The 40-Year-Old Rhizome

In each of their co-written works, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari present a prolific array of concepts that traverse a wide range of theories and disciplines. To put it simply, their concepts are oriented around facilitating creative forms of life amid the erosion of subjectivity in capitalist societies. One of the most frequently cited of their concepts is the rhizome, which they introduce in A Thousand Plateaus [Mille Plateaux]—the second book in their two-volume work, Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Extrapolating from the botanical definition of rhizomes (i.e., plants that grow underground horizontally, such as turmeric, ginger, and bamboo), Deleuze and Guattari introduce rhizomes as a way of conceptualizing networks of non-hierarchical and non-dual difference. Rhizomatic systems are contrasted to the vertical growth of trees. Trees (arborescent structures) epitomize hierarchical systems of capture and control.

Since the original publication of A Thousand Plateaus in 1980, the concept of the rhizome has grown in many directions, some of which run counter to the anti-capitalist, emancipatory orientation that it had for Deleuze and Guattari. After forty years, the liberating legacy of the rhizome remains relatively untapped.

The rhizome bears a troubled legacy. It is not without problematic limitations, yet it also harbors a promise that is crucial for contemporary political struggles for the interdependent liberation of subjects, societies, and environments. While the relationality of the rhizome has been emphasized and utilized ad nauseam, there are at least three untapped potentials of the rhizome: collaboration, experimentation, and minor interbeing.

Collaboration. The rhizome is introduced at the beginning of A Thousand Plateaus, in “Introduction: Rhizome,” which opens with Deleuze and Guattari discussing their co-authorship of Anti-Oedipus (the first volume of Capitalism and Schizophrenia). The philosophers Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou are among some prominent critics of Deleuze’s co-authored works. They consider the philosophical acuity of Deleuze’s individually written philosophical works to be confused and compromised by Guattari’s theoretical and political commitments. Others oppose that point, arguing that there is a continuity between the ideas Deleuze expressed individually and those he expressed in collaboration with Guattari. In contrast to both of those positions, I’d suggest that the co-written works are better than individually written works, specifically in two respects. First, while Deleuze brings philosophical depth to Guattari’s work, Guattari brings interdisciplinary, queer, and politically radical perspectives to Deleuze. This cross-fertilization makes their co-written work more relevant to the challenges of contemporary theory and practice. Second, the very act of co-authorship challenges the competitive individualism of academics, researchers, and public intellectuals. The challenge of co-authorship is a challenge of affirming multiplicity and constructing collective subjectivities.

Experimentation. Deleuze and Guattari use the concept of the rhizome to propose a method oriented around experimentation, specifically modes of experimentation that generate or transform relationships: “Experiment, don’t signify and interpret! Find your own places” [A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (U. of Minnesota Press, 1987), p. 139]. Experimenting with rhizomes is a way of undoing tendencies toward hierarchy (arborescence) and interpretation, and thereby opening up new possibilities for enacting non-hierarchical relationships. The shift toward more experiential and experimental methods is present in Deleuze’s individually written works, but it is more pronounced in his writings with Guattari, for whom experimentation involves radical politics. This is exemplified by Guattari’s involvement with liberation movements in Latin America, traces of which found expression in the liberation theology of the Brazilian priest Leonardo Boff. Much of what goes by names like radical philosophy/theology does not involve a sufficiently experimental praxis, but remains at the level of discourse and interpretation.

Minor interbeing. Arborescence captures and controls what rhizomes liberate: interbeing. “A rhizome,” as Deleuze and Guattari say, “is always in the middle, between things, interbeing” (p. 25). Interconnectedness, interdependency, and relationality have been prominent themes in theology and religious studies throughout the twentieth century, often drawing on process philosophy, poststructuralism, feminism, queer theory, and ecological thought. Interbeing can be found in the development of relational conceptions of self, world, and God, and in emphases on multicultural and interdisciplinary approaches to theory and method. However, as critics point out, the conjunctive dynamics of rhizomes can also be found in the deregulated markets of global capitalism, in strategies for militaristic violence, and in the infantilizing effects of mass media. Deleuze and Guattari themselves note that all the concepts they present can be co-opted and turned into weapons of control. Even when it is experimental, interbeing itself is not inherently emancipatory. Multiculturalism, interdisciplinarity, and relationality have been variously co-opted by the dominant majority and have not been entirely successful in liberating the minoritarian multitude. What matters is this question: Whose interbeing is it?

For interbeing to be liberating, it must find expression outside the dominant norms of the economy and the state. It must become minoritarian, which is how Deleuze and Guattari describe subversive modes of expression, like dialects, idiolects, and slang. This poses a serious challenge to the institutional constraints on modes of expression in academic, intellectual, or philosophical work, which typically keeps vulgarity, nonsense, and pop culture at a safe distance. A politics of interbeing can only promote liberation if it practices minoritarian forms of expression.

It may be tempting to assert that the emancipatory promise of the rhizome has been refuted, as the last forty years have seen rhizomatic dynamics appropriated by systems of rapacious consumption and intensifying inequality. Could it be possible that a rhizomatic promise endures, growing beneath the offshoots of co-option and misinterpretation that treat any non-hierarchical system like a rhizome and use “radical” to refer to hermeneutics without praxis. The liberating power of the rhizome requires more than theoretical commitments to relationality. It requires collaborative work and the formation of collective subjectivity (co-authorship). It requires radical praxis oriented around political transformation (experimentation). It requires minoritarian forms of expression that build alliances across differences (minor interbeing).

The rhizome has not been refuted. Rather, it has not been sufficiently attempted. In a way, the rhizome remains untapped, untouched after forty years. The emancipatory promise of the collaborative, experimental, and minoritarian challenges of interbeing remains.

Amoeba Words

“What is an amoeba word?” Amoeba words include many of the words thrown around when people are talking philosophically. The philosopher-priest Ivan Illich explains:

I take the term from the work of Professor Uwe Pörksen of Freiburg, a linguist and medievalist. During the second part of the 1980s, he came to the conclusion that there are certain words in all modern languages which ought to be labelled in a special way when they are put into a dictionary. A dictionary will tell you that a certain word in its common meaning means this; in its antiquated meaning it means something else; when you combine it in a particular way, it becomes vulgar; in another sense it is technical. He came to a conclusion that one major category of word usage had been overlooked, and for it he created the term plastic words. A plastic word, an amoeba word, he found, is a term which has about twenty-five precise characteristics—Pörksen’s very German—and he doesn’t admit any word into the egregious category unless it fits all these twenty-five. A plastic word has powerful connotations. A person becomes important when he uses it: he bows to a profession which knows more about it than he does and he is convinced that he is making in some way a scientific statement. A plastic word is like a stone thrown into a conversation—it makes waves, but it doesn’t hit anything. It has all these connotations, but it does not designate anything precisely. Usually, it’s a word which has always existed in the language but which has gone through a scientific laundry and then dropped back into ordinary language with a new connotation that it has something to do with what other people know and you can’t quite fathom. Pörksen puts sexuality, for instance, into the category of amoeba words, or crisis or information.

He has found these words in every language. There’s only a couple of dozen, and they’re always the same. When I came to Pörksen and said, “Uwe, I think I’ve found the worst of them, life,” he became very silent. For the first time in my life, I had the impression that he became angry with me, disappointed in me. He was offended. And it took about six months or mine months before he could speak about that issue again, because it is just unthinkable that something as precious and beautiful as life should act as an amoeba word. I came to the conclusion that, when I use the word life today, I could just as well just cough or clear my throat or say “shit.”

Ivan Illich in Conversation, with David Cayley (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2007), 253-254

Dumpster/Fire: Traces of Burning Man

With guiding principles like self-reliance and self-expression, and a focus on an inclusive community of free exchange (decommodified gift economy), the event and culture of Burning Man is a great example of the phenomenon referred to as “contemporary spirituality.” Much of my research is concerned with relationships between religious communities/traditions and the ecological systems with which they interact. Insofar as it involves a massive amount of people (upwards of 80,000) converging on a desert ecosystem (Nevada’s Black Rock Desert) and turning it into a city oriented around the values of contemporary spirituality, the Burning Man event is a good example of the kind of phenomena I study. Basically, I want to understand the environmental ethics of contemporary spirituality, and Burning Man seems like a good case to study.

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Of Selves and Mirrors

If you want to know whether something or someone possesses a capacity for self-recognition or self-perception, a common test to use is the mirror test. Put people in front of a mirror, and see if they can recognize themselves in their reflections. Can you tell that your reflection is your image, that is, an image of you yourself? If so, you would see that the reflection of your nose is not another’s nose. Rather, you would recognize that it refers back to your actual nose. If you wanted to touch your nose, you wouldn’t touch the mirror. You would touch your face. That implies that you can recognize yourself, hence the official name of this test: mirror self-recognition (MSR). That test has some problems. Ultimately, the mirror test says very little about the self of those who do or don’t recognize themselves in the mirror. It says more about the self of someone who thinks mirrors are adequate tests for selfhood.  

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Poetics, Practice, and Things

Poetry can compress vast acreages of meaning into a small compass or perform the kind of bold linkages that would take reams of academic argument to plot; it can widen the aperture of our gaze or deposit us on the brink of transformation…
One of the most striking and unsettling aspects of the Anthropocene is the newly poignant sense that our present is in fact accompanied by deep pasts and deep futures. Fundamentally, the Anthropocene describes how humanity has radically intruded in deep times, the vast time scales that shape the Earth system and all the life-forms that it supports.

– David Farrier [Anthropocene Poetics: Deep Time, Sacrifice Zones, and Extinction (University of Minnesota Press, 2019), 5-6]

I’m currently teaching an ecopoetics course, which has given me a good excuse for keeping up with new books like Farrier’s Anthropocene Poetics. In the gap between this post and my previous post, I was preparing for the class, moving north of San Francisco to a house along the Russian River, and doing the usual mixture of teaching, writing, and conferencing. Incidentally, the river is currently flooding due to unusually heavy rains, and a siren is sounding for people living on the river to evacuate. I’m basically in a tree house, high off the ground, about a minute’s walk from the riverbank, so that siren isn’t for me.

This blog might have seemed abandoned. I was just letting it breathe.  I’ve been doing a lot of writing in other venues. I’ve had a few pieces published recently, including an essay comparing Jean-Luc Nancy and Graham Harman on the ontological status of objects, “Touching without Touching: Objects of Post-Deconstructive Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology” [Open Philosophy 1.1 (2018): 290-98]. Another essay focuses on Christian, Daoist, and vegetal sources of Heidegger’s notion of letting beings be: releasement (Gelassenheit), “Without Why: Useless Plants in Christianity and Daoism” [Religions 10.1 (2019): 65-79].I also wrote something about philosophical practice (“Practice is not a Life Hack”) for the up-and-coming media empire, The Side View, run by the exceedingly industrious and brilliant, Adam Robbert. 

A few book reviews have come out as well, including my review of an anthology on nonviolence, Advancing Nonviolence and Social Transformation: New Perspectives on Nonviolent Theories, edited by Heather Eaton and Lauren Michelle Levesque. I also reviewed Jason Wirth’s poetic-philosophical book on Gary Snyder, Zen Buddhism, and ecology, Mountains, Rivers, and the Great Earth: Reading Gary Snyder and Dōgen in an Age of Ecological Crisis.

For the rest of the year, I have a couple more book reviews coming out, as well as a couple of chapters in anthologies (one on Stoicism, the other on climate ethics). I’m editing an anthology on multiple forms of ecological knowledge, with essays on conservation biology, traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) in indigenous communities, psychedelic science, affective and imaginal ways of knowing, storytelling, Asian philosophies, Gaia theory, and more. I’ll share more specifics about that project as it gets further underway. Hopefully it will be out before the end of the year. I’ll also share more while I’m working on my next book, which is a short monograph about theology and new materialism.

New materialism seems pretty old by now, since it’s been over twenty years since people first started using that term. It’s basically a shorthand for the contemporary reception of Deleuze’s materialism (Karen Barad’s Derridean/deconstructive tendencies notwithstanding), which is still quite novel compared to the materialisms that run from Lucretius to Marx, or whatever people like Donald Davidson or Hilary Putnam were doing. New materialism is theologically rich, bearing in mind that it is sometimes expressed rather implicitly. In terms of transcendental monotheism, it’s entirely atheistic, which opens the door for much more complex and compelling forms of theos, drawing on kabbalah, alchemy, animism, panentheism, pantheism, Zen, magic, mysticism, and much more.


The Practice of Wisdom

Wisdom is not a mind-hack or life-hack or any kind of hack. It’s not a way of cutting through life’s difficulties with tips or tricks. It’s not a set strategies or operations that can be adopted in piecemeal or applied in pertinent situations. It’s more of a path than a hack. It’s a way of life. As a practice, wisdom demands a total change of lifestyle, or it is nothing at all. What is that lifestyle? With characteristic Judeo-Platonic-Stoic syncretism, Philo of Alexandria gives an exemplary description of the practice of wisdom in this passage from On the Special Laws [trans. F. H. Colson. (Loeb Classical Library), 2.44-49].

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The Beginning and End of Nature

When people talk about the end of nature, what exactly is this nature that has ended? It’s not like the whole universe imploded. Earth is still spinning. Nature isn’t the universe, and it’s not a planet. It’s nature. Nature is an idea, a word, a symbol, which is not to say that it is merely those things. Nature is also whatever reality people were referring to when they used the idea, word, or symbol of “nature.” That reality sufficiently degraded so as to indicate to many people that it has ended. There are still organisms, ecosystems, lakes, rivers, atmospheric conditions, roots, fruits, and all kinds of things, so what ended? What is the reality to which ideas of nature were pointing or in which symbols of nature were participating? An answer can be found by returning to the beginning, to the earliest appearances of the idea of nature.
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What is Philosophy?

What is philosophy? There are so many definitions of philosophy. It is not altogether unlikely that the “What is…?” question is not the best way to approach a definition of philosophy. There are many other important questions for defining and describing philosophy. Who are philosophers? What do philosophers do? How does one become a philosopher? How, where, and when does philosophy happen? If you want to keep the question of being (ti esti, “What is”), maybe you could at least pluralize or verbalize philosophy, so that “What is philosophy?” becomes “What are philosophies?” or “What is philosophizing?” (“What are philosophizings?”). In any case, all of these questions hover around the same point. Whatever philosophy is/does, it seems particularly involved in defining itself, maintaining itself, like it has to keep turning on the engine in order to keep driving, continually initiating itself, bringing itself back to itself. In short, philosophizing maintains a constant connection to its own beginning. Philosophy is perpetually preparatory, programmatically provisional.Continue reading “What is Philosophy?”

Archetypal Astrology: Questions and Problems

Despite exaggerated claims about the disenchantment of the world in the modern age, religious traditions and esoteric spirituality never went away, which is not to say that the persistence of enchantment didn’t cause severe anxiety among some who wished that those things would go away. Among the persistent modes of enchantment is the practice of interpreting the meanings of heavenly bodies in relation to human affairs: astrology.Continue reading “Archetypal Astrology: Questions and Problems”

The Task of Philosophy

Hegel gives an apt description of this salient difference between ancient and contemporary approaches to philosophical study. It basically goes like this. Under the weight of several centuries of tradition, philosophical study today finds ready-made theories and answers everywhere, a plethora of prefab homes for thinking. Whereas ancient philosophers learned to let a theory grow out of their concrete existence, the task today is the opposite: to free ourselves from our prefabricated principles and to impart to theory once again the enactive and enthusiastic energies of existence.

Here is the relevant passage:

The manner of study [Die Art des Studiums] in ancient times differed from that of the modern age in that the former was the proper and complete formation [Durchbildung] of the natural consciousness. Putting itself to the test at every point of its existence, and philosophizing about everything it came across, it made itself into a universality that was active through and through. In modern times [neuern Zeit], however, the individual finds the abstract form ready-made [vorbereitet]; the effort to grasp and appropriate it is more the direct driving-forth [Hervortreiben] of what is within and the truncated generation of the universal than it is the emergence [Hervorgehen] of the latter from the concrete variety of existence. Hence the task nowadays consists not so much in purging the individual of an immediate, sensuous mode of apprehension, and making him into a substance that is an object of thought that thinks, but rather in just the opposite, in freeing determinate thoughts from their fixity so as to give actuality [zu verwirklichen] to the universal and impart to it spiritual life [zu begeisten].

G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford University Press, 1977), 19-20. Phänomenologie des Gesistes (1806), ed. J. Hoffmeister (6th ed.; Hamburg, Felix Meiner Verlag, 1952), 30.