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“A book has neither object nor subject; it is made of variously formed matters, and very different dates and speeds.” 

In A Thousand Plateaus Deleuze and Guattari tell us that books and trees are allegories to each other. And both represent thinking.

"A first type of book is the root-book. The tree is already the image of the world, or the root the image of the world-tree. This is the classical book, as noble, signifying, and subjective organic interiority (the strata of the book). The book imitates the world, as art imitates nature: by procedures specific to it that accomplish what nature cannot or can no longer do. The law of the book is the law of reflection, the one that becomes two. How could the law of the book reside in nature, when it is what presides over the very division between world and book, nature and art?"

It is a cybernetic network, with special privileges.

“There are no points or positions in a rhizome, such as those found in a structure, tree, or root. There are only lines.”

The immediate reflective index of a network thinker would be to consider that a tree has a unique property of convergence and divergence with the trunk being the obvious bottle-beck. Roots and branches only communicate in the speed that the trunk allows. The roots collect, aggregate, and pass on vitality to the trunk. The trunk then processes these nutrients and engages in an act of building, nourishing the environment, and expanding again to a mesh of sensors and communicators.

As a metaphor for learning, this feels unnatural, as the cyclical churning of expansiveness and focus are rarely intentional, and in most cases, we stop looking for new knowledge at a certain point. 

We exercise divergent thinking in our formative years and gradually converge in our activities, social circles, and eventually thinking. Like the tree, we dig our roots deeper, but unlike it, we rarely expand our core processing engine, the trunk in nature, expansive thinking. 

Citing Pirsig in Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “instead of expanding the branches of what you already know, you have to stop and drift laterally for a while until you come across something that allows you to expand the roots of what you already know”

In her book Mind in Motion, Barbara Tversky approaches questions of spatial knowledge, representations, communication, and cognitive taxonomies.

“The tree idea, the tree visualization, the tree name, come from the world: the trunk of a tree, embodying a whole, the large branches splitting into smaller branches, literally embodying parts and parts of parts. The parts and parts of parts emerge from the whole through a biological process. That process isn’t evident to the eyes, but the thick, stable trunk and the thinner and thinner branches are visible in trees large and small, wide and narrow. That abstraction, trunk and branches, has been borrowed to represent origins and branches of thought since ancient times and proliferates today.”

But there is a big difference between the biomimicry we’re seeking, and the actual ways in which we think.

“The process that generated the branching is not always clear. Some seem to be partonomies, some taxonomies, many a mix, some neither.”

[…]

“Networks have no origin. Nevertheless, networks are often referred to as trees”

Cybernetics is a linear, wide mesh of connectionism. Deleuze and Guattari focus on convergence to divergence. And Tversky tells us it is all just a metaphor so we must not seek generalization.

Trees–as part of nature–are resilient and highly adaptive. Yet as a linguistic metaphor, they are rigid and opaque. They are a simple many-to-one, and back to one-to-many architecture. In exchange for this rigidity, they are easily understood. 

It is hard to argue with an idea that can be mapped to a tree because nature validates ideas. But tree metaphors are fixed, and our thinking is not. Deleuze and Guattari knew that and sought concessions, in the form of the idea of rhizome, or reiterating the idea that “there are only lines”. 

A tree metaphor, a rhizome, and even cybernetic structures are fixed in their dimensionality and as such are artifacts, instead of systems. Ideas like Panarchy start to speak about designing in motion or thinking about resilience and unknown unknowns. Books are only useful as the meaning they add to our lives. Looking for complete knowledge might be the wrong brief all along.

Thank you for reading, 
Nitzan 


Extra links
Problems into Patterns: A Conversation with Glenda Eoyang
Glossary in progress on Are.na







 

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