A 2,000 word essay – this must be an example of intertextuality, using a theory, theorist, body of work, etc., from the canon of critical theory, as a framework for the examination of an issue, work, body of work, etc., from Digital Media. The essay must have the following to pass:
- A title page
- An abstract
- Appropriate formatting to academic standard
- A bibliography
- Harvard-style referencing within the main body text
It must demonstrate sufficient research, conducted beyond the normal reading assignments for the class
Rhizomatics and the Internet
Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome has been influential in the field of digital media. In this essay, I will outline and examine the concept, and use it to analyse some internet-based practices. My argument is that, against other writers who trace the rhizome onto existing models, the concept can offer a creative and productive shift away from traditional models of ideology, resistance and appropriation.
Deleuze and Guattari introduce the concept of the rhizome in 1000 Plateaus as a contrast with tree-like organizational models. In this model, there is a central point of power which then branches out to other points, which themselves branch out etc.. This can be seen as a ‘top down’ hierarchical structure. An example would be the typical management structure of a corporation. The director is in charge of a team of managers who are themselves each in charge of another team etc.. In contrast with this, Deleuze and Guattari draw on biology to outline the rhizome concept according to a number of key principles:
Principles of connection and heterogeneity: any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be. This is very different to the tree or root, which plots a point, fixes an order. (Deleuze & Guattari 2002: 7)
In a rhizomatic structure, any one point can connect to any other point, with no central organization. The potential importance of this can be seen in another principle:
Principle of asignifying rupture: Against the oversignifying breaks separating structures or cutting across a single structure. A rhizome may be broken or shattered at a given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines. (9)
Think here of a contrast between Napster, which was introduced in 1999 as a centrally organized file sharing network, and contemporary P2P file sharing networks which are not structured around a central server. When Napster introduced file downloading, it was quickly closed down. Recent media stories have shown that, in contrast, contemporary peer to peer networks have been much harder to police, because close down one user and a new one will simply emerge somewhere else.
‘Looking forward to future business together …’ So concludes the cheerful, though some might say cynical, payment confirmation screen at P2Plawsuits.com, a website allowing American college students accused of uploading copyrighted music to peer-to-peer networks the opportunity to settle upfront and out of court. (Webb, 2007: 1)
This example of a strategy from the RIAA’s (Recording Industry Association of America) attempts to cut piracy, shows how approaches now tend to focus on capturing the power or force of the rhizomatic network and rechanneling it to commercial use, rather than attempting to shut it down completely. This can also be seen with social networking sites such as MySpace or Facebook, which adopt a rhizomatic structure of user-generated content, which are quickly captured and deployed as forms of corporate viral marketing.
Many writers, focusing on the nature of the web as a decentred network, have made an equivalence between the rhizome and the internet. Simon O’Sullivan for example argues that, “the best example of rhizomatics is the emergence of the World Wide Web as an omnipresent force, at least in the West” (O’Sullivan 2007: 13). He goes on, “The emergence of the web is not without its problems, not least in its utilization for profit and control. However, despite these moments of capture, the Web remains a space of creativity, invention and expression…” (13).
This is an important element of the rhizome for Deleuze and Guattari, and one that distinguishes it from traditional Marxist theories of appropriation and resistance. For Fredric Jameson for example, political acts form a kind of resistance to a pre-existing dominant state institution, and once that distance is abolished (in the space of postmodernism) then political acts of resistance are impossible, “in one way or another…not only punctual and countercultural forms of cultural resistance, but also even overtly political interventions…are all somehow secretly disarmed and reabsorbed into a system of which they might well be considered a part, since they can achieve no distance from it” (Jameson 1991: 87). Against this pessimism, according to a rhizomatic model, there is an excess or overflow of creativity which exceeds the boundaries of momentary capture, deforms, reforms and moves on, “every rhizome contains lines of segmentarity according to which it is stratified, territorialized, organized, signified… as well as lines of deterritorialization down which it constantly flees” (Deleuze and Guattari 2002:9). Hardt and Negri’s Empire for example, which draws on much Deleuze-Guattarian theory, including the rhizome, poses a model of the political not as resistance but as a creative force (multitude) which pre-exists and is captured by the network of global capitalism (Empire), “The striated space of modernity constructed places that were continually engaged in and founded on a dialectical play with their outsides. The space of Imperial sovereignty, in contrast, is [appears to be] smooth… In this smooth space of Empire, there is no place of power — it is both everywhere and nowhere. Empire is an ou-topia, or really a non-place” (Hardt and Negri 2000: 190).
Some writers have suggested that simply tracing rhizomatic theory onto the internet is not much use. Robin Hamman for example makes such a tracing and then complains, “I remain a sceptic, feeling that post-modern theory, such as Deleuze and Guattari’s, is not going to help me in my quest to understand the World around me” (Hamman 1996: 4). O’Sullivan admits in his analysis that it is banal to simply apply the rhizome theory to the internet. Further it seems against the nature of the rhizome itself, which Deleuze and Guattari emphasise as a productive and creative force, “Principle of cartography and decalomania…Make a map, not a tracing. What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real…The map is open and connectable in all of its dimensions” (12). While the tracing reproduces something that exists already, the map, for Deleuze and Guattari, is a productive model oriented to the future, something which must be used to create new creative connections rather than reproducing existing structures.
It is by mapping the creative force of the rhizome, as well as putting it into a broader context of media theory, that it can provide a useful encounter with the internet. Deleuze and Guattari describe another principle of the rhizome, “a multiplicity has neither subject nor object, only determinations, magnitudes and dimensions…Puppet strings are tied not to the supposed will of an artist or puppeteer but to a multiplicity of nerve fibers, which form another puppet” (8). The image here of the puppet being moved by unseen strings recalls a notion of ideology guiding and forming the subject outside of its control, as in Althusser’s theory of interpellation where the subject is called/hailed into a specific way of being. “The category of the subject is only constitutive of all ideology insofar as all ideology has the function (which defines it) of ‘constituting’ concrete individuals as subjects…all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects, by the functioning of the category of the subject” (Althusser 1970: 12) According to Althusser you come to accept what you are invisibly called to recognize yourself as, according to pre-existent subject categories. His work, combining Marxism with Lacanian theory, has been used a lot in psychoanalytical film theory for example to suggest ways in which the subject identifies with characters on the screen and comes to accept certain social conditions.
The internet, on the other hand, while of course offering multiple pre-existent subject formations to identify with, also, through its rhizomatic form, offers the potential of disrupting these. Chat rooms offer an obvious example where subject formations are played out and experimented as roles, fragmented, restaged and dissolved across networks. The rhizomatic nature of the internet has also been put into use by many digital media and art practitioners. Stelarc for example uses internet networks to disrupt notions of what a body is or could be when infused with technology. For Ping Body (1996) “the body would be plugged into the network in such a way that its gestures would be controlled by the quantity of information traveling the wires…Internet data moves the body…The body does a data dance, it becomes a barometer of internet activity” (Massumi 2002: 124). Here, it is the very rhizomatic nature of the internet that directly manipulates the human body. While Stelarc’s work is an obvious example of how technology infects the body, it offers a visual equivalence for how our definitions of the body, the human or subjectivity are affected by the internet. As Brian Massumi emphasizes, Stelarc “makes the force of information visible” (124). He plugs into and reveals the affective nature of the internet. By neither representing it nor standing outside of it, he forms a rhizome with information flow.
Another example is the group Contemporary Culture Index (ccindex.info). They have created an online multi-disciplinary open-access database of journals that are either ignored by other databases or absent from the internet, “the aim of the project is to cover the growing need for specialized information neither limited to any single academic category, geographic or linguistic area” (Giusti: 64). Here is an example of how the rhizomatic potential of the internet has been used to form new relations to knowledge, deterritorialising it from stratified existing positions and forming new connections.
Slavoj Zizek in his critique gives an image of ‘a yuppie reading Deleuze’, “when the yuppie reads about impersonal imitation of affects he thinks – Yes! This is how I design my publicities! When he reads about exploding the limits of self-containing subjectivity – This reminds me of my son’s favourite toy!” (Zizek 2004: 183). Here, Zizek suggests that Deleuzian theory maps neatly onto capitalism without providing any critique, “There are features that justify calling Deleuze the ideologist of late capitalism” (184). In one sense it is an interesting point, Deleuze’s belief in the importance of the production of the new is left open to the question of the ethical value of the new concepts produced. In another sense however it seems to miss the point. The rhizome is not a moral critical model which stands outside of its object of study and says what is good and bad. It is on the other hand, like the internet, a network in which we are all immersed. It provides a move away from representational models in order to ask not what something means, but what it can do, “We will never ask what a book means…We will ask what functions with it, in connection with what other things it does or does not transmit intensities” (Deleuze and Guattari 2002: 4). Capitalism for Deleuze and Guattari is seen as an organization of power and desire, which desire itself will always exceed. Traditional models of ideology suggest ‘resistance’ to a pre-existing dominant form which remains intact, and such models seem inadequate for accounting for the networks of power of digital media – the World Wide Web being a good example. Deleuze and Guattari argue, “writing has nothing to do with signifying. It has to do with surveying, mapping, even realms that are yet to come” (Deleuze & Guattari 2002: 5). Staging this encounter between the rhizome and the internet allows a focus on the potential of internet practices, despite institutional capture, to overflow and orient to future bodies and subjectivities.
Althusser, Louis (1970) ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’
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(accessed 1st August 2008)
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