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.

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