figure of the migrant

The Figure of the Migrant, an Interview with Thomas Nail

We recently spoke with Thomas Nail, an associate professor at the University of Denver, to talk about his recent book “The Figure of the Migrant.”

In it, Nail develops a theory of what he calls kinopolitics and argues that the migrant has become the “political figure of our time.”

“Rather than viewing migration as the exception to the rule of political fixity and citizenship,” his publisher writes, “Thomas Nail reinterprets the history of political power from the perspective of the movement that defines the migrant in the first place.”

Eugene Wolters: You develop a theory of kinopolitics, or the politics of movement.  Could you briefly describe what this means, and why it’s important?

Thomas Nail: This is the one of the more technical aspects of the book, so I would like to just say briefly, for those who have not read it, what the main motivation and thesis of the book is before we get into kinopolitics.

The thesis of The Figure of the Migrant is that the migrant is the political figure of our time. At the turn of the twenty-first century, there were more regional and international migrants than ever before in recorded history. Today, there are over 1 billion migrants—and each decade the global percentage of migrants and refugees grows. Political theory has yet to take this phenomenon seriously. My work argues that doing so requires political theory to alter its foundational presuppositions.

This is what The Figure of the Migrant does. If we take the figure of the migrant as a primary or constitutive figure of politics, it requires more than a mere accommodation of this figure into the existing frameworks of liberalism, Marxism, multiculturalism, and so on. It requires a whole new theoretical starting point that does not begin with stasis and the state, but with the more primary social movements that constitute the state, as well as the social alternatives that arise from those same movements.

Instead of starting with a set of preexisting citizens, kinopolitics begins with the flows of migrants and the ways they have circulated or sedimented into citizens and states— as well as how migrants have constituted a counter-power and alternative to state structures. In short, kinopolitics is the reinvention of political theory from the primacy of social motion instead of the state.

Eugene: What inspired you to start theorizing social movement and kinopolitics? 

Thomas: Well, I wanted to write about the central importance of the migrant in contemporary politics, but when I started doing the research it seemed that the migrant was always being theorized as a secondary or derivative figure. Across several related disciplines—Geography, Philosophy, Anthropology, and Political Science—the migrant was treated as an exception to the rule of already existing theoretical frameworks. What I wanted to show was that the migrant is not the exception, but rather the constitutive condition of contemporary politics. Right now, I think political theory has this backwards. Migration is historically constant—sedentary societies are the exception to this rule, not the other way around. So in order to theorize the migrant along these lines I had to invent my own theoretical framework.

The more I read the more I started to realize it was not just the migrant as such that was being treated as secondary, but it was because the migrant moved that it posed such difficulty for political theory and sedentary societies. So I took this so-called exceptional attribute of “motion” and flipped the existing frameworks on their heads—interpreting motion as the primary feature of social life. So instead of looking at fixed subjects and objects, the book looks at “flows and junctions;” instead of looking at states and institutions, the book looks at “regimes of circulation.” As it turns out, societies themselves are not, as they are often treated, static entities of fixed members, but continuous circulations of metastable social flows. So I started with the migrant and ended up needing to build a new political theory to fit it. This method has produced some interesting and original conclusions.

Eugene: You describe situations many people view as static – like residency in a certain area—as a “junction” within a flow. What is the political importance of re-classifying things like citizenship, residency, etc. in terms of social flows?

Thomas: One political importance of this move is to undermine the hierarchical notion of the social inferiority of movement, which is made quite explicit in Aristotle’s Politics and taken up as a given throughout political history. Contemporary anti-immigrant politics still rely,  as they have historically, on the idea that those who move to the territory are not, or are not fully, members of that society. By showing that society and its various figures are all continuously constituted by social motion and migration, I hope to undermine the bogus notion that some people move and others stay and that social policy can be based this false idea. Movement is not good or bad—everything moves—the question is how.

The consequence of this seemingly simple point that everyone moves is the need for a typology of the regimes of motion that distribute people and things. In other words, I try to show how social motion is constitutive of the various social categories that arbitrarily relativize motion into territorial, political, juridical, and economic orders or regimes. Territory, for example, is not a fixed thing—it is a continual process shaped by a number of different material flows that move inward, centripetally, toward a center and disperse at the periphery, creating the conditions of a territorial hierarchy. But if it is true that social sedentarism is the product of social motion, the arbitrary nature of territorial expulsions are exposed for exactly what they are: arbitrary and illegitimate.

Eugene: What influence does Deleuze have on this work? It seems some of the language is similar, yet references to Deleuze are few and far between.

Thomas: I thought someone might ask me this. The short answer is that Deleuze was the first to make a really important historical connection between the physical phenomenon of turbulence, or pedetic motion, and the social phenomenon of nomadism. He and Guattari started working through this idea in their chapter on “nomadology” in A Thousand Plateaus, to great influence and effect.

However, the problem with Deleuze and Guattari is twofold. First, they wrongly follow the typical definition of the migrant as a figure that simply moves between two pre-established fixed points. This is just an empirically wrong definition for two reasons: 1) there are no fixed social points, only regimes of circulation; and 2) real historical migrants almost never follow this kind of movement. Their movement is almost always associated with a qualitative transformation of society to some degree, not just a quantitive or extensive translation from point to point. Furthermore, it is rare for a migrant to move only once; most migrants move multiple times in a system of relays or circulations.

Second, Deleuze and Guattari spend one of the longest chapters of A Thousand Plateaus on only one historical figure of the migrant: the nomad. It’s a great chapter, but historically speaking, the nomad is really only the dominant name or figure of the migrant for a certain limited period of time, after which the figures of the barbarian, vagabond, and proletariat, are more significant. Deleuze and Guattari clearly reference these other figures as “heirs to the nomad,” but they do not give them the same kind of treatment as they give to the nomad. The consequence is that people have tended to fetishize the nomad.

Despite these differences, Deleuze and Guattari remain general influences for me alongside other theorists of movement like Lucretius, Marx, and Bergson. The Figure of the Migrant is not a Deleuzian theory of migration or a book on Deleuze’s theory of nomadism. At the end of the day, the theoretical framework, the theses, and historical method are original to my own project.

Eugene: You say “the migrant is the political figure of our time.” Why now more so than other historical periods of mass movement and expulsion?

Thomas: The migrant is the political figure of our time for two reasons. First, quantitatively, there are just more migrants on the planet: over one billion and rising! Even as a percentage of the world population, more and more people are becoming migrants. Second, qualitatively, the 21st century is the century in which all the previous types of social expulsion and migratory resistance have reemerged and become more prevalent than ever before. This contemporary situation allows us to see what had previously been obscured: that the figure of the migrant and its expulsion has always been the true motive force of social history. Only now, in a world of such dramatic movement and expulsion, are we in a position to recognize and trace out this historical trajectory and its cosmopolitan potential.

Eugene: I thought your re-reading of history in terms of vagrancy and expulsion was fascinating. Would you like to briefly discuss the connection between expansion and expulsion in the kinopolitical model?

Thomas: The major thesis of the book is that the migrant is the political figure of our time, but there are two minor theses that support it. First, as I mentioned, is the thesis that the migrant requires a new movement-oriented theoretical framework to analyze it; and, second, is the thesis that social expansion has always been predicated on the social expulsion of migrants.

This second thesis is a kinopolitical radicalization of Marx’s theory of primitive accumulation. However, the process of dispossessing migrants of their social status (expulsion) in order to further develop or advance a given form of social motion (expansion) is not unique to the capitalist regime of social motion. I can’t go into all four historical figures of the migrant here, so I will give just two short examples of the nomad and the barbarian.

First, we see this process of expansion by expulsion at work in early Neolithic societies whose progressive cultivation of land and animals (territorial expansion) would not have been possible without the expulsion (territorial dispossession) of a part of the human population: hunter-gatherers, whose territory was transformed into agricultural land and who were themselves transformed into surplus agriculturalists for whom there was no more arable land left to cultivate at a certain point. Thus, social expulsion is the condition of social expansion in two ways: an internal condition that allows for the removal of part of the population when certain internal limits have been reached (carrying capacity of a given territory, for example) and an external condition that allows for the removal of part of the population outside these limits when the territory is able to expand outward into the lands of other groups (hunter-gatherers). In this case territorial expansion was possible only on the condition that part of the population be expelled in the form of migratory nomads, forced into the surrounding mountains and deserts.

Later, we see the same logic in the Ancient world, whose dominant political form (the state) would not have been possible without the expulsion (political dispossession) of a large body of Barbarian slaves kidnapped from the mountains of the Middle East and Mediterranean and used as workers, soldiers, and servants so that a growing ruling class could live in luxury. The social conditions for the expansion of a growing political order (including warfare, colonialism, and massive public works) were precisely the expulsion of a population of Barbarians who had to be depoliticized at the same time. This occurs again and again throughout history. Each time, the regime of motion changes as does the figure of the migrant.

Eugene: What do you think about the European refugee crisis?

Thomas: Europe’s current crisis is that it is increasingly forced to choose between its pretensions of liberal democracy—based on the idea of universal equality—and the fact that its provision of those rights is absolutely limited by territorial, political, legal, and economic borders. The real crisis is that one cannot have both. Thousands of years of history have demonstrated this thesis, but the 21st century will force us to realize it.

What is happening right now in Europe demonstrates precisely my thesis that this will be the century of the migrant. The international nation-state system (UN) and now the infra-national nation-state system (EU) are unable to accomodate the figure of the migrant. What we are witnessing today in the brutal deaths of refugees coming to Europe via boat and Mexican migrants is the demonstration of this failure.

The historical connection of contemporary migrants to the larger historical figure of the migrant has been explicit in the media.  In the UK, the Guardian recently published an editorial comment on Europe’s crisis that ends by describing refugees as the fearful dispossessed” who are rattling Europe’s gates.” Although unfamiliar to some, others will know that the phrase rattling the gates” refers to a very specific historical moment: the Barbarian invasion of Rome.

In Europe, French presidential frontrunner Marine Le Pen said at a recent rally that this migratory influx will be like the Barbarian invasion of the 4th century, and the consequences will be the same.” Even when their rhetoric is veiled, sometimes even when they claim to support the migrant population, much of the rest of Europe and its media have now uncritically adopted the same dangerous waters” metaphors used by Romans and almost every other imperial power in history who have described their migrants as fierce waves,” “influxes,” “storms,” “surges,” and floods.” Even the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, has described the refugees as a great tide” that has flooded into Europe” producing chaos” that needs to be stemmed and managed.” “We are slowly becoming witnesses to the birth of a new form of political pressure,” Tusk claims, and some even call it a kind of a new hybrid war, in which migratory waves have become a tool, a weapon against neighbors.”_ This is not neutral terminology. It has a historically specific and kinopolitical origin.

Now, with the attacks in Paris, borders are being closed and migrants are being scrutinized and even scapegoated, just as they were after 9/11. This blatantly wrong attribution of terrorism to Syrian refugees exposes the real anxiety of Western politics: uncontrollable migrancy and the failure of the nation-state. 

Eugene: What questions do you hope to take up in the future? Are you working on any other concepts, books, papers, etc?

Thomas: I have already completed the next book, Theory of the Border, which was written in tandem with The Figure of the Migrant, but could not be published in the same volume since the two together would have been over 700 pages long. The reviews have been very positive and the book is now forthcoming next year with Oxford University Press.

Theory of the Border further develops the kinopolitical framework and uses it to analyze the political history of social division. The final section of the book offers a close study of the kinopolitics of the US-Mexico border. Where The Figure of the Migrant presents a kinopolitics of the political subject, Theory of the Border presents a kinopolitics of the political object: the material and technical apparatuses that direct social circulation. Therefore, Theory of the Border also performs a similar kinopolitical inversion. Instead of looking at borders as the products of societies and states, it looks at states and societies as the products of the mobile processes of bordering.

Check out Thomas Nail’s latest book, The Figure of the Migrant, or learn more about his other work by visiting his page, or read a preview of the book here.