"The Rhizome" - an American Translation
Translated from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi, 3-25.
“The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus together. Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd.” Clear enough, right? Wrong! What the hell are Félix and I talking about? Books and authorship, man, pay attention. You think you know how a book works, well you’re wrong. You only think you know how a book works. Check this shit: books are like people; scatterbrained and all over the place. Sure, some of them seem “organized,” but that shit’s just a way that we constrain ideas. To ask what a book is about is to deny the book its bookness; it’s to confine what a book can do to a prescribed little box that your puny brain has made up. You know what? There are three kinds of books (we love threes) and they’re all unique. Some might be better than others. Some might not be. But there are three.
First we have a root-book (get your botany hats ready because we’re talkin’ about plants up in this). Now think back to high school and those terrible days of shitty lunch food and sexual repression. Think back to getting shoved in your locker and to that English class you hated but that also had the hot chick that sat in front of you. You probably don’t remember much from that class because you were too busy thinking about the hot chick in front you, right? Well let’s give that brain of yours a bit of a kick. Remember hearing these three words: “five-paragraph essay”? Damn right you do! “It’s the one true way to write papers,” said Mrs. Beetledamp. So what’s so special about this five-paragraph thing? Apart from being the only thing that saved your ass when you needed to write that review of To Kill a Mockingbird in 9th grade, it’s a system, an organized method for controlling thinking. You start off with some idea and introduce the hell out of it. Then you write some more and have your next paragraph give a supporting argument for that big idea above. Guess what? You do that two more times and then write a sweet conclusion that basically says the same shit you just said but in fewer words, and you have a five-paragraph essay. That shit’s like a tree. Those middle paragraphs, the ones that support your argument, those are the roots. And that intro paragraph? That’s the trunk. And your conclusion? That’s the beautiful mass of leaves atop the highly organized, arborescent structure.
A root-book is basically the same damn thing but in book form. You have a highly structured system of thought where you express an idea and build a scaffold around that idea to talk about that idea. You can talk as much as you want about your awesome idea, but you can’t leave the scaffolding you’ve set up; you’ve locked your idea up and now it can’t blossom into a beautiful flower because it is only allowed to grow within the small box you built. Ideas don’t like that. Ideas need air…and water…and space to grow. Constraining them prevents them from naturally flowing and becoming more complex and turning into the child you wish you didn’t have. Your book has now begun drinking chai lattes from Starbucks, wearing UGGs, and tweeting “I can’t even.” It’s a basic book.
The second type of book is one made up of a radicle-system. Radicle…radical…revolutionary. We’re gonna jump forward in time a bit. Think back to college when you had that one stoner friend who would say shit that sounded so radical and trendy. He would say things like “fuck capitalism, man!” and “fuck the state!” and you and your friends would all coo and fawn over how rebellious he was. I mean, how could anyone say those things? He was the true radical. He knew what was up and what was down. All the ideas seemed so fresh and exciting as you read through Kropotkin’s Conquest of Bread and Nietzsche’s Will to Power while wearing a wool beanie in the summer time (I know that wasn’t just me). These ideas were the true peak of radicality and you were determined to share them with the world. You step outside with your “fuck capitalism” t-shirt made in a sweatshop and sold to you for $19.99 and your copy of The Communist Manifesto in hand and start talking to the average Jane at Starbucks. To your horror you find out that she thinks the same things you do! In fact, her and her alternative, organic co-op are holding a Marxist poetry slam and you’re invited. Pissed off, you storm out of the Starbucks without paying for your drink (stick it to the man, right?) and go back to your studio apartment that your parents paid for and it hits you like a ton of bricks: all the shit your friend in college had said and the ‘radical’ ideas you had thought while reading your anarchist zines were actually mainstream views. No one under the age of 35 likes capitalism and there has been an anarchist co-op in your town since before you were born. Your shit’s not radical. It’s stale. Boring. The same. Your shit has been coopted by the hegemony of the mainstream and you are staunchly within the Overton Window. Everything you thought was radical and new and trendy is actually the norm. Congratulations, you played yourself.
Well that’s what a radicle book is like. Some up-and-coming existentialist writes a tract describing the horrors of existence and how one must accept pain as a glorious struggle to be welcomed and overcome. Unfortunately, this radicle book never fully breaks free from the root-book system. Not only are the ideas bland and repetitive, but the whole damn thing is structured just like a root-book. It’s that god-damn five-paragraph essay again! You have some central theme whose seeming radicality obfuscates the fact that it is, still, a unified theme being expressed – for example, life sucks, let’s get high.
That theme is then explained in a bunch of chapters which are organized in a line. Argument A shows that life sucks, argument B shows that we can’t do anything about it, argument C shows that we should get high. Boom. Everything is all laid out nice and neat and fancy like. No matter how novel or ‘radical’ or awesome your idea is, it’s just like a roll of sushi – it can be deconstructed and looked at as a bunch of organized layers with each part serving its own purpose. You may feel as if you’ve broken free from the scaffolds of the root-book, but really the scaffolds have just become invisible. Before long, your book is realized as basic; just an extension of the root-book that’s obfuscated by some ‘trendy’ idea.
So what’s left? Where do we go from here? I mean, you’ve basically found out that everything you have written and will write is just a subtler form of that stupid five-paragraph essay, so doesn’t that mean all your great ideas are doomed to mediocrity since, as some physics guy said, philosophy is dead? Maybe. Perhaps you should quit while you’re ahead and not $30,000 in debt. Or perhaps there’s hope after all, I mean, didn’t we say that books are like people? That they’re scatterbrained and all over the place and only seem to be organized? Stay tuned to find out!
You see that shit above? You know what that is? Damn right it’s a reconstructed French Fry! That little thing, ladies and germs, is a potato. But it’s not just a potato, it’s also a rhizome. (Now before you botany nerds freak out and say “nO! ItS a TuBer!” we have two things to say: science is a joke and tubers are rhizomes anyways, so shut up.) Now what is a rhizome? A rhizome is an alternative model of books and thoughts and life and everything and stuff. Pretty cool, huh? In fact, a rhizome is much more. A rhizome is a model that is characterized by hating trees, seemingly random linkages of ideas, and total connection. Before we go any deeper, let’s just talk about potatoes, though. Potatoes, unlike other plants, don’t have seeds or flowers or fancy stuff like that. You don’t need to grow a potato tree and harvest the potato acorns to grow more potatoes. Have you ever wondered how you grow potatoes? You cut them up! That’s right, you take your favorite potato into the back shed and go all Jason Voorhees on it and then, like you’d do with a body, you throw those little things into the dirt – what happens next will amaze you! Each little piece solidifies and shoots come off it. They expand underground and off of the shoots, little nodes form. These nodes grow and become full sized potatoes! That’s right, from one bit of a potato that’s been in one too many prison fights, you get a whole bunch of those suckers. Look at this:
See that mess on the left side? See how all those “roots” are interconnected and you can’t really tell which one goes to which potato or “stem?” See how they’re all intertwined and confusing? Does that remind you of anything? Here’s a hint: grass. When you dig up grass, it’s all connected in weird and confusing ways but you can never point to a single blade of grass that is primary. Seriously, try it. Get off your ass and go outside and try to find the blade of grass. Try to find the single blade of grass from which all the others sprout. We’ll wait...you failed right? That’s because that shit’s rhizomatic! Every blade of grass is connected to every other blade of grass and they all are spread out horizontally – there’s no one true blade, no “trunk” of grass. They’re all equally ugly. This is the essence of a rhizome: ugly and non-hierarchical.
Now that we have some understanding of what a rhizome is and your brain is now whirring away trying to connect the already connected, it’s time to get technical with it. There are six characteristics of a rhizome and you, lucky reader, are about to learn them.
Characteristics of a Rhizome
(1) and (2) – all parts of a rhizome are connected with no single node having priority over any other. Even though two points may seem totally different or totally similar, they can still be connected together. We call these the principles of connection and heterogeneity.
(3) – there’s no necessary structure to the rhizome, instead each person encounters it differently. While the lawn is filled with grass, each blade of grass relates to the “whole” in unique ways and can be changed. Since there isn’t one unifying blade of grass (remember, you looked for one and failed), Félix and I can fight over which blade is better. This shit is called the principle of multiplicity.
(4) – a rhizome can always be broken and restarted. The “whole” of the potato can be chopped up and dumped in the dirt and more potatoes will always grow and expand outwards. Grass is like this too. If you take a few blades of grass with their “roots” and drop them somewhere else, those little buggers will spread like flies and soon you’ll have a whole new lawn! This is called the principle of asignifying rupture.
(5) and (6) – the rhizome is always open and any point you choose to start at is irrelevant. The answer to the question “which blade of grass is better?” is “they all are.” You can pick any blade and get all around the rhizome since there is no “right” starting point. These are the principles of cartography and decalcomania.
So take a step back and let us throw a word at you: Wikipedia. That’s right, the site all your teachers told you never to use as a source. Well forget everything you learned in school because school is dumb and Wikipedia a rhizome par excellence (that’s French for “fucking perfect”). Think about it. You can click a bunch of various hyperlinks on that damn site and get from “sexual intercourse” to “number.” Damn, how dope is that?? You can literally get from any point on Wikipedia to any other point simply by following the hyperlinks (the conduits of the rhizome); all pages are connected to one another in a big web of messiness. Hell, there’s a whole game built around getting from one Wikipedia page to another using only hyperlinks. If Wikipedia isn’t a rhizome, we quit philosophy.
Here’s an uncontroversial opinion: fuck trees. Seriously, trees are so boring and played out. They’re old school and this is new school shit. Think of every situation you’ve been in: school, a job, government; they’re all structured like trees. You have the head-honcho at the top doing all the “important” stuff, and he then delegates the less important stuff to a few people below him who are too lazy to do anything so they delegate all that shit even further down until a stack of papers eventually lands on your desk and you reach for the bottle of whisky hidden in your bottom drawer. All this professional shit is structured top down where things get narrower and narrower as you reach the top where the boss is; the ultimate goal for every mindless drone.
This doesn’t apply just to corporations and school and all that bullshit, however, it also applies to thought! Western philosophy has been one giant, radioactive tree with Plato at the top and everyone else underneath him. Even within the cluster of branches that make up Plato, there are a bunch of primary ideas and secondary ideas. There’s matter and form. Shit’s always divided up. Our thought has become so tree-like and so binarized that until you think rhizomatically, you can’t see the awesome and weird connections between things you thought were unconnectable. Hell, without the rhizome you’re stuck in the tree desperately trying to find pre-determined paths from one idea to another. When you’re in the rhizome, you can swim in the mud and freely jump from idea to idea without following some rigid and annoying branch. This shit is a whole new way of looking at philosophy and all that other shit you learned (except for Nietzsche) is just boring and too constraining. We’re post-modern now!
Keep this image in mind before you sleep every night and your dreams will get real weird real quick like:
See how one is big and tall and boring and dumb and hierarchical and the other is small and cute and hella diffuse? Yeah, that’s the difference. Since we know you still are thinking like a tree, we’re gonna accept that and tie shit up for you in a neat little bow. Remember way back when we were talking about books and ideas? Yep, that stuff’s back. All those boring, basic types of books are not what we want. We want weird books. Books that read like records. Pick up that needle and drop it somewhere else. Read a line and then jump forward 500 pages. WDGAF! You do you.
A rhizomatic book is the third type and while we’re not gonna say it’s necessarily better than the other types (although it’s better), it provides a different model of expressing yourself. It provides a way of Being – note for the kids: always capitalize the “B” – that is utterly different and unique from classical forms of thought. You may have thought you knew what you were and what a book was and how to think, but you thought wrong. Shit’s much weirder than you thought because the world is a weird place made up of weird things and filled with weird people who write long sentences that may turn out to be incoherent or logorrheic and go nowhere, cut up by a few commas here and there, but you know what, that’s okay because at the end of the day, you still read the damn sentence and you’re gonna read the next one. That’s just the way it works – shit, look at Burroughs! So instead of starting with a central idea and having your book gyrate around that idea, you can talk about a bunch of stuff that all relates and doesn’t relate at the same time. Every reader will necessarily have a different experience because reading a book is like sex: it’s different for everyone. Some people like really rough stuff and so they go and read some Kant, and some people like soft, sensual stuff and so they read Nabokov. Others like to be driven crazy and so they read Nietzsche, but hey, whatever. But when reading a book rhizomatically, like when having sex, you can go at your own pace, stop and start, and jump around. You can do some real weird shit when you start hating trees and begin thinking rhizomatically…trust us. So, as Lil Dicky said, “do you fuck with the rhizome?”