Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Two-Faced Rhizome, #rhizo16

In the first chapter of their book A Thousand Plateaus (1987), Deleuze and Guattari introduce us to rhizomatic structures and processes in the world, listing six characteristics that help illuminate the rhizome. They introduce the characteristics with a single sentence:
We get the distinct feeling that we will convince no one unless we enumerate certain approximate characteristics of the rhizome. (7)
For me, this sentence has been easy to step over and move beyond—easy to ignore because it is a transitional statement, and a short one at that, intended to move us quickly from D&G's statement of the problem with arborescent thought and writing to their exploration of the solution: the rhizome. Unfortunately, in my hurry to get to the heart of their discussion, I have ignored the transition. I think this has been unfortunate.

I'm impressed that D&G are positioning themselves rhetorically, framing the chapter "Introduction: Rhizome" as an argument: they want to convince someone, perhaps us, that the rhizome is real and worth considering as a contrast to arborescent thought, and to do so, they must support their assertion with "certain approximate characteristics of the rhizome." In other words, they must provide evidence and some kind of argument, perhaps a persuasive argument. This resonates all the way back to Gorgias and Isocrates, and I suppose it should be no surprise. After all, Deleuze was a philosopher who took quite seriously and vigorously the task of investigating the workings of the world and to argue for certain approximate interpretations of and stances toward the world and against other interpretations and stances. Moreover, the chapter focuses heavily on the workings of language as the key dynamic by which both arborescent and rhizomatic thought and structures are expressed and worked out. Language, of course, has its rhetorical implications. So rhetoric is implicated throughout the chapter.

As they often do in ATP, however, D&G undercut their rhetorical stance with the cheeky opening phrase "we get the distinct feeling that …". It's as if they understand the need to give us characteristics of the rhizome as some kind of persuasive support, but they see the humor in trying to argue in arborescent thought structures for that which is not arborescent. Few structures are more thoroughly arborescent than a Western-style argument with a central thesis—supported by logical, relevant details—that positions a coherent author against a coherent audience in an attempt to cause the audience to think or behave differently. This is the bedrock of Western academic, scientific, and legalistic discourse, and I don't think that D&G want to become entangled in it. Of course, they still want to cause us to think differently. They have a problem.

I get the sense that they avoid rhetorical persuasion as much as possible in favor of demonstration: they will write the rhizome and hope we get it with only the barest, cheeky nod to standard, rhetorical argument. As I mentioned in an earlier post, they begin their demonstration by a-centering the writer's voice, becoming a multiplicity themselves, and by a-centering their topic, making "use of everything that came within range, what was closest as well as farthest away" (3). They a-center the reader who wants a reasonable argument to follow, some "lines of articulation or segmentarity, strata and territories", but instead confronts a rapid flash of images, snatches of doggerel, formulae, tidbits of music, psychology, biology, physics, mathematics, and various other "lines of flight, movements of deterritorialization and destratification" often expressed in non-grammatical structures: "When rats swarm over each other" (7). This working out of the rhizome in language produces "phenomena of relative slowness and viscosity, or, on the contrary, of acceleration and rupture", and their text is like this for me: slowing down at times into a coherent idea that I can focus on, absorb, and turn into sense, but then immediately speeding up and sheering away to a new space in ways that I cannot follow immediately.

Of course, a persistent reader will eventually be able to follow by constructing a pathway that reliably, even if wrongly, takes them from one image to the next. Readers always do this when reading any text, but D&G make me conscious that I am mapping their text, and they make me work for it. I know that I do not know how they get from rats to bodies without organs, and I must map my own way. Of course, in most prose writing, we want the author to map the way for us and make it easy to arrive at the point. This kind of explicit clarity is a hallmark of academic writing. We want the author to say clearly, "Trace after me." D&G make more rigorous demands of readers. It's as if they expect us to be kindergarteners who can pass through a plain, smooth cardboard box into medieval castles, deepest space, or computer chips. ATP, then, may be a book as much for beginners as for experts. Maybe more so.

This a-centering of reader, writer, and topic does not lead to an orderly, Western argument, the kind I demand that my students write. Rather, it leads to what D&G call an assemblage:
All this, lines and measurable speeds, constitutes an assemblage. A book is an assemblage of this kind, and as such is unattributable. It is a multiplicity—but we don't know yet what the multiple entails when it is no longer attributed, that is, after it has been elevated to the status of a substantive.
D&G are writing an assemblage, not an argument, even though they know that the situation demands an argument, that their own tradition demands an argument. What's more, their readers expect an argument and anything other will likely confuse them. So D&G do other, and it confuses their readers. They are not giving us a text to trace; rather, they are giving us a text to map.

This assemblage/not-argument works in different ways. It works toward and includes the regular, the explicit, the nameable, signifying, the clearly delineated. It also flees the regular, always leeching into the uncharted, the unnamed or renamed, asignifying, the non-delineated, the implicit (in its latin root sense of being entwined), rats swarming, birds flocking. D&G make clear that an assemblage faces both ways:
One side of a machinic assemblage faces the strata, which doubtless make it a kind of organism, or signifying totality, or determination attributable to a subject; it also has a side facing a body without organs, which is continually dismantling the organism, causing asignifying particles or pure intensities to pass or circulate, and attributing to itself subjects that it leaves with nothing more than a name as the trace of an intensity.
In my fascination with the wide open, smooth spaces of the rhizome, I forget too often that the rhizome also includes the unified organism, the orderly structures, which emerge from the noise of the rhizome, but which are always pulled back into the noise. There is a voice in the whirlwind, but when it subsides, the whirlwind moves on. There is voice in the whirlwind of "Introduction: Rhizome", but the text is not "closed in upon itself, except as a function of impotence" (8). The text is "elevated to the status of a substantive", an entity in its own right with strata, a kind of organism or signifying totality attributable to a subject (I like the ambiguity here of the term subject, which to me suggests both the authors and their topic.).

The assemblage, then, is two-faced, and most of us dislike two-faced rhetoric. We want people to say what they mean, and mean what they say, but D&G seem to want to have it both ways. Why? Because they know that the connections between language and reality are imprecise and shifting. In a real sense, people can never say precisely what they mean. Likewise, they cannot precisely mean what they say. Language is a tool for mapping approximately, not tracing exactly. In the section about connection and heterogeneity, D&G say:
[N]ot every trait in a rhizome is necessarily linked to a linguistic feature: semiotic chains of every nature are connected to very diverse modes of coding (biological, political, economic, etc.) that bring into play not only different regimes of signs but also states of things of differing status. Collective assemblages of enunciation function directly within machinic assemblages; it is not impossible to make a radical break between regimes of signs and their objects. (7)
They are messing with our usual notions about language here. First, like any useful map, language leaves out a lot of reality: "not every trait … is necessarily linked to a linguistic feature". So even if we could say exactly what we mean, we can't say all that we mean—unless we mean very, very little—likely too little to note. Then, different languages, or "semiotic chains", map reality differently, or map different realities, bringing "into play not only different regimes of signs but also states of things of differing status." Saying what you mean depends very much on the language that you use. Language is not static and unchanging with firm, explicit linkages to aspects of reality. "Even when linguistics claims to confine itself to what is explicit and to make no presuppositions about language, it is still in the sphere of a discourse implying particular modes of assemblage and types of social power" (7). Finally, D&G rupture the connection between language and reality when they say that "it is not impossible to make a radical break between regimes of signs and their objects." This is a backhanded way to say what they mean, and perhaps it is a nod on their part to our common notion that our words, signs, reliably point to real things. If there wasn't some dependable connection between words and things, then I would feel very silly writing this post. On the other hand, if the connection between words and things was static and inviolable—as it now is with Latin, for instance—then nothing new could be said (I am no Latin scholar, but I suspect that even Latin is not quite as dead as we think it is).

This helps me understand the two-faced aspect of an assemblage: it is that creative zone of complexity between cold, reliable, striated, fixed order on one hand (the simple/complicated domain of closed systems) and hot, unreliable, smooth, chaotic disorder on the other hand (the chaotic domain of totally open systems). Life thrives in the temperate zone between cold simplicity and hot chaos. This is a two-faced zone, suspended between order and disorder, or any other binary that you choose to name, and it is the dynamic tension of this suspension that enables life. Systems need to be stable enough to function as coherent systems and yet flexible enough to adjust to both internal and external forces and changes inherent in open systems. Resilience requires successful negotiation of this tension between integrity on the one hand and flexibility on the other. It's a balancing act that I find stressful and difficult.

The big rhizo-lesson for me is that everything is an open system—even our Universe is likely an open system within the Multiverse.  Closed systems such as sock drawers, traditional classrooms, and the minds of fundamentalists of all flavors are rare in the Universe, sustained at great cost and power, and always doomed to having their walls breached or to being sealed off and ignored.

D&G neatly capture this tension in the sentence I started this post with: "we will convince no one unless we enumerate certain approximate [italics added] characteristics of the rhizome."  I don't know if the original French words carry the same connotations, but in English I sense a wonderful tension between the juxtaposed terms certain and approximate that I think echoes what D&G are discussing here. This is so two-faced: on the one hand, certain, fixed, absolute knowledge that is beyond doubt, and on the other hand, approximate, inexact, indefinite, loose knowledge that is close to the actual but with plenty of wiggle room. The term certain also resonates with the sense of some but not all, which also works well in this context.

So D&G will arrange for somewhat of an argument for the rhizome, but not all of it. They expect the argument to emerge much like Castaneda's herb garden in the runoff of certain uncertain rains. There are certain points to be made, but they don't make them; rather, they let the points emerge, including points that they didn't know were there.

I think there are lessons here for my writing classes (both composition and literature—one class about one's own writing, the other class about another's writing), and I hope to tease out these lessons by exploring the six characteristics of the rhizome. Of course, I'm reading other things as well, so I may never finish, but if D&G are correct, then I'll never say all of it anyway.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful, Keith! (Um - what were those six characteristics again - approximately?)