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What Animals Teach Us about Politics

What Animals Teach Us about Politics

by Brian Massumi

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In What Animals Teach Us about Politics, Brian Massumi takes up the question of "the animal." By treating the human as animal, he develops a concept of an animal politics. His is not a human politics of the animal, but an integrally animal politics, freed from connotations of the "primitive" state of nature and the accompanying presuppositions about instinct


In What Animals Teach Us about Politics, Brian Massumi takes up the question of "the animal." By treating the human as animal, he develops a concept of an animal politics. His is not a human politics of the animal, but an integrally animal politics, freed from connotations of the "primitive" state of nature and the accompanying presuppositions about instinct permeating modern thought. Massumi integrates notions marginalized by the dominant currents in evolutionary biology, animal behavior, and philosophy—notions such as play, sympathy, and creativity—into the concept of nature. As he does so, his inquiry necessarily expands, encompassing not only animal behavior but also animal thought and its distance from, or proximity to, those capacities over which human animals claim a monopoly: language and reflexive consciousness. For Massumi, humans and animals exist on a continuum. Understanding that continuum, while accounting for difference, requires a new logic of "mutual inclusion." Massumi finds the conceptual resources for this logic in the work of thinkers including Gregory Bateson, Henri Bergson, Gilbert Simondon, and Raymond Ruyer. This concise book intervenes in Deleuze studies, posthumanism, and animal studies, as well as areas of study as wide-ranging as affect theory, aesthetics, embodied cognition, political theory, process philosophy, the theory of play, and the thought of Alfred North Whitehead.

Editorial Reviews

Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things - Jane Bennett
"This is a truly brilliant book, one of Brian Massumi's best. More than anyone else I have read, Massumi makes real progress in untangling the relationship between play, sympathy, politics, and animality. What Animals Teach us About Politics provides a fascinating and persuasively non-subject-centered account of sympathy, and it goes a long way toward helping us to see how the practice and theorization of 'politics' would be radically refigured within a process-ontology."
Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame - Cary Wolfe
"In a remarkable work of speculative thought, Brian Massumi reimagines what politics can be when we ramify the importance of play—its excesses, surpluses, and transformative energies—and how it intimately binds human beings to other forms of life. This is not the 'animal,' and the 'politics,' you thought you knew."
Montreal Review of Books - Liam Mayes
“For those ready and willing to navigate the complexity of What Animals Teach Us about Politics, Massumi is a brilliant thinker who has produced another incisive critique that is likely to elicit interesting scholarship and responses, both from his immediate interlocutors and anyone else looking for a way out of humanity.”
Common Knowledge - Randy Malamud
"[C]omplex, dazzling, and sometimes elusive central essay bolstered by various addenda (propositions, supplements, and lavishly
intricate endnotes) — presents an intensely ratiocinative meditation on how animals play and what that might mean for people." 
Limina - Colleen Harmer
"[A]n active book aimed at establishing a new understanding of politics. It is thus useful for anyone who wants to approach politics from a new perspective, one that does not limit the political to that which is already given, but one that opens politics up to creative potentialities and affectivity."

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What Animals Teach Us about Politics

By Brian Massumi

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7605-7


To Write Like a Rat Flicks Its Tail

In the work of Deleuze and Guattari, there are at least two ways in which the becoming-animal of the human distinguishes itself from nonhuman animal play, which nevertheless can be seen to provide it with its conditions of emergence, as well as the propulsion of a tendential line on which to add a ludic variation.

First, the becoming-animal of the human is entered upon by necessity. The exemplary case for Deleuze and Guattari is Kafka. It is in the face of the horror of the human home and family that Kafka takes refuge in animal existential territories. The condensation of affect on the all-too-human figures of the Oedipal family is felt to be unlivably limiting. Writing, pushed into supernormal service as a toolbox for becoming-animal, is used to compose a line of flight from the family enclosure. The recourse to animality is a strategy of survival. The necessity of the recourse does not contradict its creativity. The fact that the becoming-animal is entered into under pressure does not disqualify it as a fundamentally ludic operation. In the becoming-animal of the human, creativity and survival are one. If the situation were not imperative, there would be no reason not to remain ensconced in the familiar comforts of home.

The problem is that these comforts come with a price: normality; acquiescence to the already-expressed; the stifling of the supernormal tendency that immanently agitates and instinctively rouses all animals, human or otherwise, toward surpassing the dealt hand of the given. There is only one choice: renounce one's animal instincts, or leave the comfort of home. There is only one way out: to deterritorialize oneself, to quit the human arena and reclaim animal existential territory. The necessity of the operation only makes it all the more intense. It only interlaces corporeality, the living out of the imperatives of the given situation, all the more closely with a forward-looking creative urge. It only laces corporeality all the more strongly with appetition. The becoming-animal of the human intensifies the mutual inclusion of corporeality and supernormal tendency, while reaffirming the latter's primacy. At a critical point in life, it tips the pathic dependence on the home as given, and the family pathos of the homebound, into an intense movement of self-surpassing.

To do justice to the intensity of this gesture of becoming-animal, it is necessary once again to factor in the difference between vitality affect—in its relation to play, where it is one with the enthusiasm of the body expressing life's creative dynamism—and categorical affect. Every ludic gesture invokes the salient categorical affect normally attaching to the analog situation. For play-fighting wolf cubs it is fear. For Gregor, in Kafka's The Metamorphosis, it is horror. Horror is fear laced with pathos. The necessity of the operation comes from the horrific context of animal desire being forced into the limitative frame of the Oedipal triangle. The ludic gesture of becoming-animal has no choice but to dramatize the horror, which perfuses every cranny of the home situation. Horror is the affective key in which the situational imperatives demand acquiescence. The way out is letting oneself be swept up all the more horrifically intensely in the enthusiasm of the body of vitality affect.

As in nonhuman animal play, the actions to which the narrator abandons himself "do not denote what those actions for which they stand would denote." As with every ludic operation, becoming-animal dramatizes the affective situation by performing gestures that have bite without biting. Paradoxically, it is not the Oedipal horror of incest that Kafka dramatizes, even though that horror cannot but be evoked. What is dramatized is the unframing of incest and its horror. The becoming-animal of the narrator suspends Oedipal desire, the sequence of actions most associated with it, as well as the known consequences of either engaging in them or repressing them. Gregor's becoming-animal defangs the Oedipal family by giving it pure, deterritorializing expression. "There appears at the same time the possibility of an escape, a line of flight" (Deleuze and Guattari 1986, 12; trans. modified). Gregor's becoming-cockroach traces an expressive line of flight out of the incestuous family enclosure. It draws an enactive cartography, intensely excessive in its movement, that breaks out of the natural habitat of the Oedipal individual, to regain the wide open nature of transindividuality: "Everything takes on a collective value.... Everything is political" (Deleuze and Guattari 1986, 17). It is in the name of a "people to come" that one becomes-animal (1986, 18).

The other difference in relation to animal play is that here the deterritorialization is "absolute" (1986, 26, 35–36). That is to say, the unframing opens an escape hatch leading away from all known arenas of activity given in nature. Becoming-animal is the never before seen, the never done or previously felt. A dog tying its shoes. A mouse star of the opera. A most learned ape savant. Never done, never been, not in the past, nor likely in the future. It is a transindividual affair of the people, but "the people are missing" (Deleuze 1989, 221–222) by nature.

Becoming produces nothing other than itself. [...] What is real is the becoming itself, the block of becoming, not the supposedly fixed terms through which that which becomes passes. Becoming can and should be qualified as becoming-animal even in the absence of a term that would be the animal become. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 238)

The becoming passes between the human and the animal, in the margin of maneuver produced by placing their generic identities in suspense in such a way as to mutually include them in a state of heightened intensity—suspended animation. "Becoming-animal is an immobile voyage in place; it can only be lived and understood in intensity (cross thresholds of intensity)" (Deleuze and Guattari 1986, 35; trans. modified). The stylistic idiosyncrasies and bizarrely downplayed little-something-extras of Kafka's writing make for a movement in place that understatedly outdoes itself, overspilling into an expressive becoming, crossing the threshold of the family into other regions of intensity. Of course, horror is not the only categorical affect that can provide the springboard for this kind of excessive movement. It could be any affect, depending on the context, and the particular way it makes the life of appetition unlivable. And the stylistic "excess" can be, as it is in Kafka's case, an excessive sobriety, overspilling in a surplus of intensely felt simplicity. This minimalist excessiveness is perhaps the most propitious for becoming, because the autonomizing gesture of pure expression—leave the given framing of the scene, extract oneself from the imperatives of the context, suspend the terms structured into place and go elsewhere, shake loose and plunge headlong into an absolute deterritorialization without knowing in advance where it might lead—is all about strategic subtraction (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 6, 21, 279–280).

Writing, according to Deleuze and Guattari, has the expressive capacity to unleash a "particle of becoming": an integral, nondecomposable dramatization of the movement toward the supernormal. The deterritorializing gesture of the becoming-animal of the human proceeds by blocks, just like the peck of the herring gull chick. The affects involved in the dramatization, both vitality and categorical, concern sequences of potential actions that are enactively enveloped in the primary consciousness of the domains of thinking-doing in play. It is useful to recall the basic definition of affect that Deleuze and Guattari adopt from Spinoza: "the capacity to affect and be affected" (Deleuze 1988a, 123–124). The potential actions invoked through the dramatization bundle sets of capacities to affect and be affected. These bundles unwind as tendencies. The tendencies interpenetrate, in reciprocal immanence. Like the blocks of sensation "hallucinated" by the herring gull, these affective tendential bundles are composed of "internal relations." The tendencies coactivate in intensity, but clamor, in resonance and interference, in competition and symbiosis, to unfold extensively, and not in any normal way.

What the gesture of absolute deterritorialization does is suspend the extensive unfolding. It doesn't act the potential actions out. It holds them together, purely in their relation to each other, in tightest, most intimate embrace, in a written zone of indiscernibility. It in-acts them. It gives pure expression to their reciprocal immanence. In this zone of indiscernibility, the internal relations invoked as tendential potential actions running counter to the familial context make themselves felt in all their covariant integrality, without their difference blurring but, paradoxically, in the actual absence of an alternate context corresponding to the existential territory being played. A human becoming-bird, for example, does not invade the nest, like a cuckoo. The potential actions are purely played, unframed and thus without assignable limits. They are purely expressed, co-immanent to the expressive gesture of writing. They are dramatized by that gesture in the role of pure, future possibilities, unframed, their only limit the horizon of animality itself. Like every horizon, the horizon of animal recedes as it is approached: it is an absolute limit; a real, virtual limit. Also like all horizons, it liminally envelops the field of possibility of movement in its integrality. In the suspension of the actual animal context, the approach to the animal limit extends the integrality of the internal relations of the in-acted tendencies to the absolute, integral horizon of the animal.

In a written animal-becoming, unlike in nonhuman animal play such as that of wolf cubs, what is played is not a particular function of the animal, like predation. The "plot line" of the story is an envelope for the integral animal to express itself in all its immanent intensity. The actions that are expressly dramatized do transduce something of the commanding form of the animal analogue of the becoming: the something-extra of it. The compositional principle is more on the level of the animal's style of movement, as it in-forms all of its behaviors. What is expressed is the vitality-affect signature of that animal, the -esqueness of its actions arcing through all its movements, the manner in which the animal continuously performs something extra to the functions of its behaviors. This performative excess over generic function is what defines the animal's singularity. It is the manner in which the animal surpasses itself, overspilling its species being in a way that places it on a supernormal continuum with other species, in its own singular way. There is a cockroachity of the cockroach, a mousiness of the mouse, and it is these form-of-life signature styles that get in on the act of writing. The style of the writing composes itself around this -esqueness of the analog animal, taking up its species overspill into creative language. The writing of Gregor is the invention of the extra-roach, a writerly produced surplus-value of cockroachity. Pure, roachity extra-being (Deleuze 1990, 7, 123, 221). The specifically written uptake of this extra-being creatively extends the continuum of integral animality under enactment to include the human—the only animal whose bundles of affective capacities include literary writing. It is the animal continuum that is integrally put into written play, in the register of cockroach. Gregor is the integral animal, written in roach.

-Esqueness was already an element of pure expression in nonhuman animal gesture. Writing extends the -esqueness to integral animality, taking pure expression to the limit. When writing gives pure expression to integral animality, it is not denoting "the" animal. Gregor is not about "the" roach. It is not about denoting anything in general. It is about producing something singular. Not "the": a. A cockroach, a dog, an ape, a mouse, each evoking in expressive individuality the power of the animal continuum—singularly exemplary animals enveloping in their movements, and in the moving of their movements to the affective limit of animality, an indefinite multiplicity of differential modes of potential existence.

The white whale of Moby Dick is another exemplary animal in the Deleuzo-Guattarian menagerie of pure expression. Moby Dick is not your average whale. He does not represent his species. He does not denote what it is to be a whale, or what normal, adaptive whale behaviors are. On the contrary, he expresses the supernormal tendency plying whaleness from within, and placing it on the integral animal continuum. He is not your normal animal, he is the Anomal, the anomalous animal: the tendential expression of a force of deforming supernormality capable of affectively, qualitatively enveloping in its singular manner the liminal integrality of an indefinite population (which is missing). Moby Dick is the receding horizon of being-whale. He is the transindividuating, extra-species becoming of whaleness, in person. But he is not a person. He is an envelope of becoming-animal potential. He is an envelope of animal potential becoming, wrapping the continuum of integral animality into the affective register of whaleness—as only a written whale can do.

The Anomal is marked by a special quality that serves as an index to its supernormality: an exemplary -esqueness epitomizing the whole bundle of -esque-potential the exemplary animal envelops in its movements. In Moby Dick, it is the whiteness of the whale: the extranatural whiteness exciting an equally unnatural passion in the whale's written human counterpart that matches his own intensity, in counterpoint. Ahab is induced into an intensive play of becoming by the whiteness of the whale—and with him, the reader, in transindividual contagion. What imperatives of escape have conditioned this line of flight? When the becoming daisy-chains, from writer to written figure to reader of the writing, do the imperatives and the passion to deterritorialize remain the same, or do they also undergo continual variation? It is quite certainly the latter. The becoming becomes across the series. This makes it impossible to understand becomings in writing in terms of reception theory. Nothing in particular is transmitted. Something singular is recatalyzed. It is not a communication, it is an event series.

Deleuze and Guattari also speak of exemplary written -esqueness in relation to rats. They invoke the bizarrely affecting manner in which a nest of rats in a Hofmannstahl story flail in their death throes, saying that what their gestures induce is not pity but "unnatural participation." By "unnatural" they don't mean off the continuum of nature. They mean: in becoming toward an "unknown nature," a supernormal nature (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 240, 258). Once again writing gives pure supernormal expression to the integral animal, this time in the register of rat. The writing denotes what this supernormality would integrally denote. The animality of the rodent becomes-human (suspends itself in written gesture) at the same time as the human becomes-animal (passionately renews its constitutive ties to the instinctive core of its own supernormality).

This is how all becomings-animal work, even nonwritten ones, like the case Deleuze and Guattari cite in which the actual act of gnawing on metal like a chew toy was the supernormal gesture catalyzing a becoming-dog, in contrast to the example of the written tying of dog-shoes with human paws (1987, 274–275). It is the same basic principle when a human engages a becoming-animal in nonverbal gestural: an expressive act, triggering a becoming affectively between, without an end-term become. The difference is how far toward the horizon of animality the act can tend, how intense the expression can get, how integrally far its movement of surpassing the given goes. The written act goes the furthest, most intensely. In the gestural acting-out as in the verbal in-acting, both the human and the animal are extracted from their normal contexts, abstracted from their customary frames. Their gestures are subtracted from already recognized and adaptively honed functions. Reciprocal unframing. Double deterritorialization. Double abstraction. This is what all ludic gestures of becoming have in common. What is special about the written gesture is that it gives free range to the instinctive movement of supernormality running the full length of the animal continuum immanent to the life of humans and nonhumans alike.

This dramatized expression of integral animality is all the more intensely lived in writing because it escapes all possibility of reterritorialization. The awesomely jawed metal-eating man-dog became reterritorialized as a sideshow: captured by the already-given arena of activity of the circus. But you can never catch a whale whiter than the page it is written on. The expression of animality is most superlatively natural the more integrally natural functions and contexts are placed in suspense. In suspense, they are felt with an enthusiasm of the body so far reaching as to stretch the length of the animal continuum, and so envelopingly ubiquitous as to lurk in every in-between, so prowlingly as to inhabit all the gaps between what is and what could be (but never will be, outside of expression).

To the extent that this movement of animal expression frustrates any adaptive reterritorialization as its destination, it runs against the normal grain of the animality, whose natural direction so often includes corporeal recapture, as part of the natural life cycle of life's variation. The human's renewing of ties with its instinctive animal core is an "unnatural participation" (participation contre nature) (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 240, 258, 260). It is a counterparticipation in intensest nature, carried to the highest degree of lived abstraction, suspended in the artifice of writing. In this mode of lived abstraction, the human is not conscious "of" the animal. The writing is not discoursing "about" the animal. The human is doing the animal in thinking-writing gesture: in-acting a pure animal expression, in a mutual envelopment of one and the other, and the neither-one-nor-the-other of their zone of indiscernibility in becoming.


Excerpted from What Animals Teach Us about Politics by Brian Massumi. Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Brian Massumi is Professor in the Communication Department at the University of Montreal. He is the author of Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts and Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, which is also published by Duke University Press.

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