What is the Philosophy of Movement? Part II: The Mobilities Turn

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What is the “Mobilities Turn” and what is its Relationship to the Philosophy of Movement? 

In 2006, Mimi Sheller and John Urry announced the emergence of a “mobilities paradigm” or “mobility turn” in the social sciences.[i]Their edited journal issue showed quite dramatically what many scholars studying movement across several different disciplines had already felt was going on for some time. That despite their different domains and topic of study, they were in fact studying the same thing, but from different perspectives: motion. The recognition of a common something that was being studied, despite the empirical differences in the areas of study was an important event and has led to further expansions of the paradigm into the humanities over the last ten years.[ii]

This event has at least two consequences for the development of a philosophy of motion. First, it takes the study of motion one step further by explicitly expanding the de facto methodological starting point of the primacy of motion to multiple areas and topics of study in the humanities and social sciences including anthropology, cultural studies, geography, science and technology studies, tourism and transport studies, and sociology, to name only a few.

Second, and even more importantly, this expansion introduced the possibility of a theoretical or methodological unity to the study of motion, as well as the possible limits for such a method. Does this method apply only to studies where things are obviously, dramatically, and empirically moving around like tourism, migration, the spread of viral epidemics, portable computers, airports, automobiles, and so on?[iii]Or should we still adopt the methodological primacy of motion in cases where things seem more immobile, like borders, states, prisons, desktop computers, roads, and so on? Or for those should we go back to spatial turn of the 1980s for a different method and set of concepts? Should we still begin our method with the primacy of motion if the events are older than the contemporary event of our “liquid” and “mobile” modernity as Bauman, Augé, Castells, Virilio and others all heralded at the turn of the century?[iv]Or for older events when the world was more static should we just rely on the traditional static methods of our discipline? There are as many answers to these questions as there are mobilities scholars, but it is easy to see where this is going. The mobility paradigm extends only as far scholars are willing to take it. At the moment mobility studies is largely, although not exclusively, focused on more obviously mobile bodies (cars, dance, diaspora, airports, and so on) in the twenty-first, often twentieth, and occasionally nineteenth centuries, and mostly in the social sciences, sometimes in the humanities, and rarely in the natural sciences.[v]

In their description of this mobilities paradigm Sheller and Urry even make clear that they “do not insist on a new ‘grand narrative’ of mobility, fluidity, or liquidity. The new mobilities paradigm suggests a set of questions, theories, and methodologies rather than a totalising or reductive description of the contemporary world.”[vi]The mobilities paradigm is, according to the authors, not a metaphysics that describes everything forever and all time. However, it also seems arbitrarily limited in its scope and content. At times this limitation threatens to undermine the methodological primacy of motion all together. As when a binary division is introduced between space-time immobilities, fixities, or moorings one the one hand and mobilities on the other. This is particularly limiting when immobility itself is understood to be the condition of mobility itself. As when Urry and Sheller claim that “the multiple fixities or moorings … enable the fluidities of liquid modernity,” or that mobilities “presume overlapping and varied time-space immobilities.”[vii]Surely there are relative relations of motion and rest, but physically speaking, nothing is absolutely immobile.

Why then limit the paradigm of movement in this way?[viii]

Despite the rather banal empirical fact accepted by every physical scientist that everything is in motion, some mobilities scholars have really dug their heels in on this point arguing that “if everything is mobile, then the concept has little purchase.”[ix]Imagine saying that “since everything is in space or time, the concept has little purchase”! [x]No wonder so few natural scientists seem interested in the mobilities paradigm. I agree that it is at least analytically useless and at most politically pernicious to merely say “everything is in motion” or “motion is a good,”[xi]but that is true of anything. On the contrary, the methodical goal of the philosophy of motion is to give us another robust perspective on reality—with all the same rigor across every domain of inquiry that space and time have.

Surely there is a third way between a metaphysics of motion and only studying some contemporary things that move a lot. Surely it is possible for paradigms and theoretical frameworks to offer a description of everything that has been without being the only coherent or reductive description of those things. There can be and certainly are multiple co-existing descriptions of the same things from different perspectives. Why then can’t the mobilities paradigm offer us a new perspective or dimension to everything in the same way that we quite easily talk about spatial and temporal dimensions to all things? Movement is just as real of an irreducible dimension of being as space or time. There is nothing which is not or has not been in motion. To believe otherwise is precisely to reduce motion to space and time.

A regional ontology of motion can therefore be stretched a long way without impinging on the future or becoming “total,” “absolute,” or “reductive.” In other words, a theory can have a large region and still be regional. Certainly such a theory can be pushed beyond the last fifty years or one hundred years! Everything moves. So why restrict a movement-oriented theoretical perspective to a couple domains, or historical periods, or anything else outside the non-existent future itself? If something moves why can’t a movement-oriented perspective be used to understand it?

So while the mobilities paradigm has and continues to make excellent contributions to the philosophy of motion to some degree it also seems to have some arbitrary de facto limitations to its domains, historical scope, and content, that leave plenty of room for the emergence of a more robust non-metaphysical and non-reductionistic philosophy and ontology of motion.





[i]Sheller, M, and J Urry. “The New Mobilities Paradigm.” Environment & Planning a. 38.2 (2006): 207-226.

[ii]For an excellent literature review and collected volume on the latest expansions of mobility studies see Endres, Marcel, Katharina Manderscheid, and Christophe Mincke. The Mobilities Paradigm: Discourses and Ideologies. (London: Routledge, 2016).

[iii]Rather, applying the terminology of Foucault’s archaeological approach to discourse analysis, the rules of discourse formation “determine both, what can appear as ‘movement,’ and the subject positions according to which one can move meaningfully and legitimately and according to which one can claim agency and insight in relation to movement” Birgitta Frello, “Towards a discursive analytics of movement: On the making and unmaking of movement as an object of knowledge.,” Mobilities 3(1): 2008, 25–50; 30.

[iv]Augé, Non-places: introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity, (London: Verso, 1995); M. Castells, The rise of the network society (2nd edition)(Oxford: Blackwell, 2000); Zygmunt Bauman, Globalization: the Human Consequences(New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 87.

[v]Most mobilities philosophies or “methodologies,” begin with motion but just as often supplement this with theories of space from Soja, Lefvfre, or David Harvey, or theories of time from Heidegger and Virilio, or theories of affect from Deleuze and Guattari.

[vi]Sheller, M, and J Urry. “The New Mobilities Paradigm,” 210.

[vii] Graham, Stephen, and Simon Marvin. Telecommunications and the City: Electronic Spaces, Urban Spaces(London: Routledge, 2001).

[viii]Peter Merriman and Peter Adey have also taken issue with this binary opposition between mobility and immobility. See Peter Adey, ‘If mobility is everything it is nothing: towards a relational politics of (im)mobilities’, Mobilities 2006, vol. 1, pp. 75–94 (76, 83, 86). In reply, Adey has suggested that as ‘everything is mobile’ and ‘there is never any absolute immobility’, ‘moorings are indeed mobile too’, but at a more fundamental level Peter Merriman argues that the mobility/moorings binary too simplistic. See Peter

Merriman, Mobility, Space, and Culture(London: Routledge, 2013).This is a concern also held by David Bissell, ‘Narrating mobile methodologies: active and passive empiricisms’, in B. Fincham, M. McGuinness and L. Murray (eds) Mobile methodologies(Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 53–68.

[ix]Peter Adey, ‘If mobility is everything it is nothing,” 76.

[x]It is also wrong because space and time are both produced through the folding of quantum fields which are not themselves reudicible to space and time. This is yet another contemporary discovery of the primacy of motion. See Carlo Rovelli, Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity, trans. Erica (New York : Riverhead Books, 2017).

[xi]For a critique of such simplistic theories of motion see Cresswell, On the Move. On this also see N. Thrift, ‘Inhuman geographies: landscapes of speed, light and power’, in P. Cloke, M. Doel, D. Matless, M. Phillips and N. Thrift, Writing the rural: five cultural geographies(London: Paul Chapman, 1994), 191–248. Although a few feminist theorists such as Rosi Braidotti have embraced nomadic theory/nomadic metaphors, many others have criticized their gendered nature, see J. Wolff, ‘On the road again: metaphors of travel in cultural criticism’, Cultural Studies 1993, vol. 7, 224–239; Caren Kaplan,

Questions of Travel: Postmodern Discourses of Displacement(Duke University Press Books, 2009), 65–100.

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