Frances Bell

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Dimensions of power, knowledge and rhizomatic thinking


CCl by Erwin from

My first thought when I hear the word power is of an individual exerting power over another – getting them to do something or stop doing something (possibly by raising a physical or verbal fist). But I am guessing that’s not going to be enough in rhizomatic thinking where we are thinking about the connections and the rhizome.  My reading of De Leuze and Guattari has not so far rendered me able to use only their ideas so I have turned to some other ideas of power that I found useful in the past.  Masters students who were studying the implementation of information systems would get stuck in solely technological explanations of why an information system was deemed to have succeeded. Looking at Lukes’ different dimensions of power helped them and me explore the politics and human relations in ‘success’ and ‘failure’. I have linked to Lukes writing at the end if you are interested to read it and correct my interpretation.  There are four but I am too tired to look at Foucault.

A one-dimensional view of power is when one agent (an individual or an institution) prevails over another.  This may be through the rules of the game, for example where a teacher sets rules for a piece of assessed work. Alternatively the agent may prevail through threats or rewards, for example the disciplining of students who plagiarise, or the award of a prize.  This view of power shows us teachers and students potentially in conflict with each other but it can be a good starting point to challenge that view, as Dave encouraged us in Week 1. As Jollyroger says “playing with subversion in this manner seems a very interesting way of dismantling limiting structures of power that condition learning”.

A two-dimensional view of power sees power as exercised not through observable conflict but rather through control of the agenda.  Teachers can do this by being prescriptive about what is or is not to be discussed within the course. I have a memory from primary school (K-12) of the teacher saying to a very bright student – “Not another red herring”. So in the rhizomatic learning that is the subject of our MOOC, we could be influenced by what Dave puts in the P2PU space or by agents who promote or suppress topics. This has significant implications for the ‘community is the curriculum’ – the curriculum can become a site of struggle within the community.  I would find it too clumsy to draw on specific examples here from #rhizo14 but would be interested if you could recognise this in your own practice here. In my case, I have been bleating all over the place about not restricting our considerations to formal educational settings but to also think about informal learning.

A three-dimensional view of power demonstrates that the conflict may remain covert or as a potential.  An agent may prevail over another because the second agent (possibly unconsciously) is influenced by the will of the first.  My understanding of this view of power expanded rapidly during #rhizo14 in Week 2.  I had shared my wish to use the experience of this MOOC to enhance my understanding of De Leuze and Guattari’s theory, and Cath Ellis had posted an excellent post with a plea to engage with rhizomatic theory and some eminently practical advice on how to do that. And then… in the Facebook group Maddie posted a heartfelt message about how all this stuff about theory felt to her, and she describes it here. This was quite a turning point on #rhizo14 for me.  I responded in an attempt (that probably failed) to be more inclusive and thought very carefully about my contributions, previously and subsequently. Once I resisted the idea “well she can’t mean me – I don’t want to tell anyone they have to study theory” I began to move forward and realise that, regardless of my intention, I might have influenced others about what this MOOC was about by what I had said.  Of course it’s not as simple as that and agency works both ways in a three-dimensional view of power.  I have found Emily Purser’s posts on FB and her blog to be very revealing in helping me understand a bit more about the messy rhizome that is #rhizo14.  She said on FB ” I just keep telling myself that meaning is never in the text, it’s in the reading – and that’s something we actually do have enormous power over, if we see it that way.. that seems to be what I’ve got from a couple of decades reading ‘theory’ in conversation with good people, and I find that perspective a real gift in those frequent times of uncomfortable confrontation with power that I feel on the underside of”. So the reader and the writer have power and responsibility, and I think they are being exercised with good will and humanity on #rhizo14 but we have no room for complacency – it’s hard work.

It’s not pragmatists 1 – theorists 0 – it’s game on.  As Jenny Mackness said today,


Lastly, what I am dimly grasping about rhizomatic thinking is that it encourages connections between people with different ‘knowledge’.  This paper includes an explanation of a project in post-apartheid South Africa that tries to effect learning in people with different ‘knowledges’ “. Service-learning in South Africa can crucially contribute to the deconstruction of Western thought and the transformation of both indigenous knowledge and western knowledge.”

Can we accommodate different ‘knowledges’ on #rhizo14?


If you want read the original writing about dimesnions of power is a good place to start and especially


francesbell • January 26, 2014

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  1. Dimensions of power, knowledge and rhizomatic t...
  2. epurser January 27, 2014 - 8:39 am Reply

    Hi Frances, another well considered post, thanks for the read! I don’t have but a moment to comment in passing unfortunately, but loved the image, made me lol ! I’m very influenced by a certain theory of language that really effectively enables analysis of power relations, in that it describes every utterance in terms of how three dimensions operate simultaneously, including interpersonally. The dominant view of ‘text’ analysis focuses on ideation only (‘content’) and construes the interpersonal, emotional, powerful, as something ‘outside’ textual communications (in the individual, for example, or the social order) – SFL explains the connection between clause and discourse levels of language very well. I won’t bang on here, but I find this theoretical approach to understanding language communications very enlightening, as it marries grammar with context in powerfully explanatory ways – and after years of reading it, and recognising the compatibility with various post-structuralist critiques of traditional ways of looking at things, I say, yay theory – very liberating 🙂

  3. Maha January 27, 2014 - 3:08 pm Reply

    Hi Frances, thanks for writing that. I have been concerned a bit in the past few days about the lack of discussion of theory (not disappeared, but suppressed) but am happy several people (even the pragmatists, if we will use categories, which i wouldn’t, since Maddie correctly reminded me that i am an academic) are noticing this and reconsidering.
    I have been thinking about it and re-reading my blog post, Cath’s, and Maddie’s fb comment several times. It is a matter of interpretation, but Cath’s post did not mean to exclude anyone, my post did not mean to exclude theorists (only to show why it should be ok to have multiple knowledges, as not everyone wants to or can easily read theory), and Maddie’s post was about (my interpretation) people flaunting degrees (which i inadvertently do sometimes) and a few other things.
    None of this, i believe, should have made ppl stop talking about theory completely (as i have said in several spaces). And i feel bad about it, but i keep re-reading and can’t find exactly what caused this.
    Incidentally, i am making slow progress on D&G myself (not liking it too much, possibly because i have never actually seen a real-life rhizome!! Egypt is an agricultural society historically but most of us in the cities don’t have gardens, we live in flats). But funny enough, my interest in doing collaborative ethnography on rhizo14 led me to articles on using Deleuzian ideas in research approaches! Now some ppl seem unhappy with that direction (doing research) but As you said there *should* be room for multiple knowledges to co-exist and even feed on each other in #rhizo14

    • francesbell January 27, 2014 - 5:26 pm Reply

      I think we all have our own rhizo 14 as we try to navigate the dense forest of posts, links, comments. I am not disappointed as I was never looking for pure theory posts but rather applications of ideas to practice accompanied by dialogue. Some of these ideas might be framed by other people’s ideas (that we could call theories), some might be stories . If none related to rhizomatic thinking/learning I would be surprised. Anyway, I am neither surprised nor disappointed in this respect as I am seeing a lot dialogue where people are listening and talking without defining themselves as one thing or another unless it is relevant to what they are talking about.

      • VanessaVaile June 16, 2014 - 5:30 pm Reply

        I like your characterization that we all have our rhizo14. Could we bricolate and call that Rhizo14 Response Theory? It’s useful as one seems to say about theories they like, in this case particularly to me. That my own — no matter what course or even twitter chat I am in — is so different is ever problematic.

        I wonder about the defining because I am not sure I even can. Do you think we should open every post with a brief-where-I-am-coming from statement? That could get cumbersome, especially with already wordy posts. Perhaps a position hashtag?

        I used to do more theory framing (and theory frame mocking) when I was in an academic milieu off and on line. Outside the Ivory Silo, one loses the habit.

      • francesbell June 18, 2014 - 6:29 am Reply

        (replying to Vanessa here but have run out of indentations)
        It’s interesting to reread one’s comments several months after writing them, and I note that I was more (and possibly consciously) optimistic then than I feel at this juncture;) So Vanessa, you have made me think there about the pros and cons of framing – it could be counter-productive for people of different knowledges to frame themselves as ‘this person/ this role’ if the outcome were to put one person in a ‘one up’ position of power. However, if as I read from the service-learning example in the linked article, a situation of trust and listening had been established between these people of different ‘knowledges’ had been established AND they were really listening to each others richly contextual stories then some meta-talk/framing could be beneficial when undertaking this hard work of dialogue (in the sense that I think that Bohm means it). However, as I write that I am aware that I have made a promise (that I have not yet kept) on rhizo14 to read and blog about Burbule’s view of dialogue.
        I like your comment about the academic milieu. Academia does not always provide safe spaces for dialogue (particularly when egos are rampant) but good teachers can create slightly artificial spaces, places of safety, where good listening is practiced and rich talking is encouraged. This is very much ‘teacher as facilitator’ – the teacher is not doing much talking. I am contrasting that in my thoughts now with the much lauded (on rhizo14) ‘campfire’ analogy where the elder is telling the story (was that me mocking a frame?)

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  5. francesbell January 28, 2014 - 11:46 am Reply

    I didn’t say how to do the metastomatic like Jenny did. Just go to
    Here are the metastomatics of the text of this post against the spine POWER
    Obviously they are much better than the post;)

  6. fred6368 January 31, 2014 - 2:12 pm Reply

    Nice post Frances Bell I like the phrase “what I am dimly grasping about rhizomatic thinking is that it encourages connections between people with different ‘knowledge'”
    That reminds me of what Ethan Zuckerman is talking about in Rewire; Digital Cosmopolitans in a Connected World;
    And what Global Voices are trying to do;

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  8. jollyroger February 3, 2014 - 12:16 am Reply

    Hi Frances! Your post touches on many interesting topics, but I feel especially drawn to the last one, connections between different “knowledges”. I like the feeling of being able to engage freely with whatever source of knowledge I may find desirable, and the freedom of being able to find different sources desirable and interesting. The “striated” spaces of formal learning environments hinder these connections, by establishing various kinds of “rejected knowledges”. It is good to look at the smooth spaces too!

    I would really like to hear more from you on this topic.

  9. francesbell February 3, 2014 - 8:59 am Reply

    @Fred and @jollyroger the different ‘knowledges’ is interesting. I really liked the Global Voices Online site. The paper I linked to in last para gives an interesting account of the coming together of people with different worldviews in post-apartheid South Africa, farmed through Deleuzian ideas so goes beyond individuals seeking sources – more about people conducting dialogue.
    Here’s a quote from the paper that illustrates this
    “When a researcher trained in western traditions and someone knowledgeable about indigenous traditions are brought together to collaborate in solving a community problem, the deterritorialisation of both knowledges occurs. New lines of flight are generated from both knowledges and when these
    connect, new knowledges as well as new knowledge spaces are created. The new knowledge produced will have elements of both western knowledge and indigenous knowledge but will also be distinctly different from its two precursors, that is, transformation of both knowledges occurs.
    Deterritorialisation, in a sense involves the deconstruction of western knowledge so that it can be compared more equally to other ways of knowing. Service-learning in South Africa can crucially contribute to the deconstruction of Western thought and the transformation of both indigenous knowledge and western knowledge.”

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  11. helinur February 9, 2014 - 2:15 pm Reply

    Hi, I read this thread now and I am thinking that how to follow this kind of open learning. I have begun to talk about these things just now and my findings are like yours. It is necessary to take time and space for own thinking but if all my sayings have been written better earlier, so what? I don’t care, it belongs to this collaborative process.

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