The Rhizome or: Floating Utopian Bubbles on the Sea of Capitalism

From Andy Fedak
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In education, one could imagine a student as a seed.  A seed, that when nourished with water and healthy soil grows into a sapling, which upon graduation is ready to be replanted out in the world.  Continuing this metaphor of academia, nourishment could be the teaching and curriculum, and the location of where this sapling is placed out in the world is within a particular economic environment, that of capitalism.  This sapling has been intentionally bonsai’d to fit into a specific production niche.  Students are prepared to grow within this particular environment’s needs, and schools which have successful growth of their saplings to be strong trees are considered good educational institutions.  They point at this forest and say, “look at our great alumni!”.    We will call this the hierarchical model, a vertical progression from a single point.  

However, we would like to put forward another metaphor for education which does not see a student’s growth as hierarchical, that of the Rhizome.  Rhizome growth is horizontal, forming nodules and connections beneath the surface that are tightly wound.  These meshes then have shoots which break the surface, making up a significant amount of the “perennials” which survive during winter such as ginger and turmeric, and those nasty invasive plants during the summer such as poison oak and ivy.  Grafting this botanic concept back to academia, one could see the Rhizome as multiple students with like minded overall ideas and goals, meshing together to form teams or groups.  These groups could then work together to form hardy and resilient startups in the larger capitalist milieu.  Examples are epochal: Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft - all started out as rhizomes.


These particular examples are intentional.  They all stem from a deep understanding and utilization of technology in a novel and forward thinking way.  In the last 20 years this increase in innovation has mostly been reflected as a “cutting out” of the production pipeline of now needless cogs (i.e. workers), with new and more sophisticated technology.  This savings in funds is then directly applied to the bottom line of the company.  One less worker to pay.  This is not to say that this methodology of using innovation to make money from the “bottom line” is necessarily bad, it’s simply an inherent part of capitalism.  Fortune 500 companies are not charities, nor should we think they are.  But it’s obvious that the traditional educational model of producing “cogs” is slowly being eroded as technology progresses.  As privileged technological understanding becomes more and more rarified,  the job market increasingly becomes more competitive and migratory.  

A rhizome based approach to the market would be to produce proto-companies similar to these startup examples - these groups of students would then not integrate as a cog, but as an actual autonomous entity capable of generating capital.  Instead of being service based, generating parts for production which are paid for directly by larger entities [and thus without access to residuals and other monies stemming from this intellectual property (IP)],  these proto-companies could be incubated within the university - oriented towards generating their own IP, and simultaneously bring this IP into reality upon release.  This incubator orientation allows for the greatest payoff when connecting to contemporary distributors such as Netflix or Amazon, etc - examples being Tonka House, Polygon Pictures, and the forthcoming Blizzard Studios.  Failures of adopting this model are also myriad, for example an oscar winning studio going bankrupt the same year it won the oscar - Rhythms and Hues for Life of Pi.


Thus clearly harnessing technology is important, but what else makes these rhizomes so hyper successful?  As they scaled they tried to maintain the rhizomic ideal.  They all began from a group of like minded individuals whom worked together to form the rhizome that eventually became the “brain trust” of the larger entity you know today.   At Pixar it was Ed Catmull, John Lassester, and Steve Jobs.  Catmull was the technology, Lasseter was the creative, and Jobs was the business.  But on a even deeper level, Pixar oriented its entire company horizontally.  In Ed Catmull’s book on the subject of how Pixar runs, “Creativity, Inc”, he speaks about how the employees of Pixar are their greatest resource, and how each and every one of them can pitch their ideas to the creative leadership - in essence becoming part of that leadership themselves.  

This leads to a new way of thinking that’s been adopted by large scale contemporary creative production, be it cinematic, video games, visual effects, or virtual reality, a way of collaboration focused in a deeply interconnected way.  In essence, in todays production environment, multiple elements can be produced simultaneously: texturing can happen while a scene is lit and animated, a change in the rig (the armature animators use to animate within the computer) can propagate to all shots being worked on throughout an entire production.  This modularity, thus lends itself towards a more collaborative and less “cog” based approach - allowing for each artist the ability to give their input to every piece of the production at any time, making them inherently “part of the whole”.   As technological growth makes these teams more concise and potent, this way of working will allow for an even greater level of creative collaboration.  The more nimble the production, the more creative production.

One could even single that lack of “nimbleness” to the loss of truly creative work from larger studios (game, film, and animation) in the past 20 years.  By moving to a smaller more nimble approach to creative production, budgets would be smaller, but creativity would be much larger.  New work, not fettered to the massive “tent-pole” concept of 200+ million dollars per production and with its “risk adverse” mentality, could be replaced by smarter more edgier ideas.   This is obvious in the quality of films in the seventies and games in the early 2000s - there clearly is a sweet spot in regards to the size of the rhizome which must be studied and understood.  It seems eventually the rhizome will burst if not allowed for off-shoots to happen.  An example being the breaking off of Tanka House from Pixar in 2015 in Animation, and Respawn from Infinity Ward in games 2010.


Within the contemporary creative arts, from visual effects to video games, there is a certain intangible element which no one really talks about.  It’s fun.  People are happy to go to work and in turn produce massive amounts of new content everyday. Naturally, we could go into how this is being exploited throughout the creative world, with wild disparities between pay of executives and those artists actually making the work itself, but none the less, within this simple truth, is the key to the whole rhizomic success.  It has a core of pure anarchistic fun.  And as technology allows for more nimble approaches to creativity, this energy can be harnessed and refined in a purer and purer form.   No workers and no bosses - just artists and art.

Freedom from interference, freedom from the boss, a freedom that makes no sense within the authoritarian dictatorship of the corporation, is possible within the rhizome.  Just imagine for example a student who might have a chance to create their own game with a group of friends.  To have this power suddenly in one’s life - to finally have control - would that not be a flow of nuclear power to their soul?  I have seen this over and over within my own classes - students blossom under this creative freedom.  Obviously, like nuclear power, there is radiation -  it is an energy that must be harnessed.  A child “free” to fend for themselves in the world makes no sense, but to smother this natural instinct of autonomy that generates such amazing energy would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater.   

The rhizome offers a natural non-heretical form which both develops this latent energy, and diffuses it away from a single source of control.  Intrinsically multifaceted, power would be distributed for a specific amount of time towards a goal agreed upon within the group, then dissipate and reform in other areas of the rhizome.  Authorship would be maintained, but the overall rhizome would also be granted a specific creative mark as well.  As in films from Pixar which all have a certain specific style throughout, yet the directors are also known at the same time.  One could even say that game studios have an even more rhizomic based model (such as Naughty Dog and Blizzard), where many of the directors are not known at all outside the gaming development community.  In essence there are already many diverse examples to study on how this “mesh” based approach to working together might happen.


Continuing our seed metaphor, lets further expand it to include the rest of the academic institution.  As mentioned at the beginning, one could see the soil around each rhizome as the curriculum, classes, professors, etc.  The pot holding that soil would be the particular school or college within the university, and other pots close by representing the rest of the educational paths they might follow.  The garden itself, holding all the pots, is of course the university itself.  Here from this metaphorical vantage point we can immediately see one of the major problems with contemporary education today, the siloing of ideas.  Computer science doesn’t talk to computer art, or art puts its nose up to cinema (or vice versa) - these are just a few possible examples, and there are many more for sure, but none-the-less, ironically, students don’t silo, the kids just like everything and everyone.

So what if we cracked the pots open?  The soil and seeds would flow downwards, mixing at their edges into other areas within the university.  Gravity would of course keep these distinct colleges in heaps of soil clearly defining the educational focus they have always been, but as gravity mixes them together, a natural blending would occur at the root level.   This could be represented culturally as the goal of the university itself, to create like-minded groups of students with diverse backgrounds.  The healthy and strong rhizome is one of that has many aspects able to handle any obstacle the competitive outside world might throw at it.  A utopian bubble if you will, utilizing the inherent powers of a socialistic approach with an anarchistic energy, which is then funneled outwards to help it survive in the larger capitalist environment.

Now that was a crazy sentence, but before you role your eyes, note that this appropriation of socialist strategies within capitalism is not new.  If one looks at those commercial entities which have come to dominate our society today, they take on much of what makes socialism useful in order to gain a more powerful foothold on the market and hold down competition.  Massive stores like Walmart and Target, and online entities such as Amazon, are in a way “pooling” energies of a large scale group (here in the vacuum of the general public’s lack of autonomy to do this themselves), in order to demand lower prices from manufacturers.  Like an invasive species dropped into a fertile environment without any predators, these parasitic entities growth stems from their socialistic traits applied within a capitalistic culture.  Entities now so massive that they dwarf most countries in the world in terms of economic impact, and are totalitarian by default (indeed the Walton family has nearly as much money as half all of all living americans).

Universities themselves fund much of the core research that makes nearly all technological, biological, and health science industries work.  These non-profit organizations then hand off much of this research to be commodified by corporations, outside of the university.  Funded much by large endowments, massive student loans, and state aid, it’s important to realize how much of capitalism is socialized.  These are examples are only the tip of the iceberg, so to say corporate welfare has been a wild success would be a massive understatement.


How does one teach for the rhizome?   The core must be creative.  From my own teaching of computer graphics and art over this past decade nearly everything has changed except for one thing, the need for imagination.   Each and every student must be focused towards understanding what a creative choice is, and how to formulate multiple creative choices into a larger project.  It is this development of the creative mind which is distinctively human, and will never be replaced by technology no matter how advanced.  Forever will creativity be the core of who we are, thus the sooner educational institutions focus on how to develop and harness this core human trait, the sooner they will have a sustainable foundation for their curriculums.

The tools used to create these creative pieces and projects are myriad, and make up the technical and conceptual foundation of the student’s studies.  Time will constantly adjust these particular tools, but their always will be tools to be used.  The tools taught will be filmic, philosophical, computer graphics, computer science, studio art - a generalist approach (as apposed to a hyper distinct focus), in order to allow for the most resilient rhizome later.   Once taught, it is the the process of creation of a piece using these tools, understanding the pipeline of how they are used, that is the best way for to solidify their understanding, prepare a student to lead, and be able to be useful when their peers lead as well.  

And finally the students must be mixed continuously throughout their career in academia with each other.  The larger university’s job (as opposed to the college or classroom) would be to mix and match, mix and match, creating opportunities for each student to meet, like electrons floating through space, to find each other, naturally moving in orbit together.  A protostar bringing in more and more similarly interested individuals - creating a vortex allowing for creative life to grow and form, ready to move outwards towards society together.  Each with distinct traits helpful in their productions, a natural entanglement, powered by their own creative intuition, backed up by their peers, and the sheer fun of it all.


A Thousand Plateaus, (The Rhizome),  Gilles Deleuze and  Félix Guattari.

Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace

Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice, Rudolf Rocker

On Anarchism, Noam Chomsky