Frances Bell

home at last – for all the mes


Wandering across smooth and jagged spaces – bring a blanket and beware the Chief ants

Short cut

Apologies in advance – this is a long post.  You could just skip it altogether, or look at the pictures and watch the video. Thanks for getting this far.


Textiles for Nomads – feeling it for felt

This week I have been engaging with De Leuze and Guattari’s ideas of the Nomad and trying to make sense of it in a context that has some meaning for me.  Earlier this week we had a discussion on #rhizo14 Facebook group about textiles that led me, via Thousand Plateaus reader by Eugene Holland to the Section on the Technology Model in Chapter 12 that uses textiles in the as an example to distinguish between nomadic and sedentary use of technology. At first I was a bit puzzled, as my experience of felting involved boiling either knitted items, or ones sewn from woven wool.  I have a felting needle but have never used it.

“Even the technologists who express grave doubts about the nomads’ powers of innovation at least give them credit for felt: a splendid insulator, an ingenious invention, the raw material for tents, clothes, and armor among the Turco-Mongols. Of course, the nomads of Africa and the Maghreb instead treat wool as a fabric. Although it might entail displacing the opposition, do we not detect two very different conceptions or even practices of weaving, the distinction between which would be something like the distinction between fabric as a whole and felt? For among sedentaries, clothes-fabric and tapestry-fabric tend to annex the body and exterior space, respectively, to the immobile house: fabric integrates the body and the outside into a closed space. On the other hand, the weaving of the nomad indexes clothing and the house itself to the space of the outside, to the open smooth space in which the body moves.” De Leuze and Guattari, Chapter 12

I didn’t know how felt was made traditionally, and this video of Mongolian nomads showed me by letting me see them do it.  The wool comes from the sheep they bring with them on their travels, the technology used is shears and sticks, and the felt is used to cover their yurts.

Taking the rough with the smooth

smoothcracksskatingChapter 14 is about smooth and striated spaces, described in the translator’s foreword to De Leuze and Guattari:

“State space is “striated,” or gridded. Movement in it is confined as by gravity to a horizontal plane, and limited by the order of that plane to preset paths between fixed and identifiable points. Nomad space is “smooth,” or open-ended. One can rise up at any point and move to any other. Its mode of distribution is the nomos: arraying oneself in an open space (hold the street), as opposed to the logos of entrenching oneself in a closed space (hold the fort).  “

The technology of felt-making used by the Mongol nomads is portable and does not interfere with their wandering: the yurts can be erected and covered with felt very quickly.  The technology they use helps to smooth the space for nomads, and works well across huge spaces.

Imagine they used my technique of a washing machine: first, woollen fabric would be acquired, or woven from spun wool on a loom; then the item would be constructed, hand-sewn or using a machine; and finally the item (of size limited by washing machine capacity) would be boiled, shaped and dried.  They wouldn’t get very far laden down with a spinning wheel, a loom and a washing machine.  Even if they managed to carry all the stuff, there’s the problem of finding a power supply in the middle of the steppes.  De Leuze and Guattari dated their plateau in Chapter 12 at 1227 A.D. “because that is when the nomad war machine existed for a moment in its pure form on the vacant smooth spaces of the steppes of Inner Asia”

The tragedy for Mongol nomads is that the furrows (striations) produced by state spaces have increased relentlessly to the point where they are now apparently a tourist experience.

Ambiguous spaces in learning

We are all familiar with the depiction of school classrooms as striated spaces, children confined to desks arranged in serried ranks (usually in a sepia photograph dating from the late 19th/early 20th Century), authoritarian teacher orchestrating children all reading from the same book, or learning by rote.  The 21st Century classroom is depicted in glorious technicolour, children lazing on brightly coloured foam shapes, clutching their ipads as they talk to other children across the globe, or find out about Mongol Nomads as I did, by finding and watching a youtube video.  I know where I would rather have been when I was at school.

As Sian Bayne points out, although early theorisations of the Internet portrayed the spaces as smooth, later analyses identified striations. 21st digital networked spaces are inevitably striated and smooth. Our dominant view may depend on where we are in the space, and on our time perspective.  Sian Bayne provides two interesting cases of pedagogical attempts to smooth online spaces, and characterises virtual learning environments like Blackboard as cities on the steppe.  Her analysis is well worth reading and she concludes it:

“Where one topography of cyberspace constructs the student as a nomad, as a wanderer over the digital steppe, the image here is of the student ‘caught’, insect-like, in the web of the  ‘e-learning system’. ”

Sian Bayne’s identification of assessment as one of the forces that interferes with the smoothness of the space chimes with many of the rich ideas expressed here at #rhizo14

“We’ll figure out how to assess the learning after it has happened.” Barry Dyck

“When I was a first year student we had no high stakes assessment that I can remember. All the first year stuff was designed to get us to think – to engage – to learn… It was brilliant” Sandra Sinfield

“would do well .. to give them voice. But such a move would in turn necessitate a conversation about assessment, wouldn’t it?” Helen Crump

To me the rich discussion was crystallised by the introduction of an ‘old’ post by Bon Stewart who encouraged us to use rhizomatic learning lenses to see ‘differently’ – to avoid conflating learning and schooling.

Chief ants build hills


Of course, the constraints imposed by assessment on our smooth local spaces within institutions are just a shadow of the state space that lurks behind them – institutions, government policies.  Many teachers (at different levels of formal education) have demonstrated on #rhizo14 their effective use of the Internet to smooth their students’ learning experiences by reaching out beyond the institution or bringing fun tools into the classroom.  Teachers and students are still operating within those arborescent institutions. Students can become better at learning but rupture from the tree is partial and sometimes illusory, as I know from my own bitter experience.

Meanwhile the ‘subjects’ of pedagogical innovation, the students, are gliding around spaces provided by start-ups and more established providers of social networking spaces – Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat et al, outside of formal schooling.  They may find out the hard way, for example that tweets are not private and that the institution is willing to invade these smooth spaces to retain control.


“Fear, breeds fear. There are terrifying people who have terrifying dreams who care not for you or I. They are darkly entrained in a time of uncertainty. They will give you all the damned certainty you care for. Rules, regulations, rewards, punishments, purges, the eternal life meme. These people, these chief Ants are on the rise my friends, they sense their time is coming once again. They will stop at nothing. Flee not from freedom.” Simon Ensor

It has been painful to see some institutions’ clunky appropriation of smooth spaces – eager to slide across Twitter retweeting positive comments from students but alarmed when negative words and association cause them embarrassment.

Viplav Baxi encourages us to democratize uncertainty, and to help students embrace it:

“you want 21st century skills to be “built”, so why don’t you create a new subject called “collaboration” and assign it graded assessments and specialized new content & teaching). In fact, I think we need to see uncertainty as culture, as a way of being rather than a specialized skill or value.”

Cathleen Nardi characterises learners as change agents with new literacies:

“There appears to be a light at the end of the Rabbit Hole.  For me, Rhizomatic Learning is embracing these new opportunities and new literacies required to communicate and collaborate in this digital universe. Rhizomatic Learners are change agents, exploring new frontiers.  For me the #rhizo14 experience is using our knowledge to make changes in education, starting with our own classrooms.”

Digital literacies are important for institutions, teachers and students.

digitalliteracyDigital literacies can be the felt blanket that keeps us warm as we go out onto the Internet from the classroom, and the armour that protects us from the chief Ant that is our own institution.  If we are all to be change agents, exploring new frontiers, not just in our classrooms now, but in the future and in society more widely, then our digital literacies will not only encompass ways of handling uncertainty but recognise the uncertainty inherent to digital literacies themselves.




As Jenny Mackness might say, we need emergent digital literacies.

But that is another post, provisional title ‘Facebook and other chief Ants’.


francesbell • February 2, 2014

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  1. Nomad War Machine February 2, 2014 - 11:49 am Reply

    Lovely, Frances. I loved the video. My sister is married to a farmer and I was particularly struck by how calm the animals are being shorn by this method compared with others. Look how stressed out the animals are here: I was chatting to students about assessment and Turnitin last week, and realised just how stressful HE makes assessment nowadays, as you highlight.

    I’m lookimg forward to hearing more about the chief Ants.

    • francesbell February 2, 2014 - 5:35 pm Reply

      Those videos are quite a contrast – in the one you posted the sheep are herded , something that DL & G talk about. The chief Ants come from Simon’s post. I am going to apply that idea to Facebook and other SNS, taking forward the digital literacies ideas too. I am sure I can cobble it on to whatever is the Week 4 topic – being the cheat that I am.
      As you mention Turnitin, just to mention that the power exercise I posted yesterday generated a LOT of discussion about Turnitin in my last couple of years at Salford. New masters students, mainly from the asian sub-continent but also from the MIddle East experienced a huge culture shock (too long to detail here), a significant element of which was use of Turnitin, combined with rather draconian ramped up penalties – they entered at top ramp ;( I believe that has since been toned down. Diagnostic use of Turnitin is key I think though not a panacea.

      • Nomad War Machine February 2, 2014 - 6:00 pm Reply

        We have similar with our masters students. We *try* to encourage a culture of teaching academic writing and proper referencing rather than punishing for plagiarism, but there are some folk who just want students to score under a set percentage (I heard of one who insisted that this be under 20%!) . *Sigh*, more work to do. Others do use it really well, though, so it’s not all doom and gloom.

  2. Simon February 2, 2014 - 1:22 pm Reply

    If we don’t want learning to become tourism, we had better learn to do ‘felt’ stuff together 🙂 First steppe – rethinking economy of assessment.

    • francesbell February 2, 2014 - 5:38 pm Reply

      I didn’t have space to cover the scrumble, discussed last week on FB – the scope for textile metaphors is great. Second steppe – acknowledge learning practices outside ‘school’ probably not assessed.

  3. cathleennardi February 2, 2014 - 5:19 pm Reply

    Frances, it’s as though we were writing together this week. I especially appreciated your reference to felt. My sister-in-law, a former Montessori Teacher now makes hand made felt dolls in her etsy shop Brigit’s Bell. She only uses high quality hand dyed felt like you describe here. I was just looking at that yesterday. When you spoke about the Ants, it reminded me of this article that I stumbled upon this week. The author coined the word rhizomANTic. Read more here…. . I also agree, that, like the Knowmadic Society, we are not just changing our classrooms, we are changing our societies. Great post. I didn’t take the shortcut.

    • francesbell February 2, 2014 - 5:48 pm Reply

      I couldn’t find Brigit’s Bell – but sounds lovely. Once found a Japanese woman on flickr who makes model felt dogs, cats from the actual animal hair – how bizarre is that? your own mini-Rover made of Rover.
      Skimmed through the article – will look later.
      Writing together sounds nice;)
      I am not an ANT expert but did some work where I used it to compare with Connectivism – as both use idea of networks of humans and non-humans. One takeaway from ANT is that rather than look at network as entity, they look at its formation and decay – could be quite useful here I think.

  4. francesbell February 2, 2014 - 6:28 pm Reply

    @cathleennardi – delightful little creatures;) my gift in return is

    I wish I was nearer your sister-in-law to ask her about etsy. Gordon Fletcher and I did a piece for #ir13 – where there were 2 whole craft streams. I can’t find the abstract but here’s the prezi
    Since Oct 2012 – etsy have redefined the meaning of handmade.
    Terence (@tellio) and Elisabeth Evans have already brought up and the formation of community/networks there is relevant for us I think

    Looking forward to reading the paper.

    • cathleennardi February 4, 2014 - 4:39 am Reply

      I love the little gift. These guys are just so cute. Who knew what you could do with felt. Thank you for the Prezi link. I will check it out. Karen has a FB page for Bridgit’s Bell. . I shared your video with her and your blog. She would be delighted to answer any questions you may have about etsy. Lots of art communities are rhizomatic. I pointed out Common Threads when Ravelry was being discussed. Looking forward to the ‘ant’ blog.

  5. francesbell February 2, 2014 - 6:46 pm Reply

    Just noting this from FB discussion in response to Simon Ensors quote from Bertrand Russell
    B. Russell: ‘How about ants? They manage the Corporate State much better than any Fascist.’
    FB: I thought Jon Dron when I read the quote. Google turned a very useful Jenny Mackness blog post with resources

  6. epurser February 2, 2014 - 6:54 pm Reply

    Lovely read Frances, thankyou! I welcome that floodgate on talk about assessment being lifted…. wondering how many if any of us have the freedom to do away with grades or hand assessment back to selves.. I am struggling with the power of ants on my picnic rug of peers right now as I redesign a course for sojourning thesis writers from around the globe and across the disciplines…

  7. francesbell February 2, 2014 - 10:00 pm Reply

    Just an initial thought Emily couldn’t we just survive within the striated spaces of assessment? – go along with the game to get the maximum grade benefit (and/or degree classification) but have personal goals of what we want to learn from this. That would leave us energy for working to fix the ‘bigger picture’ of education and learning, or getting best-paid job and status, or whatever turns us on.
    envy your learning trans-global trans-discipline thesis-writing experience;)

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