‘We Dance These Beasts’: Capitalism, Animism, Believers of the Future

“Here we see more distinctly the structure of ‘animism’ haunting Deleuze’s ontology: under the spellbound conditions of composition, notes become birds that become souls. Notes do not represent but become horse steps, bird flight, or lovemaking. But this transmutation only occurs because in this process horses, birds, and love enter into new assemblages, and on that basis become something new, as yet unknown.” (158)

“Techno and jungle beats, for instance, are as much the untamed rampage of buffalos and the eerie longing of hyenas. We dance these beasts not to comprehend something, to understand the ‘spirit of our times’, but to connect the digital and the animal in an obscure filiation, out of step with the times, untimely with respect to the slaughter of animals and police-statist use of technological onslaught.” (160)

It’s not always a strange practice, to wear animals. We are, arguably, animals bound up in the leather of our own strange skin. It is more odd, admittedly, to imitate hoofed creatures and strap on the leather of a shoe. Or to double our skin with the leather of a coat. Or to shear the soft wool from a lamb’s body and weave it into a web that wraps around us a like a cocoon. Then again, we might think of these costumes as forms of protection. What is most uncanny (at least on the surface), for many of us in capitalist America, is the practice of wearing an animal whose carcass does not disappear: the fur coat. There are vegans who refuse to wear any leather at all. But, for those who cannot go quite so far, ascetic restraint seems to begin with the undead shroud that is the fur coat. Is this a gesture of solidarity with other creatures, against the rapacious teeth of the garment industries and the cult of fast fashion? Or is it a gesture of denial that sanitizes our public spaces, casting a hygienic light on death’s shadow?

The dead body of an animal has, in certain times and places, had a role to play in spiritual transformation. The animal carcass is a crucial element in many shamanic costumes. Perhaps this cloak is ribboned with snake skin, or decorated with a bird’s skull on the shoulders, to signal the power of flight. Perhaps there are antlers that can be strapped to the head. Perhaps the animal remains on the costume are from the body of a totem creature, who serves as a mark of kinship among humans in a group. But today, in a capitalist economy where the treatment of animal bodies becomes more and more ethically contentious, the audacious donning of shamanistically styled animal bodies also seems to become more appealing. One can easily purchase a fox headdress on etsy.com. Or one can celebrate the artistic powers of taxidermist hat makers like Beth Beverly on AMC’s “Immortalized”. Is this a brave embrace of the cycles of life (the weaving of death into life)? Or the work of commodification that more simply marks one body more powerful, as it dons the carcass of another?

Have the rapacious teeth of capital sunk themselves inextricably into this practice—this donning of death in the midst of life, for the purpose of a ritual kind of transformation? Really, it seems unlikely that it could have been avoided. Is there another, more resistant, tonic or practice resident somewhere in our future of belief? Another practice of weaving human and animal, life and death?

As I read it, Joshua Ramey’s adventurous reading of Deleuze leaves us at precisely this precipice: confronting questions that (on the surface) have less to do with Deleuze, and more to do with the stakes of our beliefs, our practices (the risks associated with them, and the remedies they might promise in return). This is not to make little of his careful study of the resonances between hermetic thought and Deleuze’s philosophy—resonances which I find, ultimately, convincing (though I confess that, from the outset, I was rather ready to be convinced.) But it is to acknowledge what I think Dan Barber already expressed so lucidly: when we read Deleuze with Ramey, we are entering into a particular reading practice. Ramey is our guide into the alternate reality of another Deleuze. As Ramey himself argues, “Deleuze’s philosophy has yet to be read as a perspective from which the anxieties of secular culture toward spirituality might be overcome” (212). It is this reading that Ramey experiments with.

It’s a brave move, a bold move: to volley the term “spirituality,” to read Deleuze spiritually. Even in the field of religious studies or theology, the term is treated with a certain mistrust, or at least with kid gloves. It is both too easy, and too difficult. To be fair, Ramey doesn’t steep his readers in it. In fact, he doesn’t even explore what the term might mean. He simply deploys it. And if he is concerned with things spiritual, this does not mean that he discards the crustier old standby of belief. He argues, over the course of the book, for a reading of Deleuze that takes his references to esoteric practices seriously, that begins to see in Deleuze’s philosophy the possibility of a certain kind of experimental faith that has the potential to shape the future of belief. This is the primary concern, in the last chapters of Ramey’s esoteric reading of Deleuze.

Ramey’s insistence on the presence of a certain kind of animism, in Deleuze’s work, struck me with a particular kind of force. To be sure: I am always looking for animals, animality, the animistic. And we almost always see, at least in flickers and flashes, what we’re looking for. I’m revealing my practice of reading Ramey, reading Deleuze. But Ramey is clear that he finds a kind of “animal faith” in the sorcery of Deleuze and Guattari’s becoming-animal (64). This is part of the vitality of immanence that he’s worked to clarify. Ramey sees a kind of animism “haunting” Deleuze’s ontology (158). And this animism, Ramey argues, is deeply integral to the future of belief. This is an embrace and an amplification of the claim, in A Thousand Plateaus, that “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. A fiber strung across borderlines constitutes a line of flight or a deterritorialization.” (249) Deleuze does not call this an animism, a faith, or a spirituality. Though Deleuze does claim that this is the figure of a fiber that flies in the face of theology, which (he charges) strictly asserts that “human beings cannot become animal.” (252) He seems to posit some tentative, anti-theological (spiritual?) alternative.  At any rate, it is along these lines (traveling along sound, via color) that we “become animal”. And it is along these lines of flight that the animism Ramey sees seems to function. It is not that we have, in a moment, the face of a horse. Nor do we need to put on horseshoes to generate, in an instant, some likeness. This would be a mere representation of our desire to become horse. Instead, we dance the horse, as we become the composition or rhythm that came of the horse. The animism is a kind of resonance that’s borne out of the assemblage of a horse, and a rhythm, and the human body that moves to match it. This is an animism that brings the animal and the digital together in unconventional combinations. In this rather tragic moment of late capitalism, where much of the animal world faces the threat of extinction (subjected to the impact of our human practices), it seems to call animality back in a differently configured relation, in new formats.

Deleuze’s abstract formula for becoming-animal has not fared particularly well in many text associated with animal studies. Donna Haraway notoriously shames Deleuze and Guattari (in When Species Meet) for their disdain for dog lovers, and their lack of concern for actual animals (their preference for the abstract process of becoming-animal). Yet there continues to be a certain kind of lure and appeal in this enigmatic transhuman trajectory. Is there, however, complicity between the “shamanic virtual” that Ramey calls into being, through his text, and the capitalist capture of shamanic practices that I evoked in my opening paragraphs? Is there a sense in which this “shamanic virtual” is appropriated and commodified, to the detriment or abuse of actual animal bodies?

Ramey is ready for this question (although not, necessarily, posed in the manner that I’ve posed it here). Rather, he is ready to face the inevitable questions about the complicity between spirituality (spiritualizations) and capitalism that we see in claims like Adorno’s: “that occultism is simply another bogus spiritualization of the overwhelming powers of the industrial-entertainment complex.” (213) Ramey argues that the discomfiting proximity between capitalism and animism (which enables the tools of capital to so easily capture elements of these spiritual practices) should not be read as a collapse of distinction. Rather, he suggests, “capitalism should be seen as a perversion of animist elementalism, rather than the reverse.” (214) How would we learn to perceive this perversion? How do we know when this turn has occurred? We might become suspicious when we see a practice that appears to serve the vision, or spiritual practice, of a proverbial lone wolf. “The becomings-animal, -woman, and -molecular undertaken by the shaman are not self-serving, but ultimately for the purpose of the healing and transformation of a social body, and of the earth itself,” Ramey argues. Contact with the “shamanic virtual” is, “not primarily for the ecstatic enjoyment of the visionary. In fact, it is much more like a hallucinatory illness that the shaman sustains for the sake of the people.” (217) This may be the most vocal caution he raises. But it may, also, be another version of the old caution that spirituality appears to be about individualized satisfaction while religion is about the community. But a capitalist perversion of animist dynamics could be read in other ways: against, for example, a claim that an animal carcass on the head, or the shoulder, brings one effectively onto the high wire fiber that stretches like a web across the borderlands between life and death, human and whatever is not, and toward another becoming.

2 thoughts on “‘We Dance These Beasts’: Capitalism, Animism, Believers of the Future

  1. Julia Kristeva writes, in “The Powers of Horror”, that religion is the intersection between perversion and sublimation… I think she hits the bulls-eye with this definition.

    Taking that in mind, consider Benedict of Nursia’s “On Humility” (I found the example via Sloterdijk’s new book ‘You Must Change Your Life’), wherein he writes a “twelve-step de-selfifying course” which is ultimately a [paradoxical] exercise in humility. Around step six we reach the Socratic “I have become nothing and know nothing”… but then something quite bizarre happens. You would think that he would stop there, but this is only the halfway point. The seventh step reads: “I am a worm and not a man” (sum vermis et non homo). I wonder what becoming-worm is like…

    I agree it is absolutely important that this is an inward practice, for purposes of self-transformation. It is a ladder which leads “upwards”, whereby this vertical tension is located within. We turn and turn and turn – inwards – on the question of the effects of even our own thought, of what sort of impact our words and actions will have in the world, it is a thoughtaction. Such that we may outwardly unleash the actual Infinitude which lies inside.

    Thank you for your post. Best wishes, David.

  2. Thanks, David, this is insightful. I’ve actually been meaning to read the Sloterdijk and this gives more incentive. If there is a way to resist these kinds of capitalist perversions, to perform a counter-perversion of this perversion, it does seem that this becomes a question of engaging those depths where these perversions are a live wire, those “interiors”. Is there a better word for the engagement of these spaces than to call it “spiritual”? I’m not sure there is.

    I’m interested in the fact that Sloterdijk advocates a very specific sort of becoming animal: not becoming animal as such, but becoming worm. There’s something clarifying about the specificity. Becoming lion, tiger, or bear, is a different sort of exercise. Granted, Sloterdijk plays on what he knows is a kind of default sense of human disgust for the worm, when he challenges us to humble ourselves to the worm’s condition. Which, in some ways, continues to reaffirm a traditional chain-of-being hierarchy. But, perhaps, there’s also a sense in which he’s challenging the power relations of that hierarchy from within it.

    I wonder if Deleuze’s becoming animal would be more appealing to me if he always used more specific categories (worm, wolf, whatever), rather than the catch-all category of animal. I understand that becoming animal and becoming woman are supposed to signal movements of becoming across lines of difference. But I’ll admit that I always feel a little annoyed when I read about becoming woman. I understand that I’m simplifying. But I always feel a little bit like, “yeah, yeah. Becoming woman. I got that one down already.”

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