Book Event: The Figure of the Migrant: Method and Motion (Nail)

THOMAS NAIL is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver. He is the author of Returning to Revolution: Deleuze, Guattari and Zapatismo (Edinburgh University Press, 2012), The Figure of the Migrant (Stanford University Press, 2015), and Theory of the Border (forthcoming with Oxford University Press, 2016). His work has appeared in AngelakiTheory & Event, Philosophy Today, Parrhesia, Deleuze Studies, Foucault Studies, and elsewhere. His publications can be downloaded here.


Thanks to all the reviewers. They have all challenged me to think differently about the book in their own way. In addition to my responses in the roundtable, I wanted to offer a final reflection on one issue in particular that has really made me think: methodology. In particular, I wanted to voice a couple of thoughts on the relation of kinopolitics to more qualitative and quantitative methodologies.

Qualitative: First, the knowledges and experiences of migrants are absolutely crucial to understanding contemporary migration. The quantitative approach favored by the sociology of migration literature leaves out entirely the human experience of the violence, suffering, and racism that many migrants go through. The consideration of this experience is, in my view, the very condition for understanding what is wrong with current immigration politics, as well as the possibility of doing anything differently. If we do not listen to the stories and demands of migrants we lose a crucial aspect of any analysis.

One of the motivations of this book comes from my work as a full-time migrant justice organizer with the group No One is Illegal in Toronto, Canada in 2010. One of the most important things we did as a group was to organize events which spotlighted the stories of migrants, told by themselves, and to fundraise to help them and their families. In addition to this, we also organized more intellectual kinds of events—panels of migration theorists and activists, for example. And, like good radicals, we also organized massive un-permitted street protests, civil disobedience events, and had delegates in a dozen local community groups related to education, women’s shelters, legal issues, medical issues, food banks, and more. I think that all these kinds of interventions (and others) are important, and all are needed. For more details about the kind of work we did you can read my interview with some of the main organizers here.

Quantitative: That said, the contemporary phenomenon of migration cannot be fully understood without both the qualitative study of the experiences of suffering and oppression (favored by the humanities: autonomy of migration and epistemology literatures) AND the quantitative study of migration (favored by the sciences). I am very thankful that there are people out there doing the original data collection, recording stories and writing ethnographies, or calculating the numbers of detainees, expulsions, deaths, global refugees, etc. There are many great works on migration that are, on their own, only quantitative or qualitative. That is fine. But for the whole picture I think we really need, at least, both.

Kinetic: However, the aim of The Figure of the Migrant was to introduce yet a third dimension and conceptual framework to the analysis of migration that would complement the other two, but which is not reducible to them: a kinopolitical dimension—a historical and comparative study of the patterns of the social motions of migrants. The kinopolitical framework of the book provides a way to track and compare large-scale patterns of social motion over long periods of time and space and draw some pretty dramatic conclusions. One of the most important being that the expulsion of migrants is the condition of a larger social expansion. In other words, that the migrant has been and continues to be the constitutive figure of western societies—through its motion. This is not a metaphor or an exaggeration. Societies have always required the movement of migrant bodies. The Figure of the Migrant takes the materiality and movement of the migrant body itself as its starting point. However, in offering such a focus, it has also only touched lightly on the qualitative and quantitative dimensions of migration.

What I have tried to do with this book is to add to the already vibrant literature on the old and well-studied phenomenon of migration, with its several foundational and productive methodologies, a new kind of framework for analysis that I believe can contribute something new to the conversation—a new method as well as new information. My greatest hope for The Figure of the Migrant is that something in it will be useful to someone working to provide a more complete picture of migration in effort to make the lives of migrants better. That may be as a supplement to their quantitative approach, or their qualitative approach, or their activism, or all three. I have no idea, but my fingers are crossed that something will come of it.



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