by Maggie Carey, Australia
Michael expressed great excitement at reading the post-structuralist French philosophers and in the last few years of his life, drew many ideas from Gilles Deleuze into his thinking about narrative practice. He spoke of a certain of resonance that he experienced in reading Deleuze and of the sense of possibility that these ideas might offer us in our use of the narrative framework. I often wonder if he hadn’t died where this accelerated interest in French philosophy would have taken his practice and it will be interesting to see how the legacy of this attention shapes the practice of therapy in the future. The ongoing thread of this legacy will no doubt be an added contribution to what is already at the heart of narrative practice – the challenging of practices of power that constrain and diminish people’s sense of who they are, and a profound engagement with the possibilities of people’s sense of who they might become.
The ideas and concepts of Deleuze have been influencing both my therapeutic and my teaching practice in both broad and particular ways. There is a great interest among practitioners that I meet in training and supervision contexts as to what these ideas and concepts might contribute to how we envisage therapeutic conversations with people, and I have experienced a growing contribution to the rich story development of narrative practice through the explorations that many people are making of these understandings.
Gilles Deleuze was vitally interested in how we might become ‘other than who we are’, if ‘who we are’ is constrained by unhelpful ideas, by ways of thinking that are controlled by forces of dominance or practices of marginalisation. From Todd May’s book, Gilles Deleuze: An introduction (2005), we have a paraphrasing of the question that Deleuze poses:
How many of us ask ourselves, not once and for all time, but frequently and at different times, how might one live? How many of us embrace that question, not only in our stories but in our actions, our projects, our commitments? How many of us open the door to the possibility that, however we are living, we might live otherwise?
This question will be familiar to those who have heard Michael, over all of the years that we knew him, saying, ‘How might we invite people to become other than who they were at the beginning of our conversations?’ Deleuze held the view that we are always moving in directions that are away from what is experienced as negative, and toward something that is life-full, vital and energised, and different to what we are in. We have all witnessed a similar sense of conviction in Michael’s therapeutic conversations, that there is always more than the problem story to be found. Both Michael and Deleuze noted and responded to the ways in which this movement gets captured by forces of dominance in terms of prescribed messages of how one ‘should be’ in the world, through practices of power, and by the stories that are carried of a lack of worth or value to which so many of the people who seek therapy are subjected.
What Michael’s reading of Deleuze has inspired in many practitioners around the world is manyfold and I will focus here on two ways in which I see the legacy of this inspiration: the first is that it offers us a way of thinking that supports us in our practice to go on challenging the marginalising discourses to which people are subjected, and to finding stories that are more life-full than the problem stories that rule their lives; the second is that it offers interesting possibilities for how narrative practice and the narrative community might go on developing.
Given the chance, these two men would, I am sure, talk at length about the possibility of moving away from the restrictions that are put in our way by what is problematic in life. They would share thoughts about stepping into new ways of being, taking ‘lines of flight’ from the oppressive normalisation and colonisation of our thoughts and the taken-for-granted ways of being that have captured our desires.
And the basic, bottom line appreciation that there are always places of difference to go to, that there is always the possibility of there being other places to stand than what there appears to be, that there is the possibility of moving in ways that are different to what is restraining and problematic, is something that the two of them seem to share in their heart of hearts. Michael spoke at length about the many ways in which we might get to these ‘other’ stories through an appreciation of what is ‘absent but implicit’ in the ways that people express their experience of life and he seemed to have a reinvigorated sense of this practice through his readings of Deleuze. The absent but implicit pathway to different and preferred stories of self relies on the understanding that in every expression of what is problematic or troublesome in life, there is implied some meanings that are different to what is defined as the problem – that in order to make sense of what something is, we distinguish it from what it is not, and what it is not is another story of self. These different more useful stories of self can be brought forward and richly developed. In more recent years, Michael extended on this understanding of there always being absent but implicit meanings in every expression of life, by seeing that people are always making some response to what is problematic and are actually taking action just by expressing what is troublesome, and that this implies some other position from which things can be viewed that can be developed and storied.
There are really so many things that we could focus on in looking at resonances between a narrative approach and the enormous body of work of Deleuze and his ‘thought companion’ Guattari, but the one idea that I am drawn to at this time is the metaphor of the ‘rhizome’ as an image of a way of thinking that I believe relates to our work in therapy. First, what are rhizomes? Rhizomes are a form of plant life that have particular habits of growth. Strawberry plants are rhizomes, as are irises and bamboo and many forms of grass. These plants multiply by sending out runner shoots that then take root and establish a new plant, or the root of the rhizome can grow underground and then send up shoots that grow into new plants. Each new plant is connected or linked to the one from which it sprung but they exist as separate plants and will survive as such if the roots are chopped up or if the aerial shoots are severed.
Deleuze and Guattari wrote extensively in the text A thousand plateaus (1987) about the metaphor of the rhizome as a way of thinking. In offering this metaphor they challenged much of the dominant taken-for-granted ways thinking of all of Western thought which they described as ‘arbolic’ or ‘arborescent’ or tree like. The ‘arbolic’ or tree-like mode is proposed as a representation of modernist, structuralist ways of thinking: it is linear, hierarchic, and sedentary, it does not move. The homogenous whole is continually sub-divided into smaller and lesser categories as in genealogy, with smaller and smaller units of importance the further you are away from the central trunk. ‘Arbolic thought is vertical and stiff’, they say. ‘Arborescent systems are hierarchical systems with centers of significance … an element only receives information from a higher unit, and only does so along pre-established paths’ (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, p. 16).
Rhizomatic thought, on the other hand, is non-linear, anarchic, and nomadic, characterised by horizontal branching that establishes new elements – not as divisions of the whole, but as multiplicities that are linked and connected. Rhizomatic thinking finds openings in established ways of seeing things and has the ability to move in any direction to take up new territory. And as any gardener will know, once established, rhizomes are difficult to eradicate – you can stamp them out in one area but they will pop up next door. In a rhizomatic network, or in a spreading field of new story, movements and flows can be re-routed around disruptions. Further, any severed or cut section will regenerate itself and continue to grow, forming new lines and pathways. Rhizomatic thought can be characterised as networking and linking to other and different ideas and practices of life.
We can draw on Deleuze’s use of the rhizome metaphor to think about the storying of life. In relation to therapeutic practice, we can consider how lines of rhizomatic enquiry can initiate off-shoots of stories which can then take root and develop as distinct but linked accounts of a preferred story. A broad ground of storied terrain can be developed that provides new platforms for taking action. It is interesting to think of how, in our work with individuals, families, and communities, being able to share stories across the planet (or even into the next room) and have these stories responded to, could be seen as an expression of this sort of rhizomatic activity.
We can think about this metaphor of the rhizome as an image of how we might circumvent the top-down hierarchy of state mental health systems, or state welfare systems, or dominant systems of meaning-making as presented in western capitalist media, where these contribute to a narrowing of a person’s sense of who they are. Through sharing stories across virtual or within actual space and having responses made and connections established, different stories can take hold. In this way, we might think of our practice as rhizomatic – finding the cracks in the monolithic responses that people are often subjected to through the systems that govern their lives; finding openings to new storylines through the gaps or new shoots that grow under the fence and spread out into new territories of story, linking people’s lives across the smooth space of shared connections. Always operating at a horizontal level, not having people subjected to a hierarchy of knowledge that diminishes them, but rather experiencing a resonant response to what matters and is significant to them, seeing resonance as the necessary ground upon which to develop a rich story of self. The stories that are developed create new places to stand in life, and while this has always been the intention of narrative practice, thinking rhizomatically can contribute to our giving even more attention to the ways in which we go about this.
And if we consider the ways in which a narrative approach might travel in the future, or ways in which it might continue to be life-full, then perhaps the rhizome can be an image of how this might develop. ‘The rhizome is alliance, uniquely alliance. The tree imposes the verb “to be”, but the fabric of the rhizome is the conjunction, “and … and … and …” This conjunction carries enough force to shake and uproot the verb ‘to be’’ (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, p. 25).
There are many places in which intensity is being brought to explorations of narrative practice and where centres of interest have developed, where there is a buzz, an excitement, a resonance. Connections are being made across the planet and practitioners are coming together and sharing practice and explorations of how ideas might contribute to practice. The theme of the narrative metaphor will always be a connecting link but the expressions of this in the work will go on creating new places to stand in new territories of life.
Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus. University of Minnesota Press.
May, T. (2005). Gilles Deleuze: An introduction. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.