Book Event: The Figure of the Migrant: (Re)figuring the Migrant Body (Trimboli)

DANIELLA TRIMBOLI recently completed a jointly-awarded Ph.D. at the University of Melbourne and the University of British Columbia. Her dissertation analysed the intersection of everyday multiculturalism and digital storytelling from a cultural studies perspective. Daniella has taught Australian Studies and Tourism at Flinders University and fulfilled various research roles, including one for the Ngarrinderji Regional Authority at the Yunggorendi First Nations Centre. Daniella is currently working for the Research Unit in Public Cultures at the University of Melbourne, and is a researcher on the public art project, Immigration Place. Daniella is an assistant editor of Journal of Intercultural Studies.


Thomas Nail presents a thorough and compelling case for the reconfiguration of the migrant and migration theory at large. His central argument is that motion needs to be the starting point for the theorisation of migration. My particular interest in Nail’s book is its capacity to add to understandings of how the migrant in contemporary society is materially shaped by motion, and, just as importantly, how that motion might be channelled into new kinds of resistance. I thus target the word figure to explore how some figures come to ‘figure less’ and some figures come to ‘figure more.’ Playing on de Beauvoir, Nail writes in his introduction: ‘One is not born a migrant but becomes one’ (p. 3). To further this claim: one is not born a migrant but is always becoming one. What possibilities exist for the becoming migrant in the contemporary moment of global migration?

Nail maps out a kinetic framework for migration that challenges the predominant model of studying migrants from the perspective of stasis, ‘as a secondary or derivative figure with respect to place-bound social membership’ (p. 3). His argument is reminiscent of that presented in Nikos Papastergiadis’ work on the turbulence of migration, in particular, the connection Papastergiadis makes in Cosmopolitanism and Culture (2012) between theorisations of migration and kinetophobia; that is, between migration and the fear of movement. Nail illustrates how mobility acts as constitutive of social life, rather than, as Papastergiadis writes, ‘the temporary disruption to the timeless feeling of national belonging’ (2012, p. 49). Nail also argues that histories of States often subsume migrant histories, even though the mobility of migrants has created its own forms of social organisation that move across, through and beyond nations/States.

In contrast to the dominant model of migration that is founded on stasis and states, Nail develops a kinetic and political theory of migration by tracing the historical regimes of social motion. The word regime is important because, while mobility is fluid and incapable of division, it ‘is always distributed in different concrete social formations or types of circulation’ (p. 4). Nail argues that social movement is regulated by various apparatuses of expulsion that take on territorial, political, juridical and economic forms. These forces give form to key migrant figures: the nomad, the barbarian, the vagabond and the proletariat.

The emergence of each of these figures is the result of different articulations of movement so that the ‘movement of creation precedes the thing created’ (p. 42). For example, Nail traces the barbarian back to Aristotle, who defined the barbarian as having political inferiority: ‘a natural incapacity for proper speech and reason that disallows political life’ (p. 52). In the ancient world, this notion of natural inferiority is needed in order to conceptualise political slavery: ‘the ancient figure of the migrant is called the “barbarian” or “inferior subject,” not the “slave,” because the concept of barbarism or natural inferiority is first required to legitimate slavery’ (p. 52). As Foucault (1978) and later Butler (1993, p. 2) showed us, the performative power of discourse is its ability to create that which it names. This performative power is evidenced in Nail’s historical analysis of the four main types of migrants, each of which emerges as a particular figure in accordance with certain kinds of kinetophobias. Anyone moving in ways that could potentially undermine the State’s core directive of maintaining and expanding control is targeted, grouped and ‘moved elsewhere.’ Thus, as Nail observes, when unwanted forms of mobility like vagabondage increased, so too did the types of people deemed to be vagabonds. In short, when unwanted forms of movement increased, more types of unwanted movers are produced. What becomes clear is that these types of unwanted movers are not ‘new’ kinds of people, but people bearing accumulative histories of undesirable mobility. These accumulative histories move ahead in time, so the migrant is always a subject-in-motion. Continue reading “Book Event: The Figure of the Migrant: (Re)figuring the Migrant Body (Trimboli)”

Book Event: The Figure of the Migrant: Seeing Like a Migrant (Mezzadra)

SANDRO MEZZADRA teaches political theory at the University of Bologna and is adjunct fellow at the Institute for Culture and Society of the University of Western Sydney. He is currently visiting research fellow at the Humboldt University, Berlin (BIM – Berliner Institut für empirische Migrations – und Integrationsforschung; October 1, 2015 – July 31, 2016). In the last decade his work has centered particularly on the relations between globalization, migration and citizenship as well as on postcolonial theory and criticism. He is an active participant in the “post-workerist” debates and one of the founders of the website Euronomade . With Brett Neilson he is the author of Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor (Duke University Press, 2013).


Thomas Nail has written an ambitious and timely book. “The twenty-first century,” he writes, “will be the century of the migrant” (p. 1). Needless to say, migration is not something new. Nail himself demonstrates this point, bringing us back to the very beginning of human history in his attempt to forge a political concept of the figure of the migrant. Both the development of political and legal formations of power and territory and the structure of economic modes of production bear the constitutive traces of migration and of the attempts to tame, rule, valorize, and even block it. This is particularly true for modern capitalism. “Without the migration of surplus population to new markets,” Nail contends, “from the rural country to the city, from city to city, from country to country (what Marx calls the ‘floating population’), capitalist accumulation would not be possible at all” (p. 88). Nevertheless there is a need to stress that migration takes on today new characteristics and raises new challenges. This has not merely to do with the increasing percentage of migrants as a share of the total population. Beyond the sheer data of statistics, a set of qualitative transformations of migration over the last decades have turned it – despite or maybe due to the often tragic materiality of specific migratory experiences – into a kind of iconic symbol and seismograph of our global predicament. Both its turbulent geography and pace and the underlying changing patterns of mobility make migration relevant not merely for the plights, pains, and joy of “migrants,” but also for understanding crucial and broader conflicts and transformations that are reshaping labor and culture, politics and society across diverse geographical scales.

Strategically altering the title of a famous book by James C. Scott, Brett Neilson and I point therefore in Border as Method (Duke University Press, 2013, p. 166) to the need to develop a new theoretical and political attitude, nicely encapsulated by the phrase “seeing like a migrant.” This shows that I am more than sympathetic with the basic aim of Thomas Nail’s The Figure of the Migrant. I particularly share his emphasis on the need to move beyond any conceptualization of migration from the point of view of “stasis” and “the states,” which means from the assumption of “place-bound membership” as primary and of “the movement back and forth between social points” as secondary (p. 3). This kind of epistemic primacy of stasis has shaped migration studies not merely in its mainstream but also in several “critical” variants, as is increasingly acknowledged and stressed by a new generation of politically engaged scholars and activists (see for instance the collective text ‘New Keywords: Migration and Borders’, in Cultural Studies, 29 (2015), 1: 55-87). Once this primacy is called into question and the point of view of movement is taken a new “continent” becomes visible and old notions and concepts take on a new shape. Continue reading “Book Event: The Figure of the Migrant: Seeing Like a Migrant (Mezzadra)”

Book Event: The Figure of the Migrant: Provocations in Consideration of…(Cisney)

VERNON W. CISNEY is Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Gettysburg College. He is the author of Derrida’s Voice and Phenomenon: An Edinburgh Philosophical Guide (Edinburgh University Press, 2014); as well as Deleuze and Derrida: Difference and the Power of the Negative (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming, 2016). He is also the editor of Biopower: Foucault and Beyond (University of Chicago Press, 2016, with Nicolae Morar); The Way of Nature and the Way of Grace: Philosophical Footholds on Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (Northwestern University Press, 2016, with Jonathan Beever); and Between Foucault and Derrida (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming, 2016, with Yubraj Aryal, Nicolae Morar, and Christopher Penfield). Finally, he has recently co-edited and co-translated, with Daniel W. Smith and Nicolae Morar, Pierre Klossowski’s Living Currency, followed by Sade and Fourier (Bloomsbury, forthcoming, 2017).


I am delighted to be part of the conversation surrounding this important work. Thomas Nail’s The Figure of the Migrant is one of those rare works that is at once timely and timeless. It is timely in the sense that the figure of the migrant has become a ubiquitous and undeniable reality of our time. As I write this at the end of spring 2016, the number of Syrian citizens displaced by civil war since 2011 has climbed to roughly 13.5 million; the United States is in the middle of its most racially charged presidential election of my lifetime (with one of the top party candidates running on a popular platform of draconian deportation of undocumented laborers and the severe restriction of immigration); the populations of Central Pacific island nations are being displaced in record numbers due to the effects of global climate change; and within the past week, several small boats carrying refugees from Libya have capsized off the coast of Italy, resulting in over one thousand deaths.[1] These are but a few examples. As Nail notes, “At the turn of the century, there were more regional and international migrants than ever before in recorded history. Today, there are over 1 billion migrants” (1).

But the work is also timeless in the sense that Nail attempts to rigorously formulate nothing less than a social and political ontology, one that is comprehensive and that takes movement as its basis and point of departure. Rather than starting from the presupposition of social order and stasis, and conceptualizing movement as a secondary passage between different pre-existing social orders, Nail attempts to formulate a political concept of movement as primary, a “kinopolitics,” as he calls it. This is not for the sake of cleverness, but rather because to do otherwise—to think the figure of the migrant from the perspective of citizenship, as one who is no longer a citizen—is, in fact, to miss the figure of the migrant. If the “essence” of the migrant lies in its movement, then it must be thought on the basis of movement, and movement must be thought in itself. But once we venture down the path of conceptualizing movement on its own terms (and not as a deficiency or lack of stasis), it radically alters our conceptions of stasis as well. As Bergson recognized, and as Nail cites, “If movement is not everything, it is nothing” (13).[2] The social order, then, every social order, on Nail’s account, is reconceptualized on the basis of three primary kinopolitical concepts—flows, junctions, and circulations.

Flows are fluxes, processes, and continua, all the way down. Despite its etymological relations to “stasis,” the “state” is not the stoppage of flows, but rather, the agency of their harnessing and redirection. There are flows of oceans and rivers, climate and culture, vegetation and animals, populations and sicknesses, “food, money, blood, and air” (25). The purpose of the social order, then, is to bring these flows into vortical self-relations, to loop them back onto themselves and in so doing, to augment and intensify them. These loopings of “relative stability” are what Nail refers to as “junctions” (28), the loci of “perceived stasis” (27) in the sea of continuous flows. The house, for example, is a territorial junction that organizes the familial flows of a particular group of people. These junctions are further organized and mobilized by their connectedness within the “circulation,” the network of junctions (29). A particular neighborhood, for example, can be conceived as a circulation that brings into relation the familial flows of individual households. Nail writes that the “city is a political junction” (28), but if I understand him correctly, the city is also a circulation, one that relates together the house junction with the educational junction with the religious institutional junction with the industrial junction with the police junction and so on. And in their own way, each of these junctions might in turn be thought of as a circulation (the factory, for instance, relates production with distribution; production relates different junctions of departments and different stages, etc.) Continue reading “Book Event: The Figure of the Migrant: Provocations in Consideration of…(Cisney)”

The Figure of the Migrant – A Roundtable in PhaenEx

I encourage readers to check out the latest issue of PhaenEx: Journal of Existential and Phenomenological Theory and Culture. This issue also includes a roundtable that I curated on Thomas Nail‘s The Figure of the Migrant.

This international ensemble of scholars–Robin Celikates, Daniella Trimboli, Sandro Mezzadra, Todd May, Ladelle McWhorter, Andrew Dilts, and Adriana Novoa–discuss Thomas Nail’s The Figure of the Migrant (Stanford UP, 2015). These scholars represent various disciplines within the academy and divergent methodologies. One thing we share in common, though, is the opinion that the migrant needs to occupy a more significant place within our political theory and policy. Nail’s book is one of kinopolitics, that is, a politics of movement. It provides a kind of theory of social motion. According to Nail, the book offers a remedy to problems in how the migrant is typically theorized, namely that (a) the migrant is understood as a derivative figure in contrast to the stable denizen and (b) the migrant is discussed through the lens of the state. His remedial maneuver mobilizes the potential to understand the figure of the migrant by placing the migrant in the primary position, by offering a political philosophy of the migrant.
AUFS will host a book event featuring more expanded commentaries by these same authors. Vern Cisney will also join us with some of his own reflections on the book. Please join in the conversation by participating in the comments section. The event will begin shortly.

Untimely Italians: A Profile of The Italian List and Interview with Alberto Toscano

When someone begins to study European philosophy and theory, or Continental philosophy as the unhelpful designation goes, the focus is usually on the traditions of French and German philosophy (leaving the term analytic to denote the work of the British, those living on that island off the coast of Europe proper). The relationship between this kind of national identity and those philosophers varies. Oftentimes the position of these philosophers disappoint us, as with Bergson during World War I writing about “French spirit” needing to overcome the “German barbarism” or Heidegger during the rise of the Nazi party in Germany doing much the same with more horrific results. But there is something to naming these traditions if only because the way in which language and location shapes one’s thinking, to say nothing of the importance of particular political situations that arise within these fictional but nonetheless efficacious spaces of the various nation-states. Italian philosophy has largely been ignored by those anglophone readers interested in European thought. This despite the fact that the fictional element of the nation-state is perhaps nowhere better on display than Italy, which never quite coalesced its various cultures into a singular Italian culture the way that French republicanism did. This creates an interesting dynamic and leads to a different style of philosophy. This seems to me to hold especially true for leftwing theorists and perhaps arises from what Roberto Esposito identifies as the clear manifestation of antagonism within the Italian context. Nothing like Italy the nation-state exists except through the process of conflict, the creation of antagonism that continues when Italy the nation-state has to become a part of Europe the economic union.

Italian philosophy has long been an interest for many authors here, with Adam’s work on Agamben and my own less intenstive work on Negri, as well as with many of our readers. We have here discussed Esposito’s attempt to reclaim the distinctiveness of Italian philosophy, already mentioned, and many readers will be familiar with the collection edited by Lorenzo Chiesa and Alberto Toscano The Italian Difference with re:press. So I was excited to see that Alberto was editing a new series called The Italian List with Seagull Books (which has the support of the University of Chicago Press, but apparent autonomy from the usual deadends of academic publishing). While the list has published three shorter texts by Agamben, I wanted to highlight the lesser known figures that Alberto and Seagull Books were bringing to a new audience. In what follows you will find a conversation between Toscano and myself as well as a few side remarks where I provide some summary information about the texts. Because of the length of this post I have also generated it as a PDF for those who prefer that medium for reading longer texts. Continue reading “Untimely Italians: A Profile of The Italian List and Interview with Alberto Toscano”

Book review: The Figure of This World by Mathew Abbott

I just finished reading The Figure of This World: Agamben and the Question of Political Ontology by Mathew Abbott (Amazon link). I’ve linked approvingly before to Abbott’s work characterizing Agamben’s project as one of “political ontology,” and this book easily meets and exceeds my expectations based on that small preview. It is a brilliant reading and systematization of Agamben’s work that extends beyond Agamben himself to argue that the problem of political ontology can serve as a common ground between Wittgenstein and Heidegger, and hence between analytic and continental philosophy.

Much of the first half of the book is taken up with laying out Agamben’s project and bringing it into contact with his primary sources, Heidegger and Benjamin. Abbott’s focus throughout is on the sheer givenness of Being as a unique and ungraspable “fact” that both grounds and ungrounds all human projects. The wager of political ontology, in Abbott’s view, is that this uncanny fact does not simply consign us to despair, but rather provides the basis for a positive political vision.

Having established his basic point of view, Abbott proceeds to contrast Agamben with Levinas and Nietzsche. These chapters were, for me, the most satisfying in the book, particularly the latter — ever since I first read Homo Sacer, I was struck by repeated points of contact between Agamben and Nietzsche, particularly Genealogy of Morals, but I’ve never stopped to dig further. Now I don’t have to!

The final chapters move beyond Agamben to stage a confrontation between Wittgenstein and Heidegger, using the Wittgenstein’s “picture theory” and Heidegger’s “world-picture” as a point of contact between the two. Abbott makes a case for the basic continuity of Wittgenstein’s work, claiming to find throughout a close parallel with Heidegger’s question of Being (as Abbott has laid it out previously). He claims that reading the two thinkers together can help us to overcome their respective deficits and to see that both analytic and continental philosophy originated out of the attempt to struggle with the same problems.

In the end, Abbott brings it all back to Agamben, taking the unexpected tack of introducing entire new topics (such as Marxism) in the final pages rather than concluding. For me, this section felt less convincing than the rest of the book, as Abbott seemed almost pressed for time. I have very serious questions about his formulation of Agamben’s “solution,” namely that we should recognize the exceptionality of the everyday — but it could be a matter of wording rather than substance.

Whatever my reservations, however, it seems clear to me that this text will stand as required reading for all Agamben scholars. Unfortunately, we may need to establish full communism to give everyone adequate access to it, because it’s one of those crazy $100 academic “hardcovers” (i.e., a shoddily produced “permabound” book reminiscent of the novels distributed in American public schools). I don’t understand why academic publishers seem so dedicated to the task of preventing people from reading important academic work.

A Synthetic Manifesto: A Review of Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism

Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey W. Robbins are no strangers to readers of this blog. Both are well established figures within the fields of theology, philosophy and the liminal space between them that sometimes goes by the name secular theology and sometimes Continental philosophy of religion. Both are graduates of the Department of Religion at Syracuse University and Crockett now teaches as an associate professor of Religion at the University of Central Arkansas while Robbins is a professor of Religion and Philosophy at Lebanon Valley College. While their friendship has long been know, expressed in the academic realm through their co-editorship of the Insurrections series with ColumbiaUP, Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism is their first co-written book. The book, published in the new Radical Theologies series published by Palgrave Macmillan, is quite consciously written as a kind of manifesto for the practice and future of radical theology. Now, what this means is dependent of course on the figures who develop it, but by radical theology it is clear that people thinking with religious material outside of a confessional duty as well as those who are more explicitly confessional but still attempting to radicalize their confessional thought beyond any capture by that tradition’s authorities. That is, radical theology cuts a wide-swath and it may be the only form of theology that is truly “big tent” in terms of its actions and not just as a propaganda move. However much such a movement might benefit from a manifesto, the disparate directions and materials with which various radical theologians engage with makes creating such a manifesto difficult and risks sedimenting their works and cutting off these radical theologians from the true, creative source of their power. At times it feels that Crockett and Robbins risk such sedimentation. However, what ultimately saves them from this temptation is their very synthetic approach. This is a book constructed not in the name of Crockett and Robbins, but through a multiplicity of names that are brought together in varying ways and with various levels of success under the standard “The New Materialism”. Continue reading “A Synthetic Manifesto: A Review of Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism

Review of Adrian Johnston, Žižek’s Ontology

[This review appeared in Symplokē 18.1-2 (2011): 419-421, and is copyrighted by that journal. It appears here with permission.]

In the two decades since he came to prominence in the English-speaking academy, Žižek has already generated a substantial body of secondary texts, ranging from general introductions to works on specific themes. Yet it seems safe to say that among readers of Žižek, Adrian Johnston’s book Žižek’s Ontology was the most eagerly anticipated. According to the narrative that has been solidifying over the last few years, the initial reception of Žižek did not reflect the full ambition of his work. Focusing on his theory of ideology and his usefulness for cultural analysis, interpreters had missed the true philosophical core motivating it all: the attempt to develop a new theory of subjectivity, grounded in a synthesis of the insights of German Idealism (above all Hegel) and the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan. For those who hold this view of Žižek’s reception, Žižek’s Ontology would finally break through the shell of the “cultural studies” reception of Žižek as well as the image of Žižek as a kind of entertainer, revealing once and for all the rigor and depth of Žižek’s properly philosophical work.

Continue reading “Review of Adrian Johnston, Žižek’s Ontology

Weaponized Apophaticism and the Question of Religion: Some Remarks on William T. Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence

William T. Cavanaugh is well known in certain political theology (or “theopolitical” as some Christian theologians like to refer to it) circles because of his 1998 book Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics and the Body of Christ. The book is a very interesting study of the Catholic Church in Chile during Pinochet’s regime and details the theological background to the political relationship between Church and State. At times, though I’m willing to hedge here, it isn’t clear in the book if Cavanaugh doesn’t secretly think that the Eucharist is a more revolutionary act than, say, workers organizing to provide for themselves and resist Pinochet’s Chicago School led neoliberalism. It certainly has been used in that way by some of Cavanaugh’s enthusiastic readers and even, dare I say, mis-used in that way by members of the Radical Orthodoxy/Red Tory movement. His mix of Foucault and Roman Catholic radicalism does give the impression of a strange conservative anti-Statist and anti-Capitalist form of thinking. Still, I would feel uncomfortable simply regulating Cavanaugh to this pit of vipers since his own work is overwhelmingly negative in its approach (I’ll explain the meaning of this more below) and his own attempts at positive proscriptive political statements often are undertaken with great care and a deep grounding in a tradition of non-violence.  Weirdly, if I can indulge in a bit of biography before moving on to the more substantive comments, reading Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist was the reason I decided not to convert to Roman Catholicism when at the age of 19 I decided to leave the Church of the Nazarene. Simply stated the book broke any romantic illusions I had about the Roman Church. It seemed to me as compromised and fucked up as anything American Evangelicalism had going for it. Regardless of the beauty of its liturgy or the depth of its intellectual tradition, I just couldn’t imagine ever converting. Perhaps if I grew up in a Roman Catholic culture I’d engage with it in some sense (and in fact I do), but why would I ask permission to be a part of something that had a hierarchy I’d struggle against for the rest of my life? And, worse yet, refused to acknowledge its awful crimes towards, not just others, but its own adherents? Perhaps not the outcome hoped for by Cavanaugh… Continue reading “Weaponized Apophaticism and the Question of Religion: Some Remarks on William T. Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence