Books I Blurbed in 2016

As I did last year, as a sort of alternative to a “Best of” list, I thought I’d give you a run-down of the books I blurbed over the course of 2016. If I have time, I follow it up later with books I never got around to formally blurbing, but should have.

* * *

1) Sudden Death, by Alvaro Enrigue (trans. by Natasha Wimmer)

Sudden Death is going to be a revelation for a whole lot of people this year. (It was already my favorite book of 2016 when I read an advance copy in 2015!)

We are in the midst of a new golden age of Mexican literature, and Sudden Death has opened even more audacious paths for this most cosmopolitan storytelling. To retell the plot does the novel very little service — which isn’t to say it is plot-less or even particularly difficult to follow. Rather, it is tightly wound (not unlike the balls used in the epic duel of a tennis match that functions simultaneously as the novel’s centerpiece and frame) and bounds expertly between centuries from Old World to New.

Sudden Death is, at its core, a very angry book – specifically, at the insipid successes of the world’s colonizers – but it is an anger born of play and the censure of comedy. The bad guy may always win in the end, Enrigue seems resigned to say, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the losers’ little victories along the way.

* * * Continue reading “Books I Blurbed in 2016”

Some thoughts on Leshem’s Origins of Neoliberalism

Early this summer, I received an unsolicited review copy of Dotan Leshem’s Origins of Neoliberalism: Modeling the Economy from Jesus to Foucault — true proof of divine providence, given that I was working on a project connecting political theology to neoliberalism. It is a fascinating study of the concept of oikonomia, with its center of gravity in the era of classical orthodoxy (Nicea and Chalcedon).

Leshem hit on the idea of a genealogy of oikonomia around the same time as, but independently of, Agamben’s study in The Kingdom and the Glory. The book evinces a certain anxiety to differentiate itself from Agamben, which in my view sometimes leads to overhasty critiques. I prefer to view them less as competitive than as supplementary to each other. Agamben focuses on the formative moment of Christian economic thought (Pauline and proto-orthodox), whereas Leshem focuses on developments within established orthodoxy itself. When we add Mondzain’s account of the decisive role of economic thought in the iconoclastic controversy, we wind up with a fairly comprehensive view of the role of oikonomia in pre-modern Christian thought. This is not to downplay the very real differences between the authors’ approaches, of course — a truly comprehensive account has yet to be written, but it will need to start with the labors of these three.

I learned a great deal from Leshem’s study, which in many ways does a better job of following up in detail on Foucault’s suggestions about the role of Christian pastoral in forming modern subjectivity. He also deals much more closely with Arendt, who is claimed as a major source of the Homo Sacer series but mostly stays in the background. His study is based around the “human trinity” of economic, political, and philosophical, and the text is punctuated by helpful diagrams illustrating how this trinity keeps getting reconfigured over time. This provides clarity and orientation to a study that is not afraid to delve into the fine details of doctrinal and pastoral theology. What worries me about this approach is that it pitches Christian doctrine primarily as a development of Greek and Roman thought — as in Agamben, the Hebrew roots of Christian thought are comparatively neglected. I wonder whether that same “trinity” would apply to the Hebrew biblical tradition, and if not (which is my suspicion), how that might require us to reconceive the genealogy of oikonomia.

The weakest point of the book, in my view, is the title itself. The warrant for the book’s claim to establish “the origins of neoliberalism” is that Christian Orthodoxy establishes the dominance of the economy over the other hypostases of the human trinity and neoliberalism also forcefully asserts the dominance of the economy over other areas of life. The genealogical connections provided are even sketchier than in the appendix to The Kingdom and the Glory, and explicit discussions of neoliberalism are few and far between. The subtitle is misleading as well, given that the pre-Christian Greek concept of oikonomia is the real starting point, not Jesus (who is not a major figure in this book, given the absence of references to oikonomia in the Gospels).

I like to imagine Leshem’s book with a more accurate title. What it achieves is an important and formative contribution to the genealogy of oikonomia, one that places him into an emergent “canon” alongside Agamben and Mondzain. From this point forward, anyone investigating the place of economy in Christian theology will have to engage with Leshem’s work.

Book Event: The Figure of the Migrant: Closing Summary (Westmoreland)

MARK WILLIAM WESTMORELAND is a doctoral student and instructor of philosophy and ethics at Villanova University and is writing a dissertation on racial profiling. They also teach philosophy and religious studies at Gwynedd Mercy University, Penn State University – Brandywine, and Rowan University. They work in political philosophy, philosophy of race, and philosophy of technology and have published on Bergson, Derrida, and issues of race/racism. Mark is co-editor with Andrea J. Pitts of Beyond Bergson: Race, Gender, & Colonialism (forthcoming, SUNY), editor of a forthcoming special issue of The Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy commemorating the 75th anniversary of Henri Bergson’s death, and editor of a volume (in progress) on Charles Mills.

________

We have concluded our book event at AUFS. The original roundtable conversation can be found here.

The full posts of the book event can be found below.

Thomas Nail: https://itself.wordpress.com/2016/07/14/book-event-the-figure-of-the-migrant-method-and-motion-nail/

Todd May and Ladelle McWhorter: https://itself.wordpress.com/2016/07/11/book-event-the-figure-of-the-migrant-a-set-of-queries-maymcwhorter/

Andrew Dilts: https://itself.wordpress.com/2016/07/08/book-event-the-figure-of-the-migrant-migrants-figures-and-bodies-dilts/

Adriana Novoa: https://itself.wordpress.com/2016/07/04/book-event-the-figure-of-the-migrant-migrants-a-human-vital-force-novoa/

Robin Celikates: https://itself.wordpress.com/2016/07/01/book-event-the-figure-of-the-migrant-taking-migrant-agency-seriously-celikates/

Daniella Trimboli: https://itself.wordpress.com/2016/06/27/book-event-the-figure-of-the-migrant-refiguring-the-migrant-body-trimboli/

Sandro Mezzadra: https://itself.wordpress.com/2016/06/24/book-event-the-figure-of-the-migrant-seeing-like-a-migrant-mezzadra/

Vern Cisney: https://itself.wordpress.com/2016/06/21/the-figure-of-the-migrant-provocations-in-consideration-of/

Book Event: The Figure of the Migrant: Method and Motion (Nail)

THOMAS NAIL is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver. He is the author of Returning to Revolution: Deleuze, Guattari and Zapatismo (Edinburgh University Press, 2012), The Figure of the Migrant (Stanford University Press, 2015), and Theory of the Border (forthcoming with Oxford University Press, 2016). His work has appeared in AngelakiTheory & Event, Philosophy Today, Parrhesia, Deleuze Studies, Foucault Studies, and elsewhere. His publications can be downloaded here.

________

Thanks to all the reviewers. They have all challenged me to think differently about the book in their own way. In addition to my responses in the roundtable, I wanted to offer a final reflection on one issue in particular that has really made me think: methodology. In particular, I wanted to voice a couple of thoughts on the relation of kinopolitics to more qualitative and quantitative methodologies.

Qualitative: First, the knowledges and experiences of migrants are absolutely crucial to understanding contemporary migration. The quantitative approach favored by the sociology of migration literature leaves out entirely the human experience of the violence, suffering, and racism that many migrants go through. The consideration of this experience is, in my view, the very condition for understanding what is wrong with current immigration politics, as well as the possibility of doing anything differently. If we do not listen to the stories and demands of migrants we lose a crucial aspect of any analysis.

One of the motivations of this book comes from my work as a full-time migrant justice organizer with the group No One is Illegal in Toronto, Canada in 2010. One of the most important things we did as a group was to organize events which spotlighted the stories of migrants, told by themselves, and to fundraise to help them and their families. In addition to this, we also organized more intellectual kinds of events—panels of migration theorists and activists, for example. And, like good radicals, we also organized massive un-permitted street protests, civil disobedience events, and had delegates in a dozen local community groups related to education, women’s shelters, legal issues, medical issues, food banks, and more. I think that all these kinds of interventions (and others) are important, and all are needed. For more details about the kind of work we did you can read my interview with some of the main organizers here.

Quantitative: That said, the contemporary phenomenon of migration cannot be fully understood without both the qualitative study of the experiences of suffering and oppression (favored by the humanities: autonomy of migration and epistemology literatures) AND the quantitative study of migration (favored by the sciences). I am very thankful that there are people out there doing the original data collection, recording stories and writing ethnographies, or calculating the numbers of detainees, expulsions, deaths, global refugees, etc. There are many great works on migration that are, on their own, only quantitative or qualitative. That is fine. But for the whole picture I think we really need, at least, both.

Kinetic: However, the aim of The Figure of the Migrant was to introduce yet a third dimension and conceptual framework to the analysis of migration that would complement the other two, but which is not reducible to them: a kinopolitical dimension—a historical and comparative study of the patterns of the social motions of migrants. The kinopolitical framework of the book provides a way to track and compare large-scale patterns of social motion over long periods of time and space and draw some pretty dramatic conclusions. One of the most important being that the expulsion of migrants is the condition of a larger social expansion. In other words, that the migrant has been and continues to be the constitutive figure of western societies—through its motion. This is not a metaphor or an exaggeration. Societies have always required the movement of migrant bodies. The Figure of the Migrant takes the materiality and movement of the migrant body itself as its starting point. However, in offering such a focus, it has also only touched lightly on the qualitative and quantitative dimensions of migration.

What I have tried to do with this book is to add to the already vibrant literature on the old and well-studied phenomenon of migration, with its several foundational and productive methodologies, a new kind of framework for analysis that I believe can contribute something new to the conversation—a new method as well as new information. My greatest hope for The Figure of the Migrant is that something in it will be useful to someone working to provide a more complete picture of migration in effort to make the lives of migrants better. That may be as a supplement to their quantitative approach, or their qualitative approach, or their activism, or all three. I have no idea, but my fingers are crossed that something will come of it.

 

 

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. Continue reading “Book Event: The Figure of the Migrant: A Set of Queries (May/McWhorter)”

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. Continue reading “Book Event: The Figure of the Migrant: Migrants, Figures, and Bodies (Dilts)”

Book Event: The Figure of the Migrant: Migrants, a Human Vital Force (Novoa)

ADRIANA NOVOA is Associate Professor of History at the University of South Florida. Novoa completed her MA and PhD in Latin American History at the University of California, San Diego. She is a cultural historian whose specialty is science in Latin America, and with Alex Levine she has written two books about Darwinism in Argentina: From Man to Monkey (The University of Chicago Press, 2010), and Darwinists! (Brill, 2012). Novoa’s articles have been published in Journal of Latin American Studies, Science in Context, The Latinoamericanist, and Revista Hispánica Moderna, among others. She is currently working on From Virile to Sterile, a book manuscript that explores the intersection between Darwin’s evolutionism and masculinity in Argentina.

________

This is an ambitious book that attempts to provide a frame to understand migrants from the perspective of political theory. I am an intellectual historian specializing in evolutionary science in Latin America, so I am a poor judge of Thomas Nail’s achievement in strictly theoretical terms. But, since the book is serious about historicizing the concept of the migrant, and this is one of its most important contributions, I will concentrate on how his theoretical approach relates to history.

The Migrant, Biology, and Human Species

“Not all who wander are lost.” J. R. R. Tolkien

The Figure of the Migrant puts the migrant category at the center of politics through a theory that avoids analyzing it as an identity, focusing primarily on movement. According to Nail, mobility explains why migrants are attacked, or socially expelled. The intention of the book is to address the lack of adequate theorizing on the migrant in political sciences, geography, philosophy, and anthropology, disciplines that in his view approach the migrant as a political aberration. The book is interested in the free circulation and flow of populations, but not as moving from one point on the map to another; social movement is not qualified as something desirable or not, but as a simple unavoidable occurrence, a fact. The historical narrative is geared to show how we are all becoming migrants, and implies that the experience of migrations today is somewhat different from those of the past.

Nail claims that the 21st century “will be the century of the migrant. At the turn of the century, there were more regional and international migrants than ever before in recorded history.”[1] This might be true in absolute terms, but when the proportion of migrants is compared with the proportion of the total population on the move in various historical epochs, our century is not that different. We are not all becoming migrants, humans have always been migrants. But for a long time our culture has erased the understanding of migrations as part of our human condition, which has led to the belief that the migrant is a social aberration in a civilized society. This contradicts the fact that the formation of Modern Europe is the result of centuries of movement across the continent, the cumulative consequences of which are manifest in the very bodies of those who live there today. Continue reading “Book Event: The Figure of the Migrant: Migrants, a Human Vital Force (Novoa)”