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.

New Materialist Aesthetics and Theory of the Image

Katve-Kaisa Kontturi, Milla Tiainen & Adrian Mróz have edited a special issue of The Journal of Polish Aesthetics titled, “New Materialism. The mattering of the arts, crafts, and aesthetics.” There are several interesting articles and book reviews of the first two monographs written on new materialist aesthetics: Ways of Following: Art, Materiality, Collaboration, by Katve-Kaisa Kontturi and my book Theory of the Image. I am thankful to Katherine Robert for her thoughtful review of Theory of the Image.

“Nail’s theorization and demonstration of kinesthetics is a stunning contribution for the growing interdisciplinary interest and application of new materialist theories … His knowledge of Western art history and contemporary art are extensive enough to supply his kinesthetic theory with visual examples that greatly aid in understanding, ranging from visual conceptual models to art, historical, and scientific images.”

Download the full review here or here.

Time Will Tell: A Series on the Philosophy of Time | Blog of the APA

The Blog of the APA is happy to announce “Time Will Tell,” a series of interviews about the philosophy of time. The interviews were conducted by Dr. Chris Rawls of Roger Williams University. To introduce the series, Rawls talked with the Blog about how her interest in temporality developed and where she would like studies of time to go in the future.

What is the purpose of this series, “Time Will Tell”? Describe how the series will work.

“Time Will Tell” is a series of professional interviews with scholars, both within and outside of philosophy and all with a social justice conscience, all academics who work on some aspect of time and/or temporality and human consciousness. Having worked on the concept for my Master’s thesis in 2004, I’m very interested in everything related to time. We all think about time. The four scholars who graciously agreed to the interviews are doing important and often utterly fascinating work on these topics.

How did you develop an interest in the concept of time?

As a young child, I had mini seizures occasionally. I had (and still have) a language difference/disability where I heard words backwards, but by syllable! It’s not that way today, of course, but the things my brain did to create what it needed in order to understand external language are unique. It is a form of Auditory Processing Disorder, but I’ve been calling it auditory dyslexia most of my life. The science on it only began in real depth about two decades ago. There is much disagreement still. I’ve recently learned of cutting edge neural mapping research that proves folks with APD have unique neuron development that is not like your average human brain development. This is both good and bad. It does not make me special. We all have individual, fluid brains (plasticity) because we all have individual, personal, emotional experiences. I’ve suffered and struggled because of the learning differences with language all my life, especially with communication. I’m being tested by specialists currently for the first time in my life. I also don’t think in images very easily most of my waking hours, but I dream vividly and often can recall my nightly dreams. This is known as partialAphantasia. Good health insurance and having the funds to get tested is needed for all this, which should give us pause. Both of these differences combined altered as I learned to read, write, speak, but they have always caused difficulties in reading, writing and communicating into adulthood, enough to cause a lot of unnecessary pain and struggle for myself and others. I wish I could have been tested decades ago.

It’s a small miracle I finished the doctorate in philosophy at all, and I didn’t do it alone. It was a really rough road and I would never have made it if my professors didn’t believe in me or find ways to hold me up, even if some worried about me circa 2009 when I lost a potential Fulbright scholarship and a scholar in residence position in Holland. This is important and related to consciousness for me personally not only because time will tell, but also because I survived horrific crime in Holland, an experience that caused not only time to stop for me but that caused others to question the validity of my actual conscious and bodily experiences. Duquesne University philosophy professors helped me stay in the PhD program. Sometimes I think only my former dissertation director, who I had worked with from 2004 to 2015 on and off, could understand my language. He used to translate for others what I was trying to say. I mention all this because the seizures in childhood, as well as what I went through in Holland, are what forced me to think about time and consciousness.

If we learn language and words by sound and image, and we then attach those sounds to meaning and memory, and if I had a brain difference related to both sound andimages, not to mention anxiety which can also effect memory, then it makes some real sense that I had to find novel ways to understand, interpret, memorize, read, write, and describe what I was learning. I often used my own symbolism, much based on sound and feeling or emotionally oriented experiences. It took five years to write, organize, and defend the dissertation on Spinoza. I had three editors for spelling, grammar, and organization in addition to the thesis committee. To this day I still struggle with spelling and grammar. APD Specialist Dr. Teri James Bellis writes: “But the distinction between ‘language-like’ and ‘auditory-like’ is extremely fuzzy and involves subtle judgements, not scientific distinctions.” Bellis is referencing the challenging testing and diagnosis process. The meanings I attach to vocabulary are, primarily, my own and not what culture has shaped necessarily.

The main point is that when the childhood seizures occurred I felt time as delayed. I visually saw things unfold in real time, but auditorily time was experienced as delayed. I heard sounds around me as if they were one connected whole on the wrong speed of a record player, like a sound image in slow motion that I was having an experience of while also functioning within clock time. This only lasted a few minutes. So, I was directly aware of two experiences of time simultaneously, but the seizures were uncomfortable and frightening. I couldn’t find the right words to describe them and we didn’t have any money for testing. It was always just chalked up to stress, something some still do today around me. I was forced to pay attention to the changes in my temporality specifically. The slowing down of time, and the intervals in-between, fascinated me even as a child. Studying, reading, writing, and teaching philosophy has helped my mind, brain and body make even more progress, but so many have accused or labeled my challenges as a mental health issue. Not knowing about my APD, and the challenges that caused, is the most difficult experience I have ever had next to attempting to write the doctorate.

I like to think about time, temporality, and consciousness together, especially as we all start taking more seriously such topics as advanced AI, quantum computing, or even the scientific studies on evidential mediumship, and there is legitimate science about the latter. William James knew. These topics can get wild when combined with the reality of what Antonio Damasio, the Spinozist that he is, calls “extended consciousness,” as opposed to “core consciousness.” Damasio has one of the most credible explanations on human consciousness of the past two decades. Briefly, Extended Consciousness is an individual autobiographical, rolling, flexible experience that cannot be coded as the same for any two humans. Sort of like, or possibly related to, having a soul some might say, metaphorically speaking or otherwise. The implications of such combinations are significant. Alternatively, the functions of Core Consciousness are what can be replicated by AI, but extended consciousness cannot. Recently, I started making podcasts for my students and for coping through Anchor. The international magazine New Philosopher tweeted one of my episodes on Kant about some of these new questions which was a silver lining in these challenging times.

We can read what top consciousness researchers or scholars say, such as bell hooks, Robert Lanza, Antonio Damasio, David Chalmers, Ernst Sosa, Tom Nagel, Patricia Churchland, Time Crane, Daniel Dennett, Patricia Hill Collins, Kelly Oliver or Judith Butler, as some important examples, but we can also legitimately consider the work of Jim Tucker at the University of Virginia, Dean Radin (massive, amazing history and scientific work), Gary Swartz, Lynn Buchanan of The Seventh Sense or study the results of those scientists who test individuals for what is sadly called ‘super-natural’ abilities, such as former Navy commander (and highest ranking female Navy officer in U.S. history) now turned evidential medium, Suzanne Geisemann. There’s always the work of Husserl, Heidegger, McTaggert, Sartre, etc. on human temporality that is also incredible, some of which I have studied, but it seems we might want to talk about other, more controversial theories too, those that apply to recent work in animal consciousness and intelligence, as another example, or current discoveries on the Observer Effect (OE) in quantum physics (thinking here of the work Biocentrism), the possibility of time travel that even Einstein took seriously, or more studies on human consciousness done by those who work specifically on near death or life after death phenomena (such as those who die on operating tables yet survive surgery only to somehow be able to report back to doctors exactly what occurred when they were otherwise reported as “brain dead”).  The OE is a series of verified experiments in physics (to say nothing of the research of the PEARS experiments at Princeton U.) that have concluded ‘matter’ understood in a deterministic (physicalist) way is just not enough. It’s not that materialism or determinism is wholly wrong, not at all. We know it works and is real, but only that it’s not the whole explanation of actual reality and the experiences of human beings. Consciousness and the brain are separate, but work together, often for biological reasons, but not only for these reasons according to this kind of research. It’s incredible and a game changer for all fields of study if so. The annual IANDS conference, the International Association of Near Death Studies, this past year had its largest attendance to date of researchers, neurosurgeons, philosophers, psychologists, and more. I was there for some of it with my friend and fellow Spinoza philosopher, Neal Grossman, now retired, but who worked for decades alongside both Ed Curley and Charles Mills at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Neal has a new book that deals directly with the philosophical problems involved in these areas of interest and experience titled Conversations with Socrates and Plato.

How does time influence contemporary philosophical studies?

The past few centuries have seen intellectual and scientific revolutions on the nature of time, including especially in philosophy and physics, not to mention quantum computing currently. I’m thinking here of the systems of Leibniz, Newton, Kant, Bergson, Einstein, Husserl, Heidegger, or Deleuze on the time image. I’m an advocate of bridging the gaps between Continental and Analytic methods. Studies on time, temporality, and consciousness have already been used by several philosophers to bridge these types of methodological gaps, for example, in the philosophy of film or the film as philosophy (FAP) problem. Artists and film makers know how to think about time! So too do surgeons for that matter. Of course, St. Augustine and other philosophers knew a lot about time many centuries ago, a point some Western philosophers always seem to enjoy bringing up repeatedly when you mention someone new who we should know about on this topic. Some even say Plato was a mystic, in the Eternalist sense…and I’m starting to believe they’re correct. If so, he was both inside and outside of time! His work is timeless, no? I think he was a mystic.

What thinkers or methodologies have you found most useful in pursuing your studies of temporality?

Time vs. temporality, as we are well aware in philosophy, address very different problems. When you add in human consciousness….the challenging logic problems multiply. An example can be found in both Spinoza and Bergson, as well as W.E.B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, Ralph Ellison. The ‘argument against the man’ used in formal logic, as another example, is still valid in certain settings, but it doesn’t work at all as an objective rule (nor should it be used) when talking about and studying certain philosophical problems in the critical philosophy of race and whiteness studies or phenomenology, for example. As Ralph Ellison writes in The Invisible Man, “Did the word apply to an invisible man? Could they recognize choice in that which wasn’t seen…?” Which logic do you put first? Although, I wrote my doctoral thesis on Spinoza’s dynamic epistemology found in his Ethics, I am also a race theorist and studied and grew with and because of George Yancy’s mentorship. There’s so much to think about here yet.

In Spinoza, we learn that the laws of Nature for human beings are all we have access to, but that temporality and our experience of time is both in accordance with these laws of Nature as an experience of the partially imaginative sort, as well as a kind of necessary, partial negation (i.e. limited, individual sense data, a singular expression of partial knowledge of a mode of substance conceived through its two attributes respectively, etc.). Spinoza provided an exhaustively rigorous, systematic philosophical text on the logical possibilities and limitations of human knowledge and the Laws of Nature before some of what Leibniz and Kant would attempt next. At the end of the day, I am not a Spinozist in the modern materialist sense, no matter how much I love Lucretius and those who taught me Spinoza. I’m more of a misfit metaphysician, but I definitely understand today’s ingenious atomist arguments, and my mentors are great at understanding this kind of materialism in affectively creative ways. There’s an interview coming up in this series for the APA on some of these topics with Thomas Nail.

I’ve always felt and worked in the capacity of interdisciplinary interests regarding time, and ideas or research others ignore. I know some would say that I waste time (some track my time stamps), and I do, especially when overwhelmed, but it’s just that time, as a sort of metaphysical illusion in some respects, slows one down to consider it to begin with (just like my mini seizures did as a child), and if you are having certain kinds of rare experiences that do not have full explanations (still today!) that satisfy even the best of philosophers around you, then it seems there’s a lot left to discuss. Even Roger Penrose said in a recent interview this year that we do not have a sufficient explanation for consciousness yet, as he works on quantum consciousness and the microtubials of neuron cells. So more neuron mapping please!

Practices such as meditation, as another example, slow down our pre-frontal cortex’s need for speedy, linear temporality and future oriented goals or tasks. Our bodies benefit from meditative practices within and without our direct awareness (science now validates this). So, are we only future temporally driven? No. Human bodies, brains, and souls also respond to not being future oriented, which is why meditation works so well. It builds new gray matter scientists now know, and we become more present when we meditate. One is truly not thinking about what’s next, biologically or otherwise, unless forced to or when the meditation moment ends. I like this kind of experience. Always planning ahead has its benefits, obviously, but it’s not all we are or do or need. Not at all.

Some of these experiences change, nonetheless, if you live in a continuously threatening environment, for anyone. Yet, a person of color in America is forced to face death every single day one way or another, much more immanently than a white man. #justiceforgeorgefloyd. Think about who is dying the most, too, with Covid-19 and why. The research on and experience of time (and space), as well as of one’s temporality, has limits based on the current acceptable paradigms of thought in Western science, but one’s environment can also alter these experiences drastically, including altering one’s sense of space and time, literally altering one’s experience of what it is to live each day. Lacan’s categories of the Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real need re-thinking, mostly because of, at the least, the new metaphysics research in science and metaphysics.

Kelly Oliver has a new essay in Sophia on what she calls “social melancholy” and how it, as a real experience, drastically differs from the psychoanalyst version of melancholia. I think she’s on to something. One legitimate critique of psychoanalytic theories and practices regarding temporality and consciousness are the above experiences I have had in combination. How would folks of this theory account for meaning, symbolic or otherwise, when I had my own language, including problems with the usual social language and, give or take, always have? The thing about learning disabilities/differences is that they are, sadly, often filled with tremendous shame, loneliness and/or isolation. The learning differences are also not uniform across tasks. Just because I can read philosophy doesn’t mean I can read all philosophical texts, or that I can read and understand anything else as complex either just because philosophers rely on the use of intense and rigorous logic, much of which I can systematically unpack. My philosophy skills are limited and yet, at times, not limited. It’s hard to track fully.

I’m now ready, knowing the name of my diagnoses, such as APD, to grow, to expand, to add to understanding, and to work even harder within the use of the tools that I need or that help, such as audio books! I had to solve this puzzle alone. There is no shame in using audio books, especially if you need to, but it can get expensive. Learning of any kind (in almost any creative or healthy way) is good. Yet, imagine asking for even more help in a well-known PhD program in philosophy, that you need audio books, editors, and testing to accompany the reading of the usual and expected texts, not to mention to complete all your work to the best of your ability? There was no real funding or money (or public understanding) yet for all that and as I tried in any way I could to explain, my words just dragged on and on. It seems one might need to be able to have and use internal, mental images in order to develop their language skills and use? To this day I cannot internally produce or think in images regularly.

Where would you like studies of time, both in philosophy and other disciplines, to go in the future?

Everywhere, especially in environmental ethics or the philosophy of quantum physics, or our criminal justice system and its insane need for complete reform, including eradicating solitary confinement, something philosopher Lisa Gunther works so hard on. AI is an interesting and important place to look as we move into more of a technologically infused and rapidly advancing society. I often ask students on the first day of class where space goes or to put their ideas in my hand? They get the rational point immediately, in an instant, if you will. I ask them to think deeply about infinity and our ideas about such things as space, and then to pay attention to their existential and often biologically oriented anxieties that set in which can be observed in reflection when one realizes we don’t know where space ‘goes.’ Physics and philosophy have a lot in common, they always have. Any aspect of interdisciplinarity with an emphasis on creativity have profound effects in furthering understanding (or at least add to it), especially for our university students. And now that Covid-19 is here and all forms of education are transforming radically and immediately, we have new things to think about and need to come up with novel, creative ways to teach, both virtually and otherwise. We have a chance to improve centuries old binary methods that have not worked for so many different reasons.

I like how John McCumber once addressed the Continental-Analytic divide by asking each group to take up the study of time more fully. Analytic philosophers could benefit, he noted, from reading more continentals or pragmatists on time and temporality. Continental philosophers can benefit from looking into the new problems of time in theoretical physics or the philosophy of mathematics. There’s something to be said for theories of reverse causation in Hegel, for example, a topic I have written a paper on that I’m particularly proud of and was asked to present at an APA Eastern conference with the North American Society of Hegel Studies once. Perhaps, if we pay as much attention as we can to social justice and environmental ethics and ills (as in it’s way overdue), we could eradicate some of the diseases of the human species that involve extreme forms of cruelty, human suffering, and irrationality. We are capable of affirmative action and rational organization on large scales and with highly rational, compassionate groups of individuals, as long as we have the information correct and are loving in our ways. Look at the world-wide protests now for #BLM in the midst of a global pandemic! Incredible. We can change the course of time…and we can do it with heart. Something I wish I understood better in the past. However small the gesture, we have the ability (i.e. the motion, options, action) to become healthier, happier, and truly, qualitatively enlivened with safety and fun together. And we need this now more than ever, some might say, as we are all facing the perfect storm, economically and otherwise, that is Covid-19.

Who are you interviewing for the series and what do readers have to look forward to?

I’m thrilled about these interviews! They are with Prof. Kristie Miller, Co-Director at the Center for the Study of Time, School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, University of Sydney, Prof. Thomas Nail from the University of Denver, and Prof. Boram Jeong, University of Colorado at Denver, who are all practicing philosophers. The series will end with a provocative interview with the biological anthropologist, Prof. Michael Masters, on human evolution, time, and aliens, a theory and recent book his Dean congratulated him for.

Prof. Miller is at the forefront of the study of the philosophy of time with the many different aspects of research that are being done at the University of Sydney. Her interview addresses some of the more traditional problems with the philosophy of time and temporality, but in novel ways. Prof. Nail’s work is ground breaking, especially Being and Motion, and his work on Lucretius, not to mention immigration. I have audio booked B&M, which I felt, sound wise, was a great way to get through it while literally being in motion (walking in the sunshine while thinking, while learning, instead of sitting reading as sitting still is a challenge ironically), and I have used various audio clips with permission in my Anchor podcasts. Many philosophers and artists, not to mention some scientists, will enjoy reading, hearing, and thinking about Nail’s important (and what will be) lasting contributions to the history of thought. Prof. Jeong’s interview and contributions are also relevant to our time. They are important contributions to very specific areas of philosophy, and, as she addresses the connections between time, money, freedom, Deleuze, race, and philosophy, we can all also benefit from her research and insights, and will be reading her philosophy about the future indefinitely I feel.

Prof. Masters has a new, interdisciplinary work on how humans might naturally evolve into a technologically advanced (alien) species. It’s wild, and awesome. His logic is valid and sound, and his research is currently being internationally recognized, including by philosophers and scientists alike. All interviews, including my own, are somewhat personal and about each scholar’s individual interpretations on time, temporality, and consciousness. I’m thrilled they agreed to do this series and I hope all will enjoy reading the interviews. I thank all the contributors for sharing their work.

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.

Against Borders: Why the World Needs Free Movement of People (2020)

 

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Can’t wait to read this!

This book provides a philosophical defence of open borders. Two policy dogmas are the right of sovereign states to restrict immigration and the infeasibility of opening borders. These dogmas persist in face of the human suffering caused by border controls and in spite of a global economy where the mobility of goods and capital is combined with severe restrictions on the movement of most of the world’s poor. Alex Sager argues that immigration restrictions violate human rights and sustain unjust global inequalities, and that we should reject these dogmas that deprive hundreds of millions of people of opportunities solely because of their place of birth. Opening borders would promote human freedom, foster economic prosperity, and mitigate global inequalities. Sager contends that studies of migration from economics, history, political science, and other disciplines reveal that open borders are a feasible goal for political action, and that citizens around the world have a moral obligation to work toward open borders.

 

Check it out here.

 

Gilles Deleuze, Letters and Other Texts (Semiotext(e)) June 23, 2020

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A posthumous collection of writings by Deleuze, including letters, youthful essays, and an interview, many previously unpublished.

Letters and Other Texts is the third and final volume of the posthumous texts of Gilles Deleuze, collected for publication in French on the twentieth anniversary of his death. It contains several letters addressed to his contemporaries (Michel Foucault, Pierre Klossowski, François Châtelet, and Clément Rosset, among others). Of particular importance are the letters addressed to Félix Guattari, which offer an irreplaceable account of their work as a duo from Anti-Oedipus to What is Philosophy? Later letters provide a new perspective on Deleuze’s work as he responds to students’ questions.

his volume also offers a set of unpublished or hard-to-find texts, including some essays from Deleuze’s youth, a few unusual drawings, and a long interview from 1973 on Anti-Oedipus with Guattari.

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Congratulations to David L. This looks like a great collection. Just bought my copy today.

I had forgotten when this book was supposed to be released and then saw Vern’s post and got excited again for it.

THE EXPERIENCE OF THE WORK OF ART

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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