Skateboarders as Philosophers of Immanence

— Ari Berenbaum

Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) is an extremely confusing French postmodern philosopher.  He uses a myriad vocabulary that was more Finnegan’s Wake than traditional Western philosophy.  For instance, his term, “the plane of immanence”, which we will discuss in this essay, is synonymous with the “plane of consistency” and the “multiplicity”, but each has a different connotation that exemplifies a particular trait of the same substance, which is incidentally called the “virtual”.  Take a look at this example, “The plane of consistency would be the totality of all Body without Organs [another synonym], a pure multiplicity of immanence…” (A Thousand Plateaus, 157)

I will introduce his concept of immanence through a colloquial example.  Recently, a skateboarder named John Cardiel was partially paralyzed in an accident (he was on a skateboard, and a van hit him).  In his state of rehab (he has since regained much of his mobility, but can no longer skateboard), Vice TV ran a retrospective documentary on his career.  In this series, you get a sense of the madness of the street skateboarder, descending twenty-foot rails, dropping into ramps from overpasses, jumping flights of stairs.  Cardiel was fearless to the point of psychotic, choosing tricks to attempt that no other skater would.  When he describes his art, you see that to attempt these tricks, he was entirely inside the experience, literally seeing himself perform the trick as it was becoming an actuality.  And this is the best description I have for immanence: the point at which virtuality (how Cardiel saw himself accomplishing the trick in his mind’s eye) and actuality (Cardiel accomplishing the trick) come into contact.  As he says, on a steep twenty-foot rail grind performed in San Francisco (known in the industry as “The Golden Rain”,

“I tried in my mind, to project myself, all the way to the bottom of the stairs.  So I had to get enough speed, to like, ollie [jump] onto the rail, and be…I was trying to, like, aim my body at the bottom of the stairs.”

You can watch the video of this trick and his commentary at:

As Deleuze says, echoing Cardiel, or vice-versa,

“The field of immanence is not internal to the self, but neither does it come from an external self or a nonself. Rather, it is like the absolute Outside that knows no Selves because interior and exterior are equally a part of the immanence in which they have fused.” (ATP, 156)

Young children also lack this exteriority of experience, a pre-individual state prior to their subjective selves being born.  As Deleuze says,

“Very young children, for example, all resemble each other and have barely any individuality; but they have singularities, a smile, a gesture, a grimace, — events that are not subjective characteristics.  They are traversed by an immanent life that is pure power and even beatitude through the sufferings and weaknesses.” (Immanence: A Life…”, 5)

In the Autobiography of a Schizophrenic Girl, the narrator, Renee, describes her first schizophrenic experience at age five.

“…as I was passing the school, I heard a German song; the children were having a singing lesson.  I stopped to listen…It seemed to me that I no longer recognized the school, it had become as large as a barracks; the singing children were prisoners.” (19)

Within the immanent process, there is a lack of differentiation that is kind of like a hallucination.  It generates false recognitions or misrecognitions.  Coincidentally, Deleuze cites a similar anecdote is his second book on cinema, The Time Image (2).  In Europe 51, a bereaved woman, viewing a factory and factory-workers, says, “I thought I was seeing convicts.”  This is not merely a resemblance, but the immanent process of perception that is akin to hallucination (ibid., 20).  The school for Renee, and the factory for the woman, are prisons, literally, not metaphorically.  There is no objective distance to this type of perception.

Through his philosophy of immanence, Deleuze turns much of Western philosophy on its head.  Transcendence, when it does pop up, in nothing but an indexical product of underlying immanence. (cf. “Immanence: A Life…”, 5)

In a diagram that Deleuze reproduces from Henri Bergson’s Matter and Memory, the virtual world of the ideal (e.g. Cardiel imagining himself performing the trick) organizes itself in a cone shape, where all the possibilities of experience are organized by level on horizontal slices of the upturned cone.

The virtual and the actual come into contact at the very tip of the cone. In this way, time as it were “rises to the surface of the screen” (The Time Image, xi), the screen being the plane of immanence where these two realities meet.

Deleuze says, “Immanence is opposed to any eminence of the cause, any negative theology, any method of analogy, any hierarchical conception of the world.” (Spinoza, 173)  I could not think of a better phrase to sum of the philosophy of your average skateboarder.  They are seeing lines in our urban architecture that have not been mapped, whose usage has been delineated and disciplined by a rule-constructing and largely rule-abiding society.  For John Cardiel, and other skaters, a rail is not for holding, a staircase is not meant to be descended on foot.  These surfaces breathe new life when viewed through the eyes of the skater.  The ability to map new territory in what had been a desert of creativity is for Deleuze the definition of the nomad.  The nomad, like the skater, does not travel; he or she only reinterprets, recodes, reterritorializes what otherwise always has been and what always will be.

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