Book Event: The Figure of the Migrant: A Set of Queries (May/McWhorter)

TODD MAY is Class of 1941 Memorial Professor of the Humanities at Clemson University.  He is the author of fourteen books of philosophy, most recently A Significant Life:  Human Meaning in a Silent Universe (University of Chicago Press, 2015) and A Fragile Life:  Accepting our Vulnerability (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming 2016).

LADELLE MCWHORTER holds the Stephanie Bennett Smith Chair in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and is also Professor of Environmental Studies and holds an appointment in the Philosophy Department at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia. She is the author of Bodies and Pleasures: Foucault and the Politics of Sexual Normalization (Indiana, 1999), Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America: A Genealogy (Indiana, 2009), and more than three dozen articles on Foucault, Bataille, Irigaray, and race theory. With Gail Stenstad, she edited Heidegger and the Earth: Essays in Environmental Philosophy (Toronto 2009).


TODD MAY / LADELLE MCWHORTER: We just finished reading your book together as part of our reading Skype group (which has been going on for about seven years). We really enjoyed it. It’s interesting, original, and provocative. We wondered whether your approach inverted a traditional approach that grounded itself in stasis. It seemed to us that the relation between stasis and movement is not one of foundedness, but is instead more dialectical. What is static is affected by movement, and movement is affected by stasis; for example, the existence of stable state institutions will affect what kinds of movements are possible, which will be different for unstable states.

THOMAS NAIL: Todd and Ladelle, I agree with you, but I would also add the caveat that stasis is a metastable state produced by continual circulation. So yes, the (meta)stable states of circulation are being transformed by unstable or pedetic motions, but the pedetic motions are also being captured and (meta)stabilized as well. So in this sense, movement is primary, but the regimes of movement are mutually transformative or “dialectical,” if you want to call them that.

TODD MAY / LADELLE MCWHORTER: The idea of historically different dominant figures is interesting and reflects a historically informed approach. However, it would seem that with the appearance of new social arrangements, not only would there appear new figures but also the old figures would appear differently. You often write as though the old figures stand alongside the new ones. But it seems to us that they would be transformed. For instance, the centrifugal movement of expulsion might be dominated in a neoliberal period by the elasticity contemporary economics requires.

THOMAS NAIL: Thanks for the chance to respond to this concern. I completely agree, but I realized that if I wanted to do the work to show all that, the book would be way too big. So, and maybe this was not as clear as I wanted it to be in the book, I do think that old figures appear in a new way. For example, 19th century Parisians called urban migrant worker’s nomads, barbarians, vagabonds, and proletariat. What is interesting is how each name was associated with a certain kinetic attribute of that figure, but for the most part the most dominant regime motion of urban migration in this case was elastic and economic, so these other figures are minor mixtures within the proletariat migrant. So I think there is both a persistence of older figures, and a transformation of those figures into new ones. A contemporary example, that has been all over the news in Europe, is calling economic migrants “barbarians.” The usage of this name describes a mixture of the perceived “danger” of the barbarian revolt, the apolitical status of the migrant, and the economic necessity of an elastic surplus motion of proletarian migrants that sustains Europe. The European immigrant is a mixture of both motions, but I think the economic motion of elasticity is dominant, in part because capitalism is the dominant mode of social motion in this case, and in most cases today, and not the state. In any case, it’s never all or nothing, there is always a mixture of the regimes of motion.

TODD MAY / LADELLE MCWHORTER: Sometimes it seems as though you were shoehorning your examples, particularly in the last section. You are trying to show that the older historical figures are still active in contemporary societies. For instance, the idea of migrant workers as crossing borders to raid (225), just like the prehistoric figure of the nomad, seems a stretch—the analogy is a bit strained. This also refers to our first point. The overlay of later social arrangements makes it difficult to discuss earlier ones in the contemporary period as though they were straightforwardly analogous.

THOMAS NAIL: By granting methodological primacy to discourse, epistemology, ideologies, and so on we are not starting with what the migrant is: the political figure defined by motion. We are starting with something else (discourse analysis, stand-point epistemology, symbolic forms) and applying it to migrants. Again the migrant and its motion become derived categories. Now, I do not think this means that language, thought, ideology, and so on are irrelevant or unaccountable if we start with the primacy of motion—but they do need to be explained. After reading The Figure of the Migrant, it is completely understandable for the reader to wonder how their preferred theoretical framework fits in because I do not provide a kinetic theory of language, epistemology, and symbolic representation here—which would demonstrate the primacy of motion in those domains.

What The Figure of the Migrant does offer is a kinopolitically descriptive theory. As a description of social motion it is not essentially incompatible with what people say, what they think, or their symbolic representations, but neither is the historical description of the kinetic regime fundamentally changed by them. For example, the pedetic movement of the nomadic raid is both a rhetorical description and an epistemological experience of Neolithic farmers and certain American nationalists who describe this type of migrant as a “raiding nomad.” I am not shoehorning the rhetorical example; people actually said this. But regardless of what they said or thought, the pattern of motion (crossing over a border, taking supplies, and leaving) is what they did. I am not endorsing the rhetoric or anything else, but am simply describing a common kinopolitical regime of the raid, which emerged in the Neolithic and is repeated today. There is no analogy, the type of movement is the same.