In media theory, rhizome is an evolving term that stems from the theories of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. It has been offered as an explanatory framework for network (both human and machine) theory and hypertext, although a strict reading of Deleuze and Guattari does not support these interpretations. Their rhizome is non-hierarchical, heterogeneous, multiplicitous, and acentered. The term has been applied broadly outside of media theory, as Deleuze and Guattari intended.
Origins of the Rhizome:
The word rhizome originates in botany, and for many people the most common rhizomes encountered that follow such a definition are pieces of ginger1 seen in the produce section of a local supermarket, or irises2 planted in a garden. The Oxford English Dictionary defines rhizome as "a prostrate or subterranean root-like stem emitting roots and usually producing leaves at its apex; a rootstock."3 The OED dates rhizome from the middle of the 19th century; it is derived from a Greek word meaning "to take root."
Rhizome's entry into the world of theory began with the psychologist Carl Jung. His introduction to Memories, Dreams, Reflections includes the following reference to rhizome:
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 the ground lasts only a single summer. Then it withers
away--an ephemeral apparition. 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 the sense of something that lives and endures beneath the
eternal flux. What we see is blossom, which passes. The rhizome remains.4
Though Jung paved the way with this quote, the figures responsible for rhizome as
a term in media theory are French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (inspired by Jung)
and clinical psychoanalyst Félix Guattari, who together developed an ontology
based on the rhizome in works such as Rhizome: Introduction
(1976) and A Thousand Plateaus (1980). In the latter volume, Deleuze and Guattari
begin the discussion of rhizome with an expansion
of its traditional botanical one, noting that "even some animals are [rhizomes],
in their pack form. Rats are rhizomes. Burrows are
too, in all their functions of shelter, supply, movement,
evasion, and breakout."5
Deleuze and Gauttari arrive at the rhizome by way of analyzing the book. They describe the book, and any work of literature in general, as an assemblage, and set out to discuss what sorts of assemblages are possible. The first type is the "root-book," meaning a mode of thought associated with the tree. The tree image is Deleuze and Guattari's chief contrast against the rhizome, and much about the rhizome can be understood through this opposition. The tree plainly represents a hierarchy, but it also refers to binary systems, because every new branch ties back in some essential way to the root that makes all growth possible. Thus, 0/1, +/-, and Y/N are all "tree" structures, as is a traditional hierarchy like this:
The tree, the authors explain, has become the dominant ontological model in Western thought, exemplified in such fields as linguistics (e.g. Chomsky), psychoanalysis, logic, biology, and human organization. All these are modeled as hierarchical or binary systems, stemming from the tree or root from which all else grows. One of Deleuze and Guattari's criticisms of the tree is that it does not offer an adequate explanation of multiplicity. A political implication of the tree is that it reinforces notions of centrality of authority, state control, and dominance; it is perhaps no coincidence that this theory challenging the tree emerged in France shortly after the events of 1968. Deleuze and Guattari thus posit another type of book, the rhizome (they claim that A Thousand Plateaus is one); but rhizome as book is merely one example of, and a metaphor for, the ontology they develop. Unlike the tree, whose branches have all grown from a single trunk, the rhizome has no unique source from which all development occurs. The rhizome is both heterogeneous and multiplicitous. It can be entered from many different points, all of which connect to each other. The rhizome does not have a beginning, an end, or an exact center. "The rhizome is reducible neither to the One nor the multiple...it is comprised not of units but of dimensions, or rather directions in motion."6 This inter- or trans-dimensionality is an important component of the rhizome, and separates it from a mere a system made up of components or structure made up of points.
Rhizome is "defined solely as a circulation of states,"7 that are able to operate by means of multiplicity, variation and expansion. Deleuze and Guattari describe a mode of organization in which "all individuals are interchangeable, defined only by their state at a given moment--such that the local operations are coordinated and the final, global result synchronized without a central agency."8 Although a rhizome can be broken or injured in one location, it will merely form a new line, a new connection that will emerge elsewhere.
The Rhizome and the tree are at odds, because the rhizome represents a structure that threatens the authority of the tree's hierarchy. The two are not completely repellant however, because the rhizome is able to infiltrate the tree; fluidity and openness infect the closed, unchanging, and static. Alan Taylor elaborates this opposition between tree and rhizome, concluding that Deleuze and Guattari's social project is to "invite the reader to become a rhizome, for only the rhizome can defeat the tree. The rhizome deterritorializes strata, subverts hierarchies. The rhizome can be 'novel.' It can create 'strange new uses' for the trees that it infiltrates. Most importantly, though, the rhizome engenders 'lines of flight.' It allows for the re-opening of flows that the tree shuts down...The rhizome offers some hope of bringing about a kind of 'liberation' from structures of power and dominance."9 Christa Bürger notes that the tree "is meant to indicate the essence of the enemy: classical thought [which] operates dualistically and hierarchically.10
Rhizome, Cyberspace, al-Qaeda:
Stefan Wray has noted that the earliest attempts to apply postmodern theory to cyberspace largely ignored Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome, but by the mid 1990s the concept was prevalent in the literature of internet theory.11 Hypertext theory in particular has used the rhizome as an explanatory structure.12 Gauttari died in 1992, and Deleuze in 1995; neither had the opportunity to see the development of the World Wide Web as we know it now.
However, the characterization of the Web as a rhizome leaves out aspects of the concept described by Deleuze and Guattari. As Tim Berners-Lee et al. originally explained, "the common URI syntax reserves the "/" as a way of representing a hierarchical space."13 (For example, the URI http://chicagoschoolmediatheory.net/projectsglossary.htm actually describes a tree-like structure, with http://chicagoschoolmediatheory.net/ at the base.) In addition, the Web operates on the internet, itself a structure with a tree-like Root whose centralized features have been cited as ripe for domination.14 This aspect of the internet (and therefore the Web) as a locus of political power was widely acknowledged in recent objections to continuing U.S. control of the Internet.15 These are disanalogies to the idea of Web as rhizome, the former example shows the hierarchical nature of the Web, while the latter reminds us of the traditional institutions that lay beneath the interfaces of the internet.
The Critical Art Ensemble has commented on the notion of internet as rhizome, saying that network technologies have reinforced existing power structures by allowing them to become "nomadic."16 If electronic technologies such as the Web have become rhizomatic, according to CAE, it is primarily to the benefit of those with power (e.g. corporations) who seek to reinforce their domination. CAE seems to accept traditional Marxist critiques of capitalism, but rejects the idea that previous modes of resistance remain relevant now that elite power is electronicized, decentralized, and globalized. Resistance movements must now become like a rhizome in order to be effective.
CAE's theory has been used to explain the operation of resistance movements, such as the Zapatistas.17 Counterterrorism intelligence analyst and popular blogger Jeff Vail recently started using the term to describe mobile political networks and military configurations; he refers to al-Qaeda as "rhizomatic," and implies that the U.S. military ought to become more rhizomatic in order to effectively fight the group.18 Like the Web, organizations such as al-Quada and the Zapatistas have hierarchical aspects. Nor should one think that such human organizations are based on a relatively recent model; the French revolution probably involved similar rhizomatic aspects. While the rhizome is a useful analogy, it does not truly describe these organizations. Like most ontologies, it offers a perspective that can be instructive even if it cannot be perfectly applied to a, or any, particular object.
Other Uses of Rhizome:
Rhizome has been used often in art and literary theory, as a keyword search for the term in any good academic article index (e.g. MLA International Bibliography) will reveal. In art history, rhizome has been used to describe the repetition of ornamental patterns on sculpture and architecture from the Indian Subcontinent. (e.g. "The attenuated upper cylinder (rising to 30 m), built in brick, was faced with stone carved with frothy floral scrolls, spectacular lotus rhizomes and complex geometric ornament.")19
http://rhizome.org is "an online platform for the global new media art community." The name of the site and organization is "a metaphor for the organization's non-hierarchical structure."20 Since they began a partnership with the New Museum of Contemporary Art (in New York City), Rhizome.org has begun offering a variety of rhizome-named products such as Rhizome Raw (mailing list), Rhizome Exhibitions (online shows), and the Rhizome Commissions Program ($$$ for artists). The point of mentioning all this is to demonstrate that rhizome is increasingly being used as a proper noun for a new media organization. However, they are also a good resource for anyone interested in new media. 21
Finally, http://www.rhizomes.net hosts Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge, a peer-reviewed online journal (ISSN 1555-9998) published by the Department of English at Bowling Green State University. Rhizomes seeks to publish works written "in the spirit of Deleuzian approaches."