Friday, May 20, 2005

Rhizome Mannerism, or The Knight of Faith on a Thousand Plateaus

I've been thinking a bit about postmodernism and the avant-garde lately, and not just because I'm an effete and pretentious intellectual (although I'm certainly all that, oh mandarin me, oh my). Louis Armand wrote from Prague a few weeks ago, asking me to contribute to a collection of essays on the possibilities of avant-gardism under postmdern conditions. I've got a plan for that paper, and it doesn't look anything like the wierd little idea I'm going to lay down today, but today's notion is a kind of fallout from Armand's assignment.

So here's the deal: the Knight of Faith must traverse a thousand plateaus.

Cryptic, eh? It's my overly effete way of saying that the kind of postmodernism articulated by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari needs to be challenged by a kind of thinking best symbolized by the Knight of Faith, a figure drawn from that somewhat dusty tome of Soren Kierkegaard's, Fear and Trembling.

Remember Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus? It was the sequel to their Anti-Oedipus, and is probably best known as the book in which they describe the rhizome as a form of intellectual organization appropriate to our postmodern condition. Traditionally, they maintain, we treat form as a kind of tree-root: that is, we think of good organization as unified organization, with all the various roots and branches of our discourse coming together in a single unified trunk. Think of the last class you taught or took in composition, and you've got the idea. All parts are suborinate to the whole, and the work is put together hierarchically. If we're talking about an essay, the individual sentences serve the topic sentence of the paragraph, and the topic sentences serve the overall thesis -- you know, that sort of thing. And the same goes for a traditional novel. Think of something like Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. In a book like that, the parts (fancy deconstructions notwithstanding) tend to add up to a pretty coherent whole. Sue and Arabella, the women in the very spiritual Jude's life, serve as foils for one another (one being presented in intellectual terms, the other in bodily terms). The settings (farm town, university town, cathedral town) play up the theme of body vs. mind vs. soul, and so on. A big old oak tree, that book.

But that's all old-school, as far as Deleuze and Guatarri are concerned. And so is the kind of organization they call the fascicule. This, they say with some disdain, was beloved by the modernists. Man, do I hate the casual dismissiveness in their book -- I mean, I think they've got something important to say, but that whole "people who wrote before us must have been naive because that was a long time ago" thing is a bit hard to swallow. What's next? "They're dead, ergo they couldn't have been up to much"? But I digress. Deleuze and Guatarri's image for the fascicule is a bunch of roots severed from the trunk that would have held them together. So imagine a bunch of fragments that don't seem, at first, to add up -- but then hey presto, they do, if you can infer the principle that once held them together. The big modernist works really do fit this model pretty well: T.S. Eliot's Waste Land looks like a collection of miscellenious bric-a-brac, but when you pick up Jessie Weston's book on the grail myth, you suddenly see how it all holds together. James Joyce's Ulysses is another instance of the fascicular text, maybe even of the fascicular text par excellence. I taught it for the first time this spring, and while it struck many of my students as something of a shitpile of unrelated wierdness at first, once they got their hands on the Linati Schema (a kind of secret-decoder-ring cheatsheat Joyce made for his pal Carlo Linati), everything fell into place for them. I mean, judging by their papers, they nailed that book (did I mention I really think we get some kickass students at Lake Forest? Really. I've taught at big universities and small, in Europe and America, and these kids are alright). So the fasciule is the apparently fragmentary text that can be unified by a kind of heroic act of interpretive inference.

And then there's the rhizome, the form D and G really like. They claim that the best way to think of it is as a system of roots like what you'd find in a potato field. My botanist colleague tells me that potato plants aren't rhizomes, though, indicating that French theorists are just about as in touch with potato-picking as you'd expect them to be. Luckily, Deleuze and Guatarri give another image for the rhizome: a series of interlocking tunnels, a kind of prairie-dog village of text (as a kid from the Canadian prairies, I prefer this anyway). You've got bits and pieces that intersect in all sorts of ways, and other bits that don't connect with anything. You've got modules, nodules, and overlaps, without a single unifying hermeneutic master-key. I think Pound's Cantos are kind of like this, even though Pound didn't want them to be ("I cannot make it cohere!" he laments, near the end). Kathy Acker's books always seem this way to me, too. There's cohesion here and there in all sorts of sideways fashions, but nothing like the clear order, the subordination of part to whole that you see in Thomas Hardy. D and G, I suppose I should say, don't just propose the rhizome as a strategy for literary form -- these guys are serious. They want us to reorganize all sorts of things (psychology, the various social sciences, etc.) on rhizomatic principles. But it works for literature too.

But you knew all that, right? I mean, the rhizome seems pretty well established in the hipper American poetry and litcrit circles. In fact (and this at last starts to bring me to my point) I think it's become a bit of a mannerism in some circles, and I suppose that's why I want to have a good thwhack at it, using Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling as my thwacking-implement. It is a bit unfortunate Kierkegaard's book is so slim, especially in the bantam-weight Penguin edition I own -- otherwise I could work up a cool image of squashing a rhizome-grown potato with a big weighty tome of Danish philosophy. Alas.

Anyway. The rhizome as mannerism, even as cliche -- it first occured to me at one of the Modernist Studies Association conventions, I think the one up in Wisconsin, at that great lakeside convention center designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. I was hanging out by a TV set up in the corridor, watching Notre Dame lose to some henious team of steroid-gulping mutants. I did this with, oddly enough, a fully-costumed, giant-shoe-wearing clown as a companion (he was there to entertain some kids who were part of a non-MSA event down the hall). Turning away in disgust from the Flounderin' Irish, I overheard a gaggle of my fellow academics on the way into a panel. "My paper's even more modular and fragmentary than usual!" one said with pride. "Ooh, mine too!" said another, not to be outdone. So there it was: more-rhizomic-than-thou was the order of the day. It was around this time, too, that I started to get a lot of student writing workshop pieces that took great pride in not adding up, in being collections of miscellaneous parts. When I would ask about the criteria of selection, or about how the various stands related I'd get pitying sighs, followed by the weary statement that "it's postmodern." Some of these were actually quite good -- especially one about an imaginary earth where the sky had been converted into a videodome projecting Disney images. But the point is that there seemed to be a climate of expectation in which ones intellectual or writerly bona fides were established by the rhizome. It was the new minor 6-4-1-5 chord progression, the go-to form for the culturally hip. And, as a new orthodoxy (or micro-orthodoxy -- a way of showing one belongs in advanced circles), it deserves a challenge. Enter, from the west gate of my imaginary Medieval Times jousting arena, Kierkegaard's Knight of Faith. Since the potato analogy turns out to be false, I suppose we'll have to imagine his rhizomic opponent as a giant prairie dog.

The Knight of Faith is Kierkegaard's figure for the person who could, against all the evidence of the world, struggle through and achieve faith in divine providence ("on the strength of the absurd" Kierkegaard says -- and you see right away why the existentialists loved him). Abraham, willing to sacrifice Isaac, is the embodiment of this kind of faith. Kierkegaard brings this up because what he sees all around him in the university coffee shops of Copenhagen is a kind of easy, breezy dismissal of faith. Everyone, he says, is talking about "getting beyond faith" -- and he's not sure we've even got to faith in the first place. Here's how he puts in in the preface to Fear and Trembling, written in the persona of Johannes de Silento: "Today nobody will stop with faith; they all go further. It would perhaps be rash to inquire where to, but surely a mark of urbanity and good breeding on my part to assume that in fact everyone does indeed have faith, otherwise it would be odd to talk of going further. In those old days it was different. For then faith was a task of a whole lifetime, not a skill thought to be acquired in either days or weeks."

Do not freak out. I am not about to lay some Christian trip on you, despite my earlier reference to Notre Dame. It isn't religious faith I'm interested in here, but the idea of trying to get beyond something that we may not even be able to achieve in the first place. Substitute "formal coherence" for "faith" in the above passage, and you'll have a sense of where we are now: we often disdain the tree-root and fascicle of textual coherence as mere modernism (D and G sure do), but there's some question as to whether we're even up to that level of achievement.

I'm not saying we should ditch the rhizome and try to write like Thomas Hardy. Hey, some of my best friends write rhizomes. But I am concerned about the idea of the rhizome being received uncritically. I don't want the prairie dog stamped out, but I think it will be stronger for having wrestled with the Knight of Faith. I mean, we should ask ourselves: is this rhizome more or less interesting than it would have been with a greater degree of coherence? I suppose my biggest concern is that the rhizome has become a kind of marker of advanced style, and that we may find poets writing rhizomatically because they come to think that that's what they're supposed to do as experimental poets (there's a contradiction for you: doing what you're supposed to do to be experimental). Just as the old saw "show me, don't tell me" became a cliche of American poetry in the writing workshops of the 70s, I think we may be in a period where the unexamined assumption in some circles is that tree-root or fascicular coherence is for chumps, and the rhizome is the only way to go.

(Picture: Catherine Daly, author of DaDaDa

Looking at some poems from Catherine Daly's DaDaDa may be one way of getting at what's at stake here. Not only is she an interesting poet with whom I share both a publisher and (oddly) a blog format and background (check it out at: -- she writes in both the rhizomatic and the fascicular mode. The two extended sequences of poems near the start of DaDaDa are good examples of rhizomic and fascicular poetics, respectively. The first sequence, "Palm Anthology," is a loose collection of notes in which the language of technology -- specifically the Palm Pilot PDA -- gets twisted up with the language of a kind of kinky eros. The effect is intertesting, but unless I'm missing something Daly doesn't try to get it add up into a coherent whole. She's more interested, here, in a field of intersections and ruptures than in an overall structure. In contrast to this we have "Mistress Plot," the second sequence. Here Daly gives us fragments again, but they seem to represent a catalog of all possible (or at any rate all common) patriarchal plots about women. What looks fragmentary at first is in fact united, and you can infer the principle of coherence. This one is really good, and reminds me more than anything else of one of those old-school books of structuralist criticism, like Barthes' A Lover's Discourse, in which the author anatomizes a cultural system. Daly's got some kind of engineering background and it shows here. She knows how to break something down into parts. This is where her real genius lies, but she seems pulled by the forces of period style to write in rhizomes more than in fascicles. I can't wait for her next book (which should come soon, since she's astonishingly prolific) but I hope it has more of what is particular to her, and less of what the age seems to demand of its hipper poets.