Complexity is in the Middle:

In today’s post, I am inspired by the idea of a rhizome by Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze. They spoke about it in their fascinating book, A Thousand Plateaus. A rhizome is defined in Oxford dictionary as a continuously growing horizontal underground stem which puts out lateral shoots and adventitious roots at intervals. Common examples of rhizomes include crab grass and ginger. Guattari and Delueze or G&D as often notated, used the idea of a rhizome as a metaphor. They put the idea of a rhizome against what they called as “arborescent” or tree-thinking. A tree has a very definite structure; one that is hierarchic with the branches, main stalk and the root system. G&D viewed tree-thinking as being focused on a central idea and building a world view upon that. They noted:

The tree is already the image of the world, or the root the image of the world-tree.

Tree-thinking believes in having a true image of the world. As G&D noted, the tree-thinkers’ law is the law of reflection. They believe that they can simply copy the rules and apply them to any situation. Any situation has a clear structure that is hierarchical and centralized. This can be understood by all if they just follow the logic presented. With this thinking, things can be separated out to distinct categories that do not overlap. Most times this leads to a dichotomy – either this or that, with no middle ground. As G&D noted – binary logic is the spiritual reality of the root-tree. Additionally, the arborescent thinking is also linear thinking, where things follow a linear pattern and rarely lead to paradoxes or confusion.

In a contrast to this, G&D presented rhizome. A rhizome does not have a central structure. It does not have a beginning or an end. Wherever you are, you can start from there. A rhizomic plant can grow from any point in the horizontal structure. If you cut a rhizome in half, each half can grow separately.

A pack of organisms can act as a rhizome. Structures such as a burrow or a city can be a rhizome. There is a collective identification that can be started at any point in the structure. You can start from any point in a city and walk around the city to absorb its culture. It is not specific to one point that we can pinpoint as the start or the end. Just like in a map, we can start anywhere and move around in a map. There is not start or an end. A torn map still remains a map. A rhizome includes the best and the worst.

G&D also calls a collection of elements that are connected together in an intricate relationship as a rhizome. One of the examples they give is that of a certain type of wasp and an orchid. The orchid flower resembles the female wasp, and this leads to a relationship where the wasp becomes part of the reproductive cycle of the orchid. There is a lot more going on in this relationship. This is explained in a very poetic language by G&D:

The orchid deterritorializes by forming an image, a tracing of a wasp; but the wasp reterritorializes on that image. The wasp is nevertheless deterritorialized, becoming a piece in the orchid’s reproductive apparatus. But it reterritorializes the orchid by transporting its pollen. Wasp and orchid, as heterogeneous elements, form a rhizome. It could be said that the orchid imitates the wasp, reproducing its image in a signifying fashion (mimesis, mimicry, lure, etc.). But this is true only on the level of the strata-a parallelism between two strata such that a plant organization on one imitates an animal organization on the other. At the same time, something else entirely is going on: not imitation at all but a capture of code, surplus value of code, an increase in valence, a veritable becoming, a becoming-wasp of the orchid and a becoming-orchid of the wasp. Each of these becomings brings about the deterritorialization of one term and the reterritorialization of the other; the two becomings interlink and form relays in a circulation of intensities pushing the deterritorialization ever further. There is neither imitation nor resemblance, only an exploding of two heterogeneous series on the line of flight composed by a common rhizome that can no longer be attributed to or subjugated by anything signifying.

A rhizome has a circular relationship amongst the elements of its assemblage. A book’s relationship with the world is one such example. A book is never a copy of the world. Its meaning changes with the world. The book changes how we view the world, and this in turn changes how we view the book. G&D noted:

contrary to a deeply rooted belief, the book is not an image of the world. It forms a rhizome with the world, there is an aparallel evolution of the book and the world; the book assures the deterritorialization of the world, but the world effects a reterritorialization of the book, which in turn deterritorializes itself in the world (if it is capable, if it can).

G&D noted that a rhizome is characterized by connections and heterogeneity – any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be. Heterogeneity simply means the different or non-identical components in the rhizome. Coming back to the example of the pack of organisms, I am reminded of the idea of complexity. Often, complexity is denoted by the numerous connections within a collective that lead to unforeseen and nonlinear results. Things somewhat make sense when we look backwards. A very good example of a complex phenomenon is child rearing. No matter how many kids you raise, every experience is unique. There is nothing that you can do that will ensure a fixed outcome. There are however several heuristics that might help you along the way. Giving a loving and caring home is a great heuristic for example.

Understanding the idea of a rhizome helps me also understand complexity better. To me, complexity is about possibilities. It is about the numerous connections that are made. Every point is able to connect to any other point. There is no fixed outcome expected. There are mostly nonlinear relationships in a rhizome. The start and the end are boring parts; the excitement is always in the middle. Complexity is in the middle. G&D noted each chapter as a plateau in their book. From this standpoint, a rhizome is also a plateau – just the middle. G&D were French, and they used the term “milieu” to denote the middle. They used the term also because it stood for context. Complexity is all about context. There is no one way for a rhizome. A rhizome is what a rhizome does. You cannot copy what worked in one situation and expect the same outcome from a different situation. A rhizome changes with time. Complexity changes with time. This implies that along with asking what is complexity, we should also ask WHEN is complexity?

Stafford Beer, the eminent Management Cybernetician, viewed variety as the unit for complexity. In Cybernetics, variety is the number of possible states of a collective. For example, a light switch has two states, ON and OFF. The more connections an assemblage has, the more variety it possesses. The more variety something has, the more complex it becomes. A human being has more variety than a switch. A switch is somewhat predictable, while a human being is not. A collection of human beings is even more complex. A human is a rhizome. A collection of human beings is a rhizome. A collection of human beings in their environment is also a rhizome. As I noted before, I see complexity in terms of possibilities. A light switch does not have a lot of possibilities. A light switch, some wires, circuit boards, electronic components and a very curious child have a lot of possibilities. Wherever there are connections, there is a rhizomatic possibility. Wherever elements come together as an assemblage and interact, there is a rhizomatic possibility. The possibility comes from a decentralized space. Every word and every thought are part of a rhizome. This post is also a rhizome with you, the reader.

A rhizome has to remain only a metaphor for complexity or else it fails what G&D intended. It cannot be an exact image of complexity. It cannot be the only way to explain complexity.

G&D were inspired by the great cybernetician and anthropologist Gregory Bateson. They got the idea of a plateau from Bateson. I will finish with a great quote from Bateson:

What is the pattern that connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose, and all four of them to me? And me to you?

This post is also available as a podcast here –

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Please take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and Always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was View from the Left Eye – Modes of Observing:

3 thoughts on “Complexity is in the Middle:

  1. Like rhizome is a metaphor for complexity, so metaphor is a rhizome (root) for complexity.

    Using metaphors we deterritorialize a subject into an object. We “make” an actual tree – figuratively “taking it out of a forest” – into an “imagined tree” – and “put it into a brain”, where it “roots” like a rhizome. Like rhizomes, metaphors “take root” and “grow” in the subterraneous / subconscious mind, now and then putting out “lateral metaphors”. Like your well written contributions.

    I nowadays make a distinctions between metaphor-in-use, real images being used, like an actual orchid / wasp re-imagining each other and metaphor-espoused, the words in which we express the images. Like the words orchid / wasp..

    We adopt the word “complexity” (metaphor-espoused) referring to images of “complexes”, (metaphor-in-use) like roots of trees, forests, ecosystems, … With using “complexity” we can both deterritorialize a complex territory and define our turf, our territory. As we require others to understand our uses of the word. You’ve put the rhizome back into nature.


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