Further to ideath’s entry, a rhizome is indeed a non-hierarchical network. But this description only scratches the surface of the matter. For a rhizome is an unstable thing and actually contains hierarchical networks within it, tangled up in its strands.
The introduction to A Thousand Plateaus concentrates on Deleuze and Guattaris' concept of the rhizome. If we examine the structures of society, whether it be institutions, ideas, or people themselves, we find that in most cases a similar type of logic exists and surrounds them (usually unconsciously, although in other instances with a sort of “ultra-consciousness”). For instance, a doctor in society is a doctor, not a nurse, a doctor, he (for State logic currently dictates that in most cases a doctor will be a “he”) prescribes, he gives a diagnosis, he is a doctor. Once he has become a doctor, it becomes very difficult for him to become anything other than this essence of “doctor ness” or undo the becoming-doctor, in State logic at least. He is riveted to his spot. The doctor-spot; and he therefore must conform to doctor-like behaviour. Furthermore, when the doctor looks down he sees the patient. When he looks diagonally down he sees the nurse. When he looks up he sees the chief surgeon or a Professor penning a revolutionary article for the Lancet. Most people think in this sort of hierarchical and stereotypical way; ‘each mind an analogously organized mini-State morally unified in the supermind of the State’ (2001, Deleuze & Guattari, p.xii).
However, Deleuze & Guattari postulate in the idea of the rhizome a different way of structuring ideas. They advocate that rather ‘than analyzing the world into discrete components, reducing their manyness to the One of identity, and ordering them by rank, it sums up a set of disparate circumstances in a shattering blow’ (p.xiii), the rhizome that is.
Let’s look at an example (and a favoured one of Deleuze & Guattaris’) that they spend a considerable amount of time attacking, not just in A Thousand Plateaus, but several of their books, not least in Anti-Oedipus. Psychiatry and its bastard brother psychoanalysis rely heavily on the ideas of signifier and signified. If a patient does this, then it must mean this (and ONLY this, not that, THIS – don’t argue!). An idea persists that the patient will shuffle in and sit or lie down. In that seat, or couch is everything the analyst needs, for in the dominant, hierarchical outlook ‘in psychoanalysis its object is an unconscious that is itself representative, crystallized into codified complexes, laid out along a genetic axis and distributed within a syntagmatic structure’ (p.12). In other words, crack the code and you can read the patient like a book.
This way of thinking is like a logical formula and highly linear. It reduces the patient to a flow chart – there is a start point, a few variables, and an end. A rhizome however, has multiple starts and ends. Compare the flow chart to a heap of spaghetti, spaghetti that is constantly moving, changing, getting bigger. The flow chart meanwhile stays rigidly in place like a good little flow chart. With the rhizome, everything is still there, all the variables, all the information, but it still gets added to and changes, because it is a living thing. So, the patient’s unconscious can be compared to a rhizome; at some points certain ideas or impulses will dominate, but this domination is always transitory, never fixed and always connected to other things. The rhizome ‘fosters connections between fields, the removal of blockages on bodies without organs’ (p.12) and ‘any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be’ (p.7). The flow chart view (or ‘tracing’) does not and will not allow this. Everything is placed in a straightjacket (occasionally literally).
Now, Deleuze & Guattari use a useful example of an imaginary child, taken for therapy, that is more than worthwhile reproducing at this moment;
‘In the case of Little Hans, studying the unconscious would be to show how he tries to build a rhizome, with the family house but also with the line of flight of the building, the street, etc; how these lines get blocked, how the child is made to take root in the family, be photographed under the father, be traced onto the mother’s bed; then how Professor Freud’s intervention assures a power takeover by the signifier, a subjectification of affects; how the only escape route left to the child is a becoming-animal perceived as shameful and guilty’ (p.14).
‘they kept BREAKING HIS RHIZOME and BLOTCHING HIS MAP, setting it straight for him, blocking his every way out, until he began to desire his own shame and guilt, until they had rooted shame and guilt in him, PHOBIA (they barred him from the rhizome of the building, then from the rhizome of the street, they rooted him in his parents’ bed, they radicled him to his own body, they fixated him on Professor Freud)’
The purpose has become to interpret the signs and in doing so there is an inevitable act of reduction; to reduce the individual to the pre-learned systems and ideas rather than allowing what is actual there to expand. The rhizome is a thing of production and expansion. Freud was not a revolutionary thinker; he simply made a couple of new flow charts to reduce things into. Whereas, Michel Foucault demonstrated the rhizomes in History.
A final example and this time one favoured by Brian Massumi. If we take a brick, just an ordinary brick, then it is a brick in binary logic. However, if this brick is part of a wall that in turn is part of a courthouse, is it still a brick? Well, yes, in binary logic it is still a brick, no more, no less. However, in terms of a rhizome this brick is indeed a brick, but it’s also a wall, and a courthouse, and a force of a dominant ideology of ‘Justice’ in society, and a urinal as a dog cocks it’s leg against it and it's many other things. Now imagine a brick being thrown through the window of a courthouse. The rhizome sees the brick’s connections to everything; it is a brick, and connected to an arm, and the arm is connected to arteries, and the arteries are connected to a heart, and the heart is connected to a brain, and the brain is connected to a pair of eyes, and the eyes see……(we could go on and on). So, yes it’s a brick, but it’s a brick with a multiplicity of connections that are in constant flux. The rhizome ‘replaces the closed equation of representation x=x=not y (I=I=not you) with an open equation: …+y+z+a+… (…+arm+brick+window+….)’ (1999, Massumi, p.6).
So, my advice, don’t get yourself tied to a spot. Always look for ‘lines of flight’.
2001, Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, Continuum
1999, Brian Massumi, A User's Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia, MIT Press.