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)

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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.



The Return to Lucretius III

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We are witnessing a return to Lucretius. What felt like early shoots in 2014 are today now starting to bear fruit in numerous recent books breaking with the received tradition. My work on Lucretius is now part of a handful of new works offering contemporary interpretations of Lucretius. The authors of this return offer different perspectives but also share a common belief that something is deeply missing from our current reception of Lucretius and that certain problems in contemporary life might find their surprising solution in the work of this ancient poet. Just like the moderns and the romantics before us, we are just now beginning to rediscover a Lucretius for our time. 

The New Lucretius

The new Lucretius has an old lineage. This lineage traces its roots back to the German philosopher, Karl Marx’s 1841 dissertation “The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature.” There Marx gave one of the most radical and heterodox interpretations of Epicurus and Lucretius the world never saw. The complete work was not even available in German until 1927 and in English until 1975 in his expensive collected works. It is no wonder that it remains one of the most neglected of all Marx’s books. However, in his dissertation, Marx was the first to argue not only that Epicurus had a distinct philosophy different form Democritus but that the core concepts of atomism (atom, void, fall, swerve, repulsion) were actually all continuous dimensions of the same flow of matter. 

This idea was largely left for dead until it was picked up by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze in 1962 in his book Nietzsche and Philosophy. There, Deleuze credits Marx’s brilliant discovery but argues instead that the swerve is caused by a vital “force” immanent to matter. Later Deleuze develops this reading into a new “immanent” interpretation of Epicurus and Lucretius in an appendix to his 1969, Logic of Sense. 

From here this idea was explicitly adopted by the French philosopher, Michel Serres who developed it into the first truly path-breaking book-length treatment of a new turbulent Lucretius consistent with the early chaos theory of the day, The Birth of Physics in the Text of Lucretius (1977). Unfortunately, Serres book was not translated into English until 2000, after which it went out of print.

The Immanent Interpretation of Lucretius 

This is a brief history of only the most sustained book-length attempts at the “immanent” reading of Lucretius being reactivated today. Beginning in 2016 an unusual burst of new books either tracing their lineage back to this tradition and/or deconstructing the orthodox reception of Lucretius came out. In 2016 a wonderful collection of essays offering contemporary reassessments and reinterpretations of Lucretius drawing on the “immanent” tradition was edited by Jaques Lezra and Liza Blake and published as Lucretius and Modernity. In the next year Ryan Johnson published, The Deleuze-Lucretius Encounter and in the fall of 2017 Pierre Vesperini published a devastating critique of the “myth of Lucretius” in his Lucrèce: Archéologie d’un classique européen. Among other things, Vesperini argues convincingly against every single major point made by Stephen Greenblat in his narrative history of the discovery of De Rerum Natura, The Swerve (2011). Vesperini argues that Lucretius was not a faithful Epicurean; that Lucretius was not an unknown radical of his day; and that Lucretius did not provide a “complete kit for modernity,” but was historically appropriated by mechanistic modernists and then retroactively lionized by the Romantics. This lionization is explored in Sweet Science: Romantic Materialism and the New Logics of Life (2017) by Amanda Jo Goldstein. Goldstein’s conclusion is right on target in citing Marx as the start of this tradition.

The coup de grâce of this burst came in January of 2018 when Michel Serres, The Birth of Physics was retranslated and republished with a blurb on the back explicitly acknowledging the timely importance of reintroducing this book for its contributions to twenty-first-century new materialism. Two months later saw the publication of my first book Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion and Jacques Lezra’s book On the Nature of Marx’s Things. Even in just the past eight years, we have seen a notable return of Lucretius to contemporary philosophy, in particular by new materialist philosophers.  



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.

Poetry in Motion: On A.R. Ammons’ “Corsons Inlet”

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The stanza formation ripples, rises, and falls like waves. The poem both speaks about and performs the movement of the sea, dunes, reeds, birds, and fish at the same time. Form yields to the material process of undulation and continuous deformation. Life and death become the Janus faces of entropy.

In nature there are no straight lines. It is a simple idea but profound. The “pulsations of order” in the minnows, the dunes, the reeds, the inlet, all reveal the metastability of form. Form is a “kinomorphic” process of undulation and metastability. The poet discovers all this in media res, by walking, in motion (pedesis). This is not chaos, but a kind of entangled relational dance of which poetic form does not capture or “wall in” but tries to respond to. There is no prison house of language but a becoming of poetic matters. Poetic form becomes mobile, drifting like sand dunes.

The use of colons allows for a rhythmic continuity without period breaks. Waves rise and fall, minnows gather and disperse, and colons punctuate without stopping the flow. The subjective “I” does not disappear but in Ammon’s poem enters into the flow of poetic matters: “I think in eddies.” The “I” emerges in and through the eddies. Ammons does not think “about” eddies. The preposition “in” is not a representation. I think in the middle or in the midsts of, or through, eddies. I think in the folds of flows. The poetic matter is folded up flows: flows of thought, flows of sand, water, and flows of ink and electricity, pooled up into little colons that hover like the wind just above the period.

The period sinks to the bottom of the line like a rock dragging the whole thing back down to a stop. But the colon resists and floats just above. The colon is like a vertical ellipsis dragging the poem and the speaking body up out of the line into the eddies of air—throwing the lines into the next line like an air bridge.

The colon holds together and entangles only regionally independent clauses. The Greek kôlon, is a limb or tentacle, an extension, like a root, branch, or prosthesis that reaches out and entangles itself with others in a knotwork, meshwork, or mangle. In Ammons poem, the poem becomes a living and decaying tentacular rootball: khthṓn, from the ground or soil.

But the colon does not originate in grammar or even in Greek language. What are the immanent material conditions for the twisted tentacular colon? The earth already produces mineralogical veins, vegetable branches, and animal appendages. There are only colons because the earth is already tentacular and knotted. There are colons because there are  bayberry roots and crab legs. The colon appendage keeps things moving with wings, fins, fins, and roots. This is not determinism or even metaphor. The colon really is an appendage. Crabs do not necessarily produce or lead to poetic colons in any linear sense. Yet, they are the material and historical conditions for the colon. Is there a world in which there are colons and no earthly appendages? The colon is just one more mobile appendage on a different creature. The poem creature.

I went for a walk over the dunes again this morning
to the sea,
then turned right along
   the surf
                         rounded a naked headland
                         and returned
   along the inlet shore:
it was muggy sunny, the wind from the sea steady and high,
crisp in the running sand,
       some breakthroughs of sun
   but after a bit
continuous overcast:
the walk liberating, I was released from forms,
from the perpendiculars,
      straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds
of thought
into the hues, shadings, rises, flowing bends and blends
               of sight:
                         I allow myself eddies of meaning:
yield to a direction of significance
like a stream through the geography of my work:
   you can find
in my sayings
                         swerves of action
                         like the inlet’s cutting edge:
               there are dunes of motion,
organizations of grass, white sandy paths of remembrance
in the overall wandering of mirroring mind:
but Overall is beyond me: is the sum of these events
I cannot draw, the ledger I cannot keep, the accounting
beyond the account:
in nature there are few sharp lines: there are areas of
       more or less dispersed;
disorderly orders of bayberry; between the rows
of dunes,
irregular swamps of reeds,
though not reeds alone, but grass, bayberry, yarrow, all …
predominantly reeds:
I have reached no conclusions, have erected no boundaries,
shutting out and shutting in, separating inside
          from outside: I have
          drawn no lines:
manifold events of sand
change the dune’s shape that will not be the same shape
so I am willing to go along, to accept
the becoming
thought, to stake off no beginnings or ends, establish
         no walls:
by transitions the land falls from grassy dunes to creek
to undercreek: but there are no lines, though
       change in that transition is clear
       as any sharpness: but “sharpness” spread out,
allowed to occur over a wider range
than mental lines can keep:
the moon was full last night: today, low tide was low:
black shoals of mussels exposed to the risk
of air
and, earlier, of sun,
waved in and out with the waterline, waterline inexact,
caught always in the event of change:
       a young mottled gull stood free on the shoals
       and ate
to vomiting: another gull, squawking possession, cracked a crab,
picked out the entrails, swallowed the soft-shelled legs, a ruddy
turnstone running in to snatch leftover bits:
risk is full: every living thing in
siege: the demand is life, to keep life: the small
white blacklegged egret, how beautiful, quietly stalks and spears
               the shallows, darts to shore
                            to stab—what? I couldn’t
       see against the black mudflats—a frightened
       fiddler crab?
               the news to my left over the dunes and
reeds and bayberry clumps was
               fall: thousands of tree swallows
               gathering for flight:
               an order held
               in constant change: a congregation
rich with entropy: nevertheless, separable, noticeable
          as one event,
                      not chaos: preparations for
flight from winter,
cheet, cheet, cheet, cheet, wings rifling the green clumps,
at the bayberries
    a perception full of wind, flight, curve,
    the possibility of rule as the sum of rulelessness:
the “field” of action
with moving, incalculable center:
in the smaller view, order tight with shape:
blue tiny flowers on a leafless weed: carapace of crab:
snail shell:
            pulsations of order
            in the bellies of minnows: orders swallowed,
broken down, transferred through membranes
to strengthen larger orders: but in the large view, no
lines or changeless shapes: the working in and out, together
            and against, of millions of events: this,
                         so that I make
                         no form of
orders as summaries, as outcomes of actions override
or in some way result, not predictably (seeing me gain
the top of a dune,
the swallows
could take flight—some other fields of bayberry
            could enter fall
            berryless) and there is serenity:
            no arranged terror: no forcing of image, plan,
or thought:
no propaganda, no humbling of reality to precept:
terror pervades but is not arranged, all possibilities
of escape open: no route shut, except in
   the sudden loss of all routes:
            I see narrow orders, limited tightness, but will
not run to that easy victory:
            still around the looser, wider forces work:
            I will try
       to fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder, widening
scope, but enjoying the freedom that
Scope eludes my grasp, that there is no finality of vision,
that I have perceived nothing completely,
that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.



(Thank you to Andrew James Brown @caute for sharing this poem with me)