A Tale of Two (More) Crises: Migration and Bioterrorism during the Pandemic

The journal Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism has just published a blog post I wrote here.

Image credit: Steve Hillebrand, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Licensed under CC0 for Public Domain Dedication.

The current pandemic is another crisis being turned against immigrants. Five years after the terrorist attacks on Paris in November 2015 migrants are again being treated as terrorists. This time they are being treated as bioterrorists. Bioterrorism refers to the intentional release of toxic biological agents and migrants are being treated as if their bodies were intentional biological weapons when they are not. This is part of the ongoing characterization of migrants as “invading armies” sweeping the media these days.

Migrants are being denied entry to apply for asylum along the southern border of the United states. This violates national and international immigration law, yet it’s happening anyway in the name of a national health emergency. Donald Trump has temporarily suspended immigration law claiming that immigration is bioterrorism even though the Center for Disease Control has publicly said that asylum seekers pose no health risk.

Asylum seekers have been arriving at cities such as Tijuana and Brownsville by the thousands between 2018 and 2021, fleeing political, climate, and drug cartel violence in Central America. The reason for their pooling pattern of motion is that president Trump instituted a border program called “Remain in Mexico,” where migrants have to wait in Mexico while officials process their asylum cases. This process can take years. So far, only a tiny percentage of migrants out of the 47,000 in the program have been granted asylum since 2018.

As I write this, 10,000 migrants are waiting in Tijuana. Most are relieved that Joe Biden was elected President and that the “Remain in Mexico” will end soon. Some migrants can work and pay for housing in Tijuana while they wait. Still, others without resources live in tent cities with limited access to clean drinking water, electricity, toilets, food, and education. Drug cartels are also taking advantage of this pooling of bodies by kidnapping, extorting, raping, and murdering them.

The concentration of bodies in the border zone is polluting the environment and creating a health hazard. When there are heavy rains in Tijuana, they flood the migrant encampments, and the shallow sewage systems overflow everywhere. These camps are literally pools of water and waste that are endangering migrants. There is no drainage of water and no drainage of movement of migrants out of the camps. They have nowhere to go. Some may take their chances in crossing the border. Others may get sucked into the deportation industrial current. However, most stay and wait in squalor, depending upon aid organizations from the US to survive.

Migrants in camps outside Tijuana are not static. They circulate among the town and back and forth to the border regularly to check on their case status and see if border officials call them for an asylum interview. The border’s architecture pools them and circulates them in a small region like a flow of water pools and spirals into an eddy when it hits a barrier.

Read on. Read my sister article on migration and terrorism here.

What are the Migrant Arts?

Thirty years ago, there were fifteen border walls around the world. Now, there are seventy walls and over one billion national and international migrants. International migrants alone may even double in the next forty years due to global warming. It is not surprising that we have also seen the rise of an increasingly powerful global climate-security market designed to profit from and sustain these crises over the past two decades. The construction of walls and fences to block rising sea levels and incoming people has become one of the world’s fastest-growing industries, alongside migrant detention and deportation. Economists project it to reach $742 billion by 2023. This increase in human migration and borders has been a defining feature of the 21st century so far.


However, alongside the spread of global borders and security markets is also an incredible proliferation of “the migrant arts.” As I understand them, the migrant arts include art made by migrants or about migration, or both. Migrants have produced works of art on cell phones, on canvas, in stories, or assemblies of objects carried on their journeys. They have documented their journeys in collaboration with others, and many of these artworks have traveled as “migrant artworks” through curatorial networks, the Internet, and museum circuits. Such museums, thus, have operated as relay systems for circulating migrant art around the world.


However, the process of migration is exceptionally uneven and highly ambiguous. This because societies marginalize migrants and exiles to varying degrees along axes of race, class, and gender. The migrant arts have, thus, given birth to great joy, freedom, beauty, novel expression alongside great sadness, trauma, loss, and untimely death. We should not romanticize or exile the migrant arts. Nor should we merely pity those forced to leave their homes or homelands.1 Their situations are far too complex for either.


No generalizations about “the migrant arts” can capture the extreme and uneven diversity of the situation of migrants’ today or in history. Migrants have gone by many names throughout history. They have been called “nomads,” “barbarians,” “vagabonds,” and “proletarians.” Today, the United Nations simply calls them “migrants.” Whatever their names and motives, migrants have also been great inventors of new artistic and social forms, though they have often suffered terribly.2 The explosion of the migrant arts today foregrounds a unique social and aesthetic experience of ambiguity. Creativity and hope mixed with profound sadness and loss.


The migrant arts are the result of a dialectic between political borders and aesthetic orders. The more social borders there are, the more they tend to leak with new experiences of mobility. It is a common misconception that borders stop movement. Borders are not static barriers, and they cannot stop human movement. Rather, they tend to proliferate it, although in mostly destructive ways. Borders are continually shifting, being skirted around, eroded, burrowed
through and under, and rebuilt. For example, the U.S./Mexico border can funnel people into the middle of the desert, trap them inside the U.S., drive them under it, above it, or through it, and can even kill them. Borders can inspire countless works of art and stories, but can never stop people from moving.


How many times can a false idea like borders stopping movement cause death and destruction before we see what is going on? How many exceptions to the rule of “stopping movement” have to emerge before it’s time to find a new rule? I think the migrant arts can help us see what is going on. The more barriers there are, the more differences and aesthetic hybrids multiply under the constraints. The migrant arts can help show us all the ways that one can move and how these ways can be experienced dierently. They may not always be liberating or joyful, but at least they show us what migration is about in all its complexity and singularity whereas borders, however, do not.

One can think of how a single leak in a pipe begins to multiply the more duct tape one put’s on. At first, the water seems to slow down, but then it begins to drip out several sides of the tape at once. Taping only redirects the flows but does not stop them. Alternatively, think about the dialectic between Internet advertising and ad-blocking software. Each new ad wants to control your movement and direct you to its source, and each new version of ad-removal software intends to let you move as you wish. The more new kinds of ads there are, the more new kinds of ad-evading software there is. The attempt to control your browsing through ads does not reduce dierences but multiplies evasion techniques and ad techniques. Similarly, think about how each new law or increased enforcement strategy increases the number of criminals and ways of avoiding detection. The point is the same: attempts to block mobility only diversify it, although often with terrible consequences.

Read the rest here.

Writing Migration

War refugees on their way to Germany from Hungary.

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)

Writing Migration

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.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Writing Migration: Points of Departure and Arrival in History and ReasonJeffrey S LibrettHTML PDF1-10

Articles

Herder’s Ideas for a Philosophy of Human History (1784-1791), or: the Anthropological De-struction of “Africa”Amadou Oury BaHTML PDF11-28
Migration’s Alienations: Bertolt Brecht’s Mother CourageDorothee Ostmeier, Michael Malek NajjarHTML PDF29-51
“We Can Do It” [Wir schaffen das]—Creative Impulses Through Migration (a Report from September 2017, with an Afterword on the Situation Today)Sabine SchollHTML PDF52-62
A Staged Migration to Europe: Ozdamar’s Perikizi and Transgenerational TraumaJocelyn AskinHTML PDF63-82
The Impossibility of Return: Güney Dal and the Exilic ConditionMert Bahadir ReisoğluHTML PDF83-99
“More Than a Trip”: Memory, Mobility, and Space in Un Franco, 14 Pesetas (2004)Araceli Masterson-AlgarHTML PDF100-127
Brown Eyed Boy: Narrating Internalized Oppression and Misogynoir in Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s Everything I Don’t RememberBenjamin Mier-CruzHTML PDF128-151
Borders, Migrants, and WritingThomas NailHTML PDF152-173

Review Essays

Manlio Graziano, What is a Border? Stanford Briefs, 2018.Joscha KlueppelHTML PDF174-180

Theory of the Earth (Stanford University Press, 2021)

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.

Read the Introduction here.

Pre-Order here and here. Out early 2021.

No Borders

No Borders Post Nationalism at ArtsLink Assembly on Thursday 5 November 2020. Here are two events from the recent ArtsLink Assembly. the first is a conversation with Nandita Sharma about her excellent book Home Rule and the second is a panel and discussion on no borders with Alex Sager. Thanks to everyone who organized and participated in this event.

These lectures were part of larger conference on Radical Hospitality.

ARTSLINK ASSEMBLY 2020: RADICAL HOSPITALITY. October 12 – November 13, 2020

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

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

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

University of Warwick, 3 November 2020

The Material Unconscious: Against Utilitarianism

There is nothing in the mind that has not first been in the senses and nothing in the senses that has not already been in nature. This is the bold argument at the heart of Lucretius’ radical naturalism. The consequences of this simple idea are profound and have several ethical implications.

The argument of this chapter is that one of the main consequences of Lucretius’ naturalism is a materialist theory of the unconscious. This chapter unpacks this interesting theory through a close reading of lines 4.823–1057. The aim of the reading will be to show that when Lucretius flips ‘upside-down reasoning’ right-side up, it results in a completely transformed relationship between mind and nature. This is what I am calling the ‘material unconscious’.

More specifically, I would like to show the reader that this entails a unique theory of knowledge not exclusive to humans and a convincing rejection of utilitarian ethics. The main consequence of the material unconscious for ethics is that it redefines ethics as composed of practical and unconscious habits of motion – not conscious maxims, rational laws, virtues, or pleasure-seeking utilities.

Against Utilitarianism

If there is matter before there is mind (or body), historically speaking, then matter cannot be something useful to the mind. Rather, it means that the mind is already something material, natural, and thus ordered and reproduced in certain ways that shape the structure of utility, pleasure, and pain in ways that precede the mind’s desires (4.832–5).

cetera de genere hoc inter quae cumque pretantur, omnia perversa praepostera sunt ratione

nil ideo quoniam natumst in corpore ut uti possemus, sed quod natumst id procreat usum.

Other things of this sort that people expound
are all backwards, the product of upside-down reasoning,
since nothing arises in the body so that we might make use of it, but that which arises in the body creates its own use.

The mind does not demand that the body act in useful ways, but rather the body already provides the immanent conditions of useful action in the first place. We could say the same of nature. Things do not emerge in nature to be useful to us, but rather nature creates its own uses – of which human uses are only a tiny subset. Nature uses itself through humans.

One of the reasons for our current ecological crisis is precisely the use of upside-down reasoning. Humans have treated their own bodies and nature as means to the ends of their minds – when the situation is precisely the inverse. If only we had taken Lucretius and pre-Western oral traditions seriously on this crucial point much earlier in the Western tradition, perhaps things might have turned out differently.

Seeing did not exist before light. Words did not exist before tongues. The body did not evolve for the sake of using its limbs, but rather the limbs and body are the material unconscious through which we exist in the first place (4.835–42). For example, food and water were not created to be useful for us. We only exist because there is food and water. Because food and water are structured the way they are, we, humans and animals, could come into existence in the first place.

It is completely inverted to place our desire for pleasure as a uniquely human or even ethical priority. Pleasure exists before humans. Humans only exist because there is pleasure in nature. We desire food and drink not despite entropy but precisely because of entropy. The very idea of food and drink is by definition dependent on entropic exhaustion, decay, and death, which precede us. We live not despite death but because there is already death. Only because other beings died can we live and desire food. Lucretius gives numerous examples that follow out the logic of this basic material priority (4.855–65).

One of the most ethically important products of this upside-down reasoning is the fear of death. However, far from being the end, death is actually the prior and immanent condition of being. We feel that death is a lack or an end only relative to a tiny portion of the universe. But our life is the result of death. Our desires exist only because of entropy and decay. What a strange thing to fear ourselves and our own moving mate- riality. Desire, by definition, cannot lack anything because the material conditions of our desire are already defined by an excessive movement of nature actively consuming itself.

When we think that things (our arms, for example) are ‘useful’ or ‘pleasurable’ for us, this is absolutely ridiculous, Lucretius says (4.855– 65). Our arms are already the biological conditions of our body from which ‘we’ are not distinct. To say something is pleasurable or useful is already to pretend that ‘we’ is some inner mental voice separate from the body, such that even our own arms are ‘useful to us’. Who is this ‘us’ that is not the arms? Who is this us that is not already nature?

This is a selection from Chapter 8 of Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion on the material unconscious.

Time Will Tell: An Interview with Thomas Nail

October 2, 2020

Here is an interview I did with Chris Rawls for the American Philosophical Association blog here as part of a series on the philosophy of time. You can download the article here.

Thomas Nail is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver. He is the author of seven books; his most recent is Theory of the Image (Oxford University Press, 2019). 

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 about Being 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 

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.

Thomas Nail 

Thomas Nail is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver. He is the author of seven books; his most recent is Theory of the Image (Oxford University Press, 2019). https://www.du.edu/ahss/philosophy/faculty_staff/nail_thomas.html

“Thomas Nail’s Magnum Opus, Being and Motion,” By Achim Szepanski

Archim Szepanski from Non Copyriot has written a nice summary and review of my book, Being and Motion for German readers here.

“Sein Magnum Opus „Being and Motion“ beginnt Thomas Nail mit dem lapidaren Satz “Wir leben im Zeitalter der Bewegung.“ Als Anhaltspunkte dienen für Nail, dass wir unter sozialen Gesichtspunkten heute riesige migrantische Bewegungen haben, die Migranten selbst einen Umfang von einer Milliarde ausmachen, wobei insbesondere der Klimawandel diese Zahl in den nächsten 30 Jahren verdoppeln wird. Im gleichen Atemzug sind eine Reihe von Techniken entstanden, um neue Grenzziehungen zu etablieren, neue Deportationszentren, biometrische Datenerkennungen und so weiter und so fort.

Die Wissenschaften zeigen, dass wir in einer Welt der kontinuierlichen Bewegung leben, wobei auf der makroskopischen Ebene das Universum nicht nur in jede Richtung immer weiter expandiert, sondern das auch immer schneller. Wir leben in einem sich beschleunigenden Universum. Auf der mesoskopischen Ebene zeigt die Entwicklung der nicht-linearen Dynamik, dass selbst die Partikel der klassischen Physik irreversiblen kinetischen und thermodynamischen flows von Energie unterliegen. Und die Chaostheorie zeigt, dass flux, Turbulenz und Bewegung der Energie gegenüber der relativen Stabilität der Körper primär sind. Auf der mikroskopischen Ebene wiederum sind die elementaren Partikel Produkte nicht-lokaler, vibrierender Quantenfelder. Die Stringtheorie und die loop quantum-Theorie sind heute die Kandidaten, um die gravitationale Raumzeit (allgemeine Relativität) und die Theorie der Quantenfelder zu vereinigen. Einkunft besteht zumindest darüber, dass Raum und Zeit ontologisch nicht fundamental, sondern emergente Features von kontinuierlich fluktuierenden Feldern sind.”

Read on.