Theory of the Image is now available on audiobook

We live in an age of the mobile image. The world today is absolutely saturated with images of all kinds circulating around the world at an incredible rate. The movement of the image has never been more extraordinary than it is today. This recent kinetic revolution of the image has enormous consequences not only for the way we think about contemporary art and aesthetics but also for art history as well.

Responding to this historical moment, Theory of the Image offers a fresh new theory and history of art from the perspective of this epoch-defining mobility. The image has been understood in many ways, but it is rarely understood to be fundamentally in motion. The original and materialist approach is what defines Theory of the Image and what allows it to offer the first kinetic history of the Western art tradition. In this book, Thomas Nail further develops his larger philosophy of movement into a comprehensive “kinesthetic” of the moving image from prehistory to the present. The book concludes with a vivid analysis of the contemporary digital image and its hybridity, ultimately outlining new territory for research and exploration across aesthetics, art history, cultural theory, and media studies.

“This is an engaging book with a fascinating argument. Thomas Nail stakes out new territory, building a theory from the group up of the image as kinetic” — David Morgan , Duke University

“Thomas Nail’s Theory of the Image is an ambitious and original attempt to re-theorize the material and cognitive dynamics of the image. In this respect, his model is kinetic as opposed to representational, mimetic, or hermeneutical. The book is eminently suitable for use on a range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses, in particular, philosophy, cultural theory, and art history.” — John Roberts , University of Wolverhampton

Listen now on Audible! 

 

 

 

 

Black Hole Materialism

First ever picture of a black hole may be revealed this week | New Scientist

Chris Gamble and I have just published our article on black hole materialism at Rhizomes. You can also download the article hereRhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge: Issue 36 (2020)

Black Hole Materialism

Christopher Neil Gamble University of Washington

Thomas Nail University of Denver

Abstract: The Euro-Western tradition has long considered matter to be essentially non-relational, passive and mechanical. Matter, that is, is thought to consist of elementary particles that remain internally unchanged while moving inside of, or against, an equally unchanging or fixed background of space, time, or both. Consequently, matter’s behavior has been seen as obeying—either fully or probabilistically—preexisting and invariant natural laws.

In our paper, we first take a brief tour through three major traditions of Western materialism in order to demonstrate how this basic picture has remained remarkably stable up to the present. We then argue that recent physics research and quantum gravity theorizing about black holes provide an unprecedented opportunity to revolutionize our understanding of matter by understanding it as inherently relational, indeterminate, and generative. Our aim in doing so is to show that black hole physics has enormous interdisciplinary consequences for the history, philosophy, and science of materialists.

I. The History of Materialism

Classical Mechanics. The first major Euro-Western tradition of materialism was Greek atomism. As is well known, Leucippus, Democritus, and Epicurus all taught that all things—from the biggest stars to the smallest insects or speck of dirt—are formed by the collisions, compositions, and decompositions of tiny, discrete, and indivisible “atoms”[1] careening perpetually through a vast spatial void. Eternal and unchanging, the atoms’ only differentiating attributes were their varying shapes and sizes, which enabled them to join together into countless combinations that resulted in the full scope and diversity of the perceptible world at large. For Leucippus and Democritus, these fundamental particles moved only along unique predetermined trajectories, whereas in Epicurus they occasionally swerved spontaneously onto others. In finding reality to have a fundamentally closed, immutable nature, however, both accounts nevertheless maintained the very same mechanistic conception of matter and its relationship to void or space.

For the atoms, that immutability results in a rather profound irony. Ostensibly, those constituent elements produce all of perceptible reality. Nevertheless, the full range of possible atomic compounds—and hence, of resulting sensible objects—preexists any compound’s realization and so remains just as eternally fixed and unchanging as the atoms own pre-given shapes and sizes. Certain combinations invariably result in lead, for example, whereas others result just as invariably in iron.[2] Accordingly, then, whether they were capable of swerving or not, the atoms exerted zero creative agency over the character of their own productions. Instead, they remained essentially non-generative, non-relational vessels that “create” merely by passively realizing preexisting possibilities.

A similar situation obtains in relation to the immutable (non-)nature of what the atomists called “void.” An infinite background emptiness that persists to a greater or lesser extent in (or as) the space between atoms, void also in fact plays an integral role in constituting the sensible world. For example, in explaining lead’s relatively greater density than iron, Democritus argued that the atoms of the former fit more closely together, and thus permit less void between them, than do those of the latter.[3] As this example illustrates, both metals reliably possess their respective defining properties only on condition that void (a) lacks any positive characteristics of its own (which could differentially interact with the atoms) and (b) remains utterly unaffected by the movements and combinations of the atoms that occur in or through it.

Taken together, the atomists described reality as a closed or bounded system whose productions could be exhaustively explained in terms of specific effects following necessarily and absolutely from particular causes. In doing so, they also positioned themselves as external, objective observers of that closed system, which remained unchanged by their observations of it. From that vantage, they could deduce and discover invariant, preexisting laws that would reveal reality’s underlying causal nature to them.[4]

In short, the atomists’ materialist account of reality entailed a mechanistic conception of matter as inherently non-generative and non-relational, a background-dependent conception of space, and the immutability of both. The importance of this materialist account is difficult to overstate, especially to the history and ongoing practice of science.[5] As we will see, however, as the prevailing cosmology changes, this concept of matter appears increasingly obsolete.

Statistical Mechanics. The second major materialist tradition emerged in the nineteenth century. Treating matter as if it moved randomly, modernist descriptions relied heavily on probability theory and statistics to predict it. However, matter’s seeming randomness was in fact merely due to practical limitations only. Fundamental particles (molecules, atoms, genes, isotopes, and so on) were simply too small and numerous for humans to observe all at once. For Laplace, Boltzmann and others, then, matter continued to be just as fully determined as it was for the atomists (albeit without any Epicurean spontaneity). Moreover, in adopting Newtonian notions of a fixed background of empty absolute space and universal time, modern materialism also continued to see matter as ultimately non-relational, passive, and obedient to invariant natural laws.

Quantum Mechanics. The third major materialism was quantum mechanics. In its initial formulation by Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg, and much to the disappointment of Albert Einstein, quantum mechanics abandons a deterministic understanding of matter and finds matter instead to be inherently probabilistic. Due to the “measurement problem,” as it has tended to be understood, there is a fundamental limit on the precision with which matter can be known or predicted. As Heisenberg formulated it in his famous uncertainty principle, for example, there is an inherent limit to how precisely it is possible to know both a particle’s position and its momentum simultaneously. Beyond that limit, determinism dissolves into probability distributions.

As developed subsequently in quantum field theory, moreover, particles no longer move within an empty or smooth surface but are understood to be the excitations of fields that constantly jitter like violent waves with the vacuum fluctuations of so-called “virtual particles.” While those vacuum fluctuations are too small to observe directly or individually, collectively they nevertheless exert empirically measurable effects on particles that can be observed.[6]

This account certainly paints a far more lively and dynamic picture of matter’s behavior than what had prevailed previously. Nevertheless, the vacuum fluctuations of the particle-fields of quantum field theory occur only within a preexisting and fixed background spacetime. In other words, quantum field theory works only by ignoringthe gravitational field.[7] Moreover, if the measurement problem is understood as marking a purely epistemological limit,[8] as it generally is, then despite the continual vacuum jittering, matter is still treated as if it cannot generate any novel trajectories for itself. The total set of possible trajectories, in other words, remains just as eternal and unchanging as in the atomists’ account. And thus, matter remains an essentially passive, non-relational substance confined to fixed mathematical and epistemological probability ranges.

Despite their differences, then, all three of these major kinds of materialism nonetheless treat matter as essentially passive and treat space and time as fixed, background givens.

 

 

 

Download Gilles Deleuze, “Kant: Synthesis and Time,” March-April 1978

Deleuze

In Gilles Deleuze, From A to Z, Deleuze describes his motivation for working on a philosopher with whom he had little in common: first, for Deleuze, Kant’s writing constituted such a turning point in numerous ways, and, second, he initiated something in philosophy that had never been advanced previously. Specifically, says Deleuze, he erected a tribunal of reason, things being judged as a function of a tribunal of reason. To do so, he invents a prodigious method called the critical method, the properly Kantian method. Deleuze admits finding all of this aspect of Kant quite horrible, but it’s both fascination and horror because, for Deleuze, this is so ingenious. For Kant created an astonishing reversal of concepts: rather than time being derived from movement, Kant reverses the subordination, with movement henceforth depending on time, and thus, time ceasing to be circular and becoming a straight line. And late in his life, Kant introduces his conception of the Sublime, in which the faculties enter into conflicts, having discordant accords, then reconciling, but no longer being subject to a tribunal. For Deleuze, then, Kant is clearly a great philosopher, with a whole undergirding in his works that makes Deleuze quite enthusiastic, on top of which is a system of judgment that Deleuze says he would like to do away with, but without standing in judgment.

 

Deleuze, “Kant: Synthesis and Time”

Motion in Classical Literature: Homer, Parmenides, Sophocles, Ovid, Seneca by G. O. Hutchinson (OUP, 2020)

“Classical literature is full of humans, gods, and animals in impressive motion. The specific features of this motion are expressive; it is closely intertwined with decisions, emotions, and character. However, although the importance of space has recently been realized with the advent of the ‘spatial turn’ in the humanities, motion has yet to receive such attention, for all its prominence in literature and its interest to ancient philosophy. 

This volume begins with an exploration of motion in particular works of visual art, and continues by examining the characteristics of literary depiction. Seven works are then used as case-studies: Homer’s Iliad, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Tacitus’ Annals, Sophocles’ Philoctetes and Oedipus at Colonus, Parmenides’ On Nature, and Seneca’s Natural Questions. The two narrative poems diverge rewardingly, as do the philosophical poetry and prose. Important in the philosophical poem and the prose history are metaphorical motion and the absence of motion; the dramas scrutinize motion verbally and visually. 

Each study first pursues the general roles of motion in the particular work and provides detail on its language of motion. It then engages in close analysis of particular passages, to show how much emerges when motion is scrutinized. Among the aspects which emerge as important are speed, scale, and shape of movement; motion and fixity; the movement of one person and a group; motion willed and imposed; motion in images and in unrealized possibilities. The conclusion looks at these aspects across the works, and at differences of genre and period. This new and stimulating approach opens up extensive areas for interpretation; it can also be productively applied to the literature of successive eras.” 

Oxford University Press Link

Why read Lucretius when you can read Epicurus and Homer? Here’s why.

 

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Here is a short introduction to my Lucretius book project I wrote for Book Launch Magazine…

Every great historical epoch returns to Lucretius like bees returning to their flower fields in search of nourishment. I first returned to Lucretius in 2014, when I taught Book II of De Rerum Natura for a class on the philosophy of movement. I added Lucretius to the syllabus because he was an overlooked figure in the history of philosophy who wrote about motion. I was excited about the text, but I was also skeptical that anyone who believed in ‘eternal unchanging atoms’ could have motion as their philosophical starting point. What I encountered, however, absolutely shocked me.

There were no atoms. I scoured the whole Latin text. Lucretius never used the word ‘atom’ or a Latinised version of this word—not even once. Translators added the word ‘atom’. Just as shockingly, I could not find the great isolated swerve in the rain of atoms, for which he is so well known. In Book II, Lucretius says instead that matter is always ‘in the habit of swerving’ [declinare soler- ent] and if it were not [nisi], ‘all would fall like raindrops’ [caderent]. The solitary swerve and the rain of matter are counterfactual claims. Lucretius never said there was a rain and then one atom swerved. He says that matter is in the ‘habit’ [solerent] of swerving, meaning that swerving happens regularly. This, he says, is the only way to avoid the problem of assuming that something comes from nothing: matter must have always been swerving.

This small but significant discrepancy made me wonder what else had been left out of translations and interpretations. Could it be possible that there was a whole hidden Lucretius buried beneath the paving stones of Greek atomism? If there are no solid atoms and no solitary swerve in Lucretius, can we still make sense of the rest of the book? In 2016 I decided to find out. I dedicated a whole seminar just to Book I of De Rerum Natura read in Latin. To my delight, a whole new view on this foundational text emerged that year. I published the results of this study in 2018 as Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion.

…read the rest here

What is the Philosophy of Movement? IV

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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 Buitendag: When we first begin to look at the world through motion, what are some of the first things that were previously obscured that suddenly—at least then for you when you started this project—what were some of the things that quickly sprang up for the first time that became very obvious to you that you didn’t expect?

Thomas Nail: To qualify very quickly: It’s not like nobody’s ever talked about motion. Everybody has talked about motion. There’s not a philosopher or theorist, or anybody who hasn’t said something about motion. The difference is whether motion is ontologically primary, whether that’s the starting point of analysis or whether that’s a secondary, or derivative feature. In my view, almost everybody in the history of Western thought at least has treated motion as a secondary thing: something that happens to what is already primary, some substance, or eternal form, or vital force, or temporal a priori or whatever.

But to answer your question, some of the first things that I found to be very shocking when I started looking at this was that: 1) Movement was a subordinated term, but also movement was actually the primary ordering structure of things. Matter is moving around, and that all these other things get built on top of it. And so the interesting question to me—which it’s taken me a lot of years trying to get the answer to it—is if being really is in motion, then how could we have missed this for so long?

What are the techniques and tools…how do we perpetuate other perspectives that cover over that movement? What are the techniques of explanation that obscure the movement of matter and convince us that it’s not actually important or primary? And that has all kinds of answers in aesthetics, in politics, in ontology, and so on.

One of the answers, with respect to ontology, actually has to do with the material techniques of doing ontology, of writing. We don’t know what anybody thought. We always say “so and so thought this,” “so and so thought that,” but we don’t have access to anybody’s thoughts. What we have access to are the residues of historical practices, material cultures, and writings and texts, and all kinds of stuff, but we don’t actually have access to the thoughts of dead people, of what people have thought in history.

So the challenge, at least in Being and Motion, was to go back and say “what are the material techniques?” For example writing, books, printing press, typewriters—what are the material techniques, and what’s their structure of motion? What is the form of motion that covers over the fact that they’re using a material motion in order to generate some thought of the ideal, of the abstract, of the universal, of time, of space? What are they really doing? So there’s a kind of media archaeology that goes along with that from a materialist perspective.

And the second thing I saw, and this is maybe the major thing I found I suppose, are these patterns. Kinetic systems are systems of motion, patterns of motion. These are centripetal, centrifugal, tensional, and elastic. These are major patterns of motion in physics. Obviously, there are subtypes, combinations, and hybrids, but these are the four kinds of patterns that are going on in each of these different historical periods, and these patterns take on a kind of dominance in each period. All of them are always happening, but in some time periods, one of them really takes hold and becomes a guiding structure, and that happens across disciplines. It doesn’t have to do with just politics or ontology, it’s historical. It’s really the way that matter moved and circulated in a given time. So to me, those four types of motion were really important discoveries, and I’m very curious to see how people will respond to those. It’s an empirical kind of argument so I’m open to being wrong about those patterns, but it was quite a discovery. 

The Philosophy of Movement at a Glance

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As more books of mine come out people have been asking me how they all fit together. I have been meaning to create a single table showing my philosophy of movement and how all the books fit together, so here it is, or at least how I have been imagining it so far.

So far there are three series of books. The first series covers the traditional core domains of philosophy (politics, ontology, aesthetics, science, and nature). The second traces the intellectual genealogy of three figures who have made motion primary in their work. These first two series are basically done and are either published already or on their way toward publication. The last book left to write is Lucretius III. The third series is what I am working on now. It is written for a wider audience and is intended to share some of the key findings from my academic books.

The patterns of motion have different names in each domain and are associated with a historical period.

It’s an open project so there are more series to come. I am open to adding new theorists of motion and have some leads but nothing solid yet. I have been teaching a class called, “The philosophy of movement” to find new theorists, but none of the thinkers I thought would make motion primary actually did. Its been a fascinating journey. At this point, I am feeling that “philosophy” might be the least likely area to find people taking motion seriously.

 

 

 

 

Understanding the Coronavirus Pandemic with Foucault? by Philipp Sarasin

Here is a section from one of the best theoretical analyses I have read on the coronavirus so far. Read the full article here.

4. SOME CONCLUSIONS WITH REGARD TO CORONA

It is clear that Foucault did not speak of real pandemics but that he used infectious diseases as models of thought in order to organize forms of power according to ideal-typical patterns. We are in a different situation: we live in the midst of a pandemic and are subject to, or observe through the media, different modes of appearance of power and government. So what can the three models that Foucault developed teach us?

First: There are transitions and overlaps between the different forms. The complete lockdown of Wuhan rigorously follows the plague model, and every curfew ultimately does so, too. The models show that curfews are necessary when that statistical knowledge cannot be gained that makes possible the liberal smallpox model.

Only when systematic tests supply massive amounts of data about infected and non-infected people, like for example in South Korea or Singapore, is it possible for governments to restrict themselves to isolating the infected and recommend caution for the rest of the population, without however having to impose a lockdown. It is possible to say this without irony or malice: that public life goes on and the economy continues to function in South Korea or Singapore is precisely the liberal promise of the smallpox model.

Second: the plague model remains a threat, even a danger. This includes, for instance, that in Morocco the corona-related curfew is imposed with tanks in the streets and harsh military measures, that in Israel prominent voices warn of a “coup” executed by Netanyahu under the pretext of the fight against Covid-19, that Victor Orbán in Hungary is planning a transition to government by decree, or that in the United States Attorney General Barr is seeking permission to hold prisoners indefinitely without trial. But it also includes that the storage and evaluation of movement data of everyone carrying a mobile phone is unlikely to easily be relegated to a purely technical possibility after this crisis. The liberal smallpox model fundamentally and always requires that the power of the state be monitored with suspicion.

Third: The smallpox model of power describes, more or less but nevertheless fairly accurately, the form of government in times of a pandemic that the European governments adopt, despite all differences and many national egotisms. The strategy to #flattenthecurve means to reckon with the pathogen and to know that it cannot be eradicated, but to “extend” its distribution over time in such a way that the health system can handle it. And the strategy of prohibiting gatherings of several people does not amount to discipline—for what purpose?—but rather is something like a narrow but well-justified and understandable framework the state sets for individual behavior. In general, the call to observe rules of “social distancing” belongs without doubt in the sphere of liberal techniques of government, which are fundamentally based on individual freedom and must respect this freedom. To take care of oneself, to protect oneself, but also, as can widely be observed at the moment, to find forms of neighborly or solidary organization are techniques of the self that fill the liberal contours of the smallpox model with the concrete material of social self-organization.

Fourth: … but the leprosy model is lurking in the background. It emerges in the idea that appears here and there that one should let old people die “to save the economy”—or it becomes factual reality when retirement and nursing homes are abandoned and their inmates die locked up and alone, as is reportedly the case in Spain.

Postscript on techniques of the self

In his lectures on the history of governmentality in which he developed the smallpox model and spoke at length about neoliberalism, Foucault did not use the concept of techniques of the self. Even if there is an internal connection between his quite positive evaluation of (neo-)liberalism and his concept of techniques of the self, which he examined in the 1980s by using the example of antiquity, it is by no means the case that Foucault regarded techniques of the self as a form of power wrapped in the cover of liberality, as is often asserted today (indeed, he explicitly rejected precisely this interpretation in his lectures). The opposite is the case: the “relationship of self to self” and thus the possibility to conduct oneself in a particular way that is, precisely, notdetermined by power was, for him, the basis of the subject’s freedom. Consequently, as Foucault said in 1982 in his lecture, “there is no first or final point of resistance to political power other than in the relationship one has to oneself.”[14] Today he might add: and resistance to the virus. Or simply: take care.

This essay was first published in German in Geschichte der Gegenwart and has been translated for the foucaultblog by Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson.