Friday, May 27, 2016

Framing the Rhizome, #rhizo16

I have been writing in this blog about Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome since 2009 and over the past two years with some rhizo scholars in Dave Cormier's MOOCs. Several times I have tried to apply the rhizome to higher education in general and to my discipline, writing and rhetoric, in particular. I think this may be a fine time to try that again as a number of scholars have gathered online for #rhizo16, but that class has been postponed. So what I propose is an exploration of the six characteristics of the rhizome in terms of higher education with a special emphasis on each of our various disciplines.

My good rhizo friend Simon Ensor recently posted a link to a short video entitled Three Minute Theory: What is the Rhizome?, which I think is worth embedding here even though I take issue with a few statements that I will get to in later posts.

As they frame their discussion of the rhizome in A Thousand Plateaus (1987), Deleuze and Guattari say wryly, "We get the distinct feeling that we will convince no one unless we enumerate certain approximate characteristics of the rhizome," and the rest of their essay explores six characteristics of that which is difficult to describe:
  1. principles of connection and
  2. heterogeneity,
  3. principle of multiplicity,
  4. principle of asignifying rupture,
  5. principles of cartography and
  6. decalcomania.
D&G bundle the first and last two characteristics together, which should not be ignored, but I start with their framing, such as it is and as if anyone could frame a rhizome. There's a Zen task for you: go frame a rhizome.

Actually, frame is the wrong term—I should use intensity. For me, the most conspicuous intensity in their writing the rhizome is writing itself. Writing and language, in its various forms and expressions, especially the book, resonate with great intensity in "Introduction: Rhizome". As they are restructuring the hierarchies of Western philosophy, D&G are also rewriting Western rhetoric. I suspect this is not an accident; rather, restructuring requires rewriting because the structures that we use to arrange our lives are bound closely to and are co-evolutionary with our language. They are co-emergent—not the same thing, but one is not possible—at least not as it is—without the other. The culture we have constructed depends on our language, which in turn depends on our culture. And like any rhizome, we cannot extricate one bit from the other. For thousands of years, we have been quite adept at writing the hierarchical, tree structures we have lived by. If we are to write the rhizome, then we must write differently—a different language for a different structure. I suspect this writing differently is one of the reasons most people find D&G so difficult to read.

D&G start by disassembling the three pillars of Western rhetoric: the author, the subject matter, and the reader. They smash the author and subject matter in the first paragraph:
The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus together. Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd. Here we have made use of everything that came within range, what was closest as well as farthest away. We have assigned clever pseudonyms to prevent recognition. Why have we kept our own names? Out of habit, purely out of habit. To make ourselves unrecognizable in turn. To render imperceptible, not ourselves, but what makes us act, feel, and think. Also because it's nice to talk like everybody else, to say the sun rises, when everybody knows it's only a manner of speaking. To reach, not the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. We are no longer ourselves. Each will know his own. We have been aided, inspired, multiplied. (A Thousand Plateaus 3)
Since the Greeks began laying the groundwork of Western rhetoric some three thousand years ago, a coherent author and a coherent subject matter have been assumed core principles of effective rhetorical practice. It's still taught in college writing classes today: a clear, coherent voice with a thesis, a point to make about some single topic. This makes sense to us. D&G don't make sense. So who wrote this, D or G? Neither, not even both, but more—a rhizome, a swarm. So to whom do we send the check? assign the blame? award the credit? No one, even though we do anyway "because it's nice to talk like everybody else". What are we talking about? "Everything that came within range, what was closest as well as farthest away". Well, okay … but I'm a coherent reader with a coherent set of beliefs, and I don't know who is talking or what they are talking about.

If you are coherent, you probably won't understand D&G, or worse, you will misunderstand them—mainly because you will insist on making them coherent. If you want to read the rhizome, then you as reader must be as smashed as the authors and topic. You must assume a clever pseudonym—your own name will work—to make yourself unrecognizable in turn and to render imperceptible what makes you act, feel, and think—even to yourself.

Now look over the edge. It's a long way down. Or maybe it's just inches. Distance is such a slippery concept in the rhizome. Jump.

Of course, the rhizome is not the point of "Introduction: Rhizome". It can never be the point. To write the rhizome, the writer, the reader, and the shared topic must all be acentered. Though not mentioned directly in the first paragraph as the authors and topic are, the reader is still there and all three are being acentered—author and topic by inflection, readers by innuendo. Most readers do not respond well to dissolution and loss of identity. Most everything in society points us away from dissolution. We want, need, and demand a clear, self-actualized identity, and we resist attempts to dissolve that identity. We do not want to reach the point where one no longer says I or even the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. We do not want to lose ourselves. We have a huge investment here, and this could be worse than the Crash of '29.

And anyway, D&G say/s, "We are no longer ourselves. Each will know his own." Isn't this a contradiction? No, not in the rhizome.

When the writer and subject are acentered, then they can assume no position, or can assume any position, right? If you've read D&G, then you see where this is going: "any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be" (7).

The rhizome is not the point or the subject here. Actually, there is something of a problem with the term subject. Is subject the writer or the topic? Or both. D&G write about the subject:
A book has neither object nor subject; it is made of variously formed matters, and very different dates and speeds. To attribute the book to a subject is to overlook this working of matters, and the exteriority of their relations. It is to fabricate a beneficent God to explain geological movements. (3)
Here, subject clearly means the author. Or does it? I don't know if French subject/suget carries this ambiguity, but when we English writing teachers speak of the subject we are referring to the topic of a piece of writing. Perhaps D&G were playing with this ambiguity when they say a few paragraphs later: "There is no difference between what a book talks about and how it is made. Therefore a book also has no object" (4). Or no subject. It also has no author, or subject. It also has no reader. Well, any point can connect to any other point in a rhizome and must.

Well, this lands us in a difficult place, especially if we want to make sense of the rhizome for higher education, or any education. And D&G note that we have worked hard over the millennia to avoid this place. We have rather studiously avoided writing the rhizome, the voice in the whirlwind, the acentered voice of God and the cosmic microwave background radiation. That way lies insanity and enlightenment—usually indistinguishable. The stars must have patterns, logical patterns about sensible stories that explain things.

So we have written sensible books with roots, D&G say:
A first type of book is the root-book. The tree is already the image of the world, or the root the image of the world-tree. This is the classical book, as noble, signifying, and subjective organic interiority (the strata of the book). The book imitates the world, as art imitates nature: by procedures specific to it that accomplish what nature cannot or can no longer do. The law of the book is the law of reflection, the One that becomes two. (5)
We have abstracted the world to create a better image, an image that we can control and use, and we thereby split the world in two. We did God better. God created one world, we created two. And we made ourselves "the beneficent God to explain geological movements" (3). Language was the technology that allowed us to become as gods. It is what separated us from our creation. One view, one position, one author, one topic, one reader.

The second type of book is more intricate, but no less damaging:
The radicle-system, or fascicular root, is the second figure of the book, to which our modernity pays willing allegiance. This time, the principal root has aborted, or its tip has been destroyed; an immediate, indefinite multiplicity of secondary roots grafts onto it and undergoes a flourishing development. This time, natural reality is what aborts the principal root, but the root's unity subsists, as past or yet to come, as possible. We must ask if reflexive, spiritual reality does not compensate for this state of things by demanding an even more comprehensive secret unity, or a more extensive totality. (5, 6)
With the radicle-system, we become inclusive and are fascinated with the sophistication of all those tendrils floating this way and that. We forget that they all return to the root, that we still demand unity. Michel Serres says it best, I think, in his book Genesis (1995):
We are fascinated by the unit; only a unity seems rational to us. We scorn the senses, because their information reaches us in bursts. We scorn the groupings of the world, and we scorn those of our bodies. For us they seem to enjoy a bit of the status of Being only when they are subsumed beneath a unity. Disaggregation and aggregation, as such, and without contradiction, are repugnant to us. Multiplicity, according to Leibniz, is only a semi-being. A cartload of bricks isn't a house. Unity dazzles on at least two counts: by its sum and by its division. That herd must be singular in its totality and it must also be made up of a given number of sheep or buffalo. We want a principle, a system, an integration, and we want elements, atoms, numbers. We want them, and we make them. A single God, and identifiable individuals. The aggre­gate as such is not a well-formed object; it seems irrational to us. The arithmetic of whole numbers remains a secret foundation of our understanding; we're all Pythagorians. We think only in monadologies. (2, 3)
We don't like this semi-being. We want a coherent individual who is a member of a coherent group. We want a unity. We want a unified discipline that we can teach to students we can identify, but as Serres wryly notes, "Nevertheless, we are as little sure of the one as of the multiple" (3). We want the one root or the radicle, but the world keeps presenting us with something else: the rhizome, the cosmic background radiation, the noise, God. Damn.

So here's what I'm proposing: let's frame the rhizome within higher education. What are the implications for our very classes, our curricula, if we take this acentering seriously?

And let me say that I don't think D&G mind us framing the rhizome at all. The rhizome includes tubers and bulbs. It's expected. It's how we make sense of things—we frame it. The issue for D&G, I think, certainly the issue for me, is when we think our frame is all that there is—that the frame is the Truth. It isn't. It's just a frame, a device to help us see better. But we make a big mistake if we forget that the rhizome stretches far beyond and "whistles far and wee".


  1. Plato taught us (me) never to trust rhetoric. Pfff and grrr to rhetoric. I also think you are still trying to make too much sense of this. Let's not frame the rhizome. Let's stop pretending to talk as we and talk as me (or you). And let's not pretend to know what D&G would think of your sanitised version of their rhizome.

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  3. But all versions are sanitized, even D&G's. That's the beauty of the rhizome. They were reluctant to name 6 characteristics, but they did it anyway.

  4. I was hoping we could get to do a little of that last year... but my hopes went astray. I've been in a few interesting conversations recently around how the rhizome story impacts policy or software design... it's been enlightening. I think of the exploration of 'framing' the rhizome as like to any other exploration. Lets look at it. Lets see what use we can make of it.

    1. A hard reign is gonna fall.


    3. Thanks for reading, Dave. If D&G are correct, then our frames/hopes always go astray, but we frame/hope anyway. It's what humans do.

      I'm most interested in your conversations about rhizomatic policy and software design. Write a post. I still have to conduct classes, and I want to know if the rhizome has any effect on that traditional, framed space. I think it does. And yes, framing the rhizome is like framing any other exploration: the frame simplifies and thus distorts, but it makes exploration within the frame of a blog post possible. I've been framed, but don't worry—I'll look about for a bit and then break out.

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  5. First: glad to hear your voice Keith :-)
    Second: the 3 min video I found was as useful/less as another to talk of rhizome- am going to talk about rhizomatic learning to a class of students in Poland.
    I am bored with order. I think we are still struggling with what is not a what and with who is and is not a who. I rather feel that framing misses the lack of point. I am feeling these days that words are a lure. They (words) don't move fast enough and have gravity and have an irtitating quality of wanting to make meaning even nonsense meaning, they are blocks of concrete around our necks, drowning our fluidity. This is water, our bodies are anchors, we are moored unknowingly.

    It makes no sense to frame the ocean.

    1. Thanks, Simon. The video is a wonderful 3-minute frame of the original 23-page frame for those who don't have time or energy for 23 challenging pages. The benefit is that the video can provide just enough purchase on the ideas that one might jump into the original work. That can be very useful. I've been led to almost every wonderful thing I've read through just such a snippet or conversation. It works.

      And you speak well when you say that "framing misses the lack of point". Framing makes a point of everything, especially the pointless. All words eventually become anchors, even when they start by mapping points of reference in a totally new and engaging space. Eventually, those anchor points become dogma, stratifying the once new but now old, the once open but now closed space.

      I, too, grow bored with talking about the rhizome, so I wander off to talk about other things—object oriented ontology, for instance—but I tend to come back to the rhizome. Let's see if we can lift anchors and find something new in this space. I like the company.

    2. Talking of, exploring and enactinh are quite different...


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    5. #lesmauxdesmots
      He wrote nots.

  6. Keith. Please get bored of writing about the rhizome. Please do not keep writing about ooo instead.

    Have you considered looking at some of the influences on D&G? Spinoza for example?

  7. Spinoza has been on my list. I'm intrigued, mostly because my professor Isaac Singer spoke of him so often. I've been remiss. I need several of me. I don't know how D&G did it.

  8. Yes—apparently at the same time.

  9. So HOW do we make university rhizomatic?
    (What;s that little word?)

    1. Not sure that it's possible to make a rigid institution rhizomatic, although rhizomatic thinking might soften or undo or shift the ground underneath the institution and open up some possibility for change?

    2. That's the question I'm playing with, Sandra; though, rrdaniel2 may be right about the difficulty of changing rigid institutions. We can change a little, and that may eventually be enough if our changes add value to enough people that they pick up on the changes and go viral.

      Or it could just be a pleasant conversation with some nice friends around the world. We'll have to see if something larger emerges, but the conversation is fine, too.

  10. Trees vs. rhizomes. See the work of Suzanne Simard for hints about how D&G's lack of understanding of how the physical world plays out leads them to choose trees to represent hierarchy and rigid structure and rhizomes to stand in for non-hierarchical, less structured modalities of knowing and being. But trees in forests commingle their roots with those of other trees and with mycorrhizal networks for rhizomatic exchanges of chemical signals and resources in a complex interchange that isn't necessarily "hierarchichal" in the way that D&G suggest. Of course, most of Simard's research is a decade or two anterior to the publication of _Mille plateaux_. I'm just suggesting that it's all a mangle, somewhere, somehow, more or less rhizomatic. For Simard's TED Talk: