Being and Motion reviewed by Michael J. Bennett

Thomas Nail, Being and Motion

Thomas Nail, Being and Motion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018; 544 pages. ISBN: 978-0190908911.

Reviewed by Michael J. Bennett, University of King’s College.

Thomas Nail’s ambitious philosophical project starts with the diagnosis that today we live in the “Age of Motion.” Politics, aesthetics and science have entered a “whole new kinetic paradigm,” (5) and this is true even of ontology, however reluctant ontologists are to accept it.

Though its scope is staggering, this book is yet a part of a larger whole. Nail proposes to treat the other topics in separate books, some of which remain unpublished, even as Being and Motion references them frequently. In Being and Motion, Nail aims to accomplish two things. His first task is to produce a timely “conceptual and ontological framework for describing the being of motion,” upon which the companion volumes can draw, thus also providing a “unique insight into a certain hidden or occluded dimension of Western ontology.” (11) Philosophers have rarely endorsed the ontological “primacy of motion,” Nail observes, and have usually subordinated it to a more fundamental principle. Three historical exceptions—Lucretius, Marx, and Bergson—who take motion as seriously as Nail does, receive brief treatment (32–35), and fuller analyses are promised elsewhere. But because Nail portrays Being and Motionas providing insight into what has hitherto been obscured behind other “names of being,” his book makes a critical intervention today. Contemporary philosophers who fail to appreciate the primacy of motion must be out of step with the times, actively participating in the suppression of this dimension of ontology, or oblivious to the real material-kinetic presuppositions of their practice (144). These are the errors that Nail scrupulously avoids.

The second task of Being and Motion is to “turn this kinetic perspective back on the practice of ontology itself.” Nail’s theory of motion is not “fundamental” ontology, he says, but “historical.” (19) It advances a “minimal” (but still “transcendental”) claim about the history of past being, about what “previous reality” must have been like in order to produce our present. Thus it makes no assertions about the future and even leaves open the possibility that other names of being will eclipse “motion.” Moreover, in addition to examining historical descriptions of being—primarily, but not exclusively, texts from the history of Western philosophy—with a view to redescribing them in kinetic terms, Nail also pays meticulous attention to the types of inscription or graphism that materially condition the content of those descriptions: speech, writing, the codex, and the keyboard.

Nail’s thesis is that in four distinct periods of Western history, both ontological description and inscription followed the same “regime of motion.” That is, they described and inscribed a real “pattern of being’s motion,” which existed at the time (24) and made it possible for being to appear as something other than what it is—other than motion. This is not to say that historical ontologists were simply wrong to name being “space,” “eternity,” “force,” or “time.” “Reality actually moved differently in each period” (139), and this is what such descriptions referred to. In the Neolithic period (10000–5000 BCE), a centripetal pattern of motion dominated, while in the Ancient world (5000 BCE–500 CE), it was a centrifugal pattern. The long Middle Ages, including the Early Modern period (500–1800 CE), were characterized by a “tensional” regime of motion, and in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, motion became increasingly “elastic.” These kinetic patterns organize Being and Motion itself, particularly the second half, and demonstrating their existence and dominance in their respective historical eras lies at the heart of the project.

One of the challenges inherent in Nail’s project arises from his reasoned commitment to describing the patterns without explaining them. Nail rejects the pretense of causal explanation involved in both “idealist” reductionism, according to which inscriptions about being are completely explained by the thoughts they contain, and its obverse, which makes ontological descriptions the simple products of “technological, material, or media” conditions. (20–21) Since talking about “causes” is always a non-explanatory “short-cut” for longer accounts of matter in motion (103), Nail prefers terms like “coordination, or synchronization” (21), “historical coemergence and constant conjunction” (23), and “kinetic resonance” (140) to capture the relation between description and inscription. And though he does not explain it, Nail increases the scope of this “resonance” with dominant patterns of motion: it also characterizes the relations between ontology, politics, aesthetics, and science. (140)

Despite the centrality of kinetic forms or “patterns” to his argument, Nail classifies the ontology of motion as a kind of materialism. He defines his “process materialism” in contrast to what Marx called the “crude materialism” of the empiricists and the “contemplative materialism” of the idealists, which makes of matter a “concept or logical category.” (47–8) To avoid that misstep, Nail aims to ensure that the term remains as undefined as possible: “Matter is the historical name for what is in motion, but what matter is is in process and thus must remain ontologically indeterminate.” (46) Again, instead of explaining, Nail prefers to describe: “The best way to describe what it is is by what it does, or how it moves.” (49) To this end, he devotes the rest of Book I: The Ontology of Motion.

This theory of motion constitutes the “kinetic deduction” Nail promised of historical being’s minimal features and a kinetic redescription of inherited ontological concepts. For example, Nail calls the intersection of a continuous flow with itself a “fold” (83). The cycle or periodic motion that follows from folding makes it possible for motion to achieve a state of relative stability that Nail uses to conceptualize identity, unity, existence, necessity, sensation, quality, quantity, and thinghood. (85–99)

The dominant “patterns of motion” that characterize the history of ontology and give rise to being’s main names are not folds but “fields.” The difference is that a field does not intersect with itself, yet “binds together and organizes a regional distribution of flows.” (109) One question this raises is how a field does so, if indeed it doesn’t move the way a fold does—that is, if it has no period, cycle, and so on, and by extension no identity, qualities or thinghood of its own. Nail might deny that fields explain the folds they organize and resist answering such a “how” question, but even so, the concept of the kinetic field is less well-developed than that of the fold—which is a shame, considering how important a role fields play in the historical analyses of Book II.

Book II: The Motion of Ontology is by some margin the longer section of Being and Motion. It is divided into four subsections, each devoted to a period of ontological history and that period’s associated concept of being. Each of these parts is, in turn, subdivided into three “resonating” analyses—of the dominant pattern of motion (kinos), the content of ontological descriptions (logos), and the ways in which ontology was inscribed (graphos). Book II is the product of massive synthetic ambition, and Nail brings together an impressive amount of material under his conceptual framework. In this review, I cannot do justice to it all, so I neglect his intriguing discussions of inscription entirely, as well the prehistoric centripetal and ancient centrifugal periods, in order to focus on what he says about modern European philosophy.

Probably the most unusual feature of Nail’s history of Western ontology is the length of the period he calls “medieval,” dominated by the “tensional” pattern of motion. It spans from about the traditional date of the fall of Rome to the publication of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in 1781. Although this regime remains dominant well into scientific modernity, it originates, Nail says, as a response to the kinetic problems introduced by the transcendence of God at the centre of the prior, centrifugal regime. (274–75) Such problems are particularly acute in the Christian traditions because of the necessity of accounting for the incarnation, as a result of which God is both an absolutely separate creator and a particular human being. (320–21) Thus Nail defines “tensional” motion as involving at least two fields, connected by a mediating flow or “rigid link [that] keeps them both together and apart.” (274) Medieval theologians, philosophers and scientists theorize the link between God and created nature in various ways—for example, in terms of the Trinity, aether, impetus, and conatus—but Nail perceives an underlying continuity, because being tends to be defined predominantly as transferable force. In this context, Spinoza develops the regime’s timeliest ontological description with his unapologetic ontology of power. (314)

The transition from the tensional regime and the ontology of force to its successor, Nail continues, occurs “in the face of a brutal empiricist critique” (368)—namely, the critique of metaphysics inaugurated by Berkeley and Hume. (318–19; 280–81) One recognizes the conventional story Kant himself tells of being awoken from dogmatic slumbers, which inaugurates a philosophical revolution. Nail identifies post-Kantian phenomenology as the dominant form of modern ontology and “elastic” motion as the regime it kinetically presupposes. “Elasticity” here describes a field in which between any two ordered folds, there is an indefinite number of subfolds. (370; 373) The field can thus expand and contract in a way that has been described predominantly in terms of temporality and subjectivity—for example, the retention of the past, the anticipation of the future, and the expansiveness of the lived present. Nail interprets Kant’s transcendental subject as an elastic circulation conditioning all appearances whose form of inner sense is time, and he makes Husserl, Heidegger, and Derrida the regime’s other descriptive touchstones, since they each elaborate on the association between temporality and subjectivity, consciousness, or being-there.

With the claim that modern phenomenology and the ontology of time become “dominant” in the recent past, Nail must face up to a structural or methodological challenge. He admits that fields of motion not only change over the course of history but become increasingly hybrid or mixed as they approach the present. (26; 453 n.14) The attempt to isolate the dominant patterns or to consider patterns separately must therefore become progressively less adequate to the reality of the fields themselves.

Nail’s core argument climaxes with the suggestion that the phenomenology of time has brought ontology to a tipping-point. He concedes that it closely resembles the view he advocates, as “the whole of being seems to be caught up in a more primary flux or flow of time,” but in another sense ontological elasticity “could not be more different from the real flux and continuum of motion.” (369) That’s because “the structure of time presupposes that being is primordially divided, intervalic [sic], fragmentary, and thus static.” (420) It is divided into three tenses: past, present, and future (367), and, finally, into the differences or “intervals” that Derrida shows to be the condition for the givenness of time. (416–17) In other words, the flow (of time) is not a continuous flow at all. Since the most contemporary ontologies are so close yet so far from a truly kinetic one, Nail aims to seize the moment, come down on one side of the issue, and tip the balance away from the legacy of phenomenology one finds in Heidegger, Derrida, and their acolytes (420)—but also in Deleuze.

Deleuze and the Deleuzians appear prominently in Being and Motion as “related contenders” to Nail’s process materialism and ontology of motion (32) and as the clearest targets of his criticism, the thrust of which is that their descriptions of being are ontological throwbacks, out of step with the times. According to Nail, Deleuze not only (like Derrida), “models his theory of difference [in Difference and Repetition] on time, following the phenomenological tradition” (419), but he is also a neo-Spinozist ontologist of force. (43; 37–38; 48–49) In other words, Deleuze’s descriptions of being presuppose either the elastic regime of motion, which Nail encourages us to move beyond, or the tensional regime that has not been dominant for centuries. Deleuze’s claims are “historically limited in certain ways [he] could not see beyond.” (41)

Nail also attributes to Deleuze—in contrast to his own kinetic materialist monism—an “inclusive and pluralistic ontology in which all the great names for being are said equally and univocally of the same being,” identified with becoming or differential process. (36) From this perspective, Nail’s complaint is that Deleuze failed to live up to his promise of pluralism and inclusiveness by treating some of the supposedly equal names of being (like “force”) as more equal than others. (37–38) Still, if the present-day fields of motion, by Nail’s own admission, are the most complex and hybrid, then perhaps a consistent pluralism that undertakes to be equally so would also be a candidate for the ontology of the present.

Being and Motion is a singular achievement, but it ends by recognizing its limitations. The need to isolate dominant patterns in hybrid flows, for example, represents the “mixological” limitation of the work. Nail also acknowledges its “geographical narrowness” as the price to be paid for “historical breadth” (445), and he looks forward to future research expanding the kinetic analysis to non-Western and colonized contexts, where motion may be differently periodized and resonate in other patterns. (446–47) Nail’s compelling book might indeed move others to build on its groundwork or, equally, provoke vigorous debate. It is a substantial contribution to contemporary philosophy, which I expect to make a wide-ranging impact.

 

 

 

 

 

The Migrant Image

 

How can we think of art history as a discipline that moves process-based, performative, and cultural migratory movement to the center of its theoretical and methodical analyses?

With contributions from internationally renowned experts, this manual, for the first time, provides answers as to what consequences the interaction of migration and globalization has on research in the field of the science of art, on curatory practice, and on artistic production and theory. The objective of this multi-vocal anthology is to open up an interdisciplinary discourse surrounding the increased focus on the phenomenon of migration in art history.

Buy here and here.

Here is an extract from my contribution to the collection.

You can read the full chapter here: “The Migrant Image.” in Handbook of Art and Global Migration, ed. Burcu Dogramaci and Birgit Mersmann (De Gruyter Press, 2019); 54-69.

Migrant aesthetics
The mobile image and the centrality of the migrant mark a new period in aesthetics. The digital image is not only mobile by virtue of its form but by the mobility of its content and author. Some of the most shared and viewed images of the past few years have been digital images of migrants, refugees, and the conditions of their travels, and even their death. The image of Alan Kurdi, the dead Syrian 3-year-old is now one of the most influential images of all time. The popular media has been saturated with migrant images and has thus been confronted in a new and dramatic way with the visible lives and deaths of migrants.

Furthermore, the widespread access to cell phones with digital cameras has also made it possible for migrants and refugees themselves to generate more images of their own movement and experience than ever before. The itinerant, grainy, handheld, and “poor” images of migrant cell phone cameras have become their own film genera: the “wretched of the screen” (Steyerl 2013). In these videos migrants are not silent victims but creators of new aesthetic forms, “an imperfect cinema” (Espinosa 1979) as demonstrated in Elke Sasse’s 2016 film #MyEscape.

Cell phones have also become literal lifelines for migrants to obtain travel information in isolated areas, to share videos, sounds and images with friends, family, and authorities. The digital visua l and sonic images produced by migrants have become the material basis of the aesthetic threads that hold together numerous committees across borders, not just refugees. Although it is most obvious in the case of refugees, these are the same aesthetic lifel ines that make possible sustained social and informational communities around the world. The migrancy of the digital image is what allows for community in a world of global migration, continuous mobility, and displacement. What would global migration look like without without the migrancy of the image and the images of the migrant,

The migrant image thus marks the limits of the previous century and the outline of a new one defined by the mobility and migration of the image. This requires a new approach both to the politics of migration and the aesthetics of the image. However, the advent of the present is never limited to the present alone. Now that our present has emerged, it has become possible in a way it was not before to inquire into the conditions of its emergence and discover something new about the nature and history of art. in other words, the present reveals something new about the nature of sensation and what it must at least be like so as to be capable of being defined by the primacy of motion and mobility as it is. At no point in history has the image ever been anywhere near as mobile as it is today in the digital image.

So, what does this say about the nature of the image such that it is capable of this mobility? lf the image is defined by the primacy of mobility today yet existing theories of it are not, then we need a new conceptual framework. We need to produce such a new conceptual framework based on the primacy of motion to better understand contemporary sensation and aesthetics, as well as the historical events from which it emerges. in short, the rise of the mobile digital image draws our attention not so much to its radical novelty, but to a previously hidden dimension of all previous images throughout art history that can only now be seen (Hansen 2004; Hansen 2006; Manning 2012; Massumi 2007; Naukkarinen 2005; O’Sullivan 2001; Gregg/Seigworth 201 0).

The research program proposed by this chapter is therefore neither a theory of the migrant image that applies strictly to the novelty of the digital image nor an ahistorical theory of the image that applies forever and all time to all images and media. It offers a different approach…

The Migrant Image

Theory of the Image is back in stock

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Theory of the Image sold out in the first few days. Back orders are now shipping and the second printing is now available!

Available from Amazon and  OUP (30% off code: AAFLYG6)

Read the introduction here.

Read some selections on Cinema below.

A Kinetic Theory of Cinema

On the one hand, film is nothing other than a series of static freeze-frames moving extensively from point A to point B across a lens and through a beam of light. However, these discrete frames are also nothing other than images on a single vibrating and continuous strip of celluloid. The condition for the extensive movement of a frame is the intensive topological transformation of the whole reel. Furthermore, what seem to be discrete shots of different people and things extensively moving on the screen are also continuous flows of modulated light from the projector. The waves of light are continuously vibrating and changing in order to give the appearance of discrete persons and things on the screen. All perceived division and extensive movement are predicated on the intensive continuum upon which they are the topological regions, like boats bobbing on the ocean.

Bergson wrote that cinema was a bad description of perception, as if we perceive only snapshots of reality plus movement and get continuous reality. He is correct that this is a bad theory of perception, and it seems to be part of cinema from the perspective of the viewing subject who experiences the “illusion of movement” when people “move around” on the screen. However, from the perspective of the movement of matter itself, this is an inaccurate description of the cinema. The material conditions of cinema presuppose both the continuous intensive change of celluloid and flows of light and, at the same time, the extensive movement of relatively discrete figures on the screen and photos across the lens. They are two aspects or dimensions of the same motion.

Films like La Jetée (1962) and San Soleil (1983) by Chris Marker, for example, demonstrate this explicitly by filming photographs and for extended durations where there is no visible movement on the screen or any characters doing anything. In this case, the viewer sees a seemingly immobile photo whose very conditions of extensive “stasis” are the intensive motion of its material body (celluloid and light). By inverting the relationship between perceived extensive and intensive motions in film, the true material kinetic structure of cinema is revealed directly to the viewing audience.

All movement is therefore revealed as both extensive and intensive at the same time. The two occur as dimensions of the same process, but the former is always derived from the latter and not the other way around. Snapshots, for example, are aspects or dimensions of the material flow of celluloid and light, but continuous celluloid and light can never be the product of discrete snapshots. The two are present together when we watch a film, like the latitude and longitude of a kinesthetic cartography.

Cinema also uses long takes of relatively fixed scenes in order to render sensible the interval series that makes the frame series itself possible and mutable. In between every photographic frame is an interval, a difference that makes a difference between frames. While montage renders this interval sensible only indirectly through the decomposition and recomposition of the frame series, the still shot renders this interval sensible as a simple passage of time during which relatively “nothing” is happening in the dramatic action of the film or in the frame itself. Cinematic temporality is a temporality made possible by difference and differentiation in the frame and between the frames. Time passes, but only on the condition of a more primary differentiation or division between distinct images made possible by the continuity of the filmstrip and continuous movement of the film projector.

In Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), for example, the stillness of the shots and the use of photographs makes explicit the difference between the photographic image and the cinematic image. When Marker films a photograph, he renders sensible the duration and movement of the film itself as the kinetic condition of the relative immobility of the photo image. This is the great inversion of postwar cinema: only by filming something that does not move is the movement of the camera itself made sensible. The series of intervals between the frames is exposed as the condition for the frame series itself and the persistence of the immobility of the image.

In Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), for example, the face becomes frozen, but as frozen the face exposes the implicit movement of the camera itself and the mobility of the dark intervals between frames. This invisible darkness is depicted visually in the black pupils of the eyes. The eyes are the black holes or intervals of the face frame. In Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964), the duration of the unedited film merges with the real-time duration of someone actually watching the Empire State Building. By merging the duration of the camera and the body, the kinetic condition of both is made sensible. The eye blinks just as the frames pass through intervals.

In Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), the filmstrip burns and rips off the reel, exposing the intervalic gaps and their material conditions of celluloid, light, and motion that sustain the frame intervals themselves. The continuum of white light is shown as the pure kinetic condition of the film, but only on the condition that the actual film Persona remains intact, framed, and not burned at all, even if what it shows is burned frames and white light. It is still a white light divided by the frames of the celluloid film itself. Film cannot escape its own material conditions; it can only reveal them: light, motion, frame, interval. During the duration of this white light in which nothing happens and no one is there, the differential kinetic interval comes to the fore as the condition of du- ration (figure 13.4).

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Theory of the Image (OUP, 2019) OUT NOW!

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The book is now available from Amazon and shortly with OUP (30% off code: AAFLYG6)

Read the introduction here.

Read the Conclusion below.


The Mobile Image

 

We live in the age of the mobile image. Today, more than ever before, we are surrounded by hybrid images of all kinds that circulate freely and mix with contemporary images. This incredible mobilization and proliferation of images forces us to rethink the basic structure and definition of the image itself—as something fundamentally kinetic. The advent of the digital image, defined by a continuous flow of electricity, forces us to see that the image is not and never has been a representation of a static model. Images have always had a material agency. Movement, and not representation, has always been central to the image, making possible a new materialist aesthetics. This book thus has made three main contributions to the philosophy of art and aesthetics.

 

THE KINETIC THEORY OF THE IMAGE

Its first contribution is to offer an original kinetic theory of the image. Traditionally, the image has been viewed as either objectively or subjectively derived from something else. A relatively static object, subject, or human structure was assumed as primary and the image was what moved in between them. Even when the image has not been treated explicitly as a representation, it has typically been thought of an expression or production of something else. Even contemporary theories of images as a copy of copies or copies without originals, still miss the point. The image is not a copy and there was never a model to have gone missing. In contrast to these previous theories, this book proposes a new definition of the image as a reflection, a duplication, or a fold in moving generative matters. All images are sensuous and all sensations are images. Images both sense and are sensed. The image is thus not something strictly visible. There are images of sight and sound, just as there are images of taste, smell, and touch. The image is also not unique to humans or to organic life.

 

The original contribution of part I, then, is to have provided a kinetic and materialist theory of the image defined by the flow, fold, and field of sensitive matters. As such, it reorients the central problem of aesthetics and art history, moving it away from the question of representation and anthropocentric constructivism, whether linguistic, social, psychological, or otherwise, and toward the distribution and analysis of regimes of moving images with their own material agency and generativity.

THE HISTORY OF THE IMAGE

The second contribution of this book is that it offers an original conceptual and historical methodology for the study of art and art history. If the study of the image is not a question of representation but, rather, of kinetic distribution, then we need to understand what kinds of distributions have been invented and to what degree and with what mixture they persist in the present. Part II of this book thus presented neither a universal ontology of affect nor a merely empirical history of works of art but, rather, a study of the kinesthetic patterns or historical regimes of aesthetic motion.

Unlike merely empirical art histories, kinesthetic regimes of motion prefigure, persist, and mix well beyond their initial empirical manifestation, making their analysis much more broadly applicable to the study of art, art history, and sensation widely construed. Thus, the kinetic method of this book makes no attempt at an ahistorical ontology of sensation, affect, or image; rather, it offers a regional ontology from the perspective of the early twenty-first century. Based on the apparent primacy of mobility revealed in the digital image, it proposes an answer to the simple question: What must images at least be like for them to be capable of this kind of motion? In doing so, it thus discovers a previously hidden dimension of all hitherto existing images: the primacy of their motion.

 

THE CONTEMPORARY IMAGE

The third major contribution of this book is its offer of an original theory of the digital image defined by its materiality and mobility. In contrast to the first wave of new-media scholarship that defined the digital image as largely immaterial and virtual, this book provides an analysis of the material and kinetic dimensions of the digital image and its conditions of circulation. While more recent new-media scholarship seems to be taking the material dimension of the digital image more seriously, this book adds to this literature a complete conceptual and analytic framework that connects the study of the digital image with the rest of art history and the structure of affection more broadly.

The electrical flow that defines the digital image is historically novel in some ways, but not in others. The digital image thus allows an incredible degree of hybrid mobile images, but in a more general sense, electrical flows also pervade all material images. The digital image is not just about hybridity and remediation; it is also about the creative pedesis and feedback of the electrical flow itself: its generative power. This includes both contemporary digital and historical nondigital generativity. The digital image thus presents the twenty-first century with an incredible aesthetic decision: how and to what degree to treat the digital image as an instrumental tool for merely replicating images or as a means for releasing a more generative flow in all matters, thus generating completely new images.

Against Nature, Lorraine Daston (2019)

Image result for gainst Nature (Untimely Meditations) Paperback – May 21, 2019 by Lorraine Daston (Author)

A pithy work of philosophical anthropology that explores why humans find moral orders in natural orders.

Why have human beings, in many different cultures and epochs, looked to nature as a source of norms for human behavior? From ancient India and ancient Greece, medieval France and Enlightenment America, up to the latest controversies over gay marriage and cloning, natural orders have been enlisted to illustrate and buttress moral orders. Revolutionaries and reactionaries alike have appealed to nature to shore up their causes. No amount of philosophical argument or political critique deters the persistent and pervasive temptation to conflate the “is” of natural orders with the “ought” of moral orders.

In this short, pithy work of philosophical anthropology, Lorraine Daston asks why we continually seek moral orders in natural orders, despite so much good counsel to the contrary. She outlines three specific forms of natural order in the Western philosophical tradition―specific natures, local natures, and universal natural laws―and describes how each of these three natural orders has been used to define and oppose a distinctive form of the unnatural. She argues that each of these forms of the unnatural triggers equally distinctive emotions: horror, terror, and wonder.

Daston proposes that human reason practiced in human bodies should command the attention of philosophers, who have traditionally yearned for a transcendent reason, valid for all species, all epochs, even all planets.

Buy here.