Unity through . . . Rhizome?

15 07 2008

So yesterday we had the first meeting of “Schizophrenic Summer”, a Deleuze and Guattari reading group. We have a wonderfully diverse crew, from undergraduate to PhD, with disciplines ranging from Geography to Film, Rhetoric to Comparative Studies. We began with the introductions to What is Philosophy? and A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.

Having just written about the rhetoric surrounding “activist unity,” reading the rhizome chapter through that lens was fascinating. Why so? Simple: Deleuze and Guattari detest the drive to make everything a unity. To plot a center-point, they suggest, is the first step towards misunderstanding something that functions rhizomatically. And if we read the current range of activist networks and groups as a web that functions and expands rhizomatically, we may not only learn more about how activism functions rhetorically, but we may be taking steps towards redefining success in activism.

So what does it mean when one says, “It’s like a rhizome”?

A few crucial quotes from A Thousand Plateaus, broken up into some categories:

Rhizome VS. Tree:

  • “Any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be. This is very different from the tree or root, which plots a point, fixes an order” (7).
  • “A rhizome may be broken, shattered at any given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines” (9).
  • “Perhaps one of the most important characteristics of the rhizome is that it always has multiple entryways” (12).
  • “Thought is not arborescent … Many people have a tree growing in their heads, but the brain itself is much more a grass than a tree” (15).
  • “Arborescent systems are hierarchical systems with centers of signifiance and subjectification, central automata like organized memories. In corresponding models, an element only receives information from a higher unit, and only receives a subjective affection along preestablished paths” (16).
  • “Such is the principle of roots-trees, or their outcome: the radicle solution, the structure of Power” (17)
  • “The tree is filiation, but the rhizome is alliance, uniquely alliance. The tree imposes the verb ‘to be,’ but the fabric of the rhizome is the conjunction, ‘and … and … and …’ This conjunction carries enough force to shake and uproot the verb ‘to be’” (25).

• Unlike a tree …

  • A rhizome’s “traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states.”
  • “It is composed not of units but of dimensions, or rather directions in motion. It has neither beginning nor end, but always a middle.”
  • “Unlike a structure, which is defined by a set of points and positions, with binary relations between the points and biunivocal relationships between the positions, the rhizome is made only of lines.”
  • “The rhizome is not the object of reproduction: neither external reproduction as image-tree nor internal reproduction as tree-structure.”
  • “The rhizome is acentered, non-hierarchical, nonsignifying system without a General and without an organizing memory or central automaton, defined solely by a circulation of states.”

Methodologically Speaking:

  • “A method of the rhizome type, on the contrary, can analyze language only by decentering it onto other registers” (8).
  • “Transversal communications between different lines scramble the genealogical trees. Always look for the molecular, or even submolecular, particle with which we are allied … The rhizome is the anti-genealogy” (11).
  • “[E]stablish a logic of the AND, overthrow ontology, do away with foundations, nullify endings and beginnings” (24).

Unity:

  • “Multiplicities are rhizomatic … There is no unity to serve as a pivot in the object, or to divide the subject … Puppet strings, as a rhizome or multiplicity, are tied not to the supposed will of an artist or puppeteer but to a multiplicity of nerve fibers” (8).
  • “Unity always operates in an empty dimension supplementary to that of the system considered (overcoding). The point is that a rhizome or multiplicity never allows itself to be overcoded” (9).

Collectives / Assemblages:

  • “An assemblage is precisely this increase in the dimensions of a multiplicity that necessarily changes in nature as it expands its connections. There are not points or positions in a rhizome, such as those found in a structure, tree, or root. There are only lines” (8).
  • “To these centered systems [are contrasted] finite networks of automata in which communication runs from any neighbor to any other, the stems or channels do not preexist, and all individuals are interchangeable, defined only by their state at a given moment—such that the local operations are coordinated and the final, global result synchronized without a central agency” (17).

Problems with forcing a tree/root metaphor on things that don’t function that way:

  • “[They] do not reach the abstract machine that connects a language to the semantic and pragmatic contents of statements, to collective assemblages of enunciation, to a whole micropolitics of the social field” (7). {Note to self: explore what “collective assemblages of enunciation” means from a rhetoric of social movements standpoint}
  • “The State’s pretension to be a world order, and to root man” (24). {Insert Bush Sr.’s quote on New World Order here}




Identification and Unification ~

11 07 2008

There’s a quote that has been haunting me the past few weeks. I received it in a late-night text message from a friend of mine in Brooklyn, a few hours after a conversation we had about the weaknesses of various activist projects. It’s a Brian Eno quote; he produced several Talking Heads albums and is therefore very, very cool. Anyway, here’s what he said:

There are many possible futures and only one status-quo; that’s why conservatives appear as if they all agree and the radicals will always argue.’

So often I see right-wing pundits point to the fissures and altercations between reformist collectives as a reason why they’re weak or simply wrong (just flip on any episode of Tucker Carlson to see this tiresome argument played out relentlessly). “Unity = Strength” is no doubt the underlying assumption being spoken here.

This same argument is also pitched frequently by activists — something like, “If only we could all get on the same page we could make some real headway.” Take for instance the otherwise excellent article by Marilyn Cooper on environmentalism in an age of hegemonic politics, where she essentially argues that if groups like Earth First! and The Nature Conservatory could find more middle ground, the consequences could really move environmentalism along in the right direction (this is reductive of her argument, but not by much).

Of course I would agree that there is a certain strength in unity, whether it’s a physical group of people or a particular attitude of mind. What I’m interested in is how it’s used as an argument either for or against activist collectives. Especially, given my reading today, how this argument and its attendant assumptions plays out among individual identity formation.

Here’s the quote that spurred this post:

Opening discourse to the theoretical critique rejected by Foucault and, to an extent, Althusser, [Laclau] maintains that, while the black, feminist, gay, and ethnic social movements properly defend their separate interests or their political independence, each movement must construct equivalent ideals establishing a new hegemonic bloc because what establishes identity is contextual oppostitions, antagonisms, or exclusions, not essences or transcendent selves.

I gather from this quote that Laclau and Mouffe, coming out the Gramscian line, see the New Social Movements (NSM) as a productive step in fighting oppressive living conditions, but they must unify into a “hegemonic bloc” in order to be effective. In other words, all the marginalized groups must come together as one large marginalized unit. (I mention Gramsci because Laclau and Mouffe agree that hegemony is not something that can be destroyed and simply done away with — rather, it’s just a matter of which hegemony is ruling.)

But what might this mean for the various idenitification processes of individual activists? While the suggestions almost always seem to refer strictly to the collective conscious (Greenpeace as an organization must show solidarity with Earth First! as another environmental collective, even if they differ sharply in their philosophies and tactics), is it implied that the same indentification must take place on an individual level? Is Laclau (and all others that use this argument, whether Post-Marxist or not) suggesting that the marginalized pro-queer activist must build “equivalent ideals” with individuals of the Black Nationalist Movement? What do these equivalent ideals look like? What type of discourses might sustain the connections that Laclau & Mouffe want to see borne out?

And now I’m wondering if our modern digital communication structures open new doors for this possibility (at the same time, I’m not necessarily endorsing this as the best route to take). The NSM took root just slightly before text-messaging, instant-messaging, and e-mail became pervasive and fundamentally changed the way activist networks function.

Hmmm . . . more on this later . . .





First musings ~

10 07 2008

This site got off to a slow start, but work is indeed happening behind the scenes. Right now I’m simply getting a foundation in what the term “historical materialism” refers to and why its had such an impact in scholarship (especially given the relative dearth of primary writings by Marx on the subject).

My goal in the beginning is to simply outline several of the major tenets of historical materialism. But first I’d like to quickly say why I’m chasing after Marx and historical materialism:

Why Marx?

Like Anthony Giddens, I believe that Marx’s analysis of the mechanisms of a capitalist society “remains the necessary core of any attempt to come to terms with the massive transformations that have swept through the world since the eigtheenth century” (A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism). Even though there are many times we must move beyond Marx in our critiques, his theories provide more explanatory power than I’ve been able to find elsewhere.

Also, it would be impossible to profess any knowledge on the rhetoric of social movements without having a solid foundation in Marxist thought. His writings have spurred more collective action than any other secular thinker.

Why historical materialism?

Strangely, in our overwhelmingly materialist society, we’re pretty ignorant of the processes those very materials go through from beginning to end.

By that I simply mean that although we prize material objects first and foremost as the indicators of success in our society, we remain dangeously unaware of the ‘how’ of these objects — and even more importantly, the ‘why’ for these particular means of life. This is no doubt because someone profits off us not knowing, or because we ourselves profit off of pretending not to know.

This claim is easily proved by simply taking a look around your house. Start with your food. Then your clothes. Where was the food you purchased grown? Who grew it? Who profits from it? How did it arrive in your kitchen? Where was your shirt sewn? (I just checked mine: Korea) Did the person who sewed it get paid adequately and fairly for their labor? Again, who profits from that shirt?

I, of course, am interested in the rhetorical practices that help shape and develop these productive forces. What type of communication takes place that keeps such an obviously exploitative system as ours afloat? What type of communication is needed to bring down this exploitative system and what rhetorical strategies are needed in the process of replacing it with something more sustainable, sane, and humane?

Historical materialism seems to me like an extremely viable model for scholarly inquiry because it attaches the specific and particular to the abstract and theoretical. As an empirical theory of history, it offers some guidelines on how to explore and explain the way humans collectively develop their means to live and the various patterns of distribution and exchange.

Another reason (and surely more will be added to this list) for studying historical materialism is its emphasis on praxis–the fusion of theory and practice into everyday life. The stress laid on the practical raises my heartrate; perhaps because I feel so strongly that we need more scholars writing with practical change for their readership in mind. Regardless of my personal beliefs, I’ll end this post with a great section from Nathan Rotenstreich’s Basic Problems of Marx’s Philosophy that explains, in part, the synthesis that took part for Marx to reach the methodology now known as historical materialism:

Marx rejected materialism ‘up to now,’ because it lacked a practical side. He rejected idealism because the active side in it appeared only from the point of view of abstract Spirit. He urged a synthesis that would integrate sensuousness as projected by materialism and activity as projected by idealism. The actual practice of the actual man, therefore, because central to his system. Practice is the practice of a natural creature–as distinguished from and opposed to an abstract creature–who creates actual objects. Marx himself established this synthetic position. His theory was given two names: naturalism, which brought into prominence the natural side, or the domain of the natural-real-sensuous in which his theory was gounded; and humanism, which brought into prominence not nature external to man and the world of things subsuming man but man himself. Naturalism and humanism were, according to Marx, to be distinguished from both materialism and idealism, although they continued to be the unifying factors fo these two contending philosophical streams. The actual expression of this synthesis was the new view, which in its later development was called historical materialism.





the point is to change it . . .

24 06 2008

Welcome to Candid Candidacy, Tim Jensen’s fly-trap for fleeting thoughts on summer reading.  Stay tuned for rousing rants on historical materialism.