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Presence as becoming

Laura Cull


March 1954: Creature from the Black Lagoon is released. In the film a palaeontology expedition along the Amazon River discovers the infamous Black Lagoon and its prehistoric resident, a fish-human hybrid. The team of scientists manage to capture the creature after it fatally attacks their local guides, but it soon escapes. Returning to kidnap the female research assistant (played by Julia Adams), the creature carries her away to its cave where the others try to rescue her.


March 1991: an audience gather together to discuss their encounter with a work-in-progress showing by the Chicago-based performance company, Goat Island. Given the opportunity to direct questions to the company members, one person in the audience asks Karen Christopher, who joined the group in 1990, how she feels about being “the only woman in a company with three male performers”(Goulish 2000, 77). At this time, the company are Christopher plus the founding members: brothers Timothy and Greg McCain, Matthew Goulish, and director Lin Hixson. Joan Dickinson, who is accredited on the company website as a co-creator of the performance in question - Can't Take Johnny to the Funeral - left the group before its first public presentation. What happens when Christopher is left as the only woman on stage? A question.“I do not consider myself a male performer. I consider myself The Creature from the Black Lagoon”(Goulish 2000, 77). An answer. Or, rather a response. Not from Christopher, but from Goulish who re-presents this exchange in his book, 39 microlectures: in proximity of performance(2000). To a question framed in terms of a fixed binary distinction between male and female performers, Goulish replies with an affirmation of performance as becoming; performance as a process in which the performer experiences him/her 'self' as a series of transitions:

“Myself BECOMING an illustration in a figure skating manual Myself BECOMING The Creature from the Black Lagoon (...) Myself BECOMING a microphone stand.”(Goulish 2000, 79)

Performance, Goulish says, is like dreaming, because it “presents us with intersections. In a performance, a performer is not a single entity. Instead of a unit, a performer is an identity in motion in a particular direction. A performer is a becoming.” (Goulish 2000, 79)


For Gilles Deleuze, as for his predecessor Henri Bergson, there is no being beyond becoming. All the different beings, identities and entities we conceive in conscious experience are but the effects of a primary, universal becoming. For too long, Deleuze argues, philosophy has misconceived the nature of the relation between time and life. Time is not a discrete 'now' that beings occupy or are contained by; time is immanent to what lives and as such what lives is ceaselessly becoming, self-differentiating, creative. For Deleuze, there is no essential being of the thing that grounds or limits these creative processes - only dogmatic ways of thinking and acting that attempt to block or control becoming which his thought encourages us to abandon.

As Goulish's text echoes, Deleuze speaks of specific becomings as well as of universal becoming as the ontological real, particularly in the later collaborations with Felix Guattari. A becoming is what Deleuze & Guattari call a 'molecular' form of subjectivity - constantly transforming, the molecular subject is not a thing or a being but a discontinuous series of flows and processes seeking new modes of connection or relation to other becomings. A becoming is contrasted with what Deleuze & Guattari call 'molar' subjectivity. Becoming the Creature from the Black Lagoon Goulish flies from his 'molar' identity: his definition as a male performer, as adult, as human. He makes a bid to escape the perceptual and behavioural habits imposed upon him by the regulating power of a fixed subjectivity. In telling us what we are, identity limits creativity; entering into becomings we create ourselves as always more than we are.

Deleuze's corpus has been largely ignored by performance studies in favour of his contemporary Jacques Derrida . But through Deleuze performance can be reconceived as the challenge of finding ways for both performer and audience to access presence conceived as this universal becoming. Presence is the meeting with new ways of speaking and moving that resist recognition; a connection to new ways of seeing and feeling beyond identification and naming.

Often, Deleuze & Guattari's examples of these becomings come from literature: the becomings-animal of Kafka and Melville, but surely they are also to be found in performance - in Una Chaudhuri's recent work, The Animal Project , or in the work of Goat Island. To enter into a becoming, as a performer, is to approach new ideas and affects by dismantling the conventional separation between oneself and what is not oneself. Becoming is not mimetic or metaphorical, Deleuze & Guattari insist; it is to really see, think and feel differently by participating in or making a connection to the ways of living of animals, children, even of the so-called 'inanimate'.

Becomings, for Deleuze & Guattari, take place in a specific order: starting with the most accessible and moving towards the most radical; starting with a destabilization of one identity and moving towards the total dissolution of identities per se. Problematically for many feminists, Deleuze & Guattari chose to call the first step of this order: 'becoming-woman'. All becomings, they say, must begin with or pass through 'becoming-woman' and women must become-woman first in order to lead the way for men. Becoming-woman then has nothing to do with the imitation of feminine identity, rather it is a process that involves the breakdown of what Deleuze & Guattari call one of 'the great binary aggregates': the division of the sexes into man and woman. Becoming-woman is a movement traversing this division that releases sexuality from molar identity; from its repression in an organized and sexed body.

Even feminists who have gradually become sympathetic to Deleuze, like Elizabeth Grosz, remain suspicious of the concept of becoming-woman. In 1993, while Goat Island were touring Can't Take Johnny to the Funeral, Grosz published an article detailing these lingering doubts. One major concern was with the idea that women needed to 'go first' in this embrace of becoming over being; that they had to lose their molar identity as 'women' before 'men' lost theirs. With its references to escape - from territories, from organs, from Oedipus - the celebration of becoming is based on the notion of a prior state of identification or organisation from which the body is then released. In 1954, when Creature from the Black Lagoon was released, the Convention on the Political Rights of Women had only just come into effect - expressing a commitment to securing equal rights to participate in governance for women and men. Such commitments were not secured without a fight; fights which Deleuze and Guattari refer to as molar politics on account of their dependency on a fixed category or subject position called 'woman'.

While they graciously acknowledge the strategic necessity of such a molar identity for the women's movement, Deleuze & Guattari also warned against any long-term determination of action by the category of 'woman' as ground or foundation. The struggle for the liberation of something called 'woman' should eventually be superceded by the broader struggle to liberate becoming from all molar identities. For Grosz, this is a formula with all too familiar implications. As when Marxism insisted on the subordination of women's struggle to the class struggle, women will find themselves bound to struggles which represent men's interests while claiming or perceiving themselves to be concerned with universal interests (Grosz 2001, 1461). But as Claire Colebrook asked in 2001: “Should the women's movement really be told that it must be 'molar' or concerned with identity only for a moment on the way to a 'molecular' becoming?” (Colebrook in Colebrook and Buchanan 2001, 2)


“How does it feel to be the only woman in a company with three male performers?” It's not hard to imagine what Matthew found “dissatisfying” about the audience member's question. It implies the reality of an unquestionable ground or foundation for living and working; a division between male and female which thought, as philosophy or performance, cannot escape or reinvent. It suggests that no matter what becomings he or Karen Christopher participate in, their presence in performance is recognised, first and foremost, as female as opposed to male or vice versa and, critically, as at least partially fixed. But just as Grosz remains suspicious of Deleuze & Guattari's becoming-woman, there are reasons for us to question Goulish's affirmation of the concept of becoming over being in this particular context. For instance, in his document of the event he effectively edits out Christopher's own contribution to the discussion, saying: “I don't remember her (Karen's) response as much as my own reaction” (Goulish 2000, 77). No big deal, perhaps - but a micro-repetition nevertheless of a gesture of erasure that history has performed on so many women's contributions to culture . Secondly, though, we might ask whether the question of sexual difference is as easily overcome as Goulish's response or indeed as Deleuze & Guattari's writings suggest. Indeed we might ask ourselves if we want to overcome at all what Claire Colebrook calls “the question of our epoch - as the opening of a possibility for thinking beyond subjectivity and identity” (Colebrook in Colebrook and Buchanan 2001, 3).

As Deleuze's ideas filter through into the fields of art history and film studies (and gradually, into performance studies too), we are increasingly invited to think the art work in terms of what it does rather than what it means; we are encouraged to feel film as that which operates directly on the nervous system not as a signifying narrative. But are these affective encounters privileged at all costs? What happens to the critique of representation when we, as audience, are being invited to see past identity to becoming? Might there be reasons for wanting to consider oneself a female performer rather than as a becoming? Or even, regardless of desire, are there not limits on the freedom to become of those identified as female performers?

Watching Creature from the Black Lagoon, Matthew Goulish saw a way to move differently. However, I expect he also saw a reproduction of the stereotype of woman as defenceless object of desire - Julia Adams in the white swimsuit - in all her 'molarity'. In their workshops, the company encourage students to look out for the miraculous and memorable, whether on a walk, or watching a performance. We proliferate whatever we look for, they say, so why not become someone who proliferates miracles rather than problems. These miracles can then form the basis of our critical response to the world. The company resist the opposition of the creative and the critical, and particularly the association of the critical with the negative. Rather, they insist, to be critical is to be discerning; to have the capacity to separate something into parts . It would be hard to overstate the productivity of this insight for practitioners - and yet, I hesitate. Surely in performance, as in life, there are problems as well as miracles; there are things which would justify a negative response? This seems indisputable, but the politics of Goat Island's practice is (more often than not) based on a strategy of affirmation rather than critique or ironic repetition. While they continue to experience contemporary America as a cultural space in which the imagination is under attack, the company respond by prioritising the freedom of the imagination in their own process.

Useful memory

A response for Laura Cull
Matthew Goulish

To escape the question has been my intention since I began to understand, or, as the poet Robert Creeley wrote, even if I was still too dumb to know anything. It strikes me as jumping to a conclusion to claim I enacted an erasure of the words of my colleague when I wrote my alternate answer (i.e. escape) to a question; when I wrote that I could not remember my colleague’s answer. Is faulty memory erasure? After all, my own answer, with respect to the moment of the question, remained unspoken (despite my outburst, no doubt considered bizarre at the time, asserting my identity as the creature). I wrote it because of its silence, wrote it in a sense to maintain its silence, its unspokenness. Of my colleague’s answer I wrote that there had been one. I indicate the presence of her voice without quoting her. Certainly I would have liked to have quoted her. But my memory lapsed. Is it not peculiar to attribute a motive to my lapse, by equating it with erasure? Might we not ask instead what all such memory lapses have in common? There we encounter the criteria of usefulness, the presence of the useful memory, Bergson’s term, and also the imperative of escaping the question. In those days I had read, somewhat obsessively, the first two and one-half pages of Dialogues by Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, its opening contemplation of the question. Questions are invented, like anything else. If you aren’t allowed to invent your questions, with elements from all over the place, from never mind where, if people ‘pose’ them to you, you haven’t much to say. … The aim is not to answer questions, it’s to get out, to get out of it. Many people think that it is only by going back over the question that it’s possible to get out of it. … But getting out never happens like that. Movement always happens behind the thinker’s back, or in the moment when he blinks. Getting out is already achieved, or else it never will be. This imperative of escape reveals itself: it is always the question that erases the answer. It does so by demarcating in advance a region of usefulness. The escape replaces the answer, replaces the question, maybe proposes a different set of questions altogether, but not before it challenges the usefulness of all questions and all answers. What was the question?

How does it feel to be the only woman in a company with three male performers? Let us consider the question’s territory. 1) Performers are particles. They are separable from non-performing members of the company, such as the director, who, in our case, has always been a woman. (I should note the generous interpretation of the question here, since it could be considered demonstrably false – my colleague was never the only woman in the company, only the only woman performer.) 2) Performers are separable as individuals from one another according to the criteria of gender. 3) It is fair to ask the woman performer to respond to her presence as a woman in the vocabulary of feeling. Certainly we can consider each of these points, to some extent, true. But rather than debating their trueness, let us ask instead, according to these three points, what answers did the question erase in advance? Perhaps, most apparently, it erased the opposite of each of the three points. 1) Performers are not distinct particles, but facets of a whole, inseparable from one another and from non-performing company members. 2) Performers may not be separated as individuals according to the criteria of gender. 3) It is not fair to ask the woman performer to respond to her presence as a woman in the vocabulary of feeling. These three points are as clearly not true as the previous points are true. Our interest lies somewhere between the three proposals of the question and their three parallel negations. But if we leave trueness aside for a moment, what happens if we ask instead what each discourse allows? What does it allow us to think? How does it allow us to live? What does it make possible?

Let us say the question’s erasure, if we may adopt that term, happens through a reading of the past. As Bergson wrote in Matter and Memory (which I did not understand then, but am starting to understand now) memories arise out of perceptions according to criteria of usefulness. The criteria fall into categories of similarity or contiguity. I remember x because it resembles x´, or I remember x because it follows x´´, either similarity or contiguity investing it with its usefulness. The notion of identity as becoming, it seems to me now, comes to us via this understanding of perception and memory. Memory exists in each perception, because each moment, however small, has duration. A change transpires in each moment. Memory in a sense coheres a moment as a moment, as we might remember its start a certain way at its end, in order to make it one thing, a moment. We perceive duration through change; we perceive change through movement. A moment, then, is moving. Because it is moving, it is always becoming. It will never become what it is becoming. It will only move in that particular way, according to the mode of its model of becoming, not an act of imitation, but one of determining usefulness, according to a sort of mutual mistaken identity. As the wasp thinks the orchid is a wasp, and the orchid thinks the wasp is an orchid. Here again, a moment of text from the first two and one-half pages of Deleuze and Parnet exploded in my memory then like a hopeful firework. The wasp-becoming of the orchid, an orchid-becoming of the wasp, a double capture since ‘what’ each becomes changes no less than ‘that which’ becomes … an ‘a-parallel evolution of two beings who have nothing whatsoever to do with one another’. Some years later I would discover the source of the imagery at the midpoint of Proust’s seven volumes, but for now, for then, the becoming was the energy and the engine of the choreography. We had photographs clipped and assembled in rows on paper by our director, composed for each of us individually, given for us to interpret as scores. As we devised those dances, those simple acts and movements of beings who had nothing whatsoever to do with us it felt to me like becoming human again – to make oneself from the outside. By that I mean the movement of a moment, the criteria by which we transform our perceptions into useful memories, had been given to us from the outside, not discovered from the inside. There was in this a suggestion of a future for performance – not a future in the traditional sense of what performance will become someday, but a future in the momentary sense, that performance will remain alive and lively because it has a future edge of a moment to become now, and that future edge has everything to do with who and what we become as we dance, which must be a who or a what that has nothing whatsoever to do with us. Maybe we consider the rupture of this other a product of similarity rather than of contiguity. By this I mean I am a gender by contiguity, but a creature by similarity. It is a mistaken similarity, perhaps, but in this mistake we find the force of the ordinary: the example of wasp and orchid, the case study of children playing at creatureness. What movement does the mistake allow? If when we say movement we mean dance, let us understand this not only as a transit of the body in space, but also as a transit of the mind from one state to another. What is the motor of the movement? If gender, perhaps it is a motor of contiguity usefulness, of identity mathematically determined from the previous moment. If creature, perhaps it is a motor of similarity usefulness, one of style, rhythm, intensity, held together by a delicate tension facilitated by memory and imagination, by an act of intuition, reforming me in the direction of an impossible whole for the duration of the dance.

Any question that erases these possibilities, such as the question under discussion, dismisses the exteriority of the becoming, perhaps dismisses it because of its unlikeliness, its absurdity. Such a question throws us back on our contiguity, or to put it in more everyday terms, on habit. How does it feel etc. This is a question that erases all answers that stray from its territory of the habitual – as thinking of self in terms of gender, of thinking of self in terms of feeling. Certainly we must do that in order to make a coherent and functioning self-image. But we were not talking about that, were we? Nor were we discussing political strategy. As I recall, the topic of conversation was dance. And for dance to have a future, the question must have an escape.



Bergson, Henri. Trans. N.M. Paul and W.S. Palmer. 1998.Matter and Memory. New York: Zone Books Bottoms, Stephen J. 1998. The Tangled Flora and Fauna of Goat Island: Rhizome, Repetition, Reality. Theatre Journal 50 (4): 421-446. Chaudhuri, Una. 2006. Animalizing Performance, Becoming-Theatre: Inside Zooesis with The Animal Project at NYU. Theatre Topics 16 (1):1-17. Colebrook, Claire and Ian Buchanan, ed. 2001. Deleuze and Feminist Theory. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Creeley, Robert. 2006. On Earth - Last Poems and an Essay by Robert Creeley, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press. Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. Trans. Brian Massumi. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis:University of Minnesota Press Deleuze, Gilles and Claire Parnet. Dialogues. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbera Habberjam. 1987. London: Athlone Press. Goat Island. (accessed 17 December 2006) Goulish, Matthew. 2000. 39 microlectures: in proximity of performance. London and New York: Routledge. Grosz, Elizabeth. 2001. A Thousand Tiny Sexes. Feminism and Rhizomatics. In Genosko, Gary (Editor). Deleuze and Guattari : Critical Assessments of Leading Philosophers. Volume 3. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge. 1440-1461. Originally published in Topoi. An International Review of Philosophy 12 (2): 167-179. Jardine, Alice. 1984. Woman in Limbo: Deleuze and his Br(others). SubStance 13 (3-4): 46-60.

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