Rhizomes and Front Porches: “A Cure for Societal Dysfunction”

“Small opportunities are often the beginning of great enterprises.” Demosthenes

In my last post, “Recognizing the Problem,” I vented my frustration, dismay and utter anger over the current political situation in the United States. But if I lived somewhere else, such as Great Britain, I’m sure my response would be similar. Regardless of the geography – it seems few governments can be considered worthy of the populace they supposedly represent.

Most can agree, the presence of Donald Trump and his circus put in a position of national power represents something malignant. But is he the cause or the symptom of the cancer? It’s probably safe to say it’s both – but I believe the latter holds greater weight. Our economic, physical and psychological dependence on government or some other sort of greater force to look over us has all but made us prey to any charlatan or clown, regardless the party, persuasion or power. Our current situation firmly underscores this fact. 

In several previous pieces, I have attempted to make the case for a societal effort to boost our collective self-efficacy.  In other words, we need to do a better job taking care of ourselves. And a “better job” should mean more than just us as individuals – but also our neighborhoods and communities.

Our government has proven to not only not be up to the task … they’ve morphed into a big part of the problem. But fortunately, the model for an alternative, one that emphasizes “we the people” not a self-serving hierarchy, may lie only as far away as our back yard.

Rhizomes and Decentralized Civic Engagement

Biologists say trees are social beings. They can count learn and remember. They nurse sick members, warn each other of dangers by sending electrical signals across a fungal network and for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through roots. (Marije van Zomeren)

To find a model for organizational structure built around resource maximization and decentralized civic participation and collaboration, we need to look no further than our backyard – in nature. One of nature’s most effective means of sustainability is the Rhizome. The Rhizome is a modified subterranean stem of a plant that is usually found underground, often sending out roots and shoots from its nodes. Rhizomes develop from axillary buds and grow perpendicular to the force of gravity. The Rhizome also retains the ability to allow new shoots to grow upwards. If a Rhizome is separated into pieces, each piece may be able to give rise to a new plant … and a new node of above ground activity.

Credit: Debi Keyte-Hartland

“A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles … the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even non-sign states … The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots.” A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. (A Thousand Plateaus)

This phenomena of decentralized activity in Rhizomes was best articulated in the philosophy or Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in the ’60s. Rather than using the organizational structure of the root-tree system which charts causality along chronological lines and looks for the single origin of “things” and looks towards conclusion of those “things;” a Rhizome continually establishes connections between threads of meaningful communication, organizations of power, and other influences (including arts, sciences, and social struggles). The planar movement of the Rhizome resists chronology and formal organization, instead favoring a Nomadic system of growth and proliferation. In this model, influence and application spreads like the surface of a body of water, spreading towards available spaces or in the application of community – maximizing the resources available to it, regardless of the type. This is a perfect alternative to the governmental morass of dysfunction we’re current immersed in.

First we must build the vehicle. This vehicle is not a place or even a thing, but the collective journey of our community. It’s about movement. This journey happens on a metaphoric road or as Deleuze and Guattari call it, the Smooth Space.

  • The platform or naked infrastructure on which the community and in turn the array of “need and opportunity based activities” operate is called the Smooth Space. This platform is not formally defined, but rather takes the form of the influences that inhabit it. These influences can include meaningful communication, existing organizations (government and other) as well as social norms, ideals and community expectations. In the context of my model, Community 3.0, the Smooth Space is largely your community’s small business network or Front Porchesthe members of the community who are their customers, and the societal norms they create. What a community does and creates with its Smooth Space will determine the well-being of its populace. It is the duty of the Rhizome structure and its Smooth Space to accommodate and nurture the intangible, serendipitous, sensual and tactical engagements of all the members of its community (i.e. empathy, creativity, collaboration and self-actualization).

The vehicle is just a shell. Who we allow in and what we put in it is really what matters. Any shell can house extraordinary activity … or none at all. Those included must not be limited by the title and organization on their business card – but rather be a diverse array able move freely like a Nomad traveling where the food and opportunities lie.

  • Nomadism is a way of life that exists outside of the traditional organizational or societal norm (at least in modern times). The Nomad is a way of being in the middle or between points. It is characterized by movement and change, and is unfettered by systems of organization. The goal of the Nomad is only to continue to move within the “intermezzo.” (the journey rather than the destination). This constant state activity prevents itself from existing for the sake of existing as conventional organizations and institutions most often do. The goal is to make things happen, to find opportunities and solutions; not just to “be.” This Nomadic behavior also lends itself to the individual focusing on what interests them and where they can contribute the most, rather than just working within the constraints of a pre-defined, often inefficient role or job. In short, being a Nomad can greatly enhance ones sense of engagement and well-being. Or according to the Danish philosopher Søren Kiekegaard, be the evolved man.”

Once we have the vehicle and the people … we need the fuel. The fuel is the processes, the sociological assistance and prodding needed to propel the vehicle down the road. It’s not so much a thing, but the result of a community’s past behavior and the systems put in place to modify or continue on in the future. Deleuze and Guattari called this formless set of influences the Body Without Organs.

  • Body Without Organs is what happens. It is the result of what the Rhizome social philosophy using the Nomadic actions of its components operating on the Smooth Space. In itself the Body Without Organs has no form until the variables of the community are injected into it. The community’s personality and overall state of well-being are the result of the interactions between its populace and businesses; it is its Body Without Organs. It can take a conservative form or a progressive one. NIMBYism and gated communities or collaborative and communal. Closed and silos or tolerant and welcoming. Wall Street or Main Street. This is the community’s personality. But rather than the personality being dictated by those in the high rungs of a traditionally mandated hierarchy – it will come to form through the participation of those who live there … those on the streets, no matter their social stature. How the community directly responds to its needs and opportunities will be what it is.

Front Porches

At the foundation of this evolved, altrusitically-based society are its Front Porches – physical hubs of civic gathering and serendipitous engagement. The goal is to take the principles of resource maximization and provide the conduit to incorporate them with the naturalistic examples of the Rhizome organization articulated by Deleuze and Guattari. This result is a platform or space for community engagement and sustainability built around informal but operationally significant gatherings, otherwise know as Front Porches. While these Front Porches can form anywhere, say even in your garage, the ideal locations will be in the locally owned businesses of our communities.

Rather than myopically obsess on economic growth as almost all civic governments do, a Front Porch network will focus on destroying the silos that retard our evolution while improving physical, cerebral (avenues to self-actualization) and spiritual health.

People will gravitate towards what they want to do … and in turn do what they do best. This lifestyle of self-management of interests and activities will not only benefit them, but also their community. Lives based on economic status will be replaced by those of self-actualization and self-efficacy. Civic participation and altruism will elevate them and empower them to evolve as humans.

It will be the priority of these Front Porches to create environments in our communities that nurture hope by empowering avenues for us to engage with our world and express our creativity through a Solutionist mindset – letting the inherent benevolence inside us bloom. By making “helping others” our societal norm and expectation … we will supplant that of the hopeless climb up the ladder of our current economic caste system.

Well-being, Hope … and Changing Your Mind

What if we designed our communities around the idea of maximizing engagement. The more engaged our residents are … the more empowered they would be. They would feel more in control of their health and their futures. Imagine if a chance to engage, whether it was physical, mental or social was just around the corner. And what if opportunities to help others realize the same were part of the fabric our daily lives. What if our physical security and well-being was not dependent on government assistance or the whims of a fickle market driven economy. What if our neighborhood was our safety net, a safety net that knew best in our time of need. And what if the streets of our community became melting pots of serendipity – places where curiosity was bred and benevolence was the norm.

What if engagement, well-being and self-efficacy was how a community measured itself, not obtuse economic activity often distorted through the one-dimensional filter of irrelevant statistics. What if we fixated on what we “could” and “will,” rather than what we “can’t” or “won’t.” And what if getting up in the morning was a chance to nurture our hope … and engage with others to help them do the same.

Your community, where you physically live, will turn into one of problem solving where everything and everyone is a resource. Your community will be revitalized. New businesses will be created. Not those derived from Wall Street chains and franchises, but ones of ideas born in your community and run by people from your community. These will be the businesses that provide the genesis for the future to build on by turning into Front Porches – ensuring your legacy and prosperity.


It’s obvious the human species must evolve. But to do this, we will have to change our thinking. Instead of relying on past expectations, cultural assumptions and metrics as our guides — we have to envision what could be, not just what always has been.

But the vision is only part of the journey. We have to look past how things in past have been done. No longer should government and traditional institutions be looked at as the first line defense … rather should be looked at only as a last resort. Our reaction should be to assemble our friends and neighbors at our local Front Porch, organize and do what has to be done — developing self-efficacy along the way.

We can make the change we need — but it won’t be by thinking the way we’ve always thought and doing what we’ve always done — the way it’s always been done.

“If not us … then who? If not now … then when?”

If you’re interested in moving on from the status quo that will inevitably take anyone and anything down with it … please check out Community 3.0, my vision of an evolved society where self-efficacy and the well-being is priority. Or even better email me, at clayforsberg@gmail.com and we can set up time to have a conversation.


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2 thoughts on “Rhizomes and Front Porches: “A Cure for Societal Dysfunction”

  1. Clay, I support the basic idea that if individuals and local organizations take greater responsibility for solving problems and improving communities, there will be less need for government involvement. Or maybe government will follow the people’s efforts. However, the definition of “neighborhood” and “community” is where I have some concern. I’m in Chicago where the population of the region is over 10 million and the geography is huge. There are areas of great wealth and areas of great poverty that are disconnected by geography, and by self-interests, as well as race. In smaller communities the ability of people from different classes to connect with each other and build a common understanding of problems and a shared commitment to solutions is more possible, than in big cities and large geography.

    When I look at your Rhizome graphic I think of “community” as a shared interest, not just a geographical boundary. Thus, the nodes on the graphic could be connecting people from rich areas and business and colleges with other nodes which are filled by people in poor areas. The graphic itself could be created often throughout the year to show who is attending events intended to discuss community interests, and analyzed to show “who is missing”. Over a period of years I’d hope that the process would result in a growing number of nodes, showing participation of a growing number of people from all parts of the geographic community who share an interest in the same issue.

    Not sure that I’ve found any examples of this actually taking place and being mapped.

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