Reflections on Gilles Deleuze and the “Plane of Consistence” on the Occasion of an Aikido Seminar with Yoshinobu Takeda Sensei (Victoria, BC, July 21-22, 2012)

Gilles Deleuze

Gilles Deleuze

Gilles Deleuze makes a distinction between a “plane of consistence” and a “plane of organization” which is extremely suggestive for trying to think through the conflict between forms of life and the powers that diminish life. It is also extremely suggestive for the study of Aikido, and vice versa. Like most of Deleuze’s concepts these two planes are difficult to grasp concretely. (Or maybe they are too concrete to grasp in thought). They refer to the fields or the environments in which we live or pursue our activities, like the forest through which we are walking, the bank at which we are paying bills, the sociological literature on which we are developing a research project, etc. It is a question of how we relate to these fields. How do we reach an understanding of ourselves as part of these environments, being in their midst, as one of their intermingling elements, and not somehow external to them as a subject among objects? Essentially the difference is one of orientation to them – are the fields pre-formed and fixed, “organized,” so that our tasks and knowledge take the form of “fitting in,” or are they in flux, in assembly, a field to be composed or decomposed? Is our task always to find the rules we need to submit to?  Or is the field singular: immanent  and without rule?

Like the boy in Harold and the Purple Crayon, are we continually drawing a world in which we can live, or do we live in a world that has already been drawn? Do we live in a world or do we ourselves world?

The plane of organization refers to the way a field of activity is organized from the top down, so to speak: everything in its right place, everyone doing the right thing at the right time, every organ performing its designated function. Deleuze suggests that this plane is organized by virtue of an extra, supplementary dimension, an “image” which like the law lays out the plan, a “kind of design, in the mind of man or in the mind of God” (Deleuze, Dialogues, p. 68). In everyday experience we often go around with the idea that there is a correct way of doing things, even if the norm that defines correctness and mistake is only an idea in ones head. Alternatively, we have the experience of things and people getting in our way when they clash with some pre-established pattern we have imposed upon a given situation. Where does the idea come from? It is not given in experience, but does serve to organize experience.

Baruch Spinoza

Moreover, there is no shortage of people around to reinforce it, to remind you of your insufficiencies, to tell you where your place is, who you are and what you ought to do. This is the plane on which an “image” of power operates, “a whole organization which effectively trains thought to operate according to the norms of an established order” (Dialogues, p. 18). This image allows the capture of  becomings and of life itself, insofar as life itself is a growing and becoming. This is the plane where ‘power’ per se  finds its home. And as Deleuze says, paraphrasing Spinoza, “We live in a world which is generally disagreeable, where not only people but the established powers have a stake in transmitting sad affects to us. Sadness, sad affects, are all those which reduce our power to act” (Dialogues, p. 46).

The plane of consistence is more difficult to conceive. Deleuze writes:

This other plane knows only relations of movement and rest, of speed and slowness, between unformed, or relatively unformed, elements, molecules or particles borne away by fluxes. It knows nothing of subjects, but rather what are called ‘haecceities.’ In fact no individuation takes place in the manner of a subject or even of a thing. An hour, a day, a season, a climate, one or several years—a degree of heat, an intensity, very different intensities which combine—have a perfect individuality which should not be confused with that of a thing or of a formed subject. ‘What a terrible five o’clock in the afternoon!’ It is not the moment, and it is not brevity, which distinguishes this type of individuation. A hecceity can last as long as, and even longer than, the time required for the development of a form and the evolution of a subject. But it is not the same kind of time: floating times, the floating lines of Aion as distinct from Chronos. Hecceities are simply degrees of power which combine, to which a correspond a power to affect or be affected, active or passive affects, intensities (Dialogues, p. 68).

This notion of haecceity, or “thisness,” that Deleuze borrows from Duns Scotus is key here. As he says, it refers to “an individuation which is not that of an object, nor of a person, but rather of an event (wind, river, day or even hour of the day)” (Dialogues,  p. 119). It is on the plane of consistency that each situation and each encounter is experienced as an event, a singular individuation.  No two events are alike, if for no other reason than no schema of comparison preexists their emergence. The point of all this conceptual elaboration comes down to a question of ethics, or of how we might live: “It is a question of life, to live in this way, on the basis of such a plane, or rather on such a plane” (Dialogues, p. 69).

If this is beginning to sound a little like something from Eastern philosophy we can note Deleuze’s appreciation of the Eastern arts in this context: “The arts of Zen, archery, gardening or taking tea, are exercises to make the event surge forth and dazzle on a pure surface” (Dialogues, p. 51).

Which brings us to the Aikido seminar with Takeda Shihan this summer (2012) in Victoria. I think the seminar was all about learning to orient oneself to the plane of consistence, to free oneself from the constraints of the plane of organization. There were three main ideas that struck me from the seminar. Firstly, Takeda Sensei began by saying that Aikido is about experimentation and research (kenkyu), about finding  a way rather than learning a way that has already been pre-established. Secondly, he said that each student will find their own way, a way that is singular to them. Thirdly, and in a way that strikes me as necessarily a paradox, that we should study technique to accomplish these two things. He then began to teach by presenting a series of studies of Aikido technique. The paradox of course is how one is supposed to find one’s unique way by learning to do ‘proper’ technique? How does one become free by submitting to a discipline? But the key point was, as I think we all quickly realized, that these studies were all elements of an essentially freeing relation to technique.

Takeda Sensei and Phil Gawthrop Sensei (photo thanks to Nat McCully)

In the study of Aikido there is also a plane of organization which has to do with fealty to technique. As Henry Kono Sensei says in his instructional video  Yin and Yang in Motion, the techniques are a set of scripts that one must learn before one is at a point where one can begin to learn about Aikido. There are hundreds to learn. They have their place.   In this regard, Takeda Sensei’s point was that practicing fealty to technique is not wrong, but it is a limited way of learning. What he encouraged us to do instead was to study technique by catching an image of  technique as a field of energy (chi). (On this point, see also Alan Drengson’s discussion of fields). “Steal this image!” he said as he showed the spatial dynamic of an Ikkyu technique.

Here image is not at all the same as the image of power that Deleuze mentions above. Rather the image is one of the tensions and dynamism of the unique space that is created each time bodies encounter one another in motion. It is not a space that is defined by proper or perfect technical forms performed flawlessly or with errors, nor by the manipulation of body mechanics, but by a field of dynamic energy: space at rest or in motion, space defined by directional vectors and tangents, space crossed by vertical and horizontal lines, space that expands and contracts, space created by moves ‘inside’ and moves ‘outside,’  by gravity and extension, by voids and fullness, by slices and openings, by centering and flight. It is not a space to be mapped by Euclidean coordinates, (your feet go here, your arm goes there, your grip is such and such), but a space of “intensities,” of  lightnesses and densities, correspondences and “resonances,” to borrow Deleuze’s language. It is composed of a multiplicity of elements (i.e. the “relations of movement and rest, of speed and slowness, between unformed, or relatively unformed, elements, molecules or particles borne away by fluxes” mentioned above).

Takeda Sensei and Phil Gawthrop Sensei (photo thanks to Nat McCully)

In this manner, the practice at the seminar was one of maximum sensitivity and responsiveness to the deployment of a field. One was always taking part in a dynamic created  by the proximity and configuration of bodies and it was necessary to be attuned to find ones passage through it. A shift of footwork or an arm gesture by the defender (Nage) opens a space which has its own unique dangers, tensions, blockages and openings to which the attacker (Uke) must respond by turning on a dime. In this way each encounter of Nage and Uke have the quality of a unique event or a haecceity where it was not so much about one person doing something to another, but about the emergence of a plane of consistency in which each person finds a place or a line to follow. The sharper the practice became, the more ineluctable and exact those lines were, until it was no longer even necessary to have physical contact between Nage and Uke.

As Deleuze put it in his reading of Heinrich von Kleist’s story On the Marionette Theatre, “what defines an … assemblage is the shift of a center of gravity along an abstract line” (Dialogues, p. 77). At one point Takeda Sensei demonstrated this line by simply standing over his Uke, focusing his attention and Chi on the Uke’s center of gravity, even laying his bokken (wooden sword) down on the Uke’s center. The Uke realized that there was nowhere to go, no movement to make, no safe passage out. He was caught by a virtual, but nevertheless real, center of gravity on an abstract line.  Takeda Sensei showed how it was possible to completely control the space, or to create an impenetrable space abstractly, without using physical force or a classic joint lock.

In a martial sense this is a clue to understanding Morihei Ueshiba’s (the founder of Aikido) statement that there can be no enemies and no fighting in Aikido. There are no enemies because defender and attacker are not separate. They are particles in the same field of quanta that encompasses them, which is ultimately the field of movement of the universe itself. Morihei Ueshiba said, “The secret of Aikido is to harmonize ourselves with the movement of the universe and bring ourselves into accord with the universe itself. He who has gained the secret of Aikido has the universe in himself and can say, ‘I am the universe.’ I am never defeated, however fast the enemy may attack. It is not because my technique is faster than that of the enemy. It is not a question of speed. The fight is finished before it is begun.”

In the end, Takeda Sensei’s teaching — the open endedness and experimentalism of his researches (Kenkyu), the invitation for each student to find their own singular way, the image of the martial encounter as a fluid field of energy — provide a concrete way to access to Deleuze’s concepts of haecceity and the plane of consistency as well as the ethics that arise from  them. Similarly, I think that Deleuze’s efforts to think about states of things or encounters as multiplicities (“proximity groupings between independent and heterogenous terms,” “the continuum of intensities, the combination of fluxes” Dialogues, p.s 77,74) provide a kind of conceptual language to open up the way we think about practicing Aikido. They provide insight into the feeling of lightness and joy that was the outcome of the Aikido practice. There are many ways we find to diminish the life that flows through us and the universe. We are easily bogged down by the shadows. It is a practice of joy to find ways of thinking and forms of life that don’t diminish us.

2 thoughts on “Reflections on Gilles Deleuze and the “Plane of Consistence” on the Occasion of an Aikido Seminar with Yoshinobu Takeda Sensei (Victoria, BC, July 21-22, 2012)

  1. I enjoyed reading this. Although, I haven’t read deleuze directly, I have read seen lectures online about his thoughts and I had always thought the Deleuzian themes of lines of flight, events of different intensities and so on, a good way of talking about Takeda’s approach to aikido. Having said that, I am not sure whether we are any clearer about how to ‘improve’ our aikido. Perhaps, it is about ‘fitting’ our aikido to the occasion rather than fitting ourselves to a prefabricated design, as it is commonly taught. One thinks of Krishnamacharya’s Vini Yoga, and personal trainers who tailor exercises for particular individual needs rather than imposing an ill suited regime,no matter how scientifically sound. I’m interested in the next step, the concrete steps one might take to realize ‘fitting’ into different intensities. It takes ‘flexibility’ is something Takeda reiterates. And, yet, there are surely methods involved. Those methods seems relatively private to Takeda sensei himself and often not disclosed to the public for whatever reason, even remaining hidden to his own students. The documentary ‘Needle Through Brick’ taught me that the Chinese masters of kung fu test their students’ patient and character by failing to teach them the inner working of the techniques for at about five years. Given most of these arts can easily be abused to create deadly force in the hands of less than ethical individuals, the caution seems justified. I only wished that my Tai-chi instructor had told me this secret rule so that I didn’t need to quit after concluding to myself that I hadn’t been taught anything significant in 3 years…
    Personally, I’ve found Takeda sensei to be a very nice man, but a man of few words who, while demonstrating very impressive, soft and beautiful aikido does not seem particularly interested in teaching per se. Accustomed as most of us are to physical education classes in high school and biomechanical explanations for high level sports performances, where some explanations are provided on how to generate power, how to generate the competent effects one wants, etc, it comes as a great surprise to find Takeda teach by not teaching. The question is: Is anyone learning anything? Or, are we duped into paying to attend his seminars for years, without any noticeable improvement. The tendency, like with many cults, is not to fault the guru, but to find something intrinsically wrong with ourselves, as if we were at fault for failing aikido. I don’t accept this. So, I’m investigating on my own, which I suppose is Takeda’s advice. Perhaps, then, this advice ‘to find out for yourself’ is very, very old, perhaps as old as the martial arts have been martial.

  2. Awesome post.

    You’ve really helped this self-taught philosophy student “grapple” with the ontology of Gilles Deleuze.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s