“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. 

New Issue of Theory & Event, Volume 22, Number 4, October 2019

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The latest issue of Theory & and Event looks great!

Congrats to Kieran on the Symposium on “Myth and Politics in Furio Jesi”. Looks like some great contributions in there.

Articles

Reviews

Biographies

  1. Biographies
  2. pp. 1141-1143
  3. restricted access View | Download | Save

 

“Centrifugal Force and the Mouth of a Shark: Toward a Movement-Oriented Poetics,” by Kevin Potter

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Centrifugal Force and the Mouth of a Shark: Toward a Movement-Oriented Poetics
Kevin Potter
Ariel: A Review of International English Literature
Johns Hopkins University Press
Volume 50, Number 4, October 2019
pp. 51-78
10.1353/ari.2019.0033

Abstract

“No one leaves home unless / Home is the mouth of a shark” read the opening lines of Warsan Shire’s poem, “Home.” Connecting this powerful poem to the migrant/diasporic literary tradition, this article will introduce a new interpretive framework for the study of migrant literature—one which I call “kinopoetics.” I modify here Thomas Nail’s (2015) concept of “kinopolitics,” or a “politics of movement,” which suggests that “regimes of social motion” have historically created the material conditions for social and political formation (24). Kinopolitics, in turn, recognizes the migrant as the primary constitutive figure of social history and transformation. Extending from a politics to a poetics, kino-poetics takes a non-representational approach (derived from Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and Nigel Thrift) that treats literary texts as aggregates of sensible experience and affective maps of migrant mobility. I will explore, then, how these texts depict the migrant experience of disenfranchisement and expulsion and the “pedetic social force” (Nail, Figure 124), or active political power, that migrants are able to enact. I emphasize how migrant literature reconfigures the static, place-based poetics built into a regime of borders and nationhood. I will conclude with a kinopoetic reading of Shire’s poem, showing not only how it foregrounds the centrifugal forces that coerce refugees into exile but also how the migrant’s poetic voice confronts and undermines nationalistic hostilities.”

Being and Motion reviewed by Michael J. Bennett

Thomas Nail, Being and Motion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Favorite Writing Music of 2018

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These were my favorite albums to write to that came out in 2018. When I write I listen to only instrumental music and find that it helps me focus. I hope they help you too. Happy New New Year!

1) Shida Shahabi, Homes

2) Zoë Keating, Snowmelt

3) Nils Frahm, All Melody

 

4) Ólafur Arnalds, Re:member

5) Poppy Ackroyd, Resolve

6) Chilly Gonzales, Solo Piano III

7) Benoît Pioulard, Athanasy, 1993

8) Hammock, Universalis

9) Steve Hauschildt, Dissolvi

 

10) Hello Meteor, The Coastal Obscure