Harveting the Tubers: Is the Internet a Rhizome?

By Suhail Malik, 10 January 1997

The Great Deleuze and Guattari debate - part 1

That's what might be thought from looking at some of the recent and (allegedly) most interesting writing and theorisation on the current and future state of digital communication. Inspired by the work of Deleuze (especially) and Guatarri, this work looks forward to the fully cybernetic functioning of digital interactive communication namely cyberspace as its more or less universally assumed future , its effect on culture and on the human body. That is, its prospective is the total interaction of the digital and the human as such, which (its hoped) will be its rhizomatic explosion. And sometimes, with that, there's also the happy announcement of the possible annihilation of the human.

In any case, there's a lot riding on how to think about the digital both technically and culturally. The issue here is whether the work of Deleuze and Guattari (=D&G) is the best way to do it; and, if not, why not? What's lost, what's the limit, the restriction, the danger of advocating the internet through and with D&G? To be clear: this danger would not be the one which D&G would push for (e.g., the proto-anarchistic one against the State) but a danger of altogether missing out what digital interaction and communication might be about, on what its invention is and could be, today and in the future.

The attractions of thinking cyberspace (or an equivalent) as a rhizome are obvious. Firstly, within the digital network, communication is "organised" as a rhizome, 'any point [of whch] can be connected to anything other, and must be' (A Thousand Plateaus [=TP] 7). Such a connecting does not take place according to a uniform or centrally ordered nerve or stem from and to which all other points can be referred. There is no main artery for a rhizome and so no co-ordinating axes nor then any fixed 'points or positions in a rhizome.... There are only lines' (TP 8) lines of connection. The unity of the rhizome is not and cannot be ordered from the center or the edge nor any founding root (nor anything to oppose to them), nor anything like a CPU; there are no 'higher' and no 'lower' connections. Like today's internet, rhizomes are acentered.

The second attraction towards thinking of the future of digital communication as rhizomatic is more serious. It is to do with the digital interaction and re-organisation of the human. Interactivity can be also be said to be rhizomatic since, as D&G say, the characteristics or 'traits' of a rhizome 'are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even non-sign states' (TP 21). Rhizomatic lines of connection no less connect states which are unlike each other in their 'nature'. The human and the digital, for example.

In D&G's terms the human and the digital network or space are not two radically different regimes but are rather just two 'vectors' in the one 'plateau' which exceeds either. The plateau is only a 'plane' of the rhizome which 'has neither beginning nor end, but always a middle from which it overgrows and which it overspills. [...] A plateau is always in the middle, not at the beginning or the end' (TP 21). Overall, then, what D&G say about a rhizome could just as well be said about the fantasy of a fully integrated cybernetic digital network: they are will be 'finite networks of automata in which communication runs from any neighbour to any other, the stems or channels do not pre-exist, and all individuals are interchangeable, defined only by their state at a given moment' (TP 17).

And there's more. with D&G the plateau is itself a machine, and this divests the organisation of the cybernetically integrated future from being a primarily human decision. The future of the internet would not then be in human hands (unless the human is a machine too). For D&G, a mchine isn't particularly to do with issues of hardware and wetware. It is only 'a system of interruptions or breaks' (Anti-Oedipus [=AO] 36). There is no contradiction in allying this to the connective rhizomatic lines just described. They say that machinic 'breaks ... operate along lines that vary according to whatever aspect of them we are considering', to whichever plateau, and 'every machine, in the first place, is related to a continual material flow that it cuts into ... the anus and the flow of shit, for instance. [...] Far from being the opposite of continuity, the break or interruption conditions this continuity. [...] The machine produces an interruption of the flow only insofar as it is connected to another machine that supposedly produces this flow. [...] [E]very machine functions as a break in the flow in relation to the machine to which it is connected, but at the same time is also a flow itself, or the production of a flow, in relation to the machine connected to it' (AO 36). In this generalised sense, the rhizome is itself a machine and the machine (defines by its breaks and so produces even as it is) a rhizomatic plateau.

As a machine break, as a connection, as a 'line of flight' (TP 9; also Ch.s 10&12), rhizomes 'deterritorialise'. They break open and break apart stable states and systems, connecting and tearing up fixed spaces, territories and codes. In their machinic production these are not just put into movement, they are only ever in movement, only ever break-flows. In other words, for D&G a plateau only ever deterritorialises, decodifies. It is necessarily schizoid i.e., splitting, cleaving, dividing and schizophrenia is the machinic operation (AO 39-41). The schizo 'is at the very limit of social codes'. This decodifying ties in very neatly with lots of stuff around at the moment on the internet as an escape or 'line of flight' from the (so said) oppressive social regimes and realities of today's political establishments. This angle is further supported by D&G's recognition of Marshall McLuhan's work from the late 60's on the 'electronic flow'. For this flow 'anything will do: whether it be phonic, graphic, gestural, etc., no flow is privileged in this language, which remains indifferent to its substance or support, inasmuch as the latter is an amorphous continuum. The electric flow can be considered as the realisation of such a flow that is indeterminate as such' (AO 240): anything can happen, pass, in and through such a flow. It is a flow without substance (=virtuality). And clearly, the internet is today the alleged machine of that flow, its plateau if not its horizon.

In this happy alignment the theoretical assumption and desire of the liberatory hopes for subjectivity in digital communication culture is made quite clear by what D&G go on to say about the 'electric flow': the 'the deterritorialised flows ... are in a state of conjunction or reciprocal precondition that constitutes figures ... [which] do not derive from a signifier [but] are non-signs, or rather non-signifying signs, point-signs having several dimensions, flow-breaks or schizzes that form images through coming together in a whole, but that do not maintian any identity when they pass from one whole to another. Hence the figures, that is, the shizzes or break-flows are in no way "figurative"; they come to be figurative only in a particular constellation that dissolves in order to be replaced by another one' (AO 241, emph.add.). There are no permanent or fixed figures or identities in the 'electric flow', only schizo-machinic 'constellations' which are always 'particular'.

The two books are not for nothing collected under the general title of 'Capitalism and Scizophrenia', however. Capitalism too is a rhizome, but quite a special one. The details of D&G's argument rely on Marx's analyses of capitalism's expansion because of its internal tendency towards falling rates of profit. In brief, the point is that capitalism pushes past itself in order to keep itself going: it flows by its breaking-apart, as a deterritorialisation and decodifying of traditions. It is a machine, it 'schizophrenises' (AO 232) e.g., colonialisation and decolonialisation, the collapse of national industries, etc..

But, again, capitalism is not one machine amongst others for D&G. The argument here is difficult but worth sketching out: if, generally, machines decodify then for D&G "every technical machine presupposes flows of a particular type: flows of code that are both interior and exterior [emph.add.] to the machine' (AO 232). As might be most obvious from the digital (re-)organisation of international money-markets and the global information-exchange structures that they implement and which have implemented them, 'the decoding of flows in capitalism has freed, deterritorialised, and decoded the flows of code ... to such a degree that the automatic machine has always increasingly internalised [emph.add.] them in its body or its structure as a field of forces' (AO 233). It is then capitalism that 'creates machines', that is their structuring, and not the contrary. Capitalism is the technical-machine machine, the flow of machines. It is the plateau of technical machines.

The intimacy between capitalism and computers today's undergoing organisation of the internet is then no surprise since for D&G 'the computer is a machine for instantaneous and generalised decoding' (AO 241). As everyone knows from Microsoft if not D&G, mass(ive) computation advances capital, and the contrary.

But the books are called 'Capitalism and Schizophrenia', not 'Capitalism is Schizophrenia', and the two are anything but identical for D&G: they say that 'it would be a serious error to consider the capitalist flows and the schizophrenic flows as identical, under the general theme of a decoding of flows of desire' (AO 245). Despite their 'great affinity' in 'the decoding of flows that the other social formations [than capitalism] coded and overcoded', capitalism is only 'the relative limit of every society'. For D&G, the internet as an 'electric flow' is and will be restricted and limited in its decoding by capitalism. Capitalism prevents full and absolute decoding and so must block the rhizomatic line of flight of the internet, it 'substitutes for the codes an extremely rigorous axiomatic that maintains the energy of the flows in a bound state' however deterritorialised. It's easy then to pick out the absolute anarchistic and radically (because non-subjectively) individualised angle - the revolution - in the dream of the internet's future. With D&G these digital communication networks would and should push even past the capitalistic (and axiomatised) set-up into a pure a-sociality of schizoid states according to 'the absolute limit that causes the flow to travel in a free state' along states and lines of connection without limit, rule or any binding of energy.

But that is to avoid thinking about the internet at all. To be clear because it's important: taking the internet as an electric flow which will and must exceed capitalist organisation, as schizoid, as advocated by D&G, is to miss altogether any- and every-thing of digital networks. This isn't a complaint against the schizoid or the unbinding of 'lines of flight'. More, that such an 'absolutisation' avoids the major and determining constitutions of the internet today: firstly, that it is a technical machine and, secondly, a machine devoted to information. Though minimal, these complaints are serious, if only because they suggest that D&G must be taken to be against the internet as a digital network. Firstly because, as said, for D&G technical machines are produced by capitalism (so the absolute schizoid limit state must push past all such technicity) and, secondly, because for D&G (with some prescience) in the capitalist organisation of deterritorialisation and decodification (=freedom and creativity) the 'correlation of the break and flow' is such that 'production is narrowly determined by information' (AO 241, emph.add.). Which says that the technical deterritorialisation of information is necessarily that of the captalist machine and the contrary. And D&G have to say that this is to what digital communication networks, cyberspace, are axiomatically bound. As they must then also argue against the internet, D&G say that 'for capitalism it is a question of binding the schizophrenic chargs and energies into a world axiomatic that always opposes the revolutionary potential of decoded flows with new interior limits.... The flows are decoded and axiomatised by capitalism at the same time' (AO 246, emph.add.). But this capitalistic limit to and against schizoid production is only a re-codification and re-territorialisation into what D&G call an anti-production. For D&G, then, in the internet and cyberspace as its cybernetic future and horizon, information flows only in non-rhizomatic plateaus of technical representation. D&G must then want to smash, escape from, the internet altogether (if only because representation is their general enemy: it is a fixing of states and connecting lines, of nomadic deterritorialising, into sedantary non-flowing territories). On the contrary, 'schizophrenia is not the identity of capitalism, but ... its difference, its divergence and its death' (AO 246).

But this 'death' is the most provincial one. Here as everywhere for D&G (rhizomatic) creativity and lines of flight always surpass and undo (capitalistic) technical organisation and information. Such is the consistent and primary principle and movement of de-territorialisation for D&G, however much the two angles and speeds of capital and schizo-production are inextricably tied in that movement. D&G always prefer schizoid 'abstract' machines such as a sphincter over techincal ones. But this insistance by D&G only serves to re-segregate the rhizomatic plateau of the human and the digital, and moreover, for all its talk and promotion of the machine, only along the most traditonal anti-technical axis available.

In other words, either (i) the recourse to the internet as an information-machine that exceeds capitalised or social formation and non-flow or (ii) the refusal to consider the internet or digitisation as (ii.a) principally or primarily bound to a technics of information (of and for production) or (ii.b) a mediation redirecting the organisation of the social if not just capital (and it is at least this); that is, taking the internet as either a schizo-machine or a non-technical which is to say immediate machine, is to push them and their cybernetic future out and away from capitalism and, on this plateau, out and away from the technical.

In (the immanence of) this rhizomatic plateau of digitally mediated communication, the schizo-machinic 'absolutisation' over information can only be made in the name of the human, be it for (as in the proto-Marxist adoption of D&G) or against (e.g., the annihilation of the human-social-capital line in a 'heat-death' equivalent, a nil-energy result of the purely schizo-rhizomatic exteriorised line of flight into an unbound and so open entropic system which must be distinguished from capital's 'inhibiting' axiomatic 'lines of death' (TP 510)). The decision on this plateau for schizoid production relies upon a direct equivalence between the strictly human and the strictly ahuman. And, in either case, this advocacy of the schizoid machine cleansed from any capitalising instance can only avoid the complexity of undergoing digital re-organisations of the social, the human and its possible cybernetic dimension which is nothing if not technical. In this way, D&G fail to think any 'productivity' of the internet, cannot even begin to think it today, never mind its future.

In the later book too schizoid absolutisation exteriorises the rhizomatic connecting-lines past all re-territorialisation, axiomatics and codes. D&G say that it 'create[s] a new earth'. And again this purely schizoid 'creation' is not able to specify anything of the internet or cyberspace or their current and future technical re-organisations of the human-machine nexus. For, in the quasi-Platonic terms in which D&G speak here of de-territorialisation, the digital re-organisation and future (of what the human is, not least) may leave any issue of (geo-physical or virtual) territory altogether to be dominated rather by fire. That at least would be an equally absolute risk to the future, but not one that an electronic culture advocatingD&G can begin to address. Unless earth is to be fire, which would be to leave flesh behind, and so divine.

Suhail Malik