Ana Deumert continues her reflections on southern/decolonial concepts. She suggests that thinking-with the mangrove allows us to expand on the Deleuzian rhizome, grounding it in history, posthumanist entanglements and poetics.
The rhizome: multiplicity and assemblage
In A Thousand Plateaus (1980), Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guttari develop a botanical concept – the idea of the rhizome – as a thinking-tool for understanding culture and society. Deleuze and Guttari suggest that thinking-with the rhizome allows us to capture the multiplicities, assemblages and interconnections that shape the social world, and give it meaning.
Deleuze and Guttari contrast rhizome-thinking with arborescent-thinking, that is, tree-like systems of thought and being in which the root precedes the plant, is of single origin, and splits into well-defined binaries over time.
What is a rhizome? Biologists use the term ‘rhizome’ to refer to a complex subterranean root system, where new roots are generated constantly (rhizome translates as ‘mass of roots’ from Greek /rhízōma/). Examples of rhizomes are the knobbly, multiple-branched potato, ginger or turmeric roots, which grow in different directions: horizontally, upwards and downwards. The complex network of rhizomatic roots is always open, and new roots can appear at any time. The rhizome, Deleuze and Guttari write, is ‘anti-genealogy’.
Deleuze and Guttari contrast rhizome-thinking with arborescent-thinking, that is, tree-like systems of thought and being in which the root precedes the plant, is of single origin, and splits into well-defined binaries over time. They suggest that generative syntax, which still remains a dominant paradigm in linguistics, reflects this way of thinking:
“The linguistic tree of the Chomsky model … begins at a point S and proceeds by dichotomy … you will divide each statement into a noun phrase and a verb phrase (first dichotomy …)”.
Rhizomatic thought has been productive in the social sciences, including sociolinguistics. It allows one to understand social practices and discourses as endlessly shifting and transforming, as unpredictable, multiple and mobile, creating complex assemblages of meaning.
Moving to the Caribbean: rhizophora
Rhizomatic thinking was taken up by the Caribbean scholar and poet Édouard Glissant in his book Poetics of Relation (1990). Glissant sees rhizomatic thought as constitutive of the Caribbean experience. It is an experience of global-local entanglement and relation, in which roots are always multiple.
Glissant extends the idea of the rhizome by linking it to the mangrove, a special type of rhizomatic plant. The mangrove is a tree of the tropics, a tree of the colonized world. The Latin name for mangrove is rhizaphora. It is derived from the Greek words for ‘root’ /rhiza/ and ‘to carry’ /phoros/. It translates as ‘carrying roots’.
The phrase, ‘carrying roots’, refers to the fact that mangroves have a rooting system that is carried above the soil. The roots are visible to the eye, and make it seem as if the trees are standing on stilts above the muddy water. This creates a unique aesthetic experience.
Slaves were hunted in the mangrove forests of West Africa, and transported to another shore, another mangrove forest.
The habitat of the mangrove is the shoreline, the border between land and water. The mangrove thus defies the binaries of land and sea: it is both terrestrial and marine, collapsing land-bound notions of being-in-the-world, and reminding us not to forget the ocean.
The mangrove is also a complex and fragile ecosystem, a space of human/non-human relation and becoming. The Colombian-American scholar Arturo Escobar calls this ‘the mangrove-world’:
“an infinite set of practices carried out by all kinds of beings and life forms, involving a complex organic and inorganic materiality of water, minerals, degrees of salinity, forms of energy” (2016, Thinking-feeling with the Earth).
There is another reason why thinking-with the mangrove is important: the mangrove reminds us of the far-reaching effects of colonialism, of exploitation and oppression, of dehumanization. Slaves were hunted in the mangrove forests of West Africa, and transported to another shore, another mangrove forest. The Black Atlantic is constituted by the entanglement of land and ocean, of past and present, of Europe and the colonized world – of unbelievable violence, and of survival and resistance in the face of such violence.
The conceptual move from the rhizome to the mangrove has been theoretically enriching. It opens up a thinking space, that is similar too, but also different from the land-bound Deleuzian rhizome. Mangrove-thinking includes the Deleuzian rhizome, but pushes it further, into new directions.
The poetics of the mangrove: no thinking without art
Thinking-with-the-mangrove (or the rhizome) is not simply a metaphor, a cognitive device of thinking tool; it is also a form of artful and artistic thinking that allows us to create new ontologies, new ways of being. Poetics, in Glissant’s work, is different from philosophy it emphasises imagination and creativity; it is not merely about describing and understanding the world, but also about changing it.
There exist many links between the mangrove and the arts, the mangrove not only “breathes” (as AiméCesaire writes in his poem Condition Mangrove), it also inspires (for examples from the Caribbean see, for example, Odile Ferley, 2012, A Poetics of Relation – Caribbean Women Writing at the Millenium).
One example of artful engagement with the mangrove-world is the movimento mangue (‘mangrove movement’) – a cultural-political movement that started in the early 1990s in Recife, a city in northeastern Brazil. In Recife, mangroves are the place where poor people live and make their living and, consequently, questions of inequality and social justice were central to the movement.
In Recife, mangroves are the place where poor people live and make their living and, consequently, questions of inequality and social justice were central to the movement.
The movimento mangue is best known for its music: the so-called mangue beat (‘rhythm of the mangrove) or mangue bit (‘the bit [binary digit] of the mangrove’), which mixes local Afro-Brasilian musical forms with global forms (such as hip hop, reggae or funk). The music itself is the iconic expression of the global-local entanglements that shape the world.
In their lyrics artists such as Chico Science (‘Little Science’) position the mangrove as a space of fertility, community, and revolutionary socio-political change (see Paul Sneed, 2019, in Latin American Research Review).
In 1994, the movimento mangue published a short manifesto, Caranguejos com Cérebro, describing the human inhabitants of Recife’s mangroves as ‘crabs with brains’, as human-crustaceans. Thus with a stroke of the pen, they decentred human exceptionalism. It is a move that echoes contemporary work in post-humanism. The mangrove, in other words, is a place where different ontologies are possible – where humans become part of the natural world, and no longer stand above it.
Again, the mangrove emerges as a space of ambivalence and liminality, a space where categories flow into one another. This gives rise to unsettled ontologies, which are perhaps best captured by poets, as in these lines by João Cabral de Melo Neto:
In the river landscape
It is hard to know
Where the river begins,
Where the mud
Begins from the river
Where the land begins
From the mud,
Where his skin,
Begins from the mud,
Begins in that man.
(From Dog Without Feathers, by João Cabral de Melo Neto, published 1950)
But what about language?
Sometimes, when colleagues encounter my work, I get asked: But what about language? How are all these ideas and reflections relevant for linguists? Or for sociolinguists? And the work they do?
Deleuze and Guttari, following their critique of Chomsky’s binary model of syntax, describe language as a fundamentally rhizomatic structure that cannot be understood from the vantage point of hierarchical and binary arborescent thinking. Thus the rhizome – and by extension the mangrove – allows us to understand language and meaning otherwise:
“A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semantic chains, organizations of power and circumstances, relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles. A semiotic chain is a tuber, agglomerating very diverse acts, not only linguistic, but also perceptive, mimetic, gestural and cognitive; there is no language in itself”
Rhizomatic thinking helps us reflect critically on the ontology of language. What emerges out of such thinking is an open and expanded view of language: as linguists we deal not only with verbal or signed language, but with multiple systems of signification and meaning-making that are used by humans and non-humans. Once one works with such an expanded view of language, then much of what has been considered to be outside of linguistics becomes central to the work we do.
Thinking-with rhizomes and mangroves encourages us to look at language and communication differently: languages emerge not only as complex entangled practices of meaning-making, but also as poetic futures, and as ambivalent formations that exist on-the-border of the binary.