The term rhizome, ‘a tangle of roots’, is a metaphor for an assemblage, a multiplicity, a network, a complex adaptive system (CAS), an open system or a living ecology. In the majority of its contemporary usages, as a critique of rootedness and fundamentalism, it derives from Deleuze and Guattari (1987) who enumerate certain principles of the rhizome, such as those of connection, heterogeneity, multiplicity, asignifying rupture, cartography and decalcomania, and summarise its principal characteristics. The qualities of the rhizome are also discussed from a semiotic point of view by Umberto Eco (1984: 80-84).
The notion of rhizome allows a mapping of social production in relation to the circulation of power and desire and therefore a consideration of how a designed entity might be said to act in the ongoing situation into which intervenes. In terms of the design of narrative environments, it provides a sense of the complex socio-cultural and socio-economic cloth from which narratives and places, with accompanying subjectivities, may be cut, shaped and defined.
Deleuze and Guattari (1987) state, “A plateau is always in the middle, not at the beginning or the end. A rhizome is made of plateaus” (page 21) and also “A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo” (page 25).
In other words, a rhizome is made of ‘middles’, ‘in-betweens’ or ‘mediums’ (‘media’): neither top nor bottom; neither centre or periphery; neither inside nor outside, and so on; but also both top and bottom; centre and periphery; inside and outside, and so on. Rhizomes are contradictory, paradoxical or aporetic (they raise doubts).
While the metaphor of rhizome may be useful for discussions of non-hierarchical systems and decentred systems, the practices of design are perhaps more interested in the notion of ‘tangled hierarchy’ or ‘strange loop’. In the latter, commonsense understandings of what is fundamental and what is superstructural (determinism) and what is central and what is peripheral (focalisation) are turned on their head and turned inside out, such that the processes by means of which senses of grounding and centring are produced become explicit.
With design practices, it is most often the case that one starts with an existing hierarchy and centre which a design may be seeking to de-hierarchise or de-centre. In doing so, they may create another hierarchy and another centre, whether by intention or as an unintended consequence. These are the risks to be undertaken in considering the action which the design intervention seeks to undertake.
There are risks also in advocating permanent groundlessness and permanent decentredness (anomie, alienation, instability, nihilism). Are there limits to the value, then, of the rhizomic metaphor in the DeleuzoGuattarian sense? Or perhaps this is a misinterpretation of Deleuze and Guattari.
Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1987) ‘Introduction: Rhizome’, in A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 3–25.
Eco, U. (1984) Semiotics and the philosophy of language. Houndmills, Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan Press.
Hofstadter, D. R. (2000, c.1979) Godel, Escher, Bach: an eternal golden braid. London, UK: Penguin.
Hofstadter, D. R. (2007) I am a strange loop. New York, NY: Basic Books.