I wanted to follow up on a detail from my post on The Swervers. One of the details I identified there was a preference for process and pragmatism, broadly conceived. Hence: performance, production, expression, doing... in short, becoming rather than mere being. Much contemporary work in the humanities has been seduced by this, and for good reason. It makes sense to think of the world in terms of history and change, plasticity and dynamism. It's not uncommon today for people to speak of the world as a "multitiered cosmos of becoming," as William E. Connolly did in a recent book. A number of people have issued strident critiques of this way of thinking. Christian Thorne's essay on Connolly (and Jane Bennett, among others) is particularly good. And I've also pushed back on this under the heading of the Gerund Sublime. But I want to say a bit more about the notion of becoming...

One source for the distinction between being and becoming is the difference in Ancient Greek between eimi [εἰμί] and gignomai [γίγνομαι]. Both words mean "to be," but gignomai also means "to come into being," "to be born," "to be produced," or "to become." Terms like “ontology" are derived from eimi's present participle form (on/onta), and eimi has simple cognates (est, is) in many languages such as Latin, French, and English. The stem of gignomai softens to gen- in some tenses such as the aorist, producing a variety of English terms including genesis and genetic (the becoming, the elements that become) but also genus, genre, gender, general, and genius, which all reference, in some way, the process of becoming or emerging out of an origin or birth stock.

Yet while the Swerver/Gerund Sublime folks are quick to assume that gignomai/becoming is somehow more appealing than eimi/being, the reality is not so neat. Favoring eimi risks all the known problems of essentialism, to be sure, but favoring gignomai introduces similar risks around race, stock, or birth and their concomitant dangers. (For the outlines of this topic, itself complex and varied, see the chapter on “Genius” in Giorgio Agamben's book Profanations, as well as the work of Jacques Derrida, among others.)

Additionally, while gignomai/becoming supposedly helps avoid the problems of static identity and naturalized form in favor of transformation and metamorphosis -- Connolly's "multitiered cosmos of becoming" -- the reverse is more likely to be true. The reason is that gignomai/becoming offers little protection from the problems of transcendental form. The transcendental is, in fact, defined as the thing that does not change in the face of all change. Consider the preservation of form as it transits through metamorphosis: a species propagates genes even as it evolves; genders are tracked and managed across the arc of human life; the ship of Theseus stays afloat even after every plank has been removed and replaced. In other words, gignomai/becoming is no escape from form, but is in fact the very place in which form comes to be known.

Postscript: This is also a formidable rebuttal to Deleuze and his followers: the nomad is the transcendental actor, par excellence; the rhizome is even more "essentialist" than the tree; deterritorialization generates the transcendental; etc.