Book Event: The Figure of the Migrant: (Re)figuring the Migrant Body (Trimboli)

DANIELLA TRIMBOLI recently completed a jointly-awarded Ph.D. at the University of Melbourne and the University of British Columbia. Her dissertation analysed the intersection of everyday multiculturalism and digital storytelling from a cultural studies perspective. Daniella has taught Australian Studies and Tourism at Flinders University and fulfilled various research roles, including one for the Ngarrinderji Regional Authority at the Yunggorendi First Nations Centre. Daniella is currently working for the Research Unit in Public Cultures at the University of Melbourne, and is a researcher on the public art project, Immigration Place. Daniella is an assistant editor of Journal of Intercultural Studies.


Thomas Nail presents a thorough and compelling case for the reconfiguration of the migrant and migration theory at large. His central argument is that motion needs to be the starting point for the theorisation of migration. My particular interest in Nail’s book is its capacity to add to understandings of how the migrant in contemporary society is materially shaped by motion, and, just as importantly, how that motion might be channelled into new kinds of resistance. I thus target the word figure to explore how some figures come to ‘figure less’ and some figures come to ‘figure more.’ Playing on de Beauvoir, Nail writes in his introduction: ‘One is not born a migrant but becomes one’ (p. 3). To further this claim: one is not born a migrant but is always becoming one. What possibilities exist for the becoming migrant in the contemporary moment of global migration?

Nail maps out a kinetic framework for migration that challenges the predominant model of studying migrants from the perspective of stasis, ‘as a secondary or derivative figure with respect to place-bound social membership’ (p. 3). His argument is reminiscent of that presented in Nikos Papastergiadis’ work on the turbulence of migration, in particular, the connection Papastergiadis makes in Cosmopolitanism and Culture (2012) between theorisations of migration and kinetophobia; that is, between migration and the fear of movement. Nail illustrates how mobility acts as constitutive of social life, rather than, as Papastergiadis writes, ‘the temporary disruption to the timeless feeling of national belonging’ (2012, p. 49). Nail also argues that histories of States often subsume migrant histories, even though the mobility of migrants has created its own forms of social organisation that move across, through and beyond nations/States.

In contrast to the dominant model of migration that is founded on stasis and states, Nail develops a kinetic and political theory of migration by tracing the historical regimes of social motion. The word regime is important because, while mobility is fluid and incapable of division, it ‘is always distributed in different concrete social formations or types of circulation’ (p. 4). Nail argues that social movement is regulated by various apparatuses of expulsion that take on territorial, political, juridical and economic forms. These forces give form to key migrant figures: the nomad, the barbarian, the vagabond and the proletariat.

The emergence of each of these figures is the result of different articulations of movement so that the ‘movement of creation precedes the thing created’ (p. 42). For example, Nail traces the barbarian back to Aristotle, who defined the barbarian as having political inferiority: ‘a natural incapacity for proper speech and reason that disallows political life’ (p. 52). In the ancient world, this notion of natural inferiority is needed in order to conceptualise political slavery: ‘the ancient figure of the migrant is called the “barbarian” or “inferior subject,” not the “slave,” because the concept of barbarism or natural inferiority is first required to legitimate slavery’ (p. 52). As Foucault (1978) and later Butler (1993, p. 2) showed us, the performative power of discourse is its ability to create that which it names. This performative power is evidenced in Nail’s historical analysis of the four main types of migrants, each of which emerges as a particular figure in accordance with certain kinds of kinetophobias. Anyone moving in ways that could potentially undermine the State’s core directive of maintaining and expanding control is targeted, grouped and ‘moved elsewhere.’ Thus, as Nail observes, when unwanted forms of mobility like vagabondage increased, so too did the types of people deemed to be vagabonds. In short, when unwanted forms of movement increased, more types of unwanted movers are produced. What becomes clear is that these types of unwanted movers are not ‘new’ kinds of people, but people bearing accumulative histories of undesirable mobility. These accumulative histories move ahead in time, so the migrant is always a subject-in-motion.

Nail’s analysis of the four historical migrant figures provides a new way to conceptualise the formation of migrant figures in the twenty-first century. Today’s most undesired mover is undoubtedly the asylum seeker, referred to in many Western countries as an ‘illegal immigrant.’ Nail traces the emergence of the ‘illegal’ migrant to the period between the fifth and fifteenth centuries, where it surfaced as the figure of the vagabond. The vagabond differed from its former counterparts—the nomad and the barbarian—however, due to the kinetopolitics in play, it was not a completely new subject. Rather, the vagabond encapsulated the undesirable movers of earlier periods. Similarly, the nomad and the barbarian of former historical periods did not disappear but persisted in new forms, ultimately becoming refigured as the criminalised subject, or vagabond (p. 65).

In a similar way, we can see the vagabond of the fifteen, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries reflected in today’s asylum seeker. The vagabond was first demarcated in response to a perceived threat from serfs or slaves who were developing a sense of ownership over their labour, and beginning to recognise ‘the arbitrariness of feudal power relations’ (p. 68). If these vagabonds were not expelled for demanding some entitlement of their labour, they were expelled via privatisation of land, which forced them into a position of displacement and further roaming. Vagabond laws expanded accordingly, isolating wandering workers, beggars and people with illnesses or belief systems that were deemed to be a threat to the working ‘health’ of the State. Often these vagabonds were expelled to external outposts (p. 71), such as working camps, sick camps or prisons. The act of expelling these people legitimated the reasons for their initial expulsion—for example, once someone was in a sick camp she was likely to become much sicker, thereby justifying her ejection (p. 72). This strategy plays out in the contemporary West: the asylum seeker of the twenty-first century is first expelled from her home country, and then expelled from her destination or transit country to a refugee camp or, in Australia, an offshore detention centre. This asylum seeker is frequently associated with disease, animalism and revolt (where revolt equates to a ‘terror attack’). The conditions within detention centres are incredibly poor, causing sickness and often compelling strikes and riots. The image of the ill, protesting asylum seeker helps to legitimate the figure of the asylum seeker as a violent threat to the Australian state, thereby ‘justifying’ the offshore expulsion. When further asylum seekers arrive, they are, to borrow from Sara Ahmed, recognised as being ‘already out-of-place’, because to recognise is to ‘know again’ (2000, p. 22).

The contemporary figure of the illegal migrant undoubtedly bears the baggage of racialisation, though this is not addressed within the scope of Nail’s project. Nonetheless, Nail stresses the multitude of forces at play in the production of the figure of the migrant and points to the compounding aspect of race at various historical moments. A crossover with Foucault’s work on biopower is evident here. Nail argues that the seventeenth century is the period in which the colonising imperative takes shape, an imperative that coincides with what Foucault (2003) traces as the emergence of race. Foucault argues that the implicit power of the Sovereign was questioned for the first time during this period. The Sovereign was no longer seen to be established by a return to the natural place of power but rather consequential of its ability to control another, disparate group (2003, p. 74). Power analysis thus came to be about the struggle for rights and justice between these two groups—or ‘races’ (2003, p. 69). Over time, this binary rift was re-interpreted in the Marxist framework as a binary of class that separated the bourgeois and the proletariat. At the end of the nineteenth century, this turn to class struggle (via Marxism) threatened to take over all claims to State truth and power, consequently threatening to usurp the sovereignty of the State (2003, p. 80).

Emerging simultaneously with this threat of class struggle was a new scientific discourse operating in the West that classified all objects and beings in the world biologically. This scientific discourse became a tool that the State was able to deploy as a new counterhistory: a ‘biologico-medical perspective’ that ultimately led to ‘the appearance of what will become actual racism’ (Foucault 2003, p. 80). With the aid of science, the State was able to deploy a discourse of race that classified human beings as more or less human. In this manner, the State recoded ‘the old counterhistory not in terms of class, but in terms of races—races in the biological and medical sense of that term’, consequently turning the race struggle weapon ‘against those who had forged it’ (2003, pp. 80-81). State racism became a tactic for the Sovereign to continue claiming its legitimacy as the holder of the right to life and death and in order to pursue the colonial project (2003, p. 258). Thus, ‘race struggle’ for Foucault stems from something much older than the modern, scientifically-founded understanding of race and is linked to the creation of the State at large.

Foucault’s work on biopower is not intended to be a historical account of ‘race’, but it inevitably leads to a re-contextualisation of racism. Similarly, Nail’s book provides new ways of thinking about how processes like racialisation are mobile and occur in relation to other historical modes of mobile power. While various forms of expansion and expulsion are materially consequential and relegate some figures as more or less human, these forces are always on the move and accumulative. Somewhat paradoxically, it is here that the entry point for new political possibilities also surfaces. The third section of Nail’s book explores how migrant figures have accepted the mobile charge of migration, deliberately keeping it alive in order to thwart expansion by expulsion. He argues that each figure deploys movement as a type of pedetic force. Unlike other mobile forces, which expand by social expulsion, pedetic force expands by ‘inclusive social transformation’ (p. 125). Nail explains:

Pedetic social force coexists in an undivided social distribution alongside other forms of motion in a confluence—like a drop of ink diffuses into a glass of water—not a conjunction. The ink does not divide the water as something else expanding it or expelling it around kinetic social centers or series but diffuses and becomes ink-water (p. 125).

We can use this idea to reconsider the material manifestation of today’s illegal migrant. The illegal migrant is constituted and shaped by various social regimes; however, due to the kinetic turbulence of these regimes, this reshaping is continuous, and it becomes impossible to remove discrete parts of this figure-in-motion. Further, the power relations that shape the asylum seeker can become the same forces that (re)shape this abject figure. An example given by Ahmed (2014) in her work on wilful bodies helps to elucidate this point. Ahmed notes that the arm of the slave is shaped by the toil of slavery, but the ‘doing’ of slavery creates a new type of arm. Like the ink-water, the arm of the slave that works for the Master cannot be separated from the arm of the slave that (through its work) becomes strong. The arm that is weak and the arm that is strong become the same arm. Thus, the strength of the disciplined and shaped arm might be redirected, willed into the arm of resistance, as the arm that ‘smashes the dialect’ (Ahmed 2014).

The Figure of the Migrant is timely given the present magnitude, complexity and urgency of global migration, and the continued recognition of the asylum seeker as an illegitimate human figure. Understanding the ways in which various figures of the migrant slide into one another across time and space allows us to explore how we might utilise pedetic force as ‘the arm that resists’, as the arm that creates a more inclusive figure of the migrant.


Ahmed, S 2000, Strange encounters: embodied others in post-coloniality, Routledge, London.

Ahmed S 2014, ‘Wilful subjects: responsibility, fragility, history’, keynote paper, AWGS Biennial International Conference, University of Melbourne, 23–25 June.

Butler, J 1993, Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of “sex”, Routledge, New York.

Foucault, M 1978, The history of sexuality, volume one: an introduction, trans. R Hurley, Penguin Books, London.

Foucault, M 2003, Society must be defended, trans. D Macey, Picador, New York.

Papastergiadis, N 2000, The turbulence of migration: globalization, deterritorialization and hybridity, Polity Press, Cambridge UK & Malden MA.

Papastergiadis, N 2012, Cosmopolitanism and culture, Polity Press, Cambridge UK & Malden, MA.