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The Immobility of Nomads

Arnold J. Toynbee Anefo.jpg

Gilles Deleuze, interpreting a passage in Arnold Toynbee, says that Toynbee "shows that nomads in the strict, geographical sense are neither migrants nor travelers, but on the contrary, those who do not move, those who cling on to the steppe, who are immobile with big strides, following a line of flight on the spot, the greatest inventors of new weapons. But history has never begun to understand nomads, who have neither past nor future."

I like the literary (not a logical) paradox there. Yes, if we think of an American "snow bird," travelling every November from New York to Florida, traveling every April back to New York, then we can think of him changing his habitat and remaining constant in his habit. Year after year this comes to look less like travel than like immobility with big steps. 

Toynbee was all about challenge and response. The Big Picture in his writings is that a civilization faces some crisis and either responds creatively or fails. If its response is creative, it grows. Otherwise, immobility and/or collapse awaits. 

If an environment becomes desiccated, the people who live there can leave it. They can leave to return, as part of a circular route that allows them to deal with the desiccation, or they can simply ... leave. The former is nomadism, the latter is migration. They can also respond to the desiccation creatively, by creating an irrigation system for example, which is in Toynbee's Big Picture the way the growing civilization acts. 

As for the snow bird, his habit is typically a reaction to retirement. The need to get to work each day round the calendar no longer ties him to New York. Yet family connections, the nice big house, sentimentality, etc., may still hold him there, preventing any year-round move to the warmer locale. 

Deleuze is making a different point here. If I understand him at all, it is a Kantian point: that ideas of mobility or immobility are relative because time and space themselves are relative, and THAT is so because the nature of human subjectivity requires it. 

So run the nomadic wanderings of my mind on this day, and they run for now no further.

(The fellow portrayed above is Toynbee, not Deleuze.)


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