What is the Philosophy of Movement? V: Art and Objects

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This is a short excerpt on the philosophy of movement from a recent interview I did with Nico Buitendag for Undisciplined Podcast.

Nico: I can imagine and I take my hat off to you. So I also want to move on to some of your other work but still within this broader theme. I believe it’s your newest book, called Theory of the Image, where you do a philosophy of art or aesthetics that naturally focuses on the mobile aspect of images, which is something I’ve never thought of before. So kind of like my first, earlier question about what does mobility or movement reveal, but more specifically this time, in the case of the image, what avenue or what point of view is opened up to us when we look at the image as a moving image?

Thomas: Yeah so the Theory of the Image book, that research also came out of migration and border stuff. I was already kind of collecting little bits from history toward that book because I started to see some of the same problems, which is that there are two main ways of thinking about aesthetics and what an image is.

One of those is, you could say, is the classical model where if you think of Plato and the Forms, art represents the Forms. So it’s a copy of an original, and that’s what an image is, is it’s supposed to be a duplicate, but the duplicate is always inferior to the original model for Plato and that’s why philosophical knowledge is about the Forms and art and aesthetics are about being in a cave just looking at shadows. When you think about the Great Chain of Being, Being, stasis, and Form are at the top of that, and matter and motion are at the bottom. And that’s certainly what’s going on in Plato.

Then, on the other hand, you have the other major tradition, the Kantian one, which is where the image and sensation are understood hermeneutically, or by what does it mean for humans—“what does art mean? What is the meaning of art? What is the experience of a work of art?”—and that’s more Kant and Dewey. And then you have more social dimensions of that, which are the Frankfurt School and so on, kind of a more social hermeneutics that has to do with what the meaning of a work of art is for society or what it tells us about society. On that one, my problem is that we’re still—in both of these cases, in the Platonic, classical and in the more modern one—we’re not really talking about the image, we’re not really talking about art. What we’re talking about is the Forms which are more important—that’s the real thing that we care about—and then in the case of the human version, we’re interested in what humans think. We’re really studying ourselves more than we’re actually caring about the image itself.

So my orientation in Theory of the Image was to do basically what I did for Theory of the Border and Figure of the Migrant which was to sort of flip it upside-down and start with the mobility and movement of the image, track it from a kinetic systems approach, and think about the patterns of motion that the image does. So instead of thinking about what art means, or what it represents, just looking at what it does materially, practically, historically, and then looking at these different regimes and the way in which art and images are shaped and circulated; not how they’re represented or what their meanings are.

So it’s a very different approach to thinking about aesthetics that’s materialist and that is non-anthropocentric. It doesn’t focus on human interpretation of art and that’s mostly what art theory is about. So this is a very weird book to think about if we’re not interested in what humans think art means or what it makes them feel. Not that those are not relevant, it’s just that they’re not the primary focus, those are just a part of it. So human experience is part of a larger circulation, but that larger circulation is what we’re looking at, and humans are just one aspect of that larger process.

Nico: I’m wondering if you talk about getting rid of the anthropocentrism and the movement and real effect that art or images have, and also in the same way we’re talking about the border as almost a concrete thing—do you see any relation between kinopolitics and, for example, object-oriented ontology (OOO), or do you think there are important differences or distinctions that you would want to keep between the two? Do you think there is some overlap or link between these two?

Thomas: That’s a good question. I’m just going to give what my definition of what I think OOO is and then say what I think the differences are. OOO is looking at objects, and what an object is something (and here I’m just reading Graham Harman’s definition) that is discrete, vacuum-sealed, and separate from one another. Tristin Garcia Form and Object has a very similar definition where the objects are completely extensive and by definition, they are not what the other object is.

There are objects that contain and objects that are contained, and that’s what defines an object. So they’re discrete, they’re vacuum-sealed, and at the center of them has an essence which Harman says does not change, it does not move, it is not material, and it withdraws any attempt to empirically identify it. So whether that’s right or wrong that’s at least my understanding of what that tradition is doing.

The philosophy of movement is really about process, it’s not about objects as primary. In many ways, the philosophy of movement is the opposite of OOO where it doesn’t start with discreet, separate objects. It starts with processes and it starts with objects as metastable states, like a whirlpool or eddy. They’re there, but they don’t have any discreetness, they don’t have any isolation. Graham Harman emphasizes very strongly that the essence of the object is non-relational, it doesn’t relate to anything else. And for me that’s very much the opposite. Objects are metastable states and it’s not that there are relations before there are objects, it’s that relations and objects are completely immanent to one another, they’re not separate, they’re just two different ways of talking about the same thing. And of course, the static, unchanging, withdrawn essence to me is just metaphysics.

The philosophy of movement is a materialist philosophy that’s interested in thinking about things that move. And that’s the thing about matter—it’s a shape-changer. It’s always moving and changing shapes so there’s nothing that withdraws, nothing that doesn’t change—everything is in motion and movement. On that point this is not a metaphysical claim this is where we’re at, this is what we know in physics at this point in history, is that there is nothing in the universe that doesn’t move. So stasis is not a real thing. It’s always relative down to quantum field fluctuations: they are moving, and they’re active; nothing is a static, withdrawn essence. So Harman’s OOO is not consistent with what we know in physics. Maybe physics could be wrong and I’m open to that, but for the moment I’m not going to speculate metaphysically about things that we have no idea about.

 

Theory of the Image is now available on audiobook

We live in an age of the mobile image. The world today is absolutely saturated with images of all kinds circulating around the world at an incredible rate. The movement of the image has never been more extraordinary than it is today. This recent kinetic revolution of the image has enormous consequences not only for the way we think about contemporary art and aesthetics but also for art history as well.

Responding to this historical moment, Theory of the Image offers a fresh new theory and history of art from the perspective of this epoch-defining mobility. The image has been understood in many ways, but it is rarely understood to be fundamentally in motion. The original and materialist approach is what defines Theory of the Image and what allows it to offer the first kinetic history of the Western art tradition. In this book, Thomas Nail further develops his larger philosophy of movement into a comprehensive “kinesthetic” of the moving image from prehistory to the present. The book concludes with a vivid analysis of the contemporary digital image and its hybridity, ultimately outlining new territory for research and exploration across aesthetics, art history, cultural theory, and media studies.

“This is an engaging book with a fascinating argument. Thomas Nail stakes out new territory, building a theory from the group up of the image as kinetic” — David Morgan , Duke University

“Thomas Nail’s Theory of the Image is an ambitious and original attempt to re-theorize the material and cognitive dynamics of the image. In this respect, his model is kinetic as opposed to representational, mimetic, or hermeneutical. The book is eminently suitable for use on a range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses, in particular, philosophy, cultural theory, and art history.” — John Roberts , University of Wolverhampton

Listen now on Audible! 

 

 

 

 

Why read Lucretius when you can read Epicurus and Homer? Here’s why.

 

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Here is a short introduction to my Lucretius book project I wrote for Book Launch Magazine…

Every great historical epoch returns to Lucretius like bees returning to their flower fields in search of nourishment. 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 skeptical 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 soler- ent] and if it were not [nisi], ‘all would fall like raindrops’ [caderent]. 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.

…read the rest here

What is the Philosophy of Movement? IV

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This is a short excerpt on the philosophy of movement from a recent interview I did with Nico Buitendag for Undisciplined Podcast.

Nico Buitendag: When we first begin to look at the world through motion, what are some of the first things that were previously obscured that suddenly—at least then for you when you started this project—what were some of the things that quickly sprang up for the first time that became very obvious to you that you didn’t expect?

Thomas Nail: To qualify very quickly: It’s not like nobody’s ever talked about motion. Everybody has talked about motion. There’s not a philosopher or theorist, or anybody who hasn’t said something about motion. The difference is whether motion is ontologically primary, whether that’s the starting point of analysis or whether that’s a secondary, or derivative feature. In my view, almost everybody in the history of Western thought at least has treated motion as a secondary thing: something that happens to what is already primary, some substance, or eternal form, or vital force, or temporal a priori or whatever.

But to answer your question, some of the first things that I found to be very shocking when I started looking at this was that: 1) Movement was a subordinated term, but also movement was actually the primary ordering structure of things. Matter is moving around, and that all these other things get built on top of it. And so the interesting question to me—which it’s taken me a lot of years trying to get the answer to it—is if being really is in motion, then how could we have missed this for so long?

What are the techniques and tools…how do we perpetuate other perspectives that cover over that movement? What are the techniques of explanation that obscure the movement of matter and convince us that it’s not actually important or primary? And that has all kinds of answers in aesthetics, in politics, in ontology, and so on.

One of the answers, with respect to ontology, actually has to do with the material techniques of doing ontology, of writing. We don’t know what anybody thought. We always say “so and so thought this,” “so and so thought that,” but we don’t have access to anybody’s thoughts. What we have access to are the residues of historical practices, material cultures, and writings and texts, and all kinds of stuff, but we don’t actually have access to the thoughts of dead people, of what people have thought in history.

So the challenge, at least in Being and Motion, was to go back and say “what are the material techniques?” For example writing, books, printing press, typewriters—what are the material techniques, and what’s their structure of motion? What is the form of motion that covers over the fact that they’re using a material motion in order to generate some thought of the ideal, of the abstract, of the universal, of time, of space? What are they really doing? So there’s a kind of media archaeology that goes along with that from a materialist perspective.

And the second thing I saw, and this is maybe the major thing I found I suppose, are these patterns. Kinetic systems are systems of motion, patterns of motion. These are centripetal, centrifugal, tensional, and elastic. These are major patterns of motion in physics. Obviously, there are subtypes, combinations, and hybrids, but these are the four kinds of patterns that are going on in each of these different historical periods, and these patterns take on a kind of dominance in each period. All of them are always happening, but in some time periods, one of them really takes hold and becomes a guiding structure, and that happens across disciplines. It doesn’t have to do with just politics or ontology, it’s historical. It’s really the way that matter moved and circulated in a given time. So to me, those four types of motion were really important discoveries, and I’m very curious to see how people will respond to those. It’s an empirical kind of argument so I’m open to being wrong about those patterns, but it was quite a discovery. 

The Philosophy of Movement at a Glance

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As more books of mine come out people have been asking me how they all fit together. I have been meaning to create a single table showing my philosophy of movement and how all the books fit together, so here it is, or at least how I have been imagining it so far.

So far there are three series of books. The first series covers the traditional core domains of philosophy (politics, ontology, aesthetics, science, and nature). The second traces the intellectual genealogy of three figures who have made motion primary in their work. These first two series are basically done and are either published already or on their way toward publication. The last book left to write is Lucretius III. The third series is what I am working on now. It is written for a wider audience and is intended to share some of the key findings from my academic books.

The patterns of motion have different names in each domain and are associated with a historical period.

It’s an open project so there are more series to come. I am open to adding new theorists of motion and have some leads but nothing solid yet. I have been teaching a class called, “The philosophy of movement” to find new theorists, but none of the thinkers I thought would make motion primary actually did. Its been a fascinating journey. At this point, I am feeling that “philosophy” might be the least likely area to find people taking motion seriously.

 

 

 

 

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!

“Understanding the Philosophy of Movement” An Interview with Thomas Nail

 

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Kinetic Revolution: Understanding the Transversal Reality of the “Philosophy of Movement”

Dario Giovanni Ali interviews Thomas Nail, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver on his theory of “kinopolitics.” Translated into Italian and published in Visitors, K-Pocket Guide (Italy, Kabul Press, 2020), 52-61.

Download here in English and Italian.

Dario: In The Figure of Migrant (Stanford University Press, 2015), you claim that the migrant has become the political figure of our time. Human migration is increasingly common in all nations of the world, more today than ever before. With your words: “The migrant is the political figure who is socially expelled or dispossessed as a result, or as the cause, of their mobility. The migrant is the collective name for all the political figures in history who have been territorially, politically, juridically, and economically displaced as a condition of the social expansion of power” (Hostis Journal, 30 June 2015). So what is the social impact of this recognition of the migrant as the main political figure of our time?

Thomas: If migration is understood to be, as I believe it is and has been, a major constitutive social force throughout history, my hope is for at least two consequences: First, I hope it means that migrant voices and agency will be included in the social processes they themselves help to build and reproduce. Those who contribute socially and are affected socially should have the right to determine how they are affected socially. Currently, we are living in a global apartheid in which millions of migrants who form the backbones of so many social and economic systems are treated as if they are nothing or as if they were “illegal.” 

Second, and relatedly, there is an important historical consequence: Western civilization was founded on the dispossession and colonization of migrants (nomads, barbarians, vagabonds, and the proletariat). Western culture has also made it a strategic point to destroy and marginalize migrant histories. My hope in showing migration to be a much longer and larger historical structure is that we will try and recover these erased histories to supplement and even overthrow the currently dominant and exclusionary ones. 

D) Speaking in an interview with CriticalTheory.com in 2015, you claimed that “societies themselves are not, as they are often treated, static entities of fixed members but continuous circulations of metastable social flows.” Historically societies are actually the result of a mixture of different people and cultures.

In The Figure of the Migrant, three words are essential to understand the “kinopolitics”: “flows,” “junctions” and “circulation.” What is the exact meaning of these words, and how are they interlinked? How can a word such as “citizenship” take on new meanings and implications in the politics of movement?

T: A flow is a continuous movement of matter. Societies are produced and reproduced by accumulating a continual flow of materials such as water, wood, air, stone, metals, money, people, and so on. Instead of just letting rivers flow, trees grow, and people move, societies try and harness these flows by continually capturing them and iterating them again and again in a social “junction” or “cycle.” These cycles are what allow matters to become metastable, like eddies or whirlpools in a river. Each cycle siphons off a material flow, cycles it, and discards the waste. There are no perfect circles—only leaky entropic ones—so the quest of continual extraction continues. Once enough of these flows have been sustained in relatively stable cycles, the cycles can be ordered into much larger fields of social circulation. Some cycles are larger, more central, contain more sub-cycles, and so on—and at the limit of these large orders is where you find the emergence of what we call “borders.” Borders are the main operators that expel social waste, dispossess people outside, and fortify the final social junction so that the whole process of social circulation is secured and defended. 

Citizenship is an extremely heterogenous idea with widely diverging historical meanings. Conceptually, I am not sure that the risk of salvaging this term is worth all the dangers and misunderstandings that are likely to come with it. Can there be citizenship without exclusion? I am not sure. I have not written a lot about “citizenship” but rather about “migrant cosmopolitanism,” which is defined not by any universal category such as “cosmopolitan citizenship” but by the singularity of the struggles and demands of concrete migrant groups. There is no final social system or universal subject of politics for me. The figure of the migrant is not a universal ahistorical social figure but a historical one primary to our present moment that demands our ethical and philosophical attention. The challenge, then, is to respond to new figures as they emerge. The migrant happens to be the figure of our time. For example, the refugees and allies now struggling to enter the United States through Mexico are not universal; they are concrete and historical, and we should not presume to know their demands and needs before hearing them out.             

D) Movement is a specific feature of social life. Historically, however, the emergence of sedentary cultures has developed a sort of suspicion toward movement because it cannot be contained, framed and therefore ruled. If, on the one hand, fixity is historically linked to authoritarianism, to control, and to forms of governance, on the other side movement expresses an unrestricted sense of freedom. The jester is one of the most significant figures that had embodied the essence of movement during the Middle Ages. Considering that he was never part of the traditional social orders of Middle Ages (oratores, bellatores, and laboratores), he was harshly condemned  by the Catholic church as an evil and dangerous figure. Some of the contemporary figures you identified are those of the nomad, the barbarian, the vagabond, and the proletariat. Can you talk a little more about that?

T: Movement, for me, is neither good nor bad. It’s not a normative idea. There is, physically speaking, no such thing as stasis in the entire universe as we currently know it. Given this, it makes sense to me to start from where we are at historically and think of how movement is distributed or arranged in patterns of circulation. It is amazing, however, that so much of Western history has been so obsessed with achieving stasis and explaining motion by something else (eternity, forces, time, etc). The migrant, for me, is not a figure of freedom or constraint, but a figure defined by the expansion and expulsion of social circulation and bordering. The migrant is the one who is continually expelled by territorial, political, juridical, and economic dispossession in order to expand a certain regime of social motion (agriculture, cities, kingdoms, and capitalism). The nomad, barbarian, vagabond, and proletariat are the historical names given to a similar historical process of migration. Each name characterizes the territorial, political, juridical, and economic nature of their social expulsion.   

D) In Being and Motion (Oxford University Press, 2018), you further develop the theory expressed in The Figure of the Migrant, and you present the basis of what has been called a “philosophy of motion.” You claim that “the old paradigm of a static cosmos, linear causality, fundamental particles, and classical space-time no longer fits the twenty-first-century reality of cosmic acceleration, turbulence, and continuously vibrating fields.” Your theoretical proposal refers to sociology, economy, law, and politics, embracing even cosmology: It includes a real reformulation of all aspects of human and nonhuman life, and in this respect it sounds revolutionary. What are the political, economic, scientific and aesthetic consequences of a new kinetic paradigm based on motion?

T: The philosophy of movement is a six-volume project with new and exciting implications for politics, ontology, art, science, and nature. Here is a complete list of the volumes, half of which are still forthcoming: The Figure of the Migrant, Theory of the Border, Being and Motion, Theory of the Image, Theory of the Object, and Theory of the Earth. I will not try and summarize each one, but in general all the books try to show that in each of these major fields, movement has been marginalized and explained by something else—and that this has caused some serious errors in our thinking and in our histories. The aim of this project is to invert this situation and offer a new, movement-oriented framework.  

Each of the volumes follows a similar tripartite structure as The Figure of the Migrant: Part I is conceptual, Part II is historical, and Part III describes the implications for contemporary life. Each book follows a similar “historical ontological” method by beginning with a contemporary problem (migration, borders, digital media, quantum theory, and climate change) and then does a deep, historical immanent critique of this problem that ends up completely inverting the way we think about the past and the present. 

I do not imagine this project as a new metaphysical system of philosophy like Kant, Hegel, or even an anti-system like Deleuze—but rather a strictly historical and new materialist project animated by and situated in a particular present. I have no opinion about the “nature of reality in itself” or whether it is being or becoming or vitalist or otherwise. I hope that it is clear in Being and Motion that the philosophy of movement is distinctly different than what we typically call “process philosophy” in a number of important ways described in Chapter 3 of Being and Motion.      

D) I have a question about another one of your research areas. In Lucretius I. An Ontology of Motion (Edinburgh University Press) you reference the Latin philosopher and poet Lucretius—responsible for the reintroduction of Greek atomism into Latin and Western thought—as an important historical figure in relation to movement and new materialism. How can a literary work such as De rerum natura be considered still contemporary in order to promote a new philosophy of motion and a real “kinetic revolution”—as you defined it?

T: Lucretius, I argue, was the first philosopher to put movement and motion first in his philosophy. I spent a lot of time going through the history of the philosophy of motion and was really quite shocked to find that only a few philosophers affirmed motion without trying to explain it by some other kind of substance, force, law, logic, or principle. Who in the history of philosophy thought that nature and matter moved stochastically without mechanism, vitalism, or other exterior explanation? Based on my research, my current conclusion, for reasons I cannot go in to here, is that only Lucretius, Karl Marx, and possibly later Henri Bergson fit this description. Marx and Bergson both wrote their first books on Lucretius, so there is a direct connection.  

With the aim of tracing the historical precursors of the philosophy of movement in the Western tradition I am writing a series of books on a number of figures, not all philosophers, who have been important precursors to this maligned idea of movement. 

To the point, Lucretius is important because he is the first materialist to do away with all residues of stasis. Even the atomists still held onto the idea that atoms were eternal, unchanging units. In Lucretius, however, you will find that he never uses the word “atom” or any Latin cognate for this term. It’s a major misunderstanding with huge consequences for the Western tradition. Lucretius, I think, is really a pre-Western thinker whose most important influences come from pre-Greek Minoan and Homeric oral cultures—and not primarily from Epicurean rationalism. Instead of atoms, Lucretius writes about flows, folds, weavings, strings, vibrations, textures, and pedetic movements without origin or end. Lucretius rejects all origins, all teleologies, all stasis, all gods, and all metaphysics. In the end, for Lucretius, every thing is a kinetic, performative, and meta-stable process that emerges from indeterminate matter in motion. 

This is roughly where physics is at with what is now called “quantum gravity theory” in physics. In quantum gravity theory, space and time and all the laws of nature are not, as Einstein thought, a priori features of nature. They are emergent, metastable processes of indeterminate quantum fluctuations of energy. This is an extremely radical and relatively recent idea to which Lucretius is a precursor, in my mind. Physicists do not have an agreed-upon and experimentally supported unified theory of quantum gravity yet, but it’s where most of the work is being done in theoretical physics and quantum cosmology today. I think Lucretius was an important precursor to this new worldview and thus strikingly contemporary and prescient. 

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!