Three Theses on Neoliberal Migration and Social Reproduction

 

Polygraph_27_Front Cover

Issue 27 of Polygraph is on “Neoliberalism and Social Reproduction” edited by Jaime Acosta Gonzalez, Jess Issacharoff, & Jacob Soule.

Read the whole issue free online here

Below is my contribution:

Three Theses on Neoliberal Migration and Social Reproduction

Today there are more than 1 billion regional and international migrants, and the number continues to rise: within 40 years, it might double because of climate change. While many of these migrants might not cross a regional or international border, people change residences and jobs more often, while commuting longer and farther to work. This increase in human mobility and expulsion affects us all. It should be recognized as a defining feature of our epoch: The twenty-first century will be the century of the migrant.

The argument of this paper is that the migrant is also a defining figure of neoliberal social reproduction. This argument is composed of three interlocking theses on what I am calling the “neoliberal migrant.”

Thesis 1: The first thesis argues that the migrant is foremost a socially constitutive figure. That is, we should not think of the migrant as a derivative or socially exceptional figure who merely travels between pre- constituted states. The movement and circulation of migrants has always played an important historical role in the social and kinetic production and reproduction of society itself.1

Thesis 2: The second thesis therefore argues that social reproduction itself is a fundamentally kinetic or mobile process. The fact that a historically record number of human beings are now migrating and commuting between countries, cities, rural and urban areas, multiple part time precarious jobs, means that humans are now spending a world historical record amount of unpaid labor-time just moving around. This mobility is itself a form of social reproduction.

Thesis 3: The third thesis is that neoliberalism functions as a migration regime of social reproduction. Under neoliberalism, the burden of social reproduction has been increasingly displaced from the state to the population itself (health care, child care, transportation, and other traditionally social services). At the same time, workers now have less time than ever before to do this labor because of increasing reproductive mobility regimes (thesis two). This leads then to a massively expanded global market for surplus reproductive laborers who can mow lawns, clean houses, and care for children so first world laborers can commute longer and more frequently. Neoliberalism completes the cycle by providing a new “surplus reproductive labor army” in the form of displaced migrants from the global South.

We turn now to a defense of these theses.

Thesis 1: The Migrant is Socially Constitutive

This is the case, in short, because societies are themselves defined by a continual movement of circulation, expansion, and expulsion that relies on the mobility of migrants to accommodate its social expansions and contractions.

The migrant is the political figure who is socially expelled or dispossessed, to some degree as a result, or as the cause, of their mobility. We are not all migrants, but most of us are becoming migrants. At the turn of the twenty- first century, there were more regional and international migrants than ever before in recorded history—a fact that political theory has yet to take seriously.2

If we are going to take the figure of the migrant seriously as a constitutive, and not derivative, figure of Western politics, we have to change the starting point of political theory. Instead of starting with a set of pre-existing citizens, we should begin with the flows of migrants and the ways they have circulated or sedimented into citizens and states in the first place—as well as emphasizing how migrants have constituted a counterpower and alternative to state structures.

This requires first of all that we take seriously the constitutive role played by migrants before the 19th century, and give up the arbitrary starting point of the nation-state. In this way we will be able to see how the nation-state itself was not the origin but the product of migration and bordering techniques that existed long before it came on the scene.3

Second of all, and based on this, we need to rethink the idea of political inclusion as a fundamentally kinetic process of circulation, not just as a formal legal, economic, or other kind of status. In other words, instead of a formal political distinction between inclusion/exclusion or a formal economic distinc- tion between productive/unproductive, we need a material one of circulation/ recirculation showing how social activity is defined by lived cycles of socially reproductive motions.

One way to think about the constitutive role played by migrants is as a kinetic radicalization of Karl Marx’s theory of primitive accumulation.

Primitive Accumulation
Marx develops this concept from a passage in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: “The accumulation of stock must, in the nature of things, be previous to the division of labour.”4 In other words, before humans can be divided into owners and workers, there must have already been an accu- mulation such that those in power could enforce the division in the first place. The superior peoples of history naturally accumulate power and stock and then wield it to perpetuate the subordination of their inferiors. For Smith, this process is simply a natural phenomenon: Powerful people always already have accumulated stock, as if from nowhere.

For Marx, however, this quote is perfectly emblematic of the historical obfuscation of political economists regarding the violence and expulsion required for those in power to maintain and expand their stock. Instead of acknowledging this violence, political economy mythologizes and naturalizes it just like the citizen-centric nation state does politically. For Marx the concept of primitive accumulation has a material history. It is the precapitalist condition for capitalist production. In particular, Marx identifies this process with the expulsion of peasants and indigenous peoples from their land through enclosure, colonialism, and anti-vagabond laws in sixteenth-century England. Marx’s thesis is that the condition of the social expansion of capitalism is the prior expulsion of people from their land and from their legal status under customary law. Without the expulsion of these people, there is no expansion of private property and thus no capitalism.

While some scholars argue that primitive accumulation was merely a single historical event in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, others argue that it plays a recurring logical function within capitalism itself: In order to expand, capitalism today still relies on non-capitalist methods of social expulsion and violence.5

The idea of expansion by expulsion broadens the idea of primitive accumulation in two ways. First, the process of dispossessing people of their social status (expulsion) in order to further develop or advance a given form of social motion (expansion) is not at all unique to the capitalist regime of social motion. We see the same social process in early human societies whose progressive cultivation of land and animals (territorial expansion) with the material technology of fencing also expelled (territorial dispossession) a part of the human population. This includes hunter-gatherers whose territory was transformed into agricultural land, as well as surplus agriculturalists for whom there was no more arable land left to cultivate at a certain point. Thus social expulsion is the condition of social expansion in two ways: It is an internal condition that allows for the removal of part of the population when certain internal limits have been reached (carrying capacity of a given territory, for example) and it is an external condition that allows for the removal of part of the population outside these limits when the territory is able to expand outward into the lands of other groups (hunter gatherers). In this case, territorial expansion was only possible on the condition that part of the population was expelled in the form of migratory nomads, forced into the surrounding mountains and deserts.

 

We later see the same logic in the ancient world, whose dominant polit- ical form, the state, would not have been possible without the material tech- nology of the border wall that both fended off as enemies and held captive as slaves a large body of barbarians (through political dispossession) from the mountains of the Middle East and Mediterranean. The social conditions for the expansion of a growing political order, including warfare, colonialism, and massive public works, were precisely the expulsion of a population of barbarians who had to be walled out and walled in by political power. This technique occurs again and again throughout history, as I have tried to show in my work.

The second difference between previous theories of primitive accumulation and the more expansive one offered here is that this process of prior expulsion or social deprivation Marx noted is not only territorial or juridical, and its expansion is not only economic.6 Expulsion does not simply mean forcing people off their land, although in many cases it may include this. It also means depriving people of their political rights by walling off the city, criminalizing types of persons by the cellular techniques of enclosure and incarceration, or restricting their access to work by identification and checkpoint techniques.

Expulsion is the degree to which a political subject is deprived or dispossessed of a certain status in the social order. Accordingly, societies also expand and reproduce their power in several major ways: through territorial accumulation, political power, juridical order, and economic

profit. What is similar between the theory of primitive accumulation and the kinetic theory of expansion by expulsion is that most major expan- sions of social kinetic power also require a prior or primitive violence of kinetic social expulsion. The border is the material technology and social regime that directly enacts this expulsion. The concept of primitive accu- mulation is merely one historical instance of a more general kinopolitical logic at work in the emergence and reproduction of previous societies.

Marx even makes several general statements in Capital that justify this kind of interpretive extension. For Marx, the social motion of production in general strives to reproduce itself. He calls this “periodicity”: “Just as the heavenly bodies always repeat a certain movement, once they have been flung into it, so also does social production, once it has been flung into this movement of alternate expansion and contraction. Effects become causes in their turn, and the various vicissitudes of the whole process, which always reproduces its own conditions, take on the form of periodicity.”7 According to Marx, every society, not just capitalist ones, engages in some form of social production. Like the movements of the planets, society expands and contracts itself according to a certain logic, which strives to reproduce and expand the conditions that brought it about in the first place. Its effects in turn become causes in a feedback loop of social circulation. For Marx, social production is thus fundamentally a social motion of circulation or reproduction.

In short, the material-kinetic conditions for the expansion of societies re- quires the use of borders (fences, walls, cells, checkpoints) to produce a system of marginalized territorial, political, legal, and economic migrants that can be more easily recirculated elsewhere as needed. Just as the vagabond migrant is dispossessed by enclosures and transformed into the economic proletariat, so each dominant social system has its own structure of expansion by expulsion and reproduction as well.

Expansion by Expulsion

Expulsion is therefore a social movement that drives out and entails a deprivation of social status.8 Social expulsion is not simply the deprivation of territorial status (i.e., removal from the land); it includes three other major types of social deprivation: political, juridical, and economic. This is not a spatial or temporal concept but a fundamentally kinetic concept insofar as we understand movement extensively and intensively, that is, quantitatively and qualitatively. Social expulsion is the qualitative transformation of deprivation in status, resulting in or as a result of extensive movement in spacetime.

 

The social expulsion of migrants, for example, is not always free or forced. In certain cases, some migrants may decide to move, but they are not free to determine the social or qualitative conditions of their movement or the degree to which they may be expelled from certain social orders. Therefore, even in this case, expulsion is still a driving-out insofar as its conditions are not freely or individually chosen but socially instituted and compelled. Expulsion is a fundamentally social and collective process because it is the loss of a socially determined status, even if only temporarily and to a small degree.9

Expansion, on the other hand, is the process of opening up that allows something to pass through. This opening-up also entails a simultaneous extension or spreading out. Expansion is thus an enlargement or exten- sion through a selective opening. Like the process of social expulsion, the process of social expansion is not strictly territorial or primarily spatial; it is also an intensive or qualitative growth in territorial, political, juridical, and economic kinopower. It is both an intensive and extensive increase in the conjunction of new social flows and a broadening of social circulation. Colonialism is a good example of an expansion which is clearly territorial as well as political, juridical, and economic.

Kinopower is thus defined by a constitutive circulation, but this circulation functions according to a dual logic of reproduction. At one end, social circulation is a motion that drives flows outside its circulatory system: expulsion. This is accomplished by redirecting and driving out certain flows through exile, slavery, criminalization, or unemployment. At the other end of circulation there is an opening out and passing in of newly conjoined flows through a growth of territorial, political, juridical, and economic power. Expansion by expulsion is the social logic by which some members of society are dispossessed of their status as migrants so that social power can be expanded elsewhere. Power is not only a question of repression; it is a question of mobilization and kinetic reproduction.

For circulation to open up to more flows and become more powerful than it was, it has historically relied on the disjunction or expulsion of mi- grant flows. In other words, the expansion of power has historically relied on a socially constitutive migrant population.

Thesis 2: Mobility is a form of Social Reproduction

People today continually move greater distances more frequently than ever before in human history. Even when people are not moving across a regional or international border, they tend to have more jobs, change jobs more often, commute longer and farther to their places of work,10 change their residences repeatedly, and tour internationally more often.11

Some of these phenomena are directly related to recent events, such as the impoverishment of middle classes in certain rich countries after the financial crisis of 2008, neoliberal austerity cuts to social-welfare programs, and rising unemployment. The subprime-mortgage crisis, for example, led to the expul- sion of millions of people from their homes worldwide (9 million in the United States alone). Globally, foreign investors and governments have acquired 540 million acres since 2006, resulting in the eviction of millions of small farmers in poor countries, and mining practices have become increasingly destructive around the world—including hydraulic fracturing and tar sands.

In 2006, the world crossed a monumental historical threshold, with more than half of the world’s population living in urban centers, compared with just fifteen percent a hundred years ago. This number is now expected to rise above seventy-five percent by 2050, with more than two billion more people moving to cities.12 The term “global urbanization,” as Saskia Sassen rightly observes, is only another way of politely describing large-scale human migration and displacement from rural areas, often caused by corporate land grabs.13 What this means is not only that more people are migrating to cities but now within cities and between suburban and urban areas for work. This general increase in human mobility and expulsion is now widely recognized as a defining feature of the twenty-first century so far.14

Accordingly, this situation is having and will continue to have major social consequences for social relations in the twenty-first century. It there- fore demands the attention of critical theory. In particular, it should call our attention to the fact that this epic increase in human mobility and migration around the world is not just a minor or one-time “inconvenience” or “eco- nomic risk” that migrants make and then join the ranks of other “settled” urban workers. It is a continuous, ongoing, and nearly universal massive ex- traction of unpaid reproductive labor.

Urban workers have become increasingly unsettled and mobile.The world average commuting time is now 40 minutes, one-way.15 This unpaid transport time is not a form of simply unproductive or unpaid labor. It is actually the material and kinetic conditions for the reproduction of the worker herself to arrive at work ready for labor. Not only this, but unpaid transport labor also continuously reproduces the spatial architecture of capitalist urban centers and suburban peripheries.16 The increasing neoliberal privatization of roadway construction and tollways is yet another way in which unpaid transport labor is not “unproductive” at all but rather continues to reproduce a massive new private transport market.This goes hand in hand with the neoliberal decline of affordable public transportation, especially in the US.

 

Unfortunately, transport mobility has not traditionally been considered a form of social reproductive activity, but as global commute times and traffic increase, it is now becoming extremely obvious how important and constitu- tive this migratory labor actually is to the functioning of capital. If we define social reproduction as including all the conditions for the worker to arrive at work, then surely mobility is one of these necessary conditions. Perhaps one of the reasons it has not been recognized as such is because transport is an activity that looks least like an activity, since the worker is typically just sitting in a vehicle. Or perhaps the historical identification of vehicles and migration as sites of freedom (especially in America) has covered over the oppressive and increasingly obligatory unpaid labor time they often entail.

The consequences of this new situation appeared at first as merely tempo- ral inconveniences for first-world commuters or what we might call BMWs (bourgeoise migrant workers).This burden initially fell and still falls dispropor- tionally on women who are called on to make up for the lost reproductive labor of their traveling spouses (even if they themselves also commute). Increasingly, however, as more women have begun to commute farther and more often this apparently or merely reproductive neoliberal transport labor has actually pro- duced a growing new market demand for a “surplus reproductive labor army” to take up these domestic and care labors. This brings us to our third thesis.

Thesis: 3: Neoliberal Migration is a Regime of Social Reproduction

The third thesis is that neoliberalism functions as a migration regime of social reproduction. This is the case insofar as neoliberalism expands itself in the form of a newly enlarged reproductive labor market, accomplished through the relative expulsion of the workers from their homes (and into

vehicles) and the absolute expulsion of a migrant labor force from the global south to fill this new market.

Migration therefore has and continues to function as a constitutive form of social reproduction (thesis one). This is a crucial thesis because it stresses the active role migrants play in the production and reproduction of society, but it is not a new phenomenon. Marx was of course one of the first to identify this process with respect to the capitalist mode of production. The proletariat is always already a migrant proletariat. At any moment an employed worker could be unemployed and forced to relocate according to the demands of capitalist valorization. In fact, the worker’s mobility is the condition of modern industry’s whole form of motion. Without the migration of a surplus population to new markets, from the rural to the city, from city to city, from country to country (what Marx calls the “floating population”) capitalist accumulation would not be possible at all. “Modern industry’s whole form of motion,” Marx claims, “therefore depends on the constant transformation of a part of the working population into unemployed or semi-employed ‘hands.’”17 As capitalist markets expand, contract, and multiply “by fits and starts,” Marx says, capital requires the possibility of suddenly adding and subtracting “great masses of men into decisive areas without doing any damage to the scale of production. The surplus population supplies these masses.”18

What is historically new about the neoliberal migration regime is not merely that it simply expels a portion of the population in order to put it into waged labor elsewhere. What is new is that late-capitalist neoliberalism has now expelled one portion of the workers from a portion of their ownun-waged reproductive activity in order open up a new market for the waged activity of an as yet unexploited productive population of migrants from the global South. In other words reproductive labor itself has become a site of capitalist expansion. Wherever objects and activities have not yet been commodified, there we will find the next frontier of capitalist valorization.

The consequence of this is a dramatic double expulsion. On the one hand, the bourgeois migrant worker is expelled from her home in the form of unpaid reproductive transport labor so that on the other hand the proletarian migrant worker can be expelled from her home as an international migrant and then expelled from her home again as a commuting worker to do someone else’s reproductive activity. The burden of social reproduction then falls disproportionately on the last link in the chain: the unpaid reproductive labor that sustains the domestic and social life of the migrant family. This is what must be ultimately expelled to expand the market of social reproduction at another level. This expulsion falls disproportionally on migrant women from the global south who must somehow reproduce their family’s social conditions, commute, and then reproduce someone else’s family’s conditions well.19

 

Neoliberalism thus works on both fronts at the same time. On one side it increasingly withdraws and/or privatizes state social services that aid in social reproductive activities (child care, health care, public transit, and so on) while at the same increasing transport and commute times making a portion of those activities increasingly difficult for workers. On the other side it introduces the same structural adjustment policies (curtailed state and increased privatization) into the global South with the effect of mass economic migration to Northern countries where migrants can become waged producers in what was previously an “unproductive” (with respect to capital) sector of human activity: social reproduction itself.

Conclusion

This is the sense in which migrants play a constitutive role in the kinopolitics of social reproduction and neoliberal expansion. In other words, neoliberal migration has made possible a new level of commodification of social reproduction itself. Waged domestic labor is not new, of course, but what is new is the newly expanded nature of this sector of labor and its entanglement with a global regime of neoliberal expulsion and forced migration.

One of the features that defines the uniquely neoliberal form of social reproduction today is the degree to which capitalism has relied directly on economically liberal trade policies and politically liberal international governments in order to redistribute record-breaking numbers of “surplus migrant reproductive labor” into Western countries. Global migration is therefore not the side-effect of neoliberal globalization; it is the main effect. Neoliberalism should thus be understood as a migration regime for expanding Western power through the expulsion and accumulation of migrant reproductive labor.

Being and Motion, Thomas Nail (2018) Published Dec 10th

Being and Motion is officially published and available today.

Buy at Oxford

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More than at any other time in human history, we live in an age defined by movement and mobility; and yet, we lack a unifying theory which takes this seriously as a starting point for philosophy. The history of philosophy has systematically explained movement as derived from something else that does not move: space, eternity, force, and time. Why, when movement has always been central to human societies, did a philosophy based on movement never take hold? This book finally overturns this long-standing metaphysical tradition by placing movement at the heart of philosophy.

In doing so, Being and Motion provides a completely new understanding of the most fundamental categories of ontology from a movement-oriented perspective: quality, quantity, relation, modality, and others. It also provides the first history of the philosophy of motion, from early prehistoric mythologies up to contemporary ontologies. Through its systematic ontology of movement, Being and Motion provides a path-breaking historical ontology of our present.

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

Image result for Corsons Inlet

 

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
running
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
primrose
       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:
          as
manifold events of sand
change the dune’s shape that will not be the same shape
tomorrow,
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,
beaks
at the bayberries
    a perception full of wind, flight, curve,
    sound:
    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
                         formlessness:
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)

What is the Philosophy of Movement? Part II: The Mobilities Turn

Image result for The mobilities turn

What is the “Mobilities Turn” and what is its Relationship to the Philosophy of Movement? 

In 2006, Mimi Sheller and John Urry announced the emergence of a “mobilities paradigm” or “mobility turn” in the social sciences.[i]Their edited journal issue showed quite dramatically what many scholars studying movement across several different disciplines had already felt was going on for some time. That despite their different domains and topic of study, they were in fact studying the same thing, but from different perspectives: motion. The recognition of a common something that was being studied, despite the empirical differences in the areas of study was an important event and has led to further expansions of the paradigm into the humanities over the last ten years.[ii]

This event has at least two consequences for the development of a philosophy of motion. First, it takes the study of motion one step further by explicitly expanding the de facto methodological starting point of the primacy of motion to multiple areas and topics of study in the humanities and social sciences including anthropology, cultural studies, geography, science and technology studies, tourism and transport studies, and sociology, to name only a few.

Second, and even more importantly, this expansion introduced the possibility of a theoretical or methodological unity to the study of motion, as well as the possible limits for such a method. Does this method apply only to studies where things are obviously, dramatically, and empirically moving around like tourism, migration, the spread of viral epidemics, portable computers, airports, automobiles, and so on?[iii]Or should we still adopt the methodological primacy of motion in cases where things seem more immobile, like borders, states, prisons, desktop computers, roads, and so on? Or for those should we go back to spatial turn of the 1980s for a different method and set of concepts? Should we still begin our method with the primacy of motion if the events are older than the contemporary event of our “liquid” and “mobile” modernity as Bauman, Augé, Castells, Virilio and others all heralded at the turn of the century?[iv]Or for older events when the world was more static should we just rely on the traditional static methods of our discipline? There are as many answers to these questions as there are mobilities scholars, but it is easy to see where this is going. The mobility paradigm extends only as far scholars are willing to take it. At the moment mobility studies is largely, although not exclusively, focused on more obviously mobile bodies (cars, dance, diaspora, airports, and so on) in the twenty-first, often twentieth, and occasionally nineteenth centuries, and mostly in the social sciences, sometimes in the humanities, and rarely in the natural sciences.[v]

In their description of this mobilities paradigm Sheller and Urry even make clear that they “do not insist on a new ‘grand narrative’ of mobility, fluidity, or liquidity. The new mobilities paradigm suggests a set of questions, theories, and methodologies rather than a totalising or reductive description of the contemporary world.”[vi]The mobilities paradigm is, according to the authors, not a metaphysics that describes everything forever and all time. However, it also seems arbitrarily limited in its scope and content. At times this limitation threatens to undermine the methodological primacy of motion all together. As when a binary division is introduced between space-time immobilities, fixities, or moorings one the one hand and mobilities on the other. This is particularly limiting when immobility itself is understood to be the condition of mobility itself. As when Urry and Sheller claim that “the multiple fixities or moorings … enable the fluidities of liquid modernity,” or that mobilities “presume overlapping and varied time-space immobilities.”[vii]Surely there are relative relations of motion and rest, but physically speaking, nothing is absolutely immobile.

Why then limit the paradigm of movement in this way?[viii]

Despite the rather banal empirical fact accepted by every physical scientist that everything is in motion, some mobilities scholars have really dug their heels in on this point arguing that “if everything is mobile, then the concept has little purchase.”[ix]Imagine saying that “since everything is in space or time, the concept has little purchase”! [x]No wonder so few natural scientists seem interested in the mobilities paradigm. I agree that it is at least analytically useless and at most politically pernicious to merely say “everything is in motion” or “motion is a good,”[xi]but that is true of anything. On the contrary, the methodical goal of the philosophy of motion is to give us another robust perspective on reality—with all the same rigor across every domain of inquiry that space and time have.

Surely there is a third way between a metaphysics of motion and only studying some contemporary things that move a lot. Surely it is possible for paradigms and theoretical frameworks to offer a description of everything that has been without being the only coherent or reductive description of those things. There can be and certainly are multiple co-existing descriptions of the same things from different perspectives. Why then can’t the mobilities paradigm offer us a new perspective or dimension to everything in the same way that we quite easily talk about spatial and temporal dimensions to all things? Movement is just as real of an irreducible dimension of being as space or time. There is nothing which is not or has not been in motion. To believe otherwise is precisely to reduce motion to space and time.

A regional ontology of motion can therefore be stretched a long way without impinging on the future or becoming “total,” “absolute,” or “reductive.” In other words, a theory can have a large region and still be regional. Certainly such a theory can be pushed beyond the last fifty years or one hundred years! Everything moves. So why restrict a movement-oriented theoretical perspective to a couple domains, or historical periods, or anything else outside the non-existent future itself? If something moves why can’t a movement-oriented perspective be used to understand it?

So while the mobilities paradigm has and continues to make excellent contributions to the philosophy of motion to some degree it also seems to have some arbitrary de facto limitations to its domains, historical scope, and content, that leave plenty of room for the emergence of a more robust non-metaphysical and non-reductionistic philosophy and ontology of motion.

 

 

 

Notes

[i]Sheller, M, and J Urry. “The New Mobilities Paradigm.” Environment & Planning a. 38.2 (2006): 207-226.

[ii]For an excellent literature review and collected volume on the latest expansions of mobility studies see Endres, Marcel, Katharina Manderscheid, and Christophe Mincke. The Mobilities Paradigm: Discourses and Ideologies. (London: Routledge, 2016).

[iii]Rather, applying the terminology of Foucault’s archaeological approach to discourse analysis, the rules of discourse formation “determine both, what can appear as ‘movement,’ and the subject positions according to which one can move meaningfully and legitimately and according to which one can claim agency and insight in relation to movement” Birgitta Frello, “Towards a discursive analytics of movement: On the making and unmaking of movement as an object of knowledge.,” Mobilities 3(1): 2008, 25–50; 30.

[iv]Augé, Non-places: introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity, (London: Verso, 1995); M. Castells, The rise of the network society (2nd edition)(Oxford: Blackwell, 2000); Zygmunt Bauman, Globalization: the Human Consequences(New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 87.

[v]Most mobilities philosophies or “methodologies,” begin with motion but just as often supplement this with theories of space from Soja, Lefvfre, or David Harvey, or theories of time from Heidegger and Virilio, or theories of affect from Deleuze and Guattari.

[vi]Sheller, M, and J Urry. “The New Mobilities Paradigm,” 210.

[vii] Graham, Stephen, and Simon Marvin. Telecommunications and the City: Electronic Spaces, Urban Spaces(London: Routledge, 2001).

[viii]Peter Merriman and Peter Adey have also taken issue with this binary opposition between mobility and immobility. See Peter Adey, ‘If mobility is everything it is nothing: towards a relational politics of (im)mobilities’, Mobilities 2006, vol. 1, pp. 75–94 (76, 83, 86). In reply, Adey has suggested that as ‘everything is mobile’ and ‘there is never any absolute immobility’, ‘moorings are indeed mobile too’, but at a more fundamental level Peter Merriman argues that the mobility/moorings binary too simplistic. See Peter

Merriman, Mobility, Space, and Culture(London: Routledge, 2013).This is a concern also held by David Bissell, ‘Narrating mobile methodologies: active and passive empiricisms’, in B. Fincham, M. McGuinness and L. Murray (eds) Mobile methodologies(Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 53–68.

[ix]Peter Adey, ‘If mobility is everything it is nothing,” 76.

[x]It is also wrong because space and time are both produced through the folding of quantum fields which are not themselves reudicible to space and time. This is yet another contemporary discovery of the primacy of motion. See Carlo Rovelli, Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity, trans. Erica (New York : Riverhead Books, 2017).

[xi]For a critique of such simplistic theories of motion see Cresswell, On the Move. On this also see N. Thrift, ‘Inhuman geographies: landscapes of speed, light and power’, in P. Cloke, M. Doel, D. Matless, M. Phillips and N. Thrift, Writing the rural: five cultural geographies(London: Paul Chapman, 1994), 191–248. Although a few feminist theorists such as Rosi Braidotti have embraced nomadic theory/nomadic metaphors, many others have criticized their gendered nature, see J. Wolff, ‘On the road again: metaphors of travel in cultural criticism’, Cultural Studies 1993, vol. 7, 224–239; Caren Kaplan,

Questions of Travel: Postmodern Discourses of Displacement(Duke University Press Books, 2009), 65–100.

What is the Philosophy of Movement? Part I

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The Philosophy of Motion

The philosophy of motion is the analysis of phenomena across social, aesthetic, scientific, and ontological domains from the perspective of motion. As such, the ontology of motion is only one part of the philosophy of motion. Most important, and quite simply, the philosophy of motion is defined by the methodological primacy of motion with respect to the domain of study. Therefore the difference between simply describing the motion of things, which almost every philosopher and even layperson has done, and the philosophy of movement is the degree to which movement plays an analytically primary role in the description.

For example, if we describe a body moving through a space (x, y, z) over a time (t), we are describing motion, but we are also assuming a more primary nonkinetic and immobile space-time within which this motion occurs. From the perspective of motion, however, space and time are not immobile at all, but only relatively immobile patterns of some matter in motion on which another pattern or trajectory is traced. Everything is in motion, but all motions are relative to others. This is a basic tenet of contemporary physics. Giving analytic primacy to motion, however, does not mean that we cannot speak of space or time. It just means that motion is a unique dimension of reality not reducible to space or time.

Given this simple and quite general definition of the philosophy of motion, we can already see it at work across several contemporary domains of inquiry to varying degrees.

 

The Study of Motion

At the most basic level there are a number of domains and subdomains where the movement of bodies defines the study of the domain itself, like fluid and nonlinear dynamics, interactive and generative art, and migration and transport studies, to name only a few. If everything is in motion at one level or another, then quite literally everything deals with motion. The difference, however, is how the study deals with this motion. Does it treat its domain of inquiry like static nodes in a network, like abstract numbers, like preserved works of art? Or does it focus almost exclusively on the vectors, oscillations, and circulatory patterns of mobility itself within which people, things, states, particles, proteins, and so on are all metastable aspects of a more primary kinetic process?

In most major domains the study of motion is not the dominant one. The study of motion is often defined solely by the fact that its domain of inquiry deals exclusively with the study of bodies as movements. In this sense studies of motion adhere to a kind of regional de facto primacy of motion. Their work is a relevant and important contribution to the philosophy of motion even if such studies take no broader position on the primacy of motion in any other domain. The limitation with such studies, however, is that they are often, although not always, limited to a single domain, subdomain, historical period, or methodology.

What would it mean to expand the study of motion more generally as a primary methodology of study?