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!

A Short History of Aleatory Art

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


Image result for Leonardo da Vinci, A Deluge, with a Falling Mountain and Collapsing Town

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


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

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

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

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

Image result for Marcel Duchamp, Trois Stoppages Étalon

Figure 16.2 Marcel Duchamp, Trois Stoppages Étalon (1913)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Theory of the Image, 343-347.

Expansion / Expulsion (Review of The Figure of the Migrant)

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I just came across a review of The Figure of the Migrant I had not seen before in New Formations, Vol. 89/90: Death and the Contemporary (2016): pp. 256-259. [DOI: 10.398/NEWF:89/90.REV06.2016]

Expansion / Expulsion

Kevin M. Potter

Thomas Nail, The Figure of the Migrant. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2015, 295pp

As the twenty-first-century political and social climate continues to confront migration, displacement, and movement – especially with the persisting refugee crises unfolding in Europe and Africa – the struggle to comprehend the nature of global human migration seems to underlie the disturbing and panicked rhetoric within the news media. Moreover, rarely do either academic or intellectual discourses attempt to conceptualize migration outside of the bounds of law and politics – both institutional paradigms that tend to represent people and human rights according to a matrix of stasis, territory, and legitimacy. Thomas Nail’s The Figure of the Migrant, therefore, arrives at a perfect moment to give a unique insight into the phenomenon of movement in the present time. Utilizing an historical materialist approach to migration, Nail advances a lucid vision of migration through a much-needed ‘kinopolitics’, or ‘politics of movement’, highlighting the fact that we live in a world where there is no ‘social stasis, only regimes of social circulation’ (p4). That is to say, the contemporary economic system of technologically accelerated mobility, globalized industrial expansion, and capital accumulation determines and compels motion on a large, critical scale. Since ‘modernity’, according to Zygmunt Bauman (one of Nail’s major inspirations in the text), ‘is the impossibility of staying put’, a movement-oriented philosophy is necessary to theorize one of the figures who defines the twenty-first century.

Nail concisely and rigorously analyzes the mechanics of movement from the Neolithic age up through modernity. Relying upon the philosophical insights of Lucretius, Karl Marx, Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, and Bauman, as well as the corroboration of historical records Nail sufficiently equips his conceptual schema with a thoroughly researched and consistent foundation. He then takes a section of the text to apply his conceptual and historical model toward Mexico-U.S. migration, analyzing it as a major space of contemporary kinopolitics.  The material forces of movement have historically played a key role in shaping societies and political regimes. These conditions include the struggle for resources, climate change, political and social conflict, and the accumulation of territorial, economic, and political control. The social forces of motion are qualitatively distinct, yet symbiotic conditions of movement that have had unique points of emergence throughout history; and the conceptual mechanics of social motion (flow, circulation, and junction) are necessary furnishings to develop a framework within which the figure of the migrant manifests. 

The migrant, of course, is defined by movement; and, more often than not, this movement is a coerced outcome of ‘kinopower’, a term which Nail uses to refer to the manner by which societies ‘expand their territorial, political, juridical, and economic power through diverse forms of expulsion’ (p24). According to Part II of The Figure of the Migrant, these forces of kinopower include: ‘centripetal force’, in which the accumulation of territorial kinopower pulls from the periphery inward (through, for example, land accumulation and territorial expansion); ‘centrifugal force’, whereby political kinopower generates outward-directed motion, using ‘the power of an accumulated center in order to expel from, or to, its periphery’ (p189) – taking the form of de-politicization, arrest, and eviction. Kinopower also generates ‘tensional force’, or a ‘juridical power’, that creates legal boundaries and varying degrees of inclusion, thereby intensifying displacement, political conflict, and social resistance; and ‘elastic force’, which has historically stopped, managed, or redirected social flows to avert economic catastrophe or collapse. Nail’s development of these forces, conceptualized within a physics-based lexical frame, extends previous materialist theories of economic and political accumulation, as well as analyses of migration and movement. Nail makes careful use, for example, of Marx’s theory of ‘primitive accumulation’ where, as a requisite condition for a powerful elite to gain capital ownership and amass private property, there must first exist a process of displacing indigenous people and peasants from their land, depriving them of any property ownership in the first place. Yet, Nail’s emphasis on ‘expansion by expulsion’ consequently ‘radicalizes’ (p24) the theory of primitive accumulation by developing more extensively the notion that economic and political kinopower constantly expands and contracts, circulates and recirculates, distributes and redistributes flows of motion throughout history and into the present.

Of course, the material conditions of motion constitute and determine the primary subject of Nail’s text: the figure of the migrant itself. Yet, the figurations and shapes that the migrant takes are not merely products of kinopolitical conditions; rather, according to Nail, the migrant holds claim to its own ‘pedetic social force’. The migrant’s autonomous and active pedetic force performs a counter-movement that is unpredictable and undetermined, often inspiring an inclusive and collective social motion. In other words, the capacity to redirect or apply pressure upon kinopower stems from a social force of ‘solidarity or collective disruption’ (p127). Social unrest, discontent, and general outrage inspire a joined action to collide with, or even block entirely, the flows of expansion by expulsion. Different migrant figures react to kinopower in their own singular manner, operating with different provisions for pedetic social force. The four figures that Nail outlines in detail are ‘the nomad’, ‘the barbarian’, ‘the vagabond’, and ‘the proletariat’. These figures each come from specific regimes of circulation that have forced them out of their home territories; yet they each, concurrently, produce waves of pressure against the material forces of growing territorial control, privatization, and juridical power… 

Read the rest here.

Moving Borders

Debating and Defining Borders: Philosophical and Theoretical Perspectives, 1st Edition (Hardback) book cover

This book brings together insights from border scholars and philosophers to ask how we are to define and understand concepts of borders today. Borders have a defining role in contemporary societies. Take, for example, the 2016 US election and the UK Brexit referendum, and subsequent debate, where the rhetoric and symbolism of border controls proved fundamental to the outcomes. However, borders are also becoming ever more multifaceted and complex, representing intersections of political, economical, social, and cultural interests.

For some, borders are tangible, situated in time and place; for others, the nature of borders can be abstracted and discussed in general terms. By discussing borders philosophically and theoretically, this edited collection tackles head on the most defi ning and challenging questions within the fi eld of border studies regarding the defi nition of its very object of study. Part 1 of the book consists of theoretical contributions from border scholars, Part 2 takes a philosophical approach, and Part 3 brings together chapters where philosophy and border studies are directly related.

Borders intersect with the key issues of our time, from migration, climate change vulnerability, terror, globalization, inequality, and nationalism, to intertwining questions of culture, identity, ideology, and religion. This book will be of interest to those studying in these fields, and most especially to researchers of border studies and philosophy.

Buy here.

Read my chapter here.

Moving Borders

This chapter introduces a new process or movement-oriented “kinopo- litical” methodology for studying borders. In this I would like to argue against two common assumptions about how borders work: Borders are static, and borders keep people out. My argument takes the form of three interlocking theses about borders: (1) borders are in motion, (2) the main function of borders is not to stop movement, but to circulate it; (3) borders are tools of primitive accumulation. These three theses are then followed by a brief concrete example to illustrate them. These theses have major implications re-theorizing borders today, as I have shown elsewhere at length (Nail, 2016).
It is more important to study borders today than ever before. At the turn of the twenty-first century, there were more migrants than ever before in recorded history (10M, 2010; WHO, 2015) .2 Today, there are over one bil- lion migrants (UNDP, 2009, 21).3 Migration has risen by nearly 50 percent since the turn of the twenty-first century, and more than 56,000 migrants have died or gone missing worldwide over the last four years (Hinnant and Janssen, 2018). More than ever, it is becoming necessary for people to migrate due to environmental, economic, and political instability. In par- ticular, climate change may even double international migration over the next 40 years (IOM, 2009).4 What is more, the percentage of total migrants who are nonstatus or undocumented is also increasing, thus posing a seri- ous challenge to liberal democracies premised on universal equality (see Cole, 2000).5

In order to manage and control this rising global mobility, the world is becoming more bordered than ever before. In just the past 20 years, but particularly since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 on the United States, and more recently the war in Syria, hundreds of new borders have emerged around the world: miles of new razor-wire fences and concrete security walls, numerous offshore detention centers, biometric passport databases, and security checkpoints in schools, at airports, and along vari- ous roadways across the world. All make manifest what has always been the true strategy of global capitalism and colonialism: to steal the world’s wealth and lock out the poor. “Europe has invaded all peoples; all peoples are com- ing to Europe in their turn” (Latour, 2018).

The recent rise in right-wing nationalism and xenophobia in the West is precisely a reaction to the so-called “migration invasion.” Borders are the new weapons being used to continue a war against the rest of the world. This is the context and importance of rethinking borders today…

Read the rest here.




Migrant Climate in the Kinocene

Image result for climate change migration

Andrew Baldwin, Christiane Fröhlich & Delf Rothe have just edited a wonderful  special issue of Mobilities on “Anthropocene Mobilities” Here.

You can read my contribution here [free] or at MOBILITIES 2019, VOL. 14, NO. 3, 375–380.

In this intervention, I put forward five short theses on the topic of ‘Anthropocene mobilities.’ My aim is not to unpack every concept con- tained herein but rather to provide a provocative introductory synthesis of five big ideas about Anthropocene mobility for further discussion. 1) We are living in the Kinocene, 2) The ontology of our time is an ontology of motion, 3) We need a new movement-oriented political theory to grapple better with the mobile events of our time. We need a kinopolitics, 4) Climate change is a weapon of primitive accumulation. 5) The Kinocene presents us with the danger of new forms of domination (a new coloni- alism, a new climate capitalism, new states, and new borders) but also with the opportunity for a new revolutionary sequence.


We are living in the Kinocene
We live in an age of movement. I mean this in the directly materialist sense, in which huge amounts of materials are now in wide circulation around the globe. There are more humans, circulating and consuming more large, cultivated animals and calorie-yielding plants than ever before. Life is one of the most efficient maximizers of entropy on Earth, and humans have increased their entropic impact by further burning fossil fuels, overproducing nitrogen fertilizers, removing forests, and increasing net carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Portions of the planet are literally moving more quickly and more unevenly – around axes of gender, race, and class.
The widespread use of global transportation technology also means that more people and things are on the move on the surface of the Earth than ever before. The Earth is becoming so mobile that even its glaciers are on the move. Karl Marx was not thinking of receding glaciers, but I think it is safe to say that ‘all that was solid is today literally melting into air’ – as carbon dioxide. Mobility is not something happening to just humans: more than half the world’s plant and animal species are also on the move.
This movement as a whole, and not merely the geological impact of humans alone on a layer of strata, is why I think the Anthropocene and the Capitalocene are only subcategories of a much larger kinetic transformation of the Earth currently underway. Humans might have initiated this increase in movement (and capitalism certainly hastened it), but now the whole planet is produ- cing positive feedback cycles (carbon cycles, nitrogen cycles, etc.) that have lives of their own, whose mobility needs to be acknowledged.

Although the term ‘Anthropocene’ will likely stay with us as a productive term of contestation, it has a rather paradoxical meaning. The Anthropocene means not only that humans are parts of larger entangled geological and planetary processes but also that the use of the term ‘anthropos’ suggests that humans are somehow distinct enough from those processes to have their own special epoch. This is why Donna Haraway prefers the unwieldy term ‘Chthulucene,’ to describe the tentacular entanglement of all Earth’s processes with one another – thus partially undermining the very idea that there can be a sole independent cause of an epoch (Haraway 2016).

The Earth and all its processes (including humans) always have been in motion and entangled, so, historically, we are dealing with a matter of degree. However, I do think we can say that today more minerals (including those inside human bodies) are in circulation on the surface of the Earth than ever before. We thus are witnessing one of the most mobile geological strata of Earth’s history: the Kinocene…

Read the rest here.

Being and Motion reviewed by Michael J. Bennett

Thomas Nail, Being and Motion

Thomas Nail, Being and Motion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018; 544 pages. ISBN: 978-0190908911.

Reviewed by Michael J. Bennett, University of King’s College.

Thomas Nail’s ambitious philosophical project starts with the diagnosis that today we live in the “Age of Motion.” Politics, aesthetics and science have entered a “whole new kinetic paradigm,” (5) and this is true even of ontology, however reluctant ontologists are to accept it.

Though its scope is staggering, this book is yet a part of a larger whole. Nail proposes to treat the other topics in separate books, some of which remain unpublished, even as Being and Motion references them frequently. In Being and Motion, Nail aims to accomplish two things. His first task is to produce a timely “conceptual and ontological framework for describing the being of motion,” upon which the companion volumes can draw, thus also providing a “unique insight into a certain hidden or occluded dimension of Western ontology.” (11) Philosophers have rarely endorsed the ontological “primacy of motion,” Nail observes, and have usually subordinated it to a more fundamental principle. Three historical exceptions—Lucretius, Marx, and Bergson—who take motion as seriously as Nail does, receive brief treatment (32–35), and fuller analyses are promised elsewhere. But because Nail portrays Being and Motionas providing insight into what has hitherto been obscured behind other “names of being,” his book makes a critical intervention today. Contemporary philosophers who fail to appreciate the primacy of motion must be out of step with the times, actively participating in the suppression of this dimension of ontology, or oblivious to the real material-kinetic presuppositions of their practice (144). These are the errors that Nail scrupulously avoids.

The second task of Being and Motion is to “turn this kinetic perspective back on the practice of ontology itself.” Nail’s theory of motion is not “fundamental” ontology, he says, but “historical.” (19) It advances a “minimal” (but still “transcendental”) claim about the history of past being, about what “previous reality” must have been like in order to produce our present. Thus it makes no assertions about the future and even leaves open the possibility that other names of being will eclipse “motion.” Moreover, in addition to examining historical descriptions of being—primarily, but not exclusively, texts from the history of Western philosophy—with a view to redescribing them in kinetic terms, Nail also pays meticulous attention to the types of inscription or graphism that materially condition the content of those descriptions: speech, writing, the codex, and the keyboard.

Nail’s thesis is that in four distinct periods of Western history, both ontological description and inscription followed the same “regime of motion.” That is, they described and inscribed a real “pattern of being’s motion,” which existed at the time (24) and made it possible for being to appear as something other than what it is—other than motion. This is not to say that historical ontologists were simply wrong to name being “space,” “eternity,” “force,” or “time.” “Reality actually moved differently in each period” (139), and this is what such descriptions referred to. In the Neolithic period (10000–5000 BCE), a centripetal pattern of motion dominated, while in the Ancient world (5000 BCE–500 CE), it was a centrifugal pattern. The long Middle Ages, including the Early Modern period (500–1800 CE), were characterized by a “tensional” regime of motion, and in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, motion became increasingly “elastic.” These kinetic patterns organize Being and Motion itself, particularly the second half, and demonstrating their existence and dominance in their respective historical eras lies at the heart of the project.

One of the challenges inherent in Nail’s project arises from his reasoned commitment to describing the patterns without explaining them. Nail rejects the pretense of causal explanation involved in both “idealist” reductionism, according to which inscriptions about being are completely explained by the thoughts they contain, and its obverse, which makes ontological descriptions the simple products of “technological, material, or media” conditions. (20–21) Since talking about “causes” is always a non-explanatory “short-cut” for longer accounts of matter in motion (103), Nail prefers terms like “coordination, or synchronization” (21), “historical coemergence and constant conjunction” (23), and “kinetic resonance” (140) to capture the relation between description and inscription. And though he does not explain it, Nail increases the scope of this “resonance” with dominant patterns of motion: it also characterizes the relations between ontology, politics, aesthetics, and science. (140)

Despite the centrality of kinetic forms or “patterns” to his argument, Nail classifies the ontology of motion as a kind of materialism. He defines his “process materialism” in contrast to what Marx called the “crude materialism” of the empiricists and the “contemplative materialism” of the idealists, which makes of matter a “concept or logical category.” (47–8) To avoid that misstep, Nail aims to ensure that the term remains as undefined as possible: “Matter is the historical name for what is in motion, but what matter is is in process and thus must remain ontologically indeterminate.” (46) Again, instead of explaining, Nail prefers to describe: “The best way to describe what it is is by what it does, or how it moves.” (49) To this end, he devotes the rest of Book I: The Ontology of Motion.

This theory of motion constitutes the “kinetic deduction” Nail promised of historical being’s minimal features and a kinetic redescription of inherited ontological concepts. For example, Nail calls the intersection of a continuous flow with itself a “fold” (83). The cycle or periodic motion that follows from folding makes it possible for motion to achieve a state of relative stability that Nail uses to conceptualize identity, unity, existence, necessity, sensation, quality, quantity, and thinghood. (85–99)

The dominant “patterns of motion” that characterize the history of ontology and give rise to being’s main names are not folds but “fields.” The difference is that a field does not intersect with itself, yet “binds together and organizes a regional distribution of flows.” (109) One question this raises is how a field does so, if indeed it doesn’t move the way a fold does—that is, if it has no period, cycle, and so on, and by extension no identity, qualities or thinghood of its own. Nail might deny that fields explain the folds they organize and resist answering such a “how” question, but even so, the concept of the kinetic field is less well-developed than that of the fold—which is a shame, considering how important a role fields play in the historical analyses of Book II.

Book II: The Motion of Ontology is by some margin the longer section of Being and Motion. It is divided into four subsections, each devoted to a period of ontological history and that period’s associated concept of being. Each of these parts is, in turn, subdivided into three “resonating” analyses—of the dominant pattern of motion (kinos), the content of ontological descriptions (logos), and the ways in which ontology was inscribed (graphos). Book II is the product of massive synthetic ambition, and Nail brings together an impressive amount of material under his conceptual framework. In this review, I cannot do justice to it all, so I neglect his intriguing discussions of inscription entirely, as well the prehistoric centripetal and ancient centrifugal periods, in order to focus on what he says about modern European philosophy.

Probably the most unusual feature of Nail’s history of Western ontology is the length of the period he calls “medieval,” dominated by the “tensional” pattern of motion. It spans from about the traditional date of the fall of Rome to the publication of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in 1781. Although this regime remains dominant well into scientific modernity, it originates, Nail says, as a response to the kinetic problems introduced by the transcendence of God at the centre of the prior, centrifugal regime. (274–75) Such problems are particularly acute in the Christian traditions because of the necessity of accounting for the incarnation, as a result of which God is both an absolutely separate creator and a particular human being. (320–21) Thus Nail defines “tensional” motion as involving at least two fields, connected by a mediating flow or “rigid link [that] keeps them both together and apart.” (274) Medieval theologians, philosophers and scientists theorize the link between God and created nature in various ways—for example, in terms of the Trinity, aether, impetus, and conatus—but Nail perceives an underlying continuity, because being tends to be defined predominantly as transferable force. In this context, Spinoza develops the regime’s timeliest ontological description with his unapologetic ontology of power. (314)

The transition from the tensional regime and the ontology of force to its successor, Nail continues, occurs “in the face of a brutal empiricist critique” (368)—namely, the critique of metaphysics inaugurated by Berkeley and Hume. (318–19; 280–81) One recognizes the conventional story Kant himself tells of being awoken from dogmatic slumbers, which inaugurates a philosophical revolution. Nail identifies post-Kantian phenomenology as the dominant form of modern ontology and “elastic” motion as the regime it kinetically presupposes. “Elasticity” here describes a field in which between any two ordered folds, there is an indefinite number of subfolds. (370; 373) The field can thus expand and contract in a way that has been described predominantly in terms of temporality and subjectivity—for example, the retention of the past, the anticipation of the future, and the expansiveness of the lived present. Nail interprets Kant’s transcendental subject as an elastic circulation conditioning all appearances whose form of inner sense is time, and he makes Husserl, Heidegger, and Derrida the regime’s other descriptive touchstones, since they each elaborate on the association between temporality and subjectivity, consciousness, or being-there.

With the claim that modern phenomenology and the ontology of time become “dominant” in the recent past, Nail must face up to a structural or methodological challenge. He admits that fields of motion not only change over the course of history but become increasingly hybrid or mixed as they approach the present. (26; 453 n.14) The attempt to isolate the dominant patterns or to consider patterns separately must therefore become progressively less adequate to the reality of the fields themselves.

Nail’s core argument climaxes with the suggestion that the phenomenology of time has brought ontology to a tipping-point. He concedes that it closely resembles the view he advocates, as “the whole of being seems to be caught up in a more primary flux or flow of time,” but in another sense ontological elasticity “could not be more different from the real flux and continuum of motion.” (369) That’s because “the structure of time presupposes that being is primordially divided, intervalic [sic], fragmentary, and thus static.” (420) It is divided into three tenses: past, present, and future (367), and, finally, into the differences or “intervals” that Derrida shows to be the condition for the givenness of time. (416–17) In other words, the flow (of time) is not a continuous flow at all. Since the most contemporary ontologies are so close yet so far from a truly kinetic one, Nail aims to seize the moment, come down on one side of the issue, and tip the balance away from the legacy of phenomenology one finds in Heidegger, Derrida, and their acolytes (420)—but also in Deleuze.

Deleuze and the Deleuzians appear prominently in Being and Motion as “related contenders” to Nail’s process materialism and ontology of motion (32) and as the clearest targets of his criticism, the thrust of which is that their descriptions of being are ontological throwbacks, out of step with the times. According to Nail, Deleuze not only (like Derrida), “models his theory of difference [in Difference and Repetition] on time, following the phenomenological tradition” (419), but he is also a neo-Spinozist ontologist of force. (43; 37–38; 48–49) In other words, Deleuze’s descriptions of being presuppose either the elastic regime of motion, which Nail encourages us to move beyond, or the tensional regime that has not been dominant for centuries. Deleuze’s claims are “historically limited in certain ways [he] could not see beyond.” (41)

Nail also attributes to Deleuze—in contrast to his own kinetic materialist monism—an “inclusive and pluralistic ontology in which all the great names for being are said equally and univocally of the same being,” identified with becoming or differential process. (36) From this perspective, Nail’s complaint is that Deleuze failed to live up to his promise of pluralism and inclusiveness by treating some of the supposedly equal names of being (like “force”) as more equal than others. (37–38) Still, if the present-day fields of motion, by Nail’s own admission, are the most complex and hybrid, then perhaps a consistent pluralism that undertakes to be equally so would also be a candidate for the ontology of the present.

Being and Motion is a singular achievement, but it ends by recognizing its limitations. The need to isolate dominant patterns in hybrid flows, for example, represents the “mixological” limitation of the work. Nail also acknowledges its “geographical narrowness” as the price to be paid for “historical breadth” (445), and he looks forward to future research expanding the kinetic analysis to non-Western and colonized contexts, where motion may be differently periodized and resonate in other patterns. (446–47) Nail’s compelling book might indeed move others to build on its groundwork or, equally, provoke vigorous debate. It is a substantial contribution to contemporary philosophy, which I expect to make a wide-ranging impact.






The Migrant Image


How can we think of art history as a discipline that moves process-based, performative, and cultural migratory movement to the center of its theoretical and methodical analyses?

With contributions from internationally renowned experts, this manual, for the first time, provides answers as to what consequences the interaction of migration and globalization has on research in the field of the science of art, on curatory practice, and on artistic production and theory. The objective of this multi-vocal anthology is to open up an interdisciplinary discourse surrounding the increased focus on the phenomenon of migration in art history.

Buy here and here.

Here is an extract from my contribution to the collection.

You can read the full chapter here: “The Migrant Image.” in Handbook of Art and Global Migration, ed. Burcu Dogramaci and Birgit Mersmann (De Gruyter Press, 2019); 54-69.

Migrant aesthetics
The mobile image and the centrality of the migrant mark a new period in aesthetics. The digital image is not only mobile by virtue of its form but by the mobility of its content and author. Some of the most shared and viewed images of the past few years have been digital images of migrants, refugees, and the conditions of their travels, and even their death. The image of Alan Kurdi, the dead Syrian 3-year-old is now one of the most influential images of all time. The popular media has been saturated with migrant images and has thus been confronted in a new and dramatic way with the visible lives and deaths of migrants.

Furthermore, the widespread access to cell phones with digital cameras has also made it possible for migrants and refugees themselves to generate more images of their own movement and experience than ever before. The itinerant, grainy, handheld, and “poor” images of migrant cell phone cameras have become their own film genera: the “wretched of the screen” (Steyerl 2013). In these videos migrants are not silent victims but creators of new aesthetic forms, “an imperfect cinema” (Espinosa 1979) as demonstrated in Elke Sasse’s 2016 film #MyEscape.

Cell phones have also become literal lifelines for migrants to obtain travel information in isolated areas, to share videos, sounds and images with friends, family, and authorities. The digital visua l and sonic images produced by migrants have become the material basis of the aesthetic threads that hold together numerous committees across borders, not just refugees. Although it is most obvious in the case of refugees, these are the same aesthetic lifel ines that make possible sustained social and informational communities around the world. The migrancy of the digital image is what allows for community in a world of global migration, continuous mobility, and displacement. What would global migration look like without without the migrancy of the image and the images of the migrant,

The migrant image thus marks the limits of the previous century and the outline of a new one defined by the mobility and migration of the image. This requires a new approach both to the politics of migration and the aesthetics of the image. However, the advent of the present is never limited to the present alone. Now that our present has emerged, it has become possible in a way it was not before to inquire into the conditions of its emergence and discover something new about the nature and history of art. in other words, the present reveals something new about the nature of sensation and what it must at least be like so as to be capable of being defined by the primacy of motion and mobility as it is. At no point in history has the image ever been anywhere near as mobile as it is today in the digital image.

So, what does this say about the nature of the image such that it is capable of this mobility? lf the image is defined by the primacy of mobility today yet existing theories of it are not, then we need a new conceptual framework. We need to produce such a new conceptual framework based on the primacy of motion to better understand contemporary sensation and aesthetics, as well as the historical events from which it emerges. in short, the rise of the mobile digital image draws our attention not so much to its radical novelty, but to a previously hidden dimension of all previous images throughout art history that can only now be seen (Hansen 2004; Hansen 2006; Manning 2012; Massumi 2007; Naukkarinen 2005; O’Sullivan 2001; Gregg/Seigworth 201 0).

The research program proposed by this chapter is therefore neither a theory of the migrant image that applies strictly to the novelty of the digital image nor an ahistorical theory of the image that applies forever and all time to all images and media. It offers a different approach…

The Migrant Image