Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion (EUP, 2020) is out now!

Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion is now available for 30% off.

Edinburgh University Press: UK discount coupon code: NEW30
Oxford University Press: US discount coupon code: ADISTA5

‘With Lucretius II, Thomas Nail continues his project of re-reading Lucretius’ De rerum natura in a startlingly new fashion – as a foundational text in the philosophy of movement. The results of Nail’s labour are breathtaking: traditional pieties of scholarship fall by the wayside, replaced by a Lucretius truly of and for the twenty-first century.’ Wilson M. Shearin, University of Miami

‘More than just a study of Lucretius, Nail provides a stunning reading of an already fascinating philosopher. Nail’s originally and beautifully composed account of motion generates an ethics worthy of the twenty-first century, allowing us to think of instability as an opportunity for thinking our world anew.’
Claire Colebrook, Penn State University

An ancient ethics for modern life

Suffering, the fear of death, war, ecological destruction, and social inequality are urgent ethical issues today as they were for Lucretius. Thomas Nail argues that Lucretius was the first to locate the core of all these ethical ills in our obsession with stasis, our fear of movement, and our hatred of matter.

Almost two thousand years ago Lucretius proposed a simple and stunning response to these problems: an ethics of motion. Instead of trying to transcend nature with our minds, escape it with our immortal souls, and dominate it with our technologies, Lucretius was perhaps the first in the Western tradition to forcefully argue for a completely materialist and immanent ethics based on moving with and as nature. If we want to survive and live well on this planet, Lucretius taught us, our best chance is not to struggle against nature but to embrace it and facilitate its movement.

Download the Preface and Introduction here.

Preface

A new Lucretius is coming into view today. Every great historical epoch returns to him like bees returning to their flower fields in search of nourishment. Each time, though, our return is different – like the expanding arc of a spiral. We bring new questions, find new answers, and make Lucretius speak to us again as if for the first time. We make Lucretius’ epic poem De Rerum Natura into the mellifluous honey of a liquid antiquity that has always coursed through the veins of modernity like a spring of fresh meaning and inspiration.

We thus return to Lucretius not as though he were an unchanging figure carved in stone but as if he were a rush of new life at the cutting edge of the twenty-first century. We stand in front of Lucretius’ breathtaking and revolutionary poem not as passive students of unchanging relics in a museum but as active participants in a history of our present.

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

There were no atoms. I scoured the whole Latin text. Lucretius never used the word ‘atom’ or a Latinised version of this word – not even once. Translators added the word ‘atom’. Just as shockingly, I could not find the great isolated swerve in the rain of atoms, for which he is so well known. In Book II, Lucretius says instead that matter is always ‘in the habit of swerving’ [declinare solerent] (2.221) and if it were not [nisi], ‘all would fall like raindrops’ [caderent] (2.222). The solitary swerve and the rain of matter are counterfactual claims. Lucretius never said there was a rain and then one atom swerved. He says that matter is in the ‘habit’ [solerent] of swerving, meaning that swerving happens regularly. This, he says, is the only way to avoid the problem of assuming that something comes from nothing: matter must have always been swerving.

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

Around this time I also began to notice an increasing number of major differences between Lucretius and Epicurus. One of the reasons I thought I would find atoms and isolated swerves in Lucretius was because of a long history of interpretation that conflated the two thinkers, just as earlier scholars had errantly done with Democritus and Epicurus. There is no doubt that Lucretius studied and followed Epicurus, just as Epicurus had followed Democritus. However, between the three thinkers there are worlds of difference that have not been sufficiently understood. Not all students merely imitate their masters. Sometimes imitation functions as a mask for a student to put forward her or his own ideas – which is what Lucretius did I thus began to unravel the ‘Epicurean myth of Lucretius’.

Lucretius did something very strange. He wrote Epicurean philosophy in the style and method of Homeric poetry and in doing so ended up completely changing the meaning of both. Just like an ancient satyr play, Lucretius’ poem has numerous invocations of bacchanalian intoxication, sexual imagery, desire, and deceptive invocations of gods he
does not believe in (Venus and Mars), all affirmed joyfully alongside the destructive power of nature itself: death. This is in stark contrast with the contemplative, serious, pessimistic, and aloof style of Epicurus and his followers.

Epicurus had many Greek and Roman followers who wrote and promoted Epicurean doctrine, but Lucretius did something no one had ever done before. He espoused a version of Epicurean philosophy in a book of Latin poetry written in Homeric hexameter. Why? For pleasure. He wanted to make something new by mixing the old traditions. Lucretius performed a bewildering hybrid of two completely opposed figures and traditions (Homer and Epicurus) and made something novel: something uniquely Roman.

However, De Rerum Natura has largely been treated as a Homeric poem about Epicurean philosophy, but in this book I argue that there is also a hidden Epicurean philosophy of Homeric myth. In the end this is where the real brilliance and originality of Lucretius lies: not in Homer or Epicurus but in their perverse and twisted entanglement. There is thus a becoming Homer of Epicurus. It is a genuine injustice to reduce such a radical enterprise to mere Epicurean ‘doctrine’.

The idea of philosophical poetry is a satyr’s slap in the face to the entire Greek tradition of philosophy from Thales to Aristotle, including Epicurus. With few exceptions, Greek philosophers systematically reduced Homeric poetry to irrational and sensuous mythology in order to define their new abstractions and idealisms against the straw man of the oral tradition. This was a founding moment of exclusion that has stayed with the Western tradition up to the present – contributing to a perceived inferiority of oral and indigenous knowledge. It is therefore completely unsurprising that today, when Lucretius is invoked as a philosopher, he is treated as completely reducible to the real Greek master: Epicurus. By doing so, the Western reception of Lucretius has reproduced the same Grecocentric and idealist tradition that vilified pre-Greek and Homeric poetry and archaic materialism. This is the same Western tradition that continues to devalorise oral knowledge and non-Western mythologies today.

Most Western philosophy, even in its most materialist moments, has in one way or another hated matter and the body. Lucretius was the first from within this tradition to produce a true and radical materialism of sensation and the body. However, like Homer, Lucretius also paid the ultimate price for his materialist sins and was largely exiled from the discipline of philosophy. Either Lucretius was treated as a skilled poet of the Latin tongue or he was treated as a slavish imitator of the great master Epicurus. Never has Lucretius been read as an original philosophical poet of a radical materialism that goes far beyond anything Epicurus achieved. This book and its companion volumes are the first books to show precisely this.

Even more provocatively, Lucretius refused to use Epicurus’ Greek terminology when many other Epicurean and Roman authors, such as Cicero did so often and easily. The Romans are famous for renaming Greek gods: the Greek Aphrodite becomes the Roman Venus, Zeus becomes Jove, and so on. However, it is also well known that there is no strict equivalence between the two deities. The translation was, as translations always are, a transformation that resulted in new stories and a shifting fluidity of roles among the gods. This, I argue, is what happened with Lucretius. De Rerum Natura was not written as Epicurean dogma.

It was an original work of philosophical poetry that translated Homeric mythology and Epicurean philosophy into the Latin vernacular and thus transformed them into an original philosophy of motion. A few scholars have noted the tension between Lucretius’ poetic style and Epicurean doctrine, but none has suggested that it indicated anything philosophically original as a result.

The unearthing of this ‘hidden Lucretius’ is the subject of the present work and its companion volumes. In the first volume, Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion, I located a systematic ontology of motion and a new materialism beneath the atomist and Epicurean myth of Lucretius. In the present volume, I present the reader with a unique kinetic theory of ethics. This second volume builds on the ontological framework developed in the first and expands it explicitly to questions of life, death, knowledge, aesthetics, sex, ecology, and ethics – as they are discussed in Books III and IV of De Rerum Natura.

Each of the three volumes in this trilogy has been written so that it may be read either on its own or with the others. The themes of each of the volumes of the trilogy overlap with one another just as the content of the books in the poem do. However, each volume also focuses on distinct domains of philosophical inquiry: Volume I covers Lucretius’ ontology and cosmology; Volume II covers his ethics, epistemology, and aesthetics; and Volume III, his theory of history. Together, these three volumes compose an original and nearly line-by-line reading of the entirety of De Rerum Natura.

Read on!

Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion (Pre-order 30% off) and Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion $6.50

Screen Shot 2020-02-03 at 8.54.51 AM.png

Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion is now available for pre-order and 30% off during February and March.

Edinburgh University Press:  discount coupon code: NEW30
Oxford University Press: discount coupon code: ADISTA5

Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion digital book (epub/pdf) is also now available for $6.50 at Edinburgh here for the month of February.

‘With Lucretius II, Thomas Nail continues his project of re-reading Lucretius’ De rerum natura in a startlingly new fashion – as a foundational text in the philosophy of movement. The results of Nail’s labour are breathtaking: traditional pieties of scholarship fall by the wayside, replaced by a Lucretius truly of and for the twenty-first century.’ Wilson M. Shearin, University of Miami

‘More than just a study of Lucretius, Nail provides a stunning reading of an already fascinating philosopher. Nail’s originally and beautifully composed account of motion generates an ethics worthy of the twenty-first century, allowing us to think of instability as an opportunity for thinking our world anew.’
Claire Colebrook, Penn State University

An ancient ethics for modern life

Suffering, the fear of death, war, ecological destruction, and social inequality are urgent ethical issues today as they were for Lucretius. Thomas Nail argues that Lucretius was the first to locate the core of all these ethical ills in our obsession with stasis, our fear of movement, and our hatred of matter.

Almost two thousand years ago Lucretius proposed a simple and stunning response to these problems: an ethics of motion. Instead of trying to transcend nature with our minds, escape it with our immortal souls, and dominate it with our technologies, Lucretius was perhaps the first in the Western tradition to forcefully argue for a completely materialist and immanent ethics based on moving with and as nature. If we want to survive and live well on this planet, Lucretius taught us, our best chance is not to struggle against nature but to embrace it and facilitate its movement.

Download the Preface and Introduction here.

Preface

A new Lucretius is coming into view today. Every great historical epoch returns to him like bees returning to their flower fields in search of nourishment. Each time, though, our return is different – like the expanding arc of a spiral. We bring new questions, find new answers, and make Lucretius speak to us again as if for the first time. We make Lucretius’ epic poem De Rerum Natura into the mellifluous honey of a liquid antiquity that has always coursed through the veins of modernity like a spring of fresh meaning and inspiration.

We thus return to Lucretius not as though he were an unchanging figure carved in stone but as if he were a rush of new life at the cutting edge of the twenty-first century. We stand in front of Lucretius’ breathtaking and revolutionary poem not as passive students of unchanging relics in a museum but as active participants in a history of our present.

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

There were no atoms. I scoured the whole Latin text. Lucretius never used the word ‘atom’ or a Latinised version of this word – not even once. Translators added the word ‘atom’. Just as shockingly, I could not find the great isolated swerve in the rain of atoms, for which he is so well known. In Book II, Lucretius says instead that matter is always ‘in the habit of swerving’ [declinare solerent] (2.221) and if it were not [nisi], ‘all would fall like raindrops’ [caderent] (2.222). The solitary swerve and the rain of matter are counterfactual claims. Lucretius never said there was a rain and then one atom swerved. He says that matter is in the ‘habit’ [solerent] of swerving, meaning that swerving happens regularly. This, he says, is the only way to avoid the problem of assuming that something comes from nothing: matter must have always been swerving.

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

Around this time I also began to notice an increasing number of major differences between Lucretius and Epicurus. One of the reasons I thought I would find atoms and isolated swerves in Lucretius was because of a long history of interpretation that conflated the two thinkers, just as earlier scholars had errantly done with Democritus and Epicurus. There is no doubt that Lucretius studied and followed Epicurus, just as Epicurus had followed Democritus. However, between the three thinkers there are worlds of difference that have not been sufficiently understood. Not all students merely imitate their masters. Sometimes imitation functions as a mask for a student to put forward her or his own ideas – which is what Lucretius did I thus began to unravel the ‘Epicurean myth of Lucretius’.

Lucretius did something very strange. He wrote Epicurean philosophy in the style and method of Homeric poetry and in doing so ended up completely changing the meaning of both. Just like an ancient satyr play, Lucretius’ poem has numerous invocations of bacchanalian intoxication, sexual imagery, desire, and deceptive invocations of gods he
does not believe in (Venus and Mars), all affirmed joyfully alongside the destructive power of nature itself: death. This is in stark contrast with the contemplative, serious, pessimistic, and aloof style of Epicurus and his followers.

Epicurus had many Greek and Roman followers who wrote and promoted Epicurean doctrine, but Lucretius did something no one had ever done before. He espoused a version of Epicurean philosophy in a book of Latin poetry written in Homeric hexameter. Why? For pleasure. He wanted to make something new by mixing the old traditions. Lucretius performed a bewildering hybrid of two completely opposed figures and traditions (Homer and Epicurus) and made something novel: something uniquely Roman.

However, De Rerum Natura has largely been treated as a Homeric poem about Epicurean philosophy, but in this book I argue that there is also a hidden Epicurean philosophy of Homeric myth. In the end this is where the real brilliance and originality of Lucretius lies: not in Homer or Epicurus but in their perverse and twisted entanglement. There is thus a becoming Homer of Epicurus. It is a genuine injustice to reduce such a radical enterprise to mere Epicurean ‘doctrine’.

The idea of philosophical poetry is a satyr’s slap in the face to the entire Greek tradition of philosophy from Thales to Aristotle, including Epicurus. With few exceptions, Greek philosophers systematically reduced Homeric poetry to irrational and sensuous mythology in order to define their new abstractions and idealisms against the straw man of the oral tradition. This was a founding moment of exclusion that has stayed with the Western tradition up to the present – contributing to a perceived inferiority of oral and indigenous knowledge. It is therefore completely unsurprising that today, when Lucretius is invoked as a philosopher, he is treated as completely reducible to the real Greek master: Epicurus. By doing so, the Western reception of Lucretius has reproduced the same Grecocentric and idealist tradition that vilified pre-Greek and Homeric poetry and archaic materialism. This is the same Western tradition that continues to devalorise oral knowledge and non-Western mythologies today.

Most Western philosophy, even in its most materialist moments, has in one way or another hated matter and the body. Lucretius was the first from within this tradition to produce a true and radical materialism of sensation and the body. However, like Homer, Lucretius also paid the ultimate price for his materialist sins and was largely exiled from the discipline of philosophy. Either Lucretius was treated as a skilled poet of the Latin tongue or he was treated as a slavish imitator of the great master Epicurus. Never has Lucretius been read as an original philosophical poet of a radical materialism that goes far beyond anything Epicurus achieved. This book and its companion volumes are the first books to show precisely this.

Even more provocatively, Lucretius refused to use Epicurus’ Greek terminology when many other Epicurean and Roman authors, such as Cicero did so often and easily. The Romans are famous for renaming Greek gods: the Greek Aphrodite becomes the Roman Venus, Zeus becomes Jove, and so on. However, it is also well known that there is no strict equivalence between the two deities. The translation was, as translations always are, a transformation that resulted in new stories and a shifting fluidity of roles among the gods. This, I argue, is what happened with Lucretius. De Rerum Natura was not written as Epicurean dogma.

It was an original work of philosophical poetry that translated Homeric mythology and Epicurean philosophy into the Latin vernacular and thus transformed them into an original philosophy of motion. A few scholars have noted the tension between Lucretius’ poetic style and Epicurean doctrine, but none has suggested that it indicated anything philosophically original as a result.

The unearthing of this ‘hidden Lucretius’ is the subject of the present work and its companion volumes. In the first volume, Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion, I located a systematic ontology of motion and a new materialism beneath the atomist and Epicurean myth of Lucretius. In the present volume, I present the reader with a unique kinetic theory of ethics. This second volume builds on the ontological framework developed in the first and expands it explicitly to questions of life, death, knowledge, aesthetics, sex, ecology, and ethics – as they are discussed in Books III and IV of De Rerum Natura.

Each of the three volumes in this trilogy has been written so that it may be read either on its own or with the others. The themes of each of the volumes of the trilogy overlap with one another just as the content of the books in the poem do. However, each volume also focuses on distinct domains of philosophical inquiry: Volume I covers Lucretius’ ontology and cosmology; Volume II covers his ethics, epistemology, and aesthetics; and Volume III, his theory of history. Together, these three volumes compose an original and nearly line-by-line reading of the entirety of De Rerum Natura.

Read on!

 

 

The Climate-Migration-Industrial Complex

I just published a short piece at the New School’s Public Seminar magazine on migration and climate change. A further development of the idea that climate migration is a form of primitive accumulation.

Read online here, download here.

Thirty years ago there were fifteen border walls around the world. Now there are seventy walls and over one billion national and international migrants. International migrants alone may even double in the next forty years due to global warming. It is not surprising that over the past two decades, we have also seen the rise of an increasingly powerful global climate-security market designed to profit from (and help sustain) these crises. The construction of walls and fences to block rising sea levels and incoming people has become one of the world’s fastest growing industries, alongside the detention and deportation of migrants, and is projected to reach $742 billion by 2023. I believe we are witnessing the emergence of what we might call a “climate-migration-industrial complex.”

This complex is composed of private companies who profit by securitizing nation-states from the effects of climate-related events, including migration. This includes private detention centers, border construction companies, surveillance technology consultants and developers, deportation and transportation contractors, and a growing army of other subcontractors profiting from insecurity more broadly. Every feature of this crisis complex is an opportunity for profit. For example, even when security measures “fail” and migrants cross borders illegally, or remain beyond their visas to live without status as “criminals,” there is an entire wing of private companies paid to hunt them down, detain them, and deport them just across the border, where they can return and begin the market cycle all over again. Each step in the “crimmigration” process now has its own cottage industry and dedicated army of lobbyists to perpetuate the laws that support it.

Here is the incredible double paradox that forms the backbone of the climate-migration-industrial complex: right-wing nationalists and their politicians claim they want to deport all undocumented migrants, but if they did, they would destroy their own economy. Capitalists, on the other hand, want to grow the economy with migrant labor (any honest economist will tell you that immigration almost always leads to growth in GDP), but if that labor is too expensive, then it’s not nearly as profitable.

Trump is the Janus-faced embodiment of this anti-immigrant, pro-economy dilemma and the solution to it — not that he necessarily knows it. With one hand, migrant labor is strategically criminalized and devalorized by a xenophobic state, and with the other, it is securitized and hyper-exploited by the economy. It is a win-win situation for right-wing capitalists but a crucial element is still missing: what will continue to compel migrants to leave their homes and work as exploited criminals in an increasingly xenophobic country?

This is where the figure of the climate migrant comes in. What we call “climate migrants” or “climate refugees” are not the victims of merely “natural disasters,” because climate change is not a strictly natural process — it is also highly political. The causes of climate-related migration are disproportionately produced by rich Western countries and the effects are disproportionately suffered by poorer countries. The circumstances that determine who is forced to migrate are also influenced by the history of colonialism, global inequality, and the same conditions that have propelled economic migration for decades. In short, the fact that climate change benefits the perpetrators of climate destruction by producing an increasing supply of desperate, criminalized, physically and economically displaced laborers is no coincidence. In fact, it is the key to the Trump “solution.”

Another key is the use of climate change to acquire new land. When people are forced to migrate out of a territory, or when frozen territories thaw, new lands, waters, and forests become open to extractive industries like mining, drilling, fishing, and logging. Trump’s recent (and ridiculous) bid to buy the thawing territory of Greenland for its oil and gas reserves is one example of this. Climate-stricken urban areas open up new real estate markets, as the gentrification of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina illustrated. In other words, climate change might not mean the end of capitalism, but rather could actually signal its resurgence from current falling rates of ecological profit. During colonialism, everything and everyone that could be easily appropriated (oil, slaves, old-growth forests, etc.), was gobbled up. The workers who are left today under post-colonialism demand more money and more rights. The minerals left are more expensive to extract. This is why capitalists have increasingly retreated to financial speculation, and now to monetizing their own crises.

If only there were new ways, the capitalist dreams, to kick start the economy and cheaply dislodge huge numbers of people from their land, devalorize their labor, and then appropriate that labor extremely cheaply. In other words, if climate change did not exist, capitalism would have to create it. Luckily for the capitalists, it does exist, because they did create it. Climate migrants now form what we might call a “disposable climate labor army,” conscripted out of a standing reserve of global poverty from wherever the next climate-related disaster strikes, and deployed wherever capitalism demands precarious, securitized, and criminalized labor to be exploited.

We need to rethink the whole framing of the climate migration “crisis.” Among other things, we need a more movement-oriented political theory to grapple better with the highly mobile events of our time — what I call a “kinopolitics.” The advent of the Capitalocene/Kinocene makes possible today the insight that nature, humans, and society have always been in motion. Humans are and have always been fundamentally migratory, just as the climate and the earth are. These twin insights might sound obvious today, but if taken seriously, they offer a complete inversion of the dominant interpretive paradigms of the climate and migration crises.

Humans and Earth have always been in motion, but not all patterns of motion are the same. There is no natural, normal, or default state of the earth or of human society. Therefore, we have to study the patterns of circulation that make possible these metastable states and not take them as given. This is what I have tried to work out in The Figure of the Migrant (2015) and Theory of the Border (2016). Unfortunately, the dominant framework for thinking about the climate and migrant crises is currently upside down. It starts from the perspective of a triple stasis: 1) that the earth and human society are in some sense separable and static, or at least stable, structures; 2) that the future should continue to be stable as well; and 3) that if there is not stability, then there is a “crisis.” Mobility, then, is a crisis only if we assume that there was or should be stasis in the first place. For example, migrants are said to destabilize society, and climate change is said to destabilize the earth.

From a kinopolitical perspective, we can see that the opposite is, in fact, true: Humans were first migratory, and only later settled into more metastable patterns of social-circulation (made historically possible by the social expulsion and dispossession of others). Migrants are not outside society but have played a productive and reproductive role throughout history. Migrant movements are constitutive and even transformative elements of society, rather than exceptional or marginal phenomena. The real question is how we ever came to act and think as if societies were not processes of social circulation that relied on migration as their conditions of reproduction. The earth, too, was first migratory, and only later did it settle into metastable patterns of geological and atmospheric circulation (e.g. the Holocene). Why did we ever think of the earth as a stable surface, immune from human activity in the first place?

The problem with the prevailing interpretation of climate change and migration is that the flawed paradigm that has defined the “crisis,” the notion of stasis, is also proposed as the solution “Let’s just get things back to normal stability again.” In short, I think a new paradigm is needed that does not use the same tools that generated the “crisis” to solve it — i.e. capitalism, colonialism, and the nation-state.

Today’s migrant “crisis” is a product of the paradox at the heart of the capitalist, territorial nation-state form, just as the climate crisis is an expression of the paradox at the heart of anthropocentrism. The solutions, therefore, will not come from the forms in crisis but only from the birth of new forms-in-motion that begin with the theoretical primacy of the very characteristic that is dissolving the old forms: the inherent mobility of the migrant climate and the climate migrant.

Thomas Nail is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Denver, working on a series of books on the philosophy of movement. His most recent book is Theory of the Image (Oxford University Press, 2018).

What is New Materialism?

What is New Materialism?

Christopher N. Gamble, Joshua S. Hanan & Thomas Nail (2019) WHAT IS NEW MATERIALISM?, Angelaki, 24:6, 111-134, DOI: 10.1080/0969725X.2019.1684704

The increasing prominence of “new materialism” signals a growing cross-disciplinary effort to challenge longstanding assumptions about humans and the non- or other-than- human material world. This paper argues that there is currently no single definition of new materialism but at least three distinct and partly incompatible trajectories.1 All three of these trajectories share at least one common theoretical commitment: to problematize the anthropocentric and constructivist orientations of most twentieth-century theory in a way that encourages closer attention to the sciences by the humanities.

The common motivation for this “materialist turn” is a perceived neglect or diminishment of matter in the dominant Euro-Western tradition as a passive substance intrinsically devoid of meaning. In what has become a kind of de facto motto, new materialists routinely emphasize how matter is “alive,” “lively,” “vibrant,” “dynamic,” “agentive,” and thus active. As we will argue, however, while new materialist scholars tend to use them interchangeably,2 such terms nevertheless take on sharply divergent meanings across the three approaches we identify. Likewise, as we examine below, this same divergence also underlies new materialist efforts to problematize anthropocentric binaries (e.g., “meaning and matter,” “culture and nature,” and “gender and sex”).

Alongside the rise of new materialism, there have also been numerous critiques. For example, new materialism has been criticized for exaggerating the extent of earlier feminist scholarship’s “biophobia” or neglect of matter;3 for rejecting Marxism and cultural materialism on mistaken grounds;4 for uncritically embracing and conflating the scientific study of matter with matter itself;5 and for overstating its alleged “newness.”6 Unfortunately, however, these critiques have largely placed all new materialists under the same umbrella and thus have often misidentified their target. At least, this is what we hope to demonstrate.

This paper emerges from our desire to offer a response to such criticisms but not in order to defend new materialism in general. Instead, we hope to help redirect each arrow of critique toward its proper target, and on this basis to advocate for the approach we call “performative” or “pedetic” new materialism. We think this approach has the greatest value and potential for future development but has unfortunately been badly misunderstood and wrongly conflated with the other two types of emerging new materialism. We therefore aim to illuminate how “negative new materialism,” “vital new materialism,” and “performative” or “pedetic” new materialism are simply not compatible.7 Even if their motivations are similar, their basic guiding premises are not.

More specifically, although each of the three types of materialism seeks to critique anthropocentrism’s presumption of matter as inherently passive and devoid of meaning, we argue that only the performative new materialist approach radically undermines a discrete separation between humans and matter. In distinct ways, both negative and vital new materialism continue to foreclose an appreciation of the truly performative movements of matter. On one hand, negative new materialism embraces either a radical division between human thought and inorganic matter or a “withdrawn” essence, both of which we think persist due to its uncritical embrace of an external, human-observer perspective.8 On the other hand, while vital materialism explicitly rejects any form of essentialism, we think it nevertheless manages to sneak back in through a metaphysics of life projected onto inorganic matter.9 In these crucial ways, as we elaborate below, non-performative new materialist theories continue to implicate certain objectivist, non-relational and, thus, idealist assumptions or residuals.10

The performative approach to new materialism, however, successfully eschews discrete separation by refusing any presumption of something external to matter – including human meaning – that guides, structures or grants meaning to its behaviors. In such a view, matter simply “is […] a doing,” as Karen Barad puts it.11 Matter is what it does or “how it moves,” as Thomas Nail puts it.12 And since the performances of humans are not external to those of the rest of the material world, this view also leads, importantly, to a performative understanding of science in which every act of observing also constitutes, at once, a transformation of what is being observed. Such a view enables the following responses to the criticisms of new materialist work we mentioned above:

(1) The neglect of matter. While we agree that some new materialism work does unwittingly reinforce the binaries it seeks to problematize,13 we believe this criticism does not apply to the performative approach. For example, when the latter speak of a prior “neglect” of matter they do not mean that previous theorists did not talk about matter but rather that those theorists neglected or discounted matter as inherently dynamic and meaningful (precisely due to the anthropocentric presumption that meaning, and whatever else might make humans exceptional, is immaterial).14

(2) Science envy. While we also agree that some new materialists have embraced science uncritically in ways that conflate its findings with matter as such, in a performative account scientific practices and discourses are just as productive of the very world they describe as is any other action, human or otherwise. Such an account therefore agrees with poststructuralism and science-and-technology studies that all human discourses are constitutive. The novel argument, however (at least within the dominant Euro-Western tradition), is that those discourses are themselves also – and only – particular configurations or performances of matter.

(3) The fetish of novelty. Although we fully embrace historically oriented work questioning the alleged newness of new materialism, we again do not agree that this critique applies to the performative approach. Matter always has been in motion. We have shown elsewhere how the creativity of this movement has been erased or excluded in the Western tradition.15 Furthermore, arguably the most important historical Euro-Western precursor to performative materialism is the ancient Roman poet Lucretius, whose philosophical poem, in many ways, is connected to a performative materialist understanding of Homer.16 In addition, we also find a great deal of merit to the recent call for greater recognition of and sustained engagement with the affinities (and differences) between a performative “new” materialism such as Barad’s “agential realism” and the many and varied agent ontologies discussed in indigenous studies literature, which in some cases can be traced back many millennia.17 We thus understand performative materialism as a recovery in novel form of older subterranean or largely disparaged or disregarded materialisms and certainly not as an ex nihilo appearance.

The aim of this paper is to clarify what distinguishes a performative or pedetic approach to materialism by illuminating its differences with both older materialisms and other new ones. The general aim of Part 1 is to develop the former distinction.

Read on!

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: https://www.ianalanpaul.com/climate-capitalism-control-text/

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

Paul Stamets, Fantastic Fungi: How Mushrooms Can Heal, Shift Consciousness, and Save the Planet (2019)

Contributions from Michael Pollan, Andrew Weil, Eugenia Bone, and many more expterts make Fantastic Fungi an awe-inspiring visual journey through the exotic, little-known realm of fungi and its amazing potential to positively influence our lives.

An all-star team of professional and amateur mycologists, artists, foodies, ecologists, doctors, and explorers joined forces with time-lapse master Louie Schwartzberg to create Fantastic Fungi, the life-affirming, mind-bending film about mushrooms and their mysterious interwoven rootlike filaments called mycelium. What this team reveals will blow your mind and possibly save the planet. This visually compelling companion book of the same name, edited by preeminent mycologist Paul Stamets, will expand upon the film in every way through extended transcripts, new essays and interviews, and additional facts about the fantastic realm of fungi.

Fantastic Fungi is at the forefront of a mycological revolution that is quickly going mainstream. In this book, learn about the incredible communication network of mycelium under our feet, which has the proven ability to restore the planet’s ecosystems, repair our health, and resurrect our symbiotic relationship with nature. Fantastic Fungi aspires to educate and inspire the reader in three critical areas: First, the text showcases research that reveals mushrooms as a viable alternative to Western pharmacology. Second, it explores studies pointing to mycelium as a solution to our gravest environmental challenges. And, finally, it details fungi’s marvelous proven ability to shift consciousness.

Motivating both the visually stunning film and this follow-up book is an urgent mission to change human consciousness and restore our planet.

This. Is. Amazing.

Buy the book here.

 

 

The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture, Emanuele Coccia (2018)

This is a wonderful book. I highly recommend it for those interested in materialism, nature, plants, posthuman ecology.

We barely talk about them and seldom know their names. Philosophy has always overlooked them; even biology considers them as mere decoration on the tree of life. And yet plants give life to the Earth: they produce the atmosphere that surrounds us, they are the origin of the oxygen that animates us. Plants embody the most direct, elementary connection that life can establish with the world.

In this highly original book, Emanuele Coccia argues that, as the very creator of atmosphere, plants occupy the fundamental position from which we should analyze all elements of life. From this standpoint, we can no longer perceive the world as a simple collection of objects or as a universal space containing all things, but as the site of a veritable metaphysical mixture. Since our atmosphere is rendered possible through plants alone, life only perpetuates itself through the very circle of consumption undertaken by plants. In other words, life exists only insofar as it consumes other life, removing any moral or ethical considerations from the equation. In contrast to trends of thought that discuss nature and the cosmos in general terms, Coccia’s account brings the infinitely small together with the infinitely big, offering a radical redefinition of the place of humanity within the realm of life.

More here.