If I confirm my self and consider myself truthful, I’ll be lost because I won’t know where to inlay my new way of being — if I go ahead with my fragmentary visions, the whole world will have to be transformed in order for me to fit within it. (Lispector, 3)
The story of G.H. is the narration of a woman that loses herself and, in doing so, disorganizes the entire human world. Through a series of encounters with disruptive elements of what she used to think of as her identity, she enters a different domain of existence — one that goes beyond anything she had previously considered her self, and also beyond the traditional conception of the human — which is the domain of life, realizing that “the life that, in one, does not bear one’s own name is a force that connects one to all other living matter” (Braidotti 118).
This process of estrangement is triggered by G.H.’s discovery of an enormous cockroach creeping inside the wardrobe in the room where her housemaid used to sleep. This encounter with the insect leads G.H. to immerse herself in the process of becoming the cockroach, coming to affirm the unity of all living matter from which she is only a minimal expression.
In this article, I want to explore how the concept of “becoming-insect”, as developed in Lispector’s novel, puts into motion new ways of thinking about the posthuman condition. I think this novel provides a powerful and joyful navigation of what it means to become posthuman — perhaps by activating the suspicion that we might have never been human in the first place. This realization might lead us to a double switch of perspective: first, regarding the possibility of creating a new imaginary of life and matter away from anthropocentrism and, second, regarding the task of cultivating new ethical and political sensibilities beyond humanist ideals.
Becoming-insect: towards a different image of life.
From the beginning of the novel, G.H. is presented as an individual in crisis. An underlying tension between the organization and dissolution of subjectivity crosses the whole narrative, which is delivered as a self-reflective exercise that the main character undertakes in order to make sense of this crisis. However, this endeavour, that we could think of as the all-too-human need for reasoning about what might not belong to the domain of reason, will prove to repeatedly fail. This failure, nonetheless, will take G.H. to enter a different order of truth: a truth that is immanent to life and expresses itself as a dynamic and affirmative process of “becomings”.
The realization of the hidden presence of the cockroach is only the culmination of the building-up of an atmosphere that makes G.H. feel increasingly alienated from the space she thought she belonged to — an apartment at the top of a high-standard building in the center of Rio de Janeiro, where she used to dedicate her time to social events and commodities, never questioning the order of her life or her subjectivity. This stability will be strongly shaken in the encounter which such an ordinary figure as a cockroach is.
The roach is the manifestation of the in-human, of what escapes human comprehension because it falls out of the domain of attribution of meaning. It is “that which escapes rationalization, that which has no meaning or reason for existence. It is just out there – senseless, brute existence, matter regardless of whether organic or artificially produced” (Kolozova 200), disturbing the anthropocentric system of opposition between identity and otherness. It is the abject, that which “does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite” (Kristeva 4). G.H. is aware of this: “what I have always found repulsive in cockroaches is that they were obsolete yet still here” (Lispector 39). She knows that in-betweens threaten human stability and should be excluded from one’s horizon as soon as possible. This is why the first reaction that invades her, at the sight of the insect, is an intense desire to kill it, repeatedly smashing the door of the wardrobe against it.
But the cockroach does not perish and remains shuddering, cut in half, offering now an even more striking image of alterity and vulnerability. At this moment, G.H. changes her way of looking at her victim, whose dying body has started to suppurate. The observation of the roach’s emergent matter triggers in G.H. a desire to become the insect and to be less herself.
In A thousand plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari explore the figure of “becoming” and, especially, of “becoming-insect” as a creation of assemblages between different beings. I think ‘difference’ here is used in two senses: first, they differ in respect to each other (which means that the ‘nature’ of their relationship is that of differing); second, they differ in relation to themselves (which means that what they are should not be defined as a static “being”, but rather as a dynamic process that has no specific end and can potentially develop multiple shapes). “Becoming-other”, therefore, is not a process of imitation and it is not a metaphor, but an emergence of something different from the encounter of two (or more) differential beings:
Becomings-animal are neither dreams nor phantasies. They are perfectly real. But which reality is at issue here? For if becoming animal does not consist in playing animal or imitating an animal, it is clear that the human being does not “really” become an animal any more than the animal “really” becomes something else. Becoming produces nothing other than itself. (Deleuze and Guattari 238).
In her “becoming-insect”, G.H. does not literally supersede or supplant the cockroach. It is rather a matter of her affects and intensities becoming progressively closer to those of the roach, and vice versa, up to the point that she realizes that “I too, who was slowly reducing myself to whatever in me was irreducible, I too had thousands of blinking cilia, and with my cilia I move forward, I protozoan, pure protein” (Lispector 54). This encounter allows G.H., through the loosening of the boundaries that made her human, to inhabit a different imaginary, which is that of the raw materiality of life. The cockroach will no longer be seen as an abject image of otherness that threatens a presumed identity of her subjectivity, but as a continuation of herself as part of the unity of life. G.H. will start to experience life in a different way, as something that both precedes the human and goes beyond it:
“Of the embryo that I am, this joyful matter is also made: the thing. Which is an existence satisfied with its own process, deeply occupied with no more than its own process, and the process vibrates entirely” (Lispector 144).
“Becoming-with” as an invitation to “other-worldings”.
One of the main aspects that make Lispector’s novel interesting for rethinking what it might mean to become posthuman is the transformation she experiences and embodies regarding her affective capacities of relation to the non-human. What begins as the murderous impulse of ending the cockroach’s life is transformed into a deep impelling desire to become something other than herself through the cockroach and merge into pre-rational and pre-human life.
This change of positioning towards the cockroach, which is one of profound attraction to entanglement with life itself, takes her to “the forbidden act of touching the unclean” (Lispector 67) and even to eating the liquid substance that emerges from the fractured body of the roach, as a way of literally merging her own matter with that of the insect, to the extent that eating it becomes the same as eating herself (Lispector 133).
Furthermore, this change of position that fractures the dualistic opposition between subject and object, between human and non-human, is made sound in the game of gazes that G.H. and the cockroach exchange. First, at the moment of discovering the insect, G.H. was a stable, self-sufficient subject facing the absolute other, that which has no agency and is reduced to mere object. This gaze changes its tone as G.H. approaches the cockroach and traces her way towards depersonalization. At some point, the original separation reveals itself as complete nonsense, when G.H. realizes that the insect is looking back at her and, in that look, the cockroach is somehow “becoming-G.H.”:
“If its eyes weren’t seeing me, its existence was existing me — in the primary world I had entered, beings exist others as a way of seeing one another. (…) The roach wasn’t seeing me directly, it was with me. The roach wasn’t seeing me with its eyes but with its body” (Lispector 73).
This mutual “existing each other” reminds us of Donna Haraway’s concept of “becoming-with”, which is a critical variation of Deleuze and Guattari’s “becoming-insect”, one that, according to Haraway, seems more suitable in order to think of different ways of relating to others, such as non-human animals: “I think we learn to be wordly by grappling with, rather than generalizing from, the ordinary. I am a creature of the mud, not the sky” (Haraway 3).
“Becoming-with” is, then, a matter of engaging in a process of mutual recognition that does not develop according to humanist and anthropocentric hierarchies such as the distinction between human and animal, but rather departs from a deep affective state of curiosity to enter and understand each other’s worlds and, together, promote the emergence of new ones — the worlds of what Haraway calls “companion species” (16).
I think the notion of “becoming-with” points out to the suspicion that becoming posthuman implies the realization that we have never been human in the first place, because what we used to call “human” always covered a lost genealogy of entanglements with the non-human, the pre-rational, the affective and the relational character of all forms of life. This might be the secret that G.H. refers to when she says: “Ah, pre-human love invades me. I understand, I understand! The form of living is a secret so secret that it is the silent crawling of a secret” (Lispector 119) and some pages after: “Ah, could it be that we were not originally human? and that, out of practical necessity, we became human?” (123).
This curiosity and desire of understanding the other that accompanies G.H. through the novel, which impels her to becoming the cockroach with the cockroach, activates within her a new ethical sensibility. A feeling that comes from mingling with the ordinary and that “gets one into thick mud” and opens the possibility to “other worldings” (Haraway 38), to other experiences of life that might problematize humanistic characterizations of it. Haraway’s contribution takes a very valuable position, to my opinion, for a posthumanist framework that intends to be self-critical and take some kind of normative stance. It shows how sometimes, grappling with the ordinary (such as a cockroach hidden in our wardrobe), can be the source of new ethical responses that make justice to the complexity of relating to others and to the world.
The joy of becoming: towards an affirmative ethical and political sensibility.
It is towards the end of the novel that G.H. realizes that, in order to do justice to the experience she has gone through — an experience of crisis that has completely transformed her understanding of being in the world — she must abandon the presumptions that being human entails: “We shall be inhuman — as the loftiest conquest of man. Being is being beyond the human. Being man does not work, being man has been a constraint” (Lispector 182). She is committed, through this realization, to set forth on a process of depersonalization: “losing everything one can lose and, even so, being” (184).
As destructive as this stance might seem at a first glance, I think it can be understood as a deeply affirmative and joyful move. In losing everything that is useless, everything that is constructed upon the raw materiality of life and its immanent order, one is left with the exciting task and pressing responsibility of building new values, performing other kinds of practices, establishing connections in a different way. As Rosi Braidotti puts it in her article Meta(l)morphoses, the process of “becoming” is, from an ethical point of view:
The kind of ‘morning-after’ when one decides that the old coordinates of the social and symbolic systems will not do. It is the shedding of the reactive forces in favor of more elemental ones: the courage to go without props; the choice for expansion of one’s boundaries; a yearning for being-different in the sense of a growth towards difference. Like a conversion to nothing more (or less) abstract than the need to change and to go on changing indefinitely (70).
I think this characterization of the kind of ethical sensibility that “becoming-other” puts in motion relates quite accurately to the attitude G.H. develops in the last pages of the novel. She has gone through a process of deconstruction of her subjectivity that has led her to enter an ontological plane that preceeds human categories: the plane of immanece that is defined by bodies in their materiality and their ontological desire to be. She has come to affirm the unity of all living matter of which she is a concomitant part, moving towards the ethical intuition that “living is a goodness towards others. Living is enough, and that itself ends up in the great goodness (…). Living is such a great offering that thousands of people benefit from every life lived” (Lispector 177).
It is right at this moment of joyfully embracing the interconnectedness of the world, and not before, that G.H. comes to acknowledge herself as a sexually differentiated being. Having accepted the failure and contingence of the traits that used to define her humanity and having abandoned any kind of humanist quest for transcendence, sinking deeply into immanence, she will recognize herself as a woman, as a sexually differentiated being: “As there was the moment in which I saw that the roach is the roach of all roaches, so do I want to find in me the woman of all women” (Lispector 184).
This reunion with her sexual differentiation is not a return to an identitarian image of thought, but the avowal of the need to create a new set of political coordinates — one that allows her to construct herself (and, by extension, all women) as a complex subject that does not fit into traditional oppositional logics and that is in a state of perpetual differing. What moves G.H. towards “becoming the woman of all women” is the desire to affirm the difference that used to negatively categorize her as “other” and resignify it, embodying it as the great potentiality to transform and create herself and her “being woman” without constraints, allowing for it to take other meanings — in a similar way in which she had deconstructed what being human meant by becoming-cockroach.
“Becoming-woman”, therefore, follows G.H.’s “becoming-insect” in the process of developing a new political sensibility that has the project of working through old dichotomies and embracing difference in an affirmative way, one that is embodied as the never-ending desire for change and becoming. We might conclude, following Braidotti, that:
“the only possible way to undertake this process is to actually be attracted to change, to want it, the way one wants a lover — in the flesh” (70).
Braidotti, Rosi. 1997. “Meta(l)morphoses”. Theory, culture and society. Vol. 14. (2), pp. 67-80.
Braidotti, Rosi. 2011. Nomadic subjects: embodiment and sexual difference in contemporary feminist theory. Columbia University Press.
Deleuze, Gilles. and Felix Guattari. 1987. A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia. University of Minnesota Press.
Haraway, Donna. 2008. When species meet. University of Minnesota Press.
Kolozova, Katerina. 2018. “The In-human”. Posthuman Glossary, Bloomsbury Academic, pp. 199-201.
Kristeva, Julia. 1982. Powers of horror: an essay on abjection. Columbia University Press.
Lispector, Clarice. 2014. The passion according to G.H. Penguin Classics.