What Has Grass Got To Do With The Web?


Well, to answer the question the title posits, we need to turn to Deleuze & Guattari and their concept of the rhizomatic structure.  It’s such an interesting theory, particularly as, written in 1980, it seems to foretell much of the way the Web has grown, and indeed, continues to grow.

In the introduction to their important work A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Deleuze & Guattari compare the arborescent structure of trees with the rhizomatic structure of grass, claiming that

The tree is filiation, but the rhizome is alliance, uniquely alliance.  The tree imposes the verb ‘to be,’ but the fabric of the rhizome is the conjunction, ‘and…and…and’  This conjunction carries enough force to shake and uproot the verb ‘to be.’

This structure in which one is ‘always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo‘ is one which travels horizontally and consists of a series of plateaus: ‘a continuous, self-vibrating region of intensities whose development avoids any orientation toward a culmination point or external end’.

A good online example of this is the blog.  Constructed of a series of posts, it offers an articulation of the rhizome through its refusal to begin and end.  When we sit down to read a blog, we rarely read it chronologically – we are encouraged through tagging and links embedded within the text to move freely through the blog.  Unlike the codex, which traditionally constructs the reading experience from cover to cover, the blog offers a more organic understanding of the text.

Similarly, the way we are choosing to narrate our own subjective experiences through online tools appropriates the rhizomatic structure.  One only has to look at a lifestream aggregator such as FriendFeed or StoryTlr to see that we are generating multiple narratives in multiple locations, through multiple media.

If we compare our current interaction and the articulation of our own narratives with the Web as it existed in its earlier incarnation, we can see a correlation to this juxtaposition of the arborescent and the rhizomatic.  In the past, we were presented with static websites that offered no invitation to connect, collaborate or co-create.  These sites existed as complete and finished texts that kept their reader at arms length.

In stark contrast, our experience of the Web as it currently exists is one in which we are always in the middle.  We are never outside the text, regarding a finite textual structure; we are invited in to share, contribute, participate with the text.  Our narratives form a thread within the fabric, refusing the isolationism of old and embracing the richness of hybridity.

Now, as with my thoughts of Bourdieu and De Certeau, these are purely musings which are not intended to stand, as with the web of old, as finite, complete and closed.  I want to invite you in to co-create by asking you to engage with some of these thoughts and to see if some of the connections that I’ve sketched out here resonate with you.

Do you think they’re valid observations?  Are the images of the tree and grass appropriate, effective metaphors for your experience of your relationship to media and, in particular, the Web?  As a reader, how has your reading experience changed with the advent of blogging and other online media designed to help you articulate your own narrative?  What do you believe are some of the reasons for this shift?

8 responses to “What Has Grass Got To Do With The Web?

  1. yep! Absolutely! Couldn’t agree more. When I started my blog (http://heroesnotzombies.wordpress.com) a couple of years ago, I subtitled it “becoming not being….”
    When I was a little boy I dreamed of having a complete set of Encyclopaedia Britannica and when I qualified as a doctor I bought myself a set with my first month’s salary. You know what I like about the encyclopaedia? When you go to look something up, you stumble on a whole host of other interesting things on the way, and if you’ve got a brain like mine, then you follow those threads. (I also liked the cross-referencing in the encyclopaedia, but I now know that cross-referencing is a poor relation to tagging!……well, ok, debatable, but you get my drift)
    The web increasingly develops rhizomatically, and with the Web 2.0 technologies that’s taken a real jump.
    Mind you, it’s these characteristics which make the web, and social networking in particular, so seductive….an hour can go, whooosh! just like that!
    Another phrase in the introduction to “A thousand plateaus” is about the Deleuze and Guattari’s writing process….they say it’s like plateaus which are connected by micro-fissures. I wonder if we’re beginning to see that more clearly with the development of things like tweetups, where one plateau (twitterworld) breaks through into another (TheNewsroomworld??)

  2. Amy, I like the thoughts you present in this post (even though I needed a dictionary to make sure I understood it right).

    I think that grass and trees are great metaphores in this context. But like in nature there are no homogenic systems. We need the grass and the trees. The difference in my opinion between the web as it used to be, and the web as it is today is a difference between cultivated and organic growth.

    The old trees, or static websites, were planted. Companies that wanted oaks, planted oaks. Others wanted to be birches, magnolias or baobabs. When planted together, they’re hardly an eco-system. But one may evolve from there.

    And it did apparently. There’s room for grass, and room for trees. Organically grown as opposed to earlier stages of the web. Wikipedia is a tree as far as I’m concerned, built to last, and growing everyday. Long cycle, a testament of mutual growth.

    Blogs, twitter and other systems for exchanging ideas and thoughts are the grass. Short cycles, testament of individual growth. Learning processes that more or less the same, but with individual variety are created over and over again. The grass grows, flourishes, gets eaten, and grows all over again.

    Then there are all kinds of bushes too 🙂 Maybe those are the social bookmarking sites. Del.icio.us as a tagged log of associated grass and tree cycles.

    That leaves the web as a organic diverse system, evolved from a cultivated forest. An ever growing organic system of plants (with the occasional baobab tree).

    Hey, I like the metaphor!

  3. Pingback: Bridges, paths, connections…. « Heroes Not Zombies

  4. Ah, a new path to follow. I’m not familiar with Deleuze and Guattari, but this seems to provide interesting insight about the dynamic nature of what’s been created and maybe a hint at the ‘self organization’ that could come. Don’t know, however, I do know I’m in over my head when I’m following every vocab link through a wiki. 🙂 ‘Thousand Plateaus’ looks like it could be a good addition to the reading list though.

  5. Weeds have their place as well, which explains Matt Drudge.

  6. You know, if Deleuze is new to you, I recommend you start with Claire Colebrook’s “Giles Deleuze” in the “Routledge Critical Thinkers” series – much, much more accessible and helps you get a handle on his work should you then wish to explore his own writing (well, that’s what I did anyway!)

  7. @boblecridge Much thanks for the recommendation!

  8. I LOVED this! On my own blog, I’ve been exploring the importance of authenticity and unique voice in creating online presence and I’ve been offering different images, for example tapestries, bouquets, mosaics and jigsaws so that readers can find one they can resonate with. I enjoy the idea of the internet as a gallery or a garden and loved this rhizomes analogy, how we’re all central and unique yet interconnected.

    I see my own blog as a drop-in café bistro!

    I love the beauty and simplicity of your other site but love the complexity and depth of your posts here. This one was a breath of fresh air for the brain. So many brain numbingten top tips how to… posts around, repackaging other people’s ten top tips how to…posts.

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