Sunday, April 28, 2019

Memories of a Ratman: Becoming Animal in Film, Literature, and Philosophy

Film has a strange status in Deleuze and Guattari's Capitalism and Schizophrenia. There is nothing like a theory of film in the two volumes; as much as the politics and economics of representation through regimes of signs, synthesis of recording, and assemblages of expression are theorized film is barely mentioned. The two volumes have more to say about television as medium than cinema, which will of course later be part of a two volume study by Deleuze. This is not to say that it is entirely absent, and when film does appear it is not as specific medium to be considered on its own but as an illustration of concepts and problems. Which is not to say that film is marginal these illustrations engage the central conceptual problems in each book. In Anti-Oedipus Nicholas Ray's Bigger than Life illustrates the socio-historical nature of desire beyond  family confines, and in A Thousand Plateaus the film Willard illustrates the concept of becoming animal.

Deleuze and Guattari write, 

"I recall the fine film Willard (1972, Daniel Mann). A "B" movie perhaps, but a fine unpopular film: unpopular because the heroes are rats. My memory of it is not necessarily accurate. I will recount the story in broad outline. Willard lives with his authoritarian mother in the old family house. Dreadful Oedipal atmosphere. His mother orders him to destroy a litter of rats. He spares one (or two or several). After a violent argument, the mother, who “resembles” a dog, dies. The house is coveted by a businessman, and Willard is in danger of losing it. He likes the principal rat he saved, Ben, who proves to be of prodigious intelligence. There is also a white female rat, Ben’s companion. Willard spends all his free time with them. They multiply. Willard takes the rat pack, led by Ben, to the home of the businessman, who is put to a terrible death. But he foolishly takes his two favorites to the office with him and has no choice but to let the employees kill the white rat. Ben escapes, after throwing Willard a long, hard glare. Willard then experiences a pause in his destiny, in his becoming-rat. He tries with all his might to remain among humans. He even responds to the advances of a young woman in the office who bears a strong “resemblance” to a rat – but it is only a resemblance. One day when he has invited the young woman over, all set to be conjugalized, reoedipalized, Ben suddenly reappears, full of hate. Willard tries to drive him away, but succeeds only in driving away the young woman: he then is lured to the basement by Ben, where a pack of countless rats is waiting to tear him to shreds. It is like a tale; it is never disturbing.

It is worth noting that Deleuze and Guattari introduce the film as something primarily forgotten, despite the fact that the section is titled "Memories of a moviegoer." To write about movies is always to write about something half forgotten. Moreover, the plot is recounted as something of a throwback to Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari map the film on primarily oedipal lines of mothers and couples. However, all of this serves to illustrate the films central concept, of A Thousand Plateaus, becoming. As Eduardo Viveiros de Castro writes, "The concept of becoming effectively plays the same axial cosmological role in A Thousand Plateaus that the concept of production plays in Anti-Oedipus." The film not only introduces the concept but effectively stages the transition from the Oedipal confines of desire to the transformative impact of becoming. As Deleuze and Guattari write. 

It is all there: there is a becoming-animal not content to proceed by resemblance and for which resemblance, on the contrary, would represent an obstacle or stoppage; the proliferation of rats, the pack, brings a becoming-molecular that undermines the great molar powers of family, career, and conjugality; there is a sinister choice since there is a “favorite” in the pack with which a kind of contract of alliance, a hideous pact, is made; there is the institution of an assemblage, a war machine or criminal machine, which can reach the point of self-destruction; there is a circulation of impersonal affects, an alternate current that disrupts signifying projects as well as subjective feelings, and constitutes a nonhuman sexuality; and there is an irresistible deterritorialization that forestalls attempts at professional, conjugal, or Oedipal reterritorialization. (Are there Oedipal animals with which one can “play Oedipus,” play family, my little dog, my little cat, and then other animals that by contrast draw us into an irresistible becoming? Or another hypothesis: Can the same animal be taken up by two opposing functions and movements, depending on the case?)

If Anti-Oedipus' goal was to show desire invests the entirety of the social, becoming continues a line of flight that extends beyond not only the family but the human. Becoming not only opens humanity up the animal, as well as impersonal affects, it extends both into the universe. Deleuze and Guattari's reading of Willard also anticipates and realizes Deleuze's remark in the first of the Cinema books on the inventiveness of B movies. As Deleuze writes, "Economic constraints undoubtedly gave rise to the flashes of inspiration and images dreamed up with a view to economy could have universal repercussions." Willard's becoming rat is framed in the gap that separates the images of the rats from the images of Willard's day to day life. Becoming rat is a kind of montage, a constant back and forth between close up on rat and close up on Willard. Between the shots of the rat and the man there is an affinity. 

Willard is an adaptation of a novel by Stephen Gilbert titled The Ratman's Notebook. The differences of the book from the movie suggest a different set of transformations, less the cosmological becomings that move from man to animal and beyond but the more mundane one's of class. The novel unlike the film is set in England and an England of the late sixties very much burdened by class and scarcity. Many of the details remain the same, even though the novel is told in the first person point of view as a series of notebooks. In the film we see Willard as someone who is marginalized and victimized by his boss and his co-workers. Part of the differences between film and movie reflect their respective forms. In the film Willard's awkwardness and alienation is commented upon by others, and the film adds a whole bunch of characters to do this, in the film Willard's home life is less oedipal confinement than his mother's friends suggesting that he invite his boss to his birthday party to network. In the novel the access to Willard's internal monologue makes the opposition to work less one of the awkardness of  invert forced to socialize at the office than of the work relation itself. As Willard writes, he prefers not to work  and is only compelled to work out of the necessity to eat 
(no wonder that Crispin Glover has played both Willard  in the remake and in a film version of Bartleby).

It is this same necessity he imposes on his rats, training them with food. There is not much of a difference between a rat and a worker in an office, both do what they need to do in order to eat. In the book Willard's crime spree lasts longer than in the film. He trains his rats to break into shops and houses, stealing the money that is left behind as people flee in terror. In the novel he even finds an old rat mask to wear, partly as a disguise and partly to build up the myth of the ratman. As much as Willard effects a superficial resemblance to rats his actual becoming, his transformation is a different one. Willard crosses a  line, not one that separates the animal from the human but the worker from the boss, or, rather he crosses this line by crossing another, that of the law. To be a criminal is similar to becoming a millionaire, both have a fundamentally different relationship to labor and life. To quote Gilbert's novel,

He buys a car, and starts dating a woman at the office, but this is less a turn towards Oedipal than a change of his material conditions. The car changes his status. Willard becomes a boss of his rats, and in doing so he sees them as expendable. He accumulates enough money that he does not need them anymore. Willard is no longer ratman, no longer a criminal and no longer needs the rats. He has accumulated enough that he no longer needs the rats. They have become disposable. As Gilbert writes,

When they turn on him in the end it is not the conflict between man and beast, man versus nature, but worker versus boss. The rats have nothing to lose. 

One could contrast the more materialist book with the more oedipal and anti-oedipal film, or its reading by Deleuze and Guattari, but it makes more sense to see them as two different transformations. One molar and the other molecular. As Deleuze and Guattari insist "becoming" is not a transformation between two molar forms or species. "Man does not become a wolf or a vampire as if he changed molar species: the vampire and the werewolf are becomings of man, in the other words, proximities between molecules in composition., relations of movement and rest, speed and slowness between emitted particles." A becoming is molecular, it is at the level of affects not emotions, relations not forms. However, it necessarily intersects with molar identities. As The Ratman's Notebooks makes clear there is no becoming rat, no relation with the inhuman pack of rats, that does not pass through the human divisions of employee and employer, citizen and criminal, man and woman. It is possible to argue that these molar identities function as "apparatuses of capture" constraining becomings to the identities and power relations. What interrupts Willard's transformation in the novel is not an Oedipal desire but a desire to be a boss, to have a car, to have capital, and to be free of work. Read together the novel and the film ask what social relations and identities constrain and capture our becomings. 


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