Melvin’s Neighborhood: behind the scenes


Rhizomes and Decentralized Civic Engagement

Biologists say trees are social beings. They can count learn and remember. They nurse sick members, warn each other of dangers by sending electrical signals across a fungal network and for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through roots. (Marije van Zomeren)

To find an organizational model built around an ideal of resource maximization and decentralized civic participation, we should to look outdoors to 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. Its 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 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.

Resistance flower cartoon

“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 non-sign 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)

This phenomena of decentralized activity in rhizomes was best articulated in the philosophy or Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in the ’60s. From a societal perspective, 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 looks towards conclusion of those “things”: 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 nomadic system of growth and proliferation. In this depiction, influence and application proliferates like the surface of a body of water, spreading towards available spaces or in the application of community – maximizing the resources available to it, regardless of the type. This is a perfect alternative to the hierarchical governmental morass of dysfunction we’re current immersed in.

First we must build the vehicle. This vehicle is not a place or even a thing, but the collective journey of those in our community. It’s about movement. This journey happens on a metaphoric road or as Deleuze and Guattari call it, the Smooth Space.

  • The platform or naked infrastructure on which the community and in turn its array of “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 that inhabit it. These influences can include existing organizations (government and other), and meaningful serendipitous communication. In the context of Melvin’s Neighborhood; the Smooth Space is largely your community’s small business network and miscellaneous NGOs (Front Porches), those in the community who are their customers and members. What a community does and creates with its Smooth Space will determine the well-being of its populace. It is the duty of the rhizome structure and its Smooth Space to nurture the intangible, serendipitous, sensual and tactically constructive engagements from all the members of its community.

The Smooth Space is just a shell though. Who we allow in and how we empower them to form is really what matters. It can consist of extraordinary activity … or none at all. Those included must not be limited by the title and organization on their business card – but rather be a diverse array of participants (void of socioeconomic distinction); all able move freely like a nomad traveling where the sustenance and opportunities lie.

  • 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, and is unfettered by systems of organization. The goal of the nomad is to continue to move within the “intermezzo.” (emphasizing the journey rather than the destination) – in search of opportunity. This constant state activity prevents itself from existing for the sake of existing as conventional organizations and institutions most often do. The goal is to find opportunities and solutions and make things happen; not just to “be”. This nomadic behavior also lends itself to the individual focusing on what interests them and where they can contribute the most, rather than just working within the constraints of a pre-defined (often inefficient) role, job or other outlet. In short, being a nomad can greatly enhance ones sense of engagement and well-being. Or according to the Danish philosopher Søren Kiekegaard, be the evolved man.

Once we have the vehicle and the people … we need the fuel. The fuel is the processes and the sociological prodding needed to metaphorically propel the vehicle down the road. It’s not so much a thing, but the result of a community’s past behavior – or as I refer to as the Consciousness of Community. Deleuze and Guattari called this formless set of influences the Body Without Organs.

  • Body Without Organs is what happens. It is the result of what the rhizome social philosophy using the nomadic actions of its components 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 result of the interactions between its residents (permanent and temporary). These determine the norms, values and societal expectations of the community. It is its Body Without Organs. It can take a conservative form or a progressive one; NIMBYism and gated communities, or collaborative and communal; closed and silos, or tolerant and welcoming; Wall Street or Main Street. This is the community’s personality (extent of collective empathy, creativity, compassion, collaboration and self-actualization). But rather than this personality being dictated by those in the high rungs of a traditionally mandated hierarchy – it will come to form through the participation of those who live there … those on the streets, no matter their social stature. How the community directly responds to its needs and opportunities will be what it is.