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Becoming “Before” The Damned: Radical Religious Vision/s for the Animals, Earth, and People to Come

By Brianne Donaldson

As the U.S. continues to add to its film reel of systemic racial violence, one theorist remarked recently that the legacy of slavery is not the shackles or cotton fields of forced servitude, but the ideology of white superiority that lingers still among us (Johnson and Stevenson 2015). Likewise, we might extend this logic to systemic violence toward so-called “animals,” revealed not only in the material presence of their dismembered bodies and suffering flesh on every plate, menu, and supermarket aisle, but also in the persistent ideology of humanist speciesism that gives “greater weight to interests of members of [one’s] own species when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of other species” (Singer 2008, 137). Most notably illuminated by Jeremy Bentham (1789), but certainly expressed variously before and since, attention to the physical suffering of animals requires a consideration of their interests, much as the suffering of slaves – and the present suffering of black Americans killed in racial violence – required and still requires a fresh evaluation of just where the interests of others fall in our unspoken social calculations. Singer makes the connection clearly:

 [T]he fact that some people are not members of our race does not entitle us to exploit them, and similarly the fact that some people are less intelligent than others does not mean that their interests may be disregarded. But the principle also implies that the fact that beings who are not members of our species does not entitle us to exploit them . . . (2008, 136).

And yet, with every reach into a bucket of chickens’ wings, it is clear that human interests – even nonessential “because it tastes good” habits (not to mention massive profits for industrial agribusiness) – do systemically, and through far-reaching systems of socially sanctioned violence, override the most basic interests of animals. Further, our own collective social-ecological well being is profoundly affected by the breeding and killing of billions of animals a year in intensive agriculture, and to lesser degrees in laboratories and for fur, leather, and entertainment.

What circular ideologies support the socially sanctioned subjugation of an entire group of bodies simply because they are in that group, such that we kill animals because they are animals? If ideology represents the study of ideas, what new ideas are needed to free us from past dogmas, superstitions, and culturally conditioned biases?

Enter philosophy, which is, according to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their work What is Philosophy? (hereafter WP), nothing but the very creation of concepts. Finally (!), we can answer all the ambivalent cultural critics who might ask, while cranking out another batch of business graduates and engineers, “What is the point of philosophy anyway?” The point, according to Deleuze and Guattari, is to create the concepts that ultimately constitute “the people to come and the new earth” (WP 109). Tomorrow is conceptualized today. Thus, the cultivation of ideas in the present becomes a work of sensitive creativity toward possible futures that will land upon the real bodies of animals, but also plants, eco-habitats, and marginalized people. As I have argued elsewhere (Donaldson 2015),I contend that this version of philosophy as the creation of concepts invokes, and perhaps requires, a radical revisioning of religion, not as dogmatic assent to creeds, rituals, or deities – although those narratives can help or hinder the task at hand depending on how they live in the present – but religion as an activity that (1) relentlessly interrogates what our present world/s really is/are, (2) critically examines who or what counts within those worlds and why, and (3)cultivates embodied grammars of receptivity and response capable of widening our planetary democracy.

Why Revisit Religion? 

Why bring the contentious notion of religion into a conversation regarding violence toward more-than-human creatures and systems? Is not religion, after all, with its stories of god-like, patriarchal humans, and human-like patriarchal gods, significantly to blame already for the denigration of the earth, women, marginalized people, and creatures? Leaving aside for a moment that not all systems one might call “religious” follow this paradigm[1], I grant that in the post-enlightenment era, religion is often presented as an avenue of asynchronous cults for dreamers and idiots, who have not yet moved on to the new “secular” gods of science, nationalism, and consumer identity.

Yet, wherever our ultimate loyalties rest, we are all tempted, it seems, to be believers of one kind or another, or perhaps devotees of all the above. Further, the content of secularism is not value free. It is not – as we might hope through the inarguable rigor of the scientific method, the supposed blindness of democratic justice, or the invisible hand of the market – politically neutral or free from bias. Precisely the opposite! These very structures reveal to us repeatedly the lingering prejudices that are still smuggled into laboratories, elections, advertisements, and economic policies. There is always the (real and proverbial) mouse, which is tested upon, and the one wielding the syringe. Unless we believe that such structures, in fact, fell from heaven (or evolution) as fixed and unchanging, we must have a way to perpetually examine the too-easily-accepted foundations – whether secular or theological – that shape our common life.

When Deleuze and Guattari suggest that philosophy is the creation of concepts that “constitutes the people to come and the new earth,” they extend philosophy to the imaginative co-creation of possible futures. Myths are made of such imaginings: the lion laying down with the lamb, the karmic consequences or ultimate judge that will hopefully rebalance what is now socially askew, the hazy dreams of technology by which the past-us dreamed a future-us electrified, telephonic, air born, or conveyed in self-driven automobiles. The future to come is always a myth awaiting reality. Thus, religion can, and perhaps must, do some work here, to shape the content of what is yet to be. A part of redefining or reclaiming the activity of religion, then, is fostering restlessness and dissatisfaction with certain elements of the status quo and encouraging alternative constructions.

What in the World Is the World? 

However the future unfolds, we can be sure that “the people to come and the new earth,” are not sterile idealizations free of collision or conflict. Our possible futures, like the present, will be messy entanglements, characterized by remarkable beauty, unexpected collaborations and novel innovation, but also fraught with competing social-ecological claims, the potential for mutual benefit or one-directional exploitations, out-of-kilter wealth distribution and trade policies, obstructed access to basic needs and services, and the perpetual internal and social wrestling over sexual desire, money, and power that seemingly characterize the so-called human endeavor whose redress fills the pages of sacred texts, the latest Netflix series, or even the Harry Potter chronicles. Our concepts churn out of and in response to the swamp we are paddling in.

And this “swamp” is not only abstract and universal, but radically particular for every existent. Certainly, we live in a world, but we also inhabit a multiplicity of worlds-in-process, each that emerges intra-actively[2] – not only because we bump into things like isolated atoms, but because what we are, and what things are, is always more than they seem, always an uncapturable receptive-responsive becoming that never rests. I never land on “me”, for example. “Me” is just shorthand for the sum of the myriad intra-actions that constitute my mind-body complex from the antics of gut bacteria, to my retinas responding involuntarily to light, to the apprehension of heat molecules that induce me to switch on a fan, to the internet meme that fires the synapses of laughter, and the touch of a hand that restores calm at day’s end.

Reality is backstroking across the hyphens of our always-already-becoming-something-else entanglements that resists fixed categorization of static or self-contained being and demands an account of becoming within our self- and other-understanding.[3] The creation of concepts requires one to dive into this active betweenness that, in fact, defies steady conceptualization. The intra-active betweenness or immanent relationality is, according to Deleuze and Guatarri, is one example of the “preconceptual,” or “prephilosophical” (WP 40-41), and yet concepts and philosophy paradoxically depend upon it. The religious turn I envision plunges us into this preconceptual “plane of immanence” (41) where, on one hand we increasingly attend to the active betweenness that constitutes the becoming of life – and every thing we experience there, whether consciously or not – and, on the other hand, strive to imaginatively articulate concepts more adequate to what we find. “Both the creation of concepts and the [surveying][4] of the plane are required, like two wings or fins” (41). The challenge is to take bodies seriously – our own and others – while also looking beyond their apparent reality to the invisible effects, provocations, and co-influences that persistently shape our becoming.

Both dialectic activities are essential to prevent positing static, uniform bodies upon which our misinformation and prejudices fall. “Thinking provokes general indifference,” assert Deleuze and Guatarri, a sentiment they merely echo from sages and prophets past (WP 41). “It is only when the dangers become obvious,” i.e., when ossified thought justifies socially-sanctione dviolence toward an entire population, for example, “that indifference ceases…” (41). Yet, even then, I suggest, indifference does not cease all at once, but first-off for those on the receiving end of the danger, and only later for those who come to know and care about those affected.

Resuscitating religion as a lively activity across all disciplines is to anticipate and guard against the indifference of thought and the ossification of ideas, and to systematically embark on “a sort of groping experimentation” that may not appear “very respectable, rational, or reasonable” (WP 41). No pretense of appropriateness required here, friends. Rather, attending to the pre-conceptual plane of immanence and striving to fabricate concepts more adequate to the activity and ambiguity buzzing beyond our senses or dominant frames of recognition may seem to some to belong

 to the order of dreams, of pathological processes, esoteric experiences, drunkenness, and excess. We head for the horizon, on the plane of immanence, and we return with bloodshot eyes, yet they are the eyes of the mind…To think is always to follow the witch’s flight. (WP 41)

If the “religious” – however fast and loose the term is defined – are going to be dismissed as dreamers and idiots, then let us become fools for something worthwhile. Deleuze and Guattari, in fact, see the “idiot” as a term of esteem reserved for those willing to unsettle the “power of being and power of thinking” (48). “The idiot is the private thinker,” they assert, “in contrast to the public teacher (the schoolman): the teacher refers constantly to taught concepts (man-rational animal), whereas the private thinker forms a concept with innate forces that everyone possesses on their own account by right…” (62).

The authors’ juxtaposition of teacher-versus-idiot is necessarily limited, especially for anyone who has had a teacher (and I have been lucky to have a few), who inspired precisely the kind of imaginative nerve required to slip around the cultural guardrails patrolled by the “schoolman” gatekeepers of existent knowledge regimes, both inside and outside academics. Still, Deleuze and Guattari are warning themselves, as much as others who peddle in ideas, that knowledge too easily become rigid and disconnected from the actual realities of bodies, or as Walter Kaufmann puts it succinctly in Critique of Religion and Philosophy, “the rigor of scholastics is rigor mortis” (xiv). In the next section, I will return to just what might be entailed in becoming a new kind of religious idiot, and how necessary it is for the life of marginalized people, creatures, and eco-habitats, now excluded from our communities of concern.

The Conceptual Persona: Thinking-with the Ghosts of Exclusion 

To become an idiot is to embrace the reversed meaning of a past term that most of us avoid claiming. Yet, if our present world – with its justified violence and widescale exclusion of animals, plants, eco-habitats, and marginalized people – is the epitome of rationalism and sanity, than perhaps a new kind of idiocy and insanity is in order. “The old idiot,” write Deleuze and Guattari, “wanted indubitable truths of which he could arrive by himself: in the meantime he would doubt everything, even that 3 + 2 = 5; he would doubt every truth of Nature. The new idiot has no wish for indubitable truths; he will never be ‘resigned’ to the fact that 3 + 2 = 5 and wills the absurd – this is not the same image of thought” (WP 62). They go on:

The old idiot wanted truth, but the new idiot wants to turn the absurd into the highest power of thought—in other words, to create. The old idiot wanted to be accountable only to reason, but the new idiot, closer to Job then to Socrates, wants accounts to be taken of ‘every victim of History’— these are not the same concepts. The new idiot will never accept the truths of history. The old idiot wanted, by himself, to account for what was or what was not comprehensible, what was or was not rational, what was lost or saved; but the new idiot wants the lost, the incomprehensible, and the absurd to be restored to him. (WP 62-63)

To become an idiot begins to take shape here. It is, in a sense, to think-with “every victim of History,” or to challenge the losses and excluded absurdities taken as inevitable in the past and present. It is to think-with Job as one afflicted by disease, tragic calamity, and then forsaken by his spouse and friends; to think-with Job’s dead children, sheep, cattle, and servants lost to capricious violence, while Job is left to confront his inherited image of a benevolent, caring god in the midst of whole-scale disaster.

These companions to thought are what Deleuze and Guattari call “conceptual personae” (personnages conceptual), which they say “haunt a particular plane of consistency” (24). These characters or concerns, sometimes nameless, lurk as ghosting guides highlighting the costs, oversights, or dangers of a particular plane, supplying “a condition for the exercise of thought” (4), or “a presence that is intrinsic to thought, a condition of possibility of thought itself”(3), which can “reintroduce into thought a vital relationship with the other that was supposed to have been excluded from pure thought…” (4).These conceptual personae knock on the closed doors of our social imaginations forcing us to ask who counts in our stories and why? What perspectives have been neglected in the telling? Who do we relate to on the evening news and who do we turn our back upon? Whose flesh counts as we pass by the deli case? What bodies repel us or earn only our indifferent dismissal as “necessary” losses?

Conceptual personae insist their way into our thought-sphere, whispering from the corners of dominant logic and habitual practices, provoking new visions and directions of who and what counts in our communities of concern. Richard King, in his analysis of the construction of western philosophy over and against the so-called “mystic east”, helpfully points out that knowledge does not only “trickle down” from a few independent thinkers as standard notions of philosophy would have us think, but also emerges from “the silences of history, the voices of the marginalised [sic] and the forgotten, the heterogeneity which is buried by singular versions of history” (12).[5] Amid inherited wisdom that too often “legitimates the authority of some and silences others,” (12), such provocative silences – or conceptual personae – can initiate “new eras and ways of thinking” (8).

The role of a good thinker – the religious activity – is to be so permeated or shot through by these haunting specters – these conceptual personae – as to somewhat become them, to be transformed by them, so that they – and we – might become something else.

Cultivating Embodied Grammars: Becoming “Before” the Damned

“The role of conceptual personae is to show thought’s territories,” write Deleuze and Guattari (WP 6). Conceptual personae show us where our concepts stammer, they judge the limitations of our ethical frames; they are friends to thought so that we never think alone (69). The geographical metaphor of territory takes on the literality of earthly bodies here. For if we outline the boundaries of our community through the histories of violence, we will map the cruelties of genocide, the torture, and slaughter of animals for food, testing, and clothing, and the clear cut habitats of rain forests and pipelines, to name but a few of our present hauntings, of which there are too many to track.

To become with these conceptual personae is to be, shall we say, possessed by spirits, in order to channel what has been lost or injured toward futures of less loss. “Possibilities of life or modes of existence can be invented only on a plane of immanence that develops the power of conceptual personae,” claim Deleuze and Guattari (WP 73). A reoriented religious activity demands that “[t]he face and body of philosophers shelter these personae …as if someone else was looking through their eyes” (73). Deleuze and Guattari describe this sheltering as “becoming animal,” “becoming woman,” “becoming molecular,” or “becoming child” (1987, 277).  Each of these articulations offers ways of aligning our own development with marginalized identities. Deleuze and Guattari describe it as “becoming minoritarian” (291), that is, entering into a conceptual and/or tangible relationship with those bodies rendered “minor” by dominant discourses, practices, and institutions. This is what Deleuze and Guattari mean when they describe thinking “before” the damned (WP 109)—or as Isabel Stengers translates it “in front of” (2002, 238)—the “oppressed, bastard, lower, anarchical, nomadic, and irremediably minor…” (WP 109). To think “‘before’…is a question of becoming,” the authors warn (109). “We become animal so that the animal can become something else,” or one “becomes Indian, and never stops becoming so—perhaps ‘so that’ the Indian who is himself Indian becomes something else and tears himself away from his own agony” (109).

To think in front of, or “before” the damned, is to alter our maps of thought through the power of conceptual personae. Our ideas can be deterritorialized and reterritorialized such that our concepts “do not define any discursive whole” but always strive to articulate the real-though-neglected components of the planes of immanence from which they emerge (WP 23). Here ideas move beyond general abstractions to the real instances of ideas. We are not only talking about “an animal” generally, for example, but this particular creature, a conceptual persona whose violent exclusion interrupts the inadequacies of present logic. Real animals, plants, eco-habitats, and marginalized people haunt the planes of immanence within our specific existences, provoking the creation of concepts capable of remembering their loss and nourishing possibilities for less loss in the future.


This vision of futures characterized by less loss is, I argue, a profoundly religious vision that requires a corresponding response insistent on new modes of mutual thriving rather than myths of scarcity in which giving any quarter to “them” is a loss to “us.” Such competitive fears are real, but not total, and innovation must aim toward transformative win-win scenarios that take the pleasure, comfort, and entangled freedoms of all bodies seriously.

What this looks like is not limited by the shape of any one religious tradition. It is rather the experimental excavation of every tradition and every discipline, paired with the adventurous task of fabricating new concepts, languages, practices, and functional rituals that trouble the waters of what is now too-easy-to-think by heeding the conceptual personae lurking in the particular margins of place, space, and text – the signs, the plates, the cages. Some world visions are certainly more amenable to such machinations. Others must be plied and pulled with artistic fearlessness.

Attending to the intra-active betweenness of our material reality destabilizes any fixed identities upon whom socially-sanctioned violence could fall. Reversing the dominant logic of exclusion requires one to become idiot, to become the Other, and to anticipate, shelter, and mid-wife those conceptual personae, who haunt our specific planes of immanence into new evaluations of who counts in our current communities of concern.

Cultivating new grammars of thought, word, and action “before” the damned allow that the damned may become something else. “The agony of a rat or the slaughter of a calf,” contend Deleuze and Guattari, “remains present in thought not through pity but as a zone of exchange between man and animal in which something of one passes into the other” (WP 109). Such becomings are always double, always exact a mutual transformation, a transubstantiation of seer/seen, human/more-than-human, philosophy/prephilosophy, and “it is this double becoming that constitutes the people to come and the new earth” (109). We think-with, we become-with those bodies forgotten, lost, or awaiting acknowledgement on the margins, so that these conceptual spectres will become the bodily foundation of futures with less loss and greater co-flourishing within our planetary democracy.

[1] See, for example, Donaldson 2015 for an analysis of Alfred North Whitehead’s process-relational philosophy as well as the ancient Indic tradition of Jainism. See, for example, Donaldson 2014 for numerous multi-religious/philosophical accounts by several authors on taking plants and animals seriously as members of our planetary community.

[2] I am informed by philosopher-feminist-physicist Karen Barad’s work on “intra-action” in theoretical physics here. See Barad 2007, 139-140.

[3] One of the preeminent philosophers of becoming was Alfred North Whitehead whose work defining events and processes rather than things is essential to my own world vision. See Whitehead 1927/1978, 21. For a summary as to how Whitehead’s vision might relate to animal and planetary liberation, see Donaldson 2015.

[4] I have replaced the word “instituting” with “surveying” here as I feel it lends greater clarity to the sentence and gestures toward the participatory attention that Deleuze and Guattari intend, and which I am trying to uplift as part of a revitalized “religious” activity.

[5] King refers to the silences of history as “subaltern,” or subordinate, in the vein of colonial and/or feminist theorists such as Antonio Gramsci, Gayatri Spivak, or Andrea Nye that identify the systemic exclusion of women, slaves, foreigners, laborers, farmers, workers, etc. from hegemonic power structures of the colony or collective. It is a needed step to apply this aspect of critical theory to humanist ontologies and anthropocentric narratives that silence animals, plants, and eco-habitats.


Barad, Karen. 2007. Meeting The Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bentham, Jeremy. 1789. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Library of Economics and Liberty. Ch. 17, note 122. Accessed August 9, 2016 at

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

—. 1994. What Is Philosophy? Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia University Press.

Donaldson, Brianne. 2015. Creaturely Cosmologies: Why Metaphysics Matters for Animal and Planetary Liberation. Lanham MD: Lexington Books.

—, Editor. 2014. Beyond the Bifurcation of Nature: A Common World for Animals and the Environment. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Johnson, Corey G. and Bryan Stevenson. 2015. “Bryan Stevenson on Charleston and Our Real Problem with Race.” The Marshall Project: Nonprofit Journalism About Criminal Justice. June 24. Accessed August 9, 2016.

Kaufmann, Walter. 1958/1990. Critique of Religion and Philosophy (Preface to the 1972 Edition). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

King, Richard. 1999. Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought. Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press.

Stengers, Isabelle. 2002. “Beyond Conversation: The Risks of Peace.” In Process and Difference: Between Cosmological and Poststructuralist Postmodernisms, ed. Catherine Keller and Anne Daniell, 235-255. Albany NY: SUNY Press.

Whitehead, Alfred North. 1927/1978. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. Gifford Lectures, 1927-28. Corrected ed. Edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne. New York: The Free Press.

Dr. Brianne Donaldson
is Bhagwaan Mahavir/Chao Family Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in Jain Studies, Chao Center for Asian Studies, Rice University. Visit her personal website for news, writing, and teaching.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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