Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

What is a ‘rhizome’ in Deleuze and Guattari’s thinking?

People who do a lot of gardening probably know what a “rhizome” is in botanical terms. It is a kind of plant (including the prolific “wandering Jew”) that pops out of the ground over an expanding area, giving the impression that many separate plants are emerging in close proximity to one another, but in fact these ostensibly individual “plants” are parts of one big plant, and are interconnected under the ground. It has a distinct philosophical meaning, too, which is associated with the famous French duo, Felix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze. At the outset I should say that what follows is my own take on just one aspect of their work, and if any Deleuze/Guattari “authority” should have grave misgivings about it, I readily admit that when I read them I always feel somewhat dumb — their work is unapologetically difficult, but worth grappling with. Furthermore, I have tried, perhaps at the cost of accuracy, to make it accessible insofar as I (try to) understand it.

In Deleuze and Guattari’s work “rhizome” is roughly the philosophical counterpart of the botanical term, suggesting that many things in the world — to be consistent, if one follows the direction of their thinking, “all things” in the world — are rhizomes, or rhizomatically interconnected, although such connections are not always (in fact, seldom) visible. Animals or insects that live symbiotically appear to be an obvious example, such as the little birds that clean crocodiles’ teeth when these reptiles bask in the sun with their huge jaws open: instead of eating the birds, the crocodiles let them feed on the bits of meat, etc, between their teeth — their teeth are cleaned, and the birds are fed, in this way forming a rhizome. After all, when one sees them separately, few people would guess that their species-economy is rhizomatically conjoined.

Another way of expressing this in Deleuze and Guattari’s language is to see the birds and the crocodiles as an “assemblage”, which forms part of a larger assemblage or rhizome, ordinarily referred to as an ecology, or (biologically) interconnected totality of heterogeneous entities or, more precisely, processes “differing in rhythm and speed”. Bees and the plants whose flowers they visit to gather pollen comprise a rhizome, or an assemblage, just as a book does, according to Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus (p. 4). In short, the rhizome or assemblage is a model that functions as a “crystal” of sorts regarding Deleuze and Guattari’s ontology. Insofar as, petrologically speaking, a crystal concentrates in itself layers upon layers of a mineral, metaphorically stated, the rhizome (or an assemblage) denotes the layers upon layers (“laminations”, perhaps) of the relationally interconnected, dynamically and quantitatively as well as qualitatively differentiated constituents of rhizomorphic reality.

To comprehend their use of “rhizome” Deleuze and Guattari enumerate some of its characteristics, as distinguishable from an obsolete way of thinking in terms of “arboreal” metaphors like “root”. As far as “principles of connection and heterogeneity” go, it means that anything can be connected to any other thing at any point (p. 7), unlike what “arboreal” root-discourse presumes, which is the foundation of binary thinking.

Then, regarding the principle of “multiplicity”, it has to be thought of “substantively”, as that which has ontological primacy, not merely as “the multiple” (p. 8). Whether we like it or not, we live within multiplicity. In this regard Deleuze and Guattari observe (p. 8): “A multiplicity has neither subject nor object, only determinations, magnitudes, and dimensions that cannot increase in number without the multiplicity changing, in nature (the laws of combination therefore increase in number as the multiplicity grows).”

It seems to me that what follows is the increasing complexification of the world, as more people are born (than those who die), and as more ontological levels of multiplicity emerge, which necessarily interact with others. Think of everything that one encounters in “virtual reality” or “cyberspace”, and the impact that these phenomena have on concrete social reality. Since the advent of the internet, the complexification of the world through increased multiplicity has accelerated.

Further, in contrast with the notion of “oversignifying breaks separating structures”, internally or externally, they propose the principle, that a “ruptured” rhizome will always resurrect itself, like the biological rhizome of ants, which will reappear even if it seems as if they have been annihilated (p. 9). If I understand them correctly, it means that conclusive breaks or separations are not possible in the rhizomatic sphere of multiplicity. Everything is interconnected, and regardless of where you start, you can proceed to any quadrant, nook or cranny of “reality”, with no possible transcendence; only immanence. Nor can you occupy a point or position: “There are only lines” (p.8).

Moreover, “An assemblage is precisely this increase in the dimensions of a multiplicity that necessarily changes in nature as it expands its connections” (p. 8). Isn’t it strange that it took so long before poststructuralists like these two Frenchmen realised that, the more a multiplicity of any kind — people, plants, animals — grows, the more its very nature changes. Compare an ancient village like that depicted in Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix books, with its distinct, colourful characters, with a mega-city of today in terms of the possible interrelationships between the putative constitutive “elements” or individuals comprising it as a (sub-)multiplicity. The mind boggles.

Cartographically speaking, Deleuze and Guattari claim that a rhizome is “a map, not a tracing”, because “it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real” (p. 12). Like Lacan, who recognises that the “real” is not the same as the “reality” we experience, but can only be approximated through scientific theories, artistic creations and philosophical concepts, as well as innovative political actions, Deleuze and Guattari offer the image of the map as an indication of the flexibility of rhizomatic thinking in relation to the real.

From the above, very brief elaboration on this aspect of their thinking, it follows that Deleuze and Guattari have left the typically western metaphysical/ontological attachment to substantialist thinking behind for good — that is, the tendency to think of the world as consisting of isolated, discrete objects, instead of an interconnected totality which can only be said to “be” to the extent that mutually constitutive relations ARE the most basic constituent(s) of reality. And these “relations” are not static “things”, but active, ongoing, processual activities.

The image of the rhizome captures nicely what is so misleading about the ordinary appearance of things as discrete “objects” — as in the case of a plant belonging to the genus of rhizomatic plants, the connections are usually invisible. Most of the time one is only aware of the “objects”, without considering that they only appear as objects or things insofar as one enters into a relation of some kind with them. You drink from a cup, you brush your teeth with a toothbrush, you eat an apple, you stare at a beautiful person (man or woman), you admire an artwork, you sit on a toilet, you lie on a bed, you walk down the street, etc, and the “things” would be incomprehensible if it were not for the activities by means of which they first emerge as “things”, or more accurately, nodal points that crystallise in the force-field of the activity concerned (itself a sub-multiplicity).

Once one has made this mind-switch you are ready to move into a new way of rhizomatic thinking, which, in turn, ushers in grasping the world in relational terms: relations are the dynamic “basics” (NOT things or objects) of reality as multiplicity. And once one has understood this, you are ready for a truly “posthuman” world or future, if by “human” one understands that being who has always attempted to rule over the world by reducing everything to “things” and “objects” to be controlled and dominated.

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    • Richard

      I was interested to read this post, as I have been occupied reading the book “Conversations with Angels: Essays Towards a History of Spiritual Communication, 1100-1700″. This is neither a theological nor a “New Age” volume, but one that considers the cultural and philosophical import of the notion of angels, and how people attempted to integrate them within changing world-views, discussing Thomas Aquinas, Ockham, Neoplatonists, and others. It is a much-overlooked field in the history of science, with both Galileo and Newton having had views about angels, and incorporating them into their works in various ways.

      In the chapter “Angels and the Physics of Place in the Early Fourteenth Century”, James Byrne, a lecturer at Princeton University, discusses the notion of whether angels occupy space, and whether they exist “substantially” or merely “operationally”: as messengers it was assumed they had to have some sort of location, but they were at the same time supposed to be spiritual beings. A helpful concept was one propounded by Scotus, who said that angels are present in a place in “essence” even before operation. That is, angelic essence, in which all are immanent and individually present simultaneously. In other words, like what Deleuze and Guattari seem to be saying, the angels exist ontologically in multiplicity, an assemblage, rather than as individual entities that occupy space separately. They exist in lines of operation, and yet are also present everywhere. Other solutions were debated by people like Bonaventure, who spoke about spiritual substance existing side-by-side with corporeal substance, but he seems to use this spiritual substance merely as a precondition for indicating location.

      There was some tension in the thinking of Peter Auriol between this notion of continuity or separability: angels were not points of a schema, but rather indivisible quanta. This meant they could not come into contact with even the notional line of distance. In this way, they were both a multiplicity as well as single (in their ontology). In other words, they were not separated, even if we think of them “there” and not “here” which seems to me to fit very well with the notion of a rhizome as discussed above. I take this to mean they were inextricably part of the system, but were not immediately notionally so, nor separably so.

      This is a very superficial and probably blurred view of the matter, but it is interesting how our minds use similar models to account for very divergent spheres of analysis. These ideas seem to foreshadow Deleuze and Guattari’s rejection of the “tendency to think of the world as consisting of isolated, discrete objects, instead of an interconnected totality which can only be said to ‘be’ to the extent that mutually constitutive relations ARE the most basic constituent(s) of reality. And these ‘relations’ are not static ‘things’, but active, ongoing, processual activities” as you state in your piece. I have not found any other examples from an earlier time that mirrors this idea as well.

      Just as a point of usage, I noted in the following chapter in the book, “Galilean Angels” that Nick Wilding (Georgia State University) also uses the term “rhizome” in discussing how our view of sixteenth and seventeenth century thinking is decontextualised away from the multiplicity of modes of thought and communication of the time.

    • Bert Olivier

      Richard – Thank you so much for this contribution; what it confirms, as you so eloquently show, is that Deleuze and Guattari are not the first thinkers who deviated from substantialist thinking, and the subject of angels, or angelic presences/absences, is an excellent way of demonstrating this. There have been others, too, of course – one can make a good case that the pre-Socratic thinker,Heraclitus, who is renowned for stating that “everything flows” (panta rei), thought in this way, and the modern thinker Spinoza, who is one of Deleuze and Guattari’s precursors, also did. So did Henri Bergson, by opposing intellect-oriented thinking, which always renders the world as consisting of discrete objects, with intuition-oriented thinking, which yields a different sense of the world, namely as “elan vital” or life-impulse. They (D & G) also learned from Lacan, who affirmed, early on in his career, that humans always objectify what is first given as “shifting forms” or “Gestalten” along the axes of desire. This objectification happens in the course of education, of course, so that, by the time children leave school, they have to be systematically disabused of such substantialist thinking.

    • Aragorn Eloff

      Thanks for this useful post, Bert. It’s always exciting to see people using D&G as a way to think about the complexities of the contemporary world, something I feel their philosophy allows us to do with much more nuance and clarity than most.

      This is probably an opportune moment to shamelessly mention the upcoming Deleuze and Guattari conference in Cape Town you’re presenting at, which some of your regular readers may be interested in checking out: :-)