Visual complexity: Primary trope as a rhizome
January 18, 2009
In an article (2008-07) entitled “Web science: an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the Web” published in Association of Computing Machinery’s journal Communications Hendler, Shadbolt, Hall, Berners-Lee and Weitzner bemoaned the fact that the Web was under-researched and recommended a systems approach to enhance understanding of the Web itself and its continuing social impact, model the Web as a whole and improve engineering of the future Web (Hendler et al 2008-07).
Internet studies focus mainly on technological and monetization aspects. Even the semantic web is geared towards search engine optimization as a market tool.
This illustration, hosted on Flickr, was featured on the cover of the July 2008 edition of Association of Computing Machinery (ACM)‘s Communications magazine. It accompanies the Hendler et al article (2008-07). Generative artist Marius Watz  uses programming languages to create graphics like these: Communications of the ACM 51.7 – Story spread & “Communications of the ACM 51.7 – Cover image”. Art direction was by Andrij Borys Associates.
(Thank you to Watz for use of his images.)
Watz explained, “I don’t explicitly use the rhizome as a model, but many of my forms are based on emergent growth and the interaction between agents governed by simple rules. My interest tends towards the aesthetic rather than the academic, so I generally use whatever models produce interesting behavior.”
Watz’ images resonated with what I have been attempting to do with slow world technologies such as Adobe Photoshop where I combine layers of images of neurons, as a rhizomic metaphor, with constellations of nodes on the Internet placed manually. This process is really an attempt to represent an object that is static which is not the case with the Internet (or the brain’s neurons and synapses). In a sense I am attempting to visualize my own use of the Internet, particularly the emerging semantic web where we redefine older terms and invent new ones to describe what is being done in the name of the Internet in 2009. It is a form of cartography or decalcomania using the trope of the rhizome. Deleuze and Guattari (1987:12) remind us that “a rhizome is not amenable to any structural or generative model. It is a stranger to any idea of genetic axis or deep structure.”
Conversations on this ontology of knowledge management is being indexed under numerous categories, tags, ethnoclassifications, folksonomy, taxonomy . . .
My motivation for seeking out rhizomic metaphors comes from the work of French philosophers in the 1960s such as Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze who, through their politicized philosophy of difference, developed concepts of consciousness or mind and new forms of thought, writing, subjectivity that are useful for understanding the non-linear, open-ended space of the Internet.
Philosopher Gilles Deleuze and clinical psychoanalyst, Felix Guattari co-authored Anti-Oedipus (1972 ) and A Thousand Plateaus (1980 ). They proposed an “art of living” that embraces hypertextual and hypermedia processes.
Like Nick Lilly, “I hoped that the “primary tropes used by Deleuze and Guattari (the rhizome and tree: rhizomatic knowing/being and arborescent knowing/being) would provide me with a way of getting at key differences between a print-literate consciousness and a e-literate consciousness”. So in my own digitages I sought out images from life sciences as templates to create my own customized rhizomic cartography. They are intended as complex visualizations and are highly subjective. Because they are developed slowly as layers, they are in a way unending and constantly changing.
Arborescent knowing/being is represented in tree diagrams that are genealogical whereas rhizomes are anti-genealogical (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:21). “We should stop believing in trees, roots and radicles. They’ve made us suffer too much (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:15).”
“The tree comes to symbolize the distinction between subject and object, between signifier and signified, encompassing the whole of dualistic logic through its branching patterns, through its definitions of set pathways between root and branch (Clinton 2003).”
In A Thousand Plateaus (1980) Deleuze and Guattari challenged modern beliefs in hierarchy, identity, subjectivity and representation. and promoted principles of difference and multiplicity in theory, politics, and everyday life (Best and Kellner 1991).
However, Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the virtual defies representation as a visual image and must be imagined as a field of dynamic forces. Even generative software-based visuals like those employed by Marius Watz  cannot visualize that which will not just be but is constantly becoming something else, as it the case of the Internet.
Deleuze and Guattari are concerned with complexity theory, scientific research into self-organizing material systems. In their early work they focused on a materialist study and intervention of self-organizing material systems – systems without hierarchies resulting in a de-centered rhizomic network which (Protevi 2001-11:2). called empirical geophilosophy. According to Protevi (2001-11:2) their empirical geo-philosophy has an explicit political dimension in which they examined hierarchical systems where one body is dominated or domesticated by another, stereotyped reactions are implanted, exploitative procedures developed and implemented and territories are formed. In contrast, Deleuze and Guattari summoned a new earth with new relationships to the creative potential of material systems to form de-territorialized de-centred rhizomic systems where free bodies are formed with multiple, shifting and increasingly intense internal and external connections.
Deleuze and Guattari’s distinguish between virtual and actual wherein the virtual is the threshold where behaviours change and the actual refers to constituted bodies with elementary particles with observable properties and (even predictable) traits, tendencies and patterns of behaviour (or aggregated results of simple behaviors) which can be consciously recognised and therefore represented. The virtual refers to potential transformations or transcendence of material systems and elude represented as their properties of bodies, entities, singularities evade conscious recognition. Virtual singularities are irreducible, self-differentiating entities whose properties are emergent not static (Deleuze and Guattari 1968, 196?). They shape shift with increasingly intense internal and external connections. While it sounds chaotic, it isn’t as the virtual realm has regional ontologies which provide its own taxonomy and systems of categorization.
1. Generative artist Marius Watz works with generative software-based visuals (therefore he is a generative artist). In an interview he described generative works as open systems that unlike machines or paintings, are not finished. “Generative works are ”open“ in the sense that the artist does not completely control the process, but allows other factors (whether randomness, external sensory output or user interaction) to affect the output. It is of course possible to create ”closed“ deterministic works, but most generative artists enjoy the aspect of giving up a certain amount of control (digitaltools).”
He is based in New York and Oslo, after 5 years in Berlin. “Generative art is an art practice where the artist creates a system, typically a piece of software, which is either used to create a work of art or constitutes a work of art in itself. Generative art describes a method or strategy, rather than a specific style or medium of work. The form of Generative Art that most people are aware of is software-based visual abstract art, with artists like C.E.B.Reas, Lia, Jared Tarbell etc. being the most visible exponents. This work is abstract, visually complex and non-representational. Typically, it will be purely digitally generated, with no ”natural“ origin” (digitaltools).”
2. Rhizome as a metaphor for the emergence system, the Internet:
“The rhizome is an anti-genealogy ( (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:11).
“[The rhizome] is a short-term memory, or antimemory. The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots. . . . the rhizome is an acentered, nonhierarchical, nonsignifying system without a General and without an organizing memory or central automaton, defined solely by a circulation of states (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:21).”
“A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. 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’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:25).”
“Principles of connection and heterogeneity: any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:7).”
“Principle of multiplicity. . . . Multiplicities are rhizomatic, and expose arborescent pseudomultiplicities for what they are. . . . A multiplicity has neither subject nor object, only determinations, magnitudes, and dimensions that cannot increase in number without the multiplicity changing in nature (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:8).”
“Principle of asignifying rupture: against the oversignifying breaks separating structures or cutting across a single structure. A rhizome may be broken, shattered at a given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:9).”
“Principle of cartography and decalcomania: a rhizome is not amenable to any structural or generative model. It is a stranger to any idea of genetic axis or deep structure (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:12).”
Webliography and Bibliography
Watz, Marius. 2008-07. “Communications of the ACM 51.7.” Communications. Association of Computing Machinery: Advancing Computing as a Science and a Profession.
Best, Stephen; Kellner, Douglas. 1991. “Chapter 3: Deleuze and Guattari: Schizos, Nomads, Rhizomes.” Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations. Columbia University.
Call, Lewis. 1998. “Hypertext and the Postmodern Pedagogy of the Enlightenment.” The Journal of the Association for History and Computing. 1:1.http://mcel.pacificu.edu/history/jahcI1/Call/hypertext.html
Clinton, Dan. 2003. Annotation: Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. “Rhizome,” in A Thousand Plateaus. Theories of Media. Winter 2003.
Deleuze, Gilles; Guattari, Felix. 1972 . Anti-Oedipus.
Deleuze, Gilles; Guattari, Felix. 1980. Mille Plateaux.
Deleuze, Gilles; Guattari, Felix. 1987. Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Derrida, Jacques. 1976. Of Grammatology. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Guattari, Felix; Deleuze, Gilles. 1968 . Trans. Paul Patton. Difference and Repetition.New York: Columbia University Press. Review by Alex Scott.
Guattari, Felix; Deleuze, Gilles. 196? The Logic of Sense.
Hendler, James; Shadbolt, Nigel; Hall, Wendy; Berners-Lee, Tim; Weitzner, Daniel. 2008-07. “Web science: an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the Web.” Communications. Association of Computing Machinery: Advancing Computing as a Science and a Profession.
Protevi, John. 2001-11. The Geophilosophies of Deleuze and Guattari. Southeastern Division of the Association of American Geographers (SEDAAG).