Cyberspace as tool and theatre in the struggle for social change

Part 2 – Linear vs Rhizomatic structures

A lot of exciting things have been happening in cyberspace lately: on the one hand, more and more people are using the internet to propagate and coordinate social resistance in a multitude of forms; while on the other hand governments and industry-chieftains become more and more convinced of the need to establish a tighter grip of control over cyberspace in order to protect their own interests and maintain the traditional relationships of power that have helped to serve these interests. I guess it should come as no surprise then, that some people have actually declared 2011 as  ‘the first year of the cyberwar’.

In this series of columns I’ll try to give an in-depth treatment of the different phenomena that are unfolding within this context, giving some background info on these issues as well as putting these developments in a larger (historical) perspective and distilling some practical tips and teachings on how to use cyberspace as a tool and theatre in the struggle for social change. In the previous episode of this series, I introduced the concept of the ‘digital reformation’ as developed by Steven McGeady; in this second episode, I want to talk about linear versus rhizomatic structures, thereby claiming that what we see happening today is in large part a logical consequence of exactly this transition from linear modes of thinking and organizing society towards this new approach and perspective based on the concept of the rhizomatic network. Enjoy… 😉

Linear Causality vs Overdetermination

Pretty much all human thought-systems are – and always have been – firmly based on a simple and straightforward vision of causality that is probably exemplified most clearly in the newtonian perspective on mechanics and its famous ‘third law of motion’: a certain cause results in a certain effect, so therefore a certain effect is said to be determined by a certain cause. Or, put in stricter newtonian terms: The mutual forces of action and reaction between two bodies are equal, opposite and collinear. It is no surprise then, that in traditional (propositional) logic, a whole bunch of inference and implication rules are based upon this premisse (e.g. modus ponens, modus tollens, hypothetical syllogism, constructive dillema, transposition, material implication, etc.). This perspective has indeed proven to be very practical in a lot of domains and has allowed humanity to gain an ever wider and more efficient control and mastery over its own (natural) environment and has also spawned a lot of technological advancements.

With the emergence of quantum dynamics some 100 years ago though, it soon became clear that a whole lot of other domains and phenomena are just not that simple and straightforward as Newton had made us believe them to be. Moreover, it was rapidly understood that this new perspective was much more suited to analyze most of the things social scientists occupy themselves with than the old newtonian model. This new perspective on causality of course also meant that the inference and implication rules of propositional logic I mentioned earlier could no longer be viewed as self-evident, and thus new logic systems would be developped (e.g. Brouwer’s intuitionist logic) in which these rules would no longer be accepted. It is no coincidence then, that around the same time Sigmund Freud coined the concept of ‘overdetermination’ as one of the cornerstones of his theory of psychoanalysis. What Freud wanted to express with this concept was the idea that a single observed effect is actually determined by multiple causes at once (any one of which alone might be enough to account for the effect). To illustrate this there is a much used example of the firing squad: the members of such a squad simultaneously fire at and thus ‘kill’ their target, but – at least apparently –  no specific member can be said to have directly caused the victim’s death (since everyone fired at the same time). Yet any one of the squad’s individual members firing at the victim alone would have been a sufficient cause for the victim’s death.

This concept of overdetermination was quickly taken up by such diverse fields as analytic philosophy, literary criticism, the philosophy of language, political theory and many others. It was the French marxist theorist Louis Althusser though who gave the term its most well-known articulation in his influential 1985 essay called ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination’. For him, the idea of overdetermination was to be used as a way of thinking about the multiple and often opposed forces active at the same time in any political situation, without falling into an over-simplified idea of these forces being simply contradictory. It was thus possible to point at a variety of causes that played a role in bringing about a certain effect, without pinning any of these forces down as the primordial reason that directly caused the specific effect in question: it could be said what effect had been realized and what forces had helped to bring this about, but there was no longer a clear linear relationship between any of these causes and the ultimate effect they had produced together. Or in other words: the quest for origins and endings, the search for isolated causes and effects, the inquiry into linear and unambiguous chains and relationships of causality that had hitherto dominated the sciences, had simply become irrelevant…

A short sidenote on memes and 20th century French philosophy

In a future episode of this series, I will talk about the theory of memes and the way ideas tend to spread, mutate and evolve through the exchange of theories, experiences and thoughts within a given network of interconnected individuals; rather than just suddenly springing to life within the mind of some isolated individual genius. For now though, it will suffice to say that it is thus no coincidence that new types of ideas and theories are often coined quasi-simultaneously by different individuals within a given network. In the world of academics, this interconnected network is of course established by conferences, lectures, magazines and informal personal contact; all of which facilitate this mutual exchange of concepts and ideas.

So instead of focusing on the ideas of any given individual, it is way more interesting and elucidating to discern certain lineages of though and their relative importance or influence within a given network. Now, in 20th century French philosophy, there had tradionally been a few dominant lineages of thought: there was a structuralist lineage running from Ferdinand de Saussure over Claude Lévi-Strauss to the post-structuralist approach taken by the group of theorists assembled around the Tel Quel magazine to what would become known as postmodernist philosophy; a phenomenological lineage running from Edmund Husserl over Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer to theorists like Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty; a psychoanalytic lineage running from Josef Breuer over Sigmund Freud and Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault to Jacques Lacan to Michel Foucault, Félix Guattari and others; and – most importantly – a dialectical lineage running from Immanuel Kant over Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to Alexandre Kojéve, Simon de Beauvoir and (once again) Jean-Paul Sartre to Guy Debord and the Situationist International to Pierre Bourdieu, Louis Althusser and many, many others.

Untill the 1970’s, this last lineage of dialectic thought – and especially the work of Karl Marx – had been the most important influence on French philosophy. From the 1970’s onwards though, this hegemonic dominance of Marxist thought became replaced by the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche. (Keep in mind the concept of overdetermination here: There are always multiple and often contradictory forces at play at the same time, and thus we can discern the influence of different lineages of thougth in the work of any given individual, which are then combined and expressed in a unique style, expressing that particular individual’s personality and peculiarities. So although it can be said that first Marx and then Nietzsche have had the most influence on French philosophy during the 20th century; there has also always been a clear and distinct influence of the structuralist lineage, which could be said to be the defining trait of French philosophy throughout the whole of the 20th century. If for instance postmodernism has been the most famous expression of French philosophy during the latter part of the 20th century, it is clearly the combination of the structuralist lineage with nietzschean thought that has most profoundly shaped this postmodernist philosophy.)

Now what exactly did this shift from Marx to Nietzsche mean for 20th century French philosophy? Whereas the dialectical lineage, and thus the work of Marx, had firmly rested on the newtonian, mechanistic perspective of linear causality where isolated subjects and causes determine social evolution in a very straightforward way (a given thesis causes a contradictory antithesis to emerge and the tension between these two forces is then resolved or sublated in a new synthesis); it was precisely Nietzsche who was one of the first western philosophers to formulate a much more dynamic view on social evolution in which reality was seen as an ongoing and neverending struggle between a multitude of opposing and even contradictory forces, without any prospect of the tensions between these forces being resolved. (On a side note: It is indeed no coincidence that one of the first results of this new nietzschean influence on French philosophy was exactly the declaration of the death of the subject.)

The Rhizomatic Network

Which finally brings us to the work of Gilles Deleuze and his concept of the Rhizomatic network (which he developed in collaboration with Félix Guattari). Let me first make some preliminary remarks about the person Deleuze though, for there is clearly something quite odd and mysterious about the man: living a rather recluse life and being quite secretive about his personal biography, he was both somewhat of an outsider to and one of the most important influences on French philosophy from the 1960’s onwards. Drawing from a very broad range of influences encompassing all of the important lineages of French thought mentioned above (and more), he clearly was a product of his time and one of the most important innovators of French philosophy and a huge source of inspiration for his contemporaries. (The entire work of Jacques Derrida, for instance, can be viewed as a further expansion and thematization of Deleuze’s 1968 ‘Difference and Repitition’, while Michel Foucault – who was a very close friend of Deleuze – said in his 1970 ‘Theatrum Philosophicum’ that: “one day, perhaps, this century will be called Deleuzian”.) It should be no surprise then that it was Deleuze, through his 1962 ‘Nietzsche and Philosophy’ and other works, who almost single-handedly made Nietzsche – who was until then most commonly viewed as a reactionary mystic who was most well-known for inspiring the ideas and values on which nazi-germany had been built – acceptable as a source of inspiration for a wide array of French philosophers, thus preparing the shift from Marx to Nietzsche mentioned earlier. Due to his reclusive nature though, Deleuze long remained far less known amongst the general public than many of his contemporaries, who actually achieved a more or less rockstar-like status.

But anyway, let’s get to the concept of the rhizomatic network:  first coined in the second volume of Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘Capitalism and Schizophrenia’ entitled ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ (1980), the idea of the rhizome was meant to be a model for the analysis of reality and the description of a certain mode of knowledge firmly based on the dynamic perspective of a continuing struggle of opposing and contradictory forces and thus an overdetermined conception of causality. To better clarify what they exactly mean with that, the authors contrast the rhizome with more traditional linear or ‘arborescent’ (= tree-like) models of knowledge and reality: whereas an arborescent conception of knowledge works with dualist categories and binary choices, rhizomatic theory and research allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation. So while an arborescent model works with vertical and linear connections, a rhizome works with planar and trans-species connections. To illustrate this last point, the authors draw on the biological concept of mutualism, in which two different species interact together to form a multiplicity (= a unity that is multiple in itself). Or in other words: the rhizome resists the organizational structure of the root-tree system which charts causality along chronological lines and looks for the originary source of ‘things’ and looks towards the pinnacle or conclusion of those ‘things’. A rhizome, on the other hand, is characterized by “ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles.” So, rather than narrativize history and culture, the rhizome presents history and culture as a map or wide array of attractions and influences with no specific origin or genesis, for a “rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.” The planar movement of the rhizome resists chronology and organization, instead favoring a nomadic system of growth and propagation. In this model, culture spreads like the surface of a body of water, spreading towards available spaces or trickling downwards towards new spaces through fissures and gaps, eroding what is in its way: The surface can be interrupted and moved, but these disturbances leave no trace, as the water is charged with pressure and potential to always seek its equilibrium, and thereby establishing smooth space.

To put all this in a more simple language: the rhizome is a network of interconnected nodes in which any node can be reached by any other, without there being some fixed point(s) of entry or exit within the network: the rhizome is that which “connects any point to any other point, while 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. It is composed not of units but of dimensions, or rather directions in motion. It has neither beginning nor end, but always a milieu from which it grows and which it overspills. The rhizome proceeds by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots. The rhizome pertains to a map that is always detachable, connectable, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways and exits.” This rhizomatic network is thus, according to Deleuze and Guattari, governed by six basic principles:


  • 1 and 2. The principles of connection and heterogeneity: any point of a rhizome can (and must) be connected to any other, while these different interconnected points can have a radical different nature
  • 3. The principle of multiplicity: the multiple has to be treated as a substantive “multiplicity”: a unity that is multiple in itself
  • 4. The principle of asignifying rupture: the relations between different nodes of the network may be deterritorialized (= broken off or destroyed) in a sudden and even violent manner without causing harm to the rhizomatic network itself: it will start again along one of its old lines, or form new lines. In other words: the rhizomatic network itself is actually indestructible
  • 5 and 6: The principles of cartography and decalcomania: a rhizome is not amenable to any structural or generative model: it is a “map and not a tracing”, while any node can leave its imprint (or a copy) on any other node without the original node being destroyed

Strongly connected with this concept of the rhizomatic network is the idea of what Deleuze and Guattari call ‘nomadology’: the pathways and lines of interconnectedness that make up the rhizomatic network allow for nomadic movement to take place, while – according to the authors – the centralized state always depends on arborescent structures (e.g. totalizing forms of philosophy, repressive and / or bureaucratic institutions, etc.) to discipline and suppress rhizomatic modes of thought and nomadic movement which necessarily creates an openness that undermines the state. (Notice that ‘the state’ should be viewed here as any system or structure of centralized power that aims at suppressing openness, rather than a nation-state as such.)

Of course it is important to keep in mind that, when Deleuze and Guattari developed the concept of the rhizome, it was more meant as an ideal and a model for analysis than a description of a ‘real’ material reality. Since then though, the emergence of the internet (= global network infrastructure – established by the late 1980’s) and the world wide web (= network protocol that allows different nodes to establish connections with each other – established by 1991) materialized this concept of the rhizomatic network in a tangible reality. In fact, it could well be said that the only ‘real’ rhizomatic network we know today is exactly cyberspace. This means that, in Deleuzian terms, cyberspace is the quintessential ‘war machine’ that enables present-day nomads to fight against the different ‘state machines’ of this world.

What the repercussions of this real life rhizomatic network have been in the context of gatekeeping, information-management and relationships of power, will be the topic of the next episode of this series. Until then, you might just as well start practicing yourself in the fine art of nomadology… So long! 😉


Bram Langmans is a columnist at Social Resistance, chief editor at and a founding member of