John Moriarty and the Rhizome

John Moriarty

In considering environmental ecologies – independent, perhaps, of humans – John Moriarty uses the concept of the rhizome, to make a point, about the rootedness (or otherwise) of things. ‘Unlike the dandelion,’ Moriarty says, ‘we have now no rhizome, no rhiza, no root, down into the nourishing earth.’ He laments in the same piece how the human mind is merely clever, impoverished in some ways by its ignorance of alternate, ecological sensibilities. I’m trying to identify the actual source, though I think it’s from Night Journey to Buddh Gaia. Moriarty wonders, just before this reference, whether – just as dandelion and the groundsel has their etymological roots in French and old English, respectively, each with its own eternal story (the dandelion from ‘tooth of a lion’) – these plants had their own names ‘among the leeches who tended the warriors who had been wounded at the Battle of Maldon.’ It is as if, in some way that is strange-to-us, the leeches had their own version of the academy, their own epistemic basis for understanding the world and their role in it. Moriarty’s vision is nothing if not all-encompassing!

Two parallels come to mind when considering Moriarty’s garden contemplations. First, there’s Heidegger and his concern with the uprooting of man in the Der Spiegel interview. Second, there’s the more obvious alignment with Deleuze and Guarrari’s concept of the Rhizome.

Heidegger concerned himself with the uprooting of man, almost literally in the case of the recent NASA earthrise pictures that seemed to push continually at removing man deliberately from the planet. Metaphorically, of course, Heidegger was concerned about a lack of awareness of dasein, or Being, or being in the world (he mad many constructions). Human beings had become distanced from themselves, resulting in a kind of nihilism (as I read Heidegger), or at least an assault on meaning. For Moriarty, the uprooting of the dandelion serves both as literal consideration and philosophical metaphor. Just as the leeches may have had their own cosmology, could that also be true of the dandelion, whose exposed flower he was rending from the buried root? In the metaphorical sense, Moriarty was considering points of view, and competing subjectivities – object subjectivities – in what might be a kind of protean Object Oriented Ontology, which had evolved from the work of Bruno Latour and others in Actor-Network Theory in the late twentieth century. Though as we shall see here shortly, it does not appear to me that Moriarty had much connection with late twentieth century French philosophy, preferring instead to focus on classics, nineteenth century, Christian mysticism and eastern mysticism.

The Deleuze and Guattari parallel is all the more infuriating (insofaras the connection does not appear to be explicitly made) as it runs so close to the point Moriarty was trying to make. In A Thousand Plateaus – a consideration on ontology amongst other things, – D&G explored the concept of the Rhizome as contrasted with a tree. We consider the root structure under the ground, and the tree structure is above. However, they are not the same, or simple inversions of one another. The tree structure is generally hierarchial, with a major trunk; a full culmination of the tree’s efforts in its point of connection with the ground; and a general diminution of the potency of the entity as one tends towards the extremities – weak, young leaves on green shoots. The rhizome on the other hand doesn’t really have a beginning and end, and any part of the rhizome can spring up and spawn another tree or plant; to borrow another of D&G’s concepts, the rhizome appears perpetually to be in flow.

One can consider traditional political and human-social structures as being tree like, with centralised power and control, with subdivisions and (literal!) branches and so on. The rhizome is far closer to the true order of things. It is extensive; it is deep; it interweaves with other elements and entities, and it grows and expands with and as a part of its environment. When we consider things, concepts, ideas, be they human (whatever that might mean) or otherwise, they are considered in the Deleuzian framework as rhizomatic: perpetually in flow, without beginning or end, indiscrete, and – to insert one more of their metaphors – machinic. They actively engage with other things and concepts and ideas in the world, changing over time, evolving, devolving, morphing and reproducing. They are, in the very essence of the word, vital. They are live.

I’ve been engaged in an excellent course of study on Moriarty this past two months or so, and it is stimulating stuff. What is remarkable to me is the extent to which his conclusions – which largely appear self-informed post-Heidegger – arrive at a similar place to, philosophers operating within academic convention, such as Tim Morton or David Chalmers. He gives weight to eastern mysticism; interrogates the foundations of Christian modernist ontologies; and persists the reintegration of Nietzsche into contemporary orthodoxy, as opposed to the proto-fascist ‘dynamite’ that he had been dismissed as in the aftermath of the second world war. He’s not afraid of classicism, or the interweaving of myth and piseoigí (old Irish fairy stories) to try and find points of reference and relevance across time. Moriarty said that we all live in our own stories, not in buildings of bricks and mortar. Myths have their stories too, and their persistence across time speaks to the importance of those stories.

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