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.)

The final concept of Nail’s ontology that I will briefly address is the concept of “expansion by expulsion,” the “social logic by which some members of society are dispossessed of their status so that social power can be expanded elsewhere” (37). A given circulation consists of what he calls “limit” and “non-limit” junctions. Limit junctions are those that are either points of entry into or exit out of the circulation. A circulation initially expands by drawing in more forces and flows, entering more into circulation. But eventually, this expansion by incorporation will reach its tipping point, the limit at which it can no longer sustain its own growth. When this point is reached, expansion can only continue by expelling surplus resources. For example, a factory provides a particular commodity to the market; as the demand for that commodity grows, the factory’s production grows as well, and the factory hires more laborers to meet the demand. Eventually, the market is saturated with this particular commodity, at which point the continued expansion of the factory’s profits relies upon the laying off of laborers. By paying fewer workers for the same amount of work, (along with the attendant reductions in insurance and social security expenditures), the company continues to increase its profits, even after the market is saturated with its commodities. (Nail provides numerous illuminating analyses of unemployment in his work). The factory thus expands by expelling. Likewise, a given political order grows its economy by the use of a vast, mobile body of underpaid and mistreated laborers, who become expendable the moment that particular mode of economic growth has reached its limit.

Expansion by expulsion provides the logic that undergirds the phenomenon of migratory movement. Nail then articulates the specific movements and forces of this logic, before articulating four specific figures of the migrant, against the backdrops of four specific modes of social order—the nomad, the barbarian, the vagabond, and the proletariat. Finally, Nail applies his rigorous taxonomy to migration in its contemporary form, more specifically to the issue of Mexico-United States relations, “the single largest flow of migrants in the contemporary world” (180). Nail’s work is therefore, in proper Foucauldian spirit, “a philosophical history of the present,” just as he claims (4). But it is more than this. If the figure of the migrant is the figure of movement, and if movement is the basic condition of social order, then The Figure of the Migrant attempts an insightful and indispensable ontology of social order as such.

What I offer are thus not criticisms, so much as they are provocations to further thinking—two, to be precise—intended as invitations to discussion. Each of these provocations extends beyond the limits of Nail’s work specifically, and as such, he is by no means obliged to respond to any of them.

1. I hope that Nail will forgive me for this question, as he is no doubt tired of addressing it. In Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari write, “In short, the general theory of society is a generalized theory of flows; it is in terms of the latter that one must consider the relationship of social production to desiring-production, the variations of this relationship in each case, and the limits of this relationship in the capitalist system.”[3] To my lights, no contemporary political philosophers have done more to conceptualize the political and economic spheres on the basis of flows as have Deleuze and Guattari. In reading Nail’s work, I was struck by the rigor and originality with which he formulated a complex taxonomy on the basis of what I perceived to be the inspiration of this Deleuzian-Guattarian insight. This is not to say that I read Nail’s work as simply Deleuzian-Guattarian anymore than it makes sense to say that Deleuze’s thought is simply Nietzschean, or Lucretian, or Bergsonian, or Humean, or Spinozist. Nail clearly formulates his own ontology, founded on his own set of questions and concerns, illuminated by a set of problems and concerns that were likely nowhere near as salient in 1970s France as they are globally today. All the same, Nail’s work seemed to bear the indelible marks of Deleuze and Guattari’s understanding of society as flow.

I was thus surprised to read Nail’s observation, in an interview with Critical Theory, that Deleuze and Guattari “wrongly follow the typical definition of the migrant as a figure that simply moves between two pre-established fixed points.”[4] In one way, Nail is undoubtedly correct, in that Deleuze and Guattari do explicitly write, “The nomad is not at all the same as the migrant; for the migrant goes principally from one point to another, even if the second point is uncertain, unforeseen, or not well localized.”[5] But it seems there is more to say about the matter; and I wonder if Nail’s dispute might come down, after all, to a difference of semantics, or if there is indeed a deeper philosophical difference. For instance, elsewhere in A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari speak of migration as synonymous with movement (as does Nail), as when they write of Spinoza, “The modes are everything that come to pass: waves and vibrations, migrations, thresholds and gradients”[6] and there are numerous other examples where “migration” for Deleuze and Guattari is synonymous with movement and becoming, and “a becoming lacks a subject distinct from itself; but also that it has no term, since its term in turn exists only as taken up in another becoming of which it is the subject, and which coexists, forms a block, with the first.”[7] Might it be possible, then, that when Deleuze and Guattari speak of the “migrant” as distinct from the “nomad,” they are simply using the term in a different technical sense than is Nail—distinguishing “one who moves from one territory to another” from “one who is characterized as such by movement”? Is Nail’s a terminological rejection, or a philosophical one?

2: The name of Giorgio Agamben is conspicuously absent from Nail’s account. Unless I am mistaken, Agamben’s name appears only once, in endnote #4 of Chapter 6, a citation of The Kingdom and the Glory. I am interested, however, in the intersections of Nail’s work with Agamben’s 1995 work, Homo Sacer. The conspicuousness of Agamben’s absence derives from the fact that both Agamben and Nail offer broad characterizations of the political figure of modernity. For Agamben, it is “the camp,” while for Nail, it is the figure of the migrant.

Agamben’s analysis is rooted in what he calls, following a lead from Carl Schmitt, the “paradox of sovereignty,” which “consists in the fact the sovereign is, at the same time, outside and inside the juridical order.”[8] The sovereign is, by law, able to suspend the rule of law whenever circumstances are extreme enough to demand it. The sovereign adjudicates on the state of exception, an exclusion maintained in relationship to the juridical order as the excluded. When the state of exception becomes no longer the exception, but the order of the day, Agamben argues, the camp emerges, as a potentially indefinite zone of indeterminacy. As Agamben argues, if the essence of the camp consists in the materialization of the state of exception and in the subsequent creation of a space in which bare life and the juridical rule enter into a threshold of indistinction, then we must admit that we find ourselves virtually in the presence of a camp every time such a structure is created”[9] and given the massive surge of the migrant in the past century, “the bare life that more and more can no longer be inscribed in that order [the juridical order of the nation-state],”[10] the camp “is the new biopolitical nomos of the planet.”[11]

There are, therefore, numerous thematic intersections between Agamben’s work and Nail’s, and I wonder if Nail has given any thought to these intersections. My own initial impression is that, by Nail’s account, Agamben’s analysis would remain mired in what Deleuze and Guattari would call the “molar” conceptions of the sovereign and the nation-state. The modern entrenchment of the camp, after all, is rooted in the growing rupture, (on Agamben’s account), between bare life and the nation-state. This would seem to suggest a primacy of the social order, and a secondariness of the migrant—the very logical order that Nail’s analysis attempts to reverse. Indeed, on Nail’s account while it is no doubt the case that the figure of the migrant is the figure of political modernity, it is also true “that the figure of the migrant has always been the true motive force of social history” (7). Is it possible then that Nail’s account amounts to an inversion of Agamben’s?

[1] “More Than 1,000 Migrants Feared Dead at Sea in Past Week,” The Wall Street Journal, May 31, 2016, accessed May 31, 2016,

[2] This quote is from Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind, trans. Mabelle L. Andison (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2007), 121.

[3] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 262.

[4] “The Figure of the Migrant: An Interview with Thomas Nail,” Critical Theory, December 1, 2015, accessed May 31, 2016,

[5] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 380.

[6] Ibid., 153.

[7] Ibid., 238.

[8] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 15.

[9] Ibid., 174.

[10] Ibid., 175.

[11] Ibid., 176.

One thought on “Book Event: The Figure of the Migrant: Provocations in Consideration of…(Cisney)

  1. Thanks for taking the time to write up such a thorough response, Vern. I am very pleased to see that some of the theoretical moves I am making with this project are appreciated in this way.

    Your questions really identify some of the theoretical struggles going on in the background of this book that I worked with, but which did not end up in the final version of the book.

    1. Are my differences with DG semantic or philosophical? Both. They are semantic insofar as the concept of a figure of motion remains roughly the same, i.e. defined by continuous movement versus periodic movement (from point A to point B)—even though they call former “the nomad” and I call it “the migrant.” They are philosophical and political because I think it is just politically and empirically wrong to say that real migrants today can be defined by a simple move from point A to point B. Take a look at the movement and life of almost any contemporary migrant or refugee and you will see that most move multiple times both at the macro levels between countries, within countries, and at the micro levels of switching jobs, commute times and so on. Migrants today look a lot more like Deleuze and Guattari’s nomads.
    But here is the compromise. Even though DG make a conceptual division between the migrant and the nomad, political theory should not. Extensive motion (movement between places) and intensive motion (their continuous transformation) are simply two axes of the same process. Everything moves extensively and intensively at the same time. It is just a question of mapping out those coordinates for each political and historical situation. So I like their discussion in A Thousand Plateaus of Spinoza’s cartography of extensive and intensive affects, but unfortunately that does not come up again when they write about the migrant and the nomad. Also, my project has tried to be more historically sensitive than DG in doing this mapping. Thus, it is important to note that migratory practices like nomadism emerge at a certain historical point, but then get called something else later on, like barbarism.

    There used to be a whole section in the book marking this battle with DG, but it got dropped. But here it is: (footnotes wont show in the comment section)

    Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari
    Directly following Virilio’s insight five years later, French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari place the figure of the nomad (defined by speed) at the heart of their political philosophy of revolution in A Thousand Plateaus (1982/1987). “If the nomad,” Deleuze and Guattari say, “can be called the Deterritorialized par excellence, it is precisely because there is no reterritorialization afterward as with the migrant, or upon something else as with the sedentary. Thus, it is not the nomad who is a type of proletariat, as defined by Marx, Virilio, and others, but rather the “proletariat [who is] the heir to the nomad.”
    However, Deleuze and Guattari also introduce three novel distinctions into the history of the philosophy of the migrant with their concept of the nomad. First, they distinguish between three types of speed which Virilio conflates: “1) speeds of nomadic, or revolutionary, tendency (riot, guerrilla warfare); 2) speeds that are regulated, converted, appropriated by the State apparatus (management of the public ways); and 3) speeds that are reinstated by a worldwide organization of total way, or planetary over-armament.” Second, they distinguish between speed, which is intensive, and movement, which is extensive. “Movement designates the relative character of a body considered as “one,” and which goes from point to point; speed, on the contrary…can spring up at any point.” Third, they distinguish between the migrant, which they define by the extensive movement from one point to another and the nomad, defined by the “path that is between two points,” whose stopping points are only relays or consequences of the nomad’s principle trajectory.
    The first distinction Deleuze and Guattari make between different types of speed is crucial. Part II of the present book develops this in more depth. The second distinction is significant, but only insofar as one understands movement and speed (extensive and intensive) as absolutely coexistent in every situation. They are absolutely distinct and yet every movement has a degree of speed, and every speed has a degree of movement: like a cartography with “a latitude and a longitude,” as Deleuze and Guattari say elsewhere. Thus, the migrant and the nomad coexist in the same figure. In fact, Deleuze and Guattari define both migrant and nomad in exactly the same way: “as the movement between points.” The two even “mix and form a common aggregate,” they say. The difference is that the migrant is defined by the fact that it will settle permanently and the nomad will move on.
    However, there are thus three ways in which a migrant is also a nomad. The first is practical: the majority of empirical migrants move multiple times in their life, even if it is within the same country. “Settlement” is thus not an adequate way to describe their “arrival,” since this arrival is almost always a partial one (partial status, precarity, possible deportation, etc.). The second way is conceptual: there are already two words that define the migrant by its departure from a settlement or its arrival and resettlement: the emigrant and the immigrant. The word “migrant” is literally the one in-between, intermezzo, in-transit: not defined by settlement. If one defines the migrant by settlement, then one is merely duplicating the definition of emigrant or immigrant. The third way is etymological: the French and English word migration comes from the Latin word migrātiō, which means “a change of abode, move.” This word, and the similar Greek one, μέτοικος (métoikos), from metá, indicating change, and oîkos “dwelling,” both come from the proto-Indo-European root Mei, meaning, “change.” There is nothing in the etymology of the word migrant that indicates permanent settlement.
    Thus the real distinction that should be upheld is between the migrant-nomad on one side and the emigrant-immigrant on the other. The first is defined by change and movement (in-between), the second is defined by settlement (departure from, or arrival to).

    2. Where is Agamben? Well, just like DG he was in that battle too along with Badiou, Arendt, and a bunch of other theorists. But I had to drop the whole 10k word chapter because of the length of the book. Below is what I wrote about Agamben but in short, yes, I agree with your reading. My project is an inversion of Agamben’s. Agamben makes this amazing claim that we need to rethink all of political theory starting from the refugee, but he never does it.

    Giorgio Agamben
    Closer to the turn of the century Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, argues a radical version of this thesis in his essay “Beyond Human Rights,” published in a short collection of essays titled, Means Without End: Notes on Politics (1996/2000). It is important to note that while he frames his argument in terms of the refugee, which is a type of migrant, much of what he says equally applicable to non-refugee migrants as well. Before expanding on this point it is worth quoting him at length:
    “The refugee is perhaps the only thinkable figure for the people of our time and the only category in which one may see today—at least until the process of dissolution of the Nation-State and its sovereignty has achieved full completion—the forms and limits of a coming political community. It is even possible that, if we want to be equal to the absolutely new tasks ahead, we will have to abandon decidedly, without reserve, the fundamental concepts through which we have so far represented the subjects of the political (Man, the Citizen and its rights, but also the sovereign people, the worker, and so forth) and build our political philosophy anew starting from the one and only figure of the refugee.”
    Taking Arendt as the historical point of reference for this thesis, Agamben argues that what is new in our time is that unprecedented numbers of people are no longer representable inside the nation-state. Industrialized countries today face “a permanently resident mass of noncitizens who do not want to be and cannot be either naturalized or repatriated. These noncitizens often have nationalities of origin, but, inasmuch as they prefer not to benefit from their own states’ protection, they find themselves, as refugees, in a condition of de facto statelessness.” Insofar as the refugee, according to Agamben, is the figure who unhinges the universality promised by the nation-state-territory, “it deserves instead to be regarded as the central figure of our political history.”
    This is an important philosophical continuation of the thesis of the centrality of the migrant in the following sense: If the novel issue of our time, according to Agamben, is truly the “permanently resident mass of noncitizens” living inside industrial countries and threatening the unity and universality of the nation-state-territory trinity, then it does not follow that the refugee alone is the central figure of our political history. Refugees alone are only about 7% percent of these global non-citizen masses. Among non-citizen masses 15.4 million are refugees and 214 million are international migrants (25–32 million of whom are undocumented). Agamben’s thesis is important, and thus should be expanded accordingly. Thus, this book follows Agmaben in arguing that we must build our political philosophy anew, not only from the limited figure of the refugee, but the larger figure of the migrant.

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