What is a Plateau? – On Immanence and Ongoing Discussion

What is a Plateau? – On Immanence and Ongoing Discussion

1 What is plateau: I here write a text that is not an answer to the question because I believe this is what fits best to this web platform. Then: How can the question be kept open? Because only if we keep it open, the platform itself – plateau à-venir – can come up with its own provisional answers. Over time, and never quite ending. Plateau could be a place where texts negotiate with one-another, where practices of dealing with words produce friction among each other. I thus believe it is a strategic measure not to fix any style, genre, measure, goal, extension, vocabulary, point of view, red flag, or combat order for the platform. The following will be one possible text about plateau, an assemblage of theoretic references that attest for some associations and one line of conceptual heritage of the term.

2 Deleuze and Guattari speak of plateau to describe animated regions of interaction, negotiation and exchange in their introductory chapter on rhizomes in ‘Mille Plateaus’. There, plateau designates “continuous regions of intensity constituted in such a way that they do not allow themselves to be interrupted by any external termination, any more than they allow themselves to build toward a climax” (Deleuze/Guattari, 1987: A Thousand Plateaus). Plateau essentially is a “piece of immanence”, thus an assembled system of entities that exercise their forces in interaction with one another. As such, actions and expressions should be evaluated “on a plane of consistency on the basis of their intrinsic value” and not in relation to exterior ends. Plateaus are places that create their own logics from the interactions and negotiations they entail – they are self-generating zones of exchange and sympathy that are not finalized towards external ends.

3 But even more: plateaus do not climax only to then disappear. They work on consistency as change and subsist towards an open end. The anthropologist, psychologist and philosopher Gregory Bateson first introduced the term in his book ‘Steps to an Ecology of Mind’ when describing behavioral patterns in Balinese society. Bateson went to Bali in 1936 together with his then wife Margaret Mead – the two were actually married on the trip, in Singapore. Bateson and Mead documented Balinese culture in extensive field notes and by the use of photography and motion picture film – now a seminal early anthropological research. This research is part of Bateson’s endeavor to describe the tool of ethos, which he names as the “expression of a culturally standardized system of organization of the instincts and emotions of the individual”. Bateson is interested in describing basic theories of conflict, a field he later terms schismogenesis (Bateson, 1972: Steps to a Ecology of Mind, p. 116 ff.). Conflicts, to him, most often imply a form of cumulative action – the rising of a conflict, which he first and foremost finds in relation to erotic interactions. He concedes that complementary action between humans are all to often structured by “curves bounded by phenomena comparable to orgasm”, i.e. a built-up of intensity, a climax and a decreasing action. Now, within Balinese society, Bateson does not find these patterns at all. Rather he finds the opposite, a state of interaction he terms plateau. For this interactive state, his main example is erotic games between mother and child: The mother excites her child “pulling its penis or otherwise stimulating it to interpersonal activity” only to turn away as soon as the child is “approaching some small climax” (Bateson, 1972: Steps to a Ecology of Mind, p. 121) and urgently asks for further stimulation. But rather, the mother leaves the child alone and becomes a mere “spectator”, not reacting even to angry and physical claims of her child. Bateson concludes that thereby a basic human tendency toward “cumulative personal interaction” is muted and proposes his idea of plateau: “It is possible that some sort of continuing plateau of intensity is substituted for climax”.

4 While we think of negotiation and interaction as conflict most often, conflicts that culminate and eventually break out to then be solved and disappear, with Bateson we can point at something else: Continuous excitement, continuous interaction, continuous sympathy and shared interest that mutates in the course of its articulation. I think: Plateau is not there to primarily point at a lack (the lack of visibility and discourse around projects of performing arts in Hamburg, but also in other places), it hopefully is not a short endeavor of generating a bit of publicity for those that show or those that write about shows. No, it rather aims at generating discourse and discussion as an open and fluid form of articulating opinions, feedback, topics and questions. It finds ways of translating further what has been seen, what proposes an urgency, what commands the attention. This might be interactions between live art and written text, between city politics and theoretic discourses, between events and texts as events that hopefully in turn alter all participants involved in the meeting.

5 If plateau creates fluid structures by writing as negotiation, it becomes a lively place by the ongoing conflicts it entails. And it is not personal interests or ambitions but texts that will be the proponents of this debate. Deleuze and Guattari link the concept of plateau to the notion of vibrancy: it is “continuous, self-vibrating region of intensities“. The term of vibrancy has different meanings: it can either designate a pulsing or throbbing with energy or activity, but is also used in the sense of vigorous, lively, and vital. Now, within her materialist ecology, the political theorist Jane Bennett claims that vibrancy is closely linked to the notion of affect and a liveliness “intrinsic to (…) materiality” (Bennett, 2010: Vibrant Matter, xvi). This is part of her endeavor to claim agency for all sorts of material and nonhuman entities. I subscribe to her claim in a double sense: Virtual as this text might be, it is also made of material components and built on material work (for example the passages of neurons, the articulation of the muscles of my fingers, the movement of the eyes along the lines of the screen). And secondly, as material and discursive entity it exercises agency. Which means: It wants to be questioned, negotiated, discussed, and provoke disagreement. It does not want to end, though, in forms of conflict that stage a rising action followed by decreasing tension and release but become a specific bloc of information and affect on an open platform. What it looks for is to relate to a number of other items on this plateau by mutual continuous excitation. In the gaps, lines and overlaps with other articulations on the platform this text might become vibrant and lively. It can do so in as much as we can keep open what plateau actually is and does.

– Moritz Frischkorn I November 2014

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