Friday, 4 February 2011

Carrot or potato – but which is better?

The rhizome includes the best and the worst: potato and couchgrass, or the weed.
Deleuze and Guattari (1987 [1980])
On the 22nd January, Sas Mays – Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Critical Theory – led a seminar on critical approaches to the Archive. This was based at the Photographers’ Gallery offices and part of the Investigating the Archive course I am attending.

The carrot, an umbelliferous plant, with a hierarchical root system (with a primary root, from which secondary roots form, which in turn branch to form tertiary roots) was contrasted to the tuberous potato, in order to explore metaphors for seeing the world, or of organising knowledge, or of organising the Archive. In so doing, we were exploring the ideas expressed by Deleuze and Guattari in their stream-of-consciousness-like work A thousand plateaus.

The taproot, like the carrot – but more often the tree – is typically used as a metaphor for knowledge – for example by the thirteenth century writer, Ramon Llul [Arbor_scientiae]. In some senses, it suggests a closed form of thinking, since it privileges structure and hierarchy, which are implicit within the Archive. Rhizomatic (potato-like) thought, in contrast, “stresses multiplicity, complexity, multi-dimensionality and chaos” (Rhizome, 2004).

In Foucault’s analysis, if knowledge is power, then the organisation of knowledge is the organisation of power; and the Archive stands in symbolic relationship to existing power structures – reflecting, representing, and perpetuating them. Photography, too, is implicated. The anthropometric work of Alphonse Bertillon (e.g. tableau synoptique des traits physonomiques) can be cited in this context and so too can Jacob Riis, but there are many other examples.

But, if these readings of the Archive don’t seem to fit with the anti-authoritarian urgency of the Weiner Library (for example), it is perhaps well to remember that while philosophers always reflect on reality, reality does not always reflect on philosophers. Deleuze and Guattari are an entertaining read because they flirt with the non-linear, and pose with the chaotic, but are ultimately neither; their reasoning against reason is reflexive.

Further reading

Deleuze, Gilles; Guattari, Félix (1987 [1980]) ‘Introduction: Rhizome’, in A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia, trans. Massumi, Brian. University of Minnesota Press.

Rhizome (2004), in The Sage Dictionary of Cultural Studies, Sage UK, London, United Kingdom, viewed 30 January 2011, from