Book Event: The Figure of the Migrant: Taking Migrant Agency Seriously (Celikates)

ROBIN CELIKATES is Associate Professor of Political and Social Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam, where he also directs the research project Transformations of Civil Disobedience. He is a member of the Amsterdam Centre for Globalisation Studies and an Associate Member of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt am Main. Most recently he has co-edited Transformations of Democracy: Crisis, Protest, and Legitimation and The Irregularization of Migration in Contemporary Europe: Detention, Deportation, Drowning (both Rowman & Littlefield 2015).


In a short post-script Etienne Balibar attached to his 1997 article “What we owe to the Sans-papiers” in 2013, he writes: “If our society is to be democratic (and, truthfully, it will only exist as an advancement in democracy), this new right [a new right for the circulation of people, of their residence, their labor and their social welfare, established above and beyond national borders], not only protecting migrants and refugees from arbitrary states and xenophobic opinions, should also be based on their experiences and their own skills, as expressed in their legitimate demands for liberty and security.” On my reading, Thomas Nail strikes a similar tone in an article with the fitting title “Migrant Cosmopolitanism” when he notes that such a cosmopolitan politics from below stands in continuity with “a key feature of the sans-papiers struggle”, namely “their demand to speak for themselves and in their own name”. But who is the migrant who is speaking here, and what is the experience of migration that grounds this politics?

Thomas Nail’s new book The Figure of the Migrant is an important and engaging contribution to the political theory of migration precisely because it takes these questions seriously and asks them in the most fundamental sense, following an approach distinct from both the normative liberal paradigm and that of critical migration studies. Accordingly, Nail takes up the task to provide a new vocabulary to conceptualize the constitutive experience and reality of migration and of movement more generally, a task he seeks to accomplish by integrating philosophical theorizing with divergent literatures spanning an impressive historical arc, from the first creation of social centers around 10,000 BCE to the contemporary US-Mexican border.

The most important general lesson of Nail’s dense book is that such a political theory requires us to move beyond the dominant understanding of the migrant and of migration from the point of view of stasis, of non-movement, and of states who claim the authority, and the capacity, to control and regulate movement. In contrast, what is called for is a positive understanding of the figure of the migrant and the practice of migration that is not primarily determined by lack, anomaly or failure. This understanding of migration not only turns out to be rather capacious itself, including not only international migration, but human mobility more generally, also, say, in the form of urbanization; it is also tied to broader theoretical ambition to rethink society in terms of movement (an ambition that might have profited from an engagement not only with Marx, whose approach Nail expands in thought-provoking ways, but also other classical sociologists from Simmel via Luhmann to Latour). From Nail’s “kinopolitical” perspective, society emerges out of flows, junctions (“redirections of flows”) and “circulations” (connections of junctions into “larger curved paths”), i.e. out of the same forces that in the end also produce the figures of the migrant the book focuses on (ch. 2).

This, I take it, is the philosophical core of Nail’s account, and although his book also contains plenty of other interesting theoretical and historical extensions and applications of these central claims worth engaging with, in what follows I will limit myself to raising three – interconnected – sets of issues that mainly stem from the worry that the book’s relation to the ethico-political and epistemological commitment to migrant agency I started with is not always entirely clear.

  1. To start on the most general level, taking flows to be the fundamental “kinopolitical” unit (24-27) raises at least two important issues when applied to the study of migration: First, if flows are always already structured and mediated, how can their form be abstracted from the mediations and structurations that shape them (more on this under 2), below)? Second, speaking of migration in terms of flows – “flows across borders, flows into detention centers, counter flows (strikes), and so on” (26) – triggers associations of a subjectless process, and this seems difficult to reconcile with the stress on the agency of those who are, after all, not only going with the flow but actively deciding – albeit under certain constraints – if, where and in what ways to migrate, and who – in their constitutive as well as disruptive political actuality and potentiality – escape the categorizations imposed on them. If the migrant is “the subject of our time” (4), what happens to this subject when its practice is understood in terms of “flows” and “floods”? At times, Nail seems to think that the problem with these popular metaphors is simply that they evoke negative reactions whereas what he calls “pedetic force” should not be seen as “normatively ‘bad’” (224). My worry, however, is more fundamentally that these are ultimately inadequate, and naturalizing, categories for what is, fundamentally, a social and political practice involving collective and individual agency – an agency that is, to be sure, mediated and structured, but at the same time mediating and structuring.
  1. Relatedly, when Nail claims that “we are all becoming migrants” (1) and one page later adds that “not all migrants are alike” (2), it seems that a political theory of migration would need historically and sociologically sharpened theoretical tools to explore the space opened up by these two claims. Claiming that all migrants are “part of the same regime of social motion” (3) stands in danger of either being an almost trivial statement, invoking an abstract regime that can be seen as applying to everyone, or of disregarding the fact that this “regime” is not one precisely because it is massively stratified along the lines of class, race and gender and operates under the long-lasting and ongoing effects of imperialism and colonization and current regimes of irregularization. These fracture the space of migration in ways that seem difficult to homogenize into one regime. Especially part 4 of the book, in which Nail shifts gears and turns to an exceedingly illuminating analysis of migration at the US-Mexican border, furnishes the required historical and sociological specificity that a “hybrid theory of migration” (179) calls for, but a more “dialectical” approach might have suggested a return to the theoretical building blocks introduced at the beginning, reconstructing them in view of the concrete contextualizations and mediations introduced later in the argument. Taking the latter into account can teach us that the claim that “we” have all become migrants (235) not only help us see certain things, but also obscures others.
  1. One of the most convincing features of Nail’s account is its professed aim to conceptualize the “capacity of the migrant to create an alternative to social expulsion” (7). However, this conceptualization seems, from the very beginning, limited in that it is primarily negative, or at least reactive, namely in terms of “riots, revolts, rebellions, and resistances” (7). Did migrant forms of sociality and practice not also create subjectivities and communities that provide – at least in part self-standing – alternatives beyond reactive or confrontational encounters, forms of sociality and practice, that is, that would also manifest the “socially constitutive power […] that allows society to move and change” (13)? Of these, apart from communes and other scattered historical examples, Nail tells us relatively little.

In this respect, a more sustained engagement with the critical migration studies literature – and especially with those approaches that highlight the agency, experience, and subjectivity of migrants – could have proven productive. Is the capacity and power of the migrant not also at work in the “right to escape” whose actualization in the practice of migration politicizes borders and territories as zones of conflict and negotiation but also of cooperation and solidarity; in the singularity and individuality of each act of migration which implies the epistemological lesson that knowledge about migration is first and foremost produced by those engaged in it; and in the autonomy of migration (briefly referred to in an interesting discussion of the right not to migrate (228) and in some endnotes) that is excessive with regard to all governmental technologies of control and regulation?

Against the background of these discussions, I would be curious to learn more about how Nail conceives of the epistemological basis of his theoretical project – and especially of the role the four different historical figures of the migrant play: the nomad, the barbarian, the vagabond, and the proletarian, to whom he devotes highly informative chapters. How are these figures related to the – necessarily multiple and heterogeneous – self-understandings of “actually existing” migrants? Redeploying the four historic figures of the migrant and projecting them onto contemporary migration surely leads to many insightful results, but how theoretically and politically productive is it, for example, to describe Mexican migrants as being engaged in raids, crossing the border “to gather resources and hopefully return home” (225), or to describe as “barbarian” migrants and migrant justice groups that struggle for political status and against social expulsion? Does it matter – theoretically, politically – that many migrants and many of those who see themselves as struggling in solidarity with them, will not understand themselves in these terms and would resist such analogical descriptions?

Nail is surely right: the migrant is the political figure of our time. It seems to me, however, that the radical implications of this claim might only fully come to light if we understand our theoretical work as part of what the young Marx called “the self-clarification (critical philosophy) of the struggles and wishes of the age”, a struggle in which migrants are indeed speaking “for themselves and in their own name”. The Figure of the Migrant is the rare case of a book in political theory that confronts even those who are not fully convinced by its answers with an inescapable question: What would a political theory look like that started with the social and political practice of migration in all its complexity, one that would be based in migrants’ “experiences and their own skills” as expressed in their own struggles?