Deleuze for the Desperate #8: Becoming and becoming-animal

Dave Harris

This is a popular concept, another one given a whole plateau to itself in ATP, and also discussed elsewhere –including in the book on Kafka Logic of Sense and Difference and Repetition – the books that made Deleuze famous and got him his job as a professor of philosophy. The concept of becoming is also a major feature of the work of Bergson, who Deleuze admires.

Let’s start with the examples of becoming – especially becoming-animal on this video ( I’ve discussed becoming-woman on video #7)

Lots of people seem to like this concept. Becoming-animal is especially popular and is sometimes seen as a way of communicating deeply with animals, usually pet animals. The details of how you become animal are discussed less often, and some people seem to think it involves treating animals as if they were human, giving them equal rights, or attempting to communicate with them in some imaginative way.

I am sorry if the approach here seems less mystical or less emotionally satisfying, but I think becoming-animal means philosophizing in a fairly cool even if focused and ’intense’ way about animals and their capacities. I take ‘intense’ here to mean being fully aware of thought processes, including the impact of affects and percepts, which are often not conscious.We will study animals in a particularly rigorous way, and in some small-scale detail. This might be what D&G mean by ‘transcendental empiricism’. [The 'transcendental' bit means we think philosophically  about the origins of these empirical characteristics as well] It involves abandoning the usual large-scale or molar concepts about animals (in this case), which limit our understanding and our perceptions, usually in the interests of social control. The main gain will not be a nicer warmer, more equal relationship with animals, necessarily – just a much better informed one.

We start as ever with ATP and the plateau on becoming. In this book, D&G are keen to illustrate their philosophical commitments with examples from the popular culture of the day, and this plateau offers the most extensive examples. They include commercial films like Willard, vampires in fiction, street performers, or maybe music hall acts (unfortunately I have never tracked down Alex the Trotter who demonstrates becoming horse while playing the harmonica). Alchemy is also mentioned, and we take in theology and music as well while we are here, just as we would if we were having a discussion in a Parisian salon or an informal seminar.

I should say that music is a frequently used example, but I'm no musician. I did think Bergson used a musical example rather well in his discussion of becoming, which is similar to Deleuze's (Bergson 1954). He  says that at one level, music offers a sequence of sounds --but they add to each other, cumulatively. Early ones qualify or add quality to later ones in various ways. The overall effect is different from each of the sequential sounds on its own. That indicates the qualitative changes that is at the heart of duration or becoming for Bergson

We could touch begin with the section on the concept of haecceity (discussed in #2). Haecceities are individualized assemblages of objects and events which come together or ‘become’ ‘by accident’ (although technically there is no such thing as an accident, just a particularly unpredictable event) and which have affects on human beings. These constant collisions indicate a sort of empirical or actual becoming as objects and events constantly acquire new characteristics. Haeccceities are always a heterogeneous combination of characteristics rather than simple unities. We can simply refer to perceiving a dog, but if we add that this is a particularly lively and energetic dog that is walking in a particular road at a particular time and which gets the attention of a particular person, we can see why it affected one of the characters in Virgina Woolf’s novel (I think the novel in question is The Waves - -this dog trotting around freely in its own little world, helped one of the characters feel that she was a free spirit too). There is no simple unity for a person, even an author – we are all nothing but haeceeities etc.

There are also mentions of the cult books by Castenada on sorcery, and the results of an experiment to take peyote: the particular episode being referred to here is when the hero naive anthropologist takes part in a peyote ritual and encounters a dog who's able to communicate with him, and who also demonstrates this kind of aura that surrounds living beings, a series of lines that connect them to each other and to the environment.

Let’s take a couple of examples in even more detail, focused on becoming-animal. You might remember we discussed this a bit when looking at lines of flight in Kafka. Becoming-animal for him was a way of breaking out of the usual subjective stances that dominated literature. Kafka did not get there by imitating animals or mystically bonding with them but by thinking out differences between humans and animals. Whether this was successful or not is debatable.

There is another example, and that concerns the novel Moby Dick. The captain of the whale ship, Ahab, intends to become whale, we are told. The bits of the novel that they cite in this Plateau comes towards the end of the book, where the clash between Captain Ahab and Moby Dick is clearly becoming inevitable. Ahab has in his cabin a chart with lots of lines drawn upon it, and this helps him predict where whales can be found at particular times of the year. We're told by the the narrator that this is fairly routine practice in the whaling industry, because the whales are to some extent predictable. However Ahab has intensely and obsessively added all sorts of extra information to this chart relating to the particular passage of Moby Dick. Every time encounters another ship he asks if they have seen the white whale, and then goes down to his cabin to add whatever information he might have gathered. There might be some other mystical process involved where Ahab thinks of himself as a whale, but I can’t find anything in the book that suggests that. Basically the whole thing is based on careful and systematic observation and experience, knowledge of tides, times, locations and so on. It is a far more systematic understanding than is available to most people who are outside the industry. And it is successful.

The process of narrowing down the hunt also involves Ahab becoming less human. He is not content just to hunt any whales whatever, as any commercial fishermen would. His first mate, Starbuck, points out that they have missed several opportunities, and urges the captain to kill some more whales and then head for home, as any normal fishermen would. Ahab makes it clear that he seeks a particular whale, however, and Starbuck eventually sees that the captain is not a normal human: he describes this as insanity. Ahab displays increasingly isolated behaviour, and gives up even the normal human comforts of eating with the officers and smoking a pipe. We realize that the whole thing is going to end in a terrible confrontation where people will be killed. Ahab reassures the mate that nothing can be done, that they are set on a track which is preordained.

So, in Deleuzian terms, what we have here is Ahab stepping aside from the conventional human identity of whale ship captain. He takes a different stance towards a whale, no longer seeing it as just a resource to be pursued and killed rationally. The whale is also an unusual whale, an anomalous animal in their terms, because of its appearance, which includes many scars from earlier encounters with hunters, and because of the way it behaves—it seems to have gained a lot of knowledge of human beings and how they hunt. When the whale clashes with the captain, they both enter a grey area where the normal distinctions between humans and animals do not apply and neither behave according to convention. D&G describe this as Ahab wanting to become-whale but I think he wants to become Moby Dick in particular, and he wants only to involve Moby Dick in this great tragedy he is acting out.

Now it’s a playful stylistic flourish to discuss fictional characters and not the authors who constructed them. It is the author, Herman Melville, who shows becoming-whale.  Melville constantly shows us characteristics which we never knew about – the great physical capacities and endurance of the whales, their tenderness towards their fellows, the way they behave when elderly, the fatalistic and rather noble way they die. A lot of this is anthropomorphic and imaginative no doubt –but Melville did serve on a whaling ship and must have observed whales close up. And there was a real incident when a whale attacked and sank a ship. Melville cites various authorities on whales as well. In fact the whole book is full of detailed observations of whales, their anatomy as well as their behaviour. It’s almost like a documentary at times. 

Anyway, back to the ATP text. About p.300, we get into becoming animal starting with the conventional forms we already have and then we have to  'extract particles', noting the relations of movement and rest, speed and slowness that are 'closest to what one is becoming'. We discussed these Spinozan terms in the video on the haecceity. Becoming is a matter of proximity, and not analogy. It's possible because there is a zone of proximity or 'copresence of particles' [a note refers us to the origins of the term proximity in set theory, where it is also known as neighbourhood]. We can note the emphasis on the molecular again. I still don’t think it means a literal exchange of molecules, like the fashionable notion that subatomic particles are entangled, in say Barad (2007). I think it means focusing on the routine small scale encounters between humans and animals which subvert the big general ‘molar’ categories.

M. Harris

In the second example, Freud talks about a child known only as Little Hans and the anxiety attacks that he suffered. One thing to say straight away is that Freud never met the child personally, but discussed him with Hans' father, who happen to be a fan of Freud. We can see straight away that this is a rather indirect analysis. It is even more debatable when Deleuze and Guattari decide to solve the lad's problems based on Freud's account. That makes theirs a third- hand account.

Very briefly, the anxiety that Hans experienced seem to be connected to horses. He had seen a horse urinating in the street and had become distressed. Freudian antennae will already be vibrating and the anxiety will be connected to the child's worries about his own penis. We have to remember that the child's mother had threatened to cut off his penis if she calls him playing with it. This threat seems to have been fairly widespread among the middle classes of Vienna.

Hans was also disturbed by other things that horses did as they worked in a transport depot opposite his house. Horses sometimes stumbled on the cobbles and lay there writhing. Sometimes they were beaten until they got up again. The depot itself had other mysteries, including a bunch of street kids who played with the wagons.

Hans' father works through some obvious forms of Freudian analysis with Freud. The horses with their blinkers might stand for the father himself with his spectacles and whiskers. That was too obvious for Freud. Horses lying in the street writhing and kicking their feet could be some symbolic version of sexual intercourse. The father denied that the lad had ever witnessed any such primal scene. Freud noticed that the anxiety was increased when Hans went to visit his relatives to look at their new baby. He traveled in a horse drawn carriage to do so.

Freud finally suggested that the anxiety was due to Hans dreading the arrival of a new baby. It was not so much the horses that suggested this as the box carriages that they pulled. Things were put into and taken out of the box carriages, just as things were put into and taken out of women's bodies. The impression is given that this analysis led to successful therapeutic discussion between Hans and his father to resolve the lad's anxiety.

I don't know what you will have made of this, but for Deleuze and Guattari it shows how Freud wants to reduce everything to privileged analyses. Every action becomes symbolic. Every anxiety reveals the same old problems with infantile sexuality, including Oedipal hangups.

Instead, little Hans was just trying to expand his experience in a nice rhizomatic direction, away from the stifling family atmosphere, out into the street where he could play with street urchins -- and horses. His respectable parents would allow no such thing, of course, but he was interested in horses and their behaviour. It was both challenging and anxiety producing as he watched them carefully through the window of his house. Had Guattari been treating him, he would no doubt have encouraged a transversal movement to follow the lad's interest and get him in touch with horses.

So little Hans, according to Deleuze and Guattari, wants to pursue a rhizome, or a line of flight. He is particularly interested in the animals he has observed carefully. He does not want to work with the categories that adults apply to these animals. He wants to explore for himself. He wants to become-horse.

End of M Harris

We don’t normally see things this way, but, as I have insisted throughout, we are not doing normal thought – we are doing philosophy. We are being shown in these examples how to understand animals in a much more detailed and open-ended way. We can use ordinary categories if we just want to relate to animals in the normal ways, but understanding philosophically is different. Note that neither Ahab nor Hans wanted to imitate animals or bond with them emotionally. Nor was it just an imaginative exercise for either of them. A D&G quote makes this clear:

'But neither is it [ that is, becoming] a resemblance, an imitation, or, at the limit, an identification' (262). Becomings-animal do not just occur in the imagination and are 'neither dreams nor fantasies. They are perfectly real. But which reality is at issue here?'...'What is real is the becoming itself, the block of becoming, not the supposedly fixed terms through which that which becomes passes'.

That quote comes in the middle of reminder that Spinoza was interested in urging us to rethink what a body can do, not just assuming it fits nicely into what it is supposed to do.

Normally, we think of animals as pets, workers or food. They are more fascinating than that. They do more than just conform to our categories. When you observe them closely, as Hans did from his window, or as Ahab does on board the Pequod, they reveal quite new abilities and capacities. In my experience, they are often stronger and cleverer than we think, for example. Perhaps the best contemporary examples of people who have really observed and understood the capacities of animals are horse-whisperers or animal wranglers in general.

Qualities that interest Deleuze and Guattari include what happens when animals act as a pack They see pack action as a kind of living multiplicity which contains much more power and potential and which changes the behaviour of individuals (269). Freud is told off again in Plateau 2 for not grasping the interests of one of his patients, the Wolf-Man, specifically in pack behaviour. It reminds me of early French work on human behaviour and how it changes in crowds. This might be deliberate on the part of D&G. They like to remind humans throughout ATP that animals also live socially, communicate wit each other, have a certain amount of freedom to act and so on, although, for my money, they stretch the meanings of words like ‘freedom’ to do that.

We should look in these examples for the basis of becoming in reality. This will be a different reality, though, 'a reality specific to becoming' (263). As in most cases, discussing becoming-animal will end with a discussion of what reality is and how it operates.

We know that D&G operate with 2 kinds of reality, virtual and actual. In actual reality, all sorts of boundaries, limits and categories have developed for social and political reasons, and they surround us. They include very limiting categories when it comes to animals, all of which raise humanity to some exalted status as not-animal. In virtual reality, there is much more potential for variation and possibility. Close observation and philosophical thought reveals some of this hidden potential. We need to examine very carefully the specific actual examples, aiming to see this level of potential, virtuality, in everything.

In this case, there is some more modern ways of thinking that might help. We know that human beings and horses and whales all really did have a common ancestor. In D&G terminology the abstract machine that produced mammals produced the specific forms of humans and horses, and this is what they are getting at in their own obscure bits about evolution in this plateau. We still share a lot of our DNA in common

The Plateau ends with some more technical stuff about how this virtual reality is actually constituted as a number of different sorts of planes. Let us leave that aside for now. A fully philosophical grasp of becoming leads to general conclusions, that boundaries around objects and events are simplifications. There is only the reality of endless becoming. In virtual reality, things become imperceptible (277-8). That includes human beings!

We have briefly touched on becoming-woman in the video before this one. D&G also discuss ‘becoming-child’, an issue that particularly interests those working with children. I will leave it for now, but I think you can work out for yourselves what they actually might mean by it.


Barad, K. (2007).  Meeting the Universe Halfway: quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning.  London: Duke University Press (notes here)

Bergson, H.  (1954) [1932] The Two Sources of Morality and Religion.  Trans R Ashley Audra and Cloudesley Bereton. NewYork: Doubleday Anchor Books (notes here)