Time Will Tell: A Series on the Philosophy of Time | Blog of the APA

The Blog of the APA is happy to announce “Time Will Tell,” a series of interviews about the philosophy of time. The interviews were conducted by Dr. Chris Rawls of Roger Williams University. To introduce the series, Rawls talked with the Blog about how her interest in temporality developed and where she would like studies of time to go in the future.

What is the purpose of this series, “Time Will Tell”? Describe how the series will work.

“Time Will Tell” is a series of professional interviews with scholars, both within and outside of philosophy and all with a social justice conscience, all academics who work on some aspect of time and/or temporality and human consciousness. Having worked on the concept for my Master’s thesis in 2004, I’m very interested in everything related to time. We all think about time. The four scholars who graciously agreed to the interviews are doing important and often utterly fascinating work on these topics.

How did you develop an interest in the concept of time?

As a young child, I had mini seizures occasionally. I had (and still have) a language difference/disability where I heard words backwards, but by syllable! It’s not that way today, of course, but the things my brain did to create what it needed in order to understand external language are unique. It is a form of Auditory Processing Disorder, but I’ve been calling it auditory dyslexia most of my life. The science on it only began in real depth about two decades ago. There is much disagreement still. I’ve recently learned of cutting edge neural mapping research that proves folks with APD have unique neuron development that is not like your average human brain development. This is both good and bad. It does not make me special. We all have individual, fluid brains (plasticity) because we all have individual, personal, emotional experiences. I’ve suffered and struggled because of the learning differences with language all my life, especially with communication. I’m being tested by specialists currently for the first time in my life. I also don’t think in images very easily most of my waking hours, but I dream vividly and often can recall my nightly dreams. This is known as partialAphantasia. Good health insurance and having the funds to get tested is needed for all this, which should give us pause. Both of these differences combined altered as I learned to read, write, speak, but they have always caused difficulties in reading, writing and communicating into adulthood, enough to cause a lot of unnecessary pain and struggle for myself and others. I wish I could have been tested decades ago.

It’s a small miracle I finished the doctorate in philosophy at all, and I didn’t do it alone. It was a really rough road and I would never have made it if my professors didn’t believe in me or find ways to hold me up, even if some worried about me circa 2009 when I lost a potential Fulbright scholarship and a scholar in residence position in Holland. This is important and related to consciousness for me personally not only because time will tell, but also because I survived horrific crime in Holland, an experience that caused not only time to stop for me but that caused others to question the validity of my actual conscious and bodily experiences. Duquesne University philosophy professors helped me stay in the PhD program. Sometimes I think only my former dissertation director, who I had worked with from 2004 to 2015 on and off, could understand my language. He used to translate for others what I was trying to say. I mention all this because the seizures in childhood, as well as what I went through in Holland, are what forced me to think about time and consciousness.

If we learn language and words by sound and image, and we then attach those sounds to meaning and memory, and if I had a brain difference related to both sound andimages, not to mention anxiety which can also effect memory, then it makes some real sense that I had to find novel ways to understand, interpret, memorize, read, write, and describe what I was learning. I often used my own symbolism, much based on sound and feeling or emotionally oriented experiences. It took five years to write, organize, and defend the dissertation on Spinoza. I had three editors for spelling, grammar, and organization in addition to the thesis committee. To this day I still struggle with spelling and grammar. APD Specialist Dr. Teri James Bellis writes: “But the distinction between ‘language-like’ and ‘auditory-like’ is extremely fuzzy and involves subtle judgements, not scientific distinctions.” Bellis is referencing the challenging testing and diagnosis process. The meanings I attach to vocabulary are, primarily, my own and not what culture has shaped necessarily.

The main point is that when the childhood seizures occurred I felt time as delayed. I visually saw things unfold in real time, but auditorily time was experienced as delayed. I heard sounds around me as if they were one connected whole on the wrong speed of a record player, like a sound image in slow motion that I was having an experience of while also functioning within clock time. This only lasted a few minutes. So, I was directly aware of two experiences of time simultaneously, but the seizures were uncomfortable and frightening. I couldn’t find the right words to describe them and we didn’t have any money for testing. It was always just chalked up to stress, something some still do today around me. I was forced to pay attention to the changes in my temporality specifically. The slowing down of time, and the intervals in-between, fascinated me even as a child. Studying, reading, writing, and teaching philosophy has helped my mind, brain and body make even more progress, but so many have accused or labeled my challenges as a mental health issue. Not knowing about my APD, and the challenges that caused, is the most difficult experience I have ever had next to attempting to write the doctorate.

I like to think about time, temporality, and consciousness together, especially as we all start taking more seriously such topics as advanced AI, quantum computing, or even the scientific studies on evidential mediumship, and there is legitimate science about the latter. William James knew. These topics can get wild when combined with the reality of what Antonio Damasio, the Spinozist that he is, calls “extended consciousness,” as opposed to “core consciousness.” Damasio has one of the most credible explanations on human consciousness of the past two decades. Briefly, Extended Consciousness is an individual autobiographical, rolling, flexible experience that cannot be coded as the same for any two humans. Sort of like, or possibly related to, having a soul some might say, metaphorically speaking or otherwise. The implications of such combinations are significant. Alternatively, the functions of Core Consciousness are what can be replicated by AI, but extended consciousness cannot. Recently, I started making podcasts for my students and for coping through Anchor. The international magazine New Philosopher tweeted one of my episodes on Kant about some of these new questions which was a silver lining in these challenging times.

We can read what top consciousness researchers or scholars say, such as bell hooks, Robert Lanza, Antonio Damasio, David Chalmers, Ernst Sosa, Tom Nagel, Patricia Churchland, Time Crane, Daniel Dennett, Patricia Hill Collins, Kelly Oliver or Judith Butler, as some important examples, but we can also legitimately consider the work of Jim Tucker at the University of Virginia, Dean Radin (massive, amazing history and scientific work), Gary Swartz, Lynn Buchanan of The Seventh Sense or study the results of those scientists who test individuals for what is sadly called ‘super-natural’ abilities, such as former Navy commander (and highest ranking female Navy officer in U.S. history) now turned evidential medium, Suzanne Geisemann. There’s always the work of Husserl, Heidegger, McTaggert, Sartre, etc. on human temporality that is also incredible, some of which I have studied, but it seems we might want to talk about other, more controversial theories too, those that apply to recent work in animal consciousness and intelligence, as another example, or current discoveries on the Observer Effect (OE) in quantum physics (thinking here of the work Biocentrism), the possibility of time travel that even Einstein took seriously, or more studies on human consciousness done by those who work specifically on near death or life after death phenomena (such as those who die on operating tables yet survive surgery only to somehow be able to report back to doctors exactly what occurred when they were otherwise reported as “brain dead”).  The OE is a series of verified experiments in physics (to say nothing of the research of the PEARS experiments at Princeton U.) that have concluded ‘matter’ understood in a deterministic (physicalist) way is just not enough. It’s not that materialism or determinism is wholly wrong, not at all. We know it works and is real, but only that it’s not the whole explanation of actual reality and the experiences of human beings. Consciousness and the brain are separate, but work together, often for biological reasons, but not only for these reasons according to this kind of research. It’s incredible and a game changer for all fields of study if so. The annual IANDS conference, the International Association of Near Death Studies, this past year had its largest attendance to date of researchers, neurosurgeons, philosophers, psychologists, and more. I was there for some of it with my friend and fellow Spinoza philosopher, Neal Grossman, now retired, but who worked for decades alongside both Ed Curley and Charles Mills at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Neal has a new book that deals directly with the philosophical problems involved in these areas of interest and experience titled Conversations with Socrates and Plato.

How does time influence contemporary philosophical studies?

The past few centuries have seen intellectual and scientific revolutions on the nature of time, including especially in philosophy and physics, not to mention quantum computing currently. I’m thinking here of the systems of Leibniz, Newton, Kant, Bergson, Einstein, Husserl, Heidegger, or Deleuze on the time image. I’m an advocate of bridging the gaps between Continental and Analytic methods. Studies on time, temporality, and consciousness have already been used by several philosophers to bridge these types of methodological gaps, for example, in the philosophy of film or the film as philosophy (FAP) problem. Artists and film makers know how to think about time! So too do surgeons for that matter. Of course, St. Augustine and other philosophers knew a lot about time many centuries ago, a point some Western philosophers always seem to enjoy bringing up repeatedly when you mention someone new who we should know about on this topic. Some even say Plato was a mystic, in the Eternalist sense…and I’m starting to believe they’re correct. If so, he was both inside and outside of time! His work is timeless, no? I think he was a mystic.

What thinkers or methodologies have you found most useful in pursuing your studies of temporality?

Time vs. temporality, as we are well aware in philosophy, address very different problems. When you add in human consciousness….the challenging logic problems multiply. An example can be found in both Spinoza and Bergson, as well as W.E.B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, Ralph Ellison. The ‘argument against the man’ used in formal logic, as another example, is still valid in certain settings, but it doesn’t work at all as an objective rule (nor should it be used) when talking about and studying certain philosophical problems in the critical philosophy of race and whiteness studies or phenomenology, for example. As Ralph Ellison writes in The Invisible Man, “Did the word apply to an invisible man? Could they recognize choice in that which wasn’t seen…?” Which logic do you put first? Although, I wrote my doctoral thesis on Spinoza’s dynamic epistemology found in his Ethics, I am also a race theorist and studied and grew with and because of George Yancy’s mentorship. There’s so much to think about here yet.

In Spinoza, we learn that the laws of Nature for human beings are all we have access to, but that temporality and our experience of time is both in accordance with these laws of Nature as an experience of the partially imaginative sort, as well as a kind of necessary, partial negation (i.e. limited, individual sense data, a singular expression of partial knowledge of a mode of substance conceived through its two attributes respectively, etc.). Spinoza provided an exhaustively rigorous, systematic philosophical text on the logical possibilities and limitations of human knowledge and the Laws of Nature before some of what Leibniz and Kant would attempt next. At the end of the day, I am not a Spinozist in the modern materialist sense, no matter how much I love Lucretius and those who taught me Spinoza. I’m more of a misfit metaphysician, but I definitely understand today’s ingenious atomist arguments, and my mentors are great at understanding this kind of materialism in affectively creative ways. There’s an interview coming up in this series for the APA on some of these topics with Thomas Nail.

I’ve always felt and worked in the capacity of interdisciplinary interests regarding time, and ideas or research others ignore. I know some would say that I waste time (some track my time stamps), and I do, especially when overwhelmed, but it’s just that time, as a sort of metaphysical illusion in some respects, slows one down to consider it to begin with (just like my mini seizures did as a child), and if you are having certain kinds of rare experiences that do not have full explanations (still today!) that satisfy even the best of philosophers around you, then it seems there’s a lot left to discuss. Even Roger Penrose said in a recent interview this year that we do not have a sufficient explanation for consciousness yet, as he works on quantum consciousness and the microtubials of neuron cells. So more neuron mapping please!

Practices such as meditation, as another example, slow down our pre-frontal cortex’s need for speedy, linear temporality and future oriented goals or tasks. Our bodies benefit from meditative practices within and without our direct awareness (science now validates this). So, are we only future temporally driven? No. Human bodies, brains, and souls also respond to not being future oriented, which is why meditation works so well. It builds new gray matter scientists now know, and we become more present when we meditate. One is truly not thinking about what’s next, biologically or otherwise, unless forced to or when the meditation moment ends. I like this kind of experience. Always planning ahead has its benefits, obviously, but it’s not all we are or do or need. Not at all.

Some of these experiences change, nonetheless, if you live in a continuously threatening environment, for anyone. Yet, a person of color in America is forced to face death every single day one way or another, much more immanently than a white man. #justiceforgeorgefloyd. Think about who is dying the most, too, with Covid-19 and why. The research on and experience of time (and space), as well as of one’s temporality, has limits based on the current acceptable paradigms of thought in Western science, but one’s environment can also alter these experiences drastically, including altering one’s sense of space and time, literally altering one’s experience of what it is to live each day. Lacan’s categories of the Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real need re-thinking, mostly because of, at the least, the new metaphysics research in science and metaphysics.

Kelly Oliver has a new essay in Sophia on what she calls “social melancholy” and how it, as a real experience, drastically differs from the psychoanalyst version of melancholia. I think she’s on to something. One legitimate critique of psychoanalytic theories and practices regarding temporality and consciousness are the above experiences I have had in combination. How would folks of this theory account for meaning, symbolic or otherwise, when I had my own language, including problems with the usual social language and, give or take, always have? The thing about learning disabilities/differences is that they are, sadly, often filled with tremendous shame, loneliness and/or isolation. The learning differences are also not uniform across tasks. Just because I can read philosophy doesn’t mean I can read all philosophical texts, or that I can read and understand anything else as complex either just because philosophers rely on the use of intense and rigorous logic, much of which I can systematically unpack. My philosophy skills are limited and yet, at times, not limited. It’s hard to track fully.

I’m now ready, knowing the name of my diagnoses, such as APD, to grow, to expand, to add to understanding, and to work even harder within the use of the tools that I need or that help, such as audio books! I had to solve this puzzle alone. There is no shame in using audio books, especially if you need to, but it can get expensive. Learning of any kind (in almost any creative or healthy way) is good. Yet, imagine asking for even more help in a well-known PhD program in philosophy, that you need audio books, editors, and testing to accompany the reading of the usual and expected texts, not to mention to complete all your work to the best of your ability? There was no real funding or money (or public understanding) yet for all that and as I tried in any way I could to explain, my words just dragged on and on. It seems one might need to be able to have and use internal, mental images in order to develop their language skills and use? To this day I cannot internally produce or think in images regularly.

Where would you like studies of time, both in philosophy and other disciplines, to go in the future?

Everywhere, especially in environmental ethics or the philosophy of quantum physics, or our criminal justice system and its insane need for complete reform, including eradicating solitary confinement, something philosopher Lisa Gunther works so hard on. AI is an interesting and important place to look as we move into more of a technologically infused and rapidly advancing society. I often ask students on the first day of class where space goes or to put their ideas in my hand? They get the rational point immediately, in an instant, if you will. I ask them to think deeply about infinity and our ideas about such things as space, and then to pay attention to their existential and often biologically oriented anxieties that set in which can be observed in reflection when one realizes we don’t know where space ‘goes.’ Physics and philosophy have a lot in common, they always have. Any aspect of interdisciplinarity with an emphasis on creativity have profound effects in furthering understanding (or at least add to it), especially for our university students. And now that Covid-19 is here and all forms of education are transforming radically and immediately, we have new things to think about and need to come up with novel, creative ways to teach, both virtually and otherwise. We have a chance to improve centuries old binary methods that have not worked for so many different reasons.

I like how John McCumber once addressed the Continental-Analytic divide by asking each group to take up the study of time more fully. Analytic philosophers could benefit, he noted, from reading more continentals or pragmatists on time and temporality. Continental philosophers can benefit from looking into the new problems of time in theoretical physics or the philosophy of mathematics. There’s something to be said for theories of reverse causation in Hegel, for example, a topic I have written a paper on that I’m particularly proud of and was asked to present at an APA Eastern conference with the North American Society of Hegel Studies once. Perhaps, if we pay as much attention as we can to social justice and environmental ethics and ills (as in it’s way overdue), we could eradicate some of the diseases of the human species that involve extreme forms of cruelty, human suffering, and irrationality. We are capable of affirmative action and rational organization on large scales and with highly rational, compassionate groups of individuals, as long as we have the information correct and are loving in our ways. Look at the world-wide protests now for #BLM in the midst of a global pandemic! Incredible. We can change the course of time…and we can do it with heart. Something I wish I understood better in the past. However small the gesture, we have the ability (i.e. the motion, options, action) to become healthier, happier, and truly, qualitatively enlivened with safety and fun together. And we need this now more than ever, some might say, as we are all facing the perfect storm, economically and otherwise, that is Covid-19.

Who are you interviewing for the series and what do readers have to look forward to?

I’m thrilled about these interviews! They are with Prof. Kristie Miller, Co-Director at the Center for the Study of Time, School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, University of Sydney, Prof. Thomas Nail from the University of Denver, and Prof. Boram Jeong, University of Colorado at Denver, who are all practicing philosophers. The series will end with a provocative interview with the biological anthropologist, Prof. Michael Masters, on human evolution, time, and aliens, a theory and recent book his Dean congratulated him for.

Prof. Miller is at the forefront of the study of the philosophy of time with the many different aspects of research that are being done at the University of Sydney. Her interview addresses some of the more traditional problems with the philosophy of time and temporality, but in novel ways. Prof. Nail’s work is ground breaking, especially Being and Motion, and his work on Lucretius, not to mention immigration. I have audio booked B&M, which I felt, sound wise, was a great way to get through it while literally being in motion (walking in the sunshine while thinking, while learning, instead of sitting reading as sitting still is a challenge ironically), and I have used various audio clips with permission in my Anchor podcasts. Many philosophers and artists, not to mention some scientists, will enjoy reading, hearing, and thinking about Nail’s important (and what will be) lasting contributions to the history of thought. Prof. Jeong’s interview and contributions are also relevant to our time. They are important contributions to very specific areas of philosophy, and, as she addresses the connections between time, money, freedom, Deleuze, race, and philosophy, we can all also benefit from her research and insights, and will be reading her philosophy about the future indefinitely I feel.

Prof. Masters has a new, interdisciplinary work on how humans might naturally evolve into a technologically advanced (alien) species. It’s wild, and awesome. His logic is valid and sound, and his research is currently being internationally recognized, including by philosophers and scientists alike. All interviews, including my own, are somewhat personal and about each scholar’s individual interpretations on time, temporality, and consciousness. I’m thrilled they agreed to do this series and I hope all will enjoy reading the interviews. I thank all the contributors for sharing their work.

Chris Rawls 

Chris Rawls teaches philosophy full time at Roger Williams University. Chris received her Ph.D. in philosophy in 2015 from Duquesne University writing on Spinoza’s dynamic epistemology. Chris recently co-edited an interdisciplinary anthology Philosophy and Film: Bridging Divides with Routledge Press’s series Research on Aesthetics (an experiment for the ages!) with Diana Nieva and Steven Gouveia. Chris also studies/teaches within the Critical Philosophy of Race and Whiteness Studies since 2006 and helped co-found the Society for Women in Philosophy (SWIP) archive at the Pembroke Center for Feminist Theory, Brown University.

What is Object Oriented Ontology? What is Actor Network Theory? What is the Philosophy of Movement?

What is an object? One interesting way to avoid the problem of getting the subject and object back together to secure knoweldge is by not introducing the division in the first place. What if everything was only objects? We could then think of the subject as a highly composite type of object. Before proposing my own kinetic theory of the object I would like to consider the strengths and weaknesses of two major theories of the object. In these theories, instead of dividing the world up into subjects and objects, they divide it up into objects and their relations.

Relational Ontology

One version of this approach is called “relational ontology.” In this view, an object is nothing other than the set of all its relations with other objects. In one popular version of this theory called, “Actor Network Theory,” relationships are primary and objects emerge as nodes from pre-existing networks. Objects are what they do, or how they act through their distributed networks. In a relational ontology, there is no such thing as an object that is unrelated to other objects. 

            Furthermore, in this view, there is no pre-given hierarchy among objects. Relations can always shift around and become different. Objects have no static essences because it is the wider network that defines and differentiates them from one another. This is all true with or without humans. Objects are born and die, but network patterns, as such, do not because they precede and exceed all objects. What then is the source of change and novelty in the networks if it is not the objects themselves? How could networks change without objects that move? 

            One answer to this question comes from another kind of relational ontology called, “vitalist new materialism.”[i] In this view, relations are “vital,” “virtual,” “forces” that create “changes” in relations without any material movement in objects.[ii] Its proponants do not call this a “static” view of objects but it is still a view that erases motion or kinetic change in favor of virtual or relational change.[iii] The French philosopher and founder of Actor Network Theory, Bruno Latour, for example, rejects the “static” view of architecture, but instead proposes to replace it with a theory of “successive freeze-frames that could at last document the continuous flow that a building always is.”[iv] However, Graham Harman, who we will discus next, is correct to say that this “freeze-frame model of time simply multiplies the problem of stasis, then tries to solve it by the fiat of claiming that all of these standalone instantaneous moments are linked by something called a ‘trajectory.’”[v]

            But before getting into the differences with my own approach, let’s look at one final non-movement-based theory of the object.

Object Oriented Ontology 

In “Object Oriented Ontology,” everything is objects and relations. Similar to the relational view of objects, this view agrees that objects are connected together in networks of changing relations, with or without humans. However, for object oriented ontologists, objects are not reducible to their relations. Objects are “discrete,” “stable,” “unknowable,”[vi] “things-in-themselves” with “definite boundaries and cut-off points.”[vii] Each object is “vacuum-sealed” off from others and contains within it a secret or “withdrawn essence”[viii] that is “singular” to it alone.[ix] Graham Harman, a founder and proponent of this theory, describes it as a kind of Kantianism without a subject—everything is an unknowable object in-itself.[x]     

            Harman disagrees with the objectivists because he says they “undermine” objects by reducing them to what they are made of (matter and particles). He also rejects the constructivist and relational views because he says they “overmine” objects by reducing them to their network of relations. The typical explanation given by the sciences, he says, “duomines” objects by claiming that they are just components of larger objects, which also have their own components.                                      

            The worry of the object ontologist is that by defining the object purely by its relations with others, the object itself is explained away by something else. The “real essence” of the object in-itself would be lost behind the appearance of its fluctuating relations. Therefore, the only way to protect the essence and reality of objects, in this view, is to “vacuum-seal” an “unexpressed reservoir”[xi] of the object off from all its relations with others.[xii]

            How does this theory account for changes in objects? Harman splits the object into two parts. One part changes along with its relations while the other part has “hidden volcanic energy that could … lead it to turn into something different.”[xiii] This is why Harman criticizes relational ontologies for not being able to account for change. “Unless the thing holds something in reserve behind its current relations, nothing would ever change,” Harman says.[xiv] In this view, the essence of objects is the source of all change and motion, but only every now and then. “Stability is the norm”[xv] because mostly objects are “aloof [and] do not act at all: they simply exist, too non-relational to engage in any activity whatsoever.”[xvi]

            However, as much as Harman claims that the essences of objects do not have “an eternal character,”[xvii] and can even be “transient,”[xviii] and accuses relational theories of being “static,”[xix] he also ultimately admits that the hidden parts of objects “transcend” the world and do not engage in any activity whatsoever.[xx] Since movement, as I understand it, requires activity of some kind, object ontology’s eventual position is still one of immobility and stasis. So even though Harman says that change can come from something that has “no action whatsoever,” such a metaphysical belief amounts to a violation of every known law of physics.         


What then is the philosophy of movement and how does it offer us a new way forward that overcomes the limits of the previous theories? The philosophy of movement is a kind of process philosophy. This means that instead of treating objects as static forms, it treats them as metastable processes. Some of movements are small and iterative and allow the object to remain relatively stable like a river eddy. Other movements are more dramatic and can either destroy or transform objects like a turbulent rain storm.   

            By contrast, the theories above define the object according to some kind of stasis. As such, they are unable to theorize the movement, novel transformation, and emergence of objects completely. Let’s look quickly at the limits of each of just two of these theories and then see how the philosophy of movement compares. 

            The problem with objectivism is that it treats objects as if they were unchanged by the conditions of their discovery and observation. This view ignores the history, relations, and agency of objects and treats them as entirely passive. But if they are merely passive how could they possibly emerge alongside others or affect observers?

            On the other hand, the problem with constructivism is that if the object is nothing other than what humans think or say about it, it is also robbed of all its agency and activity to affect others. If objects are incapable of their own movement and novelty then how do they emerge and change? Constructivism is also forced to posit a radical difference between human subjects and natural objects that leaves it trapped in its own world. 

            At least relational theories of objects reject this division and acknowledge that objects act through their relations. The problem, however, is these relations by preceding and exceeding objects fully determine them. Where then is the agency and motion of the object? How can the object introduce novel and generative motions into such relations? For Latour, the relations that constitute objects are, by definition, completely determinate and mappable. Changes in relations do not originate from the movement of objects or their materiality but occur like a series of sudden “freeze-frames” in the networks. 

            Finally, although object oriented ontology tries not to reduce objects to unchanging essences, social constructions, or relations, it saves the object only by completely sacrificing it. In the end, we are told the essence of the object completely transcends the world and is cut off from any relation to it. The core contradiction of this theory is that the essence of objects is the source of all change and motion and yet does not act or move in any way. It is ultimately a philosophy of immobility and static change.[xxi]        

            These theories of the object could not be more different, and yet they all try and explain the movement of the object by something that does not move (an essence, a mental/social representation, a flat relationality, or a completely inactive essence). The problem here is that these theories start with some kind of division either between subject and object or between object and relation.

            What is different about the philosophy of movement? The key difference is that instead of trying to explain movement by something else, it starts from the historical statement that “there is nothing in the universe that is not in motion.” This is a falsifiable claim. If it is experimentally proven wrong, I am prepared to concede my position and explore the philosophical consequences of the alternative. 

            From this perspective, I agree with Harman that objects are singular and irreducible to their determinate parts or relations. However, for me, this is because the movements of matter that comprise objects are not fundamentally determinate. Matter, or what physicists would more precisely call “energy,” at its smallest level is “indeterminate fluctuations.” These fluctuations are not particles, substances, or objects, and cannot be directly observed or known. Saying objects are “reducible” to indeterminate energy makes no sense. There is no determinate “something” that is at the heart of the reduction.  

            Movement, in this sense, is “indeterminate movement” and relations are “indeterminate relations.” The indeterminate movement of matter, in my view, has no higher or exterior causal explanation, or at least there is no experimentally verified one, or hint of one yet. That is not to say that there aren’t theories that try to interpret it away.[xxii] However, at the moment, I am putting my philosophical wager behind the real possibility that ongoing indeterminate movement is a fundamental feature of nature. When Lucretius put the indeterminate swerve of matter at the heart of his philosophy in the first century BCE commentators balked for centuries, but now its established science. 

            How might an object oriented ontologist respond to this alternative? Graham Harman has already responded to the idea of quantum indeterminacy in a recent article on the work of the physicist, Karen Barad. There he writes that “undermining treats individual objects as too shallow to be the truth and seeks to replace them either with a micro-army of tinier things or a primordial lump of indeterminate flux.”[xxiii] In response to this I would say two things. First of all, for Barad, and myself, objects are just as “true” as quantum fields and the idea of “replacement” makes no sense since objects are made of fields. Obviously field theory does not explain poverty, and no one thinks it does, so this too is an irrelevant point. Second, there could literally not be anything less like a “primordial lump” in the entire universe than indeterminate flux. One of the most important events in the history of science was the discovery that matter/energy is not a substance and has no fixed a priori properties. Lumps are undifferentiated, but indeterminate fluctuations are the processes of differentiation that create and sustain all differences. Harman, in my opinion, has misunderstood the meaning of quantum indeterminacy and fluctuation in a way that invalidates his objection to Barad and myself.   

            It may sound like a small shift in starting points to go from stasis to movement, but it makes a huge difference. The theories above have a method that follows uniquely from its starting point and so does a movement-oriented theory of objects. Therefore, if we want a theory of the object that can make sense of its movement, emergence, and novelty, these first options will not work. Instead of assuming from the outset that the world is either made of, or can be explained by, something immobile and unchanging and then trying to account for motion and process—the kinetic theory of the object inverts this logic. It begins from the historical discovery of quantum flux and then try and explain the emergence of scientific knowledge given this new starting principle. 

            The philosophy of movement offers a new kind of process philosophy distinct from older models of process based on vital forces, as in the philosophy of Henri Bergson, or on static strobe-like “occasions,” as described by Alfred North Whitehead.[xxiv] My term for this third kind of process philosophy is “process materialism” or “kinetic materialism.”[xxv]

            If an object is not an essence, idea, or relation, then what it is, according to a process philosophy of movement? In the kinetic theory of the object we need look no further than the kinetic origins of the word “object,” from the Latin ob– (“against”) + iaciō (“I throw”). The object is a fundamentally kinetic process. It is something thrown into motion and turned against or looped around itself. It is a fold. Instead of a discrete, vacuum-sealed atom, objects are much more like continuous processes that folds back over themselves, making larger and more complicated knots. The object, as its Latin origins suggest, is not a discrete or static block in space and time a kinetic process.

[i] I have in mind here especially Jane Bennet, Vibrant Matter (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), and Thomas Lemke’s critique of her metaphysics of relations in, “An Alternative Model of Politics? Prospects and Problems of Jane Bennett’s Vital Materialism,”Theory, Culture & Society, May 17, 2018, 1–24. “To put it in an old-fashioned vocabulary: Bennett endorses an ‘idealist’ account of materialism.” “To put it bluntly: there is a lack of materiality in this vital materialism.” But also Manuel De Landa, Assemblage Theory(Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016) and Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). Here is not the place to engage an entire literature review and critique of various relational positions, since I have already treated them elsewhere in Being and Motion, Chapter 3 and at length in Christopher N. Gamble, Joshua S. Hanan & Thomas Nail (2019) “What is New Materialism?,” Angelaki, 24:6, 111-134.

[ii] Here I also have in mind the work of other process philosophers like Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, and Alfred North Whitehead whose work is of great interest and inspiration to me and

whose theories are perhaps closest to my own. However, my own “kinetic process philosophy” diverges from each of them on a number of important central points whose full explanation requires its own careful chapter-length treatment and review that would be redundant to reproduce here since it is already published as chapter three of Thomas Nail, Being and Motion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018). 

[iii] For a critique of the idea of change without motion see chapter three of Thomas Nail, Being and Motion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018). 

[iv] (La-tour, Yaneva, 2008: 81).ardeth#01_interni.indb   11628/08/17   14:12

[v] Buildings are not Processes: A Disagreement with Latour and Yaneva, 117

[vi] Graham Harman, Immaterialism (Polity Press, 2106), 13.

[vii] Graham Harman, Immaterialism (Polity Press, 2106), 15.

[viii] “Object-Oriented Ontology” (OOO)—a term coined by Graham Harman, and defines a theoretical commitment to thinking the real beyond the human experience. As such the reality of matter is never something anthropocentric, experienced or relational, but always something which “withdraws.” This leads Harman, like Badiou to affirm what they call “a new sort of ‘formalism.’” Timothy Morton similarly argues against “some kind of substrate, or some kind of unformed matter” in favor of infinitely withdrawn essential forms. Cited in Thomas Lemke, “Materialism Without Matter: the Recurrence of Subjectivism in Object-Oriented Ontology.” Distinktion. 18.2 (2017): 133-152. See also Carol A. Taylor, “Close Encounters of a Critical Kind: A Diffractive Musing In Between New Material Feminism and Object-Oriented Ontology,” Cultural Studies, (2016) 16(2), 201-212. 

[ix] Graham Harman, Immaterialism (Polity Press, 2106), 16.

[x] Graham Harman, Immaterialism (Polity Press, 2106), 27-29.

[xi] http://www.rhizomes.net/issue30/harman.html

[xii] Graham Harmon, “On Vicarious Causation,” in Collapse II, 211.

[xiii] http://www.rhizomes.net/issue30/harman.html Inside are “explosive undercurrents belonging only to individual things, withdrawn from full expression in the world.”

[xiv] (Harman 2009: 187)  cited in lemke

[xv] Immaterialism pg. 16  

[xvi] https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwjlwN7SpJ7rAhVaAp0JHb0RBbMQFjAHegQICRAB&url=https%3A%2F%2Ftidsskrift.dk%2Fnja%2Farticle%2Fdownload%2F23057%2F20145%2F&usg=AOvVaw1eUKaPW3tsBnMcFIvvEqVP

[xvii] (Immaterialism 47)

[xviii] “everything has an autonomous essence, however transient it may be,”immaterialism, 16

[xix] http://www.rhizomes.net/issue30/harman.html

[xx] Harman says “I would like to volunteer OOO to serve as a model of what they [Bruno Latour Albena Yaneva] and call static architecture.” Harman, “Buildings are not Processes: A Disagreement with Latour and Yaneva” 

[xxi] Latour and Harman are “secular occasionalists” who believe that change occurs discontinuously without material movement. For Latour it is the networks that change discontinuously and for Harman it is the objects that change discontinuously.  “In this way, Bruno Latour is the first secular occasionalist: the founder of what I have called vicarious causation.” prince of networks, pg 115 

            I am not the only one to describe Harman’s theory of change as static. See Shaviro, in speculative turn. “Harman accounts for change by appealing to the emergence of qualities that were previously submerged in the depths of objects; but he does not explain how those objects came to be, or how their hidden properties got there in the first place.” p.285 the speculative turn Shaviro’s piece. “Harman’s entities, in contrast, do not spontaneously act or decide; they simply are. For Harman, the qualities of an entity somehow already pre-exist; for Whitehead, these qualities are generated on the fly. Harman, as we have seen, discounts relations as inessential; his ontology is too static to make sense of them.” (287) spec. turn shaviro.

            For a critique of OOO’s theory of change see also: Object-Oriented Ontology and Its Critics 

C.J. Davies The Problem of Causality in Object-Oriented Ontology 


            See also Lemke, article materialism without matter. 

            I also thank Christopher N. Gamble for talking through OOO’s static ontology with me. 

[xxii] See Sean Carroll’s latest book.

[xxiii] http://www.rhizomes.net/issue30/harman.html

[xxiv] For a more detailed account of the differen

[xxv] See Being and motion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Theory of the Image is now available on audiobook

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

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

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

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

Listen now on Audible! 





Black Hole Materialism

First ever picture of a black hole may be revealed this week | New Scientist

Chris Gamble and I have just published our article on black hole materialism at Rhizomes. You can also download the article hereRhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge: Issue 36 (2020)

Black Hole Materialism

Christopher Neil Gamble University of Washington

Thomas Nail University of Denver

Abstract: The Euro-Western tradition has long considered matter to be essentially non-relational, passive and mechanical. Matter, that is, is thought to consist of elementary particles that remain internally unchanged while moving inside of, or against, an equally unchanging or fixed background of space, time, or both. Consequently, matter’s behavior has been seen as obeying—either fully or probabilistically—preexisting and invariant natural laws.

In our paper, we first take a brief tour through three major traditions of Western materialism in order to demonstrate how this basic picture has remained remarkably stable up to the present. We then argue that recent physics research and quantum gravity theorizing about black holes provide an unprecedented opportunity to revolutionize our understanding of matter by understanding it as inherently relational, indeterminate, and generative. Our aim in doing so is to show that black hole physics has enormous interdisciplinary consequences for the history, philosophy, and science of materialists.

I. The History of Materialism

Classical Mechanics. The first major Euro-Western tradition of materialism was Greek atomism. As is well known, Leucippus, Democritus, and Epicurus all taught that all things—from the biggest stars to the smallest insects or speck of dirt—are formed by the collisions, compositions, and decompositions of tiny, discrete, and indivisible “atoms”[1] careening perpetually through a vast spatial void. Eternal and unchanging, the atoms’ only differentiating attributes were their varying shapes and sizes, which enabled them to join together into countless combinations that resulted in the full scope and diversity of the perceptible world at large. For Leucippus and Democritus, these fundamental particles moved only along unique predetermined trajectories, whereas in Epicurus they occasionally swerved spontaneously onto others. In finding reality to have a fundamentally closed, immutable nature, however, both accounts nevertheless maintained the very same mechanistic conception of matter and its relationship to void or space.

For the atoms, that immutability results in a rather profound irony. Ostensibly, those constituent elements produce all of perceptible reality. Nevertheless, the full range of possible atomic compounds—and hence, of resulting sensible objects—preexists any compound’s realization and so remains just as eternally fixed and unchanging as the atoms own pre-given shapes and sizes. Certain combinations invariably result in lead, for example, whereas others result just as invariably in iron.[2] Accordingly, then, whether they were capable of swerving or not, the atoms exerted zero creative agency over the character of their own productions. Instead, they remained essentially non-generative, non-relational vessels that “create” merely by passively realizing preexisting possibilities.

A similar situation obtains in relation to the immutable (non-)nature of what the atomists called “void.” An infinite background emptiness that persists to a greater or lesser extent in (or as) the space between atoms, void also in fact plays an integral role in constituting the sensible world. For example, in explaining lead’s relatively greater density than iron, Democritus argued that the atoms of the former fit more closely together, and thus permit less void between them, than do those of the latter.[3] As this example illustrates, both metals reliably possess their respective defining properties only on condition that void (a) lacks any positive characteristics of its own (which could differentially interact with the atoms) and (b) remains utterly unaffected by the movements and combinations of the atoms that occur in or through it.

Taken together, the atomists described reality as a closed or bounded system whose productions could be exhaustively explained in terms of specific effects following necessarily and absolutely from particular causes. In doing so, they also positioned themselves as external, objective observers of that closed system, which remained unchanged by their observations of it. From that vantage, they could deduce and discover invariant, preexisting laws that would reveal reality’s underlying causal nature to them.[4]

In short, the atomists’ materialist account of reality entailed a mechanistic conception of matter as inherently non-generative and non-relational, a background-dependent conception of space, and the immutability of both. The importance of this materialist account is difficult to overstate, especially to the history and ongoing practice of science.[5] As we will see, however, as the prevailing cosmology changes, this concept of matter appears increasingly obsolete.

Statistical Mechanics. The second major materialist tradition emerged in the nineteenth century. Treating matter as if it moved randomly, modernist descriptions relied heavily on probability theory and statistics to predict it. However, matter’s seeming randomness was in fact merely due to practical limitations only. Fundamental particles (molecules, atoms, genes, isotopes, and so on) were simply too small and numerous for humans to observe all at once. For Laplace, Boltzmann and others, then, matter continued to be just as fully determined as it was for the atomists (albeit without any Epicurean spontaneity). Moreover, in adopting Newtonian notions of a fixed background of empty absolute space and universal time, modern materialism also continued to see matter as ultimately non-relational, passive, and obedient to invariant natural laws.

Quantum Mechanics. The third major materialism was quantum mechanics. In its initial formulation by Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg, and much to the disappointment of Albert Einstein, quantum mechanics abandons a deterministic understanding of matter and finds matter instead to be inherently probabilistic. Due to the “measurement problem,” as it has tended to be understood, there is a fundamental limit on the precision with which matter can be known or predicted. As Heisenberg formulated it in his famous uncertainty principle, for example, there is an inherent limit to how precisely it is possible to know both a particle’s position and its momentum simultaneously. Beyond that limit, determinism dissolves into probability distributions.

As developed subsequently in quantum field theory, moreover, particles no longer move within an empty or smooth surface but are understood to be the excitations of fields that constantly jitter like violent waves with the vacuum fluctuations of so-called “virtual particles.” While those vacuum fluctuations are too small to observe directly or individually, collectively they nevertheless exert empirically measurable effects on particles that can be observed.[6]

This account certainly paints a far more lively and dynamic picture of matter’s behavior than what had prevailed previously. Nevertheless, the vacuum fluctuations of the particle-fields of quantum field theory occur only within a preexisting and fixed background spacetime. In other words, quantum field theory works only by ignoringthe gravitational field.[7] Moreover, if the measurement problem is understood as marking a purely epistemological limit,[8] as it generally is, then despite the continual vacuum jittering, matter is still treated as if it cannot generate any novel trajectories for itself. The total set of possible trajectories, in other words, remains just as eternal and unchanging as in the atomists’ account. And thus, matter remains an essentially passive, non-relational substance confined to fixed mathematical and epistemological probability ranges.

Despite their differences, then, all three of these major kinds of materialism nonetheless treat matter as essentially passive and treat space and time as fixed, background givens.




What is the Philosophy of Movement? IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding the Coronavirus Pandemic with Foucault? by Philipp Sarasin

Here is a section from one of the best theoretical analyses I have read on the coronavirus so far. Read the full article here.


It is clear that Foucault did not speak of real pandemics but that he used infectious diseases as models of thought in order to organize forms of power according to ideal-typical patterns. We are in a different situation: we live in the midst of a pandemic and are subject to, or observe through the media, different modes of appearance of power and government. So what can the three models that Foucault developed teach us?

First: There are transitions and overlaps between the different forms. The complete lockdown of Wuhan rigorously follows the plague model, and every curfew ultimately does so, too. The models show that curfews are necessary when that statistical knowledge cannot be gained that makes possible the liberal smallpox model.

Only when systematic tests supply massive amounts of data about infected and non-infected people, like for example in South Korea or Singapore, is it possible for governments to restrict themselves to isolating the infected and recommend caution for the rest of the population, without however having to impose a lockdown. It is possible to say this without irony or malice: that public life goes on and the economy continues to function in South Korea or Singapore is precisely the liberal promise of the smallpox model.

Second: the plague model remains a threat, even a danger. This includes, for instance, that in Morocco the corona-related curfew is imposed with tanks in the streets and harsh military measures, that in Israel prominent voices warn of a “coup” executed by Netanyahu under the pretext of the fight against Covid-19, that Victor Orbán in Hungary is planning a transition to government by decree, or that in the United States Attorney General Barr is seeking permission to hold prisoners indefinitely without trial. But it also includes that the storage and evaluation of movement data of everyone carrying a mobile phone is unlikely to easily be relegated to a purely technical possibility after this crisis. The liberal smallpox model fundamentally and always requires that the power of the state be monitored with suspicion.

Third: The smallpox model of power describes, more or less but nevertheless fairly accurately, the form of government in times of a pandemic that the European governments adopt, despite all differences and many national egotisms. The strategy to #flattenthecurve means to reckon with the pathogen and to know that it cannot be eradicated, but to “extend” its distribution over time in such a way that the health system can handle it. And the strategy of prohibiting gatherings of several people does not amount to discipline—for what purpose?—but rather is something like a narrow but well-justified and understandable framework the state sets for individual behavior. In general, the call to observe rules of “social distancing” belongs without doubt in the sphere of liberal techniques of government, which are fundamentally based on individual freedom and must respect this freedom. To take care of oneself, to protect oneself, but also, as can widely be observed at the moment, to find forms of neighborly or solidary organization are techniques of the self that fill the liberal contours of the smallpox model with the concrete material of social self-organization.

Fourth: … but the leprosy model is lurking in the background. It emerges in the idea that appears here and there that one should let old people die “to save the economy”—or it becomes factual reality when retirement and nursing homes are abandoned and their inmates die locked up and alone, as is reportedly the case in Spain.

Postscript on techniques of the self

In his lectures on the history of governmentality in which he developed the smallpox model and spoke at length about neoliberalism, Foucault did not use the concept of techniques of the self. Even if there is an internal connection between his quite positive evaluation of (neo-)liberalism and his concept of techniques of the self, which he examined in the 1980s by using the example of antiquity, it is by no means the case that Foucault regarded techniques of the self as a form of power wrapped in the cover of liberality, as is often asserted today (indeed, he explicitly rejected precisely this interpretation in his lectures). The opposite is the case: the “relationship of self to self” and thus the possibility to conduct oneself in a particular way that is, precisely, notdetermined by power was, for him, the basis of the subject’s freedom. Consequently, as Foucault said in 1982 in his lecture, “there is no first or final point of resistance to political power other than in the relationship one has to oneself.”[14] Today he might add: and resistance to the virus. Or simply: take care.

This essay was first published in German in Geschichte der Gegenwart and has been translated for the foucaultblog by Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson.

3 pandemic predictions from Lucretius How being afraid of death is making some people less ethical

3 pandemic predictions Lucretius

3 pandemic predictions from Lucretius

How being afraid of death is making some people less ethical

The global spread of the coronavirus has forced us to confront our own mortality, and fears about illness and death weigh heavily on the minds of many.

But there’s a risk that fear for our own life will outweigh fear for the collective to the extent that, however unwittingly, we start to act in a way that causes harm to the collective – the global phenomenon of panic-buying is an obvious example.

As early as the first century BC, Roman philosopher Lucretius predicted that humanity’s fear of death could drive us to irrational beliefs and actions that would harm society. And as COVID-19 sweeps across the globe, three of his key predictions are coming true.

Prediction one: being afraid of death corrupts our subjective experience of life.

Lucretius made the case that people aren’t afraid of death unless there’s an immediate danger of dying; it’s when illness or danger strike that we get scared and strive to understand what comes after death.

The goal then becomes alleviating these fears. Some people do so by imagining that they have immaterial souls that shed their bodies or that there is a benevolent God, Lucretius writes. Others might imagine an eternal afterlife, or an immortal soul that is more important than the body and the material world.

But such beliefs carry an ethical danger that people may become preoccupied with something that literally does not matter at all. This fear and anxiety, Lucretius says, stains everything in life. It ‘leaves no pleasure clear and pure’ and it could even lead to ‘a great hatred of life’.

The question of the existence of God aside, the scientific evidence does suggest that anxiety about death isn’t good for us; studies show that this type of worrying can lower a person’s immune system and make it more vulnerable to infections(which, needless to say, is not ideal during a pandemic).

Prediction two: being afraid of death deepens social divisions and puts certain groups at greater risk.

In addition to staining one’s own experience of life, Lucretius predicted that the fear of death could escalate social divisions, because when people are afraid of dying they might think that withdrawing from others will help keep danger, disease and death away.

And while Lucretius wouldn’t have been opposed to social distancing if everyone was able to do it, this isn’t what’s actually happening around the world. Due to many factors, the gig economy being a notable one in the bunch, the sad reality is that the wealthy are able to distance themselves while the poor are being made increasingly vulnerable to death.

This phenomenon is well-documented in terror management studies; the fear of death results in a desire to escape, at the expense of disadvantaged groups. In China for example, rural migrant workers were blocked from quarantined cities, kicked out of apartments and turned away by factory owners, as authorities tried to control the spread of the coronavirus.

In the US, poorer workers do not have the luxury to work from home when schools close, and cannot afford to take sick days or see a doctor, which makes them more vulnerable than those who can afford to isolate themselves.

There is evidence of increased social divisions on the basis of race as well as class; Asian Americans are experiencing increased discrimination, with even schoolchildren becoming the targets of racist comments, and fewer people are going to Chinese restaurants out of fear of being infected.

Prediction three: being afraid of death inspires some people to accumulate wealth or political power at the expense of the community.

Lucretius predicted that some people will take advantage of social crises like plagues and wars to try and gain political power to secure a legacy for themselves after death. He wrote that this ‘blind burning after elected office coerces wretched people to go beyond the boundaries of what is right’ by sacrificing the good of the people for political position.

As well as political power, Lucretius warned that those who fear death may also think they can extend or preserve their life by ‘rising to the level of the greatest wealth’. Although, of course, the belief that the accumulation of power and wealth will secure their life is false.

You can look to President Trump as a manifestation of this prediction. By downplaying the spread of the coronavirus in America, Trump protected his electoral campaign as well as the US stock market (and by extension, his own wealth). In doing so, he placed political position and wealth above public health—just as Lucretius predicted.

There are politicians who learned about the virus early on and sold their stock while downplaying the danger to Americans. Now corporations are seeking tax-payer bailouts for economic damages related to the impact of the virus in what Naomi Klein is calling ‘Coronavirus Capitalism’.  

Advice from Lucretius on how to avoid these predictions:

According to Lucretius, being afraid of dying is irrational because once people die they will not be sad, judged by gods, or pity their family; they will not be anything at all. ‘Death is nothing to us’ he says.

Now, not fearing death is easier said than done. That is why, for Lucretius, it is the most important ethical challenge of our life. Instead of worrying about what may happen after death, Lucretius advises people to focus on keeping their bodies healthy and helping others do the same.

We need courageous caring, not fear.

 You can find out more about Lucretius’ ethics in Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion by Thomas Nail, published this month by Edinburgh University Press.

Published here at The Institute of Art and Ideas