Rhizomes and Civic Decentralization


How can we design our communities in a way that we encourage an inclusive journey of contribution and well-being for all our residents? How can we create environments where everyone has an opportunity to realize their place – whatever and wherever that may be? Resorting to traditional social and civic institutions and the hierarchies that reinforce them is not the solution. We need new alternatives – and what better place to look than in nature.

One of nature’s most effective means of sustainability is the rhizome. The rhizome is a modified subterranean stem of a plant that is usually found underground, often sending out roots and shoots from its nodes. Rhizomes develop from axillary buds and grow perpendicular to the force of gravity. The rhizome also retains the ability to allow new shoots to grow upwards if resources permit. If a rhizome is separated into pieces, each piece may be able to give rise to a new plant – and a new node of above ground activity.

In 2016, during the construction of my blog series On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” I came across A Thousand Plateaus and the philosophies of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. I was especially intrigued how Deluze and Guattari extrapolated the  rhizome functionality to visualize an alternative view of societal development.

“A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles … the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states … The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots.” A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. (A Thousand Plateaus)

Deleuze and Guattari broke down their rhizomatic social philosophy into components. From these components we can engineer our own version of a locally based civic engagement platform that nurtures inclusion, self-expression and permission on a community level.

  • Rhizome: Rather than using the organizational structure of the root-tree system which charts causality along chronological lines and looks for the single origin of “things” and towards its conclusion, a rhizome continually establishes connections between threads of meaningful communication, organizations of power, and other influences (including arts, sciences, and social struggles). The planar movement of the rhizome resists chronology and formal organization, instead favoring a nomadic system of growth and proliferation. In this model, influence spreads like the surface of a body of water, spreading towards available spaces or in the application of a community – maximizing the resources available to it, regardless of the type.
  • Nomad: Nomadism is a way of life that exists outside of the traditional organizational or societal norm (at least in modern times). The nomad is a way of being in the middle or between points. It is characterized by movement and change unfettered by systems of organization. The goal of the nomad is only to continue to move within the “intermezzo.” (the journey rather than the destination). This constant state activity prevents itself from existing for the sake of existing as conventional organizations and institutions most often do. Its purpose is to make things happen, to find opportunities and solutions; not just to “be”. This nomadic behavior also lends itself to focusing on what interests each of us and where we can contribute the most, rather than just working within the constraints of a pre-ordained, often inefficient, role or job. In short, being a nomad can greatly enhance ones sense of engagement and well-being. Or according to the Danish philosopher Søren Kiekegaard – being the evolved man.”
  • Smooth Space: The platform or naked infrastructure on which the community and its “need and opportunity based activities” operate is called the Smooth Space. This platform is not formally defined, but rather takes the form of the influences and experiences that inhabit it. These influences can include meaningful communications as well as social norms, ideals and community expectations. In the context of Community 3.0, the Smooth Space emanates from the Front Porch network, through the members of the community who are frequent them as they create the community’s societal norms. What a community does and creates with its Smooth Space will determine the well-being of its populace. It’s the Smooth Space that defines the community’s consciousness and personality created from the intangible, serendipitous, sensual and tactical engagements of all the members of its community (i.e. empathy, creativity, collaboration and self-actualization).
  • Body Without Organs: Body Without Organs is what happens on the Smooth Space. It is the result of what the rhizome social philosophy using the nomadic actions of its components (residents) operating on the Smooth Space. In itself the Body Without Organs has no form until the variables of the community are injected into it. The community’s overall state of well-being are the results of the interactions between its members and businesses; it’s its Body Without Organs. It can take a conservative form or a progressive one. NIMBYism and gated communities or more communal. Tolerant and welcoming or closed and silos. Wall Street or Main Street. These actions built on the consciousness contained in its Smooth Space is who your community truly is.