Rhizome

dunno

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A rhizome is a vegetable. In the newspaper it appears in the lifestyle section, something to be grown or eaten, laying underground, woody, deep, ready to be dug. Ginger is one example, and turmeric another: they can be combined with split peas and lentils for a tasty dhal,(i) or as sauce with fois gras, smoked salmon, even a chicken salad.(ii) If you’re planting salvias, take care to protect your rhizomes with a deep mulch so they survive the winter.(iii) So far, so good: it’s just an “elongated, usually horizontal, subterranean stem which sends out roots and leafy shoots at intervals along its length.”(iv)
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Except further digging reveals more, stranger features of these tubers: the rhizome, apparently, “does not die”(v) – like a hydra head, you can cut one in half, but two grow back in its place. The ginger root appears in purification rituals across world history,(vi) and the word itself has found its way into philosophy, contemporary art, pedagogical research, architecture, computer coding environments, curatorial practice, science fictional corporations,(vii) even grassroots(viii) political movements. At some point the rhizome has risen above its earthy uses into a metaphor, or something else.
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The elevated sense of the word could be traced back to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s critical text A Thousand Plateaus. Complex and thoroughly tangled, Deleuze – a philosopher – and Guattari – a psychiatrist – produced a work in fourteen chapters, to be read in no particular order. The rhizome is central, set up as an opposition and antidote to the traditional concept of ‘the tree’ (as used in botany and biology, but also logic, anatomy, philosophy, and so on). Again, we seem to be talking in metaphors; trees of knowledge, ‘the tree of life’, family trees and genealogies; things following each other in a linear fashion, growing, expanding, and branching in ways we can trace and predict; ideas beginning with a solid foundation, becoming a hierarchy; subcategories of categories of categories, and so on.
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Against the linear tradition, a new methodology is enthusiastically suggested; the rhizome is chaotic, unpredictable, a knot of roots and ideas shooting off every direction, disconnecting, looping and regrouping in no particular order. The tree model is redundant, suppressing and distorting the complexity and creativity of human thought; it is an inadequate concept for the way life actually works, producing only rigid repetition and reinforcement of the higher branches. By contrast, “the rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots…the rhizome pertains to a map that must be produced, constructed, a map that is always detachable, connectable, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways, exits and its own lines of flight.”(ix)
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And it’s not even a metaphor.(x) As a means of making sense of the world, metaphorical talk only produces more trees; the transfer of meaning from a secondary to a primary referent, from branch to root. Against this, the rhizome is proudly, insistently non-metaphorical. It is not like stuff; it is stuff.
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Further back in time, Carl Jung reflects in his memoirs,

Life has always seemed to me like a plant that lives on its rhizome. Its true life is invisible, hidden in the rhizome. The part that appears above ground lasts only a single summer…when we think of the unending growth and decay of life and civilizations, we cannot escape the impression of absolute nullity. Yet I have never lost a sense of something that lives and endures underneath the eternal flux. What we see is the blossom, which passes. The rhizome remains.(xi)

Jung’s ‘collective unconscious’ could have something to do with this. Humanity’s shared psychic baggage buried in layers of sediment, far below the level of conscious thought; millennia of cultural residue breaking apart and combining, producing experience but also being reshaped by it in a perpetual psychic loop; the ‘true life’ of life.
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Life as rhizome? The idea goes back to Plato, and further still,(xii) which explains Deleuze and Guattari’s urgency; life is a rhizome, yet we still carry on like trees?! It seems like a bad situation. But if the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, there are some encouraging signs that we are starting to catch on.
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To misparaphrase GWF Hegel, art is the final stage of humankind’s journey towards self-awareness.(xiii) And, just maybe, this is exactly where we are. Contemporary art has few defining characteristics; for sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, the defiance of order is a paradigm of anti-modernity,xiv simultaneously dismantling existing structures of knowledge and producing infinite possible and contradictory alternatives.(xv) If art at least is coming round to the idea, perhaps human consciousness is not far behind.
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In the earlier days of the Internet, American artist Mark Tribe set up a mailing list for his friends and colleagues, and called it Rhizome. Interested in Joseph Beuys’ social sculptures,(xvi) Tribe endeavoured to produce a transformative social space with an emphasis on the emerging artistic possibilities of digital media. The list was a means to freely create, discuss, archive and critique work, in an unmediated, open access format.xvii As he recounts, “You have to remember that 1996 was a time of great optimism, excitement and enthusiasm. The net’s potential seemed limitless. Nobody knew what was possible.”(xviii)
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And the Internet looks like a perfect example of rhizomatic potential.(xix) Content is produced, reproduced, mangled and reformed along impossibly complicated and improbable lines. It seems well formed for the kind of socially transformative interactions that Beuys envisioned. Online, another Rhizome exists as a “content and delivery system…[whose] long term vision is that each Rhizome site will intertwine together, forming an emergent fuzzy taxonomy over a peer-to-peer network.”(xx) Its commitments seem to be towards aiding non-technical users, and experimenting with collaboration and information exchange. This Rhizome also shares its name with a competitive Flickr group, where users attempt to ‘beat’ the last image uploaded by submitting a better one, in order to progress and earn ‘rhizawards.’(xxi)
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To tie these threads together extravagantly, consider the ultimate rhizome(xxii) as social sculpture. Everyone is an artist,(xxiii) and the Internet is our infinite collaborative, authorless work? In a small way, the story of Tribe’s project suggests otherwise. His mailing list and archive continued to grow until it became necessary to make it a website in its own right, Rhizome.org, which is now one of the most influential online media art resources, and part of New York’s New Museum gallery.(xxiv) Tribe sits on the board of trustees. What began as a horizontal collaborative structure became, perhaps inevitably, a hierarchy of sorts. Although the site welcomes and relies upon artist participation, and is more flexible and approachable than other art institutions,(xxv) it is an institution nonetheless, subject to the decisions of the editorial team.
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So it is with much of the online world. The limits on horizontal rhizome structures will persist, so long as they continue to rub up against the vertical reality of their participants. Perhaps society needs to be more rhizomatic. This is not a new idea either. Rhizome is the name of a political co-operative which works with UK communities and grassroots activists, promoting nonviolent direct action.(xxvi) It is also the name of a Californian café committed to marginal voices in the arts and social justice,(xxvii) and additionally a Seattle based eco-friendly design company (“for us, Rhizponsibility is simply the day-to-day actions you take to give back to the world.”)(xxviii) Furthermore, The Rhizome Project is a research group operating within the UK education community, investigating the social causes and implications of online identities.(xxix) These surface trends suggest the rhizome as a powerful tool for the de- or re-organisation of social space.
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What would a horizontal society look like? Apocalyptic chaos or progressive anarchy? Direct democracy, Ancient Greek town-square style? Perhaps just radical non-governmental, free market sprawl. And does it matter? Whatever happens, the rhizome reasserts itself, connecting the dots where linearity breaks down; to start in the middle; to backtrack, move sideways, negate, do something wrong or completely unrelated.(xxx) “A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things…Where are you going? Where are you coming from? What are you heading for? These are totally useless questions…”(xxxi)
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Activity: cut along the lines, shuffle & remake(xxxii)

A full pdf copy of this text, complete with footnotes can be downloaded here. Illustration: The Lesser Arts

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