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.

Nail’s work thus builds productively on Deleuze and Guattari in both substance and form, and it is worthy of our attention if it can give us alternate accounts of our current condition and open up possibilities for alternative movement(s). And while Nail does not share in Alcoff’s specific concerns about identity and subjectivity, I nevertheless read The Figure of the Migrant alongside such questions and want to embrace her skepticism of valorizing migratory figurations (such as the nomad) as abstract models for liberatory politics. And this is precisely where, in my estimation, Nail’s book is most useful: offering a diagnostic framework to identify both the production of the migrant in disparate geographic spaces and historical moments, and also tools to recognize insurgent practices of resistance and refusal to domination, subordination, expulsion, and marginalization that are constitutive of the migrant.

If expulsion through expansion (the overarching technique which Nail argues fabricates migrant figures) operates trans-historically and trans-geographically and produces something akin to what Orlando Patterson terms “social death,” then we must also track the production of “social life” that emerges alongside, within, and against the natal alienation of social death. “Each [figure of the migrant] emerges under different historical and social conditions of expansion and expulsion,” Nail writes, “but each also invests a form of kinetic power of its own that poses an alternative to social expulsion… The transhumance of the nomad, the brigandry of the barbarian, the defection of the vagabond, and the social movements of the proletariat are all relatively unconstructed forms of social motion compared to those of expansion by expulsion… [C]ontinuous social oscillation is the free extensive social movement of peoples to determine and change the conditions of their motion.”[8] Or, to turn to political theorist Neil Roberts, we ought to be able to better identify practices of marronage: “a flight from the negative, subhuman realm of necessity, bondage, and unfreedom toward the sphere of positive activity and human freedom. Flight is multidimensional, constant, and never static.”[9]

Deleuze himself referred to such lines of flight as revolutionary escapes, invoking George Jackson:

[T]he revolutionary escape (the active escape, which Jackson invokes when he says: ‘I’ve never stopped fleeing, but as I flee, I’m looking for a weapon’) is not the same thing as other kinds of escape, the schizo-escape, the drug-escape. This is precisely the problem facing marginal groups: to make all the lines of escape connect up on a revolutionary plane. In capitalism, then, these lines of escape take on a new character, and a new kind of revolutionary potential. So, you see, there is hope.[10]

Such productive readings and refigurations of insurgent political movements are made more possible by Nail’s work, and I am excited to think more about Nail’s account of the kinopolitics of migrant detention, the carceral, and penal transportation. Moreover, there are rich possibilities available to apply Nail’s framework to the practices that define the contemporary geography of hyper-incarceration in the United States. In particular, Nail’s reorientation of analysis from stasis to movement might productively shed light how we think about long-term solitary confinement (which is all about the management of movement, transportation, circuits, and flows) and its counterpowers (the use of hunger strikes, now common across states and nations, to put the most bodily of flows into use as weapons).[11]

Nevertheless, and despite my interest in thinking with Nail’s framework to better understand the social motion of contemporary detention circuits in the United States, I find myself also deeply puzzled and concerned by a striking absence throughout Nail’s work. While Nail arguably speaks directly to Alcoff’s concerns about the dangers of turning to dislocated, deterritorialized, and liminal figures to model identity, subjectivity, and liberation, I fear that he nevertheless lapses too far into abstraction and dislocated theorizing in a way that leaves actual migrants out of the framework. He succumbs, I fear, precisely to Alcoff’s critique.

In short, there are not enough bodies in this book. There are too few voices of those who “occupy[] this position” of the migrant.[12] To be sure, there are many examples of migrants throughout the book, drawn primarily from historical accounts, and the extended case study of Mexico-United States migration helpfully illustrates the theory of kinopolitics, social motion, and the four paradigmatic figures mapped out in the bulk of the book’s pages. However, there is a troubling distance between Nail’s theorizing and historical description and those who do in fact occupy the positions of nomad, barbarian, vagabond, and proletariat—and above all, between Nail’s account of counterpowers and insurgent migrant themselves.

At one level, I recognize that this concern stems from a methodological perspective which Nail perhaps does not share. Though he does not make this claim, I would argue that Nail positions The Figure of the Migrant in the tradition of critical theory not only through it’s inheritance of Deleuze and Guattari’s work, but also through its self-conscious movement between theoretical and empirical registers and its self-identification as a “philosophical history of the present.”[13] In these ways, it seems to meet Iris Young’s description of critical theory as “socially and historically situated normative analysis and argument”[14] refusing a clean “fact/value” distinction and easy divide between theory and practice. Yet while Nail insists that, “[A]s a figure, the migrant refers both to empirical migrants in the world and a more abstract social relation,” the migrants who do appear throughout the book do so less as “empirical” migrants themselves and rather as figures of figures.[15] Nail works historically and materially, yes, but from historical and empirical archives that have been already recorded and formed as history. What does this mean, then, for what Nail identifies as “counterpowers”? Are they identified from within the order of the existing episteme rather than being drawn from the realm of subjugated knowledges? What would The Figure of the Migrant track if it worked primarily from the archives of migrants themselves rather than histories of migration?

At another level, my concern for a lack of voices of migrants is reflected in the structure of the book itself. While Nail is insistent that the figure of the migrant cannot be reduced to either pure abstraction nor pure empirical object (and to be clear, I agree that this is the precise virtue of adopting the “figure” as a useful unit of social-political analysis)[16], the first three parts of The Figure of the Migrant work at such high levels of abstraction that when the reader turns to the “case” it seems only to confirm the correctness of the theory of kinopolitics and the existence of these quasi-empirical figures in the world, rather than building the theory up from the geographically and temporally specific instances and experiences of migrants themselves, drawn from their own analyses, actions, and self-theorizations. As such, it (perhaps ironically) takes on a form more familiar to ideal theory than critical theory, and risks operating in a mode of history that descends from heaven to earth. What would The Figure of the Migrant look like if it were written in reverse?

That is to say, my concern—the relative lack of bodies, embodiment, and subjectivity—is ultimately political and ethical. If Nail’s account is right, and if this account lets us identify the counterpowers available to migrants to refuse, resist, negate, escape, overthrow, or otherwise live even under the seemingly trans-historical phenomenon of expansion through exclusion, then such political and social acts and ways of thinking ought rightly be articulated by migrants themselves. If a re-figuration of “the migrant” is possible, it will likewise come from within rather than without. For Alcoff, this is precisely the resource that can be found in the testimony of those who live neither within stable spatial formations nor within radical fluidity, but at the contradictory intersections between. And at this level, subjectivity, identity, and consciousness are necessarily on the table precisely as both fixed and flowing, stable and unstable, and above all ambivalent. Or, as Gloria Anzaldúa puts it:

At some point, on our way to a new consciousness, we will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once, and at once, see through serpent and eagle eyes. Or perhaps we will decide to disengage form the dominate culture, write it off altogether as a lost cause, and cross the border into a wholly new and separate territory. Or we might go another route. The possibilities are numerous once we decide to act and not react.[17]

This strikes me as both the virtue and the vice of The Figure of the Migrant: it gives us both a framework for understanding the movement of peoples, of the sticky (and fluid) formations that emerge through those movements, and yet at the same time by not prioritizing the action and self-understandings of those very people, it risks freezing them into the same stasis which the book seeks to resist. Nail’s book without doubt helps opens up the space for such work, but ultimately, what would The Figure of the Migrant look like if it incorporated the ambivalence of identity, subjectivity, and agency from within its own pages?

[1] Linda Alcoff, Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self, Studies in Feminist Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[2] Ibid., 276.

[3] Ibid., 277.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Thomas Nail, The Figure of the Migrant (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2015), 24.

[6] Ibid., 15, 242n12.

[7] Ibid., 15.

[8] Ibid., 125, 127.

[9] Neil Roberts, Freedom as Marronage (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015), 15.

[10] Gilles Deleuze, Desert Islands and Other Texts, 1953-1974, Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents Series (Los Angeles, CA : Cambridge, Mass: Semiotext(e) ; Distributed by MIT Press, 2004), 270.

[11] In particular, see Lisa Guenther, Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013); Banu Bargu, Starve and Immolate: The Politics of Human Weapons (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).

[12] Nail, The Figure of the Migrant, 16.

[13] Ibid., 4.

[14] Iris Marion Young, Inclusion and Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2002), 10.

[15] To be clear, I am sensitive to this aspect of Nail’s work and see it as dangerous in part because I recognize a similar failing in my own work on the figure of “the felon.”

[16] In my own work, I turn to figures as important tools for genealogical analysis, operating as “anchors” in space and time through which to understand the operations of force-relations in specific rather than general terms.

[17] Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands: La Frontera: The New Mestiza, 4th ed (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2012), 100–101.