What is Object Oriented Ontology? What is Actor Network Theory? What is the Philosophy of Movement?

What is an object? One interesting way to avoid the problem of getting the subject and object back together to secure knoweldge is by not introducing the division in the first place. What if everything was only objects? We could then think of the subject as a highly composite type of object. Before proposing my own kinetic theory of the object I would like to consider the strengths and weaknesses of two major theories of the object. In these theories, instead of dividing the world up into subjects and objects, they divide it up into objects and their relations.

Relational Ontology

One version of this approach is called “relational ontology.” In this view, an object is nothing other than the set of all its relations with other objects. In one popular version of this theory called, “Actor Network Theory,” relationships are primary and objects emerge as nodes from pre-existing networks. Objects are what they do, or how they act through their distributed networks. In a relational ontology, there is no such thing as an object that is unrelated to other objects. 

            Furthermore, in this view, there is no pre-given hierarchy among objects. Relations can always shift around and become different. Objects have no static essences because it is the wider network that defines and differentiates them from one another. This is all true with or without humans. Objects are born and die, but network patterns, as such, do not because they precede and exceed all objects. What then is the source of change and novelty in the networks if it is not the objects themselves? How could networks change without objects that move? 

            One answer to this question comes from another kind of relational ontology called, “vitalist new materialism.”[i] In this view, relations are “vital,” “virtual,” “forces” that create “changes” in relations without any material movement in objects.[ii] Its proponants do not call this a “static” view of objects but it is still a view that erases motion or kinetic change in favor of virtual or relational change.[iii] The French philosopher and founder of Actor Network Theory, Bruno Latour, for example, rejects the “static” view of architecture, but instead proposes to replace it with a theory of “successive freeze-frames that could at last document the continuous flow that a building always is.”[iv] However, Graham Harman, who we will discus next, is correct to say that this “freeze-frame model of time simply multiplies the problem of stasis, then tries to solve it by the fiat of claiming that all of these standalone instantaneous moments are linked by something called a ‘trajectory.’”[v]

            But before getting into the differences with my own approach, let’s look at one final non-movement-based theory of the object.

Object Oriented Ontology 

In “Object Oriented Ontology,” everything is objects and relations. Similar to the relational view of objects, this view agrees that objects are connected together in networks of changing relations, with or without humans. However, for object oriented ontologists, objects are not reducible to their relations. Objects are “discrete,” “stable,” “unknowable,”[vi] “things-in-themselves” with “definite boundaries and cut-off points.”[vii] Each object is “vacuum-sealed” off from others and contains within it a secret or “withdrawn essence”[viii] that is “singular” to it alone.[ix] Graham Harman, a founder and proponent of this theory, describes it as a kind of Kantianism without a subject—everything is an unknowable object in-itself.[x]     

            Harman disagrees with the objectivists because he says they “undermine” objects by reducing them to what they are made of (matter and particles). He also rejects the constructivist and relational views because he says they “overmine” objects by reducing them to their network of relations. The typical explanation given by the sciences, he says, “duomines” objects by claiming that they are just components of larger objects, which also have their own components.                                      

            The worry of the object ontologist is that by defining the object purely by its relations with others, the object itself is explained away by something else. The “real essence” of the object in-itself would be lost behind the appearance of its fluctuating relations. Therefore, the only way to protect the essence and reality of objects, in this view, is to “vacuum-seal” an “unexpressed reservoir”[xi] of the object off from all its relations with others.[xii]

            How does this theory account for changes in objects? Harman splits the object into two parts. One part changes along with its relations while the other part has “hidden volcanic energy that could … lead it to turn into something different.”[xiii] This is why Harman criticizes relational ontologies for not being able to account for change. “Unless the thing holds something in reserve behind its current relations, nothing would ever change,” Harman says.[xiv] In this view, the essence of objects is the source of all change and motion, but only every now and then. “Stability is the norm”[xv] because mostly objects are “aloof [and] do not act at all: they simply exist, too non-relational to engage in any activity whatsoever.”[xvi]

            However, as much as Harman claims that the essences of objects do not have “an eternal character,”[xvii] and can even be “transient,”[xviii] and accuses relational theories of being “static,”[xix] he also ultimately admits that the hidden parts of objects “transcend” the world and do not engage in any activity whatsoever.[xx] Since movement, as I understand it, requires activity of some kind, object ontology’s eventual position is still one of immobility and stasis. So even though Harman says that change can come from something that has “no action whatsoever,” such a metaphysical belief amounts to a violation of every known law of physics.         


What then is the philosophy of movement and how does it offer us a new way forward that overcomes the limits of the previous theories? The philosophy of movement is a kind of process philosophy. This means that instead of treating objects as static forms, it treats them as metastable processes. Some of movements are small and iterative and allow the object to remain relatively stable like a river eddy. Other movements are more dramatic and can either destroy or transform objects like a turbulent rain storm.   

            By contrast, the theories above define the object according to some kind of stasis. As such, they are unable to theorize the movement, novel transformation, and emergence of objects completely. Let’s look quickly at the limits of each of just two of these theories and then see how the philosophy of movement compares. 

            The problem with objectivism is that it treats objects as if they were unchanged by the conditions of their discovery and observation. This view ignores the history, relations, and agency of objects and treats them as entirely passive. But if they are merely passive how could they possibly emerge alongside others or affect observers?

            On the other hand, the problem with constructivism is that if the object is nothing other than what humans think or say about it, it is also robbed of all its agency and activity to affect others. If objects are incapable of their own movement and novelty then how do they emerge and change? Constructivism is also forced to posit a radical difference between human subjects and natural objects that leaves it trapped in its own world. 

            At least relational theories of objects reject this division and acknowledge that objects act through their relations. The problem, however, is these relations by preceding and exceeding objects fully determine them. Where then is the agency and motion of the object? How can the object introduce novel and generative motions into such relations? For Latour, the relations that constitute objects are, by definition, completely determinate and mappable. Changes in relations do not originate from the movement of objects or their materiality but occur like a series of sudden “freeze-frames” in the networks. 

            Finally, although object oriented ontology tries not to reduce objects to unchanging essences, social constructions, or relations, it saves the object only by completely sacrificing it. In the end, we are told the essence of the object completely transcends the world and is cut off from any relation to it. The core contradiction of this theory is that the essence of objects is the source of all change and motion and yet does not act or move in any way. It is ultimately a philosophy of immobility and static change.[xxi]        

            These theories of the object could not be more different, and yet they all try and explain the movement of the object by something that does not move (an essence, a mental/social representation, a flat relationality, or a completely inactive essence). The problem here is that these theories start with some kind of division either between subject and object or between object and relation.

            What is different about the philosophy of movement? The key difference is that instead of trying to explain movement by something else, it starts from the historical statement that “there is nothing in the universe that is not in motion.” This is a falsifiable claim. If it is experimentally proven wrong, I am prepared to concede my position and explore the philosophical consequences of the alternative. 

            From this perspective, I agree with Harman that objects are singular and irreducible to their determinate parts or relations. However, for me, this is because the movements of matter that comprise objects are not fundamentally determinate. Matter, or what physicists would more precisely call “energy,” at its smallest level is “indeterminate fluctuations.” These fluctuations are not particles, substances, or objects, and cannot be directly observed or known. Saying objects are “reducible” to indeterminate energy makes no sense. There is no determinate “something” that is at the heart of the reduction.  

            Movement, in this sense, is “indeterminate movement” and relations are “indeterminate relations.” The indeterminate movement of matter, in my view, has no higher or exterior causal explanation, or at least there is no experimentally verified one, or hint of one yet. That is not to say that there aren’t theories that try to interpret it away.[xxii] However, at the moment, I am putting my philosophical wager behind the real possibility that ongoing indeterminate movement is a fundamental feature of nature. When Lucretius put the indeterminate swerve of matter at the heart of his philosophy in the first century BCE commentators balked for centuries, but now its established science. 

            How might an object oriented ontologist respond to this alternative? Graham Harman has already responded to the idea of quantum indeterminacy in a recent article on the work of the physicist, Karen Barad. There he writes that “undermining treats individual objects as too shallow to be the truth and seeks to replace them either with a micro-army of tinier things or a primordial lump of indeterminate flux.”[xxiii] In response to this I would say two things. First of all, for Barad, and myself, objects are just as “true” as quantum fields and the idea of “replacement” makes no sense since objects are made of fields. Obviously field theory does not explain poverty, and no one thinks it does, so this too is an irrelevant point. Second, there could literally not be anything less like a “primordial lump” in the entire universe than indeterminate flux. One of the most important events in the history of science was the discovery that matter/energy is not a substance and has no fixed a priori properties. Lumps are undifferentiated, but indeterminate fluctuations are the processes of differentiation that create and sustain all differences. Harman, in my opinion, has misunderstood the meaning of quantum indeterminacy and fluctuation in a way that invalidates his objection to Barad and myself.   

            It may sound like a small shift in starting points to go from stasis to movement, but it makes a huge difference. The theories above have a method that follows uniquely from its starting point and so does a movement-oriented theory of objects. Therefore, if we want a theory of the object that can make sense of its movement, emergence, and novelty, these first options will not work. Instead of assuming from the outset that the world is either made of, or can be explained by, something immobile and unchanging and then trying to account for motion and process—the kinetic theory of the object inverts this logic. It begins from the historical discovery of quantum flux and then try and explain the emergence of scientific knowledge given this new starting principle. 

            The philosophy of movement offers a new kind of process philosophy distinct from older models of process based on vital forces, as in the philosophy of Henri Bergson, or on static strobe-like “occasions,” as described by Alfred North Whitehead.[xxiv] My term for this third kind of process philosophy is “process materialism” or “kinetic materialism.”[xxv]

            If an object is not an essence, idea, or relation, then what it is, according to a process philosophy of movement? In the kinetic theory of the object we need look no further than the kinetic origins of the word “object,” from the Latin ob– (“against”) + iaciō (“I throw”). The object is a fundamentally kinetic process. It is something thrown into motion and turned against or looped around itself. It is a fold. Instead of a discrete, vacuum-sealed atom, objects are much more like continuous processes that folds back over themselves, making larger and more complicated knots. The object, as its Latin origins suggest, is not a discrete or static block in space and time a kinetic process.

[i] I have in mind here especially Jane Bennet, Vibrant Matter (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), and Thomas Lemke’s critique of her metaphysics of relations in, “An Alternative Model of Politics? Prospects and Problems of Jane Bennett’s Vital Materialism,”Theory, Culture & Society, May 17, 2018, 1–24. “To put it in an old-fashioned vocabulary: Bennett endorses an ‘idealist’ account of materialism.” “To put it bluntly: there is a lack of materiality in this vital materialism.” But also Manuel De Landa, Assemblage Theory(Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016) and Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). Here is not the place to engage an entire literature review and critique of various relational positions, since I have already treated them elsewhere in Being and Motion, Chapter 3 and at length in Christopher N. Gamble, Joshua S. Hanan & Thomas Nail (2019) “What is New Materialism?,” Angelaki, 24:6, 111-134.

[ii] Here I also have in mind the work of other process philosophers like Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, and Alfred North Whitehead whose work is of great interest and inspiration to me and

whose theories are perhaps closest to my own. However, my own “kinetic process philosophy” diverges from each of them on a number of important central points whose full explanation requires its own careful chapter-length treatment and review that would be redundant to reproduce here since it is already published as chapter three of Thomas Nail, Being and Motion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018). 

[iii] For a critique of the idea of change without motion see chapter three of Thomas Nail, Being and Motion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018). 

[iv] (La-tour, Yaneva, 2008: 81).ardeth#01_interni.indb   11628/08/17   14:12

[v] Buildings are not Processes: A Disagreement with Latour and Yaneva, 117

[vi] Graham Harman, Immaterialism (Polity Press, 2106), 13.

[vii] Graham Harman, Immaterialism (Polity Press, 2106), 15.

[viii] “Object-Oriented Ontology” (OOO)—a term coined by Graham Harman, and defines a theoretical commitment to thinking the real beyond the human experience. As such the reality of matter is never something anthropocentric, experienced or relational, but always something which “withdraws.” This leads Harman, like Badiou to affirm what they call “a new sort of ‘formalism.’” Timothy Morton similarly argues against “some kind of substrate, or some kind of unformed matter” in favor of infinitely withdrawn essential forms. Cited in Thomas Lemke, “Materialism Without Matter: the Recurrence of Subjectivism in Object-Oriented Ontology.” Distinktion. 18.2 (2017): 133-152. See also Carol A. Taylor, “Close Encounters of a Critical Kind: A Diffractive Musing In Between New Material Feminism and Object-Oriented Ontology,” Cultural Studies, (2016) 16(2), 201-212. 

[ix] Graham Harman, Immaterialism (Polity Press, 2106), 16.

[x] Graham Harman, Immaterialism (Polity Press, 2106), 27-29.

[xi] http://www.rhizomes.net/issue30/harman.html

[xii] Graham Harmon, “On Vicarious Causation,” in Collapse II, 211.

[xiii] http://www.rhizomes.net/issue30/harman.html Inside are “explosive undercurrents belonging only to individual things, withdrawn from full expression in the world.”

[xiv] (Harman 2009: 187)  cited in lemke

[xv] Immaterialism pg. 16  

[xvi] https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwjlwN7SpJ7rAhVaAp0JHb0RBbMQFjAHegQICRAB&url=https%3A%2F%2Ftidsskrift.dk%2Fnja%2Farticle%2Fdownload%2F23057%2F20145%2F&usg=AOvVaw1eUKaPW3tsBnMcFIvvEqVP

[xvii] (Immaterialism 47)

[xviii] “everything has an autonomous essence, however transient it may be,”immaterialism, 16

[xix] http://www.rhizomes.net/issue30/harman.html

[xx] Harman says “I would like to volunteer OOO to serve as a model of what they [Bruno Latour Albena Yaneva] and call static architecture.” Harman, “Buildings are not Processes: A Disagreement with Latour and Yaneva” 

[xxi] Latour and Harman are “secular occasionalists” who believe that change occurs discontinuously without material movement. For Latour it is the networks that change discontinuously and for Harman it is the objects that change discontinuously.  “In this way, Bruno Latour is the first secular occasionalist: the founder of what I have called vicarious causation.” prince of networks, pg 115 

            I am not the only one to describe Harman’s theory of change as static. See Shaviro, in speculative turn. “Harman accounts for change by appealing to the emergence of qualities that were previously submerged in the depths of objects; but he does not explain how those objects came to be, or how their hidden properties got there in the first place.” p.285 the speculative turn Shaviro’s piece. “Harman’s entities, in contrast, do not spontaneously act or decide; they simply are. For Harman, the qualities of an entity somehow already pre-exist; for Whitehead, these qualities are generated on the fly. Harman, as we have seen, discounts relations as inessential; his ontology is too static to make sense of them.” (287) spec. turn shaviro.

            For a critique of OOO’s theory of change see also: Object-Oriented Ontology and Its Critics 

C.J. Davies The Problem of Causality in Object-Oriented Ontology 


            See also Lemke, article materialism without matter. 

            I also thank Christopher N. Gamble for talking through OOO’s static ontology with me. 

[xxii] See Sean Carroll’s latest book.

[xxiii] http://www.rhizomes.net/issue30/harman.html

[xxiv] For a more detailed account of the differen

[xxv] See Being and motion




The experience of the work of art contains two double-genitive dimensions rarely attended to in the philosophy of art.

The first double genitive concerns the experience of the work of art. Experience in is this sense is both something the work of art has—as its own material capacity for sensory receptivity—and something the work of art makes possible in the form of an experience for something or someone else.

In the first sense, works of art, as material processes, have an experience defined by their sensitivity to light, sound, temperature, and so on. Insofar as they are defined by a field of images, those images are, like the ship of Theseus, constantly breaking down and being disjoined while also being supported by new flows of matter. At the level of the activity of matter itself, we can and should therefore speak of a kind of agency, activity, or subjectivity of matter and the work of art itself. It is affected by matters.

In the second sense, the work of art is something experienced by another aesthetic field. Insofar as another field of images (no matter what that field is, whether rock, plant, animal, or human) is composed of ordered affects receptive to and capable of being changed by a work of art, then it also has an experience of the work. Taking together both senses of this first double genitive, it becomes clear that it is the kinetic process and flow of matter that is, in fact, primary in the work of art; it is simply circulated differently into different but entangled subjective and objective structures. On the one hand, the work of art and the sensorium that experience the work of art both have their own sensitive (subjective) experiences. On the other hand, insofar as both rely on the other as their material condition of experience, both act as the object for the other. The double genitive shows us that subject and object are simply two sides of the same material kinetic process of distributed images.

This leads to exposure of a second double genitive in the work of art itself. A work is the product of artistic creation. The work is the delimited region of affective composition—although to some degree it also recedes and exceeds these limits through degeneration and expansion. The work of art is a receptive object of creation insofar as it is capable of being contracted through destruction and expanded through further creation. The work of art is created.

In another sense, however, the work of art refers to the active agency of the work itself to affect others outside its limited field. A work of art is not a merely passive object; it affects the light, sound, texture, and smell of the world around it. The spectator is then affected and changed by this work. This is not a metaphor. The world around and the body of the spectator are literally and materially changed, no matter how slight, by the introduction of this new distribution of images into the world by the work of art. New flows of matter (light waves, sound waves, scent waves, and so on) are introduced. The work of art creates.

In these two double genitives—“experience of” and “work of”—we can see two dimensions of the same material kinetic process. The subject and object are two dimensions of the same distribution of images. It is strange to say, but insofar as the work of art becomes both subjective and objective, so too does the experience of the work of art. The division between subject and object and the theory of representation is exposed for what it is: an arbitrary historical creation desperately in need of a new theoretical framework that takes seriously the primacy and activity of the image itself.

The kinesthetic theory of art proposed here is substantially more expansive than most, but it is not absolute or ontological. It is both historically situated in the present (since it is focused on the primacy of motion in the image) and excludes a number of things from being art. For example, relatively insensible flows of matter are not art. Fragmented affects are not art. Works of art require an aesthetic field.

The kinesthetic theory of the experience of the work of art proposed here is based on the idea that the image is nothing other than matter in motion. When one field becomes materially entangled with another, both undergo a change that must be taken seriously in any philosophy of art.

From Theory of the Image (Oxford University Press, 2019), pages 86-87.


What is the Philosophy of Movement? V: Art and Objects


This is a short excerpt on the philosophy of movement from a recent interview I did with Nico Buitendag for Undisciplined Podcast.

Nico: I can imagine and I take my hat off to you. So I also want to move on to some of your other work but still within this broader theme. I believe it’s your newest book, called Theory of the Image, where you do a philosophy of art or aesthetics that naturally focuses on the mobile aspect of images, which is something I’ve never thought of before. So kind of like my first, earlier question about what does mobility or movement reveal, but more specifically this time, in the case of the image, what avenue or what point of view is opened up to us when we look at the image as a moving image?

Thomas: Yeah so the Theory of the Image book, that research also came out of migration and border stuff. I was already kind of collecting little bits from history toward that book because I started to see some of the same problems, which is that there are two main ways of thinking about aesthetics and what an image is.

One of those is, you could say, is the classical model where if you think of Plato and the Forms, art represents the Forms. So it’s a copy of an original, and that’s what an image is, is it’s supposed to be a duplicate, but the duplicate is always inferior to the original model for Plato and that’s why philosophical knowledge is about the Forms and art and aesthetics are about being in a cave just looking at shadows. When you think about the Great Chain of Being, Being, stasis, and Form are at the top of that, and matter and motion are at the bottom. And that’s certainly what’s going on in Plato.

Then, on the other hand, you have the other major tradition, the Kantian one, which is where the image and sensation are understood hermeneutically, or by what does it mean for humans—“what does art mean? What is the meaning of art? What is the experience of a work of art?”—and that’s more Kant and Dewey. And then you have more social dimensions of that, which are the Frankfurt School and so on, kind of a more social hermeneutics that has to do with what the meaning of a work of art is for society or what it tells us about society. On that one, my problem is that we’re still—in both of these cases, in the Platonic, classical and in the more modern one—we’re not really talking about the image, we’re not really talking about art. What we’re talking about is the Forms which are more important—that’s the real thing that we care about—and then in the case of the human version, we’re interested in what humans think. We’re really studying ourselves more than we’re actually caring about the image itself.

So my orientation in Theory of the Image was to do basically what I did for Theory of the Border and Figure of the Migrant which was to sort of flip it upside-down and start with the mobility and movement of the image, track it from a kinetic systems approach, and think about the patterns of motion that the image does. So instead of thinking about what art means, or what it represents, just looking at what it does materially, practically, historically, and then looking at these different regimes and the way in which art and images are shaped and circulated; not how they’re represented or what their meanings are.

So it’s a very different approach to thinking about aesthetics that’s materialist and that is non-anthropocentric. It doesn’t focus on human interpretation of art and that’s mostly what art theory is about. So this is a very weird book to think about if we’re not interested in what humans think art means or what it makes them feel. Not that those are not relevant, it’s just that they’re not the primary focus, those are just a part of it. So human experience is part of a larger circulation, but that larger circulation is what we’re looking at, and humans are just one aspect of that larger process.

Nico: I’m wondering if you talk about getting rid of the anthropocentrism and the movement and real effect that art or images have, and also in the same way we’re talking about the border as almost a concrete thing—do you see any relation between kinopolitics and, for example, object-oriented ontology (OOO), or do you think there are important differences or distinctions that you would want to keep between the two? Do you think there is some overlap or link between these two?

Thomas: That’s a good question. I’m just going to give what my definition of what I think OOO is and then say what I think the differences are. OOO is looking at objects, and what an object is something (and here I’m just reading Graham Harman’s definition) that is discrete, vacuum-sealed, and separate from one another. Tristin Garcia Form and Object has a very similar definition where the objects are completely extensive and by definition, they are not what the other object is.

There are objects that contain and objects that are contained, and that’s what defines an object. So they’re discrete, they’re vacuum-sealed, and at the center of them has an essence which Harman says does not change, it does not move, it is not material, and it withdraws any attempt to empirically identify it. So whether that’s right or wrong that’s at least my understanding of what that tradition is doing.

The philosophy of movement is really about process, it’s not about objects as primary. In many ways, the philosophy of movement is the opposite of OOO where it doesn’t start with discreet, separate objects. It starts with processes and it starts with objects as metastable states, like a whirlpool or eddy. They’re there, but they don’t have any discreetness, they don’t have any isolation. Graham Harman emphasizes very strongly that the essence of the object is non-relational, it doesn’t relate to anything else. And for me that’s very much the opposite. Objects are metastable states and it’s not that there are relations before there are objects, it’s that relations and objects are completely immanent to one another, they’re not separate, they’re just two different ways of talking about the same thing. And of course, the static, unchanging, withdrawn essence to me is just metaphysics.

The philosophy of movement is a materialist philosophy that’s interested in thinking about things that move. And that’s the thing about matter—it’s a shape-changer. It’s always moving and changing shapes so there’s nothing that withdraws, nothing that doesn’t change—everything is in motion and movement. On that point this is not a metaphysical claim this is where we’re at, this is what we know in physics at this point in history, is that there is nothing in the universe that doesn’t move. So stasis is not a real thing. It’s always relative down to quantum field fluctuations: they are moving, and they’re active; nothing is a static, withdrawn essence. So Harman’s OOO is not consistent with what we know in physics. Maybe physics could be wrong and I’m open to that, but for the moment I’m not going to speculate metaphysically about things that we have no idea about.


Marx in Motion: A New Materialist Marxism (OUP, 2020)

MarxInMotion_r2 (OUP version)

Available for Preorders now at OUP here (ASFLYQ6 to save 30%: $21) and Amazon here.

“It is rare to find a genuinely novel reading of Marx and yet that is exactly what Thomas Nail provides in this remarkable book. In an ambitious, pathbreaking, and admirably lucid analysis, Nail offers us a ‘new materialist’ Marx that both resonates with ecological, feminist, and postcolonial Marxisms and suggests answers to some of the central political problems of our age.” — Simon Choat, author of Marx Through Post-Structuralism: Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze

“Thomas Nail’s Marx in Motion is the most penetrating account of the origins of Marx’s overall philosophical outlook to appear this century. Relying on his extensive background in Epicurean philosophy, Nail explores the emergence of Marx’s materialist dialectics and his ecological-metabolic views as these first appeared in nascent form in Marx’s 1841 doctoral thesis on Epicurus. The result is a revolutionary understanding of Marx’s historical ontology of motion, a whole new starting point for the philosophy of praxis.” — John Bellamy Foster, author of The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology

“Why does Marx return in such a lively way after being banned from philosophical and political debate? Nail, who is an excellent reader of Lucretius, reminds us that Marxian thought finds its basis in the powerful ancient materialism. It is of that light that it shines. Beyond the positivist folklore of the Soviet Diamat, beyond the anthropocentric universalism of Marxist humanism after World War II, beyond the surrealist drift of post-structuralism, this book invites us to let ourselves be taken by the ancient materialist rhythm of Marxian concepts, and thus to accompany that philosophical return to political action.” — Antonio Negri, co-author of Empire


“Karl Marx is the most historically foundational and systematic critic of capitalism to date, and the years since the 2008 financial crisis have witnessed a rebirth of his popular appeal. In a world of rising income inequality, right-wing nationalisms, and global climate change, people are again looking to the father of modern socialism for answers. 

As this book argues, every era since Marx’s death has reinvented him to fit its needs. There is not one Marx forever and for all time. There are a thousand Marxes. As Thomas Nail contends, one of the most significant contributions of Marx’s work is that it treats theory itself as a historical practice. Reading Marx is not just an interpretative activity but a creative one. As our historical conditions change, so do the kinds of questions we pose and the kinds of answers we find in Marx’s writing. 

This book is a return to the writings of Karl Marx, including his under-appreciated dissertation, through the lens of the pressing philosophical and political problems of our time: ecological crisis, gender inequality, colonialism, and global mobility. However, the aim of this book is not to make Marxism relevant by “applying” it to contemporary issues. Instead, Marx in Motion, the first new materialist interpretation of Marx’s work, treats Capital as if it were already a response to the present. 

Thomas Nail argues that Marx was a new materialist avant la lettre. He argues that Marx did not believe history was determined, or that matter was passive, or that humans were separate or superior to nature. Marx did not even have a labor theory of value. Marxists argue that new materialists lack a sufficient political and economic theory, and new materialists argue that Marx’s materialism is human-centric and mechanistic. This book aims to solve both problems by proposing a new materialist Marxism.”



A rebirth of Marxism is occurring today. For many people Marx never faded away, but for the rest of the world Marx made his most recent return to the public eye during the financial collapse of 2008. After the financial meltdown, international book sales of Capital exploded for the first time in decades. Marx’s face and ideas appeared all over the world, in newspapers, on television, and on the internet. Universities and occupa- tion teach-ins hosted public events in which Marxists were asked, for the first time in a long time, to speak out widely on capitalist crisis and “the idea of communism.”1 Everyone, it seems, was reading Capital again.

The reason for the return to Marx is obvious: taxpayer bailouts of banks “too big to fail,” government austerity, student-loan debt, millions displaced from their homes by the collapse of subprime mortgages, his- torically large income inequalities between the 99 percent and the 1 per- cent, record-breaking migration, and human-induced climate change all appeared to be inextricably connected to global capitalism. As the most his- torically foundational and systematic critic of capitalism to date, Karl Marx remains our contemporary. “Marxism,” as Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote, “re- mains the philosophy of our time because we have not gone beyond the circumstances which engendered it.”2

Every era after Marx has reinvented his ideas to fit its needs. The pre- sent era, inaugurated by the 2008 financial crisis, is no exception. There is not one Marx forever and for all time, just as there is not one theory of capitalism, materialism, or communism for all time.3 There are a thousand Marxes. In fact, one of the greatest insights and contributions of Marx’s work is that it treats theory itself as a historical practice. Marxism is not just an interpretive activity but a creative one. As our historical conditions, including new knowledge in physics, economics, ecology, culture, and so on, change, so do the kinds of questions we pose and the kinds of answers we find. Marx in Motion is a contribution to a twenty-first-century return to Marx.

Read the rest of the Introduction here.