Book Event: The Figure of the Migrant: Migrants, Figures, and Bodies (Dilts)

ANDREW DILTS is Assistant Professor of political theory in the Department of Political Science at Loyola Marymount University. They are the author of Punishment and Inclusion: Race, Membership, and the Limits of American Liberalism (Fordham, 2014), co-editor (with Perry Zurn) of Active Intolerance: Michel Foucault, the Prisons Information Group, and the Future of Abolition (Palgrave, 2015), and co-editor (with Natalie Cisneros) of a two-part special project in Radical Philosophy Review entitled, “Political Theory and Philosophy in the Time of Mass Incarceration” (Issues 17.2 & 18.2).


Writing in Visible Identities, Linda Alcoff reflects on the concept of a deterritorialized subject as articulated by Deleuze and Guattari and subsequently taken up by Rosi Braidotti. The “nomad” is offered as a model for identity that can resist both assimilationist and essentialist demands that individuals “fix” and stabilize their selves over time and space.[1] Alcoff notes the attraction of such a migratory concept of “nomad subjectivity”: its attends to the mutability of difference, it recognizes a fluidity of the self that moves across borders and boundaries, and it promises liberation through a “refusal to be characterized, described, or classified.”[2] She is also, however, deeply skeptical that an embrace of nomad subjectivity, “evokes … the figure of the person who resists commitment and obligation [and who] tries to avoid responsibility by having only ‘transitory attachment.”[3] As a positive account of subjectivity, Alcoff argues, to embrace “nomad subjectivity” is also to embrace neoliberal movements of bodies, capital flows, and a “self” that is unmoored not simply from territorial place, but also from community and the grounds of political action in concert with others. Such a “refusal of identity,” she writes, “might be useful for the purposes of the current global market. The project of global capitalism is to transform the whole world into postcolonial consumers and producers of goods in an acultural world commodity market, a Benetton-like vision in which the only visible differences are those that can be commodified and sold.”[4]

Thomas Nail’s The Figure of the Migrant gives us a powerful version of how such fears have indeed come to pass, not simply in the current moment of late capitalist neoliberalism, but as an underlying logic of how territories and political communities have come into being. The nomad is just one instance of this figure, Nail argues, a relatively archaic one that nevertheless manifests under conditions of forced migration constitutive of territorial consolidation. Nail argues that the nomad is historically the first figuration of the migrant, a quasi-empirical fugitive from the creation of place through human movement. Other figurations of the migrant follow in Nail’s analysis: the barbarian, the vagabond, and the proletariat. Each is produced by social forces of “expansion by expulsion” in distinctive (and overlapping) social movements under the terms of kinopolitics, what Nail names the “theory and analysis of social motion.[5] If Alcoff asks us to be skeptical of the liberatory possibility of nomad subjectivity, Nail gives historical depth to these worries: the migrant has always been expelled from community, place, citizenship, membership, and (often if not always) from humanity. The figure of the migrant expresses some of the worst modes of domination, subjugation, abjection, and unfreedom in human history.

Nail’s book, however, is emphatically not about subjectivity or identity. Nail reminds the reader early on that he will not offer a “theory” or “ontology” of the migrant.[6] “There are,” Nail writes, “only figures of the migrant that emerge and coexist throughout history relative to specific sites of expulsion and mobility.”[7] In Nail’s hands, this figure of the migrant reveals the conditions of possibility for how spaces, locations, and destinations become “fixed” in the first place. Reversing traditional approaches in political theory, which begin from idealizations of stability, fixity, and boundedness, Nail argues that it is movement that drives and forms us and our relations to space and time. Read the rest of this entry »

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Book Event: The Figure of the Migrant: Provocations in Consideration of…(Cisney)

VERNON W. CISNEY is Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Gettysburg College. He is the author of Derrida’s Voice and Phenomenon: An Edinburgh Philosophical Guide (Edinburgh University Press, 2014); as well as Deleuze and Derrida: Difference and the Power of the Negative (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming, 2016). He is also the editor of Biopower: Foucault and Beyond (University of Chicago Press, 2016, with Nicolae Morar); The Way of Nature and the Way of Grace: Philosophical Footholds on Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (Northwestern University Press, 2016, with Jonathan Beever); and Between Foucault and Derrida (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming, 2016, with Yubraj Aryal, Nicolae Morar, and Christopher Penfield). Finally, he has recently co-edited and co-translated, with Daniel W. Smith and Nicolae Morar, Pierre Klossowski’s Living Currency, followed by Sade and Fourier (Bloomsbury, forthcoming, 2017).


I am delighted to be part of the conversation surrounding this important work. Thomas Nail’s The Figure of the Migrant is one of those rare works that is at once timely and timeless. It is timely in the sense that the figure of the migrant has become a ubiquitous and undeniable reality of our time. As I write this at the end of spring 2016, the number of Syrian citizens displaced by civil war since 2011 has climbed to roughly 13.5 million; the United States is in the middle of its most racially charged presidential election of my lifetime (with one of the top party candidates running on a popular platform of draconian deportation of undocumented laborers and the severe restriction of immigration); the populations of Central Pacific island nations are being displaced in record numbers due to the effects of global climate change; and within the past week, several small boats carrying refugees from Libya have capsized off the coast of Italy, resulting in over one thousand deaths.[1] These are but a few examples. As Nail notes, “At the turn of the century, there were more regional and international migrants than ever before in recorded history. Today, there are over 1 billion migrants” (1).

But the work is also timeless in the sense that Nail attempts to rigorously formulate nothing less than a social and political ontology, one that is comprehensive and that takes movement as its basis and point of departure. Rather than starting from the presupposition of social order and stasis, and conceptualizing movement as a secondary passage between different pre-existing social orders, Nail attempts to formulate a political concept of movement as primary, a “kinopolitics,” as he calls it. This is not for the sake of cleverness, but rather because to do otherwise—to think the figure of the migrant from the perspective of citizenship, as one who is no longer a citizen—is, in fact, to miss the figure of the migrant. If the “essence” of the migrant lies in its movement, then it must be thought on the basis of movement, and movement must be thought in itself. But once we venture down the path of conceptualizing movement on its own terms (and not as a deficiency or lack of stasis), it radically alters our conceptions of stasis as well. As Bergson recognized, and as Nail cites, “If movement is not everything, it is nothing” (13).[2] The social order, then, every social order, on Nail’s account, is reconceptualized on the basis of three primary kinopolitical concepts—flows, junctions, and circulations.

Flows are fluxes, processes, and continua, all the way down. Despite its etymological relations to “stasis,” the “state” is not the stoppage of flows, but rather, the agency of their harnessing and redirection. There are flows of oceans and rivers, climate and culture, vegetation and animals, populations and sicknesses, “food, money, blood, and air” (25). The purpose of the social order, then, is to bring these flows into vortical self-relations, to loop them back onto themselves and in so doing, to augment and intensify them. These loopings of “relative stability” are what Nail refers to as “junctions” (28), the loci of “perceived stasis” (27) in the sea of continuous flows. The house, for example, is a territorial junction that organizes the familial flows of a particular group of people. These junctions are further organized and mobilized by their connectedness within the “circulation,” the network of junctions (29). A particular neighborhood, for example, can be conceived as a circulation that brings into relation the familial flows of individual households. Nail writes that the “city is a political junction” (28), but if I understand him correctly, the city is also a circulation, one that relates together the house junction with the educational junction with the religious institutional junction with the industrial junction with the police junction and so on. And in their own way, each of these junctions might in turn be thought of as a circulation (the factory, for instance, relates production with distribution; production relates different junctions of departments and different stages, etc.) Read the rest of this entry »

New Issue of Political Theology

The newest issue of Political Theology is now available. I bring this to your attention as it contains excellent articles by some of our own — see Brad Johnson’s “Doing Justice to Justice” and Anthony Paul Smith’s “The Judgment of God and the Immeasurable.” Check them out.

The Three Principles of La Borde Clinic

I’ve been slowly making my way through François Dosse’s Gilles Deleuze et Félix Guattari: Biographie croisée, which, obviously, is a biography of both Deleuze and Guattari, focusing on their work together and how their very different lives crossed. Tonight I read the chapter on La Borde clinic, an experimental psychiatric hospital that Guattari worked at, and really co-led after some years, with Jean Oury.

La Borde has interested me for many years after my first research stint at the Institute for Nature and Culture where my task was to look into models of trans- or interdisciplinarity. In this chapter I came across the three principles that founded La Borde and that continue to guide it today. I find them to be a fascinating model and one that seems so simple and obvious for bringing about change and fostering a good, communist society. Perhaps that is why it is so hard to do.

  1. Democratic centralism assuring the prominence of group administration. This arose out of a Marxist-Leninist principle that aimed for the withering away of those “little priests of the people”.
  2. Corollary to this  was the principle that each must be capable of doing both manual labour and intellectual labour (developed from the notion of a Communist utopia, which is really a Platonic ideal, doing things for both the body and the mind and removing alienation from production). Anyone could be called upon to perform menial and administrative tasks as well as medical tasks. Part of this was systematizing a rota of duties.
  3. The anti-bureaucratic principle is the last and was the institution of a communitarian organization with the making responsibilities, tasks and salaries in common.

This lead to a kind of summary mission statement that I’ve roughly translated this way: “The permeability of spaces, the freedom to move about, the criticism of professional roles and qualifications, the plasticity of institutions, and the necessity of therapeutic society for the sick (Dosse, p. 56).” The goal of La Borde was a kind of communist utopia and obviously there were always problems that arose in the pursuit of that goal, but that there was and is such an attempt in the world cheered me some.