“Annihilation” and the Modes of Becoming
By Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

“Annihilation” and the Modes of Becoming

Mar. 23, 2018  |     |  0 comments

Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018) — his loose cinematic adaptation of the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy — recently had its international release on the Netflix video streaming platform. The movie and the eponymous book it is based on are of interest to political theorists as they vividly illustrate the modes of becoming described by the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.

The movie depicts the aftermath of meteorite impact on Earth: the impact site becomes the center of a rapidly-expanding zone of transformation called “the Shimmer.” Within the Shimmer, objects lose their discrete natures and undergo extreme forms of hybridization and other modes of transformation, collapsing the order of Nature described in the opening lines of the famous poem by the 13th-century Persian mystic Rumi:

“I died as mineral and became a plant,

I died as plant and rose to animal,

I died as animal and I was Man.”

While hybridization is a familiar phenomenon in our living environment and in our social life — many of our cuisines, for instance, include dishes like Hawaii’s Spam musubi that are hybrids from different cultures — those that occur in the Shimmer are wild and aggressively transgressive (Lim, 2014, pp. 489-490). Within the Shimmer, animals become hybridized with plants, humans become hybridized with animals, and there are even stranger transformations — plants grow into human-like forms; humans become plants; and humans are even hybridized with minerals.

In the zone of transformation of the Shimmer, the assemblage of physical and mental parts that constitute the body decomposes, leaving the individual physical and mental parts of the original assemblage to be remixed with other decomposing assemblages. In one particularly horrifying sequence in the movie, a bear kills a woman, and the final moments of her mental life are extracted and remixed into the mutating assemblage of the bear, giving the recomposed bear a voice that is the woman’s dying scream. As another character describes it, the Shimmer offers the prospect of complete annihilation as all the constituent particles of everything within it will eventually be fully mixed with all the other particles in the zone.

This makes Annihilation different from other science-fiction movies with similar premises. For example, while Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant (2017) also features violent hybridizations, here the transformations are goal-directed — the xenomorph hybrids are genetically engineered by the android David for the purpose of creating the perfect bioweapon to destroy humankind. The Shimmer, in contrast, transforms just for the sake of transformation. It is what Deleuze and Guattari would describe as a total field of deterritorialization: within its changing borders all established meanings are erased. As one of the characters in Annihilation puts it, being in the Shimmer is like experiencing accelerated dementia. Not only does the body break down, the mind does too, and the person who enters the Shimmer will not be the same as the one who leaves.

For political theorists hoping to understand the many ways people interact with power — obtaining it, living with it, or resisting it — the work of Deleuze and Guattari is an invaluable resource. As Simon O’Sullivan (2006) explains, “what I found in their writing was a different conception of what intellectual work might involve; no longer the endless critique of previous bodies of knowledge (or not just this) but the creative invention of concepts” (p. 11). Just as the creative genius of Deleuze and Guattari gave rise to a cornucopia of new concepts, Annihilation gives us a sense of what some of their concepts may look like in the real world.


One example is Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of becoming-animal, which Gerald Bruns (2007) warns is “among the most recondite of their concepts, but also arguably one of the most interesting” (p. 703). Cliff Stagoll (2010) notes that the Deleuze and Guattari understand the human subject as ever always becoming other: “The human subject … ought not to be conceived as a stable, rational individual, experiencing changes but remaining, principally, the same person. Rather … one’s self must be conceived as a constantly changing assemblage of forces, an epiphenomenon arising from chance confluences of languages, organisms, societies, expectations, laws and so on” (p. 27).

Becoming-animal is one such mode of self-transformation — one that can lead the self to a life of pure sensation: “To become animal is to participate in movement, to stake out a path of escape in all its positivity, to cross a threshold, to reach a continuum of intensities that are valuable only in themselves, to find a world of pure intensities where all forms come undone, as do all the significations, signifiers, and signifieds, to the benefit of an unformed matter of deterritorialized flux, of nonsignifying signs” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1986, p. 13). It is also a life of sociality: “A becoming-animal always involves a pack, a band, a population, a peopling, in short a multiplicity” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987, p. 239). The groups which come closest to those who have become-animal are those whose members have chosen to live in the wilderness away from modern society. Despite their being deprived of the conveniences of modern industrial life, they have the freedom to live in “a world of pure intensities.” As Stagoll (2010) writes, Deleuze and Guattari are “philosophers of a kind of freedom for which we may have not yet developed a concept” (p. 716).

While mineralization is a common biological phenomenon, the accelerated and extreme forms of mineralization presented in Annihilation transgress these biological norms.

However, there is the danger of romanticizing those who have become-animal, as that line of becoming can lead to complete disorganization and anarchy — the mode of being which Deleuze and Guattari represent with the image of the Body without Organs (BwO). It is important to note that the BwO is not a body that has no organs. Rather, it is a body that is “opposed to the organization of the organs” (Message, 2010, p. 38). In Annihilation, some of the explorers who have entered the Shimmer find themselves transforming into BwOs. In one disturbing sequence, a character’s stomach is sliced open to reveal that his guts have been transformed into slithering eel-like creatures. The organs, having rebelled against their appointed biological roles in the body, proceed along their independent lines of becoming, thereby dooming the body to its death. In the political arena, the model of the BwO would fit those rebellions which descend into violent chaos with the various rebel factions turning on one another, as happened in the 1990s to the West African nations of Liberia and Sierra Leone.


Moving away from the radical disintegration of the BwO is the alternative line of transformation of becoming-plant. In Annihilation, a traumatized and depressed character finds herself in a peaceful area of the Shimmer where its former human inhabitants appear to have transformed into plants (or where the plants have attempted to transform into humans, or both), and in a visually startling scene she embraces this peaceful mode of becoming gifted to her by the Shimmer. When her colleague goes to look for her, the plant-human that she has transformed into is indistinguishable from the others in the field.

Karen Houle (2011) notes that becoming-plant, unlike becoming-animal or becoming a BwO, results in a profoundly collective mode of being: “the teloi or ‘self-realization’ of plant communication is neither strictly individual nor even species-specific but is accomplished in and through radical kinships, through a fantastically versatile and multi-directional capacity to harmonize a multiplicity of actions.” This vegetal communications network is constructed through the plants’ complex and synchronized secretions of chemicals which affect the surrounding soil and the neighboring plant and animal life (pp. 98-107). In political terms, becoming-plant has “massive political and ethical implications … It credits the accomplishment of identity and intimacy as a radically collective achievement, crossing faculties, bodies, phyla and even the most basic cut we so confidently declare: the organic and the inorganic” (pp. 111-112).


The last mode of becoming presented in Annihilation that I wish to discuss is becoming-mineral. While mineralization is a common biological phenomenon — allowing plants and animals to persist in mineralized forms across eons of time, as was recently seen when several new fossilized forests were discovered in Antarctica — the accelerated and extreme forms of mineralization presented in Annihilation transgress these biological norms. As the explorers venture deeper into the Shimmer, they come across crystalline trees and a colleague from an earlier expedition whose severely transformed body had undergone becoming-animal, becoming-plant, and becoming-mineral.

With respect to political change, the transformative process of becoming-mineral would fit with Deleuze and Guattari’s geophilosophy: “Insofar as countries can be seen as vast assemblages of components and forces (ranging from the individual bodies of their inhabitants and smaller-scale assemblages like societies, institutions and markets, to the natural forces of climate and geology, as well as social forces, including culture, politics and economics), they … may be abstracted to … largescale structures in the physical world; for example, geological strata” (Lim, 2015, p. 3). In the dimension of social life, such strata may be understood as consisting of the remnants of earlier eras of the political economy which form the foundations for the subsequent eras:

“At a broader temporal level, stratification may be discerned in not just the historical formation of social hierarchies, but also in the complex formation and transformation of political economies. At this level of analysis, the political economy of a territory prior to colonization may be seen to constitute a stratum that is buried below that of the colonial period, and likewise, the political economy of the period of independence may be seen as being built on the stratum of the colonial political economy. In this same way, one may view neoliberal Cambodia as emerging from the stratum of its revolutionary period of genocide and politicide” (Lim, 2015, p. 3).

It is in these strata where bodies become-mineral. While the individuals who lost their lives to the political economies of the earlier eras may be forgotten by the succeeding generations, their bodies, either mineralized while buried in the land — as happened with many of the Cambodians who were murdered in the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields — or even carbonized into ash, persist as physical traces in the buried geological strata of the land on top of which the current population of the country lives and works. In this way, becoming-mineral grants individuals the possibility of someday emerging into the consciousness of future generations, as was the case with the skeletonized remains of the Khmer Rouge’s victims who — decades after their mass killings — were retrieved by genocide researchers to be documented as evidence of their killers’ crimes against humanity. In this manner, becoming-mineral offers the prospect of not just remembrance but also justice.


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Rumi. J. D.  (2012). Selected Poems of Rumi. North Chelmsford: Courier Corporation.

Stagoll, C. (2010). Becoming. In A. Parr (Ed.), The Deleuze Dictionary: Revised Edition (pp. 25-27.) Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Zachos, E. (2018, March 16). Five New Fossil Forests Found in Antarctica. National Geographic.

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