Rhizomatic vs. Arborescent

The Incredible Hulk and the Rhizome

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This mini-essay concerns two different paths of philosophy, that being rhizomatic: of the rhizome, and arborescent: of the tree. D&G uses the rhizome as the basis for their "schizoanalysis", see the Main Page for a quote. D&G like to postulate and pair ideas in contrast, view them from any angle, but also juxtapose them, see how ideas operate as assemblages, or simply against each other. A lot can be learned this way, which is probably why Capitalism and Schizophrenia seem to be filled to the brim with these versus statements, theses of opposition.

To be fair, it doesn't just extend to haughty French philosophy (that's the entire point of this website), a definition can't really have meaning without a reference point. How does one know good without evil? There will be philosophers and/or religious fundamentalists screaming at their monitors out there, but I don't want to listen to them right now. Point being that dichotomies are a great way to define and understand something, because it creates a context. D&G understand this too, which is why its everywhere.

It's also helpful to know the genesis of schizoanalysis and the rhizomatic way of thinking as almost reactionary, particularly to the ideas and theories of Sigmund Freud, which D&G spend a good chunk of the first half of A Thousand Plateaus discussing, sometimes refuting. They discuss the cases of Little Hans and the Wolf Man, how Freud came to his conclusions, and how he came to "shut down" their rhizomes, reformat them into an arborescent structure. Reading through these parts, it seemed as if this stressed D&G.

The arborescent, as D&G describe, is a hierarchy, a path that you can follow cleanly, you know exactly where you came and exactly where you're going. Nasrullah Mambrol put it into a rather beautiful metaphor: the arborescent relies on "a small idea—a seed or acorn—takes root and grows into a tree with a sturdy trunk supporting numerous branches, all linked to and traceable back to the original seed. The seed or acorn thus is the beginning point of a coherent organic system that grows vertically and progressively, continually sending out branches that are part of, and identical to, the point of origin," (Mambrol). D&G propose that this is the form that modern philosophical and logical ideas take.

However, we live in a postmodern world, where the scientific method can't determine what dreams and nightmares are made of, and we can't calculate how much pain weighs. Does the old structures that we've made and trusted in the past still fit today? It's a case-by-case basis. We can talk all day about how on average men are physically stronger than women, but it's not going to stop you from getting socked in the face by any given person on the street. So how does philosophy form in a postmodern world? The answer is the rhizome, at least that's what D&G say.

The rhizome is anti-arborescent, it is massive in scale and utter size, it is confusing and hard to explain, much like any of D&G's other ideas really. There's no pattern, no sense of things, you can not figure out a context just by looking at it, from near or from far away. If you get super close and specific, then maybe, just maybe you can find a path between nodes. Try and follow it, and you'll just get lost. There's no center either, there isn't one big starting point, and if you try to cut it up into manageable parts, it'll just grow in asymmetric ways again. As stated in another essay, the nature of the rhizome is to tear down, to break striated space and anything else that serves to classify a territory.

Sound familiar?

This initial connection is surface-level, that the Hulk is a rhizome that serves to deterritorialize whatever space he seems to be in, almost seems like a disservice to the complexity that the rhizome brings. Well, this connection is not entirely surface-level, in that the two entities share the same spirit, one that is, once again, in opposition to another entity, which is the arborescent, or whatever seemed to tick off the Hulk at that moment.

I remember making a great deal about boxes when I was first reading A Thousand Plateaus, because I found the rhizome as a destructive force very fascinating. Ironically, I liked the Hulk for the same reasons when I was first introduced to him, only maybe when I was one year old. I knew him as long as I could've known anyone. I would go on to like him more for the psychological and identity conflicts that were always present in Hulk media, but when I was a wee child, I liked destruction. Nick Luxmoore in a Psychology Today article states that "Young people can be as destructive as they can be creative; they can be as violent and as vicious as they can be loving and protective. Fortunately, the loving and protective parts are usually in the ascendency, but it’s important to acknowledge that young people are capable of doing terrible things," (Luxmoore) otherwise we've learned nothing from Lord of the Flies.

Back to boxes. Later in A Thousand Plateaus, there's discussion of the striated and smooth spaces, titular plateaus with innate characteristics derived from who territorialized it. From these discussions, the role of the nomad is better expanded, one who serves to deterritorialize where they wander, forever wandering because of a lack of anchors, no state to call home, no tongue to cry out. I used the metaphor of the rhizome destroying boxes because the rhizome destroys classification, the way we tend to put things into boxes. There's an amazing video on how we end up doing this in history, to split things into eras and not focus as much as how the eras intermingle or the alternative eras that one can split the past into. The striated spaces are neat little boxes of our own creation.

I took a plane trip for the first time half a year ago, and I saw the cities below me. It saw first-hand, for the first time the way we section and cut up or environment to make our habitat. It was like a little ant colony, or like a machine's optimized version of an ant colony, all square and straight and boxy.

The Hulk is a nomad, and there is no arguing that. Many stories follow Banner or the Hulk being followed, more likely being hunted. A mainstay of the '77-'82 television series which definitely helped in serializing the characters' adventures was the fact that Bruce Banner was presumed dead, and he had to wander the Earth, on fake identities, odd jobs, and dodging vagrancy charges. Every time you'd tune in, he would be in a new town, destroying new landscapes, helping new people that he would probably never see again.

The Hulk is literally leveling new space, but an argument can be made that the Banner-Hulk assemblage ends up smoothing out the striated spaces of the people he interacts with, their inner lives flipped upside down, and sometimes turned inside out. The Hulk was able to make what was once maybe an annoying boastful authority figure in General Ross into a sweating, paranoid, manic wildcard of a soldier. Kenneth Johnson, director of the initial episodes of the aforementioned television series gave an interesting perspective in an interview with Mark Rathwell: "what we were constantly doing was looking for thematic ways to touch the various ways that the Hulk sort of manifested itself in everyone. In... Banner, it happened to be anger. In someone else, it might be obsession, or it might be fear... The Hulk comes in many shapes and sizes," (Johnson and Rathwell).

Let's format this into a dichotomy again. The Hulk is a rhizomatic force that deterritorializes and reterritorialize the arborescent landscapes of the real and landscapes of people's lives. He forces the optic into the haptic, to use another D&G dichotomy. And, perhaps more importantly, he touches the hearts of everyone around him, despite Banners objections on that "monster" that's inside him. The Hulk is the potential of a grand god out of our reach to suddenly care about you, and solve your problems. Or make your problems worse. That's why people like Superman, right?

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