Book Event: The Figure of the Migrant: Migrants, a Human Vital Force (Novoa)

ADRIANA NOVOA is Associate Professor of History at the University of South Florida. Novoa completed her MA and PhD in Latin American History at the University of California, San Diego. She is a cultural historian whose specialty is science in Latin America, and with Alex Levine she has written two books about Darwinism in Argentina: From Man to Monkey (The University of Chicago Press, 2010), and Darwinists! (Brill, 2012). Novoa’s articles have been published in Journal of Latin American Studies, Science in Context, The Latinoamericanist, and Revista Hispánica Moderna, among others. She is currently working on From Virile to Sterile, a book manuscript that explores the intersection between Darwin’s evolutionism and masculinity in Argentina.


This is an ambitious book that attempts to provide a frame to understand migrants from the perspective of political theory. I am an intellectual historian specializing in evolutionary science in Latin America, so I am a poor judge of Thomas Nail’s achievement in strictly theoretical terms. But, since the book is serious about historicizing the concept of the migrant, and this is one of its most important contributions, I will concentrate on how his theoretical approach relates to history.

The Migrant, Biology, and Human Species

“Not all who wander are lost.” J. R. R. Tolkien

The Figure of the Migrant puts the migrant category at the center of politics through a theory that avoids analyzing it as an identity, focusing primarily on movement. According to Nail, mobility explains why migrants are attacked, or socially expelled. The intention of the book is to address the lack of adequate theorizing on the migrant in political sciences, geography, philosophy, and anthropology, disciplines that in his view approach the migrant as a political aberration. The book is interested in the free circulation and flow of populations, but not as moving from one point on the map to another; social movement is not qualified as something desirable or not, but as a simple unavoidable occurrence, a fact. The historical narrative is geared to show how we are all becoming migrants, and implies that the experience of migrations today is somewhat different from those of the past.

Nail claims that the 21st century “will be the century of the migrant. At the turn of the century, there were more regional and international migrants than ever before in recorded history.”[1] This might be true in absolute terms, but when the proportion of migrants is compared with the proportion of the total population on the move in various historical epochs, our century is not that different. We are not all becoming migrants, humans have always been migrants. But for a long time our culture has erased the understanding of migrations as part of our human condition, which has led to the belief that the migrant is a social aberration in a civilized society. This contradicts the fact that the formation of Modern Europe is the result of centuries of movement across the continent, the cumulative consequences of which are manifest in the very bodies of those who live there today.

One recent study of the composition of the population of Ireland is telling in this regard. According to its authors, “Modern Europe has been shaped by two episodes in prehistory, the advent of agriculture and later metallurgy.” But these two innovations “brought not only massive cultural change but also, in certain parts of the continent, a change in genetic structure.” The genomes from Ireland, for example, “demonstrate that large-scale genetic shifts accompanied both transitions.” This means that these changes were not confined to a given location, but occurred through the process of human movement.[2] With respect to the Irish case, Dan Bradley, professor of population genetics at Trinity College Dublin, has commented that there was “a great wave of genome change that swept into Europe from above the Black Sea into Bronze Age Europe and we now know it washed all the way to the shores of its most westerly island,” and this degree of “genetic change invites the possibility of other associated changes, perhaps even the introduction of language ancestral to western Celtic tongues.”[3] So, in defiance of the usual narrative of national identity, the Irish people are the result of the continued flows of human movement, a pattern of transformation that it is also reflected in cultural and technological changes.

The same can be said in the case of England.  A recent study in Nature shows how genomics might help to better explain the role of migrants in the formation of the English.[4] According to Mark Robinson, an archeologist and a co-author of the study, their results “suggest that at least 20% of the genetic makeup in this area is from Anglo-Saxon migrants, and that there was mixing,” and not a “genocide or complete disappearance of Britons.”[5] I suggest that Nail’s argument might have been stronger if he had related his kinopolitics to such biological evidence.

Moreover, Nail develops his theory in terms of the political, but in many recent migrations, politics have been determined by natural events and not only by human agency or by the dynamics of capital accumulation. In terms of a political theory for the migrant of our era, we need to consider the possibility that current and future migrations will be determined by climate change, which according to one report, “is projected to increase displacement of people (medium evidence, high agreement). Populations that lack the resources for planned migration experience higher exposure to extreme weather events, particularly in developing countries with low income. Climate change can indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts by amplifying well-documented drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks.”[6] It is true that such claims, and with them the category of environmental migrants, have been under dispute, but according to one study, in Africa alone under “moderate scenarios, in terms of both climate and population changes, future climate changes could lead to an additional displacement of 5 to 24 million people every year by the end of the 21st century.”[7] I believe that any theory of the migrant dealing with contemporary society needs to deal with this relationship between nature and human movement.

Nail does not consider an analysis of migrations and migrants in relation to nature and vital forces. This observation is not a reflection of my own biases, but of Nail’s philosophical influences. I find it strange that a book philosophically influenced by Deleuze and Bergson neglects both philosophers’ interest in organic forces, and in our problems dealing with nature. Deleuze wrote “It’s organisms that die, not life. Any work of art points a way through for life, finds a way through the cracks. Everything I’ve written is vitalistic, at least I hope it is, and amounts to a theory of signs and events.”[8] It is clear that Nail understands the migrant as a sign and as an event, but it is not so clear to me that he is interested in the vitalism behind migrations. Where, in this book, is migration conceptualized as a vital force?

Nail affirms that kinopolitics is the “politics of movement. Instead of analyzing societies as primarily static, spatial or temporal,” this idea allows us to understand societies “primarily as “regimes of motion.” This is needed because “societies are always in motion: directing people and objects, reproducing their social conditions (periodicity), and striving to expand their territorial, political, juridical, and economic power through diverse forms of expulsion.”[9]  I could not agree more with Nail on this description, but he avoids theorizing the biological power of movement in social and human development. Humans exist through migrations, but, as the book shows, the emergence of closed groups, and the defense of their interests, cloud the role of migrants in human development, and the biological power of movement in human survival. This is particularly relevant, since it contradicts the narrative of the modern nation that affirms that only through its institutions can human develop themselves.

It seems to me deeply ironic that while some theories of animal rights are built on the capacity of members of other species (animals) to move, circulate in the wild, and to be preserved in an environment that ensures the necessary conditions for their existence, theories about humans do not contemplate the same needs. Curiously, Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka proposed in their book the assimilation of humans’ political rights to the animal context in order to protect the latter.  This ought to make us think about recognizing for humans the same needs acknowledged for non-human animals, which means free circulation according to need, and the preservations of the conditions for existence.[10]

The Invisibility of the Migrant, a Modernity Problem

Dealing with migrations at the level of the species helps us to avoid the problems related to the universalization of movement, which pervades the book’s historical approach. In regards to Mexico, Nail writes under the assumption that all the migrants originating from this country have the same relationship with movement, but by failing to consider the existence of human diversity in movement, the book simplifies motivations and imposes a mechanistic social meaning. Nail’s theoretical effort does not help us to understand the inequality of humans and its connection with kinetic power. In modern Latin American nations, the dynamics of human movement were shaped, and continue to be shaped, by racial divisions, for example.

My point is that over the 19th and 20th centuries race became an essential and ideological category that attributed meaning to different physical traits. Meanwhile, the fact that racial types can only exist, and continue to exist, as long as certain fluid exchanges remain confined within closed groups, was ignored. Race can only exist through an intended organic exchange, but it is not itself merely organic; it is representational and ideological. Those committed to race act to preserve an identity that cannot exist without their efforts to realize it. So, in order to preserve race, movement has to be restricted and regulated. In order for this fantasy to take hold in reality migrants must be obscured to hide the fact that we became humans, and persist as a species, as migrants engaged in open and indiscriminate migrations. It is for this reason that the absence of race in the analysis of the Mexican-American border in the book is quite surprising. We can imagine that all bodies have kinetic power, and at the level of species this is the case; but if we ignore how over the last two centuries the mobility of bodies has been restricted according to their external characteristics, we cannot expect to explain the dynamics of the border, or the nature of movement in the region.

The United States only stopped being a country that crafted its people through a careful process of moving very specific bodies in 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act replaced the quota system—based on race and nationality—by a visa system. This change regulated the way in which the circulation of bodies was allowed in the United States, which triggered enormous anxieties about how the people of the future would look. In an effort to assuage concerns sparked by the state’s abandonment of its right to build the “people” in the same way as it has been done in the past, senator Edward Kennedy emphasized that the bill “will not flood our cities with immigrants. It will not upset the ethnic mix of our society. It will not relax the standards of admission. It will not cause American workers to lose their jobs.”[11] Most modern nations were founded and developed around the power of race for fixing the identity of the country through the presence/absence of certain traits. This is no minor thing, because it determines the very politics of movement that Nail analyzes.

Humans had been relatively sedentary for quite a long time before the eighteenth century, but this sedentarism was not associated exclusively with the logic of capital and representation. It is historically interesting, if not completely explained in this book, that what today is “naturally” associated with circulation, flows, and movement, are commodities and capital, and not humans. More importantly, the humans who are freest to circulate are those who control capital and are seen as its transporters:  investors, skilled workers, and tourists.  Only capital sanctions complete, free, and institutionally acceptable movement; the circulation of devalued, racialized or marginalized, bodies, on the contrary, needs to be controlled and limited. This is a critical gap in Nail’s book, in my view. Migrant workers are needed, and economically indispensable, so the problem of movement cannot reside solely in the logic of capitalism and accumulation.

In an article devoted to widespread shock at the fact that the United States is no longer a white country, Dowell Myers explained that the United States “is getting a burst of births from nonwhites” which is a “huge advantage” in any comparison with Europe. European societies “with low levels of immigration now have young populations that are too small to support larger aging ones, exacerbating problems with the economy.” “If the U.S. depended on white births alone, we’d be dead.” Myers adds. “Without the contributions from all these other groups, we would become too top-heavy with old people.”[12] The rejection of migrants takes place, then, on the representational level. In order to give to capital the freedom to circulate, human bodies need to be restricted. This conceals the contradiction that human flow poses to the promise of the nation as a place of closed circulation, where only national capital and those with certain homogenous traits can exist. This same article cites Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, who offers the following reflection on the disruption of racial continuity due to migration: “The question is, how do we reimagine the social contract when the generations don’t look like one another?”[13]

Movements that are not related to capital are seen as simply “natural” and “primitive” behavior, erasing the humanity of migrants. It is no coincidence that migrations are described as natural catastrophes, as Nail notes when explaining the association of migrants with “dangerous waters.” Nature and natural activities are hidden behind the process of circulation of commodities and capital that command the center of our attention. It is for this reason that the massive movement originated by the need of the organism to survive cannot be understood. The whole narrative that questions the motivations of the Syrian refugees, and why they do not stay in “their” country to fight for it, is part of this logic, even when the roots of this migration might also be traced to climate patterns beyond human control.[14]

My final comment is related to a historical choice that it is quite puzzling in the book. The history of migrants is analyzed through four historical figures described by Nail as the nomad, the barbarian, the vagabond, and the proletarian. These are considered as historical figures that existed for a specific period of time. Space limitations do not allow me to analyze each of these cases, but the historical existence of these categories is more complex than what Nail implies. Vagrancy, for example, has various meanings in Mexico, depending on the regions and times in which it occurred. One of its meanings in Spain and Latin America is connected with the figure of destierro (the removal of a person from the land of belonging), and, as such, is a punishment that was not originated by movement, but in the right to remain in place and not to move. The figure of the exile, so important to the political development of Latin American nations to this day, is a continuation of this concept. In it people are punished with displacement, and the abrogation of their right to remain in place.

Another figure that is ignored, in spite of the current role of religion in migrants’ lives, is that of the pilgrim, which has historically been an important mode of social movement. In the middle ages, for example, the migrant was also the pilgrim, the person who moved searching for the sacred together with others entering and leaving the spaces of faith within an international and diverse community (think of the “Camino of Santiago,” or the pilgrimage to Mecca, for example). Malcolm X’s words come to mind when thinking about the migrant as the pilgrim.

America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered white – but the white attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color. You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought-patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions.[15]

This force has not died, as witnessed by the fact that the power of movement originated by the sacred is at the center of some of the refugee debates. The discussion of how the public space is disrupted by a “non-traditional” religious presence, and how this disrupts the meaning of the nation, is an important aspect of the call to restrict Muslim migrants’ movement, for example. The greatest merit of The Figure of the Migrant is that it offers us an opportunity to question these issues, our views on humanity itself, and to consider how to face a situation that forces us to recognize that we cannot, and should not, make nature and environment invisible in order to make our fantasies real. This is the true aberration implied in this book.

[1] Nail, Thomas. The Figure of the Migrant. Stanford University Press, 2015, 1.

[2] Cassidy, Lara M., Rui Martiniano, Eileen M. Murphy, Matthew D. Teasdale, James Mallory, Barrie Hartwell, and Daniel G. Bradley. “Neolithic and Bronze Age migration to Ireland and establishment of the insular Atlantic genome.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2015): 201518445.

[3] Radford, Tim. “Irish DNA originated in Middle East and eastern Europe.” The Guardian, 29 December 2015.

[4] Leslie, Stephen, Bruce Winney, Garrett Hellenthal, Dan Davison, Abdelhamid Boumertit, Tammy Day, Katarzyna Hutnik et al. “The fine-scale genetic structure of the British population.” Nature 519, no. 7543 (2015): 309-314.

[5] Devlin, Hannah. “Genetic study reveals 30% of white British DNA has German ancestry.” The Guardian, March 18th 2015.

[6] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report. Summary for Policymakers.”

[7] Jean-François Maystadt and Valerie Mueller, “Environmental Migrants: A Myth?”

International Food Policy Research Institute, Research Brief 18 (2012), 5.

[8] Deleuze, Gilles. Negotiations 1972-1990. Columbia University Press, 1997, 143.

[9] Nail, Thomas. The Figure of the Migrant, 24.

[10] Donaldson, Sue, and Will Kymlicka. Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights. Oxford University Press, 2011.

[11] U.S. Senate, Subcommittee on Immigration and Naturalization of the Committee on the Judiciary, Washington, D.C., Feb. 10, 1965. pp. 1-3.

[12] Tavernise, Sabrina. “Whites Account for Under Half of the Births in U.S.” New York Times, May 17th, 2012.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Hammer, Joshua. “Is the Lack of Water to Blame for the Conflict in Syria?” Smithsonian Magazine, June 2013.

[15] Malcolm X, “Malcolm X’s (Al-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) Letter from Mecca.”

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