My good friend Dan Jaeckle introduced me to the concept of the rhizome as first expressed by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in their 1987 book A Thousand Plateaus, the second volume of their two volume work Civilization and Schizophrenia. I do not presume to be a scholar of French philosophy, nor do I presume to understand Deleuze and Guattari very well; however, the rhizome has captured my imagination as a marvelous description of the structures that I have been calling networks. I have been writing about networks for the past two years, and basically, I have been contrasting them to hierarchies. The gist of my argument has been that, in response to modern technology in general and information technology in particular, humankind is undergoing a shift from hierarchy as the dominant mode for structuring human reality to networks as the dominant mode. This shift is as deep and as extensive a shift as humankind has ever undergone, and it will change everything.
However, I have for sometime felt an uneasiness with trying to say all that I wanted to say about this new structure with the term network. I've not been systematic enough in my thinking to say what my uneasiness was all about, other than that network didn't seem to capture just what I meant. Rhizome may be the concept I'm looking for. Whether it captures it all or not, I cannot yet say, but I'm already convinced that it will expand and sharpen my ability to speak about the structures that are coming to dominate the way people think, communicate, and organize their affairs.
I have already corrected one error in my thinking: rhizomes (or networks) are not the opposite of hierarchies, or as Chuen-Ferng Koh says in Internet: Towards a Holistic Ontology, "It is important not to see the rhizome in binary opposition to the tree … The concept of the rhizome was set up precisely to challenge dichotomous branching."
Rhizomes are inclusive of hierarchies. Hierarchies, however, do not include rhizomes, at least not formally. I think it certain that rhizomes have existed in the most rigid of hierarchical structures throughout history, but on a clandestine, ad hoc, submerged basis that is almost never recognized by the power structure of the hierarchy and never sanctioned. Indeed, one of the formal characteristics of hierarchies is that they are exclusive of all that is not within the hierarchy, and they invest great resources in marking the boundaries between the organization and the rest of the world. Hierarchies are always mindful of managing their entry and exit procedures, and they tend to make the barriers to entry and exit rather high.
Rhizomes are not opposite to hierarchies so much as they simply ignore hierarchies, cutting in arcs across hierarchical boundaries and levels, connecting nodes at various levels within the hierarchy to each other and to nodes totally outside the hierarchy. Hierarchies find such connections and collaborations highly disruptive and treasonous.
Rhizomes are indifferent to entry and exit barriers. Whoever will can enter the rhizome, and whoever won't can exit. In either case, the rhizome is largely unaffected. Its formal characteristics persist.