It’s a great pleasure to introduce my first guest blogger, Dr Chad Sean Habel, who also happens to be my youngest child 🙂 Chad willingly offered to share his view, on the Gould “Family History Through the Alphabet” challenge, of the rhizome as a most helpful way of describing our family connections. Over to you Chad…
We all know the metaphor of the “family tree”, “digging for your roots”, and so on, and it’s a very alluring way to think about our ancestry. But what if your family tree doesn’t grow straight? What if it has holes, or gaps, or roots that pop up in unexpected places and don’t fit the “normal” model of a nuclear family or European dynasty? Well, thinking of your family tree as more of a rhizome might help.
The idea of the rhizome is taken from French theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and it is usually used to describe language, knowledge and society, but it seems also to apply to ancestry. One of the things my PhD thesis explored was the way that ancestry can motivate such different thoughts and feelings. For example, it is often (perhaps usually) the case that ancestry is a positive reclamation of our family’s past, and that it puts us in touch with those we have been cut off from. It’s about redemption, discovery, a wonderful inclusion of that which has been forgotten, sometimes wilfully. This model of ancestry is inclusive, flexible, and dynamic.
However it must also be acknowledged that ancestral identification can lead to exclusion, racism, and worse (as we have seen in the Holocaust and so on). This is a conception of identity which is binary: us and them, either you’re in or you’re out. Incidentally, this aligns with many forms of national identity too. How is it that essentially the same thing (ancestry) can lead to such different outcomes? I started looking for a model to help explain it and stumbled across the notion of the rhizome. Put simply, a rhizome is a form of plant that grows like bamboo or grass, across the surface of the ground (unlike a tree).
It’s perhaps easier to explain by beginning with the opposite of the rhizome: aborescence. Plants that have an aborescent structure have roots (there’s a familiar metaphor!) that go deep into the ground, then a strong trunk capped off by a canopy of trees. This type of ancestry is linear, hierarchical, binary, and characterised by deep internal structures. Aborescent ancestry is about authenticity, purity, a sense of belonging that is denied to those who fail to qualify. It struck me that if we see our ancestry like this, we are more inclined to look back for a sense of “pure” origins that may exclude those who don’t fit that model of purity. Tragically this is what so often happens: those who are not legitimised in the culture of the time (through no fault of their own) are excluded from the family or national story – or sometimes they exclude themselves! The Australian tradition of “Hiding the Stain” by rejecting or excising convict ancestors from memory is a good example of this kind of aborescence.
On the other hand, if we see ancestry as a rhizome, we see that it can follow any pathway (Deleuze and Guattari would call this desire). We realise real families don’t fit “normal” structures: they include multiple marriages, children born out of wedlock, international connections, interracial marriages, same-sex relationships: basically much more than the so-called “nuclear family”. To me this is just a better way of understanding our personal origins: families are dynamic, interesting, messy, complex, non-linear and bridge all kinds of gaps in a good way. In its most radical form, a rhizomatic conception of identity might allow us to include people who don’t even have the same biological connection that we usually require: in this way, my second cousin Rani (who is lucky to have two loving dads) is just as much a part of anyone with that pure “blood” connection.
By loving rhizomes I am saying I want to live in a world where we do respect family connections and they are preserved and seen as important, but that those connections don’t have to be defined in an exclusivist way. Love the rhizome: revel in its messiness, its complications, the way it resists categorisation and submission to the authority of logic. Because families come in all shapes and sizes.
Chad Habel had the good fortune to be brought up by the best Mum in the world. (Chad’s words, not mine 😀 ) He studied at the Flinders University, South Australia, completed a PhD on ancestry in literature and now works in the School of Education at the University of Adelaide. In his spare time he nurtures a healthy preoccupation with video games and their potential to support learning.
We are family, by Kate Legge. The Australian 12 Jan 2011. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/features/we-are-family/story-e6frg8h6-1225986408817
AUSTRALIA’S BIRTHSTAIN the startling legacy of the convict era by Babette Smith. 2008. Allen & Unwin. ISBN 978 1 74114 604 2 (hbk)
Copyright © 2012. Dr Chad Sean Habel