Rhizome as an open system: some notes on it

This is an article of mine previously published on NOEMA. It is basically a brief and schematic excerpt from the second part of my degree thesis work, an attempt to (re)think a “rusty” concept like the rhizome under a complex systemic perspective.
A thanks goes to Ignazio Licata for supervising me. 


Rhizome, long before that it became the inspired intro of Mille Plateaux, was published as a stand-alone essay, influencing – in the second half of the seventies – student movements, workerist organisations and political groups. Over the years, as a result of criticisms, quotes, disassociations and hype uses, the rhizome has gained a great appeal in fields which are on the surface extremely different such as art, politics, communication sciences and the Internet.

It would not be possible to write about rhizome without falling into the pitfall of the already heard. Therefore, although much has been written on the argument, I want to offer some sparks – nothing more – of an “alternative” reading, not less plausible than “official” ones. In fact, it is correct to disengage from both fetishist drifts and trite analysis which surround some debates on Deleuze and Guattari 1.

The rhizome is a concept. Note #1

A concept is not simple and above all is not linear. «Every concept has components and is defined by them. It therefore has a combination» (Deleuze and Guattari, 1996, p. 15). The primacy here is that of relationship: every concept acts over various plateaus, linking itself with different conceptual sets.
Concepts, integrated within a relational texture, have their own story depicted by misunderstandings, uses and relationships (past and future) with different theoretical elements. We should suppose, in that respect, a continuous evolution:

we say that every concept always has a history, even though this history zigzags, though it passes, if need be, through other problems or onto different planes. In any concept there are usually bits or components that come from other concepts, which corresponded to other problems and presupposed other planes. This is inevitable because each concept carries out a new cutting-out, takes on new contours, and must be reactivated or recut. (Ibid., p. 18)

What changes is not the concept in itself, but the connections that it maintains every time with other components. For this reason it does not have precise edges: «every concept relates back to other concepts, not only in its history but in its becoming or its present connections» (Ibid., p. 19).
The rhizome is an example of an open system 2, a macroscopic unit which functions as a trait d’union between different conceptual planes:

What I and Guattari call a rhizome is precisely one example of an open system. […] A system’s a set of concepts. And it’s an open system when the concepts relate to circumstances rather than essences [italics mine]. But concepts don’t, first of all, turn up ready-made, they don’t pre-exist: you have to invent, create concepts, and this involves just as much creation and invention as you find in art and science. (Deleuze, 1995, p. 32)

A closed system, unable to interact with the outside, defines its own links through essential relations only, excluding any kind of connection with other domains. With regard to that, the well-known second law of thermodynamics asserts that a closed (or isolated) system, not being capable of conducting any activity aimed to mantain its own internal structure, is destined to perish. The biosphere, the globe, the brain, but also cultures, communication structures and companies are examples of systems which survive thanks to continuous environment exchanges with surrounding structures.
Hence the rhizome, as well as other open systems, exists concatenating sense elements which refer essentially to domains extremely different, but circumstantially are able to coexist within the organisation of the same system. This is precisely the opposite of what takes place, according to Deleuze and Guattari, in a (closed) tree-system which shows two main characteristics: i) the hierarchization of components, from superior to inferior; ii) the One that becomes two, or rather the faculty to divide a component of superior grade in smaller parts. The organisation here is managed by a component, more influential than the others, which establishes what to connect and how.
The issue, in this context, is that of the principle, the One that becomes two, three, four and so on, as there is no way to produce interactions without passing through a certain element. This system, besides showing obvious structural limitations, reveals also an evolutionary tendency that is static and predetermined where all is decided before studying the system itself.
In fact, the main goal of such a system is that of tracing a map of all essential components, excluding, however, ongoing relations and relationships with other universes, i.e. different systems. Unlike the tree, the rhizomatic system does not adhere to a previous code, “a genealogy of connections”, but it evolves following temporary criteria similar to those used by explorers who sweep unknown labyrinths. The labyrinth, wrote Pierre Rosenstiehl (1979, p.4, translation mine) «is the place, par excellence, where the myopia of algorithms is defined, namely in a step by step calculation without memory […] where everything is decided locally and everywhere». The certainties within the labyrinth are alternate intersections and corridors (ibid.) which the explorer have to face, at every new temporary map remodulation.
Hence, there is a possibility of winding up where at the start after having searched uselessly for an exit, or of reaching particular gateways skipping halfway marks not pertinent locally. There is no central code in the rhizome, thus it moves inside an abstract horizontal plateau where all is potentially connectible. It is in this “trans-zone” that concepts mix with theoretical and pragmatic units of sense, i.e. elements which do not have a significance in themselves, but acquire significance as soon as they proceed to be part of a (systemic) fabric.

Swarm systems. Note #2

Swarm systems are a concrete example of rhizomatic modus operandi. These are particular multi-agent 3 systems which refer explicitly to collective intelligence produced by insects colonies (beehives, anthills, termitaries), schools of fishes and flocks. The swarm is usually composed by agents which possess individually limited cognitive and computational skills, but combined together they are able to arrange an extremely efficient and organised system. A relevant aspect of these systems is the fact that «the collective behaviour observed is exclusively the result of simple local interactions among individuals, by virtue of which the single individual of the colony is not aware of the colony’s overall activity» (Bertuglia and Vaio, 2011, p. 356, translation mine). Swarm systems «subtract the unique from the multiplicity» (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987, p. 6) becoming, therefore, an acentric system. However, in many swarm systems there is a hub around which is a temporary core. In the case of a beehive, the queen bee is the communication channel privileged by the other individuals. Moreover, in certain situations, after the queen bee is dead, the beehive replaces it with another queen. This means that, except in special cases, the hub can be reactivated after the loss. In anthills the queens are even more than one, and when the lair is damaged these insects are able to repair their communication network very shortly. «You can never get rid of ants because they form an animal rhizome that can rebound time and again after most of it has been destroyed» (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987, p. 9). When the organisation is based upon interactions the system core becomes provisional because it moves according the needs of the swarm. In addition, the distribution of knowledge and communication facilitates that every element – such as the queen bee – is not essential, but can be replaced.
The collective work of the swarm is designed to make rhizome, making connections even where the proper conditions are apparently missing. Units, in absence of pragmatic links, release chemical signals all the adjacent environment. Bees and ants in the presence of food emit pheromone, making themselves traceable even by distant companions. Therefore, all parts of the swarm, within a complex net which governs system operation, never cease to be potentially interconnected (cf. Deleuze and Guattari, 1987, p. 7).

The rhizome is not the cure. Note #3

Over the past years numerous stances has been taken in defence of the rhizome, considered by many a cultural paradigm having virtuous proprieties. There is no doubt that Deleuze and Guattari sympathize for the rhizome, while it is less expected that they exhort the reader from easy enthusiasms: the rhizome is not “the cure” and the tree is not “the illness”. There is always a line of flight in the tree-system and a striation, an oppressive territorialization in the rhizome. It «assumes very diverse forms, from ramified surface extension in all directions to concretion into bulbs and tubers» (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987, p. 7). In every open and not-hierarchical system, and in every rhizome as well, there are smooth and striated places, territorializations and deterritorializations, tension points and breaking planes. After all even the botanic rhizome is a (particular) root which has not entirely lost the arborescent bonds. The rhizome lies intrinsically in concatenations: it is not necessarily distinguished from tree or root, but it lies into the mixtures, organising and broking relations.
The rhizome is an instrument to comprehend the unveiling of certain reality dynamics, however circumstances define the efficiency or not about this kind of theoretical object. The “dualism” tree-rhizome does not suggest the superiority of rhizomaticity over arborescence; it is more about co-participation, a fusion between the two modes/ways. This is well explained, in the field of semiotics, by the operation of Echian encyclopaedia. As it is known, Umberto Eco contrasts an encyclopaedic semantics, inspired explicitly by the «modello-metafora [model-metaphor]» (cf. Eco, 1983) of rhizome, to a dictionarial semantics, which is based on the arborescent scheme. Nevertheless, according to Eco (1984), the encyclopedic process does not totally exclude arborescent hierarchies, because even the dictionary can be useful for representing limited portions of encyclopaedia.
When, within a pragmatic context, I need to talk about a certain object I can include this in a culturally accepted class. If I am discussing on cats I am reasoning about an irrational animal that though being a mammal, it must be distinguished from, for example, the dog. Semantically, I assemble the following dictionarial scheme:


Now, this arborescent representation, furthermore intentionally simplified, can works whether the discussion focuses on a mammal of the Felidae family, usually called cat. In this case we do not have to distinguish between wildcat and domestic cat, either between tabby or Persian. Using the word cat in an environment of aware speakers we are taking for granted that this animal has a soft fur, it meows, it purrs, it is agile etc. Effectively

although every object can be included in different classes, depending on properties in respect of which it is considered, it needs to be included in a certain class in order to talk about it in a clear way (which means that it needs to be considered in respect of some its dictionarial properties. (Eco, 1984, pag. 130, translation mine)

Certainly, this dictionarial portion would not have utility – unless partial – whether I wanted to talk about Garfield – which is a cat, of course – but not a living one, expect in a fantasy world. In this case I should reassemble the arborescent representation:


The error does not lie in the tree which is assembled semiotically any time that we need to «circumscribe the area of consensus in which a conversation develops» (ibid., pag. 132, translation mine), but in the way this instrument is utilised. An arborescent hierarchy cannot explain by itself the semantic complexity of a language, either of a semiotic system, or a culture, a swarm, a system exchanges etc.
The rhizome, similarly to all of the concepts, needs to be made and shaped according to circumstances. However, once it has been created, we cannot simply own it as an ordinary object: it always refers to new concatenations; it eludes precise analysis of components; it turns following the connective potentialities changes. What several commentators of Deleuze and Guattari have ignored is that the rhizome is an open logical system (cf. Licata, 2007; 2008; 2011), that is a system where informative and structural internal processes change continuously in a non-linear way. Using this concept to explain some world dynamics means to watch the world with the parameters of complexity and open systems. Using the tree as system model it means that we are going to territorialize some spaces, building stables schemes, while with rhizome we should be ready to overturn these schemes and reading the reality through the foundation of transverse relations. In the catastrophe theory the mathematician René Thom introduced general schemes which explain the genesis of natural forms. The catastrophe is a radical and sudden change of a system. However, this term [word] must not be interpreted according to the common sense to which often we refers, but rather as a significant alteration of systemic organisation. So/Hence, reflecting through rhizomes implies the acceptance of a catastrophe drift – a discontinuity – inside the open systems which we want to analyse or build.


Bertuglia C. and Vaio F.
2011, Complessità e modelli, Bollati Boringhieri, Torino
Eco U.
1983, “L’antiporfirio” in Vattimo Gianni e Rovatti Pier Aldo, Il pensiero debole, Feltrinelli, Milano
1984, Semiotica e filosofia del linguaggio, Einaudi, Torino
2007, Dall’albero al labirinto. Studi storici sul segno e l’interpretazione, Bompiani, Milano
Deleuze G.
1995, Negotiations, Columbia University Press, New York
Deleuze G. and Guattari F.
1987, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis
1994, What is philosophy?, Columbia University Press, New York
Licata I.
2007, Complessità come apertura logica, “Dedalus”, n. 2/3, pagg. 63-68
2008, La logica aperta della mente, Codice, Torino
2011, Complessità. Un’introduzione semplice, :duepunti, Palermo
Rosenstiehl P.
1979, “Labirinto”, in Enciclopedia VIII, Einaudi, Torino
Russell S. and Norvig P.
1995, Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach, Prentice Hall, New Jersey


  1. For a better comprehension of this article, we heartily recommend the reading of “Introduction: Rhizome” (in: Deleuze and Guattari, 1987).
  2. We do not think it is a coincidence that Umberto Eco (1983, 1984), inspired explicitly by rhizome, has theorised an encyclopedic semantic, in other words an open system through which «accounting for, not only operation of any semiotic system, but also of the existence of a culture as system of interconnected» (Eco, 2007, p. 61).
  3. A multi-agent system is composed by agents (units) which, even though they have a certain decisional and operational autonomy, they are interconnected each other and with the surrounding environment. «An agent is anything that can be viewed as perceiving its environment through sensors and acting upon that environment through effectors. A human agent has eyes, ears, and other organs for sensors, and hands, legs, mouth, and other body parts for effectors. A robotic agent substitutes cameras and infrared range finders for the sensors and various motors for the effectors.» (Russell and Norvig, 1995, p. 31)
    Multi-agents systems feature a) distributed knowledge network; b) a faster task resolution compared with hierarchic and tree systems; c) the ability to re-elaborate the distributed information along the interconnections path.

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