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


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).

Screen Shot 2019-07-03 at 12.55.21 PM.png



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



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.



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 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 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.

Theory of the Image (Oxford University Press, 2019)

Nail_full paperback cover for approval (dragged).jpg

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

Read the introduction here.

Pre-orders are available from OUP (30% off code: AAFLYG6) and Amazon.

Black Hole Sun: On the Materialist Sublime

The first image of black hole has just been released today. This is a profound and important aesthetic moment from a new materialist perspective. The image is not beautiful because we enjoy a free play of our imagination as we try to figure out what we are looking at and how it fits with our existing conceptual framework. The image is also not sublime in the sense that a black hole is an infinitely dense singularity that defies all calculation by general relativity, and thus “blows our mind,” as we try to conceptualize the radically unconceptualizable. The black hole is itself a work of art. Nature, according to Kant, cannot be art because nature is passive and mechanistic. Art, for Kant, is radically free because it is a strictly human feeling of our own freedom.

The black hole is an excellent example of the materialist sublime. Nature and matter are not passive or deterministic. They are indeterminate material processes. They perform precisely the sublime that Kant restricts to humans alone. Black holes are not infinitely dense singularities. At the heart of a black hole is a specific (and very small) spatio-temporal region measured by the Planck scale and related to the size of the black hole (its Schwarzschild radius). However, and more importantly, below the Planck level of the black hole there are quantum processes that produce the spacetime of that region. These quantum processes below the Planck unit are fundamentally indeterminate—meaning that they are neither in one spacetime or another. They are the indeterminate material conditions for the emergence of spacetime itself (quantum gravity).

In other words, nature is not just the passive conditions for the human experience of its own aesthetic faculties of beauty or the sublime but itself performs the sublime activity of radical indeterminism without concrete form. Humans have the experience of sublimity only because nature is already performatively and materially sublime.



Material Ecology: Neri Oxman’s Generative Design

Oxman’s design takes seriously the ecology and movement of matter.

Designer and architect Neri Oxman is leading the search for ways in which digital fabrication technologies can interact with the biological world. Working at the intersection of computational design, additive manufacturing, materials engineering and synthetic biology, her lab is pioneering a new age of symbiosis between microorganisms, our bodies, our products and even our buildings.