Written for a 2013 issue of Nottingham Visual Arts on the theme of the rhizome.
The Rhizome: A Potato Fascism?
Throw off your fixed personal identity and challenge the status quo! 1 There is no ideology and never has been!2 New thinking need not follow established patterns! Migrate into new conceptual territories resulting from unpredictable juxtapositions!3 Forget the old dull linear paradigm, for the amazing rhizome concept perfectly illustrates the structure of human knowledge, society connections, the worldwide web and even the formations of galaxies!4
Rhizomes, rhizomes everywhere...
Of all the neologisms coined by the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, the 'rhizome' is undoubtedly the most widely referenced. Most famously discussed in A Thousand Plateaus (first published in English in 1987), it’s been hailed for describing (and prescribing) the form of a properly radical politics and labelled a capitalist mode par excellencek. Anarchists, military strategists, social media entrepreneurs, artists: all (ab)use the rhizome.
It's certainly an alluring term, yet if it at times seems to capture the thrill of the new encounter, at others its incessant demands that we create, connect, innovate, migrate, throw off, connect, create, innovate, connect, create, connect, connect, connect, conn...weigh like a new orthodoxy around our necks. Is it, as the philosopher Alain Badiou claims, a 'potato fascism', propping up the orthodoxy of communicative capitalism? Or might it threaten that orthodoxy in a way that traditional forms of political organization have failed to do?
And what on earth have potatoes got to do with any of this?
To enter from the earth
What in earth, actually. Because it's in earth that we need to ground this exploration of the potentials and dangers of the rhizome. Deleuze and Guattari would have disapproved, of couse: they insisted that in a rhizome 'no entry is favoured over another', arguing that to think rhizomatically is to always be in the middle: to focus on connections. 'And' is a key word here, though it's an and that will always lead to another and, and another, and another...But we'll leave this aside for a minute as we ground our concept.
There are worse places to start than the ground: it's where radicality begins, after all – the term coming from the Latin for 'to have roots'. To take root. To grow. To become strong. But what kind of root? This is where the potato comes into it. For too long, say Deleuze and Guattari, radicality has been governed by the arboreal root. The tree. Solid, linear, common sense: everything flowing from firm foundations. Root to trunk, trunk to branch, branch to twig, twig to leaf. There is no need to ask a tree where it's going, where it's coming from, or where it's heading. No need to ask where it began, or where it will end. We can see for ourselves: everything is in its right place. Everything moving in the same direction. A hierarchy. From Maoists to social democrats, the philosophies and organizational strategies of those on the left have adopted this form for too long. Their understanding of the world flows in one direction, as does information in their chain of command. Nothing new can come from this, and it makes them strategically weak. A radicality that betrays itself as it shoots away from the ground. Radicals should learn from the potato.
For the potato's roots are rhizomatic: they tangle hither and thither, swelling at nodes where they connect before shooting off again in unfroseeable directions. A tree may be felled by chopping through its trunk, but the rhizome simply starts up again if its lines are disrupted. Any point may be connected to any other point (indeed, this may become necessary), creating a 'multiplicity': a single form containing multiple bodies in constant flux. If there is no point asking a tree about its history and its intentions because the answer is self-evident, to ask such questions of a rhizome would – say Deleuze and Guattari – also be 'totally useless'. It could not answer.
The musical practice of free improvisation might help us to explain the rhizome. Whilst the symphony orchestra is an arborescent organization, with information and power flowing from in a predetermined manner from the composer (in the form of the score) through the conductor, first violin and so on, in free improvisation the relationships between musicians are nonhierarchical, fluid and multiple. The saxophonist may play a riff that the guitarist responds to. The drummer may then cut across this, offering a counter-rythym that the keyboard player emphasizes. The saxophonist may then 'overblow' their instrument in response to this new intensity. The music – and the relationships between the musicians – is constantly shifting, embracing the future in unforseen ways. Power is not exercised hierarchically in order to keep the musicians in their place, but flows from these connections between musicians. It is not a zero-sum game: the increase in the power of one increases the power of all, and increases the power of the rhizome.
It's not always like this, of course. Improvisation is frequently a frustrating experience. Connections fizzle out, a single player coming to dominate: the great freedom the rhizome seemed to promise becoming the tyranny of structurelesness. Or the performance gets stale, settling into an established groove from which there seems no escape. The rhizome ossifies and what once seemed to embody the beauty of anarchy settles instead into the tyranny of habit.
Alternatively, then, we might forcus on peer-to-peer networks, in which any computer can connect to any other. But as the media and communication theorist (and computer programmer) Alexander Galloway notes, focussing solely on these 'rhizomatic' TCP/IP protocols ignores the DNS protocols that govern access to them. We cannot see the trees for the rhizome.
The rhizome is not, then, to be universally trusted. It does not offer us a once-and-for-all solution to problems of organization, and it can blind us to the presence of hierarchy.
But this is by no means the worst it can do.
There's an episode of the BBC Radio Four sitcom The Spaceship set on a dystopian planet populated entirely by weeds who run a call centre. Unlike the classical dystopia – where power flows in a hierarchical manner – the horror in this pomo Day of the Triffids comes from the very lack of hierarchy. The weeds are completely interconnected. No-one is in charge: cut up one weed and another takes its place, 'ready to answer your call'. We've all been there: passed from pillar to post – from a node in Mumbai (cheap labour) to a node in Newcastle-upon-Tyne (calming accents), pleas to 'speak to a manager' entirely unheeded because there is no manager to speak to (which isn't to say, of course, that these workers don't have a manager); there is no-one to whom we can make our appeal.
This rhizomania doesn't just negatively affect those who ring the call centre, though. It's also a feature of work in contemporary capitalism. Throwing off your personal identity and challenging the status quo might sound rather fun, but in our workplaces the reality is different. Here, the rhizome means endlessly connecting, networking, permanent training, self-assessment. It's the nonhierarchical distribution of bureaucracy and management which means that even in our 'leisure time' the boss in our head compels us to check our emails one more time, or reminds us that if we don't fill that form in tonight we won't get paid (a form, I hardly need add, that we do not get paid to fill in). And for the worker, calls to 'embrace the unknown' and 'forget established orders' become threats: fail to do so and it's the Job Centre for you (more rhizomania there, of course).
For capital, meanwhile, it's 'connections' that make the world go round. Each message traversing the rhizome, forging new links: it's productive for capital. It doesn't matter what we're saying, what matters is that we're saying it. What matters is that we're connecting. Sharing. Tweeting. New flows. New becomings. Endless repetitions around capital's vampiric circuits. The music industry might wail about P2P filesharing, but the iPod ensured Apple got rich off it. Twitter sucks up our desire to connect; our desire to be creative. A bastardized rhizome turning connection into profit.
Neither good nor bad
For many, these rhizomanias function as the gotcha! for Deleuze and Guattari – their supposed radicalism revealed to be nothing more than a descriptor for contemporary capitalism. A potato fascism betraying the working class. Deleuze, 'the ideologist of late capitalism', as Slavoj Žižek puts it (and Guattari? Even worse!). This, however, is grossly unfair.
Far from simply being offered as a once-and-for-all solution to problems of thought and organization, the rhizome's first introduction – in Deleuze and Guattari's 1975 work Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature – saw it deployed to describe the hellish organization of the titular author's The Castle: inexplicable warrens of control that the novel's protagonist K. can never hope to make sense of. The rhizome confronts us, confounds us, leaving us feeling utterly hopeless. We cannot chop the head off our enemy, because our enemy has no head. Nor does A Thousand Plateaus simply eulogize over the rhizome's power: it is full of warnings that the rhizome cannot simply be equated with 'good' and the arborescent with 'bad', because each contains the other within it, as our experiment with free improvisation showed. Rhizomes frequently 'reproduce the very formations their function was supposed to dismantle or outflank'. This does not mean we should not experiment with them, it simply means that they cannot last forever; and that we should accept they may fail.
Creativity as Communication; Creativity Against Communication
If you make sure you're connected the writing's on the wall. But if your mind's neglected – stumble? you might fall. I'm gonna get myself connected.6 Creative. Connected. Competitive.7 And yet creating has always been something different from communicating!8
In 2012, the arts collective LuckyPDF launched their 'School of Global Art'. Visit its homepage and an automated slideshow starts itself up (now preserved as a video - DB, 2020). Like some kind of art school Brass Eye, a computerized voice inhumanly lampoons creative capitalism's sub-sub-Deleuzean phraseology and its relentless optimism in the face of crisis. 'We're all artists. and we're all global', it tells us. 'But what connects us? School of Global Art. In 2012 we founded School of Global Art to connect. Connect people. Connect ideas. Connect art. The current moment in the development of cultural production and educational exchange gives us a unique, once in a generation, opportunity to push things to new places and to the next level.' Click on 'enroll', and you're asked whether 'you are sleeping with, or have you recently slept with, someone in the art profession'.
The object of this derision is clear: the conflation of 'creativity' and 'communication' in the 'networking' so central to contemporary capitalism, and something Deleuze and Guattari solemnly noted in their last co-authored text, What is Philosophy?. Whilst it's true that – at times – communication may function as creativity (think back to the example of free improvisation above – each musical gesture an expression of creativity and a form of communication that other musicians can riff off), perhaps the task now is to consider acts of creativity against communication. Stick a glitch in the system, and see where it takes us. Perhaps, in our free improvisation, the saxophonist does not like how the guitarist plays, and voices this displeasure by playing in a certain, deliberately non-communicative way. Or perhaps there is someone playing with electronics: corrupting the musical information produced by one musician through glitches. A challenge to the smooth, communicative flow: a disruption that forces new ways of playing.
But could this be an opening for a new rhizome? A rhizome that confronts and confounds the state and capital? Perhaps the rhizome is not so much a question of 'and...and...and'; more 'and yet...and yet...and yet....'.
This is the story of the weeds: the origin of the species.9 Grass is the only way out.10
1) 'Why the Rhizome Network?' – rhizomenetwork.com
2) Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi, (New York: Continuum, 2004), 5
3) 'The Rhizomes Manifesto' – rhizomes.net
4) Spam email to author, from Simon Sergeev, 'Rizzoma dev team'
5) A Thousand Plateaus, 14
6) Stereo MC's, 'Connected' (1992)
7) Connected. Creative. Competetive is the title of Nottingham's successful bid for 'City Deal' funding, 2013; the title of 'Invest in Londonderry' promotional booklet, 2013; and the title of an article under heading 'Why Invest in Edinburgh' on a marketing page for the City of Edinburgh.
8) Deleuze, Gilles, Negotiations: 1972–1990, trans. Martin Joughin (New York: Columbia University Press), 175
9) Pulp, 'Weeds II: The Origin of the Species' (2001)
10) Norman Mailer, quoted in A Thousand Plateaus, 20