Expansion / Expulsion (Review of The Figure of the Migrant)

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I just came across a review of The Figure of the Migrant I had not seen before in New Formations, Vol. 89/90: Death and the Contemporary (2016): pp. 256-259. [DOI: 10.398/NEWF:89/90.REV06.2016]

Expansion / Expulsion

Kevin M. Potter

Thomas Nail, The Figure of the Migrant. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2015, 295pp

As the twenty-first-century political and social climate continues to confront migration, displacement, and movement – especially with the persisting refugee crises unfolding in Europe and Africa – the struggle to comprehend the nature of global human migration seems to underlie the disturbing and panicked rhetoric within the news media. Moreover, rarely do either academic or intellectual discourses attempt to conceptualize migration outside of the bounds of law and politics – both institutional paradigms that tend to represent people and human rights according to a matrix of stasis, territory, and legitimacy. Thomas Nail’s The Figure of the Migrant, therefore, arrives at a perfect moment to give a unique insight into the phenomenon of movement in the present time. Utilizing an historical materialist approach to migration, Nail advances a lucid vision of migration through a much-needed ‘kinopolitics’, or ‘politics of movement’, highlighting the fact that we live in a world where there is no ‘social stasis, only regimes of social circulation’ (p4). That is to say, the contemporary economic system of technologically accelerated mobility, globalized industrial expansion, and capital accumulation determines and compels motion on a large, critical scale. Since ‘modernity’, according to Zygmunt Bauman (one of Nail’s major inspirations in the text), ‘is the impossibility of staying put’, a movement-oriented philosophy is necessary to theorize one of the figures who defines the twenty-first century.

Nail concisely and rigorously analyzes the mechanics of movement from the Neolithic age up through modernity. Relying upon the philosophical insights of Lucretius, Karl Marx, Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, and Bauman, as well as the corroboration of historical records Nail sufficiently equips his conceptual schema with a thoroughly researched and consistent foundation. He then takes a section of the text to apply his conceptual and historical model toward Mexico-U.S. migration, analyzing it as a major space of contemporary kinopolitics.  The material forces of movement have historically played a key role in shaping societies and political regimes. These conditions include the struggle for resources, climate change, political and social conflict, and the accumulation of territorial, economic, and political control. The social forces of motion are qualitatively distinct, yet symbiotic conditions of movement that have had unique points of emergence throughout history; and the conceptual mechanics of social motion (flow, circulation, and junction) are necessary furnishings to develop a framework within which the figure of the migrant manifests. 

The migrant, of course, is defined by movement; and, more often than not, this movement is a coerced outcome of ‘kinopower’, a term which Nail uses to refer to the manner by which societies ‘expand their territorial, political, juridical, and economic power through diverse forms of expulsion’ (p24). According to Part II of The Figure of the Migrant, these forces of kinopower include: ‘centripetal force’, in which the accumulation of territorial kinopower pulls from the periphery inward (through, for example, land accumulation and territorial expansion); ‘centrifugal force’, whereby political kinopower generates outward-directed motion, using ‘the power of an accumulated center in order to expel from, or to, its periphery’ (p189) – taking the form of de-politicization, arrest, and eviction. Kinopower also generates ‘tensional force’, or a ‘juridical power’, that creates legal boundaries and varying degrees of inclusion, thereby intensifying displacement, political conflict, and social resistance; and ‘elastic force’, which has historically stopped, managed, or redirected social flows to avert economic catastrophe or collapse. Nail’s development of these forces, conceptualized within a physics-based lexical frame, extends previous materialist theories of economic and political accumulation, as well as analyses of migration and movement. Nail makes careful use, for example, of Marx’s theory of ‘primitive accumulation’ where, as a requisite condition for a powerful elite to gain capital ownership and amass private property, there must first exist a process of displacing indigenous people and peasants from their land, depriving them of any property ownership in the first place. Yet, Nail’s emphasis on ‘expansion by expulsion’ consequently ‘radicalizes’ (p24) the theory of primitive accumulation by developing more extensively the notion that economic and political kinopower constantly expands and contracts, circulates and recirculates, distributes and redistributes flows of motion throughout history and into the present.

Of course, the material conditions of motion constitute and determine the primary subject of Nail’s text: the figure of the migrant itself. Yet, the figurations and shapes that the migrant takes are not merely products of kinopolitical conditions; rather, according to Nail, the migrant holds claim to its own ‘pedetic social force’. The migrant’s autonomous and active pedetic force performs a counter-movement that is unpredictable and undetermined, often inspiring an inclusive and collective social motion. In other words, the capacity to redirect or apply pressure upon kinopower stems from a social force of ‘solidarity or collective disruption’ (p127). Social unrest, discontent, and general outrage inspire a joined action to collide with, or even block entirely, the flows of expansion by expulsion. Different migrant figures react to kinopower in their own singular manner, operating with different provisions for pedetic social force. The four figures that Nail outlines in detail are ‘the nomad’, ‘the barbarian’, ‘the vagabond’, and ‘the proletariat’. These figures each come from specific regimes of circulation that have forced them out of their home territories; yet they each, concurrently, produce waves of pressure against the material forces of growing territorial control, privatization, and juridical power… 

Read the rest here.

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