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"Movement": An Essay by Thomas Nail (Keywords: Anthropocene; Ontology; Migration; Capitalism)


We live in a planetary age of motion. The feeling that things are moving faster, farther, and more frequently today is undeniable. More materials than ever are circulating across the Earth, through our atmosphere, and in planetary orbit. In addition, more humans are moving around, consuming more fossil fuels, and disrupting the earth’s systems. As a result, rising CO2 is increasing average global temperatures and causing extreme and unpredictable weather patterns.

In response, half of all species on the planet are currently migrating north, including insects, diseases, and microbes. Some of the microbes are the source of our viral pandemics. Even glaciers are on the move. We can now see them flow and recede like roaring rivers in a matter of minutes with the aid of time-lapse photography. These melting glaciers are causing sea levels to rise more quickly today than in the previous 2,700 years, putting millions of people at risk and forcing migration.

In short, humans are now altering the entire Earth so dramatically and permanently that geologists have begun calling our age the “Anthropocene.” We can no longer believe the old story that humans are moving around on a relatively static earth. Instead, we are being forced to confront the fact that the earth is an entangled meshwork of moving cycles and systems in which humans are one part. As the earth is losing its balance, we are all witnessing the movements we did not see before. Much as if we knocked over a dozen plates spinning perfectly on pegs, the destruction dramatically reveals how much motion was previously at work and the danger of messing it up.

We cannot adequately understand contemporary politics through the paradigm of static states and stationary citizens.

We used to talk about “geological time” as if it were a process so slow it was imperceptible. Today, we are witnessing before our eyes the earth sinking into the sea and forests transforming into deserts. In addition, we are seeing the creation of entirely new geological strata made of plastic, chicken bones, and other garbage that will remain in the fossil record and affect geological formations for thousands of years. The Anthropocene, more than any other transformation, is awakening large portions of humanity to the realization that we have never lived in a static or intrinsically stable world. Holocene stability has been a product of exquisitely balanced moving systems.

According to a report by the United Nations International Organization for Migration, climate change will also contribute to a possible doubling of international migration over the next 40 years. More than ever, people are migrating because of environmental, economic, and political instability caused by climate change and capitalist globalization. The result is that today there are already more than 1 billion regional and international migrants. Moreover, with each new decade, the percentage of migrants in the total population continues to rise. Indeed, by 2050, demographers expect 2 billion more people to migrate to urban centres worldwide. While many might not cross a regional or international border, the rest of us are changing jobs more often, commuting longer and farther to work, changing our residence repeatedly, and travelling internationally more frequently. This new age of mass migration affects us all in one way or another and will likely make migration a defining feature of the coming century.

The staggering global movement of people, plants, animals, and objects on the planet has also led to an explosion of bordering techniques for managing and circulating movement. Since the mid-1990s, but particularly since 9/11, hundreds of new borders have emerged worldwide. People have installed miles of new razor-wire fences, tons of new concrete security walls, numerous offshore detention centres, biometric passport databases, ubiquitous closed-circuit television, and security checkpoints of all kinds in schools, airports, and along various roadways across the world – all attesting to the increased social anxiety about controlling motion.

We cannot adequately understand contemporary politics through the paradigm of static states and stationary citizens. Our theoretical frameworks do not fit the reality of global mobility, shifting borders, refugee crises, and constant migration. In fact, the expectation that mobile bodies will conform to a static model of states, borders, and sedentary behaviour is a cause of immense suffering. If we want to understand this contemporary social reality and thus respond to it appropriately, we have to change the way we think and act. We need to think about movement and flux as more constitutive to our social organizations than we currently do.


But what is movement, and why has something so seemingly simple posed such enormous difficulties for Western philosophers and scientists? Why have some of the greatest minds dedicated their lives to discovering something genuinely immobile that would explain why things move? The Greek philosopher Aristotle imagined an “unmoved mover,” who first propelled and ordered the moving cosmos. The ancient scientist Archimedes imagined that if he had a fixed fulcrum and a lever long enough, he could move the earth. Later, the seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes reinterpreted Archimedes’ fulcrum as a point of “certain knowledge” from which he could objectively know the rest of moving reality. Descartes and Isaac Newton also believed that God was like an unmoving clockmaker who set our mechanical universe into motion while himself remaining still. Even Albert Einstein’s theory that we live in a finite “block universe” is part of the centuries-long effort to explain movement by something immobile.

These thinkers were motivated by an anxiety about the unpredictable nature of movement. They found the phenomenon of movement so tricky to master because it is un-masterable. Their efforts failed because they made the mistaken philosophical assumption that something unchanging and universal precedes and orders matter in motion. In their narratives of stasis, matter and motion are passive aspects of reality – caused and formed by higher powers.

The assumed passivity of matter and motion justified their belief in a chain of being where immaterial and unmoving entities like mind, spirit, essence, form, and God, are superior to material and moving processes like nature, bodies, weather, and animals. Those in power have also used the idea of a static natural hierarchy to justify their subordination of people and things that are more material and mobile than others. For example, the destruction and domination of nature (plants, animals, rivers, soil) by humans are justified because nature is material and mobile (it is passive, fluctuating, changing, lacking mind, and lacking culture). Since humans are active, have consciousness, culture, and knowledge of higher principles like God, forms, forces, eternity, and essences, they are justified by the so-called natural order of the universe in doing whatever they want with nature.

The history of domination in the Euro-Western tradition and the deep-seated hatred of matter and motion go hand in hand.

This idea of a hierarchical chain of being places stasis above motion, form above matter, life above death, God above humans, men above women, reason above bodily feeling, one race above others, empires over the colonized, citizens above migrants, straight above queer, humans above animals, animals above plants, and plants above minerals. Everything higher up is less material and less fluctuating than what is below. The history of domination in the Euro-Western tradition and the deep-seated hatred of matter and motion go hand in hand.

In short, the Euro-Western tradition has defined progress by the domination of nature. We are now living in the wake of the consequences of this fateful decision.

After thousands of years of treating nature and matter as a passive substance, we are feeling the full ecological consequences of this mistake with the destruction of planetary systems we assumed were stable. In short, the whole chain of being with matter and motion on the bottom, and spirit and stasis on the top has been devastating for the earth and its people.

However, Western history has relatively recently arrived at a startling philosophical twist in this narrative. Everything we have scientifically observed so far in the world has been in motion, but we do not know what causes matter/energy to move and do not know precisely how it will move. From the ongoing expansion of the universe with its innumerable galaxies whirling around supermassive black holes to the path of a hurricane or the organization of a migrant caravan, we know of nothing in our vast cosmos that is entirely static. Indeed, even at the tiniest sub-atomic levels, indeterminate energy fluctuations never stop moving and cannot be wholly predicted. Physicists call them “quantum fluctuations.”

Most people think of motion as the translation of an object from point A to B in space and time. We also tend to think of point A and point B as discrete locations in space, and we think of movement as the successive change in location from one point to the other. But what if space and time are also moving outward in all directions as the universe expands? What if the fabric of spacetime itself is woven from the same energetic fluctuations as the universe, as most physicists now believe? It means that there are no fixed points in space or time and that the entire cosmos is continually changing. It also means that movement is only relative to other movements and not to any fixed points in space or time. Movement, then, is the constant transformation of the entire universe.

Yet, if everything is in motion, why do things seem relatively stable? Why do we think of movement as going from one point to another? Here is the problem. In the Western tradition, we are used to thinking of things as determinate. Something determinate has distinct and definite limits. We typically define a “being” as something that exists as a positive presence within those limits. But what if we try to think about something without definite limits and without a fully positive presence? We could use the words “absence” or “non-being,” but what if this something was not entirely absent either?

There is a third option. We can talk about “processes” to indicate an event that is neither a determinate being nor non-being. For example, a process such as a swallow swooping after a bug through the sky is neither entirely present nor wholly absent. In other words, it is an “indeterminate” process.

An indeterminate movement is a process understood as a process and not as a thing. Movement is not a sequence of static beings alternating with other static non-beings. As long as everything is moving, it is in process and indeterminate. This applies to swallows swooping for bugs and everything else as well. Because of their preference for stasis, the French philosopher Henri Bergson once described philosophers as “like children trying to catch smoke by closing their fists.”

The world is constituted by processes whose relatively stable iterations and fluctuations generate the phenomena we see around us. Matter flows, cycles, and circulates in metastable patterns. A metastable pattern is an ongoing process that restores and repeats itself slightly differently each time, like a whirlpool or eddy in a river.

“Identity” is not a static position or unchanging form but a cycle or habit of indeterminately swerving matter.

Since heat is constantly spreading out in the universe, no metastable process can ever be the same twice or last forever. Due to entropy, all movements of matter in the universe are irreversible. The universe flows one way: from hot to cold. Because of this direction and relationality, the flow of matter can eddy, whirl, and entangle itself into stable patterns that give the world local and momentary solidity and durability.

In other words, “identity” is not a static position or unchanging form but a cycle or habit of indeterminately swerving matter. Visible things are what return to approximately the same place periodically. Difference, then, is not a distinction between two identities but rather a flow or process that cycles between singular metastable recursions. Flow and persistence precede existence.


If we want to survive in a fundamentally moving world, our best chance is to stop pretending that we can reduce movement to something immobile and thereby master it conceptually or practically. There is no convincing evidence that geo-engineering the atmosphere will stop climate change. Technological solutions like putting sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere to deflect sunlight are premised on the false idea that complex systems can be manipulated by changing single variables. Similarly, we cannot stop human migration. In both cases we have to stop the complex root causes of global capitalism and deforestation.

There are many ways to survive and flourish with others. However, if we want to survive to experiment with those ways, our best option is to think and act without metaphysical illusions and hierarchal behaviours that obscure what we presently know about reality and its unpredictable movements. Thinking from a movement-oriented perspective rejects the metaphysical chain of being that continues to be dangerous to people and the planet. A movement-oriented perspective may not guarantee our survival or that we will act in any particular way. However, by avoiding metaphysical delusions and built-in limits to thinking and acting, it frees us up to more creatively experiment with other ways of being on earth.

Thomas Nail is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver. His current work focuses on the philosophy of movement. His latest book, Lucretius III: A History of Motion, was published this year by Edinburgh University Press.

Twitter: @xThomas_Nail


From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 1 ("The New Basics: Planet"). Read more articles from The Philosopher, purchase this issue, or become a subscriber.


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