Tell Me About “Rhizome”, Grandpa
In a nutshell, rhizome refers to the underground stems of certain plant species that spread, creating new root centers as they organically expand out from the original center. Think of bamboo, aspens, mint, willow, cattails, etc. Conceptually applied to human living, it can refer to small scale, self-organizing, family-centered human settlement networks. Aka, Villages. Jeff Vail, amongst others (Daniel Quinn, the Tribe of Anthropik, etc.), writes extensively about the re-application of this original human philosophy towards modern living.
Enter the Tao
Recently, rereading the Tao Te Ching, I remembered something that had struck me about it a couple years ago; the many refererences in the book to true village living, and the ideal government (or lack thereof).
Chapter 80 of the Tao Te Ching [trans. Ellen Chen]:
A small state with few people
Let the implements for ten and hundred men be unused
Let the people fear death such that they do not move far away
Although there are boats and carriages,
There are no places to ride them to.
Although there are weapons and armours,
There are no occasions to display them.
Let the people again tie ropes and use them (as memory aids [in replacement of literacy])
Let them enjoy their food,
consider their clothing beautiful,
Be contented with their dwellings,
And happy with their customs.
The neighbouring states overlooking one another,
The dogs’ barking and cocks’ crowing are heard from other states,
Yet till they are old and dying the people do not visit one another.
What does all this mean? Certainly the author, Lao Tse, wrote this book deep in the belly of a well-established (and therefore highly neurotic and destructive) civilization. So his message concerns how to walk away from civilization towards a better life – a rhizomial life. Furthermore, the Tao Te Ching can serve as a primer and inspiration for animist, rhizomial action. Scholars commonly agree that the Tao Te Ching speaks with the voice of an original, shamanistic, animistic Chinese past. I encourage you to read it! Check out Professor Ellen Chen’s translation – I recommend it as the best one I’ve read.
For some interesting history on the evangelical invasion of Taoist folk culture by Buddhist Ch’an (known in japanese as Zen) missionaries, check out Opening a Mountain. Have no doubts – everywhere in the world had its own original standoff between indigenous cultures and the manifest destiny of the civilized. The time has come to return to our beginning, to return to the Tao.
I don’t mean this in the sense of “become a Taoist” – what I find remarkable about the Tao Te Ching involves its spareness of mythological detail – in many ways it goes to the root of animism. I believe it adds richly to the voices that still give clues to the modern animist, to the one searching for a way back to the beginning, back to where Life has always, and will always, flourish.