New Materialist Aesthetics and Pedagogy: An Interview with Thomas Nail By Katherine Robert


New Materialist Aesthetics and Pedagogy: An Interview with Thomas Nail

By Katherine Robert September 19, 2019

Katherine Robert: You taught an aesthetics course this year and started the first day by saying DU has not taught aesthetics in a long time and it is taught less frequently in US philosophy departments than other areas of philosophy. I was intrigued by that. So, if you could if you could elaborate on that.

Thomas Nail: I was told DU has not taught aesthetics in 14 years. It is probably the least taught philosophy course of the core areas of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, and moral theory. It also has some of the fewest publications of the core areas. I think there are two reasons for this. The privileged areas of philosophy are metaphysics “what is” and epistemology, “how we know what is.” Western idealism has made those the foundations of philosophy. Aesthetics is often not considered to be a foundational philosophical discourse because it does not answer these two questions in universal terms. There is also a long history of suspicion of sensation and perception in Western philosophy. Philosophers and scientists have almost always thought that the body is out there to trick us. The senses deceive you and knowledge and the intellect are what is true. So that’s one reason.

The second reason is that aesthetics is not useful or instrumental like most moral theory: ethics and politics. People often argue that it is important to teach moral theory because it is directly relevant and useful for people’s lives. It might help them make important political decisions like voting or ethical action. But aesthetics is not instrumentally useful like this so it is quite literally the most “useless” of the philosophical areas.

KR: So, it’s not pragmatic or utilitarian.

TN: Yes, aesthetics doesn’t, in my thinking at least, get at universal truths and it doesn’t give you any instrumental value. It doesn’t give you any categories to judge the world; it doesn’t help you in any clear instrumental way. It changes who you are. So that’s why I think aesthetics is not taught. It doesn’t fit those prevailing dominant categories of what is philosophically important. I personally think, however, that aesthetics is absolutely crucial. Sensation is what life is about… (laughs). Everything has sensuous qualities that cannot be abstracted or reduced to the other areas of philosophy. All the core areas are inseparable. Its a fiction of the West to have divided them up this way in the first place.

KR: So how did [the class] emerge?

TN: So my research is very much focused on inverting the hierarchy that says that the senses and materiality deceive our quest for universal truth. I think sensation is primary for nature and for humans. In my book Theory of the Image I wanted to think about aesthetics from a new materialist perspective and from a non- anthropocentric perspective. There was not a single book about new materialism and aesthetics at the time, and that’s why I wanted to write it. I wanted to start with materiality and sensation and show the entanglement of all four core areas. So that was my interest going into the course: to teach aesthetics from a materialist and non-anthropological perspective based on my research.

KR: So… your co-instructor, how did you end up co-teaching it and why him- cause he’s a rationalist. How did that come about? And what did you learn? Because it was fascinating to be in the class and watch the tensions and watch two philosophers at work, doing the work of philosophy.

TN: That was for me what was most fun about that. I didn’t realize how different we were until teaching the class so part of it was just discovery of figuring out where this other person is coming from and over the course just watching that unfold. It wasn’t even obvious immediately what, how, and why his perspective was so different. So I learned a lot about where he was coming from and how far his argument goes and how it works. That was beneficial to me personally. There are a lot of people who are anthropocentric rationalists and who still have an investment in metaphysics and epistemology as the true foundations of philosophy and who don’t see aesthetics to be equally fundamental. They have lots of reasons for that. They might even like art and music too—but they do not agree that everything is fully sensuous. They believe that there are also “abstract mental objects” like the idea of a triangle that are fundamentally non-sensuous and immaterial. For me this belief is a speculative metaphysical claim neither provable nor falsifiable. So it was interesting to see how we differed and why. Definitely the fun part was having that dialogical experience of walking through the argument in ways that I don’t usually start from. So, bridging those two gaps I think was good for the class and also a challenge to try to teach.

KR: So, would you co-teach a class again with someone with a very different mindset, or are there pros and cons to teaching with someone who is really similar and on the same page versus being with someone who is coming from a really different perspective?

TN: Yes, and yes.

KR: Let me ask it this way, where do you want to go? Or is this Making Media Matter class the next step for you?

TN: Yes, materialist pedagogy is what I would like to work on now.

KR: So, this is an emergent process…? Pedagogically for you?

TN: Yes, the Making Media Matter class is the kind of co-teaching which is not just co-teaching, it’s collaborative; we’re doing something together and it feels very generative. Everybody is putting something into making a new class none of us had ever taught. From the get-go it was structured in a really organic and participatory way where everyone, including the students, were all doing and contributing and designing the course together. It has been rewarding, novel, and it’s pushing me in really interesting ways and directions that I had not anticipated—and that are great.

KR: You’re describing the differences in your pedagogical practices… the one was a traditional lecture, a theoretical lecture…

TN: For me, the lecture structure has not been as good for teaching new materialism.

KR: You weren’t doing new materialism, we were studying new materialism.

TN: That’s right. We were just reading people who had written about new materialism.

KR: So, it’s that “doing” pedagogy again, that active moving pedagogy.

TN: It was cool to do another aesthetics/art and new materialism related class that was so different in material format and just to feel how really different they are. Especially doing materialist pedagogy. I am just at the start of my experiments in materialist pedagogy but this MMM class has really got me thinking in a new way. Everything has to change now.

KR: Which is again the structure of academia and what we all are expected to do and fall in and if you want to break out of that you have to figure out how to do it- no one is going to support you with it (laughs).

TN: Well, that’s the thing that’s also very special about this three-way highly experimental co-taught class: its only happening because of special provisional funding. The class and all our public events and invited speakers have been amazing but it is all impossible without money.

KR: It’s lost revenue.

TN: It’s expensive if you want to have this kind of experimental education that is driven by methodology; the college gave us this money in order to experiment with new pedagogical methods and we are grateful. But it rarely happens. I would like to see it happen in the future of course but it’s not certain. Most people teaching do not have this opportunity and face all kinds of constraints. Innovation is too expensive…

KR: In the current model…

TN: In the current model it is too expensive to have three faculty teaching thirty students and then to triple cross list the course. There’s also a barrier that we could only triple cross list in our college; if we want- ed to do anything with the college of education or Korbel or the law school we actually could not do it be- cause they cannot figure out how the credits will overlap between colleges (laughs). Its such a barrier to genuine interdisciplinary teaching and research.

KR: Wow… isn’t that amazing. Well, thank you!

A Short History of Aleatory Art

There is a long, albeit minor, tradition in Western art of emphasizing pedesis and feedback to varying degrees. In A Deluge, with a Falling Mountain and Collapsing Town (1515; figure 16.1), for example, Leonardo da Vinci states that he used the appearance of humidity and condensation on windows and walls as an inspiration for painting landscapes, rocks, and rivers or unstable phenomena like fluids, smoke, or clouds.3


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Figure 16.1 Leonardo da Vinci, A Deluge, with a Falling Mountain and Collapsing Town (1515)


The pedesis of the hairs on the brush as they are mashed on the surface of the paper can also give rise to disorderly patterns on which disorderly images of the sky and earth can be figured, as in Alexander Cozens’s Streaky Clouds at the Bottom of the Sky (1786). Other techniques like frottage or rubbing use a pencil on paper over an uneven surface that produces a pedetic pattern to be elaborated on, as in Max Ernst’s Le Foret pétrifié (1929). The pedetic element here is the arbitrary nature of the rubbed object and the stochastic bouncing of the pencil over the surface.

The pedesis of the air itself has also been used as important way to increase the pedesis of the work of art. Marcel Duchamp’s Trois Stoppages Étalon (1913; figure 16.2), for example, uses the aleatory fall of a single meter-long thread to remeasure a meter. He writes, “If a thread one meter long falls straight from a height of one meter onto a horizontal plane, it twists as it pleases and creates a new image of the unit of length.”4 Since the thread is so light, the slightest bit of turbulent and stochastic air movement will cause it to fall in a slightly different configuration each time.

Painting can benefit from a similar aeropedetic method, like John Cage’sStrings 1-62 #45 (1980) inspired by Duchamp, or John Arp’s method of dropping cut-up pieces of colored paper from a height onto paper, Grand Dessin (1917). Or, more notably, in the work of Jackson Pollack. For example, Jackson Pollack’s No 31 (1950) relies on the effect of pedetic air currents on a liquid medium (paint) to pedetically reshape flung or dripped paint onto the canvas. Prereflective arm movements scatter the paint into the air, where the real painting is done not by the hand but by the air and paint left to itself in the air, and then the canvas as it shapes the splatter. Aerodynamic and fluid dynamic processes can be used together to introduce pedesis and material generativity into art. For example, Andy Warhol’sOxidation Painting series (1978) uses the pedetic flow of urine through the air to oxidize copper paint on canvas. The flow of liquid in air is subject to all kinds of stochastic turbulence and splatter, and the chemical reaction itself is subject to unpredictable shapes and speeds of oxidation.

In Francis Bacon’s work, we find paint splatter and rubbing combined.Figure in Movement (1978), for example, begins with splattering paint randomly on the canvas, painting with it, and scrubbing it out in a continual feedback loop of formation and deformation of the figure. Bacon’s aim is not to reproduce the photographic movement of the body (inspired by Muybridge) but, as he says, “the opposite of natural movement.”5 “I work much better in chaos . . . chaos for me breeds images.”6 And “The way I work is totally, now, accidental, and becomes more and more accidental, and doesn’t seem to behave, as it were, unless it is accidental, how can I recreate an accident? It’s almost an impossible thing to do. . . . [An accident]

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Figure 16.2 Marcel Duchamp, Trois Stoppages Étalon (1913)


out of which [the bodies] could move as though out of pools of flesh rose the images.”7 Images, for Bacon, are not something that preexist the material kinetic process of their generation. In contrast to the classical image of the eternal unchanging god which the artist copies, inspired by the muse, Bacon’s work shows how images emerge from the bottom up, through material pedetic genesis.

Not only in painting but in literature as well, pedetic methods have been used give agency back to the matters themselves. Tristan Tzara, for example, popularized the découpé, or “cut up” technique, in which a text is cut up and rearranged to create a new text from the random juxtaposition of the fragments. Brion Gysin and William Burroughs invented the similar “fold-in” technique, in which two pages are folded in half and stuck together to create a new page. B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates (1969) is composed of twenty-seven unbound sections, with a first and last chapter specified. The twenty-five sections in between, ranging from a single paragraph to twelve pages in length, are designed to be read in any order. All these techniques allow the image to be determined increasingly by the matter itself. The aim is not to force matters into predetermined patterns of action but, rather, to allow the matters to unfold and express themselves. The artist is only there to facilitate, not to dominate the process.

We also see similar methods at work in the history of Western music. Mozart’s Musikalisches Würfelspiel (Musical Dice Game) (1792), for example, is a minuet made by cutting and pasting together prewritten sections determined by the roll of a die. Following a similar inspiration, Marcel Duchamp composed Erratum Musical (1913) by randomly picking from a hat twenty- five notes ranging from F below middle C and up to high F, then recording them in the score according to the sequence of the drawing. John Cage, again following Duchamp, wrote Music of Changes (1951) to give musical performers the freedom to create unforeseen sounds during performance. Pierre Boulez did the same, but for the composer.

Boulez’s Third Piano Sonata (1955–57/63), for example, allows the pianist to choose different routes through the score, and in one of the movements has the option of omitting certain passages altogether. In Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klavierstück XI (1956), however, pedesis is given to the ordering of the sequences of musical fragments. Even more radically, Morton Feldman’s Intermission 6 (1953) for one or two pianos begins with fifteen fragments with the instruction, “Composition begins with any sound and proceeds to any other.”8 In the same year, Earle Brown composed Twenty-five Pages (1953) for one to twenty-five pianists, in which the pages are to be arranged in a sequence chosen by the performer(s), and each page may be performed either side up; events within each two-line system may be read as either treble or bass clef.9 In all these cases, the composers have attempted to introduce a degree of pedesis and interactivity into the musical work of art.

Sculpture, in turn, has invented its own attempts at pedesis. Alexander Calder’s Mobile (ca. 1932), for example, balances various shapes that hang in the air to be moved by pedetic currents of air. In doing so, sculpture is given pedetic motions depending on the temperature and viewers in the environment. In fact, it was Calder’s Mobile that inspired the aleatory music of Brown and Feldman. All manner of kinetic sculptures have since

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Figure 16.3 Hans Haacke, Condensation Cube (1963–1965)

been created that use aleatory wind patterns to influence their motion, including various musical sculptures like wind chimes and fabrics like Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Valley Curtain (1972), The Gates (2005), and Floating Piers (2014–2016). One of the most interesting analog pedetic methods, however, is Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube (1963–1965; figure 16.3). Haacke took seriously Leonardo’s advice about humidity on the walls, but instead left the condensation to move on its own, heating, cooling, drip- ping ever new in its own enclosed cube. The stochastic patterns of water molecules give rise to unpredictable patterns of accumulation and dissolution on the sides of the cube in direct feedback with the season, temperature, and viewers in the room.

From Theory of the Image, 343-347.

The Selected Writings of Pierre Hadot, translated by Matthew Sharpe and Federico Testa, Bloomsbury, 2019




















Congratulations to Matthew and Federico on this incredible book! I can’t wait to read it.

This collection of writings from Pierre Hadot (1992-2010) presents, for the first time, previously unreleased and in some cases untranslated materials from one of the world’s most prominent classical philosophers and historians of thought.As a passionate proponent of philosophy as a ‘way of life’ (most powerfully communicated in the life of Socrates), Pierre Hadot rejuvenated interest in the ancient philosophers and developed a philosophy based on their work which is peculiarly contemporary. His radical recasting of philosophy in the West was both provocative and substantial. Indeed, Michel Foucault cites Pierre Hadot as a major influence on his work.

This beautifully written, lucid collection of writings will not only be of interest to historians, classicists and philosophers but also those interested in nourishing, as Pierre Hadot himself might have put it, a ‘spiritual life’.

Table of contents and more here.




Climate, Capitalism, Control (Video by Ian Alan Paul)

Watch it here.
The work aims to diagram the conjunctive power of planetary-scale computation, commodification, and climate change, and begins with the following voice-over:

“Dispersed across the surface of Earth, computer clusters electronically hum in vast air-conditioned rooms.
One models sea level rises, precipitation rates, temperature increases, and property values in coastal metropolises
over the coming thousand years. Another runs simulations of various military strategies designed to respond to
the ensemble of armed insurgencies and mass migrations that are predicted to accompany expanding droughts
and crop failures. This cluster runs affect recognition algorithms on videos streamed from malls, schools, bridges,
beaches, cafes, prisons, subway cars, and stadiums in order to forecast the spatial distribution of criminal activity
in a bustling financial district. That cluster hosts a seemingly endless grid of lush virtual gardens that users
digitally water by periodically tapping on their phones while commuting to work. These clusters compete with one
another to mine cryptocurrencies while quantitatively speculating in weather derivatives markets. All of this silicone
only senses, analyzes, and simulates the planet in order to grow as a more total power over it.”

Over the duration of the ~30 minute project, a détourned montage of YouTube videos including data visualizations, drone recordings, defense industry promotions, corporate advertisements, news reports, Silicon Valley product demonstrations, protest documentary, and machine learning research is swiped through in order to visually survey the technical, political, and aesthetic dimensions that compose our disastrous present. Voice-over narration is algorithmically performed by the synthetic voices of Google’s WaveNet deep neural network, and a soundtrack is streamed on an Amazon Alexa.
Inspired and informed by diverse revolts, militant research, and contemporary anarchist and communist thought, the project aims to explicate the entangled operations of climate, capitalism, and control as well as to speculatively propose methods of bringing about their eventual undoing. In addition to its formalization as a video essay, “Climate, Capitalism, Control” is also presented as a standalone text which can be read as well as downloaded as a pdf here:

Following its online release, I will also be organizing exhibitions and screenings of the work in the year ahead. Please don’t hesitate to let me know if you are interested in showing “Climate, Capitalism, Control” or if you know of potential events, venues, or curators that you think I should reach out to. Thank you for taking the time to read this far, and I hope that you find the project meaningful and worthwhile.

All of the best,

           ~Ian Alan Paul