The Soul · The Work

Rhizomes and Disruption

A post by Brian O’Leary this morning led me to think again of Deleuze and his rhizomes. Brian quotes Greil Marcus on Elvis:

He knew what he was doing. If he redefined what it was to be American, it was because he meant to. He wanted change. He wanted to confuse, to disrupt, to tear it up.

Last spring, in our frenzied landscaping, Bernardo and I broke up and re-planted a bunch of hostas and lilies of the valley. The roots of both of these plants are rhizomes – if you cut off a piece of the root, a new plant will grow from that piece. Rhizomes are cool because you can disrupt a plot and create a new one – molding the plant’s growth according to the changing demands of your garden.

The effects of Books in Browsers 2012 are still with me. Peter Brantley, the organizer of the conference, describes our collective epiphany this way in Publishers Weekly:

What we witnessed, to cite John Maxwell from Simon Fraser University, was a transcendence of contemporary publishing. BiB speakers were not trying to repair or modernize publishing. Rather, they were designing new solutions for a world in which story-telling takes advantage of networked tools for sharing insights and art. Such solutions may well lead many existing publishers into new and exciting places; on the other hand, they may not. BiB did not speak to it: indeed, nothing at BiB served to “obsolete” or replace publishing. But it is clear that we are on the threshold of an explosion of new services, spreading across many niches of story-telling that never before were beneficiaries of Internet technologies.

As Maxwell notes, we are watching a divesture of literature from the act of publishing as we have conceived it for the last 150 years. It was that insight of BiB that chilled everyone in the Sanctuary to the bone that Friday morning. How we publish – how we tell stories – is increasingly liberated from the formerly necessary contributions of companies like Random House and Penguin, Hachette and Simon & Schuster. Simply put, these firms are no longer necessary for the creation of literature. They may present significant advantages in marketing, production, and for years yet, in the distribution of print. Yet, as authors gather the spirits within themselves to create, they will increasingly draw up a panoply of online tools and services that could not care a whit for all that made publishing possible in the past.

In Deleuzian terms, those of us who were so moved at this conference are diverting the flow of publishing, creating something altogether new. Taking the rhizomes of what we know – storytelling, expression, documentation, encoding, promulgation – and breaking them up, replanting them in a different way. Changing the landscape one root system at a time.

And with intent. Deliberately, intentionally, tearing it up. In my BiB presentation, I talked about evolution. But what I felt at BiB was in fact a disruption. And it left me, and a lot of other people, all shook up.


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