Posted by: Johan Normark | December 7, 2011

Quote of the day: On fluidity as change and motion

“The cognitive life of things is about things in motion; it is about hybridity, fluidity and genuinely interactive relationships between brains, bodies and things” (Malafouris & Renfrew 2010:9).

It has become common to conceptualize motion, movement and change as something fluid, not just in archaeology. I have been guilty of that myself. Time and space flows we are told when we describe motion. But is it really so? Are we not just confusing the state of intensity of a certain object (i.e. water) with its motion? Sure, liquid water flows if it is set in motion (but it does not automatically flow, it needs some intensity to get it started). However, water in gas form is moving even more than in its liquid state. Water in its solid form can also move, such as a glacier, albeit at a lower intensity. So why is the motion of a “solid” object seen as an example of fluidity? Getting from one location to another is not to “go with the flow” because that implies that the flow preexist the object under discussion. Time and space emerge from the objects and there is therefore no fluidity in another sense than when we describe a property of a liquid state of an object.

Even more problematic is fluidity as a metaphor for change. If I tear a piece of paper into two parts, I am stuck with two solid objects and there has never been anything near fluidity in the process of tearing. One object has become two objects. We do not need a metaphor of fluidity to describe this process.

Malafouris, Lambros and Colin Renfrew (2010). The Cognitive Life of Things: Archaeology, Material Engagement and the Extended Mind.In The Cognitive Life of Things: Recasting the boundaries of the mind. Lambros Malafouris and Colin Renfrew (eds). Cambridge: McDonald Institute Monographs, pp. 1-12.



  1. Hi Johan,

    You make some interesting points. Solid things do flow (the glacier is a good example) and so do gases (which is why we can see eddies and currents and other patterns of flow in visible air flows such as fog and smoke). It seems to me that ‘fluidity’ does not fit easily into our rigid categories of different states of matter – as shown by those flowing materials that are neither solid nor liquid nor gas, but combinations of these (such as minerals held in solution and carried along by rivers).

    On your example of tearing a piece of paper in half, the fluidity in this case is not in the objects themselves but in the process of change – that is, the embodied movement with which you tore the piece of paper. Try performing the operation without any flowing movement or flourish. No matter how much you speed the movement up or slow it down it is still in my opinion a flowing one. And it’s not just a metaphor. The problem may be in trying to see fluidity in the objects themselves, without considering the wider context of forces with which they are entangled. That would be like trying to understand why rivers/ glaciers flow by just looking at the water/ ice, without considering the gravity acting upon it, or the mixture of environmental and cultural forces that also influence patterns of flow.

    Best wishes,

  2. In regard to my paper example I would simply say that there is a movement, not a flowing movement. I think flowing is superfluous, it gives me the wrong associations. Movement is not the same as flow. When I move around in a landscape I am only moving, not going with the flow (unless I happen to be swimming of course).

  3. I agree with you Johan about Fluidity, it is an idea, it is a thought.
    And in my opinion ideas, and thoughts are maybe viruses that is not yet discovered by scientists. and there are a lot of things that science did not discover yet.

  4. The 2012 idea is for sure a viral disease…


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