A Brief Genealogy of Becoming

The increasing visibility of ideas of becoming in human geography might easily be read as a conceptual response to the spatiotemporal disjunctions of modernity, postmodernity, or globalization. Becoming, more than being, seems to capture the dynamic logics of worlds where the coordinates of identity and place seem increasingly fluid. Yet philosophies of flux are not mere symptoms or reflections of the contemporary condition: they have a much longer genealogy. Sketching the outlines of this genealogy provides a useful and necessary way of contextualizing the more recent re emergence of the concept of becoming within the theoretical and empirical commitments of human geography.

The respective works of the pre Socratic philosophers Heraclitus and Parmenides provide a useful (if also thoroughly Western) point of departure for such an exercise insofar as their writings effectively exemplify the tension between being and becoming as philosophical categories. For the former the world is best understood as flux and motion, akin to the ceaseless flow of a river into which it is never possible to step more than once. Furthermore, this flow is not uniform: it is a lively mix of often contrasting and conflicting forces. The Heraclitean view of the world as flux contrasts sharply with the ideas attributed to  armenides for whom the claim that change is the fundamental condition of the world is based upon an illusory or false perception. The truth of the world lies instead in the apprehension of those enduring things which have always and will always exist.

The difference between Heraclitus and Parmenides provides an early and oft quoted expression of the distinction between a philosophy of being, in which everything that truly exists has a fixed, eternal essence, and a philosophy of becoming in which the universe is defined by change. Much of Western philosophy has been dominated by the former tradition, a dominance that can be traced through some of the key thinkers of this tradition. It is present, for instance, in Plato's argument for the existence of unchanging ideal forms, an argument indebted to the writing of Parmenides. It is present in the effort by much of the Western philosophical canon to establish the existence of an enduring, transcendent God. And it is present in the effort to establish the foundations for a rational philosophy of mind. Perhaps the most important articulation of such a philosophy is contained in the work of Rene Descartes, who posits the mind (and/or soul) as a nonextensive center of pure understanding in the midst of a world of mobile and motile bodies, to which the mind is loosely and conveniently connected yet nevertheless fundamentally distinct. The significance of this move is that it excludes the mind from any claims about the becoming of the world. In this philosophical model, the world may change as much as it likes: the independent and indivisible substance of which the mind consists is the one thing upon which thinking can depend.

Philosophies placing primacy on the establishment of categories of being (such as the subject) have achieved a degree of dominance in Western thinking: yet they have not gone unchallenged. This challenge has come from a number of 'minor' strands of thinking, each of which might be said to foreground becoming rather than being. The first consists of the work of a number of 'minor' philosophers whose thinking runs against the grain of the tradition outlined above by challenging the assumption that the mind is independent from and unaffected by transformations of the body. Perhaps the most important figures here are Spinoza and Nietzsche. For Spinoza, mind and body are conceived as two attributes of the same substance, and individual entities, such as persons, are understood as complex, relational orderings between bodies and environments. It makes little sense therefore to speak of the soul or mind as a kind of transcendent entity unaffected by the becoming of the world of which it is a part. Nor would such a claim make much sense to Nietzsche, according to whom the very idea of 'being' represents an illusory image of the world. In this respect Nietzsche echoes and indeed draws directly upon the ideas of Heraclitus, defining the world by the fact of its becoming, by the ongoing play of conflicting forces and energies that never crystallize into a final shape.

A second important impetus to the foregrounding of becoming in Western philosophy can be found in theories of duration and process, exemplified in the respective works of Henri Bergson and Alfred Whitehead. Both thinkers grapple with some of the philosophical implications of changing conceptions of space and time emerging at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. The force of Bergson's critique is directed against those theories of change which tend to 'spatialize time' by subordinating it to a logic of extension – precisely the move made by thinkers such as Descartes. Bergson insists instead on the necessity of a conception of duration allowing for the existence of pure qualitative differentiation. If this seems to render temporality and movement abstract it is because, to paraphrase Whitehead, the real task of philosophy is not to arrive at explanations of the concrete, but to explain abstractions. Influenced in part by Bergson, Whitehead develops a process based ontology in which the very essence of being is the fact of its becoming. Or as he himself puts it, ''the actual world is a process, and that process is the becoming of actual entities.''

The work of Bergson and Whitehead is related to a third influence on the foregrounding of becoming as a philosophical imperative. This revolves around efforts to place primacy on the relation between thinking and the experience of pragmatic involvement in the world. Such efforts are best exemplified by two traditions, the first of which is the variety of North American pragmatism associated with William James and John Dewey. Key to the work of both thinkers is the idea that the world is not given in advance but must be made and re made through ongoing activity. A second and distinctly more European tradition can be discerned in the various strands of post-Cartesian phenomenology, most notably the work of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. While their respective works are very different, they both advocate a kind of philosophical inquiry into the category of being. On one level this might place them at odds with philosophies of becoming, and in some respects this is the case. Nevertheless, both insist on practical relational involvement in the world as the moving condition for existence. The influence of Merleau-Ponty's work on flesh as a kind of intimate corporeally intertwining with the world has been particularly significant in this respect.

A fourth set of influences moves beyond the phenomenological tradition to consider the 'more than human' becomings from which the apparent individuality of the human subject emerges. Such post phenomenological arguments can be discerned, with different degrees of intensity, in the work of thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and more recently in the writing of Brian Massumi. These thinkers owe a debt to many of the figures whose work has already been mentioned above. For instance, drawing upon Nietzsche, Foucault develops a critique of history as the progressive and linear unfolding of time, and of the very status of the human as a subject with the capacity to survey history from without. Deleuze is similarly critical of philosophies of being in which the subject is established as a kind of a priori entity. Rather, and taking support from thinkers including Spinoza and Bergson, Deleuze argues that being is already multiple, already defined by the difference immanent to its own creative evolution. In collaboration with Guattari, Deleuze's ideas are reworked as part of an explicitly cartographic geophilosophy emphasizing the creative and affective movement of life as a process of operating below and transversal to the scale of distinct, organized bodies and territories. Perhaps the most emphatic recent articulation of this line of thought is to be found in the writing of Brian Massumi, who articulates and practices a thinking space which takes seriously the moving fact of its own becoming.

A fifth and final set of influences on the foregrounding of becoming in Western thought can be traced through feminist theories of embodiment and difference that challenge the primacy of sex and gender as fixed categories of identity. Here the work of thinkers such as Judith Butler, Donna Haraway, and Elizabeth Grosz is of particular significance. Clearly, individual feminist theorists differ in the extent to which they configure the relation between the sociocultural and the biological, and the degree to which the category of woman is essentialized. Yet their collective importance consists in the opening up of the spaces and politics of identity (and desire) to questions of becoming.

Of course these developments do not add up to a coherent philosophical framework: they are better described as a set of conceptual tendencies with all sorts of contradictions and conflicts. Furthermore, it would be a mistake to claim that each of the thinkers above sharply juxtaposes the idea of being with that of becoming. So for Merleau-Ponty, for instance, it is possible to hold in tension 'both' the idea of phenomenology as the philosophical enquiry into essences 'and' the claim that this inquiry can only proceed if it acknowledges its own relational involvement in the world. And while sharply critical of elements of Merleau-Ponty's work, Deleuze nevertheless retains the category of being in some of his own writing. However, in doing so, he seeks to complicate the apparent unity of this category. Put another way, for Deleuze it is only possible to speak of the event of being as a process of becoming that is always already differentiated.