Evolution of a rhizomatic network: the New School in Exile

By Rachel Signer

Written on March 23, 2009

The beginnings of a nomadic journey:

The collective known as “The New School in Exile” is, and yet is not, a rhizomatic, multiplicitous apparatus that is constantly in the processes of territorialization and deterritorialization. Thus, there is no “we,” nor has there ever been; rather, the collective is constantly redefining itself through public meetings, press releases, protests, flyer distributions, intra-assemblage emails, online networks, offline discussions, heated exchanges between colleagues and friends, and intra-city anarchist networks. Each of these temporal ruptures are simultaneous territorializing and deterritorializing of the assemblage, which also means that they are potential reconfigurations of its form and content. Yet, in the very act of self-defining as an action-based movement and a form of resistance to power, The New School in Exile (hereafter referred to as NSIE) effectively reduces itself to a bounded object, incapable of functioning in a properly rhizomatic fashion. This boundedness is rooted in a series of false ontological oppositions, couched in a larger Student-Kerrey dialectic–“us” against: “the security guards,” “the administration,” “Kerrey and Murtha,” The NSIE portrays itself as if we were an Object, and they were our Anti-Objects, or Objects-of-Opposition (alas, there are only Subject-Objects!).

“Unlike a structure, which is defined by a set of points and positions, with binary relations between the points and biunivocal relationships between the positions,” (Enemies: Good guys; Leader: Followers) “the rhizome is made only of lines; lines of segmentarity and stratification as its dimensions, and the line of flight or deterritorialization as the maximum dimension after which the multiplicity undergoes metamorphosis, changes in nature” (A Thousand Plateaus pp. 21; hereafter referred to as “TP”).

The following ethnographic detail employs Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the rhizome under the assumption that, in fact, there is no such thing as a “rhizome,” as this would fix a purported object in space, and thus create a signifier-signified relationship between ontology and the world. There is only the “rhizomatic:” a way-of-being-in-the-world, a methodology, a mode-of-inquiry, a time-space relationship, and, ultimately, a Body Without Organs (hereafter referred to as “BwO”).

The main obstacle confronting the BwO: The rhizomatic apparatus is infected with a perpetual illness, which is: the matter which forms the content, this being the Desiring-Machines called Students, agentively (and yet, unconsciously) deny their rhizomatic expression. “We declare,” is said and written. “We want,” is proclaimed. There is, however, no “we,” no “us.” Rather, the matter forms into content in an asignifying manner, which is to say that any proclamation of grouphood or groupspeak is to release our Oedipal natures, our inner fascists, and fall into the trap of the capitalist assemblage: the production of identity, and its necessary consumption of experiences. As “us,” “we” can only fail.

The first articulation:

1.    Coding and stratification: With the faculty vote of no-confidence in Kerrey and Murtha, a plane of consistency is established in the emergent network that is the collective New School in Exile. Through the agentive capacity of one human actant–the connecting node that nurtures the rhizomatic assemblage–an email invites people through the Graduate Faculty Student Senate list to join together in a meeting in the 16th Street building to “discuss the recent action taken by the faculty.” Emails are forwarded around, the “word is spreading,” and on a Sunday night, the emergent “common notion” produces an “event”   with a conjoining of various agents: computers, internet wavelengths, and “desiring-machines” (Anti-Oedipus pp. 1-8, hereafter referred to as “AO”) coded as “Students.”

The student-desiring-machines are coded articulations producing an emergent stratum, or network. Their agentive capacities code each other in a network that is taking shape as the collective is territorializing. As “substance and form of content” merge with “form and content of expression,” the actants shape the “line of flight to the point where it becomes an abstract machine covering the entire plane of consistency” (TP 40, 11).

2.    Deterritorialization: Subject positions cling to their root-trees, resisting the formation of multiplicities. We are representatives of “groups”: the Graduate Faculty Student Senate, the Anthropology Department, the Radical Student Union, the Anarchist Reading Group, the University Student Senate, etc., etc., we are subjects claiming our fixed allegiances to assemblages. Thus, upon territorialization, the nodes battle for positions in the lines of consistency. The desiring-machines prevent the emergence of the Body Without Organs. Subjects lost in the “flow of desires” express these desires as their own possessive nouns: “I want action.” “We need a new president.” “The Radical Student Union has been protesting against Kerrey for years.” “I represent the anthropology department.” “We need a manifesto.”

The second articulation:

3.    Reterritorialization: The manifesto. Butcher paper goes up on the walls: an emergent actant, uniting the various desiring-machines into an asignifying rhizomatic line of consistency. The subject-objects speak so as to territorialize through a collective regime of signs: “(1) the resignation of Kerrey and Murtha, (2) the need for a new provost who is answerable to the student body and faculty, (3) more transparent and intelligible financial operations at TNS, (4) the creation of a solely academic budget.” “A formation of power is much more than a tool; a regime of signs is much more than a language” (TP 63). Thus, “the abstract machine begins to unfold;” the collective is emergent. The “hand-tool relation” (markers, paper, walls, voices, chairs, a building) and the “social Machine” work within “formations of power,” and they are all “tied to a semiotic Machine and regimes of signs” (63).

4.    Desiring-production: “Actions” are proposed: one, to stage a protest at Kerrey’s upcoming meeting with the faculty, and another, to stage an occupation or sit-in of his office or some other building. “Desire causes the current to flow, itself flows in turn, and breaks the flows” (AO 5). Subjects and machines merge with the production-of-desires: speech requires subsequent action; a signifier must lead to a signified. Which is to say that the formation of an assemblage, if it is to lead to collective action, behooves some sort of self-bounding: here is our primary concern, the fundamental paradox. The protest is already a product of desire, the occupation is already an experience-to-be-consumed, and the rhizomatic network continues pulsing with the energetic interpolation of actants: the desiring-machines.

5.    The collective machine in action: Or, the solidifying of the strata. A repeat of the first, and second, articulations. The emergent actants, the desiring-machines, have territorialized around the “manifesto,” and they will now form an action, a visible sign of their collective. The collective object, the NSEI, directs itself against its most-highest signifier, Mr. Kerrey. The New School in Exile proclaims its unity and its mission by handing out flyers explaining that they feel voiceless and powerless. The territorialization is completed through language: subject-verb-object. “We demand representation!” “We want change!” Desiring-machines, expressing their collective stratification. A rhizomatic network extends itself through human interlocutors and non-human actants: “the faculty,” “the press,” “flyers,” “duct tape,” “the guards,” “the students passing by.” This is the making of the body with organs, “by virtue of a machine or machinic assemblage that stratifies it” (TP 41).

6.    Reterritorialization: A meeting, another call to action: to occupy or not, that is the question. Matters of timing and substance are put forth: all contingencies, impossible to determine outcomes. Will the administration care? Will we be expelled? How many entrances does the building have? Tonight? Tomorrow? Next semester? Never? People leave, frustrated. The rhizomatic apparatus is releasing its inner fascist, its Ego: “We” must occupy the building, and these are the steps necessary (but, rhizomatic thinking is never pre-determined!), and these are the possible outcomes (yet, rhizomatic assemblages do not violate the near-future, as if it were an object that subjects could penetrate and know). “Consensus-building” is immanent to the process of theory and praxis, but this is just a euphemism for anti-rhizomatic collectivization. Multiplicities erode into simplicity. Reterritorialization is concomitant with deterritorialization; the revolution carries within itself its demise.

7.    Stratification and coding: Occupation. The building is “ours,” “we” have appropriated the space and declared ourselves sovereign. A frantic meeting of the assemblage, in which matter re-forms into content – through the same mechanisms that always occur – yet, what is emergent here, is the expression of the form and content (TP 43). The lines of multiplicity are trembling with insurgency – the plane of consistency is vibrating with collective desire-production, fervently exerting waves of energy through emails, websites, text messages: all attempts to rhizomatically extend the assemblage to other human networks, through non-human actants. This is the moment, the “event,” when the machinic assemblage forms an emergent stratum through the formation of a group-identity, collectively declaring its name to be, “The New School in Exile.” “Every statement is the product of a machinic assemblage, in other words, of collective agents of enunciation (take ‘collective agents’ to mean not peoples or societies but multiplicities). The proper name is the instantaneous apprehension of a multiplicity” (TP 37).

December 16, 2008; 7 pm

“We have just occupied New School University.

We liberate this space for ourselves, and all those who want to join us,
for our general autonomous use. We take the university in explicit
solidarity with those occupying the universities and streets in Greece,
Italy, France and Spain.

This occupation begins as a response to specific conditions at the New
School, the corporatization of our education and the impoverishment of
education in general. However, it is not just this university but also New
York City that is in crisis: in the next several months, thousands of us
will be losing our jobs, while housing remains unaffordable and
unavailable to many and the cost of living skyrockets.

So we stress that the general nature of these intolerable conditions
exists across the spectrum of capitalist existence, in our universities
and our cities, in all of our social relations. For this reason, what
begins tonight at the New School cannot, and should not, be contained
here.

Thus: with this occupation, we inaugurate a wave of changes in New York
City and the United States, a coming wave of occupations, blockades, and
strikes in this time of crisis.

Be assured, this is only the beginning,

With solidarity and love from New York to Greece,
To Italy, France and Spain,
To the coming insurrection.
-The occupied New School”

8.    A little nomadic discourse analysis: Here are the main contradictions stifling The New School in Exile: the assemblage claims (a) autonomy and distance, (b) representativeness, (c) the existence of individuals within the collective, and (d) local, global, and general solidarity. Let us proceed nomadically (through time and space) along each of these paradoxes.

(a) “The New School in Exile is not a representative body.  The group doesn’t claim to speak for the Student Body as a whole, just as no individual claims to speak for the group as a whole.  We don’t want to.  What we want is for the Students of The New School to feel empowered to speak for themselves.  This statement is a synthesis of opinions from within the NSIE, not an all-encompassing doctrine.”
-NSIE Statement, March 19, 2009

Although some claim NSIE not to be “a representative body,” there is still a discourse of “we”-ness and group-desires, which is a statement of moral and representational authority. To not claim to speak for, or to speak as, is to effectively reify the existence of an object (the “student body”) that can be spoken for, or spoken as. The “we” that “wants” and “doesn’t want” is an Oedipal structure of desiring-machines, negating some desires while asserting others. This line of reasoning plays directly into the skilled mechanisms of the capitalist machinic assemblage: the university!

(b) How to represent while preventing the emergence of a fascicular structure, of a root-tree? The occupation proceeded “democratically,” yet, when “the people” voted against the wishes of the vanguard, there was an insurgence, and the leaders led as they wished. Thus, as the crowd swelled outside the occupied building on the second night of the territorialization, people inside the building communicated through text messages to the anarchist collectives, students, and activists assembled outside in the street. Side doors were held ajar, and, in a burst of energy, the New School in Exile shifted its temporal frame (now! Urgency!), extended its rhizomatic lines through cell phones to desiring-machines that expressed their need to participate, to swell the assemblage as they entered the occupied building. Note that an assemblage feeds itself on the same technology that also sustains its Object-of-Opposition. Representation, therefore, is never the function of an assemblage. Assemblages are constantly in flux between fascicular and rhizomatic movements; when you think they are doing one (revolution!) they are doing the other (use mechanisms of power and technology, like computers and cell phones, to fight the enemy!).

(c) Leaders, individuals, subjects, and agency:

March, 2009

The news: a leader of the occupation has been detained by the Police-State Apparatus. Does he represent “us”? Discussion centers on whether he acted in “our” name or alone. This individual’s actions, supposedly non-representative of a larger group, nonetheless constitute an “event” in the temporal continuum of the NSIE. The assemblage is forced to, once again, deterritorialize (as in, question its existence, reorient ideology and goals), and subsequently reterritorialize through solidarity and plans for the future.

Can there be autonomous action within the rhizomatic assemblage? What becomes of individual agency? Furthermore, what is the connection between the individual and the “event” and its aftermath: the “thousand emails flying around,” “the myriad ways this affects our plans and our struggle.” What does it mean for “us” to “face this directly”?

Every supposed “individual” action is, in fact, a rhizomatic extension of the lines of consistency, the network, of the assemblage. “There are no individual statements, there never are. Every statement is the product of a machinic assemblage, in other words, of collective agents of enunciation…” (TP 37). And agentive capacity is distributed within the strata, just as desire-production is immanent within the assemblage itself: “Desire causes the current to flow, itself flows in turn, and breaks the flows” (5). “We” are the detained leader, as s/he is “us.” It’s a trap, of our own doing, yet simultaneously no one’s fault: this is the nature of the not-quite-rhizomatic assemblage which seeks to act for a cause.

(d) The world-wide crisis, and the subaltern response: resistance and solidarity. This movement was not, and is not, an event at The New School in New York City. This assemblage is a global flow of networks, connected through technological apparatuses (lines of consistency), and traceable by charting rhizomatic paths of resistance.

December 18, 2008:

“To the Students, Faculty, Staff and Supporters occupying 65 Fifth Ave.
I write to you this evening in support and gratitude. Support for your actions on behalf of the New School and in solidarity with those who struggle, and gratitude that you have renewed the meaning of the New School against those who would deny it.

Too often, in our world, we are told that politics is dead, that resistance is useless, and that public action is nothing more than an exercise in nostalgia. We are told that we live in a post-political world, where we must compromise with those who would oppress us and must subordinate ourselves to those who would manage our lives for us.

These past few days you have shown, as others in Europe, in Latin America, in Asia and Africa seek to show, that politics is not dead, that resistance is not useless, and that public action is precisely what our world requires and demands. To the forces of hierarchy and autocracy you have responded with democracy and collective action. To the forces of corporatization you have responded with community. To the forces of conformism you have responded with a critical solidarity that would make the founders of this great school proud.

As you sustain yourselves through this period, know that many of us are with you. Many of us endure the corporatization of university life, and we are with you. Many of us feel the sting of politicians who deny our voices in the name of efficiency and vocational training, and we are with you. Many of us recognize the isolation into which those in power would cast us, and we are with you.

You have nourished us with hope and for that we thank you.

In solidarity,

[Name Withheld]
Professor of Philosophy
Clemson University”

**************************************************
“We, the members of the Antioch College Action Network, offer our support and solidarity to the community of the New School. We believe that your struggle and our struggle are intrinsically linked…. All across the country, in schools large and small, public and private, faculty, staff, and student concerns are being undermined by “business” practices. Tenure, academic freedom, and quality education are being undone by the same mentality that has led to the world’s current economic crisis. Antioch has faced many of the same problems that the New School is currently facing: consolidation of power, lack of transparency in governance, erosion of tenure, community voting “No Confidence”, and faculty losing authority over curriculum.

We stand in solidarity with the autonomous occupiers of the New School against the rising prices of education, the reduction of education to a business model, the erosion of rights in our workplaces, and for the right to a sound and relevant education and the call for a just and responsible social solution to humanity’s immediate and devastating crisis.

ACAN is an independent collective of autonomous alumni, students, faculty, staff, and friends of Antioch College and villagers of Yellow Springs, Ohio. ACAN is a grassroots movement working collaboratively for a continuous and sustainable future for Antioch College.”

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“GREETINGS FROM MEXICO [translation]

Compañeros [comrades]:

With this message we send you greetings of solidarity from Mexico. The news about the courageous action that you have undertaken, by occupying the New School for Social Research facility, is already spreading around the world. You should know that in this struggle, you are not alone. In Mexico, throughout the last ten years, there has been a whole series of struggles by teachers, education workers and the students themselves against the continuous attacks that the bourgeoisie, its government and its parties have launched against public education. In Oaxaca just two years ago, the elementary-school teachers took over their schools and began a strike that turned into a social struggle of enormous proportions when the bloody governor Ulises Ruiz tried to take down a plantón [occupation of the city center] through a huge deployment of the police.

Ten years ago, tens of thousands of us students at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM—National Autonomous University of Mexico) began the winter by occupying the campus of our university. So starting in April 1999, we were on strike, fighting against the attempt to impose tuition at the university. We fought so that, in reality, the already small proportion of sons and daughters of workers able to attend the university not suffer a de facto expulsion [because of having to pay tuition]. We also insisted that for the democratic right of education to be real, it is not enough for education to be free.

Today, our compañeros at the university and its preparatory schools continue to confront the rage of the reactionary administrations which have reactivated shock groups [thugs] called porros. In March of this year, students at the College of Sciences and Humanities-South campus [one of UNAM’s preparatory schools] occupied their school for a week to protest the coordinated actions by the porros and the authorities at their campus. Through this action, they achieved the sacking of the bloodhound [repressor] who was in charge of campus “security.” The massive mobilizations of students were key to this victory, together with the support of the campus workers, who are members of STUNAM (Union of the Workers of the Autonomous National University of Mexico).

Because of all this, compañeros, in the midst of your cold northern winter we send you our very warm greetings in the struggle.

J. Santamaría, for the Grupo Internacionalista.”

What does Solidarity look like in an assemblage? Is it a counter-assemblage, an anti-assemblage, or a mere constituent of some other assemblage? A regime of Solidarity, in fact, crosses over various assemblages (The New School, Mexico, Ohio, Athens, Barcelona, etc.), and in the process forms its own assemblage. Thus, one actant can function within more than one assemblage; subjects may merge with various objects and vice-versa. Regimes of solidarity are, furthermore, distributed over a wide range of actants that exclude any notion of it being an anti-power, or an anti-assemblage. Rhizomatic solidarity may include Power (professors, security guards, elected officials), and may exclude some forms of Resistance (prisoners, psychiatric patients, homeless persons), as the nature of solidarity is to constantly reterritorialize and deterritorialize within existing assemblages. Solidarity wants to steal desiring-machines out of their assemblages so as to become actants in the regime of Solidarity! Solidarity is thus an actant in its own right, with capacity to produce affective sensibilities that foment intentionality in agents.

Thus, we are left with the not-quite-rhizomatic assemblage…

The distributive notion of agency implies that there is no contradiction between intentionality and disinterest; as actants, we are all complicit in various assemblages of which we may be unaware. Political scientist Jane Bennet writes that, “In a world where agency is distributed, a hesitant attitude toward assigning blame becomes a virtue” . Bennet argues for a reconfiguration of “blame” premised on this notion of distributed agency, and a recognition of the assemblages we human subjects act within. Which is to say, perhaps, that the Student-Kerrey dialectic inevitably fails to overcome the problematic nature of the larger power structure that cannot be located in one or two people. After all, when Bob Kerrey (and his cronies) are gone, we and they and technologies and apparatuses will remain implicated in assemblages that destroy, deplete, and dehumanize the parts that make up the wholes. That is, the university system will remain a capitalist enterprise in which our knowledges, our affects, and our subjectivities are commodified and sold at market value.

For all its struggles, the New School in Exile has collectively self-defined itself in so many ways that it has squelched its own potential for rhizomatic expansion and more subtle forms of agency. The egotistical nature of the desiring-machines manifests itself in actants as they seek the consumption of experiences. This desire admittedly leads to productive action on one hand, but also to the suffocating of what could be a free-roaming assemblage of Solidarity, on the other hand. One might consider this critique as a suggestion that “we” consider the means of our thoughts and actions to be of equal importance to the ends, which is to say that the shape and form of the assemblage must be prioritized over its outcomes in order for dialogue and activity to become creative and productive agents of change.


Footnotes

i. “A common notion is the representation of this composition as an independent unity. The unity for instance, of a poison and the body poisoned can be regarded as a state of becoming and an event which is reducible to neither the body nor the poison.” (Phillips, John: “Problematizing Global Knowledge.” Theory, Culture, and Society. 2006; 23; 108)

ii. Bennet, Jane. “The Agency of Assemblages and the North American Blackout.” (See below for full citation.)

Bibliography

Bennet, Jane. “The Agency of Assemblages and the North American Blackout.” Public Culture 17(3): 464. 2004.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1987.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1983.

Phillips, John: “Problematizing Global Knowledge.” Theory, Culture, and Society. 2006; 23; 108

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Rachel is an MA student in anthropology and the editor of Canon Magazine. Her passions lie in the intersections between arts and activism, and she hopes to follow these interests in the pursuit of a Ph.D. project that combines research, practice, and intervention. Meanwhile, she continues to engage with the multiplicitous multitude, in search of a way out of (a way through? beyond? between?) the structure-agency dilemma.