The journal Konturen has just published a special issue on “Writing Migration,” which looks wonderful. You can read it free online here. I have an article in the issue as well. Thank you to Jeffrey Librett for organizing and editing this!
Konturen, Vol 11 (2020)
This issue edited by Jeffrey S. Librett with Ahmad Nadalizadeh as assistant editor.
“Writing migration”: our title comprises a mixture of heterogeneous terms, like a mixed metaphor, insofar as movement of peoples seems so concrete, as movement of living, breathing subjective spirits, while writing remains abstract; the former so alive, the latter—the letter–so dead. Or so we usually think, even without having to think it. We know that migration experiences can be written down, but we think of the migration and the writing as two fundamentally different types of experiences, two quite different types of thing. Our point of departure in the organization of this special issue was—in contrast to these overly simple conventions—a curiosity about the ways in which the two structurally intersect: writing migrates, and migration writes.
We need a new philosophy of the earth. Geological time used to refer to slow and gradual processes, but today we are watching land sink into the sea and forests transform into deserts. We can even see the creation of new geological strata made of plastic, chicken bones, and other waste that could remain in the fossil record for millennia or longer. Crafting a philosophy of geology that rewrites natural and human history from the broader perspective of movement, Thomas Nail provides a new materialist, kinetic ethics of the earth that speaks to this moment.
Climate change and other ecological disruptions challenge us to reconsider the deep history of minerals, atmosphere, plants, and animals and to take a more process-oriented perspective that sees humanity as part of the larger cosmic and terrestrial drama of mobility and flow. Building on his earlier work on the philosophy of movement, Nail argues that we should shift our biocentric emphasis from conservation to expenditure, flux, and planetary diversity. Theory of the Earth urges us to rethink our ethical relationship to one another, the planet, and the cosmos at large.
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.
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.
Congratulations on such an absolutely impressive array of scholarship, and of your dedication to philosophy and beyond in your career and teaching. In other words, for the time it takes to do the level of research, writing, ratiocinating, and creative flow, not to mention hard work, that you undertake. I’ve now read several of your essays and am currently working through Theory of the Image, which has awesome implications for several areas of learning, as does your work Being and Motion where you claim that we are in need of a new theory of ontology specific to motion, that motion has been neglected as ontological and I would agree. You write that movement is in all matters. But your work on Lucretius stands out as well. You have several other impressive books and articles. The back cover of Lucretius I reads: “The most original and shocking interpretation of Lucretius in the last forty years.”
Thank you for taking the time to read my work and to talk with me about it.
I’ll be working through it all for a while. I often have the insights and systems of Spinoza, Bergson, and Deleuze on my mind, and I have taught philosophy courses with success on the U.S. Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley, a place where, thankfully, pragmatism and many great artists and revolutionaries, as well as Mexican-American philosophers thrive and Mexican existentialism looms large.
It seems to me, you’re correct that the pairing of violence and the border have normalized in society, into everyday interactions, such as the problems of capitalism and unfair power structures. We are all now on the move, as you write, in multiple ways. As a white European American, my fears regarding anyone labeled foreigner should be suspect, but not the definition of terrorism. As a philosopher of race, I understand white terrorism. You’re a vocal champion of civil human rights and freedom of thought, as well, you write, “transformation of contemporary borders requires a shift in strategies of resistance: from bare life and the confrontations with sovereignty, as Agamben argues, to the concept of a radically inclusive solidarity beyond nations, states, and corporations.”
What role do you place your responsibility to public philosophy in this regard, what do you hope it can help accomplish both now and over time? I start here because it is such an important area to offer one’s insights and you have worked on these topics with great depth, such as in your work Theory of the Border or on the movement of the migrant. Where do we stand today?
In my case, all my work on movement began with a year-long project working with the migrant justice group No One is Illegal in Toronto. It was a transformative experience for me both practically and theoretically. It’s a much more radical and anarchist-inspired movement than most of what goes in in the US and pushes beyond liberal philosophies of citizenship and rights.
I am interested in migrant justice both as an important political (and perhaps even revolutionary) struggle beyond human rights as well as a theoretical project in which we find that the historical expulsion of migrants is one instance in a larger theoretical tradition of explaining motion by something else. Thus a find in the phenomenon of migration a new starting point for political theory.
I hope that my writing, teaching, and activism can play a small part in shifting the present way of thinking about migration away from the notion that it is some kind of political exception that Western countries get to decide on. If migration is understood to be instead, a major constitutive social force throughout history, I hope it means that migrant voices and agency will be included in the social processes they themselves help to build and reproduce. Those who contribute socially and are affected socially should have the right to determine how they are affected socially. Currently, we are living in a global apartheid in which millions of migrants who form the backbones of so many social and economic systems are treated as if they are nothing or as if they were “illegal.”
The classes I teach on migration are constant damage control against all the mythsthe students come in with and the nonsense Trump keeps saying every week. In the future, I have plans to take students to do activist work on the US/Mexico border.
Where do we stand today? In a terrible place. Any serious move forward needs to begin with the premise of equality, solidarity, and inclusion of all people regardless of status. Moving forward means everyone gets a voice, not just citizens coming up with solutions for “immigration reform.”
It’s horrific. I also do a lot of damage control on race and gender, class, about borders, theoretically and otherwise, in my university classes. A new starting point and perspective for political theory as the study of movement would be a new wave of philosophy. One that would be supportive and affirmative I hope. I really appreciate how you apply theory with practice. I’m reminded here of Albert Memmi’s notes on “cultural lethargy,” “solidarity of the vanquished,” and “the new world” in Decolonization and the Decolonized.
In your work on Lucretius, you write, “Just as the corpora create space and time through motion, so they also create weight by their motion” (190)? Can you elaborate a little on this? What is time for Lucretius in your reading and why are we, rightfully, returning to reading his theories? You also write, “Time, for Lucretius, is nothing apart from the relative motion, rest, and sensation of things…” (111) This page of your work reminds me of Spinoza’s Ethics. I understand the connection to some of your work on Being and Motion, and I have yet to unpack it, reading slowly, but it has serious overlaps with Spinoza’s dynamic epistemology and ontology of motion. They seem to be friends.
One of the things that is so interesting to me about Lucretius is that he is one of the few in the Western tradition that is willing to say, “matter moves” without needing any higher explanation for its motion. There is no trace of transcendence whatsoever in his work. For Lucretius, the indeterminate movement of matter does not occur in space and time (which would precede motion) but produces space and time itself. Movement is thus not movement from point A to point B (points in space traversed over time)—it is the process that produces the line and points AB in the first place. If this sounds Bergsonian it is because Lucretius’ was Bergson’s first intellectual love. Bergson’s first book was a line by line Greek and Latin commentary on Lucretius’ great poem De Rerum Natura(The Nature of Things). If Lucretius also sounds a bit like Spinoza it is because Spinoza got his materialism from De Rerum Natura. The first sections of book two of Spinoza’s Ethics are basically just a summary of Lucretius.
The difference, however, is that Bergson and Spinoza are vitalists: Bergson has an élan vital and Spinoza has his conatus—neither of which have any equivalent in Lucretius. For Lucretius, matter moves without any exterior cause or immanent life force, energy, or power. In Bergson and Spinoza you have a vitalist materialism that runs through to Deleuze and into contemporary vitalist new materialism. In Lucretius, however, you find a distinct kinetic materialism where nature is just matter in motion—thats it. So yes, they are all friends in a sense but with this important difference.
Neo-vitalists might say to this point: “yes, but force and vitality do not transcend matter as they do in early modern vitalism. They are immanent to matter. Movement is just another word for vital energy.” My reply would be: “if vital energy is strictly identical to movement than why did Spinoza, Bergson, Nietzsche, Deleuze, and others need to add vitalistic terms at all?” What work does “vitality” do for our materialism that was not already in Lucretius’ non-vitalistic materialism? At the very least vitalistic language adds nothing to immanent materialism in my opinion. At the most, however, it takes a metaphysically burdened and political problematic term like “life,” which is such a tiny fraction of the universe and has been used to justify so much violence against non-life and then uses it to give matter back its agency—as if matter needed “life” to have agency. The universe is not just vital and creative; it is also destructive and non-living (in fact it is mostly this). But then if you want a concept of vitality without tying it to life (and all its problems) and without any suggestion of being ontologically distinct from matter, then why even use this term in the first place? Most of the criticisms of new materialism have been aimed at this vitalist version of it. Its too bad. I hope we do not have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Vitalism is unnecessary and even potentially dangerous for new materialism and so I am on the side of Karen Barad and Mel Chen, who have explicitly (although usually in footnotes) rejected any form of vitalism in their versions of new materialism.
Time, like force, for me, is another historical instance of philosophers and scientists trying to explain why matter moves. Force was popular in the early modern period and time was popular in the 19th and 20th centuries. Most ontologies and theories of time treat time as the ultimate a priori of nature (or of human existence). Historically, this was supported by Einstein’s theory of general relativity in the 20th century, even though there were still exceptional “singularities” (in black holes for example) left unexplained by that theory. Matter, in general relaitivity, moves across a pre-existing curved spacetime. If quantum theory is correct, however, there should be a quantum theory of gravity (space and time) in which spacetime emerges from the laws of quantum mechanics. In particular, how energetic vibrations below the level of space and time produce space and time like ripples on the surface of a pond.
This is the present assumption of most contemporary theoretical physics—even if the formalisms of “quantum gravity” have yet to be experimentally verified. The race is on to prove them. Lucretius was already the precursor of this idea two thousand years ago: matter produces space and time through its indeterminate motion. In other words, I think we have finally come back to Lucretius. Philosophers need to keep up with what is happening in the sciences (and scientists should keep up with poetry, like Lucretius). My thought is of course that quantum gravity is possibility an indication that it is time to shift focus from ontologies of time to ontologies of motion. Its time to consider a new perspective. This is not because I think “being is motion” forever and all time, but that historically, this is our present limit of thought. I am not a dogmatist or metaphysician. If we discover something in the universe that is completely static, I am open to being wrong. This is what I mean by “historical ontology.” As things change we rework our ontologies of the present from within the present. Ontology is a performative practice—this is a key thesis in Being and Motion.
Op, I’ll have to beg to differ slightly on there being no “equivalent in Lucretius” to Spinoza, especially if both systems are motion and then motion once more, as Wim Klever wrote, but we can table that one for a later discussion, maybe at a SPEP conference.
I would agree with you that we need to shift to ontologies of motion and take on relevant new perspectives. As you’ll read in the other interviews in this series, the discussion of time remains current as it accompanies a changing world of quantum physics meets energy mechanics and more.
There are a lot of questions to ask you about, from the history of aesthetics you cover in Theory of the Image to more affirmative, productive ways to produces affects, especially the affects related to continued understanding, motion, shared communities. It’s fun to point out that I had Mike Witmore as a professor for Lucretius on the history of matter at CMU and Duquesne University, along with Dan Selcer, a decade ago. Witmore runs the Shakespeare archive in D.C. They co-taught their grads about several of these connections that you are also supporting in your otherwise very original work. I don’t mind dropping those names in this context. They made all their grads carry around that little red book every day. Excellent, creative teachers. We were fortunate…
More specifically, to follow-up with what you say above, what is time for you? Several trusted scholars have said your work on the ontology of motion is on the level and scope of Heidegger’s Being and Time. Additional accolades are in order here, so I pause only to ask how you feel your ontology of motion differs or is unique and how you think personally about time?
Time, for me, is the kinetic dissipation of matter. I will not say entropy, because entropy typically assumes random motion (which I disagree for reasons described in Being and Motion). Matter tends to move from more dense to less dense regions and this provides the arrow of time that we experience as regional beings. However, time is not ontologically chronological because if time is fully material then it does not go “away” outside the universe into some non-existent “past.” There is no evidence that there is any such outside to the universe. So, the past is still with us in the immanent material that we are and in the universe more broadly. The future too, is here in the matter that we (and nature) are. So time is, as Bergson said in his final lectures, Le pensée et le mouvant, nothing but movement: the transformation or redistribution of an open whole. At every moment the entire universe kinetically transforms its entire distribution of space and time. There simply is no static nature to which the present can refer to as “past nature.” The whole thing is continually different to itself—but tending regionally toward energetic dissipation.
In my reading, Lucretius was right about the primacy of movement instead of time. Deleuze, however, gets very close, but ends up favoring the vitalist tradition I just described. This keeps him from having a kinetic theory of time. For example, in Difference and Repetition he explicitly subordinates movement to time: “The [third] synthesis is necessarily static, since time is no longer subordinated to movement; time is the most radical form of change, but the form of change does not change” (DR, 89). In Logic of Sense, the subordination of movement and matter to time is explicit in his theory of “an empty form of time, independent of all matter” (LS, 62). Deleuze explicitly places time above matter and motion and I do not.
What is unique aboutBeing and Motion is that it is the first history of the philosophy of motion and it is the first systematic ontology of motion. I owe a great debt to Lucretius, Marx, Bergson, Virginia Woolf, Paul Valéry, Deleuze, and others, but in the end my philosophy has its own method, concepts, and conclusions. Its too hard to summarize here but in place of reading the first few chapters of Being and Motion I think I might say that it is the first ontology of motion to take the material practice of ontology itself as the subject of historical inquiry.
Yes, cronos. There’s new work being done on time on Deleuze in philosophy and film studies currently. Another great discussion for some time in the future.
With your work as the first history of the philosophy of motion you have made a lasting contribution to the history of philosophy. Yes, Bergson writes that time is movement and must be conceived as both duration and simultaneity as well. Others in this series will agree with you that time is not ontologically chronological, but not necessarily that there’s no ‘outside’ of the universe. I understand, logically, that we cannot posit an ‘outside’ the universe, but we are forced to consider anomalies regardless of their fit with our logics of the times when we are faced with mounting evidence.
So, you don’t interpret the swerve in Lucretius as a random motion? No chance?
I am open to hearing evidence for an outside to the universe, but I have no idea what that would even look like. In part, because the universe is not a whole but an expanding and open process—just as Lucretius described in De Rerum Natura. I believe there is genuine novelty in the universe but we do not need to posit randomness to get that novelty. Lucretius says that matter is always in the habit [solerent] of swerving. There are at least two typical ideas of randomness neither of which Lucretius’ view could support. The first one is a radical randomness, or what Quentin Meillassoux calls “hyperchaos,” which is complete ex nihilo creation from nothing. Lucreitus is explicit that “nil posse creari de nihilo” [nothing can be created from nothing]. The second kind of randomness is the constrained definition randomness where there is a closed domain of objects and matter moves randomly within that. Again, Lucretius is explicit that nature is not a finite closed system—and so there cannot be randomness in this sense either. Something always comes from something relationally but creatively and non-deterministically.
In the Lucretius work you describe the “sensation of temporality…” I realize the sensation of temporality as an experience, especially in this advancing techno-logical and yet irrational world, differs from the motion of sensations as process and/or as concept, and how all of these categories can be read divergently, with differing logics, including the logic of sensation some might say… On this note, do you feel we have new forms of logic and deduction being produced because of the material conditions we are embedded within, such as your kinetic understanding of bio-politics and the migrant-in-motion? Understanding acutely that we are finite, but believing that we are also infinite, would you say our time is limited?
In one sense our lives as we experience them are absolutely finite and follow the dissipation of the universe more generally. In another sense, the matter that flows and dissipates through us will eventually be broken down by black holes at the end of the universe. None of it though will be destroyed. Not infinite in any metaphysical sense, but at least indefinite. Lucretius understood the first two laws of thermodynamics well before their modern formalization by Boltzmann.
Matter can dissipate faster or slower; we can try and speed it up or slow it down in our little region. Lucretius II is all about the ethics of going with this flow instead of trying to slow it down to avoid death and accumulate.
I worked a little on the second law of thermodynamics in my MA thesis. You’re right about Lucretius preceding Boltzmann, and Bergson also preceded some of Einstein. Another exciting element in Bergson, at the start of his The Creative Mind, is where he writes that there are two forms of possibility, of what is possible. One is what is possible based on the elements and ideas, materials, and movements between already in existence, and the other cannot be predicted because, as he says, we do not know what questions and interest(s) future generations will have or desire.
Yes, exactly! Great connection. Relational possibility without probability or ex nihilo emergence. Its all in Lucretius’ swerve.
Being Continentally trained, but interested in all philosophical and interdisciplinary methodologies and most if not all philosophers, as much as it would be fantastic to ask you about more of your earlier work, which has been described as scholarship that will be studied for decades: “Carefully argued, well informed, hugely ambitious, and analytically precise, it will become a standard reference for years to come.” How can new students approach your work on motion since it is related to some forms of time even if not all, or even if that relation is a flow by which various aggregates and encounters then unfold in time?
I would suggest to folks interested in my work to start with the area they are interested in and go from there. If you are interested in ontology read at least Book I of Being and Motion; if art and aesthetics, then start with Theory of the Image; if politics than The Figure of the Migrant and Theory of the Border; if science then Theory of the Object; if natural history, climate change, and the Anthropocene than Theory of the Earth; if Lucretius, Marx, or Woolf, then start with those books. Once all these books are out I would like to write a more general “Introduction to the Philosophy of Motion” at some point.
Two free copies of Theory of the Image showed up at my home in 2018 on Preservation Way last year from an unknown source! At the moment, as I also really crack open BM by audio book while moving, I’m enjoying thinking through the Greek idea that the concrete derives from the abstract, such as your comments on kinetic inversion, model, and mold. The work is also pragmatically incredibly useful for undergraduate courses.
In most of your professional career, you write on migration, borders, evolving definitions of community, and, more recently at the end of 2019, new materialism(s). You support ethics in these ways, putting forth new definitions or emphasizing those that already were there but did not create a more unifying theory about nature in motion. Would you mind elaborating on how the new materialisms essay that appeared recently in Angeliki, as you and your co-authors write that there is “no single definition of new materialism” and how this theory works in conjunction with your understanding of time and motion above?
At the University of Oregon I studied political philosophy, environmental philosophy, feminist philosophy, phenomenology, post-structuralism, and was a political activist. I wrote my dissertation on the theme of political revolution in Deleuze and Guattari and the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico. This research was the foundation of my first book, Returning to Revolution: Deleuze, Guattari, and Zapatismo, published in 2012.
After graduate school I worked on what I felt was politically important at that moment: the struggle of migrants under neoliberal capitalism—partly inspired by Alain Badiou’s activism and the some very rousing articles by Giorgio Agamben, Hannah Arendt, Etienne Balibar and Jacques Ranciére on the political importance of the sans papiers. Starting here but digging deeper into the history of migration confirmed for me that migrants have actually always been central figures. This led me to see broader connections between historical structures or patterns of movement and their relation to the structures of ontology, art, science, and nature during those times. But since not much was written about this history of motion or migration from my favorite French philosophers I had to create my own kind of method and take tools from where I could (Marx, Nietzsche, Foucault, etc). This was a time of creativity for me.
While I was writing these political books the first texts on new materialism were just coming out. Stacy Alaimo and Susan Heckman published the first collection of essays on feminist new materialism in 2010 and over the next five years, around the time I had completed writing the political books (c. 2015) more people were talking about “new materialism” and tracing its linage to Spinoza and Deleuze (two central figures from my graduate education). Donna Haraway and Rosi Braidotti’s feminism always inspired me and they started writing about new materialism, along with Manuel Delanda. It seemed like all the Deleuzians were suddenly talking about materialism but it was still extremely unclear what it was all about and if it was just a new name for what Deleuze had already been doing.
Around this time I also started taking long walks in the park at night every two weeks with my friends and colleagues Josh Hanan and Chris Gamble. Josh had come to new materialism from Foucault, Chris from Derrida, and me from Deleuze. Chris introduced me to Karen Barad’s work. Over a couple years, we read all the literature that was coming out, and talked about it, and concluded it was quite a mess to figure out all the similarities and differences between vitalist new materialism, object oriented ontology, speculative realism, old materialisms, and performative new materialism. Most articles out there conflate these really different approaches. So over the course of two years we tried hard to figure it all out in hopes of moving the conversation forward—specifically in favor of what we identify as performative new materialism. We gave several lectures at the University of Denver and eventually published our essay with Angelaki as “What is New Materialism?”.
During these years I also started to see that my previous research on patterns of motion was actually compatible with the version of new materialism we were moving toward. It was non-anthropocentric (due to the influence of Deleuze) but it was also pretty historical and materialist (due to the influence of Marx and Foucault). So, although I do not use the term “new materialist” in The Figure of the Migrant (2015) and Theory of the Border(2016), I do think they are fully consistent with my kinetic new materialism which I describe explicitly in Being and Motion (2018) and Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion (2018). Everything I have published after 2016 explicitly identifies with the term “new materialist” and is consistent with my critique of vitalism (mentioned above).
The term “new materialism” remains contested with multiple definitions—each with a number difficulties that we discuss in the paper, but I think it is still worth preceding with, at least provisionally. The philosophy of movement and the kinetic theory of time developed in Being and Motion (and discussed a bit above) are a direct result of trying to develop a form of new materialism without vitalism or temporal reductions.
That’s a delightful story. John Kaag and others have been philosophizing a lot the past few years on walking, sauntering, and nature, something I don’t think is self-absorbed at all. I like the work of Balibar, his Spinoza influences, and Ranciere, especially, but also Haraway and Rosi Braidotti’s work. DeLanda has been a personal fav since early years of graduate school. I can understand why and how you would draw these connections and incorporate them into your life. I was around in the first years of Object Oriented Ontology and Graham Harman’s Guerilla Metaphysics. I traveled to the outskirts of England on a Sunday once to hang with Ray Brassier at a pub. We talked for over four hours. I think we can both agree that these movements the past two decades have created new areas of studying philosophy that are beneficial. It feels similarly the case in the philosophy of race, various feminisms and womanisms, and the explosion of areas like the philosophy of film. Together, these areas are contributing in many ways to how we all ‘do’ philosophy and on how we teach.
In the opening of H.G. Wells’ story The Time Machine, the time traveler reveals, in a philosophical discussion, that time is simply “only real for those in 3-D space…” that human consciousness needs time to flow the way we perceive or might think it does, need it to. What role do you assign to human consciousness, the hard problem as they say, as it (we) evolve, join in, if you will, with the future? Perhaps a comment or two about your work Being and Motion could help readers, as a “historical and regional ontology.”
I do not think that time is merely an effect of consciousness. I am a realist. I think time is real. I also think time (following Lucretius and Carlo Rovelli) is a product or effect of matter in motion—specifically the dissipation of motion that defines the universe. Time is just the name for the kinetic transformation of the entire universe as an open process.
I like that definition. Beyond the biological necessity, our experiences of daily space and time that we must pay attention to for survival, which is also based on gravity and walking upright, among other laws, aren’t there new questions about time with the discovery and proof of the Simulation Theory (more than just 0s & 1s), predictions about advanced AI (here to stay & will be more intelligent than humans), and related new ways in which we can go about space and time?
For example, you write that in a world of advancing digitization and images, all images are a part of electric flows. What if electricity or those electric flows, in some energetic way, reach beyond the speed of light? Then what do we do with our more linear logics? Hegel, DeLanda, Blanchot, come to mind here, and others who write on different kinds of logics.
Interesting line of thought here but the hypothesis that the universe is a computer simulation is science fiction and not really a testable hypothesis. Predictions about AI are similarly speculative. Electricity is made of photons and electrons. The photons travel at the speed of light and electrons move a bit more slowly through transistor gates to produce digital images. There is currently no evidence to suggest that anything in the universe can travel faster than the speed of light or that anything ever will. This is a key principle of general relativity, Planck’s constant, and the standard model of quantum mechanics. Any form of logic that assumes a priori the principle of non-contradiction needs to be revised in light of quantum indeterminacy. Category theory, for example, does not assume such a logic and is thus in some ways a better fit for quantum reality that other forms of logic and mathematics.
Well, I might not say “no evidence,” but I understand the paradigm we are in currently and that you are correct. Photons also carry information and there’s some interesting work being done currently on neutrinos. Quantum computing and advanced AI are creating teams of their own. Amir Husain is one AI researcher leading the way.
Thank you for supporting the conclusion, “Any form of logic that assumes a priori the principle of non-contradiction needs to be revised in light of quantum indeterminacy.” There is a reading of Spinoza that I disagree with that I worked on for the doctoral research that would, at least in part, support this conclusion. It causes some logical complications for theories of representation and Spinoza.
As philosophers of motion are always interested in philosophy of physics, some physicists now call dark matter “another type of matter,” and their newest discoveries are demonstrating we know less than we thought about the universe. In this context, what is an ‘idea’ about matter if matter can change in some of its natural properties? For example, 2011 Nobel Prize winning physicists deduced that our universe is ‘skattering,’ the energy of repulsion, going against the force of gravity, etc… and then our kind of material laws of nature pulling things back in through their own forces…apparently both are occurring, we are not only expanding. Logically, aren’t folds in nature, as well as its elasticity, more like involutions at times rather than expansions? We know that 5% are atoms, 23% dark matter, & 72% is dark energy and so forth…
Do we produce, while in motion in every way, an interaction with only 5% of the universe, for example, or are there better ways to think about this? Can we truly think about dark matter if, in a real sense, it is outside of time in its ever more far reaching metaphysics? Isn’t one of the only ways in here to conceive of certain encounters with human ideas as eternal in some sense, the infinite in the finite if you will? You write that our new discoveries in quantum gravity and cosmology are in need of more accurate paradigm, a “new historical ontology for the twenty-first century.” You seem to state clearly “humans are, after all, matter with the capacity for creating new ontological descriptions and inscriptions.” (65-66)
Yes, I think materialist philosophers should take physics and all the sciences seriously. This does not mean we should merely accept (or merely reject) interpretations and concepts that come from working scientists. We should follow the work as closely as we can and contribute our interpretations alongside theirs and participate in the development of knowledge. Knowing nothing about contemporary science and technology should not be a badge of humanist honor.
Dark energy, in my understanding of the literature, is not a new “type” of matter—but is simply the indeterminate fluctuation of quantum fields (which make up all matter) operating and exerting gravitational pull on very large scales in the universe [the so-called cosmological constant]. It is responsible for pulling the universe out in all directions (although obviously there are a lot of other gravitational movements at work as well, as you say). What remains puzzling is that there should be a lot more of it given the rate of cosmic expansion. In any case, dark matter and energy are not outside time but time is an immanent result of material quantum fluctuations (at least according to quantum gravity theory).
You are absolutely right that dark energy (i.e. quantum fluctuations) pose a challenge to ideas of matter as passive or mechanical. Karen Barad has written beautiful on this. Chris Gamble and I have an article coming out in Rhizomes called “Blackhole Materialism” that shows precisely where quantum gravity and “black hole indeterminacy” can support a new theory of indeterminate materialism.
I am not sure what you mean by eternal human ideas; I remain agnostic on metaphysical issues like eternity. I think we should keep our ontologies historical and positional—and not let them turn into grand theories of being forever and all time.
I’m not sure if I knew Barad’s work or not, but definitely appreciate all of these references and good to know. That’s some fun news too. I look forward to that essay with anticipation. When I think of the infinite I sometimes also think of eternity and various formulations of what dark matter or energy might actually be doing, but I don’t think of concepts of eternity as ‘forever,’ although I understand there is a universal conception like it in most religions, for better and worse. Not all theories of eternity are terrible, especially if someday we have more evidence for that which pushes the infinite into itself, makes it infinite infinitely if you will, etc. It’s ok, at least for me, to pay rational attention to the possibility (and probability) that there is both the historical and positional or the more metaphysical, if you will. They are connected, related, or involve each other at least, for me. If something can be proven to timeless then the concept of teleology is not relevant logically, as one example.
What if it is scientifically possible to time travel after-all, as Einstein believed he mathematically proved? You would need some seriously trusted math for this kind of machine, but we’ll have the quantum computing resources and the interest. Are you in? Would you sign up for a round trip? Well, it wouldn’t exactly be round, but you could go and come back if desired. You write that we miss the most important and fundamental element of our era if we do not pay closer attention to motion, and not to space and time. I believe your logic for a theory of motion is revolutionary, but I really want to know if you’ll get in that time machine?
In a real way, we are already in a time machine. We are made of burned out stars from billions of years ago. The past is fully active and immanent within us. The end of the universe will be made of the particles and quantum fields that once made up our bodies. The future too is already here in another arrangement. We are the past and the future.
Yes, yes! As Nietzsche would say. We are all star dust, star dust and energy. I love that there are logical ways to conceive of ourselves as already in a time machine. Bergson also says as much often, in his own ways, but what you add is dynamic, pragmatically relevant, a real tool we can all use to think and do.
Can you speak about revolution today in addition to your work on ontology, art, philosophy and science? I understand it’s a big topic, but I would also say that it’s a pressing one… As great art or philosophy take real time, as another example, and as we need better theories about how singularities organize and create more powerful affects, as you’ve noted, what are your impressions about the directions we will benefit from taking up other than the options of only war or dialogue?
Before we can say anything about revolution “is” we really need to make sure everyone affected is invited to participate in the meaning of this term today. Before we can talk about “benefit” for who we have to listen and help create the whole “we.” That in itself is a huge task—the ongoing immanent preconditions of inclusive revolution. This is particularly difficult today in the context of right wing xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment in many Western countries and in recent climate summits where indigenous voices are being ignored. The form revolutionary movements take depends on who is involved. This is one of the reasons why the struggle for migrant and indigenous political agency is so important. These are groups on the front lines of global primitive accumulation and climate change. Their voices need to be heard and supported. Theory cannot dictate or predict the emergence of new historical forms in art, politics, science, or ontology. Theorists, I think, should be there to help in their own way, alongside everyone else without any special access to what revolution is or will be. My political work is less as an unchanging theory of the being of revolution but a historical description of what it has looked like in certain places and what it is starting to look like today as a mixture of these previous historical formations. We can learn a lot from Zapatismo and the long history of migrant struggles in particular. But we still have to “make the road by walking,” or, as the Zapatistas say, “caminar preguntando” [Walking, we question].
Chris Rawls teaches philosophy full time at Roger Williams University. Chris received her Ph.D. in philosophy in 2015 from Duquesne University writing on Spinoza’s dynamic epistemology. Chris recently co-edited an interdisciplinary anthology Philosophy and Film: Bridging Divides with Routledge Press’s series Research on Aesthetics (an experiment for the ages!) with Diana Nieva and Steven Gouveia. Chris also studies/teaches within the Critical Philosophy of Race and Whiteness Studies since 2006 and helped co-found the Society for Women in Philosophy (SWIP) archive at the Pembroke Center for Feminist Theory, Brown University.
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.
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).
[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.
[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
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.
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 notrelevant, 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.
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“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 andEcology
“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.