
then this book should have gaps

For new pages
where you can see the grain, if you look hard enough
White and waiting
with ink soaking through like sap
a reminder;
We are here, We are here.