I was thinking about Being and Becoming today. I considered writing something new about it, but for now I’ll post the paper I wrote on the topic for my Junior Colloquium in Comparative History of Ideas back in August 2010.
I’m going to warn you, it’s about 2300 words long, and it definitely reads like a college paper. I was verbose and probably overly complicated some things. I don’t think I edited it back then either.
Becoming: Dynamic Possibilities
“The mind is never passive; it is perpetual activity, delicate, receptive, responsive to stimulus” (Whitehead 9). When I read this passage, I find it problematic in relation to the notion of Being as a basic expression of existence. How can there be “perpetual activity” in something so steady state as Being? And how can a seemingly fixed state, like Being, be stimulated? “A disembodied spirit, or pure mind, has its being out of time, since all that it is destined to think is fully in its being at any and every previous time” (Peirce 490). This may have been Peirce’s idea of the nature of an ens necesarium but it speaks to my argument. Being does not take into account the variable of time. It may only vary in a seemingly predictable manner, but it is change nonetheless. Becoming, however, accounts for change over time. I will use the capitalized Being and Becoming when I am addressing these specific concepts, but as such commonplace words, they will likely come up in their normal usage as well.
The dimensional difference between Being and Becoming is time. Phillip Thurtle defines time as “the perception that something else could have happened” and “the potential for change in the world” (256). Becoming is a dynamic process. We are in a constant cycle of always Becoming, never just Being. Being does not take into account the changes or movement involved in the passage of time. If time is possibility, without Becoming, the only possibility would be static Being. But, if there is such a thing as possibility and not a predetermined fate or destiny, there cannot be a stagnant Being, only the transitional Becoming.
There is an important distinction I must make. Becoming is neither positive nor negative, which is only a matter of subjective, qualitative reasoning. It is derived from the entirety of possibility. And according to Bloch, “Possibility is not hurray-patriotism. The opposite is also in the possible. The hindering element is also the possible” (17). Becoming is construction and deconstruction, creation and annihilation, and everything in between. Becoming is a process, while Being is solely one of a binary of states with no in between. But entities are not binaries; they are analogs, always Becoming at any infinitesimal state of possibility in time. For these purposes, Becoming and Unbecoming are one and the same. The qualitative differences through time are inconsequential. It’s solely the fact that there are differences through time. Thurtle quotes Massumi thusly, “Becoming is directional rather than intentional” (234). It simply moves forward in time without any target.
In Invisibile Cities, Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan about his city of Fedora and how he should have two versions of it in his atlas. “The one contains what is accepted as necessary when it is not yet so; the others, what is imagined as possible and, a moment later, is possible no longer” (32-33). Unrealized possibilities never go through the lens of the present, never Becoming, and never reaching the past. But we can’t know which of those possibilities will actually Become by passing through that lens. Our common perceptions of the relative nature of time pose a problem. When I think of the passage of time, I think of three categories, the past, the present and the future. The real problem is the present in that it does not occupy a fixed point or span in time. It has moved through the entirety of the past and will continue Becoming through all actualized, future possibilities.
On that meeting of the present and the possible in the actual, “The new is always a historical category since it is always determined by historical forces, which both bring it about in social practice (including art) and make for new semantic meanings that crystallize the novum in human consciousnesses” (Suvin 80). Whichever possibility Becomes by passing through the present must be historical as it had a cause and will have an effect. Being is only possible in the present, but the present is transitory and fleeting, always between the past and future. Only specific possibilities become the present. All others never Becoming into existence. And the present, being transitory, as it Becomes a future possibility, is already relegated to the past whenever we become aware of it. So we are really not ever Beings in a conceivable present but in a continual state of Becoming between the present and future. Within our own time-spans, points of Being are only really possible in the past or a perception of what the past will eventually Become—future possibilities. In the words of Massumi the perceived present is really “pastnesses opening directly onto a future, but with no present to speak of” (30).
Here’s a short narrative example that should be familiar. You’re in a car driving on a highway. Ahead are all future possibilities, the closer they get the more distinct they become. There is something colorful on the side of the road ahead. You think it’s a flower, but it is still hard to tell much about it at this distance. As you get closer, it’s a tall, white flower. But until you are almost directly next to it, you can’t make out much more than what it possibly is. At that moment, you’ve experienced it as clearly as you ever will. It’s a daisy and it’s swaying in the wind as cars rush past. And you, too, quickly move past it. The present is continually changing and is really only perceived by the exact moment of having Become the past. The present continually marches forward into the possible.
Change and movement are the things that Becoming offers us in a way to understand dynamic existence. Being leaves no room for change, evolution (not necessarily in the Darwinian sense), or progress. There is no possibility of hope without the possibility of change. Bloch said, “Hope is not confidence. If it could not be disappointed, it would not be hope” (16). We can have hope about the possibilities to come, but the nature of the unknown quality of that change leaves a potential for disappointment. It is still change regardless of the disappointment or realization of hope.
The change of Becoming is “perpetual activity.” I’ll use Doing as an example, as it is one of the simplest forms of activity. Doing requires action, and action, by its nature, necessarily leads to change or movement. There can be no Doing in Being, as action requires a time-span, a beginning and end. It is only a property of Becoming; Being is limited to simply existing in an entity’s current state—an existential stalemate. It has come as far as it possibly can by simply existing. There is no action without time, and hence no change.
Since Becoming is not concerned with any qualitative concepts, nor with specific locations or times, the where or when, it is only concerned with the path and time-span, the only points being the beginning and end in both cases. Massumi writes in opposition to Zeno’s paradox about the path of an arrow that will theoretically never reach a target because it only travels in distances of half the total distance left. “A path is not composed of positions. It is nondecomposable: a dynamic unity. … The points or positions really appear retrospectively, working backward from the movement’s end. … The in-between positions are logical targets: possible endpoints” (6). Time is continuous. Our measurement of time can be broken down to infinitely smaller and smaller segments. And space is continuous as well, at least out as far as we have been able to observe. Accurate measure of “points” is only limited by our technology. The further our technology advances the more detailed we can be.
If we live in an expansionary universe, which scientific observation supports, there can be no stationary state for physical objects or beings. There is only movement; though it may be imperceptible due to the way we measure movement by change in location relative to other objects, rather than relative to the universe itself. The possibility is theorized that the universe may eventually reach an expansionary limit and slow to a halt or even reverse and contract. If it should contract, there will still be only movement. But if there happens to be the perfect balance between the expansion and gravity, causing it to stop, it becomes difficult to imagine what happens. Stellar objects have their own movement on top of the movement of the space that they occupy. This is a problem that I am unsure how to address, as there are also theories that a universal contraction or a static universe may have a profound effect on time itself. This is an example of a limit imposed by reality. But I can’t say whether it is a limit of my conceptual reality or one of actual reality.
Reality is the limiting factor for Becoming, but reality in the sense of the true nature of the universe, not any particular conception of reality. Becoming is open to possibility of what is considered real and what is not yet conceived of as real. Being only conceives of a current understanding of reality.
Coming back to Massumi and Zeno’s paradox, since there are no real points along a path of movement in time, but only a start and end, there are only two conceivable points of pure Being for all of the universe; the moment just before the big bang, before the universe’s Becoming, and the possible moment when, if the universe eventually collapses, it all comes back together.
I’ll now give some examples of Becoming. I’ll skip ahead from the big bang to the Becoming of stellar objects. Gasses coalesce and condense, forming stars, planets and other heavenly bodies. The stars go through life cycles eventually burning out having used up all of their fuel in a nuclear reaction. That nuclear reaction actually creates new, heavier elements. Every element in the universe was created either in the nuclear reaction of a burning star, or in many cases, the final spectacular explosion of dying stars. The elements are spread out to create new bodies. Eventually even our own solar system was formed, Becoming from the remnants of an unknowable number of stellar Becomings. Our sun is going through it’s own process of Becoming, as is the Earth. Life forms, plants, animals and even humans, are much easier to understand in terms of Becoming than many objects that we commonly think of as static or permanent. Rocks are some of the most permanent objects we know. But even they Become over time. Created by various geological phenomena, volcanic action, sedimentation, etc. But once created, they are not permanent. Sure we as humans can destroy them. But those same geological forces can continue the process of Becoming, possibly fusing rocks together, breaking them apart, or reshaping them. Weather can deteriorate them. Water can move them and roll them across each other, polishing or further deteriorating them. Ice can form in the smallest cracks and split huge rocks. Even the most seemingly permanent objects we observe change over time.
We can still, at least, think about Being as a possible state. But to refer to an entity as a Being diminishes its entire existence and entire time-span into a singular state without relation to time. If Being is possible, is non-Being or inexistence also possible? If Being were the only possible state, there would be no beginning or ending of Being and there could be neither cause nor effect to be discovered. Without Becoming there could be no transitional state from inexistence to Being. But, like I’ve already shown, that transitional states are actually a process. It can have conceptual Being as a perceived point in the past. The process is a path, which by Massumi’s statement against Zeno’s paradox, is only divisible into points after the fact.
I will concede Being as possible for one type of thing. That is, only the abstract; concepts, literature and other texts, history, laws of nature (whether discovered or not), can have Being. They still must have an origination and hence a Becoming in order to come into existence. Some of them can change over time. And they can most definitely Become part of and influence Becoming in other things. But even Being of the abstract is fleeting as it requires the Becoming of a sentient existence to come into Being, or at the very least to be perceived as Being. I include perception here because I do not want to delve into the Becoming of the universe and all of existence itself as that is far beyond the scope of this paper. So by abstract, I mean created or discovered by human thought.
Whether we realize it or not, we use the abstracts constantly. Numbers are an abstract concept. While there are different numbering systems, they have their own being. In base-10, 1 is always the same. Each number has a finite existence, not in a sense of time, but in that they do not change. Mathematical facts are just that, facts. As long as the same system of numbers is used, mathematical operations have the same result. 1+2=3, always. But if you put numbers together, they have a sort of Becoming. Numbers can be used in the Becoming of other things. They can also be the stimulus to which Whitehead was speaking, as they excite our minds to new thoughts and creations.
In short, in order to account for the variation of time in existence within our universe, we must realize that there is no steady state and there are no singular points of Being possible. There is always Becoming as movement or change. Being is really only possible in the mind through abstraction. That is to say, within time, Being is purely an imagined state.
Bloch, Ernst. “Something’s Missing.” Utopian Function of Art and Literature. 1988.
Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Javonovich, Inc., 1974.
Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual. 2002.
Peirce, Charles Sanders. “A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God.” Collected Papers. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1935.
Suvin, Darko. Metamorphosis of Science Fiction. 1979.
Thurtle, Phillip. “The Poetics of Wandering.” Emergence of Genetic Rationality. 2008.
Whitehead, Alfred North. “Aims of Education.” 1929.