Overview Sentence: In Rhetorical Theory, and thus, Digital Rhetoric, the rhizome serves as a model for practicing non-hierarchical, acentric modes of thought which embrace the complexity of multiplicities and eschew the status quo of existing centers of power.
Etymology “The rhizome”, adopted first by Philosophy and then by Rhetoric from the botanical discipline, borrows from its definition of flora with non-hierarchical, acentric, lateral root structures. The botanical rhizome, such as the ginger root below ground or fern above, is unique in the plant world due to its ability to grow a “rootstock” system perpendicular to the ground’s surface from which grow both roots and shoots (“Rhizome” Biology Dictionary). As opposed to a vertical root structure that delimits surface access from which new vertical shoots may grow, the meandering horizontal matrix of the rhizome provides for innumerable points of access, or nodes, each capable of, when separated, reproducing new life independent of the whole. The primary function of the botanical rhizome is to store nutrients for later consumption in a way that allows for a multiplicity of access points to those nutrients when needed for reproduction (“Rhizome” Biology Dictionary).
Theoretical Grounding Philosophically, the rhizomatic schema provides an anti-taxonomic postmodern currency for rethinking how we perceive everything from digital communication to life itself. At 83, Carl Jung first drew on the simile, musing that all life is rhizomatic in nature: 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. 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 a sense of something that lives and endures underneath the eternal flux. What we see is the blossom, which passes. The rhizome remains. (Jung) Other philosophers, semioticians, and psychoanalysts built on the idea as a key postmodern conceptual method. Jacques Derrida’s 1967 “Of Grammatology”, for example, works to break down taxonomic, hierarchical thinking, clarify epistemologies of writing, and “serves as an erasure of the vertical order of language; he re-orders our conception of language into something horizontal, removing the clear hierarchical privileging that is implicit in vertical structures” (“Rhetorical Lingo”). Ihab Hassan paired Postmodernism’s “Rhizome/Surface” in binary opposition to Modernism’s “Root/Depth,” foregrounding discourse’s “many possibilities for interaction that occur near the surface, and operate horizontally as opposed to vertically (Hassan 7; “Rhetorical Lingo”). Michael Carter, though not specifically naming the rhizome, described the rhizomatic function in his continuum theory of multiplicity that “illustrates the possibility of horizontal interaction in the face of the hierarchical structure”; he calls for a “pluralistic theory of problem solving” that “accounts for both the range of problems we find around us and the process of solving those problems” (557, 559). Deleuze and Gauttari finally codified rhizomic theory and are accredited most often with its proliferation as a postmodern conceptual framework. First drawing on the botanical function of nutrient conservation, they claim “even some animals are [rhizomes], in their pack form… in all their functions of shelter, supply, movement, evasion, and breakout” (Deleuze and Guattari 6-7). From this base, they assert that all literature is a product of assemblage, that the assemblage of traditional literary work is hierarchical, and that the rhizome meets the necessity to develop a new, non-taxonomic mode of understanding meaning (Gartler). They achieve this through defining the rhizomic rootstock as “reducible neither to the One nor the multiple... comprised not of units but of dimensions, or rather directions in motion” (Deleuze and Guattari 21). This rather impenetrable notion can be explicated through the botanical metaphor: A node of crab grass might sprout blades along any surface, sprouting matrices of roots in every lateral direction, live and “die” over any length of time, united with yet independent of the complex, acentered, refracting, non-hierarchal matrix of interconnected nodes that continue to cultivate just under the surface. “Defined only by their state at a given moment… without a central agency,” Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome stands at odds with and “threatens the authority of the tree's hierarchy” (Deleuze and Guattari 21; Gartler). The onus then becomes, for the postmodern rhetor, “to become a rhizome, for only the rhizome can defeat the tree” (Alan Taylor, cited in Gartler).
Application/Praxis Feminist scholar Elizabeth Grosz contends that we experience space as “the ongoing possibility of a different inhabitation, a formulation that deemphasizes the primacy of the plan or the architectural blueprints, aptly invokes dynamism over stasis, and names becoming over being” (8). She sees cyberspace as the location to achieve the rhizomic ideal, breaking the grip of oppressive binary power structures. Rhodes and Alexander concur and explain how “questions of place and space are crucial if we insist on embodied and ethical commitments to justice.” With this choric element, they, in turn, deploy the underpinning juxtapositions of social justice and rhetoric in digital space and go on to review and revise the rhizome’s six theoretical principles: Connection, heterogeneity, multiplicity, signifying rupture, cartography, and decalcomania (Rhodes and Alexander). Digital application of rhizomic theory has met resistance, however. Critics cite political implications, arguing that Deleuze and Guattari's acentric and multiplicitous rhizome, as opposed to the hierarchy of the tree that “reinforces notions of centrality of authority, state control, and dominance,” falls short when applied to digital media, network, and hypertext theory (“Rhizome” Biology Dictionary; Gartler). Some argue that even the structure of URLs mimic “tree-like” hierarchies and that the Internet is “itself a structure with a tree-like Root whose centralized features have been cited as ripe for domination” (Gartler). The Critical Art Ensemble describes the Internet as “too hierarchical,” stating that the “root structure” of the Internet provides an easy means for traditional power structures to adapt oppressive tactics by becoming, in effect, “nomadic” (cited in Gartler; “Rhizome” The Chicago School of Media Theory).
Implications and Predictions However, the rhizome continues to take root in digital rhetorical theory with practical and pedagogical implications. For example, pioneering rhetors like Rhodes and Alexander and Rhizcomic creator Jason Helms utilize rhizomic techniques to deliver innovative digital content “with middles everywhere and no center to be found.” Estee Beck invokes the ethicality and agency of "invisible digital identities" in decentered digital communities that are always online (125). Kathleen Yancey contends that “the proliferation of writing outside the academy” demands that we “approach issues of digital delivery as an often rhizomatic process” (297, 298); she illuminates how we are now witnessing the creation of “a writing public made plural,” that “sound[s] a moment for composition in a new key” (300, 299). The rhizome, thus, becomes less a theoretical perspective for understanding digital rhetoric than a trans-dimensional hierarchy-breaking injunction meant to restructure our modes and methods of thought about rhetoric and our interactions within digital rhetorical communities.
Beck, Estee. N. “The Invisible Digital Identity: Assemblages in Digital Networks.” Computers and Composition, vol. 35,Mar. 2015, pp. 125-140, doi:10.1016/j.compcom.2015.01.005. Accessed 12 Feb. 2018.
Carter, Michael. “Problem Solving Reconsidered: A Pluralistic Theory of Problems.” College English, vol. 5, 1988, pp. 551+, doi:10.2307/377491. Accessed 10 Feb. 2018. Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, B. Massumi, translator. 21 Dec. 1987, pp. 1-632, www.projectlamar.com/media/A-Thousand-Plateaus.pdf. Accessed 14 Feb. 2018.
Grosz, Elizabeth. “Architecture from the Outside. Essays on Virtual and Real Space.” June, 2001, pp. 1-243, monoskop.org/images/8/80/Grosz_Elizabeth_Architecture_from_the_Outside_Essays_on_Virtual_and_Real_Space.pdf. Accessed 10 Feb. 2018.
Hassan, Ihab. “Toward a Concept of Postmodernism.” The Postmodern Turn, 1987, pp. 1-10, faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/HassanPoMo.pdf. Accessed 16 Feb. 2018.
Jung, Carl. G. “Full Text of ‘Memories, Dreams, Reflections Carl Jung’," edited by A. Jaffe; R. Winston and C. Winston, translators, 1961, www.archive.org/stream/MemoriesDreamsReflectionsCarlJung/Memories,%20Dreams,%20Reflections%20-%20Carl%20Jung_djvu.txt. Accessed 12 Feb. 2018.
“Rhizome.” The Chicago School of Media Theory, 2018, www.lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/mediatheory/keywords/rhizome/. Accessed 11 Feb. 2018.
Rhodes, Jacqueline, and Jonathan Alexander. “Techne: Queer Meditations on Writing the Self.” www.ccdigitalpress.org/techne/toc.html. Accessed 17 Feb. 2018.
Yancey, Kathleen. B. “Made Not Only in Words: Compositions in a New Key.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 56, no. 2, 2004, pp. 299-328, msu.edu/~webbsuza/110-SUMMER-12/CompositionInANewKey.pdf. Accessed 13 Feb. 2018.