Becoming-cat

One of my favorite things about Deleuze is that his philosophy is so rich with potential for practice and experimentation. I am reading A Tbousand Plateaus right now, and I’m on the chapter Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible. Among other things, he talks about the relationships between humans and animals, and the nature of different interactions within those relationships. The emergent properties that are produced by those interactions are what Deleuze calls Becoming-Animal. So I’ve taken to practicing these concepts with my cat Herman, since he is the only animal available to me who is willing to engage in Deleuzian practice.

            I think my own relationship with animals is already similar to that of Deleuze, so that has helped me a lot. Although I like animals, I didn’t always. I passively enjoyed animals outdoors, but I was not a fan of pets until about four years ago, when I was forced to live with a cat, and learned to love it. But since I never grew up with pets, and I always had a hard time “connecting” with animals, my relationship with pets is much more so on their terms than most pet-owner relationships. Or rather, it is equally on the pet’s terms and mine, and I don’t have an overly developed sense of sentimentality about the relationship. Nevertheless, this has not stopped me from forming very rewarding relationships with several cats.

            Deleuze says about animals,

We must distinguish three kinds of animals. First, individuated animals, family pets, sentimental, Oedipal animals each with its own pretty history, “my” cat, “my” dog. These animals invite us to regress, draw us into a narcissistic contemplation, and they are the only kind of animal psychoanalysis understands, the better to discover a daddy, a mommy, a little brother behind them… And then there is the second kind: animals with characteristics or attributes; genus, classification, or State animals… Finally, there are more demonic animals, pack or affect animals that form a multiplicity, a becoming, a population, a tale… Or once again, cannot any animal be treated in all three ways? 

            So in terms of my experimentation, Deleuze says two important things here. Pets are often treated like people, subjects, who have “selves” like our own and can interact with us in a contrived human way. But there is another side to animals (pets included), that is entirely “wild,” not in a dual sense of nature vs. humanity, but in the sense that any creature, animals and humans included, is differentiated from other creatures to certain degrees that they have mutually exclusive characteristics. So while we can look at cats as pets with cute little names who like to sit around with old ladies and have tea parties, we can also look at them as unique and different creatures with whom we can coexist and engage in Becomings, while not fundamentally altering our own characteristics in order to engage in those Becomings. “It is also possible for any animal to be treated in the mode of the pack or swarm… Even the cat.”

            So how am I to engage with Herman in this way? He is a relatively solitary animal, and isn’t really into cuddling or sitting on my lap, and isn’t always playful. A lot of the time when you try to engage him he will bite you or attack you and run away. This limits what I can do to experiment with him, because engaging in any kind of forced activity would obscure part of his nature from me. The one consistent activity we both engage in is our ritual when I get home from work. Herman will usually come up to me, sniff at my hand, then rub his head against it to mark it with his pheromones, then go around the room and mark several other items that he usually marks: the side of the mirror, the bottom of the bookshelf, the legs of the table and chairs. He continues this loop several times, and each time he comes around I let him mark me and pet him. Through this process we each engage each other in a way that is both inherent to our nature, and a nod to the other’s nature: a cat normally marks its territory using the pheromone glands on its head, but it does not usually greet a human upon entering its (shared, again) territory, and include it in its territory. Likewise, a human normally greets people when it enters a home, but it does not mark those people as its territory or let itself be marked. “For I cannot become dog without the dog itself becoming something else.”

            What takes place in our greeting ritual is something entirely new, a new form of greeting that is neither cat nor human, an “Unnatural participation.” In our ritual, “a fiber stretches from a human to an animal, from a human or an animal to molecules, from molecules to particles, and so on to the imperceptible.” Clearly we can see the value of engaging animals this way, because in the case of the individualized pet, there is at best a false fiber stretched from human to human, and the relationship goes no deeper than that. There is nothing to be learned from it. But when the cat is treated as a cat, a “line of flight” is opened up that allows us to Become-imperceptible, to go all the way down and experience something inherent to us yet distinctly not human, not subjectified.

            And I’ve been having a lot of success with these experiments. Not only have I been able to use it to “Become-imperceptible,” as part of a general process of trying to understand the nature of things, but my relationship with Herman has grown deeper on both sides. Now that I understand him better, I am better able to interact with him in ways that are conducive to equal pleasure, and he feels more comfortable with me and with letting me touch and pet him, etc.

            For example, tonight we went through our usual routine when I come home. I was laying on the bed, and he jumped up next to me. He started purring, and I went to pet him. At first he moved his head back and away, so in order to acclimate him to me, I put out my hand for him to smell and mark, which he did. After this he allowed me to pet him softly, and I gauged where to pet and with how much force based on his reactions. When I stopped petting him he inched closer to me, putting his paws almost on my arm, then started to lick my hand, which is one of the few ways that cats show affection (aside from marking you, or prodding at you with its paws: the paws and the licking are both relics of kittenhood, which is the most social time in a cat’s life, aside from being owned as a pet). When he was done licking my hand he rolled over and pushed his head into my hand, as if to say, “okay, my turn now.” I pet him again, then he licked my hand, and this went on three or four times back and forth until I got up.            

Deleuze says,

The questions is whether Little Hans can endow his own elements with the relations of movement and rest, the affects, that would make it become horse, forms and subjects aside. Is there an as yet unknown assemblage that would be neither Hans’ nor the horse’s, but that of the becoming-horse of Hans? An assemblage, for example, in which the horse would bare its teeth and Hans might show something else, his feet, his legs, his peepee-maker, whatever? And in what way would that ameliorate Hans’ problem, to what extent would it open a way out that had been previously blocked?

Even though we weren’t doing the same thing to each other, we were engaging in acts of corresponding significance, in a ritual that was completely unique and not inherent to either of our respective species. This might sound like a silly endeavor, but the whole point of Deleuze’s philosophy seems to be that almost any endeavor can be serious as long as it is approached in the right manner, as long as you ask the right questions. You can be led to a becoming-imperceptible from any number of different lines of flight, escape routes. And you should try as many as possible, to see what there is lying beneath everyday interactions you take for granted