Social regimes of movement

What we understand as ‘society’ and ‘states’ is made of these regimes and collectives that are on the move

By Author Pramod K Nayar   |   Published: 18th Nov 2020   12:05 am Updated: 17th Nov 2020   9:45 pm

As the world continues to deal with the fastest spreading virus in human history, there has been also a major shift in the nature of mobility itself. With work-from-home, containment zones, ‘lockdowns’, restrictions on numbers of people to ensure adequate distancing and the drastic collapse of tourism and leisure activities (now returning, with mixed feelings, to normalcy in some parts of the world), the nature of mobility has changed.

The irony should be obvious: humans, materials, information have never travelled as fast or to such extent, in the planet’s history. And now, a near-cessation of movement due to the virus. In the midst of a reduction in movement, forced mobilities – of migrant workers, refugees – all point to a key feature of the race: movement.

In Motion

All Being, existence, is Being in movement. Thomas Nail, who works on the philosophy of motion, argues: “nature, humans, and society always have been in motion. Humans are and have always been fundamentally migratory, just as the climate and Earth always have been fundamentally migrant and mobile.”

For others like the psychologist Vlad Petre Glăveanu, ‘human beings have always migrated, and migration has been the means through which we developed communities, cultures, and built great civilisations’. Movement, and not stasis, they suggest, is at the heart of the earth itself, since even nonhuman life forms, tectonic plates, tides and air are also in motion.

The very idea of existence is tied up, then, with the fact of mobility. For Nail, the Greek poet Lucretius (99-55 BC) was the first major philosopher of movement, explicating natural flows, animal flows, and others. In Nail’s adaptation of Lucretius:

“The elemental flows of air, earth, water, and fire are folded into the natural bodies of clouds, plants, waves, and sunlight; but these organic bodies are in turn further folded into the animal bodies of insects, birds, beasts, and fish”

Light travels and provides the possibility of both life and vision. Air, likewise, sustains life and enables dispersion – of everything from pollen to toxins. Given the emphasis and significance on movement in the history of mankind and the planet at large, Nail proposes the Kinocene (from ‘kinesis’, meaning movement) as a term to describe this history.

The Kinocene is about all Being, from humans to the other life forms to the Earth itself, in transformation. For Nail even the movement of gases and chemicals – the carbon cycles, nitrogen cycles, for instance – is a crucial component of life in the Kinocene.

Compulsion to Move

Beyond the necessary movement of the world’s various elements lies the compulsion to move. Sociologists like Zygmunt Bauman have long argued that vagrancy and tourism are two sides of the same coin, but – and this is important – resulting in different kinds and degrees of expulsion from the social order. The chase for commodities ensures that the consumer does not stop travelling for goods, and the poor travel in search of jobs and livelihoods.

What Nail calls ‘regimes of social motion’ determine the extent and consequences of movement. In Bauman’s words: “None of the insurance policies of the tourists’ life-style protects against slipping into vagabondage. . . . [M]ost jobs are temporary, shares may go down as well as up, skills, the assets one is proud of and cherishes now become obsolete in no time.”

Social expulsion from economic, political, juridical reasons produces a kind of movement that belongs to the history of migration, and arrives at its modern era’s climax in the form of the refugee. Thus, Nail, Bauman and others are correct to argue that the migrant and the refugee are the apotheosis of the regimes of social motion in the modern world.

Indeed, what we understand as ‘society’ and ‘states’ is made of these regimes and the collectives that move. A simple example from 2020 would be the migrant labour. For long the backbone of the labour force in metropolises and cities, their involuntary movement due to lockdowns – which replicates with a difference their movement to cities out of economic compulsions – brought to the foreground the stark inequalities of the social order – defined, determined and delimited by movement.

Stasis – the assured, assumed ‘stability’ of a society – then, demands a certain kind of movement such as that of migrant labour. In Nail’s political history of the migrant he puts it this way: “The migrant not only undergoes an extensive movement but also affects an intensive or qualitative social movement of the whole of society itself …the figure of the migrant is a socially constitutive power. It is the subjective figure that allows society to move and change.”

The Kinocene

As the above brief account indicates, the Kinocene as a concept has political and heuristic advantages. Nail’s emphasis on climate capitalism, for instance, examines the role of the movement of capital, technology, human ‘resources’ and materials through structures and processes such as industrialisation and colonialism. With climate change and incidents of drought, famine, deforestation, mining and any number of technological interventions in the environment, people and entire communities are forced to move.

While the ‘climate refugee’ may seem to be an isolated case, it is impossible, to take just one example, Narmada’s displaced, to see the compulsion for migration as entirely due to the climate alone. The Kinocene’s kinopolitical conditions of industrialisation and the arrival, via global movement, of technology and toxins alter irrevocably the nature of movement of the local populace.

We have a brilliant recent text on the Kinocene, capturing the politics and regimes of social motion in its historical context. In Joe Sacco’s new work of comics journalism, Paying the Land, he documents how the lives of the Shúhtaot’ine, or Mountain Dene and the Metis, in the NorthWest Territories of Canada changed with the arrival of companies such as the Hudson Company. Sacco also records the forced ‘civilizing’ of the natives’ children – taken away from their habitats and placed in residential schools run by the European missionaries – which also involved a kind of movement. When these children returned – marking yet another movement – with their ‘foreign’ ways, they could no longer understand and appreciate their indigenous cultures, or respond to the land they had lived in for generations. Sacco’s work is a study of the Kinocene in all its complicated and complex political realities.

If movement is the hallmark of the planet itself, the frame for a study of life would indubitably be the Kinocene.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)

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