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. 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.” 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.” 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.”
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.” 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. “There are,” Nail writes, “only figures of the migrant that emerge and coexist throughout history relative to specific sites of expulsion and mobility.” 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. Continue reading “Book Event: The Figure of the Migrant: Migrants, Figures, and Bodies (Dilts)”