Deleuze for the Desperate #2 Rhizome

Dave Harris


The project involves looking at some key concepts in Deleuze, as I explained in another video. Incidentally, I have just remembered that D follows this approach himself with Spinoza's work, (Deleuze 1988) picking out key terms like attribute or mode. Deleuze puts them in alphabetical order but I think that can be a bit arbitrary.

The rhizome is perhaps the most famous concept, well-liked by people trying to 'apply' Deleuze or D&G. Any gardener can think of an example of a rhizome – plants like the Iris, ginger, certain kinds of bamboo or couch grass have underground roots or stems. When you pull up a shoot of couch grass sticking up through the soil you uncover a straggly white tough fibrous stem that wanders off unpredictably under the surface. Sometimes, you find it connected unexpectedly to another green shoot somewhere else. Lots of apparently unconnected bits of couch grass are really connected underground.

D&G get a bit defensive about the term in A Thousand Plateaus, (ATP) and say they now realize the need to convince people with a list of properties. Rather than just reproduce this list, which is not very helpful at first, I suggest we do something different. Of course, you don't have to just follow my thinking or agree with me – try the techniques for yourself.

One other difficulty is that the term is used as an introduction to the major philosophical arguments developed in ATP, and the definitions themselves get a bit lost. I suggest we focus on those definitions and what is implied by them first, but also note the wider implications. Of course, this is only one suggestion for an approach and there are others.

I don't want people who are just beginning to get distracted or overwhelmed by the enormity of the work involved to track down all the implications. First, I have been pretty selective, inevitably. Second I have divided up the commentary, and you will hear two voices to indicate the split in focus – the second one is Maggie Harris's.

M Harris

My sections discuss some implications that arise. They need not worry complete beginners right away, but others might want to think about them as they go along. There is a transcript available so you can follow some issues up with that if you need to do so.

D Harris

As before, I suggest we think about this while watching some slow video. I was trying out my amateur steadicam gear and going for a single take on a recent walk. I apologise if anyone gets seasick with the wobbles or the whippy pans. Ironically, the video features shots of lots of trees.

First we need to locate where the topic of the rhizome is discussed, and it is fairly easy in this case. We'll start with A Thousand Plateaus, (Deleuze and Guattari, 2004) where nearly all or perhaps all, the references to the rhizome can be found. It has an index too. If you look up the term rhizome, you find quite a number of definitions.

Let's start with the specific ones. It's not just plants that are rhizomes. Ant colonies, rat burrows, the city of Amsterdam, the Freudian Unconscious, liberated sexual activity, musical forms, aspects of American culture focused both on the cultural underground and the Wild West, forms of guerilla warfare, the path of a pool of oil as it runs downstream. Even the book itself, ATP, is a rhizome, D&G tell us (p. 24). Occasionally, other things are called rhizomes as well, throughout the book. Reading the text around the actual definitions will help

Optional discussion 1

One thing to note right away is that not all these examples relate to human beings. In discussions like this, D&G want to talk about things found in nature as well. It would be limiting to confine what they say to human affairs, although sometimes this is what happens – concepts like the rhizome are discussed in terms of human activities alone – thinking, writing, wandering. This is an anthropomorphic reading of Deleuzian work and it is only one option. More on this in a minute, but for now, the suggestion is that the more general accounts of the rhizome stress that human activity is connected to lots of other areas. The 'pure' rhizome is infinitely connectable,with each point having the capacity to connect with any other point in any other system.

End of optional discussion 1.

Back to our definitions:

There are also more challenging general, theoretical or philosophical descriptions and comments.

The first example isn't too bad:
[A rhizome is] a map and not a tracing...'open and connectable in all of its dimensions (13) D

Incidentally, in the same bit there is a reference to decalcomania – strangely taken to be crucial in some commentaries, but just another example for me. It refers to a technique to add decoration to pottery as a kind of applique. I don't know enough about it to see what exactly is rhizomatic about this technique – maybe it has to respond to minute changes in the surface texture of the pot as well as to the artistic intentions of the potter?

More abstractly:
The rhizome has no beginning and end. It is a matter of alliance rather than filiation. It proceeds by the conjunction 'and…and…and'...American literature and some English literature shows this 'rhizomatic direction' (28), following a 'logic of the AND' (27). In other words, such works do not follow conventional narratives but move from one episode to the next. No examples are specified here – I thought of James Joyce and Ulysses but he is neither American nor English

More obscurely:
The multiple must be made, not by always adding a higher dimension but ...with the number of dimensions one already has available -- always n-1 (the only way the one belongs to the multiple: always subtracted). Subtract the unique from the multiplicity to be constructed: write at n-1 dimensions...A system of this kind would be called a rhizome' (7).
[The rhizome] is composed of dimensions or 'directions in motion'. It has no beginning or end, only 'a middle (milieu) from which it grows and over spills' [I often wonder if translating milieu as 'middle' rather than 'context' is helpful here]. It constructs linear multiplicities with N dimensions. It has no subject or object. It moves on a plane of consistency 'from which the One [capital O] is always subtracted (N-1) (24)

Even the simple example we started with gets a bit more complicated as we read on: plants connect the rhizomes of their roots, with other things, like the wind or animals or human beings. The whole thing is now described as a rhizome.

In human life, we are told a rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles (8) We are urged always to trace connections like this, always follow rhizomes until we get to the most abstract and tortuous connections. These lines of flight away from the specific examples will eventually lead us to a completel;y abstract or 'pure' mechanism or machine operating on the mysterious plane of consistency (12). It is that pure mechanism, with no specific empirical bits at all that is being referred to in the obscure stuff just now, referring to multiplicities and N dimensions

It is very tempting to ignore these complications and go with what you know already – the rhizome as an underground root. Some people have used this simple metaphor to find some immediate 'applications' to humans and to social life as we saw – the way in which some people learn, for example, trailing from one task to another, wandering along directed by their interests and personal motives which operate beneath the surface of their consciousness. This is only a metaphorical connection, though - -and Deleuze actually doesn't like metaphors which he sees as the result of lazy thinking, not going into the issues the actual similarities between plants and animals which we discuss in a minute.:

Insert caption: the metaphor is redundant, since it implies some true primary meaning, whereas ‘all meaning and identification derive rather from the unstable interplay of figures, from configurations of sense’.  Deleuze 1995.:188

My suggestion is we do something a bit more ambitious here, to try to work in all the examples, and then try to see as a first stage how the more general and obscure bits fit in. We should and we can tangle a little bit at least with the philosophy, using our own common forms of thinking. I should say that Deleuze has serious objections to the ways in which ordinary thought processes work, and we'll mention a couple more as we go along.

Optional discussion 2

One way to start might be to return to the issue of what all the examples might have in common. It seems that Deleuze and Guattari see something in common between human activities and the activities of animals like ants and rats or even trickles of oil. We could think in terms used in classical philosophy and ask if there is some underlying essential quality here – do we share having been created by God as an earlier way of thinking about essences would suggest? Theologians have amused themselves for centuries with this sort of inquiry and its implications – does God create everything and if he doesn't who does? Does he create each individual ant or just the species? Is he there in each patch of oil?

A currently fashionable view would take another option and say the links occur because there is some cosmic consciousness that connects us all to the natural world, that even plants have some kind of consciousness of their surroundings. But do trickles of oil? The actual emphasis is possibly the other way around though. Plant rhizomes develop by responding to local differences in their environment concerning moisture, temperature, nutrient contents and so on. Rats and ants might respond to chemical or physical differences in their environments – texture of the surface, gradient and so on. Trickles of oil also respond to local gradients and the general effects of gravity. This is not really consciousness, but more a basic detection of different sorts of intensity – of chemicals or gravitational forces.

And it is often the case that these differences drive human actions too. We are not conscious of all of them. We are affected by physical aspects of our environment. Our environment produces affects. Now the term 'affect' has been colonised by recent psychology to mean just emotions, but Deleuze sees an affect in an earlier 17th Century way to mean anything that affects us, usually registered at the bodily level. That produces things in our minds like emotions and feelings. We respond to chemicals in our bodies and in our environment. We respond to external forces like gravity by feeling happy if we lose weight, sad if we put it on and feel gravity tugging us down. We are nervous thinking of the effects of falling from height, elated at feeling g forces on an accelerating motorcycle – and so on. The best place to find this view of affects and how they work on bodies is Deleuze's book on Spinoza (Deleuze 1988) or the online lectures on Spinoza (Deleuze 2007).

This could be what they mean by the section on page 9 of ATP:

'Puppetstrings, as a rhizome or multiplicity, are tied not to the supposed will of an artist or puppeteer but to a multiplicity of nerve fibers, which form another puppet...[let's call them] the weave. It might be objected that its multiplicity resides in the person of the actor who projects it into the text. Granted: but the actor's nerve fibers in turn form a weave' (9)

So human rhizomes are like plant rhizomes not because we share some essential consciousness, but because both are affected by intensities of forces in their environments.

End of optional discussion 2

Let us try another normal technique of thinking, found in the social sciences this time. We could ask: do the examples share common observable properties?. Vigorous couch grass roots, ants on the march, rats building burrows, tourists wandering around Amsterdam, and guerillas operating in enemy territory do not follow simple binary choices or directions laid out in suggested routes. The claim is that you couldn't fit them into a logical pattern like an algorithm (to use the modern term) or a 'decision tree' or 'command tree' (to use older ones). This explains the contrast between rhizomes and trees appearing at time in the book.

We can connect this to one of the comments earlier:

[A rhizome is] a map and not a tracing...'open and connectable in all of its dimensions (13)
Guerilla fighters and tourists use maps, on paper or in their heads, but they do not always stick to the prescribed routes or tracings, and, with a bit of poetic licence you could see ants on the march and even the other examples as showing the same qualities, responding to local and immediate bits of environment wherever they lead, as we saw. The rhizome as a map offers more possible routes than the usual specific ones that we follow from inertia or habit or because we have been told to do so.
Note that we are developing a more general or theoretical structure. We could use the term 'abstract structure' for now, although Deleuze does not like that specific term either. The easiest reason for that ,incidentally, is that 'abstract' or 'theoretical' imply that the structure that results is not real, that it exists only in our heads, that the qualities we have in mind are derived only from thought, from our imagination, and that we have had to ignore or explain away other aspects that do not fit our theoretical model. By contrast, Deleuze makes the extraordinary claim that these structures are real, that they exist in reality – but in another dimension of reality. He calls this the virtual dimension, where we find purified objects, with no empirical components. This is not to be confused with the current usage of the term to refer to realistic computer-generated images.
Optional discussion 3
Deleuze doesn't like the more usual philosophical argument that this is a transcendental level of reality. He is criticising Kant Hegel or Husserl here, but you might know of a popular transcendental approach in modern 'critical realism' associated with Roy Bhaskar ( eg Bhaskar , 1980) and others. If you don't know this stuff, don't worry, of course.
Optional discussion 3 ends
Another extraordinary claim is that the operations at the virtual level explain all the empirical examples and their characteristics - -we'll come to this argument when we consider the haecceity in another presentation. All the examples are tracings to be put back on underlying maps.
So even the normal notion of a map will not do. Rhizomes at this level of reality, the virtual, are maps 'open and connectable in all dimensions', always capable of extending themselves into ever larger maps, and operating not in two dimensions like normal maps but three (or more).
Nor are virtual rhizomes limited to just joining up with things that they have already connected or established. They have no definite end. They are very flexible and can join themselves on to almost anything, any activity, any environment or context. They just cheerfully add on these additional dimensions, in a series connected just by 'and', following alliance rather than filiation (in other words, they don't have to be in the same family as the things they connect with): power systems ally themselves to linguistic systems so we are constrained by both direct force AND a set of psychological mechanisms, that make us feel guilty if we disobey AND a linguistic system that seems to offer us unconstrained, creative 'free speech' but within limits.
Where is all this leading? In a philosophical direction, aiming to answer philosophical questions, including the ultimate ones like 'what is reality'. You might not want to follow the story this far just yet, but that is where Deleuze and Guattari are heading. Deleuze and Guattari use specific examples to get to more general philosophy. Any practical implications follow only after we have followed this trail into the virtual, and left specific constraints and limitations well behind us. And when we return to the practical, we must expect to meet reintroduced mixtures, impure combinations, say of rhizomes and tree structures.
Optional discussion 4
It is a strange story, and one that goes quite a way from common sense. We have seen that rhizomes offer quite different specific characteristics in practice, but that they might have some general properties that are not so visible. They feature ceaseless connections, and constant growth into other areas. But this is not determined or controlled by human beings or gods, or some ultimate purpose – they have ' have no subject or object'. They seem to proliferate all on their own. Once they take on specific forms, we can intervene – block a couch grass rhizome, redesign Amsterdam, evict rats from their burrows etc. But at the general level the philosophical figure of the rhizome carries on about its own business. It is driven by forces beyond human control. It produces or turns into strange multiple objects with lots of potential different specific forms – multiplicities. These exist at the virtual level. At certain times and in certain states, multiplicities produce the more familiar rhizomes we see around us, but there are other possibilities too, which may never actually ever appear in physical form. Philosophy tries to work out the strange activities of these unobservable multiplicities.
This is not as strange as it sounds at first, and earlier forms exist of this sort of argument. A leading structuralist, Claude Levi-Strauss says he was inspired by an understanding of geology first. We can explain the surface features of landscapes – hills and valleys, particular directions of slopes and so on, once we know about the geology of the area, the rocks that lie underneath. Levi- Strauss went on to develop a structural model of language a bit like this, saying that all the rich varieties of myths in certain preindustrial societies could be explained as combinations of underlying options to discuss important matters like the relation of humans to nature. Deleuze's colleague M Foucault also purposed what he called an archaeological model to study discourses, where you inspect the remains of buildings or discourses that lie on the surface ,and gradually establish an overall plan or CGI model of what the building might have looked like which explains the remains that you see –and sketches in what has been destroyed.
Now these earlier approaches are discussed critically by Deleuze on the way to establish his own underlying structures. Structure is the wrong word here, for him, as we saw, and it also implies some fixed set of options, and Deleuze wants to argue instead for flux, flow and dynamic combinations of forces, which themselves change and develop. This bit explains why he is sometimes called a 'post-structuralist', although he does far more than just criticise structuralism. All this is carefully if sometimes bafflingly argued in Deleuze's book Difference and Repetition ( Deleuze, 2004) , but there is a much shorter summary in Deleuze and Parnet (1987), right at the end.
To take one more example, the commentary by DeLanda (2002) is very useful. Again we might not be using specifically Deleuzian arguments but we can get a long way before we might have to correct them. DeLanda says that modern physics thinks in terms of unobservable forces swirling around in a complex or chaotic way, combining with each other to produce vectors. There also exist various attractors that draw these forces together to form particular shapes or figures. Some, but only some, can be chaotic attractors, and this provides the popular name for this approach – chaos theory. As these forces stabilise they cool down and condense into matter of the kind we can detect. The swirling hot forces of the cosmos just after the Big Bang eventually cooled enough to start combing protons, neutrons and electron together to make atoms, then atoms into molecules of the elements, molecules into compounds, compounds into larger compounds under the force of gravity – and so on. Combinations often have different possible states which produces matter of different kinds – gasses, solids and liquids, for example. Ice, liquid water, and steam look and feel quite different to our senses, as indeed do the gases hydrogen and oxygen, but they are all states of one system
End of optional discussion 4
So we have moved from the specifics of couch grass to the generalities of chaos or complexity theory,from empirical examples to purified ones. Was it worth it? If you are a philosopher, yes, since it gives us a fresh take on all sorts of earlier philosophical approaches. What if you are not a philosopher?
At the very least the approach helps us see that there is much more at stake in analysis than just using a nice metaphor. You might not wish to delve into the complexities of Deleuzian philosophy, but it would be wise to recognise that they are attached to the concept. It is obviously controversial to grab the metaphor and then bolt it on to some other philosophical approach like social constructivism or humanism, at least without acknowledging the problems.
More practically, maybe a Deleuzian approach shows that the specific rhizomes that exist here and now are not the only possible ones, and should not make claim to be the only possible ones, although they often do. That is not an issue with couch grass, although gardeners are usually thwarted if they try to pull out bits of it only to find the thing starting up again somewhere else. It is an important issue if if we start to see modern organizations as stabilised, limited or blocked rhizomes. We can see a space for politics, for social change that points to other possibilities emerging equally plausibly from the same underlying multiplicity, even ones that have not been realized yet. This would be a pretty radical politics, not just operating with choices provided by existing systems but realizing new possibilities. This is why we need a general account of possibilities, to break out of existing constraints, in politics and practice as well as in thought.
We also might begin to see that human activity can operate only against a background of what is already being made into reality by non-human forces –which limits the space for politics and social change. Not everything or anything is possible. I am afraid this alternation between political optimism and pessimism is something that runs throughout ATP at least, and is a major issue with D&G.
Finally, I am aware that a couple of things haven't been discussed yet a rhizome grows in the middle without beginning or end. That is fairly simple in arguing that we should not worry about rying to trace everything back to a single origin, a capital O One – like the medieval philosophers did when they tried to explain everything as emanating from the will or characteristics of God. Nor should we try to establish foundational concepts that always explain everything – the mode of production for marxists, or the Oedipus complex for Freudians, or humanist qualities of creativity and freedom, for that matter. It follows that there is no ultimate end we should be thinking of either, no glorious future of freedom and self-understanding, no state of final equilibrium in the universe, no peak of biological evolution.
A rhizome occupies N dimensions – that is not just the usual 3 dimensions, but any number. Note also that Deleuze sometimes uses the term 'dimension' as some mathematicians do – as a line joining points. The bit about operating with N-1 is a puzzle – I think DeLanda explains it best as referring to abstract geometry. For now, we can read it as advice not to work with specific and unique things but to subtract them or abstract from them, and think of the forces behind them so to speak. We should also take out any original One that is supposed to spark it all off, as above.
There is one last mysterious term in the definitions of the rhizome – A rhizome moves on a 'plane of consistency' That will have to wait for another session. For now a plane or plan is a way Deleuze has of thinking of connections between rhizomes or multiplicities (in this case): roughly, for now, we have to analyse each separate rhizome in a way which is consistent with what we know about the others. It is partly a matter of doing philosophical work, since we can ever observe or measure multiplicities at the virtual level – but it is not just philosophical speculation, more like discovering by coherent philosophical argument, carefully developed, the underlying virtual reality that can explain all the specific cases.
This is enough for one session. I'll leave you with some references to books I have mentioned and to my notes on them.

Bhaskar, R. (1980) 'Scientific Explanations and Emancipation'. Radical Philosophy 26, Autumn 1980. (my notes –

Delanda, M. (2002) Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, London: Continuum (my notes –
Deleuze, G (2007) Lectures on Spinoza.
Deleuze, G (2004) [1968] Difference and Repetition, Trans Paul Patton, London: Continuum Publishing Group (my notes --

Deleuze, G. (1988) Spinoza Practical Philosophy, trans. Robert Hurley. San Francisco: City Lights Books (my notes –
Deleuze G and Guattari F (1984) Anti-Oedipus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia, London: The Athlone Press. (My notes –
Deleuze G and Guattari F (2004) A Thousand Plateaus, London: Continuum. (my [extensive] notes on
Deleuze, G. and Parnet, C. (1987) Dialogues, trans H Tomlinson and B Habberjam, London: The Athlone Press. (my notes –