Monday, July 7, 2008

From System to Rhizome: A Change in the “Creating Concept”

The images in this posting are all of rhizome organisms

Guest Posting: by Lynn Hoffman

I have said before that I write according to the rain barrel principle. About every ten years, I find that my rain barrel is full, and I begin to think about putting its contents into a book of stories. The beauty of this is that I don’t have to write in a formal way, but as though I were telling a friend about a trip I have taken. And there is much that I am excited about. For one thing, my colleague Chris Kinman and I have begun to use a new master metaphor for the fields of social betterment. Taking inspiration from the work of French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari , we propose a shift from the System metaphor for human services to a Rhizome metaphor. Unlike the System, which derives from engineering and technology, the Rhizome idea offers a botanical image, tied to the natural world and having an affinity with human themes and ventures.

“Rhizome” also allows us to escape from a common linguistic trap. As Harry Goolishian and Harlene Anderson reminded us, as long as you use terms like “systems” or “structures” to describe social data, you become prey to the illusion that such units can be seen as “functional” or “dysfunctional.” Having created a “problem,” the next step is to look for a solution. This is the unhappy result of the structuralist, or noun-based, worldview that has gripped our descriptions of society’s troubles for the past few centuries. We use the phrase “Terrorists” (bad) as opposed to “War Against Terror” (good), in the same way that we say “dysfunctional” family (bad), “functional” family (good). Then we are on the slippery slope of having to “do something” about it.

In their critique of helper bureaucracies, Deleuze and Guattari compare the Rhizome to the Tree. The Rhizome has no up or down but lives in an eternal middle. It is famous for the way it repeats itself. All it does is to put out an underground root or aerial shoot and it re-appears in another place. Some rhizomes are viewed as pests, like crabgrass, others are valued like iris or daffodils, but they are hard to kill. Stamped out in one yard, they just sprout up in another. They continually create new “plateaus” or “assemblages,” as Deleuze and Guattari put it, from an inexhaustible horn of plenty.

By contrast, the Tree presents itself as a standing hierarchy: root, trunk, branch and crown. To aid in our understanding of expert social systems, Deleuze and Guattari have coined the word “arborescence,” which they believe describes the top-down nature of the human services industries that practitioners have to conform to. By contrast, the rhizome is a counteracting concept that brings a host of welcome notions with it: the importance of the Net and Net-making as opposed to the individual and her normative trajectory; the idea of Plateaus and Assemblages as opposed to structures and units; the idea of the “Body Without Organs” (the non-medical body); the idea of Exchanging Gifts instead of Problem-Solving; and the emphasis on Bounty and Abundance rather than Deficit and Lack.

Finally, there is a contested concept: the “Nomad War Machine.” This idea comes like a shock to people who put a high value on collaboration and find negative labels pejorative, and yet answers the need for some way to describe and honor the vital spirits of rebellion, revolution and reform.

Before going on with my story, I should mention that the term “Creating Concept” was used by Deleuze and Guattari to describe the ruling metaphor that heralds the appearance of a new domain. Clearly, they felt that the Rhizome did that for the emerging world they were dreaming into being.

By Lynn Hoffman


Lynn Hoffman said...

and so now i wonder:
what's in your rain barrel? the rhizome concept is juicy: as a gardener, it satisfies some part of me. but really, tell us a story.

lynn hoffman,author of bang BANG

Christopher Kinman said...

Hello Lynn -- how delightful to have ANOTHER Lynn Hoffman visiting us... not the one we know so well on this blog. Did a quick google on you and have determined that I must go out and buy your book, bang BANG!! However, I must admit, your previous one on wine holds an even greater pull on me... So, first things first, which probably means the wine will come first.

Thanks for your comment...