nick_owen_smaller_sqPlease send me a message.

Name: (required)

Email address: (required)

Message:

Becoming-

In this chapter from Other People’s Struggles, I ask what the work of social movements would have to be like for adherents and constituents to be able to pursue it conjointly. I draw on the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze to define the work of becoming- (the hyphen indicates open-endedness). In contrast to much of the work I explore in other chapters, becoming- work is not concerned to represent already-formed interests, or express innate essences, or reproduce capacities that some people already have. It is rather concerned with unconstrained liberation and the freedom to self-transform. We could imagine the work of representation as the careful copying of an original, or identity work as the birth, growth and maturity of a unique organism. Becoming- work is neither copying, nor progression from a start-point to an end-point. It is a matter of change itself, without an end-point that can yet be fully conceived. It is not concerned with a world that already exists and needs authentic representation or expression, but with a world of invention and mutation. Its pursuit of change without a destination is driven not by nihilism, but by a sense of unrealized, imagined potentiality.


‘There is no terminus from which you set out, one which you arrive at, or which you ought to arrive at’, writes Deleuze. ‘The question ‘What are you becoming?’ is particularly stupid. For as someone becomes, what he is becoming changes as much as he does himself’.

GILLES DELEUZE AND CLAIRE PARNET, DIALOGUES II (LONDON 2002), 2.

I think that becoming- work can produce some new answers to the classic dilemmas that adherents present to social movements. In becoming- work, activists are not interested in representing interests that are already formed or destined to form, but in the imagination of alternatives. They are suspicious of representation because it reduces, repressing difference and imposing a false unity on what are multiple singularities; and because it retards, presenting now what is already past. Interests do not form like crystals, but through unrepresentable mutations, in which the eventual form the interest will take evolves in a long, multiplying series of possible encounters, which, seen from any intermediate point in time, could go in any direction. The worry that the ‘real’ interests might get lost along the way is therefore a non-problem, because there is no independent criterion by which they could be judged to be lost or found. ‘Becoming-’, we could say, is all about getting lost along the way.


Another of the dilemmas of adherence concerns whether an adherent can ‘cross over’ to join the constituents in their struggle. The difficulty is that the adherent can only fully cross over by ceasing to be the one who has crossed over. However, this is only so if identity is a matter of ‘being’, and if ‘being’ is binary. If identity is a matter of ‘becoming-’, and ‘being’ is multiple, it becomes possible to imagine other possibilities besides either staying unchanged where you are, or failing to make the impossible crossing. ‘Becoming- work’ can include the adherent who is becoming something else while still being (presently and in some ways) the person she is.


‘Becoming-’, rather than copying, also has implications for the dilemmas of empowerment and solidarity. A movement engaged in becoming- work wants to enlarge capacities to do things that may never have been thought of before. It cannot seek empowerment through encouraging the imitation of the teacher. In becoming- work, the distinction – on which disjoint empowerment rests – between the one whose skills are secure and who knows, and the one whose knowledge is emergent and in flux, is abolished. Instead we might think of the swarming of knowledge, uncontrolled, with pupils and teachers impossible to tell apart.

Becoming- work also helps with the problem of prefiguration. This is the difficulty that in some work the battle cannot be won until people live as though it has been won. But people can only live in this way once the battle has been won. Becoming- work abolishes the untimely, because it abolishes stages and hence the possibility of arriving early. Indeed, it abolishes arrival too: there is only the becoming-. To prefigure is not to surf ahead of the wave, but to be the wave. The only mistake would be for the adherent to imagine that, in prefiguring the future, he or she had arrived.


The aim of becoming- work is only to be ready for transformations – to be ‘worthy of the event’ when it occurs, as Deleuze movingly puts it – and then ‘to take one’s place in it as a becoming, to grow both old and young in it at once’.

GILLES DELEUZE AND FELIX GUATTARI, WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? (NEW YORK, 1994), 160 / GILLES DELEUZE, ‘CONTROL AND BECOMING’ IN NEGOTIATIONS, 1972-1990 (NEW YORK, 1995), 170.

In becoming- work, there are no barriers, no privileges, and no guarantees. There are no barriers because being by background a constituent or an adherent, does not matter. What matters are the connections participants make or might make. The participation of adherents also occurs without privilege. They participate in their difference, with the histories and skills they have, rather than pretending to be other than they are or trying to become identical with the constituents. And their participation, like that of everyone else, comes without guarantees, both those which might secure beyond question their place in the movement, and also those which guarantee that their involvement will help.

There are some contemporary examples of becoming- work to be found in the alter-globalization movement and also in queer theory, which I explore in more detail in the chapter.

I do not think that becoming- work can secure a place for the adherent as adherent. There are no secure places any more. I do think, however, that becoming- work resists the pre-emptive exclusion of the adherent, and that, working without borders, privileges and guarantees, it might permit new approaches to the problems of adherence. Judgment of such work must be cautious. It is paradoxically both too early and too late. It is also evident that becoming- work will not always be valuable to a social movement. Some movements might do better by doing without adherents at all. Others might prefer to rely on the unexamined responsibilities that adherents believe they have to help other people in their struggles. But such help can only come disjointly. The most I can claim for becoming- work is that it may be possible to pursue it conjointly.

Nick Owen

The chapter summarised here will appear as part of my book Other People’s Struggles in 2019.