Book Event: The Figure of the Migrant: Seeing Like a Migrant (Mezzadra)

SANDRO MEZZADRA teaches political theory at the University of Bologna and is adjunct fellow at the Institute for Culture and Society of the University of Western Sydney. He is currently visiting research fellow at the Humboldt University, Berlin (BIM – Berliner Institut für empirische Migrations – und Integrationsforschung; October 1, 2015 – July 31, 2016). In the last decade his work has centered particularly on the relations between globalization, migration and citizenship as well as on postcolonial theory and criticism. He is an active participant in the “post-workerist” debates and one of the founders of the website Euronomade . With Brett Neilson he is the author of Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor (Duke University Press, 2013).


Thomas Nail has written an ambitious and timely book. “The twenty-first century,” he writes, “will be the century of the migrant” (p. 1). Needless to say, migration is not something new. Nail himself demonstrates this point, bringing us back to the very beginning of human history in his attempt to forge a political concept of the figure of the migrant. Both the development of political and legal formations of power and territory and the structure of economic modes of production bear the constitutive traces of migration and of the attempts to tame, rule, valorize, and even block it. This is particularly true for modern capitalism. “Without the migration of surplus population to new markets,” Nail contends, “from the rural country to the city, from city to city, from country to country (what Marx calls the ‘floating population’), capitalist accumulation would not be possible at all” (p. 88). Nevertheless there is a need to stress that migration takes on today new characteristics and raises new challenges. This has not merely to do with the increasing percentage of migrants as a share of the total population. Beyond the sheer data of statistics, a set of qualitative transformations of migration over the last decades have turned it – despite or maybe due to the often tragic materiality of specific migratory experiences – into a kind of iconic symbol and seismograph of our global predicament. Both its turbulent geography and pace and the underlying changing patterns of mobility make migration relevant not merely for the plights, pains, and joy of “migrants,” but also for understanding crucial and broader conflicts and transformations that are reshaping labor and culture, politics and society across diverse geographical scales.

Strategically altering the title of a famous book by James C. Scott, Brett Neilson and I point therefore in Border as Method (Duke University Press, 2013, p. 166) to the need to develop a new theoretical and political attitude, nicely encapsulated by the phrase “seeing like a migrant.” This shows that I am more than sympathetic with the basic aim of Thomas Nail’s The Figure of the Migrant. I particularly share his emphasis on the need to move beyond any conceptualization of migration from the point of view of “stasis” and “the states,” which means from the assumption of “place-bound membership” as primary and of “the movement back and forth between social points” as secondary (p. 3). This kind of epistemic primacy of stasis has shaped migration studies not merely in its mainstream but also in several “critical” variants, as is increasingly acknowledged and stressed by a new generation of politically engaged scholars and activists (see for instance the collective text ‘New Keywords: Migration and Borders’, in Cultural Studies, 29 (2015), 1: 55-87). Once this primacy is called into question and the point of view of movement is taken a new “continent” becomes visible and old notions and concepts take on a new shape.

“What would it mean,” Nail asks, “to rethink political theory based on the figure of the migrant rather than on citizenship?” (p. 17). To put it very shortly, this means first of all to shed light on the constitutive role played by movement within the material constitution of any political concept, including of course the one of citizenship. This is a point that Nail demonstrates in effective ways in many parts of his book. A good instance is the concept of territory, which has been at the center of a kind of renaissance in recent years. Nail does something more than disentangling the notion of territory from its close association with the sovereign space of the modern state (a move that has been for instance performed by such scholars as Saskia Sassen and Stuart Elden). He rather insists on the fact that “before there is anything like territory, there is movement.” Movement, he adds, “creates territory,” which is unconceivable without “a process of territorialization” (p. 42). This means that territory itself, usually presented as the epitome of fixity, becomes mobile, it is traversed and constituted by vectors of movement and by the workings of regimes of mobility control that make it always potentially a field of struggle and not a “given.”

The theoretical framework and the conceptual language employed by Nail in his attempt to rethink political theory from the angle of the figure of the migrant and the primacy of movement is predicated upon a kind of generalization of the analysis of the “so-called primitive accumulation” famously presented by Marx at the end of Capital, volume 1. His “kinopolitics” takes the interplay of social expulsion (“the qualitative transformation of deprivation in status, resulting in, or as a result of, extensive movement”, p. 35) and social expansion (“the process of opening up that allows something to pass through”, p. 36) as an overarching scheme that allows him to cut through human history in order to single out four instantiations of the figure of the migrant across time and space. The “nomad,” the “barbarian,” the “vagabond,” and the “proletariat” are in Nail’s analysis both characters that take shape at the peculiar “junction” between expansion and expulsion that dominates specific ages and forms of a historical morphology that continues to produce its effects in the present. They embody the action of particular devices of “kinopower” – shortly put, once again: territorial, political, legal, and economic – whose action continues to play crucial roles in the production of the figure of the migrant. “Contemporary migration,” Nail explicitly contends, “is a mixture of all of these” (p. 37).

As far as I am concerned I would stress even more than Nail does the specificity of the experience of migration under modern capitalism, underscoring and investigating the ways in which what he calls the “elastic force” of capital produces a new assemblage and orchestration of territorial, political, and legal devices that target mobile subjects once they are transformed into “bearers” of the absolutely peculiar commodity called labor power. But more important here is to stress once more the effect of opening that Nail’s “kinopolitical” approach produces. Once movement is privileged the subjectivity of migrants emerges as a creative force, which breaks free of the conceptual language of inclusion and exclusion (see p. 29) and the related emphasis on “integration.” The dialectic of expansion and expulsion is rather continually interrupted by the “pedetic force” of the migrant – as Nail calls the forms of kinetic power and counter-power invented by nomads, barbarians, vagabonds, and proletarians. The rich archive of historical instances of this “pedetic force” that composes the third part of The Figure of the Migrant – ranging from nomadic raids to slave revolts, from heretic rebellions of the vagabond to proletarian strikes – is one of the most fascinating contributions made by the book. And it can be read as a contribution to what Michel Foucault would call a “history of the present,” since these forms of struggle and counter-power also continue to reproduce themselves in the present, as Nail shows for instance in his analysis of the Mexico-U.S. migration in the fourth and last part of his work. Even more importantly, from a conceptual angle, the emphasis on the “pedetic force” of the migrant destabilizes any possible reading of migration based upon the primacy of expulsion (which can be somehow suggested even by some passages of the book) and posits migration itself as a field of tensions and a battleground.

Stressing that the theory of migration he offers in the book “is a specifically political and historical one,” Nail contends that there is “no theory of the migrant ‘as such’,” “no general ontology of the migrant” (p. 15). Although his use of general, and eventually transhistorical categories as “expansion” and “expulsion” may at times bear the risk of such an “ontologization” of migration, one must acknowledge that Nail has been able to navigate and manage this risk in a successful way. The balance between the take on specific historic experiences, conceptual analysis, and a political pressure to understand the stakes and conflicts of contemporary migration is in general a distinctive feature of the book. I also find Nail’s emphasis on the figure of the migrant welcome and productive, particularly once the symbolic and seismographic relevance of migration in our time is taken into account. “As a figure,” he writes, “the migrant refers both to empirical migrants in the world and a more abstract social relation. It is irreducible to either” (p. 16). In other worlds, it refers to the diverse and complex set of processes, structures, and forms that circumscribe and enable subjective experiences of migration, which are in turn characterized – at least potentially – by the power and counter-power (by the “pedetic force”, in Nail’s terms) to challenge and subvert the field within which they take shape.

I repeat that The Figure of the Migrant is a timely and welcome intervention in a time characterized by unprecedented conflicts and tensions revolving around mobility. A critical remark, by way of conclusion, has to do precisely with the way in which Thomas Nail, particularly at the end of the book, locates his work within the more general “mobility turn” that is for instance promoted by the journal Mobilities. To be sure, I am convinced that there is much to be learned by placing migration within broader forms and experiences of mobility, and particularly by investigating the shifting and blurring boundaries between such experiences. And nevertheless I am also convinced that it is eventually confusing (both from a political and from a theoretical point of view) to speak of a general “spectrum of migration, from global tourist to undocumented labor” (p. 235), as well as to include in such spectrum such heterogeneous figures as “tourists, commuters, diplomats, business travelers, explorers, messengers, and state functionaries” (p. 238). What characterizes the “figure of the migrant” is, to pick up again Nail’s words, an “abstract social relation” that connects the action of specific devices of domination and exploitation to specific forms of movement and “unruly” mobile subjects. Stressing the link between the “figure of the migrant” and these devices of domination and exploitation, which take particularly violent forms in the present, does not imply to exclude from any consideration and investigation experiences of more privileged mobility and even migration. But it brings me to give epistemic as well as political primacy to those migrants whose movements and struggles are part and parcel of the complex, conflict-ridden and torn formation of the figure of the “proletariat” at the global level.