Theory of the Image (Oxford University Press, 2019)

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

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


“This is an engaging book with a fascinating argument. Thomas Nail stakes out new territory, building a theory from the group up of the image as kinetic” — David Morgan , Duke University
“Thomas Nail’s Theory of the Image is an ambitious and original attempt to re-theorize the material and cognitive dynamics of the image. In this respect, his model is kinetic as opposed to representational, mimetic, or hermeneutical. The book is eminently suitable for use on a range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses, in particular, philosophy, cultural theory, and art history.” — John Roberts , University of Wolverhampton


Read the introduction here.

Pre-orders are available from OUP (30% off code: AAFLYG6) and Amazon.

Returning to Lucretius

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Why Return to Lucretius?

I think a new Lucretius is coming into view today. Every period in Western history since Lucretius has returned 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 always has coursed through the veins of modern history like a spring of fresh meaning and inspiration. 

We thus return to Lucretius today 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 21st 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. Today, we are asking Lucretius again to tell us something about nature.  

I recently returned to Lucretius in 2014, when I taught Book II of De Rerum Natura for a class on what I called “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 Latinized 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 therefore 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 it happens more than once. This, he says, is the only way to avoid the problem of assuming that something comes from nothing—the swerve of matter in the rain.  

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 atoms and no solitary swerve in Lucretius, can we still make sense of the rest of the book or had a missed something? In 2016 I decided to find out. I dedicated a whole seminar to just Book 1 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 effort 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 his teacher 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 I think Lucretius did. I thus began to unravel what I call 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, and desire, 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. He wanted to make something new by mixing the old traditions: a double profanation. Lucretius performed a bewildering hybrid of two completely opposed figures and traditions (Homer and Epicurus) and made something novel: something uniquely Roman. 

De Rerum Natura has largely been treated as a Homeric-style poem about Epicurean philosophy, but I think 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. I think it is a genuine injustice to reduce such a radical enterprise to mere Epicurean “doctrine.”  

The method itself of philosophical poetry is a satyr’s slap in the face to the whole Greek tradition of philosophy from Thales to Aristotle, including Epicurus. With few exceptions (Xenophanes, Parmenides, and Empedocles) 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 pre-classical and indigenous oral knowledge. It is therefore completely unsurprising that today Lucretius is still almost always invoked as a philosopher 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 Homeric poetry and archaic materialism. 

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 is a skilled poet of the Latin tongue or he is 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 is what I have tried to do in my books.

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; i.e. 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 my books. In the first volume I worked out a systematic ontology of motion and a new materialism beneath the atomist and Epicurean myth of Lucretius in books one and two. In the second volume, I described a movement-based theory of ethics through a close reading of books 3 and 4. Volume three is not yet written but will focus on natural history in books 5 and 6.  

Where am I coming from with all of this? 

My project is not an isolated one but is part of longer but under-read linage of thinkers who have held heterodox interpretations of Lucretius. To give you a sense of where I am coming from I would like to quickly highlight three major works that have led me in this direction.  

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

2) This radical idea was virtually left for dead until the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze miraculously picked it up in 1962 in his book, Nietzsche and Philosophy. There, Deleuze credited Marx’s brilliant discovery but argued instead that the swerve was the result of a vital “force” immanent to matter. Later Deleuze developed this reading into a new “immanent” interpretation of Epicurus and Lucretius that appeared as an appendix to his 1969 Logic of Sense. 

3) From there, the French philosopher Michel Serres explicitly adopted the idea of a vital and unpredictable force immanent to matter and developed it into the first truly pathbreaking, book-length treatment of a new, turbulent Lucretius consistent with the early chaos theory of the day in The Birth of Physics in the Text of Lucretius (1977). Unfortunately, Serres’ book was not translated into English until 2000, after which it quickly went out of print. 

Beginning in 2016 an unusual burst of new books was published, tracing their lineage back to this tradition and overturning the old orthodox reception of Lucretius. In 2016 a wonderful collection of essays offering contemporary reassessments and reinterpretations of Lucretius drawing on the “immanent” tradition was edited by Jaques Lezra and Liza Blake and published as Lucretius and Modernity. In the next year Ryan Johnson published The Deleuze-Lucretius Encounter, and in the fall of 2017 Pierre Vesperini published a devastating critique of the “myth of Lucretius” in his Lucrèce: Archéologie d’un classique européen. Among other things, Vesperini argued convincingly against every single major point Stephen Greenblatt made in his error-filled narrative history of the discovery of De Rerum Natura, The Swerve (2011). Vesperini argued that Lucretius was not a faithful Epicurean; that Lucretius was not an unknown radical of his day; and that Lucretius did not provide a “complete kit for modernity,” but was historically appropriated by mechanistic modernists and then retroactively lionized by the Romantics. 

The coup de grâce of this burst came in January 2018, when Serres’ The Birth of Physics was retranslated and republished with a blurb on the back by Claire Colebrook explicitly acknowledging the timely importance of reintroducing this book for its contributions to twenty-first century new materialism. Two months later saw the publication of my first book, Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion, and Lezra’s book On the Nature of Marx’s Things. There has been an absolutely unprecedented explosion in heterodox readings of Lucretius in just the past three years. I think the time is right now for a full return to Lucretius, materialism, and radical naturalism.

What am contributing to this tradition? 

My books on Lucretius are part of this tradition but also diverges from it in important ways worth mentioning. It diverges from Marx’s reading insofar as Marx treats Epicurus and Lucretius as identical and I do not. The difference between Epicurus and Lucretius is one of the most important contributions of my books.  

What I call the “kinetic Lucretius” also diverges from Deleuze’s vitalist reading. Deleuze, following Marx, read Lucretius and Epicurus as identical but broke from Marx when Deleuze argued that the swerve is identical with Spinoza and Nietzsche’s concept of contatus, “vital striving,” “force,” or “power.” What I have tried to show in my books is that this kind of vitalist reading is textually unsupportable. Matter is, above all, in motion, and motion is not just about life. It is just as much about death, decay, and decomposition. It is purely arbitrary to privilege one side of this ontological binary, life versus death, and claim that everything is life, or alive, or vital power. Vitalism in all its forms is just another way of explaining the movement of matter with recourse to something else: life. At its worst, it falls prey to the fear of death that Lucretius locates as the locus of unethical action. The ontologization of life is yet another way to escape death and motion. 

My work even diverges from the great Michel Serres’ The Birth of Physics. Serres who, like Marx and Deleuze, still equated Epicurus and Lucretius. He also still accepted the existence of Lucretian atoms, despite their textual absence from De Rerum Natura. Serres showed how Lucretius prefigured chaos theory’s understanding of turbulence, entropy, and far-from-equilibrium states. However, in addition to these insights, my books have tried to argue that Lucretius also prefigured quantum theory’s understanding of entanglement and indeterminacy.

Mechanistic materialism has been throughly criticized across the humanities and sciences, but I think we have been too quick to throw out materialism with the mechanistic bathwater. Lucretius is such a wonderful figure to return to today because he embodies the diffractive relations we need to rediscover between the arts, sciences, and humanities for a new posthumanities and a new materialism. Lucretius was a scientist and philosophical poet. Knowledge today, however, has been so compartmentalized that thinkers like Lucretius are extremely rare. This is a profound loss for most universities. 

However, if we are going to address contemporary ethical practice at the global level seriously, we can no longer be merely scientists, philosophers, or poets. It is no longer enough to be merely the scholars of such and such figure or topic; the humanities and sciences need to come back together again. The study of nature unites all theoretical practice. Globalization and climate change demand that we see the big picture—that human activity is completely continuous with natural processes. Humans are geological actors, and the Earth is not a passive stage for our performances. The disconnect between the humanities and natural sciences is part of the same disconnect between humans and nature. We have divided up our knowledges as we have divided up our world, and the consequences have been disastrous. We can no longer study nature as if our acts of inquiry were not already ethical and transformative practices of nature itself. 

There will be no resolution to the deepest problems of our times until the Lucretian unity of humans, nature, and art (the humanities, sciences, and arts) are brought back together again in collective ethical practice.  

Part II: Three Counter-Theses 

1. First Counter-Thesis: “Lucretius was not an Atomist”

The difference between Lucretius and the earlier Greek atomists is precisely that—the atom. For Leucippus, Democritus, and Epicurus atoms are always in motion, but the atom itself remains fundamentally unchanged, indivisible, and thus internally static—even as it moves. Instead of positing discrete atoms as ontologically primary as both ancient Greek and later modern theories do, one of Lucretius’ greatest novelties was to posit the movement or flow of matter as primary. I think Lucretius did not simply “translate Epicurus;” he transformed him. 

For example, although Lucretius could have easily Latinized the Greek word atomos as atomus [smallest particle], as Cicero did, he intentionally did not, nor did he use the Latin word particula or particle to describe matter. The English translations of “atom,” “particle,” and others have all been added to the text based on a certain historical interpretation of it. The idea that Lucretius subscribed to a world of discrete particles called atoms is therefore both a projection of Epicureanism and a retroaction of modern scientific theories of mechanism onto De Rerum Natura. As such, Lucretitus’ writings have been crushed by the weight of his past and future at the same time. 

In my books I argue that Lucretius rejected entirely the notion that things emerged from discrete particles. The existence of discrete bodies is deeply at odds with the enormous poetic apparatus he summoned to describe the flowing, swirling, folding, and weaving of matter. However, although Lucretius rejected the term atomus, he remained absolutely true to one aspect of the original Greek meaning of the word, ἄτομος (átomos, meaning “indivisible”). Nature is not cut up into discrete particles, but is composed of continuous flows, folds, and weaves. Not flows of a single substance but nature as an ongoing process. Discrete “things” [rerum] are composed of corporeal flows [corpora] that move together [conflux] and fold over themselves [nexus] in a woven knotwork [contextum]. For Lucretius, things, only emerge and have their being within and immanent to the flow and flux of matter in motion. Relative discreteness is a product of folded flux, not the other way around.

Lucretius’ description of matter alternates interchangeably between several words, none of which necessarily refer to discrete unchanging eternal particles: māteriēs (matters), primordia (first-threads), corpora (body), semine (seeds, sprouts, or shoots). This is an interesting methodology for any materialist to define matter so heterogeneously. Lucretius thus follows the Homeric and poetic tradition of not adhering to a single fixed ideal concept and instead describes material processes with a variety of contextual words precisely because matter is a process of transformation. In Homer there is rarely a “single word” used in every case to describe similar processes.  

Rerum Versus Corpora 

The difference between rerum and primordia rerum is one of the most crucial terminological distinctions in the whole text, and we should take care never to conflate them or translate them equally as ‘things’, and above all not as ‘atoms’. For example, when Lucretius uses the word rerum alone without any conditional modifiers such as semina, corpora, or primordia rerum, he is describing rerum as they appear as seemingly discrete ‘things’. However, when he directly modifies the word rerum as with semina rerum (1.58), corpora rebus (1.196), or rerum primordia (1.55), as we will see, he is describing the active material conditions for the ordering and production of seemingly discrete things. 

This technical distinction between rerum and corporea rerum is crucial to understanding Lucretius’ philosophical method. If the condition of discrete things (primordia rerum) is just other discrete things (rerum), we have explained nothing and precisely failed to give an account of the nature or conditions by which discrete things themselves are produced. We have only presupposed precisely what we set out to explain: things. The conditions cannot resemble that which they condition. This is the fundamental thesis of Lucretian materialism. If they did then our explanations would be circular, mechanistic, and would uncover nothing about the nature of things. 

[image: flow (copora) / fold (rerum)

Weaving and Folding

Instead of talking about discrete particles, Lucretius talks endlessly about flows and folds. These are the core tenets of what I call Lucretius’ “kinetic materialism.” If matter does not flow it cannot fold; if it folds it must also flow. However, if we interpret Lucretius’ concept of corpora as ‘discrete particles’ or ‘atoms’ instead of flows, his whole conceptual edifice of folding [plex] (simplex, duplex, complex, amplex) completely unravels. Atoms simply cannot fold. If Lucretius is an atomist, then we are left with a truly confounding problem of explaining this crucial aspect of his poetic thought. Discrete particles or things [res] cannot, by definition, fold themselves because the two sides of a thing cannot touch without reunifying the thing with itself. This is because discreteness implies that the thing [res] is already bound and limited, with a single and absolute interior and exterior. There is nothing here to fold. 

Among all the images of weaving, I will give just two quick examples: the weaving of forms and of the soul. 

Weaving of Forms and Figures

Forms are woven together [exordia] by threads [filo]. Lucretius importantly does not say that there are simply different pre-existing forms but rather that there is a long or far distance or difference between woven the forms. The invocation of weaving here is directly related to the Homeric, poetic, and feminine tradition of craft knowledge [metis] and not to Epicurean rationalism. Lucretius says,

Now let us see the motion from which all things are first woven and how far different they are in form, how varied they are in their many kinds of figures.

Other weaving words throughout are [textum, contextum, nexum].

Weaving the Soul

Lucretius also describes the soul as a process of “weaving” [nexam] (3.217). Lucretius’ description of the soul as something woven is no coincidence. Poetry from Minoan Crete to Homer is frequently described as an act of weaving.

Since the soul and body come into being with their matters “woven” [inplexis] (3.331) together and “roots” [radicibus] (3.325) growing together, they are also “unwoven” or “untied” [dissolu-antur] (3.330) together as well. Since the soul and body are in constant motion, then it follows that the soul is always weaving. However, it also follows that if all movement is also death, then the soul’s movement is also an unweaving as well: death. Weaving, then, just like the movement of the “first-threads” [primordia], is both creative and destructive at the same time. There is no binary opposition here, not even an alternation. Living is dying, and dying is living. The two are united in the same kinetic process.

The soul is woven together [nexam, inplexis] (3.217, 3.331) into a textured fabric [textum] (3.208-210), which in turn is woven by Lucretius’ words in the poetic textum, which is in turn woven [exordia] of the first-threads [primordia] or flows of matter [materies]. In other words, nature performs itself poetically through humans—poetry is not a representation of nature; it is a performance.

2. Second Counter-Thesis: “Lucretius did not believe in a spontaneous swerve in a rain of atoms through the void.”

Contrary to Epicurean and modern interpretations, I think Lucretius is clear that the swerve or change of motion, mutatum, depellere, or declinare, does not happen ex nihilo. Such a spontaneous change would contradict the first thesis of materialism: nothing comes from nothing. So it could not be the case that first there is a rain of parallel atoms falling through the void, and then out of nowhere one of the atoms swerves. Rather, Lucretius says matter has always been in the habit of swerving. (2.221–4). 

Because unless they were accustomed to swerving, all would fall downwards like drops of rain through the deep void,

nor would a collision occur, nor would a blow be produced

by the first beginnings. 

If and only if [nisi] (2.221) matter was not already in the habit [solerent] (2.221) of curving or bending [declinare] (2.221) would it fall downwards without collision like rain [caderent] (2.222). The caderent is therefore a counter-factual and not a speculative point in time which ever existed. The swerve was already before space and time, or at least coexistent with their emergence. There was never a time when there was only the caderent without collision [plaga] (2.223). Such a time is a total abstraction. If there was such a time, nothing would be, which is obviously not the case. 

Matter has always been swerving. Lucretius formulates this thesis no less than three times in this section of the poem. In line 2.221 he writes that matter has always been in the habit of swerving [declinare solerent]. In line 2.293 he writes that all matter has the clinamen or swerve within it from the beginning [clinamen principiorum]. In lines 2.294–307, for those still tempted to think that there was ever the counter-factual state of atoms falling through the void, Lucretius clearly states that the swerving motion of matter has always been this way and always will be (2.297–9). 

Wherefore with whatever motions the first beginnings

now move, they moved with the same motions in ages past,

and in the future they will always be carried along in a similar way. 

Corpora have always moved according to the same motions [motu principiorum corpora] (2.297–8). There never was a cataract. There never was a point in time or space when they started swerving, because it is only their swerving motion that produces time and space in the first place. 

This is the hardest idea to think. The swerve is neither determined nor random. It is an indeterminate relational process capable of producing emergent forms. This is what he means when he says there is no oblique causal motion. For Lucretius, there is an immanent self-causality or continuous transformation of the whole of nature at each moment. Each motion comes from another, not in a completely determined or random way. Randomness is merely another version of ex nihilo creation. Lucretius is therefore neither a mechanist or a vitalist. 

Wherefore again and again it is necessary that corpora swerve a little, but no more than a minimum, lest we seem to be inventing oblique motions, and the true facts refute it. 

3. Third Counter-Thesis: “There is no ethical “peace of mind” or ataraxia in Lucretius.”

Is there such a thing as a “Lucretian ethics?” The almost universal answer to this question historically has been “no,”: there is only an Epicurean ethics that Lucretius parroted. One of the main arguments I tried to make in volume 2 is that there is a distinct Lucretian ethics—different from Epicurus and from other contemporary ethicists as well.

First of all, Lucretius’ ethics is different from hedonism and asceticism—both attributed to Epicurus. Oddly enough the most frequent interpretations of Epicurus’ ethics seem completely opposed to one another. Epicurus sounds like a hedonist because he says pleasure is the highest good, but he is also sounds like an ascetic because he says that the maximum amount of pleasure one can obtain can be achieved only by detaching oneself from pleasure through self-discipline. More precisely, however, Epicurus called this highest ethical ideal ἀταραξία (ataraxía), meaning “untroubled” or “undisturbed.” The highest good, for Epicurus, is therefore to have no pain and no pleasure. This is achieved through a simple life of individual contemplation. 

For Epicurus there are two kinds of pleasures: katastematic pleasures and kinetic pleasures. Katastematic pleasures are those that occur in the absence of pain [aponia] and in an undisturbed mind [ataraxia]. Kinetic pleasures, however, are those that occur through movement and action. The aim of Epicurean ethics is to attain the former and try one’s best to steer clear of the latter. For Epicurus, only the gods exist in perfect ataraxia. 

There are without a doubt similarities between Lucretian and Epicurean ethics, but let’s focus on two important differences. First and most important, for Lucretius, there are only kinetic sensations because all of matter is in motion, including the mind. The interconnected, unceasing, and continuous movement of the mind, body, and soul is the main thesis of Book III. Lucretius is explicit in numerous places that there is nothing static in nature. The mind cannot escape movement through egoistic contemplation. Thus one r will never find Lucretius saying, as Epicurus does, that one should try and avoid all kinetic pleasures.

On the contrary, Lucretius’ poem is filled with sensuous scenes of moving desire the likes of which Epicurus would never have dreamed to write, such as the erotic love scene between Venus and Mars (1.32–5), the poet’s own intoxication and orgastic penetration by the “wand” of Bacchus (1.927–34) [describe this scene], the auto-erotics of bodies along the riverbanks (2.29–33), and the absolutely ecstatic “divine rapture” of desire that “seizes” Lucretius when he reads the words of Epicurus (3.29). Lucretius even opens De Rerum Natura with a proem to Venus: the desire and pleasure of gods and men (1.1). There is perhaps no less Epicurean a way to open an Epicurean treatise than an invocation of a Venusian nature overflowing with desire, sex, war, and death, as Lucretius does. However, Lucretius also never says “pleasure is the highest good.” He even explicitly warns against the dangers of romantic idealism (4.1121–1140).

So Lucretius is neither a hedonist nor an ascetic, nor does he think there is any ataraxia in nature. This leads to a second difference with Epicurus: If there is no ataraxia in nature because matter is ceaselessly moving (2.97–9), then there can be no motionless and unperturbed Epicurean gods, either. Such gods are explicitly impossible for Lucretius, and so he invokes them only as ideas that “sprung from [Epicurus’] mind” (3.14). In short, ataraxia and katastematic pleasure are, for Lucretius, transcendent values with no real existence in nature.   

Conclusion

So I think its worth returning to Lucretius today because there is new interpretive work to be done and because I dont think we should give up on the possibility of a new (non mechanistic, vitalistic, or discrete) materialism that can unite the humanities, arts, and sciences. 

“Returning to Lucretius,” talk at Saint John’s College, Santa Fe, Friday, April 5th, 7:30pm

IMG_0105.jpegI am giving a talk at Saint John’s College on Lucretius, Friday, April 5th, 7:30pm. It will be recorded.

“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 always has coursed through the veins of modernity like a spring of fresh meaning and inspiration.” 

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.

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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.