The Figure of the Migrant
Thomas Nail



The migrant is the political figure of our time. Most people today increasingly fall somewhere, and at some point, on the spectrum of migration, from global tourist to undocumented labor. As a result, they experience (among other things) a certain degree of deprivation or expulsion from their social status. In this sense, the figure of the migrant is not a “type of person” or fixed identity but a mobile social position or spectrum that people move into and out of under certain social conditions of mobility. The figure of the migrant is a political concept that defines the conditions and agencies by which various figures are socially expelled as a result of, or as the cause of, their mobility.

Rather than view human migration as the exception to the rule of political fixity and citizenship, this book reinterprets the history of political power from the perspective of the movement that defines the migrant. This book begins not from normative or philosophical principles but from the social and historical conditions that define the subjective figures we have become: migrants. From this new starting point, it reinterprets political theory as a politics of movement: a kinopolitics.

This new starting point of political philosophy allows us to overcome two important problems set out at the beginning of this book. First, the figure of the migrant has been almost exclusively considered from the perspective of social stasis—and thus as derivative. However, Chapters 1 and 2 provide a new conceptual framework that privileges the primacy of the movement and flow that define the migrant. Stasis is then reinterpreted as a secondary “junction” of motion. The consequence of beginning from this movement-oriented philosophy of flows is that we are able to reinterpret several of the major historical conditions that produced migration according to their different regimes of social motion. We thus discover, in Part 2, that one of the conditions of expanding social motion is the expulsion of the migrant from various territorial, political, juridical, and economic orders.

The second problem we have overcome is that the migrant has been previously considered primarily from the perspective of the history of the state—and thus as ahistorical. But Part 3 develops a kinetic history of several major social formations created and autonomously organized by migrants against the dominant forms of social expulsion. The consequence of this conceptual history is that it gives us a concrete sense of what alternatives have been and can be created to oppose the dominant forms of kinopolitical expulsion.

The final payoff, and consequence, of the conceptual (Part 1), historical (Part 2), and counterpower (Part 3) analyses of migration and social motion is that they provide us with the tools to analyze contemporary migration in a new way: from the perspective of the primacy of migration and motion (Part 4). This is possible because the migrant is not only a historical figure but also a contemporary one, produced under certain social conditions that have persisted throughout history in different ways, to varying degrees, and in different combinations. Contemporary migration is a hybrid mix of all of them.

Analyzing contemporary migration according to the primacy of movement thus makes three important contributions. First, it allows us to see that contemporary migration is not a secondary phenomenon that simply occurs between states. Rather, migration is the primary condition by which something like societies and states is established in the first place. Migration is an essential part of how societies move. In particular, the expulsion of the migrant is a condition for social expansion and reproduction: it is constitutive. Second, it allows us to see that contemporary migration is poorly understood according to a single axis of social expulsion. Rather, the social conditions of migration are always a mixture of territorial, political, juridical, and economic types of expulsion. All four are operative at the same time to different degrees. Thus, migrants are always a mixture of different subjective tendencies toward nomadism, barbarism, vagabondage, and proletarian migrancy. Finally, this movement-oriented analysis allows us to see that there are alternatives to the contemporary conditions of migration being developed by migrants today.

However, there is still much work to be done in three major areas. The first area is historical. This book has limited its historical scope for the sake of clarity and brevity to analyzing only four major types of kinopower (centripetal, centrifugal, tensional, and elastic) during their general period of social dominance. Once these types of kinopower emerge historically, they tend to persist and mix with one another, creating various hybrid combinations. For example, the technology of enclosure creates a territorial expulsion from the land, a political expulsion of the peasants from the decision-making process, a juridical expulsion from the customary law, and an economic expulsion from employment. Expulsion is always multiple. It is always a question of type and degree. Thus, what remains to be done in the future is to analyze the kinopolitical technologies presented here (and elsewhere) according to their full historical and kinetic mixture or hybridization—which this book has presented only in their relative isolation.

The second area is contemporary. This book has used its conceptual and historical framework to analyze only one major area of contemporary migration: Mexico-US migration. Many other major and interesting areas of contemporary migration remain to be analyzed within this framework, such as the landless peasant movement in Brazil, the recent home foreclosure process happening around the world, the recent land grabs and expulsions in Cambodia, and the sans-papiers (without papers) struggle in France. So many migrant social expulsions are happening today that much remains to be done to reinterpret them according to the primacy of motion and the figures of the migrant that can pose an alternative to them.

The third area is subjective. In addition to limiting its historical and contemporary scope, this book has limited its subjective scope to focus solely on four major migrant subjects because it is their histories that were in most need of recovery, showed the sharpest visibility of social expulsion, and remain more relevant for most migrants today. But in doing so, it has left out the rich history and contemporary analysis of many other migratory figures much less intensely or dramatically expelled from their social status. Thus, future work also remains to be done to show how such figures as tourists, commuters, diplomats, business travelers, explorers, messengers, and state functionaries are affected by certain degrees of social expulsion with respect to their movement. These figures of the migrant also produce their own dominant and hybrid types (historically and recently) according to the four kinopolitical conditions. Work in this area is already under way in various ways in the journal Mobilities—although it is not clear that such work always adopts a movement-oriented philosophy in the way that this book has.

There is much more to be done in the kinopolitical analysis of migration. The aim of this book has been to prepare the way for further analysis by creating a general conceptual and historical framework proper to the migrant (based on social motion) that can be used to perform further historical and contemporary analysis of migration elsewhere. No doubt the coming century of the migrant will require many new hybrid analyses.