Here is an interview I did on the politics of movement with Nico Buitendag for his podcast, Undisciplined. The last three interviews were with Andrew Culp, Sandro Mezzadra, and Simon Springer. Check them all out here.
Here is an interview I did on the politics of movement with Nico Buitendag for his podcast, Undisciplined. The last three interviews were with Andrew Culp, Sandro Mezzadra, and Simon Springer. Check them all out here.
Kinetic Revolution: Understanding the Transversal Reality of the “Philosophy of Movement”
Dario Giovanni Ali interviews Thomas Nail, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver on his theory of “kinopolitics.” Translated into Italian and published in Visitors, K-Pocket Guide (Italy, Kabul Press, 2020), 52-61.
Download here in English and Italian.
Dario: In The Figure of Migrant (Stanford University Press, 2015), you claim that the migrant has become the political figure of our time. Human migration is increasingly common in all nations of the world, more today than ever before. With your words: “The migrant is the political figure who is socially expelled or dispossessed as a result, or as the cause, of their mobility. The migrant is the collective name for all the political figures in history who have been territorially, politically, juridically, and economically displaced as a condition of the social expansion of power” (Hostis Journal, 30 June 2015). So what is the social impact of this recognition of the migrant as the main political figure of our time?
Thomas: If migration is understood to be, as I believe it is and has been, a major constitutive social force throughout history, my hope is for at least two consequences: First, I hope it means that migrant voices and agency will be included in the social processes they themselves help to build and reproduce. Those who contribute socially and are affected socially should have the right to determine how they are affected socially. Currently, we are living in a global apartheid in which millions of migrants who form the backbones of so many social and economic systems are treated as if they are nothing or as if they were “illegal.”
Second, and relatedly, there is an important historical consequence: Western civilization was founded on the dispossession and colonization of migrants (nomads, barbarians, vagabonds, and the proletariat). Western culture has also made it a strategic point to destroy and marginalize migrant histories. My hope in showing migration to be a much longer and larger historical structure is that we will try and recover these erased histories to supplement and even overthrow the currently dominant and exclusionary ones.
D) Speaking in an interview with CriticalTheory.com in 2015, you claimed that “societies themselves are not, as they are often treated, static entities of fixed members but continuous circulations of metastable social flows.” Historically societies are actually the result of a mixture of different people and cultures.
In The Figure of the Migrant, three words are essential to understand the “kinopolitics”: “flows,” “junctions” and “circulation.” What is the exact meaning of these words, and how are they interlinked? How can a word such as “citizenship” take on new meanings and implications in the politics of movement?
T: A flow is a continuous movement of matter. Societies are produced and reproduced by accumulating a continual flow of materials such as water, wood, air, stone, metals, money, people, and so on. Instead of just letting rivers flow, trees grow, and people move, societies try and harness these flows by continually capturing them and iterating them again and again in a social “junction” or “cycle.” These cycles are what allow matters to become metastable, like eddies or whirlpools in a river. Each cycle siphons off a material flow, cycles it, and discards the waste. There are no perfect circles—only leaky entropic ones—so the quest of continual extraction continues. Once enough of these flows have been sustained in relatively stable cycles, the cycles can be ordered into much larger fields of social circulation. Some cycles are larger, more central, contain more sub-cycles, and so on—and at the limit of these large orders is where you find the emergence of what we call “borders.” Borders are the main operators that expel social waste, dispossess people outside, and fortify the final social junction so that the whole process of social circulation is secured and defended.
Citizenship is an extremely heterogenous idea with widely diverging historical meanings. Conceptually, I am not sure that the risk of salvaging this term is worth all the dangers and misunderstandings that are likely to come with it. Can there be citizenship without exclusion? I am not sure. I have not written a lot about “citizenship” but rather about “migrant cosmopolitanism,” which is defined not by any universal category such as “cosmopolitan citizenship” but by the singularity of the struggles and demands of concrete migrant groups. There is no final social system or universal subject of politics for me. The figure of the migrant is not a universal ahistorical social figure but a historical one primary to our present moment that demands our ethical and philosophical attention. The challenge, then, is to respond to new figures as they emerge. The migrant happens to be the figure of our time. For example, the refugees and allies now struggling to enter the United States through Mexico are not universal; they are concrete and historical, and we should not presume to know their demands and needs before hearing them out.
D) Movement is a specific feature of social life. Historically, however, the emergence of sedentary cultures has developed a sort of suspicion toward movement because it cannot be contained, framed and therefore ruled. If, on the one hand, fixity is historically linked to authoritarianism, to control, and to forms of governance, on the other side movement expresses an unrestricted sense of freedom. The jester is one of the most significant figures that had embodied the essence of movement during the Middle Ages. Considering that he was never part of the traditional social orders of Middle Ages (oratores, bellatores, and laboratores), he was harshly condemned by the Catholic church as an evil and dangerous figure. Some of the contemporary figures you identified are those of the nomad, the barbarian, the vagabond, and the proletariat. Can you talk a little more about that?
T: Movement, for me, is neither good nor bad. It’s not a normative idea. There is, physically speaking, no such thing as stasis in the entire universe as we currently know it. Given this, it makes sense to me to start from where we are at historically and think of how movement is distributed or arranged in patterns of circulation. It is amazing, however, that so much of Western history has been so obsessed with achieving stasis and explaining motion by something else (eternity, forces, time, etc). The migrant, for me, is not a figure of freedom or constraint, but a figure defined by the expansion and expulsion of social circulation and bordering. The migrant is the one who is continually expelled by territorial, political, juridical, and economic dispossession in order to expand a certain regime of social motion (agriculture, cities, kingdoms, and capitalism). The nomad, barbarian, vagabond, and proletariat are the historical names given to a similar historical process of migration. Each name characterizes the territorial, political, juridical, and economic nature of their social expulsion.
D) In Being and Motion (Oxford University Press, 2018), you further develop the theory expressed in The Figure of the Migrant, and you present the basis of what has been called a “philosophy of motion.” You claim that “the old paradigm of a static cosmos, linear causality, fundamental particles, and classical space-time no longer fits the twenty-first-century reality of cosmic acceleration, turbulence, and continuously vibrating fields.” Your theoretical proposal refers to sociology, economy, law, and politics, embracing even cosmology: It includes a real reformulation of all aspects of human and nonhuman life, and in this respect it sounds revolutionary. What are the political, economic, scientific and aesthetic consequences of a new kinetic paradigm based on motion?
T: The philosophy of movement is a six-volume project with new and exciting implications for politics, ontology, art, science, and nature. Here is a complete list of the volumes, half of which are still forthcoming: The Figure of the Migrant, Theory of the Border, Being and Motion, Theory of the Image, Theory of the Object, and Theory of the Earth. I will not try and summarize each one, but in general all the books try to show that in each of these major fields, movement has been marginalized and explained by something else—and that this has caused some serious errors in our thinking and in our histories. The aim of this project is to invert this situation and offer a new, movement-oriented framework.
Each of the volumes follows a similar tripartite structure as The Figure of the Migrant: Part I is conceptual, Part II is historical, and Part III describes the implications for contemporary life. Each book follows a similar “historical ontological” method by beginning with a contemporary problem (migration, borders, digital media, quantum theory, and climate change) and then does a deep, historical immanent critique of this problem that ends up completely inverting the way we think about the past and the present.
I do not imagine this project as a new metaphysical system of philosophy like Kant, Hegel, or even an anti-system like Deleuze—but rather a strictly historical and new materialist project animated by and situated in a particular present. I have no opinion about the “nature of reality in itself” or whether it is being or becoming or vitalist or otherwise. I hope that it is clear in Being and Motion that the philosophy of movement is distinctly different than what we typically call “process philosophy” in a number of important ways described in Chapter 3 of Being and Motion.
D) I have a question about another one of your research areas. In Lucretius I. An Ontology of Motion (Edinburgh University Press) you reference the Latin philosopher and poet Lucretius—responsible for the reintroduction of Greek atomism into Latin and Western thought—as an important historical figure in relation to movement and new materialism. How can a literary work such as De rerum natura be considered still contemporary in order to promote a new philosophy of motion and a real “kinetic revolution”—as you defined it?
T: Lucretius, I argue, was the first philosopher to put movement and motion first in his philosophy. I spent a lot of time going through the history of the philosophy of motion and was really quite shocked to find that only a few philosophers affirmed motion without trying to explain it by some other kind of substance, force, law, logic, or principle. Who in the history of philosophy thought that nature and matter moved stochastically without mechanism, vitalism, or other exterior explanation? Based on my research, my current conclusion, for reasons I cannot go in to here, is that only Lucretius, Karl Marx, and possibly later Henri Bergson fit this description. Marx and Bergson both wrote their first books on Lucretius, so there is a direct connection.
With the aim of tracing the historical precursors of the philosophy of movement in the Western tradition I am writing a series of books on a number of figures, not all philosophers, who have been important precursors to this maligned idea of movement.
To the point, Lucretius is important because he is the first materialist to do away with all residues of stasis. Even the atomists still held onto the idea that atoms were eternal, unchanging units. In Lucretius, however, you will find that he never uses the word “atom” or any Latin cognate for this term. It’s a major misunderstanding with huge consequences for the Western tradition. Lucretius, I think, is really a pre-Western thinker whose most important influences come from pre-Greek Minoan and Homeric oral cultures—and not primarily from Epicurean rationalism. Instead of atoms, Lucretius writes about flows, folds, weavings, strings, vibrations, textures, and pedetic movements without origin or end. Lucretius rejects all origins, all teleologies, all stasis, all gods, and all metaphysics. In the end, for Lucretius, every thing is a kinetic, performative, and meta-stable process that emerges from indeterminate matter in motion.
This is roughly where physics is at with what is now called “quantum gravity theory” in physics. In quantum gravity theory, space and time and all the laws of nature are not, as Einstein thought, a priori features of nature. They are emergent, metastable processes of indeterminate quantum fluctuations of energy. This is an extremely radical and relatively recent idea to which Lucretius is a precursor, in my mind. Physicists do not have an agreed-upon and experimentally supported unified theory of quantum gravity yet, but it’s where most of the work is being done in theoretical physics and quantum cosmology today. I think Lucretius was an important precursor to this new worldview and thus strikingly contemporary and prescient.
I just published a short piece at the New School’s Public Seminar magazine on migration and climate change. A further development of the idea that climate migration is a form of primitive accumulation.
Thirty years ago there were fifteen border walls around the world. Now there are seventy walls and over one billion national and international migrants. International migrants alone may even double in the next forty years due to global warming. It is not surprising that over the past two decades, we have also seen the rise of an increasingly powerful global climate-security market designed to profit from (and help sustain) these crises. The construction of walls and fences to block rising sea levels and incoming people has become one of the world’s fastest growing industries, alongside the detention and deportation of migrants, and is projected to reach $742 billion by 2023. I believe we are witnessing the emergence of what we might call a “climate-migration-industrial complex.”
This complex is composed of private companies who profit by securitizing nation-states from the effects of climate-related events, including migration. This includes private detention centers, border construction companies, surveillance technology consultants and developers, deportation and transportation contractors, and a growing army of other subcontractors profiting from insecurity more broadly. Every feature of this crisis complex is an opportunity for profit. For example, even when security measures “fail” and migrants cross borders illegally, or remain beyond their visas to live without status as “criminals,” there is an entire wing of private companies paid to hunt them down, detain them, and deport them just across the border, where they can return and begin the market cycle all over again. Each step in the “crimmigration” process now has its own cottage industry and dedicated army of lobbyists to perpetuate the laws that support it.
Here is the incredible double paradox that forms the backbone of the climate-migration-industrial complex: right-wing nationalists and their politicians claim they want to deport all undocumented migrants, but if they did, they would destroy their own economy. Capitalists, on the other hand, want to grow the economy with migrant labor (any honest economist will tell you that immigration almost always leads to growth in GDP), but if that labor is too expensive, then it’s not nearly as profitable.
Trump is the Janus-faced embodiment of this anti-immigrant, pro-economy dilemma and the solution to it — not that he necessarily knows it. With one hand, migrant labor is strategically criminalized and devalorized by a xenophobic state, and with the other, it is securitized and hyper-exploited by the economy. It is a win-win situation for right-wing capitalists but a crucial element is still missing: what will continue to compel migrants to leave their homes and work as exploited criminals in an increasingly xenophobic country?
This is where the figure of the climate migrant comes in. What we call “climate migrants” or “climate refugees” are not the victims of merely “natural disasters,” because climate change is not a strictly natural process — it is also highly political. The causes of climate-related migration are disproportionately produced by rich Western countries and the effects are disproportionately suffered by poorer countries. The circumstances that determine who is forced to migrate are also influenced by the history of colonialism, global inequality, and the same conditions that have propelled economic migration for decades. In short, the fact that climate change benefits the perpetrators of climate destruction by producing an increasing supply of desperate, criminalized, physically and economically displaced laborers is no coincidence. In fact, it is the key to the Trump “solution.”
Another key is the use of climate change to acquire new land. When people are forced to migrate out of a territory, or when frozen territories thaw, new lands, waters, and forests become open to extractive industries like mining, drilling, fishing, and logging. Trump’s recent (and ridiculous) bid to buy the thawing territory of Greenland for its oil and gas reserves is one example of this. Climate-stricken urban areas open up new real estate markets, as the gentrification of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina illustrated. In other words, climate change might not mean the end of capitalism, but rather could actually signal its resurgence from current falling rates of ecological profit. During colonialism, everything and everyone that could be easily appropriated (oil, slaves, old-growth forests, etc.), was gobbled up. The workers who are left today under post-colonialism demand more money and more rights. The minerals left are more expensive to extract. This is why capitalists have increasingly retreated to financial speculation, and now to monetizing their own crises.
If only there were new ways, the capitalist dreams, to kick start the economy and cheaply dislodge huge numbers of people from their land, devalorize their labor, and then appropriate that labor extremely cheaply. In other words, if climate change did not exist, capitalism would have to create it. Luckily for the capitalists, it does exist, because they did create it. Climate migrants now form what we might call a “disposable climate labor army,” conscripted out of a standing reserve of global poverty from wherever the next climate-related disaster strikes, and deployed wherever capitalism demands precarious, securitized, and criminalized labor to be exploited.
We need to rethink the whole framing of the climate migration “crisis.” Among other things, we need a more movement-oriented political theory to grapple better with the highly mobile events of our time — what I call a “kinopolitics.” The advent of the Capitalocene/Kinocene makes possible today the insight that nature, humans, and society have always been in motion. Humans are and have always been fundamentally migratory, just as the climate and the earth are. These twin insights might sound obvious today, but if taken seriously, they offer a complete inversion of the dominant interpretive paradigms of the climate and migration crises.
Humans and Earth have always been in motion, but not all patterns of motion are the same. There is no natural, normal, or default state of the earth or of human society. Therefore, we have to study the patterns of circulation that make possible these metastable states and not take them as given. This is what I have tried to work out in The Figure of the Migrant (2015) and Theory of the Border (2016). Unfortunately, the dominant framework for thinking about the climate and migrant crises is currently upside down. It starts from the perspective of a triple stasis: 1) that the earth and human society are in some sense separable and static, or at least stable, structures; 2) that the future should continue to be stable as well; and 3) that if there is not stability, then there is a “crisis.” Mobility, then, is a crisis only if we assume that there was or should be stasis in the first place. For example, migrants are said to destabilize society, and climate change is said to destabilize the earth.
From a kinopolitical perspective, we can see that the opposite is, in fact, true: Humans were first migratory, and only later settled into more metastable patterns of social-circulation (made historically possible by the social expulsion and dispossession of others). Migrants are not outside society but have played a productive and reproductive role throughout history. Migrant movements are constitutive and even transformative elements of society, rather than exceptional or marginal phenomena. The real question is how we ever came to act and think as if societies were not processes of social circulation that relied on migration as their conditions of reproduction. The earth, too, was first migratory, and only later did it settle into metastable patterns of geological and atmospheric circulation (e.g. the Holocene). Why did we ever think of the earth as a stable surface, immune from human activity in the first place?
The problem with the prevailing interpretation of climate change and migration is that the flawed paradigm that has defined the “crisis,” the notion of stasis, is also proposed as the solution “Let’s just get things back to normal stability again.” In short, I think a new paradigm is needed that does not use the same tools that generated the “crisis” to solve it — i.e. capitalism, colonialism, and the nation-state.
Today’s migrant “crisis” is a product of the paradox at the heart of the capitalist, territorial nation-state form, just as the climate crisis is an expression of the paradox at the heart of anthropocentrism. The solutions, therefore, will not come from the forms in crisis but only from the birth of new forms-in-motion that begin with the theoretical primacy of the very characteristic that is dissolving the old forms: the inherent mobility of the migrant climate and the climate migrant.
Thomas Nail is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Denver, working on a series of books on the philosophy of movement. His most recent book is Theory of the Image (Oxford University Press, 2018).
While I was giving a talk in New York the other week I had the chance to see a preview of this incredible exhibit on Latvian migrant exile artists working in New York in the 1960s (thanks to Andra Silapetere). I was really struck by the mysterious work of one artists in particular: Sigurds Vīdzirkste. The patterns are clearly not random and yet no one knows the cipher for them. Oddly enough looking at his work one feels that something is being communicated at an almost unconscious level—just based on the material pattern and shape of the burnt lumps of metal bulging from the canvas. There is clearly a visual language of some kind but in the absence of representation it becomes irrelevant and one just feels the brute order and material pattern in its immanence. Looking at his work is like being able to look at one’s own language as if it had no representational meaning. So strange. That is, as a material, graphic, sculptural, textual, process. If you are in New York check out this exhibit at the CUNY gallery.
Sigurds Vīdzirkste: A Little-Known Contributor to Cybernetics in New York
The painter Sigurds Vīdzirkste is another example of an artist in exile responding to the environment of the New York City art world by developing ideas outside of it, while nonetheless participating within it. Vīdzirkste constructed his artistic language by reacting to the rising interest in technology at that time, and through that, bringing artistic production to a new level. After his studies at the Art Students League, he developed a unique style of painting that he called “cyber-painting,” in which he synthesized his interests in mathematics, chemistry, and music. He first exhibited this work in 1964, in a solo show in his studio at 148 Liberty Street, where, next to abstract compositions of circles and stripes, he displayed canvas with dot-like reliefs, callous clots, and metallic-powder compressions organized in different rhythms.8 This show was followed in 1968 by a solo show entitled Cybernetic Canvases, which, held at the Kips Bay gallery at 613 Second Avenue, was the first time Vīdzirkste publicly used the term “cybernetics” in relation to his work.9 All of the exhibited canvases were composed of relief dots on monochrome ochre or grey backgrounds, and they were untitled, undated, and unsigned; only a number was assigned to each work.
After Vīdzirkstes’s death in his studio in New York, different pots with metallic powder and toluene were found, and after his paintings were brought to Latvia, a chemical analysis of one of his works revealed a mixture of pigments—metal particles soaked in a chemical substance and mixed with resin and resin lacquer.10Such combinations and experiments with pigments were most likely stimulated by his chemistry studies at the Riga State Secondary School before his emigration in 1944.
It is hard to trace a definite theory behind Vīdzirkstes’s dot paintings as he did not expand on his ideas in writing; but from sources available, we know that each work was created as an information system similar to that of punched cards for early digital computers.11 With each new painting, the artist organized dots in different rhythms and sizes and, as Voldemārs Avens (born 1924), another member of the Hell’s Kitchen group, remembers, he used precise calculations to create each system.12 As part of his process, he layered dot drawings done on transparent plastic sheets to create variations of patterns that could later be transferred onto canvas. This brings us back to his 1964 show, in which he also exhibited three drawings, which according to Vīdzirkstes’s letter written to his parents, formed the base of his information systems. Unfortunately, only one of them can be found in his archive, making it impossible to break his code.
With the development of technology after World War II, the use of cybernetics in art was prevalent in Europe,13 whereas in the United States, this was not the case. Even though one can map out early experiments linking art and technology, cybernetic and computational thinking in artistic production did not become widespread until the 1970s.14 Given this, Vīdzirkstes’s works developed in the 1960s, which demonstrate a unique and alternative system of visual signs bridging computing technologies and art, can be interpreted as a pioneering praxis that introduced the idea of programming to painting as a way to reconsider artistic production of the time.
Climate change is a weapon of primitive accumulation
Climate change has disproportionately negative effects on poorer countries and people of color, and disproportionally positive effects on receiving countries that benefit from hyper-exploitable and precious labor – what I call a ‘reserve climate labor army.’ This asymmetry is the result of a long history of capitalist colonialism and racism, which continues now through the bordered management of migration. Thus, contemporary global migration cannot be reduced to merely natural climatic causal explanations (Hulme 2011). The figure of the ‘climate refugee’ is never simply fleeing climate change but is doing so under postcolonial conditions of geopolitical violence and racism. The term ‘climate refugee’ itself serves to cover over the real kinopolitical conditions of social circulation at work that make such populations vulnerable to displacement in the first place.
Climate change is a weapon of primitive accumulation, or what I would call ‘expansion by expulsion,’ because it expands Western power by forcibly expelling people from their previous patterns of motion and appropriating them into its own conditions of social reproduction. This expulsion is fourfold: migrants lose the right to their land and homes (territorial expulsion), they lose their right to full civic participation (political expulsion), they lose their right to legal status (juridical expulsion), and they lose their right to the means of production or subsistence (economic expulsion). This fourfold expulsion is the necessary condition for the direct appropriation of vulnerable and cheap migrant bodies and for the expansion of capitalist eco-racism.
Nationalism, xenophobia, and racism also play a structural role in the process of primitive accumulation because they socially devalorize and thus cheapen the labor and lives of migrant workers. If migrants arrived but were not thoroughly racialized and discriminated against, their labor would be too valuable for capitalist investment to bother appropriating them in the first place. Thus, capitalism wields climate change under a triple condition of eco-colonialism: 1) the historical origins of recent climate change are in colonialism itself (oil from Africa, industrial production from slavery, and so on); 2) colonized populations and indigenous people are disproportionately forced to move because of climate change; and 3) these same populations are racialized as dangerous barbarian boat people upon arrival (Moore 2016; Goldberg 2017; Giuliani 2017).
But climate change, like primitive accumulation, is not just about the dispossession and appropriation of people and cheap labor. It is also about the direct appropriation of cheap or free land. The two go hand-in-hand and have done so since before the rise of capitalism (Nail 2015). At the same time that climate change displaces people, it also opens up previously occupied lands, waters, and forests to new privatized extractive and/or constructive industries. As the climate changes, previously inaccessible areas will be opened up for expanding new markets (supplied with abundant cheap labor), including new security markets for new borders, fences, walls, drones, and all the rest. (Think of the privatization and gentrification of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.) In other words, climate change might not mean the end of capitalism but might in fact herald its rebirth or second wind.
If capitalism loves disaster, why should we think climate change will necessarily mean the end of capitalism (Klein 2007)? If anything can be commodified, there is no absolute natural limit to capitalism, only relative limits to profit. We are most certainly at the cusp of one of these limits today, which Jason Moore attributes to ‘the tendency of the ecological surplus to fall’ (Moore 2016). Everything and everyone that could be appropriated easily (oil, slaves, old-growth forests, etc.), was gobbled up during colonialism. The workers who are left today want more money and more rights. The minerals left are more expensive to extract. This is why capitalists have increasingly retreated to financial speculation. If only there were a way, the capitalist dreams, to somehow cheaply dislodge huge numbers of people from their land, devalorize their labor, and appropriate it.
In other words, if climate change did not exist, it would be necessary for capitalism to create it. Lucky for it, it does, because it did. Migrants today ‘form a disposable industrial reserve army, which belongs to capital just as absolutely as if the latter had bred it at its own cost’ (Marx 1976, 784).
Read more here.
Centrifugal Force and the Mouth of a Shark: Toward a Movement-Oriented Poetics
Ariel: A Review of International English Literature
Johns Hopkins University Press
Volume 50, Number 4, October 2019
“No one leaves home unless / Home is the mouth of a shark” read the opening lines of Warsan Shire’s poem, “Home.” Connecting this powerful poem to the migrant/diasporic literary tradition, this article will introduce a new interpretive framework for the study of migrant literature—one which I call “kinopoetics.” I modify here Thomas Nail’s (2015) concept of “kinopolitics,” or a “politics of movement,” which suggests that “regimes of social motion” have historically created the material conditions for social and political formation (24). Kinopolitics, in turn, recognizes the migrant as the primary constitutive figure of social history and transformation. Extending from a politics to a poetics, kino-poetics takes a non-representational approach (derived from Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and Nigel Thrift) that treats literary texts as aggregates of sensible experience and affective maps of migrant mobility. I will explore, then, how these texts depict the migrant experience of disenfranchisement and expulsion and the “pedetic social force” (Nail, Figure 124), or active political power, that migrants are able to enact. I emphasize how migrant literature reconfigures the static, place-based poetics built into a regime of borders and nationhood. I will conclude with a kinopoetic reading of Shire’s poem, showing not only how it foregrounds the centrifugal forces that coerce refugees into exile but also how the migrant’s poetic voice confronts and undermines nationalistic hostilities.”
I will be speaking at ArtsLink, along with others, at CUNY Nov. 13th on migration, art, and the Anthropocene.
“Dispersed across the surface of Earth, computer clusters electronically hum in vast air-conditioned rooms.
One models sea level rises, precipitation rates, temperature increases, and property values in coastal metropolises
over the coming thousand years. Another runs simulations of various military strategies designed to respond to
the ensemble of armed insurgencies and mass migrations that are predicted to accompany expanding droughts
and crop failures. This cluster runs affect recognition algorithms on videos streamed from malls, schools, bridges,
beaches, cafes, prisons, subway cars, and stadiums in order to forecast the spatial distribution of criminal activity
in a bustling financial district. That cluster hosts a seemingly endless grid of lush virtual gardens that users
digitally water by periodically tapping on their phones while commuting to work. These clusters compete with one
another to mine cryptocurrencies while quantitatively speculating in weather derivatives markets. All of this silicone
only senses, analyzes, and simulates the planet in order to grow as a more total power over it.”
Following its online release, I will also be organizing exhibitions and screenings of the work in the year ahead. Please don’t hesitate to let me know if you are interested in showing “Climate, Capitalism, Control” or if you know of potential events, venues, or curators that you think I should reach out to. Thank you for taking the time to read this far, and I hope that you find the project meaningful and worthwhile.
All of the best,
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…
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This book brings together insights from border scholars and philosophers to ask how we are to define and understand concepts of borders today. Borders have a defining role in contemporary societies. Take, for example, the 2016 US election and the UK Brexit referendum, and subsequent debate, where the rhetoric and symbolism of border controls proved fundamental to the outcomes. However, borders are also becoming ever more multifaceted and complex, representing intersections of political, economical, social, and cultural interests.
For some, borders are tangible, situated in time and place; for others, the nature of borders can be abstracted and discussed in general terms. By discussing borders philosophically and theoretically, this edited collection tackles head on the most defi ning and challenging questions within the fi eld of border studies regarding the defi nition of its very object of study. Part 1 of the book consists of theoretical contributions from border scholars, Part 2 takes a philosophical approach, and Part 3 brings together chapters where philosophy and border studies are directly related.
Borders intersect with the key issues of our time, from migration, climate change vulnerability, terror, globalization, inequality, and nationalism, to intertwining questions of culture, identity, ideology, and religion. This book will be of interest to those studying in these fields, and most especially to researchers of border studies and philosophy.
Read my chapter here.
This chapter introduces a new process or movement-oriented “kinopo- litical” methodology for studying borders. In this I would like to argue against two common assumptions about how borders work: Borders are static, and borders keep people out. My argument takes the form of three interlocking theses about borders: (1) borders are in motion, (2) the main function of borders is not to stop movement, but to circulate it; (3) borders are tools of primitive accumulation. These three theses are then followed by a brief concrete example to illustrate them. These theses have major implications re-theorizing borders today, as I have shown elsewhere at length (Nail, 2016).
It is more important to study borders today than ever before. At the turn of the twenty-first century, there were more migrants than ever before in recorded history (10M, 2010; WHO, 2015) .2 Today, there are over one bil- lion migrants (UNDP, 2009, 21).3 Migration has risen by nearly 50 percent since the turn of the twenty-first century, and more than 56,000 migrants have died or gone missing worldwide over the last four years (Hinnant and Janssen, 2018). More than ever, it is becoming necessary for people to migrate due to environmental, economic, and political instability. In par- ticular, climate change may even double international migration over the next 40 years (IOM, 2009).4 What is more, the percentage of total migrants who are nonstatus or undocumented is also increasing, thus posing a seri- ous challenge to liberal democracies premised on universal equality (see Cole, 2000).5
In order to manage and control this rising global mobility, the world is becoming more bordered than ever before. In just the past 20 years, but particularly since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 on the United States, and more recently the war in Syria, hundreds of new borders have emerged around the world: miles of new razor-wire fences and concrete security walls, numerous offshore detention centers, biometric passport databases, and security checkpoints in schools, at airports, and along vari- ous roadways across the world. All make manifest what has always been the true strategy of global capitalism and colonialism: to steal the world’s wealth and lock out the poor. “Europe has invaded all peoples; all peoples are com- ing to Europe in their turn” (Latour, 2018).
The recent rise in right-wing nationalism and xenophobia in the West is precisely a reaction to the so-called “migration invasion.” Borders are the new weapons being used to continue a war against the rest of the world. This is the context and importance of rethinking borders today…
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