This is the sixth episode of a series on rhizomatic meta-learning. Read episodes one, two, three, four and five.
We have two choices when confronted with the task of learning about a rhizomatic domain. We can sit back and try to deconstruct the rhizome, or we can jump in and try to keep our head above the surface. I’ve given myself the task of learning about cryptocurrencies. So the fact that I’m writing this series instead of learning about them is an indication that I don’t want to swim right now. Rather, I want to figure out what I’m getting myself into. So let’s continue.
This is a rhizome.
But in this conception, it’s easy to see what blocks are big and which ones are small. You can’t do that very well in properly-rhizomatic domains because they give little indication about what matters when you do a high level survey. So, let’s make two modifications. First, we’ll make every block/node the same size.
Second, we’ll add in the fog of illegibility.
“Illegibility” is another term that I picked up from Venkatesh Rao (who picked it up from James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State). Succinctly put, if something is legible, we can more easily make sense of it. In the post called “A Big Little Idea Called Legibility” there are a couple of visual comparisons that illustrate the idea:
This combination of illegibility and incomprehensibility from a high level perspective is what makes rhizomatic domains so appealing-slash-repulsive. They beckon to the chaos-loving frontier-exploring types, and warn off the order-seeking, legibility lovers. Which brings us to the obvious question I’ve been avoiding: how do you navigate a rhizomatic domain? The obvious answer, in my mind anyway, is to spiral in. Start somewhere on the outside—it doesn’t matter where—then circle round, jumping from node to node, and moving slowly closer to the (seeming) centre.
When I was experimenting with interviews, I came up with a bad model for the progression of a conversation. It consisted of a series of rings, each of which contained a gateway that allowed you to access “deeper” conversation and broach more profound topics. The aim of the interview was to pass through these gates and get to the rings closest to the centre, and avoid doing or saying things that got you chucked back a level or three. That’s akin to the spiralling-in method of rhizome navigation. But of course, there is another way through the rhizome. Rather than spiralling, you can stab through it:
Consider the difference between spiraling and stabbing like the difference between going around or over a mountain and tunnelling right through it. Stabbing is a more expensive, aggressive path, and it’s fraught with more risk. It makes it more likely that you’ll confront something you’re ill-equipped to understand at that time, and so you’ll be more likely to retreat back the way you came, quit entirely, or just get angry and annoyed. In this sense, spiraling is taking the path of least resistance, the path offered by circumstance, the opportunistic route. Stabbing is ignoring signals from the domain and going where you want to go, regardless of the leaps, costs and risks encountered.
Sticking with the idea of stabbing, spiralling and creating pathways through the rhizome, we can make an observation about higher education. The courses offered by learning institutions are, quite simply, supposedly legible pathways through otherwise illegible domains. They build on other’s specialisation in particular areas of the rhizome, chain them together, package them up, and sell them to prospective students. That’s what students are after: a way through the complex domains they’re trying to learn about.
Of course, there’s one critical factor I’ve missed in my light discussion of pathways and fog and rhizomatic structures. Time. See, rhizomatic domains are dynamic. As time passes, they evolve and change shape. And their nodes do the same, converging, dispersing, becoming important and ceasing to matter. The best way to visualise this is to imagine the fog of illegibility as always moving, becoming thicker and lighter in turn, and the nodes themselves as growing, shrinking and travelling about.
The consequence of this dynamism is an inability to map a rhizomatic domain. The moment you think you’ve figured it all out and put pencil to paper, your abstraction is outdated. So instead of using a map, it’s better to think of navigating with a compass. What you choose to occupy the role of magnetic pole is up to you. It could be interestingness, it could be novelty, it could be importance. But the point is that navigating within the rhizome is not for the faint of heart, and it requires a solid belief in the value of trying to do so.