(all photographs are from the book “Stillness” by Nik Gaffney)

Moving, Still

by Timothy Morton

A tiny tuning fork, thirty microns long, is resting in a vacuum very close to absolute zero. With one’s naked eye, one can see it vibrating and not-vibrating at the same time.

A tiny mirror, also visible to the naked eye, is resting in a vacuum very close to absolute zero. With one’s naked eye, one can see it: it’s ever so much larger, like the tuning fork, than conventional quantum-scale objects. It is emitting infrared light, a sign that it is moving. But nothing is pushing it. That’s what in a vacuum very close to absolute zero means. Nothing is pushing it, and according to classical physics, it should be perfectly still. But it isn’t. The mirror is shimmering, shimmering without mechanical input.

Objects shimmer without mechanical input. Movement is not something that happens to objects. You would eventually require a self-moving entity to get the whole thing going anyway. And what seems to be the case is that anything can have the fun of being self-moving, and that you can observe this fun just by leaving something alone. Quantum-theoretical experiments are all about what happens when you leave things alone, leave things to their own devices.

Movement is a deeply strange and paradoxical phenomenon, yet we see it all around us all the time. Many philosophers can’t cope with how paradoxical it is — think about Zeno and his paradoxes — so they try to get rid of it, by arguing that movement is just an illusion.

I’m one of those philosophers who is entranced by movement rather than disturbed by it. I want to embrace movement. I want it to be part of the deep structure of how things are: ontology. So I take a lot of comfort in the newer generation of quantum physicists, who seem unafraid to do experiments on larger and larger objects, observing things that traditional, vanilla quantum theory might regard only as an artifact of measurement. Niels Bohr declared, “There is no quantum world.” It turns out that not only is there a quantum world down there, but also up here. It seems quite likely at this point that there is no classical world.

I’m solid because things keep shifting around at my boundaries at every scale. Because of this movement, I retain my coherence. If there weren’t all kinds of quantum weirdness happening on my surface — weirdness such as barrier penetration, where a particle can enter a forbidden zone in a crystal lattice structure — I would disperse into a cloud of powder. I can write this because I am moving without mechanical input. I’m shimmering, and so are you.

I’m still.

I’m still, waiting. I’m quiet. That’s not the same as saying I’m fixed and silent. Yet it’s not quite the same as saying that I’m moving and sounding, either.

We talk about the ground state of an object: this is what the object is when you leave it alone. At its ground state, a tiny tuning fork is shimmering. The ground isn’t solid and static.

The ground is more like a haunted house — but this is a strange kind of haunting. The house is haunted by itself.

That’s how meditation feels. You can’t stop your mind. You can still it. You can allow it to reach its ground state, where you get to see that it’s an ungraspable, invisible being like a crystal ball — yet it shimmers with appearances, which we call thoughts. When you still or quiet your mind, you realize that this moving-yet-still quality is always there, no matter how fast you are going, no matter how much you forget that the thoughts are how your mind is appearing, how much you start to chase them as if you could sneak up behind them and grab them. There you are, sneaking up and grabbing at — yourself.

An object is an ethereal, spectral version of itself, vibrating while still, flitting around itself, circling itself. A circle, as a matter of fact, is a great example. A circle is how a line keeps on and on deviating from itself at every point, distorted by a number (pi) from a dimension different from the dimension in which we find the rational numbers, however large or however tiny.

Numbers are also haunted. You’ll never find a smooth numerical bridge between pi and the next nearest rational number. That’s not how it works. Pi shows you that there is a ghostly, ethereal number dimension that haunts the set of rational numbers. You can draw a chart where every rational number is lined up in a list. It doesn’t matter where you start and it doesn’t matter how many numbers you include or miss out, and it doesn’t even matter in what order you put the numbers. You end up with a grid. It stretches into infinity across and downwards (the x and y axes), so your diagram of it is really just a tiny part of the top left-hand corner. But you can already see it. See what? A spectral, ghostly number, stretching diagonally down from that left-hand corner, at forty-five degrees. It’s like that skull in Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors, an object rotated into a dimension at forty-five degrees to the illusionistic three-dimensional space of the picture that reminds us that we are mortal.

The point is, can you reach total stasis? There will always be dark places in the universe. Things are happening there that we can’t locate in time or space, but they are real and they are happening. I find this idea extremely comforting.

Luckily, this comforting idea is just how the universe is according to Herman Minkowski’s geometrical proof of relativity theory.

Let’s go back to our tiny objects that shimmer without mechanical input. Although it’s still almost impossible for physicists to blend relativity theory (how massive things work) with quantum theory (how tiny things work), there is a deep similarity when you think about it in the following way. An entity that is shimmering is revealing and hiding itself at the same time: it’s here, and it’s there, simultaneously, as if it were dappled with moving sunlight, yet in this case, the moving sunlight is its very own self. A thing has a quality of not being directly, constantly “there” so that you can point at all of the thing all at once. But this is just what we said about massive objects in the universe. The universe is big enough that things are happening somewhere and somewhen in such a way that we can’t locate them in time or space — yet they are real. And we ourselves are strangely invisible to the beings who live in those regions. Parts of the universe (ourselves) can’t point to other parts (the elsewhere beings) directly. But this is just what we’re saying about a tiny object. Imagine that the universe is a tiny metal tuning fork or a tiny mirror. It’s shimmering.

This intuition means that in the end, we are going to be able to fit whatever relativity is talking about with whatever quantum theory is talking about. And we will be able to do this because ontologically speaking, objects haunt themselves.

What does that mean? It means that how a thing appears, and what a thing is, are inextricably intertwined, yet different. A Möbius strip gives us a good model for things in general. The appearance of a thing is like the twist in the strip. The twist is everywhere: you can’t point to where it starts or stops. Yet it’s not quite the same as the loop: you take a loop and you twist it into another dimension to get that Möbius strip shape. A thing is, and is not, how it appears, which is why you can see it vibrating and not-vibrating at the same time, and why the universe contains wonderfully dark corners no matter where you are, no matter when you are.

To haunt is to frequent, to circulate around, to keep returning and returning to the same place. But this is just exactly what a thing does. It keeps returning and returning to itself, never arriving for good, never leaving for good. A thing haunts itself. It’s like an inscription carved into a ceramic urn: “What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape?” asks John Keats. He’s turning the urn around and around in his mind. And when he does that, he can’t see the side he’s just rotated away from his eyes. He can’t see that part of the “legend” (legendum, the thing-to-be-read, or interpreted). The legend is inscribed into the urn, and it is the urn. A thing is not a lump of clay waiting to be formatted or inscribed according to what something else wants. Because a thing haunts itself, a thing is uniquely and vividly itself at every point. Being is not a lump of clay underlying appearing. That’s just a dysfunctional (in so many ways) idea we keep retweeting.

Keats is able to keep losing that legend as he rotates the urn because even without a rotator such as Keats, an object haunts itself in just that way. A circle circles. A mind minds. A mirror is shimmering in a vacuum.

Nik Gaffney’s photographs quite simply show us how things actually are, ethereal yet real, haunting and haunted by themselves. Still, moving. Peace is a dynamic, moving process, not total stasis. The attempt to achieve stasis must only ever be violent, because that’s not how things are. Gaffney’s work show us a profound nonviolence at work in the universe. But more than that — in their moving stillness, they are instance of nonviolent direct action. That’s what art is, above and beyond propaganda, above “politics.” Art is humans being occupied by letting things occupy themselves. The haunting stillness of art disturbs the disturbing way in which our culture keeps trying to minimize disturbance.


“Moving, Still” is Timothy Morton’s introduction to “Stillness” a book of photographs by Nik Gaffney published by MER. Paper Kunsthalle and FoAM.