The other day I saw an ad in The New York Review of Books for a book called Theory of the Earth by philosopher Thomas Nail. The title caught my eye, and, as so often happens in the age of the internet, that led me to more books, articles and interviews. Nail writes about human migration, borders, and the philosophy of movement. As someone who has moved house many times and generally enjoys being on the move, I think about movement from time to time, so Nail’s project to reconfigure philosophy from the point of view of movement intrigued me.
If I understand correctly, Nail sees phenomena as matter in motion and time as a process or effect of matter in motion. We live in a universe of change. Our world is not a closed set of discrete things and dates, but rather one of open processes. Humans are not external to life, observing it from afar. Space and time are not “things” as many of us were taught to construe them. Nail claims that not only is matter always in motion, but there is no separate force enacting this continuous flux. Rather, reality simply IS motion: it’s all patterns of interactions.
I’ll admit that a deep dive into Nail’s writing can leave me gasping and confused. Yet, I find inspiration there. In my view, philosophy can touch on every part of our existence, including our enjoyment of images. Thinking philosophically stretches the mind and encourages us to think critically, a practice that promotes creativity, curiosity, and clarity.
Looking at a painting isn’t the passive activity you might suppose. Even the heat emanating from your body transforms the painting, which vibrates waves of photons as it decays in a constant feedback loop with the environment. There is a “vast iceberg of material consequences” to everything we do, including the seemingly passive activity of aesthetic appreciation.
We may call photographs still pictures, but in fact, they are motion itself: the motion of a body acting in space, gathering impressions, and operating a camera; the motion of the camera, the subject being photographed, and a brain thinking, sensing, feeling. A digital photograph involves the motion of a computer as images are modified and light bounces around the screen – and the room! Photographs are light moving through the air, through the camera, on the screen, inside our eyes. Far from being separate, stable objects or mere copies of phenomena, photographs involve fluidity and complexity – more than we imagine.
Doesn’t a photograph also involve the motion of your brain, your breath, your heart? Yes. Mine too.
There is a group of photographs below. They’re here because I chose to bring them together and you are choosing to look. It’s an interactive process. There’s nothing static about it.
Pure motion and transformation,
there is nothing still
about still photography. It is material,
Such a delight, this very world