Becoming-Animal for a Human Involution

By Filippo Greggi.

Imagine hearing a chant in the distance, that crosses the air and the trees, while you are walking in the forest. It seems a human voice, but, at the same time, you are not sure. It has a sort of melody, accompanied with meaningless noises, or words, that come from an unknown language. And slowly you start to believe that there is an animal, it seems a bear. You are invading its territory and you should have listened to the advice of not venturing alone in the wood. It could really be a bear, nonetheless, if you are lucky, you are listening to a joik, a traditional Sami chant.

The Sami are a population inhabiting the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Also known as Lapps, they have an own language and a long tradition, which they try to preserve. One of the features of their tradition is the joik, that, in absence of a proper word, we could wrongly define as a folk singing. Actually, it differs under many aspects from our notion of singing. Through its short, circular melody, a joik evokes directly the presence of what it is connected to. In fact, there is a joik for each person and for every animal or natural element – a river, a forest, a mountain etc. Singing its joik, you make the thing present, you call for its essence in a certain way, and it has also a religious, shamanic valence for Sami people. This is the reason why it was prohibited during the Christianization of Sami, because of its usage in pagan rituals. Moreover, it is not considered by them as a sign, a reference for a meaning, like if it were a word or a metaphor. Joiks are modelled on the character, the nature, of the person or the animal they are - they are because they don’t stay for anything. If you sing the joik of one of your friends you make her present with you, in you, around you. It is difficult to explain because this process refers to a logic completely different from ours. There is no distinction between the subject and the object uttered, they make at one, and new connections emerge. As Tina Ramnarine underlines: “Joik performance thus points to a complex set of relationships between music, environment, and the sacred […]” [1]. The joik itself has a sort of autonomy for which you can be taken by its force, without the possibility to decide. The configuration disclosed through these practices relies on Sami’s conception of world and life. According to them, humans, animals and lands constitute a whole that overcomes the distinction between nature and culture. Joiking a wolf, for instance, creates a new relationship in nature, for which a human is adding the “wolfness” to her being. The human, in this sense, is crossed by a process of becoming-animal [2].

I consider Sami’s joiks, indeed, one of the best perspectives through which shed a light on Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of becoming-animal. Giving a precise definition of this concept is quite problematic, even because it requires to preliminarily understand what is becoming:

Starting from the forms one has, the subject one is, the organs one has, or the functions one fulfills, becoming is to extract particles between which one establishes the relations of movement and rest, speed and slowness that are closest to what one is becoming, and through which one becomes.[3]

In short, it means reconfiguring your own body according with the world around you, which is continuously changing. This is not some metaphysical claim, rather, the simple description of a life submerged into the nature. Both the world and the body become, since there is nothing fixed and immutable, but an unstoppable work of building connections between them. Neither a man can be isolated from the environment nor the nature can be reified as a pure object of knowledge within which deploys human rationality. Of the different becoming described by the two French philosophers (becoming-woman, becoming-child, becoming-music etc.), the becoming-animal, as itself suggests, it is related to the animal realm, and, in general, to the nature. It does not have to be confused with a process at the end of which your substance is changed and you are eventually an animal. Neither it is a question of doing the animal, like barking or walking on all-fours, and the example of the joik can help us about this aspect. It means to create assemblages that enter in contact or in proximity with animal molecules [4], and precisely, through the joik, humans can undertake or be undertaken by this process, attuning themselves with the animality they go through.

From the rational Western point of view this process could seem as a sort of involution, and Deleuze and Guattari are not afraid of addressing it in these terms: “[…] involution is in no way confused with regression. Becoming is involu-tionary, involution is creative.” [5] To involve has to be comprehend as a rediscovery of the inhumanity that lives in us. To involve means to overcome the human/inhuman separation, in order to let emerge what we have in common with the organic and inorganic world and realize that we are inseparable from it. In short, it demands a return to nature, in favor of the creation of new connections and communications capable of operating in both directions between what is human and what is not.

This is a more and more necessary step since we entered in the age of the Anthropocene, which asks us to handle new models for our actions. We must abandon a unidirectional approach based on our feeling omnipotent in the respect of the inhuman, like if that prefix in- staid for a sort of lack. Along these lines, a renovated human behavior could be similar to what Nietzsche intended for superman. To clarify this notion, I would like to use the conclusive passage of Deleuze’s book Foucault:

The superman, in accordance with Rimbaud’s formula, is the man who is even in charge of the animals […]. It is man in charge of the very rocks, or inorganic matter […]. As Foucault would say, the superman is much less than the disappearance of living men, and much more than a change of concept: it is the advent of a new form that is neither God nor man and which, it is hoped, will not prove worse than its two previous forms.[6]

A new form that should be able to avoid all the atrocities perpetrated under the name (or taking the place) of God and, simultaneously, to abandon the adage “the survival of the fittest” as the guiding principle for its actions.

Given that the superman looms also as a reconfiguration of human life according to nature, the question right now is about how to initiate this becoming-animal, how to embrace our inhumanity in order to dismiss an illusory awareness of superiority. At this purpose I think art plays an essential role, since it touches our sensibility, and the sensations are the means that allow us to experience the world. Through new combinations between the senses and the nature we could engage a change that crosses our relations with what surrounds us, and art could draw different ways of feeling, of being with it and, at the same time, reconfigure our attitude. New perspectives for the same experience. Visions from the future showing unexpected potentialities in the present. In short, art calls into question the common sense that, under the name of a “rationality” that is bringing us at the edge of the extinction, drives our behaviors and choices. To this end, art itself has to come out from a process of becoming, where artist’s will and interiority would step aside to let inhumanity work. Traditional categories of artistic production could not be sufficient, since they stem from the same rationality which magnifies human capacities. Perhaps, we need something that we would not even define as art, at least in traditional terms. In any case, like for joik and becoming-animal, the lack of proper definitions for a practice is revealing of the new logic that lays behind it and, as consequence, of the whole universe of virtualities and meanings it carries out.


[1] Tina K. Ramnarine, “Acoustemology, Indigeneity, and Joik in Valkeapää's Symphonic Activism: Views from Europe's Arctic Fringes for Environmental Ethnomusicology”, Ethnomusicology 53, 2 (2009): 189.

[2] For these reflections I have to thank Stéphane Aubinet (PhD in Musicology at the University of Oslo), for his lecture and for the materials he suggested me regarding the theoretical implications of Sami joik.

[3] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 272.

[4] Ibid., 273.

[5] Ibid., 238.

[6] Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 132.


Deleuze, Gilles. Foucault. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Ramnarine, Tina K. “Acoustemology, Indigeneity, and Joik in Valkeapää's Symphonic Activism: Views from Europe's Arctic Fringes for Environmental Ethnomusicology”. Ethnomusicology 53, 2 (2009): 187-217.