Lucretius: Our Contemporary (Video Lecture at University of Warwick)

Judith with the Head of Holofernes - Sandro Botticelli (Italian,  b.1444-1445, d.1510) — Google Arts & Culture

Here is the video recording of a lecture I recently gave at University of Warwick as part of The Center for Post-Kantian European Philosophy.

University of Warwick, 3 November 2020

LUCRETIUS: NATURE UNFOUNDED (A Call for Papers)

K. Revue trans-européenne de philosophie et arts

Université de Lille, Laboratoire Cecille

https://revue-k.univ-lille.fr/

Call for papers

YEAR IV 2021 (1), 6

LUCRETIUS: NATURE UNFOUNDED

Bench’io sappia che obblio

preme chi troppo all’età propria increbbe

K. proposes an issue dedicated to the figure and thought of Titus Lucretius Carus because thinking about nature appears to be an urgent philosophical and political task. To this end, it is undoubtedly compelling to recreate a genealogy capable of showing that it has never existed a perfect and uncorrupted nature which an ecological thought and practice could restore. It may be possible, instead, that nature has never existed except as an event of encounters between materials, bodies, thoughts. In order to safeguard that type of event, it is necessary to work on keeping open the chance of the event itself.

By choosing Lucretius as the core of our next issue, we would like to discuss the possibility that a physics, i.e. an investigation of the “nature of things”, does exist. Dating back to Democritus, Epicurus and then Lucretius, this type of investigation should contrast (both in the past and in the future) the “myth” of nature as a place of individual and collective reconciliation; as a space for the domestication of conflicts and of our human fears; the same fears that relegate us to the hands of power, to any form of power.

By narrating the history of humanity, Lucretius specifies that the disaster that man has reached (the plague description at the end of De rerum natura is a plastic image of this disaster) does not derive from his customs and traditions, from his inventions and from industriousness, but, as argued by Gilles Deleuze, from that side of the myth and from that evil infinity that has slipped into his feelings and his works.

Lucretian physics embodies a philosophy of affirmation because it clashes with the prestige of the negative, it destitutes every power of the negative, denies the spirit of the negative the right of speaking in the name of philosophy. In our opinion, ecology today needs this physics, i.e. this work of deconstructing myths, ecology does not need a generic naturalism. In this perspective, as Lucretius identifies and fights the myths of his time (“in crescendo during his age”, to quote Leopardi), for us it is a matter of identifying the myths of our age and oppose them through a physics, or, if you like, an ecology.

In his beautiful, dramatic, late writings, Louis Althusser warns us on this. Materialism, or rather: this “underground current of the materialism of the encounter”, the French philosopher writes about and of which Lucretius is one of the most significant expressions, has nothing to do with the rationalist tradition. That is, it does not seek any Reason, any Cause, any Sense of events because it knows that everything derives from a rain of atoms that occasionally deviate from their parallels to create and destroy worlds. The acclaimed “clinamen” operates in the infinite void. For us, trying to define a destituent position in the field of political gestures and critical thinking, it will be particularly interesting to discuss a philosophy of emptiness, through Lucretius. The vacuum, is indeed already there, even before the fall of the atoms. It can thus be argued, without any doubt, that Lucretian materialism originates from nothing, and from an infinitesimal and aleatory variation of nothing which is the deviation of the fall. Is there an equally powerful dismissal of the claim of philosophy to tell the truth?

We know that Epicureanism means to found an ethics on the physics. It is therefore legitimate to ask ourselves how it is possible to found a speculative reflection around the practical behaviour of man, especially when searching for the true good right here in the world, around the nothing, in an infinite empty space, under an endless rain of atoms. The hypothesis that we would like to put forward in this issue is the following: if physics, this materialist philosophy of Lucretius, presents itself as an investigation into nothingness, that is, if it destitutes every truth, every idea of the world, every sense of things, the ethics deriving from it is necessarily an ethics of liberation even from the idea of any ethics. In other words, Roman Epicureanism, unlike the Greek one, in the context of the crisis of the first century B.C. is presented as a conceptual backlash endowed with a strong revolutionary charge, with great dissolving faculties.

Can a kind of thought that intends to change the conditions of individual existence also become a “destituent power”? Does the destitution of the world by a philosophy of emptiness succeed in prefiguring a political rupture and innovation, what we define as a “destituent power”?

Our next issue on Lucretius may revolve around one of the following issues:

1) Lucretius is a thinker of the things of nature and of the catastrophe of history. We would like to verify if this way of seeing the world contributes to defining a toolbox for an unprecedented ecological thought.

2) In the infinite universe, things are born all the time and they end. Nature is an infinite sum whose elements do not add up to become a whole, they always remain singular beings. Nature is thus an affirmation of the multiple and of the different as a perpetual source of joy. The power of pluralism that we find in Lucretius’ work seems to be particularly productive in the field of the arts: in the visual arts (from the Renaissance to Enrico Baj), in literature (from Alberti and Montaigne to Leopardi, Calvino, Ponge), in theatre (Jean François Peyret, Maguy Marin, Virgilio Sieni, Calixto Bieito), in cinema (Malick, Godard, Straub).

3) If the universe is multiple and different, the writing of this universe must be equally varied, contemplating the possibility of the explosion of discourse and its codes. There is a common thread that links the formal choices of literary composition and the framework of a new cosmological model in Lucretius. Writing must not mimic reality, when Lucretius complains about the poverty of Latin compared to the original Greek, he is not trying to adapt words to things. Rather, the poet prefers creating an infinite game of combinations and intersections between words, whose purpose is not to repeat the rhythm of reality, but to recreate it. It is above all in the use of a new genre compared to the Epicurean tradition that Lucretius reveals his genius. It is poetry that allows him to re-make the world. Going back to the preplatonic tradition, Lucretius invents an everlasting model in the relationship between knowledge of the world and its story (Giordano Bruno, Leopardi, Calvino, Gadda).

4) Thinking about emptiness. In the wake of the late Althusser, we would like to question the materialist tradition starting from the dismissal of the object of the philosophy that it operates. Philosophy, with Epicurus, with Lucretius, is no longer the enunciation of Reason and the Origin of things, but the theory of their contingency. Starting from ancient materialism, we would like to trace the map of those thoughts, those gestures (political and aesthetic too) that dared to start from nothing, from nothingness, from emptiness. Studying Lucretius could allow to interrogate the modern political ontology in a different way, by tracing a path that could have a crucial epicenter in Nietzsche – a great reader of Lucretius – since the Nietzschean instance of the super-man (that is, those who make their impotence-groundlessness the reason for their actions-decisions, deciding for necessity and therefore breaking its implacability) moves precisely in the direction of Lucretius’ vision of the void conceived as an indeterminable chain of events.

5) The “destitutent power” can be a possible outcome of the philosophy of emptiness. An emancipatory ethic takes shape without problems for the followers of ancient materialism. From this perspective, the question of friendship, decisive in Epicureanism and other Hellenistic philosophical currents, can be studied. Perhaps it is also possible to move a further step. In other words, it will be necessary to verify whether this philosophy of emptiness is also capable of creating a new course for common life, that is, if it allows us to prefigure new institutions, if it is, in short, also a form of “destituent power”.

*** 

Deadline for submission of abstract: 7th December 2020 (max 2,500 characters) 

Please specify if the abstract is for the “essays” or “readings” section. 

Please send abstract to: krevuecontact@gmail.com

Deadline for submission of papers: 11th April 2021.  

Proposals may be submitted in English, Italian and French.

Preface to the Korean Translation of Being and Motion

Why has something as simple as movement posed such enormous difficulties for philosophers and scientists? Why have the greatest minds of civilization dedicated their lives to discovering something genuinely immobile that would explain motion? Aristotle’s “unmoved mover,” Archimedes’ fixed “point,” Descartes’ “unmoveable” certainty, Newton’s divine clockmaker, and even Einstein’s idea of a block universe were part of this great effort. What motivated this important pursuit, and what are the consequences of it for us today? This is one of the critical questions my work tries to answer. This book takes readers on a journey through the first history of the philosophy of motion and offers a unique ontology of motion along the way.

As a five-year-old child, I vividly remember sitting outside on summer evenings in my grandmother’s front yard and watching the moonflowers bloom. Some bloomed in as quickly as two minutes. In that time, a typically hidden process, among other flowers, became visible to me for the first time. This experience was both exhilarating and disorienting. Was the world speeding up or was I slowing down, or both? It was a strange kind of vertigo. What usually appeared to be a static or stable bud or flower magically revealed itself to be a moving process if I just looked long enough. It suddenly became difficult to think of the moonflower in the same way. What if everything was like this but was hidden behind the thin veneer of apparently static objects? What new realities were out there if only I could wait long enough to see them? 

I had a similar experience as a young adult when I first saw a time-lapse film. We have all seen a time-lapse video. A camera takes a photo every minute or an hour and runs the images together in a series. The result has always blown my mind. When I was seventeen, I saw the first-ever feature movie shot almost entirely with time-lapse photography. My eyes were glued to the screen, and my jaw remained dropped the entire time. I was afraid to blink or look away for fear of missing hours or days of action. There were no actors, no dialogue, just movements. The earth rippled and flowed like a river, clouds popped into and out of existence like phantoms, plants failed widely toward the sunshine, shadows walked the earth, city streets pumped red and white blood from car lights at night, and the stars whirled above. 

This was the strangest and most beautiful film I had ever seen. This cult experimental film was Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, directed by Godfrey Reggio in 1982 and set to music by Philip Glass. When asked in an interview why there was no dialogue in the film, Reggio replied mysteriously that our language “no longer describes the world in which we live.” That response baffled me for a long time, but now I think I understand. Perhaps what we need now is a new language.

This book introduces a time-lapse language for the present. It attempts to show the reader the moonflowers of the 21st century that reveal some of the hidden movements, patterns, and processes that define our world. Just as Godfrey Reggio took his viewers on a journey from the beginnings of earth to today’s concrete jungles, this book takes the reader on a journey through the history of motion. From the smallest to the largest scales of reality, the contemporary world is increasingly defined by movement and mobility. We used to refer to “glacial time” as an incomprehensibly long and almost immobile duration. Today because of climate change, we are watching glaciers move and recede like roaring rivers in a few minutes with the aid of time-lapse photography.

There is no doubt about it; the world’s processes are moving at an unstable rate. As such, there is an opportunity to discover some previously hidden processes of nature and a danger of complete confusion. This book aims to provide the reader with a history and philosophy of movement that avoids the dangers and reveals the processes.

My work on the philosophy of movement began in 2009 when I accepted a year-long Fulbright scholarship to work as a scholar-activist with the migrant justice movement No One is Illegal in Toronto. When I was completing my dissertation in political philosophy, I noticed an omission in the scholarship. Political philosophers past and present had almost nothing to say about migration and borders. They were seen as secondary and less important to the more central figure of the citizen and the authority of states and rights. But what about those without states and rights? The German philosopher Hannah Arendt had rightly identified stateless migrants as the fundamental paradox of the world nation-states. So I packed up and moved to Toronto to work with one of the most radical migrant justice movement in the world and see what political theory was missing. 

The years 2009 to 2015 were busy years in which I read everything I could on migration and borders and started writing The Figure of the Migrant (2015) and Theory of the Border (2016). I aimed to take the priority of migrants and borders seriously. I wanted to invert the old political philosophies and start again with migrants and borders as society’s constitutive agents. 

However, while I was writing these books, I encountered a problem. There was no apparent philosophical precedent for what I wanted to do. If I wanted to imagine a political philosophy of migration, I needed a new conceptual framework. I did not want to apply existing state-centric or critical models. This led me on a search for inspiration from the history of philosophy. I thought there would surely be some philosophers who had developed concepts based on the priority of movement that I might use for my purposes. 

I quickly realized that I bit off more than I could chew. It turns out that almost every philosopher has an answer to the question, “what is motion?” I also discovered that no one had written a book covering the subject. I was on my own. So I began teaching myself as many teachers often do by teaching a class on the topic. I called the course “Philosophy of Movement.” The aim was to read as many different philosophers as possible and figure out which ones thought that movement was primary. To my surprise, most of the ones I expected to think so, like the process philosophers, didn’t, and several of the ones I had not expected did. It felt exciting to be genuinely surprised by the history of philosophy in this way. In the end, I took inspiration primarily from the Roman poet Lucretius and the German philosopher Karl Marx for my philosophical framework’s key concepts. 

Instead of studying static objects, I wanted to study indeterminate flows and how they fold up into metastable states like eddies in a river. This was an idea I borrowed from Lucretius’ idea that things are woven like fluid threads of indeterminate swerves. Instead of studying structures, I wanted to study patterns of circulation. I borrowed this idea from Marx’s description of how the circulation of commodities transforms societies. 

The real “ah-ha!” moment came when I was writing these early political books and discovered that the social patterns of motion that I was finding looked shockingly similar to how philosophers had defined motion. It seemed like more than a coincidence that ancient philosophers described being as a moving sphere with a static center and that ancient societies imagined themselves as walled centers of a spherical cosmos. The more I looked, the more I discovered a similar “centrifugal” pattern of motion across the ancient arts and sciences as well. Perhaps, I wondered, these patterns of motion are part of material history and play a constitutive role in all fields of knowledge. That was a big question and one I was desperately curious to answer. 

My next step toward answering it was writing Being and Motion. This was where I first elaborated on the broader historical motivations and foundations of the philosophy of movement. This is where I first situated my philosophy and explicitly posed my kinetic hypothesis. I aimed to show that ontology was not the science of being qua being but a historical and material practice of inscription and description. Knowledge of reality is not representational but performative. Ontological practice has always been historical and shaped by the material technologies people have used to inscribe their thoughts. Like politics, art, and science, Ontology literally shapes and is shaped by the kinetic patterns of its time.   

Being and Motion was an enormous project, but the bulk of the work remained after its completion. I was not even sure if I could do it or if it would produce the results I expected. Since it was a profoundly material and historical hypothesis, I had to do the “grey work of history” to find out. It took me a decade to do it, but I have now completed the two book-series,’ I set out to write. 

The first series comprises six “core” books, each written with a similar organization on five significant areas of philosophy: ontology, politics, aesthetics, science, and nature. Each book provides a theory, history, and contemporary case study of the kinetic method. The purpose of each book is to redefine its subject area from a kinetic or process materialist perspective. The Figure of the Migrant (2015) and Theory of the Border (2016) develop a theory and history of what I call “kinopolitics” based on the study of patterns of social motion. Theory of the Image (2019) develops a “kinesthetics” of moving images in the arts. Theory of the Object (forthcoming) creates a “kinemetrics” of moving objects in the sciences. Theory of the Earth (forthcoming) develops a “geokinetics” of nature in motion, and Being and Motion (2018) develops an original historical ontology of motion.  

The second series comprises several books, each written on a significant historical precursor to the philosophy motion. Each book offers a kinetic interpretation and close reading of one of these figures as philosophers who made motion their fundamental starting point. They include Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion (2018), Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion, 2020, Lucretius III: A History of Motion (under review), Marx in Motion: A New Materialist Marxism, 2020, and Woolf: Moments of Becoming (under review). 

I have now begun working on a third book series that expands and applies the insights of the first two to various new areas. I hope the work will be useful to others within and outside philosophy.  

The Philosophy of Movement
SeriesVolumeKinetics
I. Theory of Motion
I. The Figure of the MigrantKinopolitics
II. Theory of the BorderKinopolitics
III. Being and MotionKinology
IV. Theory of the ImageKinesthetics
V. Theory of the ObjectKinometrics
VI. Theory of the EarthGeokinetics
II. Theorists of Motion
Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion
Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion
Lucretius III: A History of Motion
Marx in Motion: A New Materialist Marxism
Woolf: Moments of Becoming