“Becoming” forms part of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s conceptualization of affect. They attempt to separate affect from sensation or perception (while they distinguish affect and percept, the two terms will be grouped together here). In doing so, they engage in a similar project to other theorists who locate affect not in the subject or object, but in a place between the two. However, Deleuze and Guattari then make the affect an entity entirely separate from either subject or object. “Becoming” is the way they describe this: “affects are precisely these nonhuman becomings of man, just as percepts . . . are nonhuman landscapes of nature” (What is Philosophy 169). Becoming makes both sides of the exchange between the individual and its environment part of the same entity, which then exists independently from either side of the exchange. The unity is captured in a variety of relationships, some of which Deleuze and Guattari name vibration, embrace/clinch, withdrawal, division, or extension (168).
In its association with the “nonhuman” becoming, this notion of affect links closely with the aesthetic project. Both the artist and observer “become” with the artwork. In the composition of a painting or novel, the artist, work, and audience become a single body of sensation, rather than a set of figures and resemblances. In the process, the body of sensation becomes a new, unique affect (173-174). This form of affect theory creates great difficulty in creating even a tentative list of affects, whether it be drawn from emotions, feelings, or sensations. Instead, a particular affect might better be described as Woolf-To the Lighthouse-audience, as the artwork has created its own unique affect. This nonce quality also raises the question of whether every cultural artifact that might be considered art succeeds at creating a new affect, or if this only applies to exceptional artists-works-audiences.
One particular value of this theory is that becoming restores a sense of dignity and purpose to the aesthetic project. Aesthetic works have a place next to science and philosophy as the three poles of thought. While science has the project of reducing complexity to rules, and philosophy has a project of expanding the possibility of ideas to the infinite, art has a middle position, which Deleuze and Guattari describe as: “creat[ing] the finite that restores the infinite: [art] lays out a plane of composition that, in turn, through the action of aesthetic figures, bears monuments or composite sensations” (197). Their overall meaning seems to be that art renders the infinite in particular forms (the becoming/bloc of sensations), forms which do not reduce the infinite, but instead offer ways of making it comprehensible.
Like other theories of affect, becoming places an emphasis on the body and its autonomy. Deleuze and Guattari use the term flesh, which includes autonomic response but primarily emphasizes the freedom to respond to stimulus in ways that may or may not include the autonomic response (Massumi 100). The greater sensitivity developed through a relationship with the aesthetic zone’s creation of limitless affects turns the body into something that is limited by neither autonomic sensation nor cognitive processing, but open-ended thanks to the imagination. The creative process of becoming leads to a range of possibilities, shaped but still supporting the infinite.
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987.
—. What Is Philosophy? Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.
Massumi, Brian. A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari. Cambridge: MIT UP, 1992.