Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion (EUP, 2020) is out now!

Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion is now available for 30% off.

Edinburgh University Press: UK discount coupon code: NEW30
Oxford University Press: US discount coupon code: ADISTA5

‘With Lucretius II, Thomas Nail continues his project of re-reading Lucretius’ De rerum natura in a startlingly new fashion – as a foundational text in the philosophy of movement. The results of Nail’s labour are breathtaking: traditional pieties of scholarship fall by the wayside, replaced by a Lucretius truly of and for the twenty-first century.’ Wilson M. Shearin, University of Miami

‘More than just a study of Lucretius, Nail provides a stunning reading of an already fascinating philosopher. Nail’s originally and beautifully composed account of motion generates an ethics worthy of the twenty-first century, allowing us to think of instability as an opportunity for thinking our world anew.’
Claire Colebrook, Penn State University

An ancient ethics for modern life

Suffering, the fear of death, war, ecological destruction, and social inequality are urgent ethical issues today as they were for Lucretius. Thomas Nail argues that Lucretius was the first to locate the core of all these ethical ills in our obsession with stasis, our fear of movement, and our hatred of matter.

Almost two thousand years ago Lucretius proposed a simple and stunning response to these problems: an ethics of motion. Instead of trying to transcend nature with our minds, escape it with our immortal souls, and dominate it with our technologies, Lucretius was perhaps the first in the Western tradition to forcefully argue for a completely materialist and immanent ethics based on moving with and as nature. If we want to survive and live well on this planet, Lucretius taught us, our best chance is not to struggle against nature but to embrace it and facilitate its movement.

Download the Preface and Introduction here.

Preface

A new Lucretius is coming into view today. Every great historical epoch returns to him like bees returning to their flower fields in search of nourishment. Each time, though, our return is different – like the expanding arc of a spiral. We bring new questions, find new answers, and make Lucretius speak to us again as if for the first time. We make Lucretius’ epic poem De Rerum Natura into the mellifluous honey of a liquid antiquity that has always coursed through the veins of modernity like a spring of fresh meaning and inspiration.

We thus return to Lucretius not as though he were an unchanging figure carved in stone but as if he were a rush of new life at the cutting edge of the twenty-first century. We stand in front of Lucretius’ breathtaking and revolutionary poem not as passive students of unchanging relics in a museum but as active participants in a history of our present.

I first returned to Lucretius in 2014, when I taught Book II of De Rerum Natura for a class on the philosophy of movement. I added Lucretius to the syllabus because he was an overlooked figure in the history of philosophy who wrote about motion. I was excited about the text, but I was also sceptical that anyone who believed in ‘eternal unchanging atoms’ could have motion as their philosophical starting point. What I encountered, however, absolutely shocked me.

There were no atoms. I scoured the whole Latin text. Lucretius never used the word ‘atom’ or a Latinised version of this word – not even once. Translators added the word ‘atom’. Just as shockingly, I could not find the great isolated swerve in the rain of atoms, for which he is so well known. In Book II, Lucretius says instead that matter is always ‘in the habit of swerving’ [declinare solerent] (2.221) and if it were not [nisi], ‘all would fall like raindrops’ [caderent] (2.222). The solitary swerve and the rain of matter are counterfactual claims. Lucretius never said there was a rain and then one atom swerved. He says that matter is in the ‘habit’ [solerent] of swerving, meaning that swerving happens regularly. This, he says, is the only way to avoid the problem of assuming that something comes from nothing: matter must have always been swerving.

This small but significant discrepancy made me wonder what else had been left out of translations and interpretations. Could it be possible that there was a whole hidden Lucretius buried beneath the paving stones of Greek atomism? If there are no solid atoms and no solitary swerve in Lucretius, can we still make sense of the rest of the book? In 2016 I decided to find out. I dedicated a whole seminar just to Book I of De Rerum Natura read in Latin. To my delight a whole new view on this foundational text emerged that year. I published the results of this study in 2018 as Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion.

Around this time I also began to notice an increasing number of major differences between Lucretius and Epicurus. One of the reasons I thought I would find atoms and isolated swerves in Lucretius was because of a long history of interpretation that conflated the two thinkers, just as earlier scholars had errantly done with Democritus and Epicurus. There is no doubt that Lucretius studied and followed Epicurus, just as Epicurus had followed Democritus. However, between the three thinkers there are worlds of difference that have not been sufficiently understood. Not all students merely imitate their masters. Sometimes imitation functions as a mask for a student to put forward her or his own ideas – which is what Lucretius did I thus began to unravel the ‘Epicurean myth of Lucretius’.

Lucretius did something very strange. He wrote Epicurean philosophy in the style and method of Homeric poetry and in doing so ended up completely changing the meaning of both. Just like an ancient satyr play, Lucretius’ poem has numerous invocations of bacchanalian intoxication, sexual imagery, desire, and deceptive invocations of gods he
does not believe in (Venus and Mars), all affirmed joyfully alongside the destructive power of nature itself: death. This is in stark contrast with the contemplative, serious, pessimistic, and aloof style of Epicurus and his followers.

Epicurus had many Greek and Roman followers who wrote and promoted Epicurean doctrine, but Lucretius did something no one had ever done before. He espoused a version of Epicurean philosophy in a book of Latin poetry written in Homeric hexameter. Why? For pleasure. He wanted to make something new by mixing the old traditions. Lucretius performed a bewildering hybrid of two completely opposed figures and traditions (Homer and Epicurus) and made something novel: something uniquely Roman.

However, De Rerum Natura has largely been treated as a Homeric poem about Epicurean philosophy, but in this book I argue that there is also a hidden Epicurean philosophy of Homeric myth. In the end this is where the real brilliance and originality of Lucretius lies: not in Homer or Epicurus but in their perverse and twisted entanglement. There is thus a becoming Homer of Epicurus. It is a genuine injustice to reduce such a radical enterprise to mere Epicurean ‘doctrine’.

The idea of philosophical poetry is a satyr’s slap in the face to the entire Greek tradition of philosophy from Thales to Aristotle, including Epicurus. With few exceptions, Greek philosophers systematically reduced Homeric poetry to irrational and sensuous mythology in order to define their new abstractions and idealisms against the straw man of the oral tradition. This was a founding moment of exclusion that has stayed with the Western tradition up to the present – contributing to a perceived inferiority of oral and indigenous knowledge. It is therefore completely unsurprising that today, when Lucretius is invoked as a philosopher, he is treated as completely reducible to the real Greek master: Epicurus. By doing so, the Western reception of Lucretius has reproduced the same Grecocentric and idealist tradition that vilified pre-Greek and Homeric poetry and archaic materialism. This is the same Western tradition that continues to devalorise oral knowledge and non-Western mythologies today.

Most Western philosophy, even in its most materialist moments, has in one way or another hated matter and the body. Lucretius was the first from within this tradition to produce a true and radical materialism of sensation and the body. However, like Homer, Lucretius also paid the ultimate price for his materialist sins and was largely exiled from the discipline of philosophy. Either Lucretius was treated as a skilled poet of the Latin tongue or he was treated as a slavish imitator of the great master Epicurus. Never has Lucretius been read as an original philosophical poet of a radical materialism that goes far beyond anything Epicurus achieved. This book and its companion volumes are the first books to show precisely this.

Even more provocatively, Lucretius refused to use Epicurus’ Greek terminology when many other Epicurean and Roman authors, such as Cicero did so often and easily. The Romans are famous for renaming Greek gods: the Greek Aphrodite becomes the Roman Venus, Zeus becomes Jove, and so on. However, it is also well known that there is no strict equivalence between the two deities. The translation was, as translations always are, a transformation that resulted in new stories and a shifting fluidity of roles among the gods. This, I argue, is what happened with Lucretius. De Rerum Natura was not written as Epicurean dogma.

It was an original work of philosophical poetry that translated Homeric mythology and Epicurean philosophy into the Latin vernacular and thus transformed them into an original philosophy of motion. A few scholars have noted the tension between Lucretius’ poetic style and Epicurean doctrine, but none has suggested that it indicated anything philosophically original as a result.

The unearthing of this ‘hidden Lucretius’ is the subject of the present work and its companion volumes. In the first volume, Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion, I located a systematic ontology of motion and a new materialism beneath the atomist and Epicurean myth of Lucretius. In the present volume, I present the reader with a unique kinetic theory of ethics. This second volume builds on the ontological framework developed in the first and expands it explicitly to questions of life, death, knowledge, aesthetics, sex, ecology, and ethics – as they are discussed in Books III and IV of De Rerum Natura.

Each of the three volumes in this trilogy has been written so that it may be read either on its own or with the others. The themes of each of the volumes of the trilogy overlap with one another just as the content of the books in the poem do. However, each volume also focuses on distinct domains of philosophical inquiry: Volume I covers Lucretius’ ontology and cosmology; Volume II covers his ethics, epistemology, and aesthetics; and Volume III, his theory of history. Together, these three volumes compose an original and nearly line-by-line reading of the entirety of De Rerum Natura.

Read on!

Listen to Being and Motion now on Audible

Listen here. Read here. Buy here.

More than at any other time in human history, we live in an age defined by movement and mobility; yet, we lack a unifying theory which takes this seriously as a starting point for philosophy. The history of philosophy has systematically explained movement as derived from something else that does not move: space, eternity, force, and time.

Why, when movement has always been central to human societies, did a philosophy based on movement never take hold? This audiobook finally overturns this long-standing metaphysical tradition by placing movement at the heart of philosophy.

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

The book is published by Oxford University Press. The audiobook is published by University Press Audiobooks.

Praise for the book:

“Bold and imaginative…a book for our time.” (Paul Patton, University of New South Wales, Sydney)

“This is philosophy on a grand scale: bold, innovative, and wide-ranging.” (Daniel W. Smith, Purdue University)

 

Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion (Pre-order 30% off) and Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion $6.50

Screen Shot 2020-02-03 at 8.54.51 AM.png

Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion is now available for pre-order and 30% off during February and March.

Edinburgh University Press:  discount coupon code: NEW30
Oxford University Press: discount coupon code: ADISTA5

Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion digital book (epub/pdf) is also now available for $6.50 at Edinburgh here for the month of February.

‘With Lucretius II, Thomas Nail continues his project of re-reading Lucretius’ De rerum natura in a startlingly new fashion – as a foundational text in the philosophy of movement. The results of Nail’s labour are breathtaking: traditional pieties of scholarship fall by the wayside, replaced by a Lucretius truly of and for the twenty-first century.’ Wilson M. Shearin, University of Miami

‘More than just a study of Lucretius, Nail provides a stunning reading of an already fascinating philosopher. Nail’s originally and beautifully composed account of motion generates an ethics worthy of the twenty-first century, allowing us to think of instability as an opportunity for thinking our world anew.’
Claire Colebrook, Penn State University

An ancient ethics for modern life

Suffering, the fear of death, war, ecological destruction, and social inequality are urgent ethical issues today as they were for Lucretius. Thomas Nail argues that Lucretius was the first to locate the core of all these ethical ills in our obsession with stasis, our fear of movement, and our hatred of matter.

Almost two thousand years ago Lucretius proposed a simple and stunning response to these problems: an ethics of motion. Instead of trying to transcend nature with our minds, escape it with our immortal souls, and dominate it with our technologies, Lucretius was perhaps the first in the Western tradition to forcefully argue for a completely materialist and immanent ethics based on moving with and as nature. If we want to survive and live well on this planet, Lucretius taught us, our best chance is not to struggle against nature but to embrace it and facilitate its movement.

Download the Preface and Introduction here.

Preface

A new Lucretius is coming into view today. Every great historical epoch returns to him like bees returning to their flower fields in search of nourishment. Each time, though, our return is different – like the expanding arc of a spiral. We bring new questions, find new answers, and make Lucretius speak to us again as if for the first time. We make Lucretius’ epic poem De Rerum Natura into the mellifluous honey of a liquid antiquity that has always coursed through the veins of modernity like a spring of fresh meaning and inspiration.

We thus return to Lucretius not as though he were an unchanging figure carved in stone but as if he were a rush of new life at the cutting edge of the twenty-first century. We stand in front of Lucretius’ breathtaking and revolutionary poem not as passive students of unchanging relics in a museum but as active participants in a history of our present.

I first returned to Lucretius in 2014, when I taught Book II of De Rerum Natura for a class on the philosophy of movement. I added Lucretius to the syllabus because he was an overlooked figure in the history of philosophy who wrote about motion. I was excited about the text, but I was also sceptical that anyone who believed in ‘eternal unchanging atoms’ could have motion as their philosophical starting point. What I encountered, however, absolutely shocked me.

There were no atoms. I scoured the whole Latin text. Lucretius never used the word ‘atom’ or a Latinised version of this word – not even once. Translators added the word ‘atom’. Just as shockingly, I could not find the great isolated swerve in the rain of atoms, for which he is so well known. In Book II, Lucretius says instead that matter is always ‘in the habit of swerving’ [declinare solerent] (2.221) and if it were not [nisi], ‘all would fall like raindrops’ [caderent] (2.222). The solitary swerve and the rain of matter are counterfactual claims. Lucretius never said there was a rain and then one atom swerved. He says that matter is in the ‘habit’ [solerent] of swerving, meaning that swerving happens regularly. This, he says, is the only way to avoid the problem of assuming that something comes from nothing: matter must have always been swerving.

This small but significant discrepancy made me wonder what else had been left out of translations and interpretations. Could it be possible that there was a whole hidden Lucretius buried beneath the paving stones of Greek atomism? If there are no solid atoms and no solitary swerve in Lucretius, can we still make sense of the rest of the book? In 2016 I decided to find out. I dedicated a whole seminar just to Book I of De Rerum Natura read in Latin. To my delight a whole new view on this foundational text emerged that year. I published the results of this study in 2018 as Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion.

Around this time I also began to notice an increasing number of major differences between Lucretius and Epicurus. One of the reasons I thought I would find atoms and isolated swerves in Lucretius was because of a long history of interpretation that conflated the two thinkers, just as earlier scholars had errantly done with Democritus and Epicurus. There is no doubt that Lucretius studied and followed Epicurus, just as Epicurus had followed Democritus. However, between the three thinkers there are worlds of difference that have not been sufficiently understood. Not all students merely imitate their masters. Sometimes imitation functions as a mask for a student to put forward her or his own ideas – which is what Lucretius did I thus began to unravel the ‘Epicurean myth of Lucretius’.

Lucretius did something very strange. He wrote Epicurean philosophy in the style and method of Homeric poetry and in doing so ended up completely changing the meaning of both. Just like an ancient satyr play, Lucretius’ poem has numerous invocations of bacchanalian intoxication, sexual imagery, desire, and deceptive invocations of gods he
does not believe in (Venus and Mars), all affirmed joyfully alongside the destructive power of nature itself: death. This is in stark contrast with the contemplative, serious, pessimistic, and aloof style of Epicurus and his followers.

Epicurus had many Greek and Roman followers who wrote and promoted Epicurean doctrine, but Lucretius did something no one had ever done before. He espoused a version of Epicurean philosophy in a book of Latin poetry written in Homeric hexameter. Why? For pleasure. He wanted to make something new by mixing the old traditions. Lucretius performed a bewildering hybrid of two completely opposed figures and traditions (Homer and Epicurus) and made something novel: something uniquely Roman.

However, De Rerum Natura has largely been treated as a Homeric poem about Epicurean philosophy, but in this book I argue that there is also a hidden Epicurean philosophy of Homeric myth. In the end this is where the real brilliance and originality of Lucretius lies: not in Homer or Epicurus but in their perverse and twisted entanglement. There is thus a becoming Homer of Epicurus. It is a genuine injustice to reduce such a radical enterprise to mere Epicurean ‘doctrine’.

The idea of philosophical poetry is a satyr’s slap in the face to the entire Greek tradition of philosophy from Thales to Aristotle, including Epicurus. With few exceptions, Greek philosophers systematically reduced Homeric poetry to irrational and sensuous mythology in order to define their new abstractions and idealisms against the straw man of the oral tradition. This was a founding moment of exclusion that has stayed with the Western tradition up to the present – contributing to a perceived inferiority of oral and indigenous knowledge. It is therefore completely unsurprising that today, when Lucretius is invoked as a philosopher, he is treated as completely reducible to the real Greek master: Epicurus. By doing so, the Western reception of Lucretius has reproduced the same Grecocentric and idealist tradition that vilified pre-Greek and Homeric poetry and archaic materialism. This is the same Western tradition that continues to devalorise oral knowledge and non-Western mythologies today.

Most Western philosophy, even in its most materialist moments, has in one way or another hated matter and the body. Lucretius was the first from within this tradition to produce a true and radical materialism of sensation and the body. However, like Homer, Lucretius also paid the ultimate price for his materialist sins and was largely exiled from the discipline of philosophy. Either Lucretius was treated as a skilled poet of the Latin tongue or he was treated as a slavish imitator of the great master Epicurus. Never has Lucretius been read as an original philosophical poet of a radical materialism that goes far beyond anything Epicurus achieved. This book and its companion volumes are the first books to show precisely this.

Even more provocatively, Lucretius refused to use Epicurus’ Greek terminology when many other Epicurean and Roman authors, such as Cicero did so often and easily. The Romans are famous for renaming Greek gods: the Greek Aphrodite becomes the Roman Venus, Zeus becomes Jove, and so on. However, it is also well known that there is no strict equivalence between the two deities. The translation was, as translations always are, a transformation that resulted in new stories and a shifting fluidity of roles among the gods. This, I argue, is what happened with Lucretius. De Rerum Natura was not written as Epicurean dogma.

It was an original work of philosophical poetry that translated Homeric mythology and Epicurean philosophy into the Latin vernacular and thus transformed them into an original philosophy of motion. A few scholars have noted the tension between Lucretius’ poetic style and Epicurean doctrine, but none has suggested that it indicated anything philosophically original as a result.

The unearthing of this ‘hidden Lucretius’ is the subject of the present work and its companion volumes. In the first volume, Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion, I located a systematic ontology of motion and a new materialism beneath the atomist and Epicurean myth of Lucretius. In the present volume, I present the reader with a unique kinetic theory of ethics. This second volume builds on the ontological framework developed in the first and expands it explicitly to questions of life, death, knowledge, aesthetics, sex, ecology, and ethics – as they are discussed in Books III and IV of De Rerum Natura.

Each of the three volumes in this trilogy has been written so that it may be read either on its own or with the others. The themes of each of the volumes of the trilogy overlap with one another just as the content of the books in the poem do. However, each volume also focuses on distinct domains of philosophical inquiry: Volume I covers Lucretius’ ontology and cosmology; Volume II covers his ethics, epistemology, and aesthetics; and Volume III, his theory of history. Together, these three volumes compose an original and nearly line-by-line reading of the entirety of De Rerum Natura.

Read on!

 

 

CALL FOR PROPOSALS: THE UNDERCOMMONS AND DESTITUENT POWER

CALL FOR PROPOSALS: THE UNDERCOMMONS AND DESTITUENT POWER
 
March 26-28th, 2020, Indiana University in Bloomington.
Organizers: Micol Seigel, Bella Bravo, Kieran Aarons, Mia Beach, Ross Gay, Rosie Stockton, J. Cameron Karter
Confirmed Speakers: Fred Moten, Frederic Neyrat, Laura Harris, Mikkel Bolt-Rasmussen, Adam Kotsko, Dylan Rodriquez, Mauvaise Troupe Collective, Jaime Alves, Daniel Nemser, Jackie Wang
Deadline for Proposals: February 1, 2020
 
We are pleased to invite submissions for the international conference, “The Undercommons and Destituent Power,”  to be held in Bloomington, IN, March 26th-28th, 2020. Amidst an unprecedented wave of global unrest, this international and interdisciplinary conference aims to (re)launch critical debate and exchange around the means, methods, and imagination of revolutionary community in the 21st century.
Responding to our tumultuous times, “The Undercommons and Destituent Power” draws inspiration from two renegade currents in North American and European thought that seek to dismantle and refashion the central categories of Western politics. In Moten and Harney’s call for a joyfully indocile social life that evades the capture of classical politics, in Agamben’s call to rethink emancipatory violence through the growth of a ‘destituent power’ that cancels relations of domination without replacing them, we see convergent eorts to exit the disastrous course of modernity. Is it not in undercommons, i.e. in the interstices  of an imperfect captivity, in the festivity of fugitivity and exile that our shared power first comes to be felt? Is it not through our de-stituent capacity to desert and refuse the identities and vocations oered to us that we gain contact with our true collective capacities, that community becomes thinkable beyond any subjective ‘standpoint’?
We are interested in “destituent power” and the “undercommons” not only for their power as analytic tools through which to think, perceive, and critique our present, but as ethical and political orientations in practice. We envision this conference as a hybrid space of encounter, an opportunity for the stowaways in and outside the University to conspire and explore forms of collective life that evade the political constraints of citizenship, sovereignty, and governance. Proposals should engage with the two traditions, the undercommons and destituent power—preferably both, but at least one. We urge participants to read both core texts, available on our conference website. Below are some questions we hope might inform your proposals:
  • How do Agamben’s call to think a ‘destituent power’  and the unconquered sociality of Moten and Harney’s ‘undercommons’ allow us to dismantle the ruling fictions of our time? What convergences and divergences exist between them? What do categories such as ‘use’, ‘inoperativity’, ‘desertion’, ‘exile’, ‘fugitivity’, ‘planning’, and ‘hapticality’ allow us to rethink?
  • How can we dismantle sovereignty without paving the way for its reconstitution in new forms? What sort of thinking and acting cancels and deactivates juridical and social norms and roles without seeking to replace them with ‘better’ ones?
  • What does it do to the notion of the “undercommons” to look at it from the vantage point of European autonomous thinking?  What does it do to the notion of “destituent power” to approach from the Americas-centered Black radical tradition? Does destituent power take race sufficiently into account?  Does the undercommons do enough to imagine revolution?
  • How can we leap over the ingrained truism according to which governance forms the unassailable destiny of all social organization? Can we imagine a revolutionary movement developing in the absence of either a historical subject or a guiding program or ideology? How, beginning from a heterogeneity of singular and divergent perspectives and experiences, can a common strategic sensibility emerge, without cancelling the generative dierences within it?
  • How do we identify the apparatuses that govern and suspend our lived contact with the world, detaching us from the relations that everywhere constitute our existence? How can we overcome our habit of living as if we did not belong to this world, as if we were not party to our situation?
  • How can we think a sociality that both precedes and exceeds the institutions of economic and governmental administration? How can we articulate the relationship to ourselves, to one another, and to the world in ways that do not proceed from, nor measure themselves against, a law, origin, or foundation? How does our commitment to social life in common require us to do war with the idea of society itself? If bare lives turn out to be bare only insofar as no attention is paid to them, which forms of collective attention and care making us unfit for subjection?
  • How can we reactivate the memory of the refugees, fugitives, renegades and castaways that have always ensured that the West remained an ‘unsafe neighborhood’ for our oppressors? If “knowledge of freedom is the invention of escape,” how can we push beyond the critiques of the present disaster toward the creative procedures that unravel and deactivate it?
  • Can we think a process of collective self-organization and struggle that would not have recourse to what Jackie Wang and Frank Wilderson have identified as the logics of ‘innocence’ or ‘Humanity’, i.e., the impulse to lay claim to a right deduced from a qualitative ‘humanity’ grounded in reason and deserving of expression? Can we think a form of political agency that neither deduces itself from, nor creates a new title to, a basis, ground, or inner legitimacy conferring authority upon itself?
  • How can we search out the vanishing point between Blackness’ refusal of standpoint and the desertions of Humanism from within its own ranks? What art of distance and proximity, what forms of political and poetic resonance allows the dierent lines of flight to coalesce?
  • What would it mean to rethink the social and the political problem through the figure of the refugee, the fugitive, the renegade, the castaway? What if groundlessness, inoperativity, and exile were seen not merely as privations, but as the very paradigms allowing us to rethink political action, the theory of the subject, and the nature of the revolutionary voyage?
Abstracts, proposals, or full papers may be submitted by email to: destituentcommons@gmail.com

For additional information on the conference, please visit our website: destituentcommons.com.

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

 

Kinetic Revolution - Understanding the Transversal Reality of the "Philosophy of Movement" (dragged).jpg

 

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

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

Download here in English and Italian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Climate-Migration-Industrial Complex

I just published a short piece at the New School’s Public Seminar magazine on migration and climate change. A further development of the idea that climate migration is a form of primitive accumulation.

Read online here, download here.

Thirty years ago there were fifteen border walls around the world. Now there are seventy walls and over one billion national and international migrants. International migrants alone may even double in the next forty years due to global warming. It is not surprising that over the past two decades, we have also seen the rise of an increasingly powerful global climate-security market designed to profit from (and help sustain) these crises. The construction of walls and fences to block rising sea levels and incoming people has become one of the world’s fastest growing industries, alongside the detention and deportation of migrants, and is projected to reach $742 billion by 2023. I believe we are witnessing the emergence of what we might call a “climate-migration-industrial complex.”

This complex is composed of private companies who profit by securitizing nation-states from the effects of climate-related events, including migration. This includes private detention centers, border construction companies, surveillance technology consultants and developers, deportation and transportation contractors, and a growing army of other subcontractors profiting from insecurity more broadly. Every feature of this crisis complex is an opportunity for profit. For example, even when security measures “fail” and migrants cross borders illegally, or remain beyond their visas to live without status as “criminals,” there is an entire wing of private companies paid to hunt them down, detain them, and deport them just across the border, where they can return and begin the market cycle all over again. Each step in the “crimmigration” process now has its own cottage industry and dedicated army of lobbyists to perpetuate the laws that support it.

Here is the incredible double paradox that forms the backbone of the climate-migration-industrial complex: right-wing nationalists and their politicians claim they want to deport all undocumented migrants, but if they did, they would destroy their own economy. Capitalists, on the other hand, want to grow the economy with migrant labor (any honest economist will tell you that immigration almost always leads to growth in GDP), but if that labor is too expensive, then it’s not nearly as profitable.

Trump is the Janus-faced embodiment of this anti-immigrant, pro-economy dilemma and the solution to it — not that he necessarily knows it. With one hand, migrant labor is strategically criminalized and devalorized by a xenophobic state, and with the other, it is securitized and hyper-exploited by the economy. It is a win-win situation for right-wing capitalists but a crucial element is still missing: what will continue to compel migrants to leave their homes and work as exploited criminals in an increasingly xenophobic country?

This is where the figure of the climate migrant comes in. What we call “climate migrants” or “climate refugees” are not the victims of merely “natural disasters,” because climate change is not a strictly natural process — it is also highly political. The causes of climate-related migration are disproportionately produced by rich Western countries and the effects are disproportionately suffered by poorer countries. The circumstances that determine who is forced to migrate are also influenced by the history of colonialism, global inequality, and the same conditions that have propelled economic migration for decades. In short, the fact that climate change benefits the perpetrators of climate destruction by producing an increasing supply of desperate, criminalized, physically and economically displaced laborers is no coincidence. In fact, it is the key to the Trump “solution.”

Another key is the use of climate change to acquire new land. When people are forced to migrate out of a territory, or when frozen territories thaw, new lands, waters, and forests become open to extractive industries like mining, drilling, fishing, and logging. Trump’s recent (and ridiculous) bid to buy the thawing territory of Greenland for its oil and gas reserves is one example of this. Climate-stricken urban areas open up new real estate markets, as the gentrification of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina illustrated. In other words, climate change might not mean the end of capitalism, but rather could actually signal its resurgence from current falling rates of ecological profit. During colonialism, everything and everyone that could be easily appropriated (oil, slaves, old-growth forests, etc.), was gobbled up. The workers who are left today under post-colonialism demand more money and more rights. The minerals left are more expensive to extract. This is why capitalists have increasingly retreated to financial speculation, and now to monetizing their own crises.

If only there were new ways, the capitalist dreams, to kick start the economy and cheaply dislodge huge numbers of people from their land, devalorize their labor, and then appropriate that labor extremely cheaply. In other words, if climate change did not exist, capitalism would have to create it. Luckily for the capitalists, it does exist, because they did create it. Climate migrants now form what we might call a “disposable climate labor army,” conscripted out of a standing reserve of global poverty from wherever the next climate-related disaster strikes, and deployed wherever capitalism demands precarious, securitized, and criminalized labor to be exploited.

We need to rethink the whole framing of the climate migration “crisis.” Among other things, we need a more movement-oriented political theory to grapple better with the highly mobile events of our time — what I call a “kinopolitics.” The advent of the Capitalocene/Kinocene makes possible today the insight that nature, humans, and society have always been in motion. Humans are and have always been fundamentally migratory, just as the climate and the earth are. These twin insights might sound obvious today, but if taken seriously, they offer a complete inversion of the dominant interpretive paradigms of the climate and migration crises.

Humans and Earth have always been in motion, but not all patterns of motion are the same. There is no natural, normal, or default state of the earth or of human society. Therefore, we have to study the patterns of circulation that make possible these metastable states and not take them as given. This is what I have tried to work out in The Figure of the Migrant (2015) and Theory of the Border (2016). Unfortunately, the dominant framework for thinking about the climate and migrant crises is currently upside down. It starts from the perspective of a triple stasis: 1) that the earth and human society are in some sense separable and static, or at least stable, structures; 2) that the future should continue to be stable as well; and 3) that if there is not stability, then there is a “crisis.” Mobility, then, is a crisis only if we assume that there was or should be stasis in the first place. For example, migrants are said to destabilize society, and climate change is said to destabilize the earth.

From a kinopolitical perspective, we can see that the opposite is, in fact, true: Humans were first migratory, and only later settled into more metastable patterns of social-circulation (made historically possible by the social expulsion and dispossession of others). Migrants are not outside society but have played a productive and reproductive role throughout history. Migrant movements are constitutive and even transformative elements of society, rather than exceptional or marginal phenomena. The real question is how we ever came to act and think as if societies were not processes of social circulation that relied on migration as their conditions of reproduction. The earth, too, was first migratory, and only later did it settle into metastable patterns of geological and atmospheric circulation (e.g. the Holocene). Why did we ever think of the earth as a stable surface, immune from human activity in the first place?

The problem with the prevailing interpretation of climate change and migration is that the flawed paradigm that has defined the “crisis,” the notion of stasis, is also proposed as the solution “Let’s just get things back to normal stability again.” In short, I think a new paradigm is needed that does not use the same tools that generated the “crisis” to solve it — i.e. capitalism, colonialism, and the nation-state.

Today’s migrant “crisis” is a product of the paradox at the heart of the capitalist, territorial nation-state form, just as the climate crisis is an expression of the paradox at the heart of anthropocentrism. The solutions, therefore, will not come from the forms in crisis but only from the birth of new forms-in-motion that begin with the theoretical primacy of the very characteristic that is dissolving the old forms: the inherent mobility of the migrant climate and the climate migrant.

Thomas Nail is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Denver, working on a series of books on the philosophy of movement. His most recent book is Theory of the Image (Oxford University Press, 2018).

What is Generative Art?

Art by Gwendal Tsang

We live in the age of the digital image not only because of its powerful hybridity and power to order material reality but also because of its powerful pedesis, interactivity, and power to disorder reality—to create new kinesthetic processes. The beauty of contemporary generative art lies not in its “random” number generators and the sublime affirmation of chaos against the orderliness of contemporary reality. Rather, it is in its capacity to create new kinesthetic processes that play in the complex region between highly ordered and highly disordered images. It gives a high degree of kinetic agency to the matters at work.

The primary question for contemporary generative art is thus how to harness a degree of pedesis in whatever way it can, enter it into an interactive feedback loop, and see where it goes. Humans are just along for the ride. In contemporary generative art, the kinesthetic process itself becomes primary. Subject and object, input and output are folded back over them- selves in an interactive feedback loop to be modulated as a whole, continuous process. This has always been the case in all art to varying degrees, even though most arts have tried to block it and confine it. Today pedesis and interactivity have become a primary and dominant focus of the most cutting-edge aesthetic experiments.

Generative Visual Arts 

In the visual arts, pedetic computer algorithms can be used to produce thousands of iterations with numerous parameters, like color, line length, width, thickness, rotation, texture, distortion, noise, brushstroke, and so on. The artist selects parameters, type of algorithm, and degree or type of pedesis—Perlin noise, loops, iterative variance, and so on. Pedesis can be introduced from the input, process, or output. An incredible variety of stochastic naturalistic processes can be animated, with different results each time. 

In a rapid series of such animations, Maxime Causeret’s Order From Chaos (2016) shows the pedetic patterns of raindrops hitting a surface and spreading, pedetic branching patterns of plants, swarming behaviors of insects, soap-bubble patterns, cellular bifurcations, coral meandering patterns, and more. The images generated are not meant to be copies of natural products but, rather, their own visual expressions of how stochastic algorithms can produce ordered patterns just like nature can, but this time with new resulting organisms. 

More disordered still is Maurizio Bolognini’s Programmed Machines (1988–), composed of enclosed computers generating flows of continuously iterated pedetic images. In the 1990s, Bolognini programmed hundreds of these computers and left them to run ad infinitum. Most of them are still working today. Of these works he says, 

I do not consider myself an artist who creates certain images, and I am not merely a conceptual artist. I am one whose machines have actually traced more lines than anyone else, covering boundless surfaces. I am not interested in the quality of the images produced by my installations but rather in their flow, their limitlessness in space and time, and the possibility of creating parallel universes of information made up of kilometers of images and infinite trajectories. My installations serve to generate out-of-control infinities.12 

In another work, Collective Intelligence (2000), Bolognini used similar machines to project random lines of light onto public surfaces and allowed mobile telephones to interact with them, changing the patterns in real time and creating “generative, interactive and public art.”13 Bolognini thus introduces pedesis and feedback at every level of the aesthetic process. The input is interactive and collective from the population, and the computer processing then randomizes the input, resulting in a highly pedetic and interactive output. 

Radicalizing this idea even further, Scott Draves’s Electric Sheep (1999–) is a computer screensaver that runs iterative fractal flame patterns with a number of different animated parameters. The screensaver is what your computer dreams of while it is asleep, a reference to Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Users can interact with the process by liking or disliking various iterations. This input then reprograms the genetic algorithm as the process mutates to become more interesting to the viewers. Users can also program and upload their own fractal processes whereby they “breed” or mix with the others to produce more iterations. There are currently about 500,000 active users a month.14 Again, pedesis and feedback are incorporated at every level with the aim of finding the most beautiful middle ground of complexity between too much order and too much disorder in the image. 

Generative Literary Arts 

Contemporary generative literary works go beyond the cut-up and fold-in methods of the Dadaists to produce much more pedetic and interactive works than previously possible. Philip M. Parker, originally an affiliate of the Fluxus group, used a mathematical algorithm named “Eve” to produce digital poetry based on graphic theoretical relations between words in the dictionary. He has produced over 1.3 million poems in this manner. He has even used similar algorithms to produce entire books—200,000 of them.15 

More recently, Jason Nelson has used generative methods to create digital and interactive hyperpoetry. His famous “Game, Game, Game And Again Game” (2007) uses flash media to create an audiovisual mashup of text fragments, sounds, and video in an interactive video game format. “I made this. You play this. We are Enemies” (2009) develops the same idea. His “Uncontrollable Semantics” (2006) creates a series of words on the four corners of the screen, each with its own sound and image. As one clicks on the different words, new word–image combinations are created. Poetry becomes a series of continually modulated feedback loops. A similar feed- back loop of interactive options occurs in Neil Hennessy’s “JABBER: The Jabberwocky Engine” (2000), in which randomly floating letters are connected to form new combinations of neologisms that produce pro- nounceable English words, but with no dictionary definition. These are then incorporated into poetic works. 

Jean-Pierre Balpe has even produced stochastic and interactive novels such as Trajectoires (2000) and Fictions d’Issy (2005) by using algorithmic and interactive methods. The stories are continuously generated sentence by sentence, and readers can shape the outcome by using their phone’s keypad. Balpe’s work and many others are contained in the first volume of the Electronic Literature Collection (2006) and they represent an amazing diversity of generative literary works.16 All these give the materiality of words a maximum of pedesis and interactivity by tying them to the kinetics of the digital process. 

Generative Plastic Arts 

With the advent of 3D printing, generative algorithms can now be modeled directly into plastic media. Although the technology is still in its in- fancy, some of the initial creations are incredible. Among the most amazing examples are the sculptures and architectural columns made by Michael Hansmeyer (figure 16.4). Hansmeyer is an architect and programmer who uses algorithms and computation to generate unique architectural forms using a simple feedback algorithm of topological folding. Hansmeyer begins his designs with a single cube and then begins to stretch and bend the cube, applying his folding algorithm to different parameters such as depth, curve, and line. The results are incredible—forms so complex that the “artist” could not possibly have “an idea” of them. The whole matter-form distinction collapses onto itself as matter becomes morphogenetic and semi- autonomous. According to Hansmeyer, 99 percent of the algorithms end up producing noise. Only those with certain modulated parameters produce the most complex forms. In addition to the Doric, ionic, Corinthian, and undulating orders of columns, Hansmeyer has produced an entirely new architectural order: the generative order.  

 

Figure 16.4 Michael Hansmeyer, Columns (2010)
Source: From artist’s website, © Michael Hansmeyer, http://www.michael-hansmeyer.com/projects/columns. html?screenSize=1&color=1#1. 

Nervous System, a generative design studio, uses algorithmic and stochastic code to create unique sculpture, jewelry, light fixtures, and even clothing using 3D printing. Their Floraform sculptures are similar to the biomechanics of growing leaves and blooming flowers. Their Xylem (2D) and Hyphae (3D) sculptures use algorithms that produce structures similar to those found in the veins of leaves. These patterns are used to generate jewelry, lamps, sculpture, and even architecture. Their Kinematics sculptures add a fourth dimension to 3D printing by creating a design system of hinged panels with a simulation strategy of folding and compression to produce customized designs that can be fabricated efficiently by 3D printing. The structure is printed as one part, but has thousands of interconnected pieces that require no assembly. The result is kinetic dresses, lampshades, jewelry, and more. 

Additionally, their website includes interactive software that allows an- yone to design his or her own sculptures and print them. Nervous System’s designs thus use hybridity to physically transcode binary code into 3D and 4D sculptures. They use pedesis in their stochastic algorithms, and they use interactivity in the user interface which is sensitive to its initial and continuous conditions. The purpose is not simply to maximize noise or feedback or to copy natural patterns but also to produce new patterns through the modulated use of noise and feedback. The purpose it to give the electromagnetic field its maximal kinetic and material generative agency. 

Generative Sonic Arts 

It was Brian Eno in the 1970s who first coined the term “generative music,” but the scene has expanded dramatically since then. Today, generative music has vastly outstripped Mozart’s dice throws, futurist noise music, and even the later modernist aleatory music of Cage, Feldman, Boulez, and others. These earlier works relied on comparatively simple pedetic parameters and limited feedback systems, and they remain but modest precursors to the much more hybrid, pedetic, and interactive works of generative music today. 

Some of the first works to introduce a higher degree of pedesis and feedback were Stockhausen’s Kontakte (1958–1960), Terry Riley’s The Gift (1963), Brian Eno and Robert Fripp’s No Pussyfooting (1973), and Eno’s Discreet Music (1975), the latter which used a new tape-loop feedback system combined with an echo unit and a continuously modulated graphic equalizer to change the timbre of the sounds. This allowed sound to turn back over itself in an ever-expanding and interactive modulated feedback pattern of sonic images. Similar modulated tape-loop feedback systems continue to be used today by various ambient music artists, such as Ous Mal, Taylor Dupree, Tape Loop Orchestra, and William Basinski. For con- temporary musicians, the tape-loop process also introduces a new focus on the pedetic sound of the tape noise itself. 

Although present in Eno and Riley’s early work, and emphasized in works like Steve Reich’s amazing Pendulum Music (1968), which swings microphones over speakers generating patterned yet chaotic feedback, contemporary artists have turned increasingly toward the stochastic noise, feedback echo, and hiss of the tape itself—amplifying it, looping it, and dramatizing the noise of the electromagnetic field. This is part of a much wider trend by contemporary generative musicians to seek out pedetic sounds like tape hiss, noise, vinyl-record crackle, CD skipping sounds, microphone feedback, FM radio static, and other irregular, pedetic and traditionally undesirable musical sounds created by the pedesis of the EM field. The aim is not simply to reproduce these sound images but also to work with them and use their stochastic patterns as the basis of new feedback loops and patterns of their own. 

In The Caretaker’s An Empty Bliss Beyond this World (2011), for ex- ample, vinyl crackle is amplified and echoed to the point where it equals the volume of the looped vinyl melodies. In a slightly different vein, Burial’s Burial (2006) uses the static crackles and pops reminiscent of those that occur in maxed-out speakers and loose or old audio cables, or the static electricity pops from the audio mixing equipment and microphone itself. These crackles become the sonic milieu of his hyperdub loops. Glitch albums like Oval’s OvalDNA (2011) combine various melodic audio feedback tones with CD skipping noises, as if one had taken a knife to a CD’s surface and then stuck the CD back in the player. The use of FM static in Olli Aarni’s Pohjoisen Kesä (2012), or his use of field recordings of underwater insects in Vesiä (2017), or Mileece’s interactive bioelectrical feedback sounds gathered from plants all accomplish the similar aim of introducing pedesis into the audio feedback loops for sonic modulation—to give noise “a life of its own,” to paraphrase Pollock.

Even more dramatic, however, is the use of numerous types of digital pedals, oscillators, tone generators, and computer software to produce highly diverse and numerous loops of sound that can all be modulated in medias res and with more technical precision than any tape-loop audio noise. The famous Japanese noise musician Masami Akita “Merzbow” has produced particularly pedetic and abrasive albums such as Pulse Vegan (2014), using both granular synthesis software and numerous digital sound boxes or pedals. In his most recent work, the software transforms his sounds into “clouds” or flows of micro sounds that can then be modulated continuously and generatively as a whole, according to a number of different parameters and computer algorithms. 

Curtis Roads, a media arts professor and composer of Point Line Cloud (2005), describes the process in fluid dynamic terms: 

Beneath the level of the note lies the realm of sound particles. Each particle is a pinpoint of sound. Recent advances let us probe and manipulate this micro acous- tical world. Sound particles dissolve the rigid bricks of musical composition— the notes and their intervals—into more fluid and supple materials. The sensations of point, pulse (series of points), line (tone), and surface (texture) emerge as the density of particles increases. Sparse emissions produce rhythmic figures. By lining up the particles in rapid succession, one can induce an illusion of tone continuity or pitch. As the particles meander, they flow into liquid-like streams and rivulets. Dense agglomerations of particles form clouds of sound whose shapes evolve over time.17 

Granular or pulse software thus introduces into music a new fluid dynamics of flows to the sonic image, letting it pedetically meander into periodic densities or folds that are then woven into a larger sonic texture like a fabric. However, the term “grains” of sound is misleading because each micro 1- 50ms sound sample or “grain” is buffered by an amplitude modulation or “envelope” that connects the grains in a sonic continuum. Wave-scanning techniques can also eliminate the need for the envelopes by having the grain boundaries always meet at the zero-crossing point of the respective signals. The resulting composition is thus sonically continuous and has a highly fluid character to it like the sound of rushing water, crashing waves, or a turbulent dripping faucet. Barry Truax’s Riverrun (1986), for example, is a direct statement on the fluid dynamic nature of micro-sonic generative image composition. 

“From the smallest rivulet to the fullest force of its mass, a river is formed from a collection of countless droplets and sources. So, too, with the sound in this composition which bases itself on the smallest possible ‘unit’ of sound in order to create larger textures and masses. The title is the first word in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.”18

Such modulation was impossible with the instruments and techniques available before the late twentieth century. For the first time ever, it is possible to modulate noise-pitch-rhythm as the complete sonic continuum that it is, at the smallest possible audible levels of the waveform, thus introducing an incredible new range of pedesis. Recent works integrating granular synthesis also include Ian William Craig’s Centres (2016), Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s Ears (2016), and Multicast Dynamics’s Scandinavia (2016). Mixing various higher degrees of pedesis into the digital input, pro- cess, and output produces numerous genres and subgenres of electronic, electroacoustic, and experimental music: glitch, drone, ambient, postclassical, noise, tape music, field recordings, found music, circuit bending, sound sculpture, vaporwave, chopped and screwed hip hop, and many more. 

Additionally, contemporary generative music introduces a new level of hybridity and feedback never before possible in music. Brian Eno’s latest album Reflection (2017), for example, is a brilliant mixture of pedesis, hybridity, and feedback. The album uses stochastic algorithms to determine the parameters of the sounds.

Because everything in the pieces is probabilistic and because the probabilities pile up it can take a very long time to get an idea of all the variations that might occur in the piece. One rule might say “raise 1 out of every 100 notes by 5 semitones” and another might say “raise one out of every 50 notes by 7 semitones.” If those two instructions are operating on the same data stream, sometimes—very rarely—they will both operate on the same note . . . so some- thing like 1 in every 5000 notes will be raised by 12 semitones. You won’t know which of those 5000 notes it’s going to be. Since there are a lot of these types of operations going on together, on different but parallel data streams, the end result is a complex and unpredictable web.19

Second, the album uses an interactive process of modulation as Eno “tweaks” the parameters during playback over and over again.

Pieces like this have another name: they’re GENERATIVE. By that I mean they make themselves. My job as a composer is to set in place a group of sounds and phrases, and then some rules which decide what happens to them. I then set the whole system playing and see what it does, adjusting the sounds and the phrases and the rules until I get something I’m happy with. Because those rules are probabilistic (—often taking the form “perform operation x, y percent of the time”) the piece unfolds differently every time it is activated. What you have here is a recording of one of those unfoldings.

Third, the album uses a hybrid transcoding of the music into an audio-visual- haptic software application that allows users to touch a colored screen and modulate the endlessly looped stochastic patterns for themselves.

REFLECTION is the most recent of my Ambient experiments and represents the most sophisticated of them so far. My original intention with Ambient music was to make endless music, music that would be there as long as you wanted it to be. I wanted also that this music would unfold differently all the time— “like sitting by a river”: it’s always the same river, but it’s always changing. But recordings—whether vinyl, cassette or CD—are limited in length, and replay identically each time you listen to them. So in the past I was limited to making the systems which make the music, but then recording 30 minutes or an hour and releasing that. REFLECTION in its album form—on vinyl or CD—is like this. But the app by which REFLECTION is produced is not restricted: it creates an endless and endlessly changing version of the piece of music.21 

Reflection is thus an attempt at mimesis of neither natural products nor natural processes but, rather, a way of becoming what it is: matter in motion—pedetic, hybrid, and interactive. Just as the flow of matter has no beginning and no end, neither does Reflection. The three creative stages Eno describes for this work match up directly with the kinetic ones laid out in this book: (1) pedetic material flows intersect at a constellation, (2) fold into a distribution of affective loops, and (3) are continuously modulated as a whole woven field of sound. Eno writes,

The creation of a piece of music like this falls into three stages: the first is the selection of sonic materials and a musical mode—a constellation of musical relationships. These are then patterned and explored by a system of algorithms which vary and permutate the initial elements I feed into them, resulting in a constantly morphing stream (or river) of music. The third stage is listening. Once I have the system up and running I spend a long time—many days and weeks in fact—seeing what it does and fine-tuning the materials and sets of rules that run the algorithms. It’s a lot like gardening: you plant the seeds and then you keep tending to them until you get a garden you like.22

Numerous other efforts to increase the interactivity and hybridity of music abound. Media artist Scott Snibbe, for example, has created a number of such interactive music album applications, like Bjork’s Biophilia (2011) and Metric’s Synthetica (2013). Snibbe’s app Motionphone (2012) integrates sound, kinetic motion, and visual animation. As users move their fingers across the screen, their movement is animated and looped. These can then be shared and interact with other users’ kinetic sculptures online.

Read more from Theory of the Image

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!

Climate change is a weapon of primitive accumulation 

Cithaerias Esmeralda MHNT.ZOO.2004.0.976 (2).jpg

Climate change is a weapon of primitive accumulation 

Climate change has disproportionately negative effects on poorer countries and people of color, and disproportionally positive effects on receiving countries that benefit from hyper-exploitable and precious labor – what I call a ‘reserve climate labor army.’ This asymmetry is the result of a long history of capitalist colonialism and racism, which continues now through the bordered management of migration. Thus, contemporary global migration cannot be reduced to merely natural climatic causal explanations (Hulme 2011). The figure of the ‘climate refugee’ is never simply fleeing climate change but is doing so under postcolonial conditions of geopolitical violence and racism. The term ‘climate refugee’ itself serves to cover over the real kinopolitical conditions of social circulation at work that make such populations vulnerable to displacement in the first place. 

Climate change is a weapon of primitive accumulation, or what I would call ‘expansion by expulsion,’ because it expands Western power by forcibly expelling people from their previous patterns of motion and appropriating them into its own conditions of social reproduction. This expulsion is fourfold: migrants lose the right to their land and homes (territorial expulsion), they lose their right to full civic participation (political expulsion), they lose their right to legal status (juridical expulsion), and they lose their right to the means of production or subsistence (economic expulsion). This fourfold expulsion is the necessary condition for the direct appropriation of vulnerable and cheap migrant bodies and for the expansion of capitalist eco-racism. 

Nationalism, xenophobia, and racism also play a structural role in the process of primitive accumulation because they socially devalorize and thus cheapen the labor and lives of migrant workers. If migrants arrived but were not thoroughly racialized and discriminated against, their labor would be too valuable for capitalist investment to bother appropriating them in the first place. Thus, capitalism wields climate change under a triple condition of eco-colonialism: 1) the historical origins of recent climate change are in colonialism itself (oil from Africa, industrial production from slavery, and so on); 2) colonized populations and indigenous people are disproportionately forced to move because of climate change; and 3) these same populations are racialized as dangerous barbarian boat people upon arrival (Moore 2016; Goldberg 2017; Giuliani 2017). 

But climate change, like primitive accumulation, is not just about the dispossession and appropriation of people and cheap labor. It is also about the direct appropriation of cheap or free land. The two go hand-in-hand and have done so since before the rise of capitalism (Nail 2015). At the same time that climate change displaces people, it also opens up previously occupied lands, waters, and forests to new privatized extractive and/or constructive industries. As the climate changes, previously inaccessible areas will be opened up for expanding new markets (supplied with abundant cheap labor), including new security markets for new borders, fences, walls, drones, and all the rest. (Think of the privatization and gentrification of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.) In other words, climate change might not mean the end of capitalism but might in fact herald its rebirth or second wind. 

If capitalism loves disaster, why should we think climate change will necessarily mean the end of capitalism (Klein 2007)? If anything can be commodified, there is no absolute natural limit to capitalism, only relative limits to profit. We are most certainly at the cusp of one of these limits today, which Jason Moore attributes to ‘the tendency of the ecological surplus to fall’ (Moore 2016). Everything and everyone that could be appropriated easily (oil, slaves, old-growth forests, etc.), was gobbled up during colonialism. The workers who are left today want more money and more rights. The minerals left are more expensive to extract. This is why capitalists have increasingly retreated to financial speculation. If only there were a way, the capitalist dreams, to somehow cheaply dislodge huge numbers of people from their land, devalorize their labor, and appropriate it. 

In other words, if climate change did not exist, it would be necessary for capitalism to create it. Lucky for it, it does, because it did. Migrants today ‘form a disposable industrial reserve army, which belongs to capital just as absolutely as if the latter had bred it at its own cost’ (Marx 1976, 784). 

Read more here.

The Nature of Digital Image: A Conversation with Thomas Nail (transcript)

B.A. Gonczarek

I’m here with Thomas Nail,  the Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver and author of recently published book Theory of the Image, welcome Thomas.  I must admit I was really looking forward to our discussion. When preparing to our conversation I did my research online and I was taken by how well you’re received by your students. You students describe you as very knowledgeable and approachable. Your openness is something I experienced myself, so thank you for the opportunity of doing this podcast together. And to explain to our listeners  – what we’re trying to do here is to (possibly) bridge the gap between abstract thinking and acting, between thought and execution by an exchange between you, as a philosopher and me, as digital toolmaker on a topic of digital image.

My main goal for today is to hear your point of view on the future and possibilities that technology gradually unlocks.  Now, I’m aware that the digital image is only a short chapter of your recent publication but I believe that limited scope of our discussion is enough to inspire our listeners. After all, we’re all users of digital devices don’t we.

To begin, describe to us, if you will, your way of working. What is New Realism and what is your method of approaching problems?

Thomas Nail

If I had to sum up main findings of the book that guides the whole project is that the image we often think about as a mental representation, something as in our brain (in our minds) which is a copy or resemblance of the world outside. I think that’s not right, there’s definitely something going on but that’s a very narrow way of thinking about what an image is.

An image is a real thing, it is something that happens in our eyes and in our brains, that is related to the external world, but that is a tip of an enormous iceberg. That’s the part that we see on the surface.  Below the surface of the water is this enormous process of the rest of the world, of the enormous processes that we don’t actually see which are part of the fabric of the world and forms and media that we use, and it’s very active. What we have in our brains is not a copy of the world, it is the world itself just by other means. It is a continuation of the world inside of us just. It’s not a question of resemblance but interactivity, of performativity. We are interacting with the world when we see, although we often experience vision as a passive thing that sort of happen to us, but that’s actually very active both in our bodies (in our eyes the way they seek out, move and follow and respond to the world). One of the main takeaways was to think about much larger context what an image is but also what the world does. Whether are humans there, or not, there are images, as they sort of they engage each other. The way we interact with the world those images interact with themselves and that interaction is what produces an image. That’s a broad definition of an image but the shift is from thinking about images as representation to thinking about images as processes with their own habits, cycles, they sort of interate and respond to each other to produce meta-stable states. They are flowing and moving, but they are also stabilized, so they look static. If you look at an object on a table – it looks like it is just sitting there but it’s not. And even when we weren’t looking at it, the image is still because the image is real and material whenever we think about that. We’re part of it when we view it.

B.A. Gonczarek

As you describe in the book the image is a process by which matter twists, folds, bends and reflects itself into sensations and affections. What was the inspiration to arrive at such viewpoint on the image itself?

Thomas Nail

It’s an old inspiration actually, it goes back to the Rome and poet Lucretious. We only have one book of his philosophical poetry – De Rerum Natura. In the book, inspired by Epicurus, who said that the earliest Theory of the image as a material process that we have in the history of the west and it’s since been transformed by other ideas, but I do think there’s something to go back to. For me the inspiration was his poetry and ‘Simulacra’ – Everything in the world is radiating out images. Images are bouncing off each other, eventually they get to the exterior and fly off to collide mid air with other images. Some people interpret it as there’s ghosts flying off of things, but that’s not what he says at all, it’s actually closer to modern physics and light. He didn’t use the language of photons, he used language of simulacra but that’s essentially what it is  – that things inside of themselves are vibrating with photons. Photons are heat, photons are light, they are constantly vibrating and release waves of photons, and photons collide in mid-air. And for that reason at every stage they actually are making something, they performing and producing. There’s no resemblance, but no genuine copies, no originals, there’s just these singular processes that refract  (like you drop two paddles into a pond and the ripples would key each other and make a new pattern – at every stage you’re always looking at some specific pattern of the photons  interact with each other. So it’s a very materialist way of thinking about what an image is as opposed to the idealist way, which is – it’s an idea I have in my brain. And if that’s what you think an image is then only humans have them, only humans can sort of talk about them and they always will fail in representing the original image. There will always be some poorly construed copy of what’s out there. If you think of an image of a real, material, singular process, then it changes the way you think about what an image is. What an image is is what an image does. It doesn’t represent anything, it moves, it does. So the question is – what are the patterns? That’s why I think the visual aspect makes a lot of sense because to understand what images are you need to have an interactive and visual tools to map out what that image is doing.

B.A. Gonczarek

And I believe that’s also applicable to the digital world. I found it actually fascinating of how you’re shifting perspective here.  You name three features of mobile nature of the image and I’d like to ask you about hybridity that you list as one of those defining features. You call it a pinnacle of fragmentation, I’m curious what opportunities fragmentation opens`?

Thomas Nail

When I say fragmentation I don’t necessarily mean complete isolated fragments. They are little knots and pieces of strings, always related and connected with another pieces so that the pieces are never fully cut off from one another. This is the way people tend to think about digitally as just fragmented bits and bites, ones and zeros – but there are no fragmented ones and zeros that are fully cut off. That sounds opposite to the definition of what we think of binary. The truth is if you just dig below that level – is a signal on or of (basis of digital communication) and look at the material structure of transistor – it doesn’t work like that. There is a constant flow of electrons and photons moving through that transistor and they do not always stop at the gate when the signal is supposed to be off – they jump the gate. It’s a quantum effect called tunneling in which electron movement actually passes the barrier. The smaller technology gets, the more data we can store, the tinier the gates get. And the tinier the gates get the easier it is for the flor of electrons to pass through the gate and then you get an error, and your computer crashes. And these are happening more often than used to because of the technology. When your computer crashes there’s a good chance that’s because of the quantum effects of the material movement of the electrons. So thinking about all these pieces it really draws your attention to the creativity and the agency of the matter itself that we’re dealing with. We try to represent things of ones and zeros but what we’re often encountering is this very fascinating resistance of the matter itself and that opens new possibilities of working with that matter as opposed to trying to dominate it and trying to stick it into a binary code. Oneinteresting question for the digital age and XXI century is what new things might we discover? What new visual or communication aspects if we let the materiality, if you will, to play a role and speak instead of trying to silence it or make it your bidding. What might it say to us? How might we use it by working with it as supposed to trying to master it.

B.A. Gonczarek

Absolutely. I remember from your book when speaking of hybridity you touch the digital foundation of the image saying that

Anything that can be coded can be transcoded and then turned into a hybrid of something else.” So the beauty of transformation and allowing for new thing to arise from something that preexisted before opens a lot of new possibilities. 

The other defining feature of Digital Image that you write about is the Kinetic feedback. The way I ready it, is that the matter interacts with itself to form of a feedback loop. I kind of understand that when thinking of computer software opening greater degree and range of aesthetic transformation, but what about a kinetic feedback when, let’s we say passively consuming content, by looking at a paining?

Thomas Nail

One of the interesting things in the book that I figured out by researching material structures is that some of the features of the digital images are common to the analog things, there not really this absolute division. If you think about digital culture as immaterial, in the cloud, virtual – it’s not. It’s fully material. A “cloud” is a huge building filled with hard drives. This vast Internet infrastructure all have material basis and in that sense it is still very analog. And in that sense analog still has many of these features as it has aspects of hybridity. An collage is an instance where you can break things up and reassemble it. You have a kind of hybridity in analog things. But as just in your example in looking at a painting there’s a feedback that happens, but we don’t often think of it as a feedback. We think of it as a noisy signal on a digital level, a negative feedback loop where we don’t want it to go. But that’s partially what interesting in analog and digital feedback is that it is taking us somewhere. There’s a feedback happening between two systems where both are sort of in control but neither are in total control, and the result is something genuinely unique (kind of simulacra experience, simulacra are meeting, refracting and making something new. When we think about looking at a painting we think of that as a passive reception of an external object. But the viewer is participating in that work of art just by being in that room, even if we’re talking at basic photodynamic level of photons radiating off your body as heat, and they are heating up at a very small level that painting. Light is reflecting off that painting and degrading it. By looking at a painting with light we’re destroying that paining at a very low level and over time it ends up totally destroying that painting and that’s why we have curation. Curators are in this unique position to really see and feel and understand the materiality of works of art. That’s a lot of what museum goes don’t think about. They feel like these are preserved work with ethereal structure to them. But the preservation process never ends, it’s ongoing. It has to constantly struggle agains the effects of decay, heat, and light-destruction of the painting. So I think they realize that the paining is more of a feedback loop that you think it is. And it’s also affecting you that you’re not fully aware either. Its light and coloration is making you more sensitive to subtle differences in light and coloration. Even if you think that you’re thinking about the symbolic meaning of such and such. A man by a river or something like that, or narcist looking at himself in the pond were thinking about symbolic representation of the paining yet there is a material basis that is also working on you that you might not be even thinking about, but it’s affecting you. And it is the same way with digital culture and the studies are now accumulating on that for sure. What is the Internet is doing to our brains? What is digital culture? How is it changing us? We’re using it for symbolic and representation purposes, but there is wast iceberg of material consequences to the environment, to our bodies, to our brain. To undergo the performance and the feedback that we enter into when we look at the screen and use some kind of digital device.

B.A. Gonczarek

When speaking of affecting and changing us by exposure to images, you see I’m in a business of supporting understanding, you can call it knowledge communication with the use of interactive whiteboards. And I have a front seat view on feedback loops and transformations of the content. I see how those work as a key to unlock human understanding.  In the past the knowledge or concepts were conveyed by text paragraphs and static slides. Now those turn gradually into more visual forms, animation,  ad-hoc drawing, into whatever works. So the way I see it, is that we’re on a path of getting away from the rigid, formal representations into a realm of smashing bits and pixels, so to say,  to form new perspectives and gain new insights. I guess that’s in line of your thinking?

Thomas Nail

I think that’s right, I think that communication has significantly changed such that it is absolutely much more about feedback and with that feedback comes novelty. Feedback isn’t always what you want it to be. And with that what is interesting to me is that when images and words and material structures of how those are communicated – when you get all of those mixed together, when you have text, with digital speed of social media and users – when you get all of that together you’re getting some serious feedback transformation in which all of those are kind of pulled out of their original context and make possible new ideas that aren’t necessarily what we originally planned them to be. I think the feedback, even being explicitly interactive process, the interactivity makes us realize that we’re performing, that we’re doing something, not passively consuming. Even if we think that we’re passively consuming you’re actually generating something to. I think it makes us think deeply about the participatory nature that has always been the case with communication, visual or text-based that we’re involved in it, and that makes us responsible for intentionally shaping it, and not thinking that it’s this big structure and we cannot do anything. The mutability of communication is higher and more diverse that has ever been.

B.A. Gonczarek

Absolutely. The way I see feedback is that we always thought of the feedback on the cognitive level what worked? What triggered understanding? Was it a (so called) picture superiority effect where visuals work better then words, or spatial processing evolved in understanding of a concept or visual metaphors. But I guess thanks to your insights, I see that it’s possible to go deeper, beyond sensations to see the inner-working of three distinctive features of the digital image that you list: kinetic feedback, random motion and hybridity.  So I wonder, from your perspective, do you see technology a one-directional enabler that gets us closer to the understanding of reality? Is it so?

Thomas Nail

That’s such a great question. On a one hand I want to say – it just depends on how you define digitality? But I think that the other definitions are typical ones of binary structure, so let me give you two answers to that question:  Yes, digital world gets us closer to objective knowledge, more communication, transparency, more accuracy. Our pixels get so close now. The term ‘Retina’ it’s such a great term because that’s the limit where they eye can no longer distinguish the pixels. So what you could say on that front – yes, we’re definitely getting closer. Look how small the pixels are now, we are getting higher resolution and better accuracy on the world. If that’s a description – I disagree with that, i don’t think that’s why digitality is getting us any closer to reality or anything like that.

My answer would be – yes, I do think that it actually is but not in that way. I think that the thing that getting us closer to really thinking about reality in a different way, is that it’s forcing us to realize something that always been true about the nature of the image (whether analog or digital). The closer we get the closer we drill down to that binary structure of ones and zeros the more non-binary processes we start to discover. That’s what’s interesting about digital. It’s the actual conclusion that if we push it far enough we see it break down and see that below that it’s actual continuous fluctuation of quantum processes that are not under control. And this reveals to us something novel about matter itself. Something that always been novel, but we haven’t comforted it in that precise way. The history of art and media is typically Humans trying to control the world and make it look their way, and do it certain something. There is a minor history to be said there, but for the most part the western history of media and use the technology is to control the nature. But what’s interesting to me is that we’ve reached limits of that control and we’re forced to realize that it is impossible project and what we’re really have been doing is not successful domination to completely get access to objective reality but that we’ve been engaged in this kind of feedback look where materiality of media has shaped our bodies, our senses, our brains just as we’ve been shaping the world thought all of this media – and that’s what I think the truth is to be realize in the digital age. It’s not the superiority of the digital image but precisely what the digital image is exposed to us explicitly. So we have to confront that fact.

B.A. Gonczarek

It’s certainly getting our thinking less infantile, but do you see any risks that we might not be aware on this path?

Thomas Nail

For sure, the risk is that we will keep trying to find the ultimate way to bypass material processes and the performative act of interpretation. What I mean there is that if you think you can break down the world into totally discreet bits and bytes – that’s the danger, because it will drive you absolutely mad trying to produce a clean-cut distinctions between ones and zeros and not realize that there is this material process that will always spoil this effort. The danger is to use technology and media to try to control and essentially dominate meaning and leave out interpretation. Some philosophers that really herald the digital age they imagine – oh, we’ll just put jacks into our heads and we will just communicate with binary code, and that we’ll bypass all of the messiness of the language. I said this word that might mean something different to me than it means to you and we have base for this messiness which is, in truth, the beauty of poetry and literature. We can just get rid of all of that and just have purely objective truth with binary code. And I think that is the danger, thinking that you can avoid the material and what we call ‘an interpretation’ but it’s essentially performative, collective feedback that is generating something news not understanding some objective state of the world

B.A. Gonczarek

Before we close, what you see as a possible outcome of increasing software capacity in transforming digital images? Given the nature of digital image, what do you expect to happen in the near future?

Thomas Nail

Guess this depends how pessimistic or optimistic I am.

B.A. Gonczarek

Give us your best shot.

Thomas Nail

I’ll give you both. What I expect when I’m feeling pessimistic is that we will continue with quantum computing to try practically to keep pursuing to break world down into ones and zeros and master quantum flaws and erase any errors, any noise, any fluctuations which we don not want to happen in electron flow. That we will keep on that path and try to continually break things down in an attempt for absolutely non-interpretive objective reality. To think that we’re getting closer to that is to me absolutely the danger when I feel pessimistic.

Optimistically I think that technologies that emphasize and take seriously the materiality of the media that they using, (not just as a neutral media to facilitate communication, but as itself a creative thing, something that is changing the world).  To recognize the changes that it’s having both on the environment, on material world, but also changes that it’s producing in us, in our bodies – and to take that seriously and ethically to treat it more as a work of art. The sharing of images, the sharing of text is not neutral communication, it’s transformative, it’s doing something to us. I think that if you think that’s its neutral communication that’s subjective you’re going to miss that ethical moment. So you’re really need to think about that ethical moment. We’re responsible for what we’re doing to ourselves and what we’re doing to each other, and what we’re creating. So taking ownership of that essentially and we supposed to be being serious and intentional of what that is the optimistic outcome

B.A. Gonczarek

And I join you on this optimistic end. Listen Thomas, it was a great pleasure to talk to you today. It certainly helped me in my exploration of verbal-visual field of communication. But I also believe that your perspective is fresh to anyone that is trying to understand the direction that technology is taking. Many thanks for sharing your insights with us today! And good luck shaking off human’s immaturity of perception!

Thomas Nail

Thank you.