Category Archives: review

Nietzsche’s critique of Stoicism

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I’ve been taking my time wading through the different sections of the recently published Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition. This collection is excellent for getting an overview of where the scholarship is on Stoicism is right now, from Ancient Greek and Roman sources to the contemporary Stoic revival.

It goes without saying that, as a non-specialist, I was initially drawn to this publication because there has been a popular revival of Stoic philosophy, especially in the past few years. I’ve covered some of this trend in earlier posts. My entry on Tim Ferriss and Tara Brach focused on how Eastern meditation was being blended along with Stoic philosophy in order to produce a version of Mindfulness ready-made for Bay Area entrepreneurs. The Ferriss-Brach hybrid (blending Buddhist meditation techniques with Stoic techniques drawn from Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius) has the goal of redefining success in a post-Jobsian era. the-tao-of-senecaWhereas Steve Jobs expressed the era of complete devotion to the perfect product at the expense of healthy relationships and fulfillment in life more generally, the new Silicon Success strategies emphasize a centered frame of mind that balances personal productivity and group work in order to maximize one’s influence on potential followers. Stoic Mindfulness is good for business because its emphasis on self-control and happiness mitigates awry emotions, producing an entrepreneur who is now free to hack themselves to perfection while simultaneously establishing a carefully constructed bond with potential followers. “Always Hinged” could be their slogan.

This mindful approach to success has seen some push-back recently, which I’m going to briefly summarize. I should probably clarify here that I don’t necessarily subscribe to any of the critiques below. In fact I personally practice a form of meditation that combines elements from a variety of traditions, including mindfulness training. Yet I find the critiques below to be a helpful reminder that there’s more than one way to understand this self-hacking trend.

The Will Davies critique: My entry on Ferriss and Brach brought in Will Davies’ The Happiness Industry in order to summarize the gist of most Foucault-inspired critiques of Mindfulness. Basically, the complaint against our culture’s obsession with Mindfulness (whether in the form of CBT, Stoicism, Buddhist, or Transcendental meditation) is that it epitomizes “neoliberal ethics,” a phrase that refers to the expected mode of living in a world that has been completely taken over by free market ideology. In such a world, the risk has been transferred from governments and corporations over to individuals. As individuals become more exposed to risk, we become sicker creatures, and yet it’s also our responsibility to dig ourselves out–to pull ourselves up by our own psychological bootstraps. Davies’ critique is quasi-Marxist inspired. His proposed alternative to individual mindful techniques is a communitarian ethos, one that doesn’t get much play in popular media.

A Nietzschean critique: That brings me back to The Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition, because Michael Ure’s “Stoicism in nineteenth-century German philosophy” offers a fascinating critique of contemporary Stoicism by way of Nietzsche. Since a flurry of recent self-help books have re-packaged Stoicism as Western mindfulness, Nietzsche’s commentary feels strangely relevant.nietzsche1882

In order to appreciate Nietzsche’s critique of Stoicism (and, by extension, a Nietzschean critique of Western mindfulness more generally), it should be noted that during his middle period he actually embraced Stoic elements. Ure points out that Nietzsche was especially drawn to the Stoic ethic of eudaimonism (living in such a way as to maximize personal fulfillment) as a counterpoint to the “communitarian ethos” of modern political philosophy. A crude way to put this would be that Nietzsche saw Stoicism as offering a strong individualism in contrast to herd morality.

In ancient Stoic philosophy Nietzsche believed he had found a salutary reminder of an ancient ethic based on pride in oneself and love of fate that stood in sharp opposition to the self-contempt and hatred of this world that he saw as the basis of Christian and secularized versions of Christian ethics. (583)

Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity is probably outdated. As Sloterdijk suggests in Rage and Time, 20th-century Christianity pivoted away from a life-denying “otherwordly” emphasis and more or less embraced a “thiswordly” ethic. But Nietzsche’s vision of Christianity is beside the point right now. What matters is the basic opposition he draws between Stoic eudaimonia and modernity’s collective ethic. The result is that Nietzsche “pinpoints and affirms the general Stoic ideal of rational self-sufficiency through independence of all externals” (583). Furthermore, for Nietzsche, this quasi-detached ethic of “going negative” is what aligns Western Stoic philosophy with Eastern Buddhist meditative techniques.

Here’s where it gets interesting. In the 1880s, according to Ure, Nietzsche re-evaluated Stoicism as he developed his own philosophy of the will to power. As he increasingly pressed for an embrace of risk, chance, and periodic self-transformation in dynamic response to those elements, Nietzsche began to criticize Stoicism’s “extirpation of the passions and idealization of tranquil self-control”. He came to dislike the entire Western project of rationalism, which he saw as less an expression of strength than one of “fear of chance and risk”. The alternative, for Nietzsche, is to intensify the passions and ride the rollercoaster of pain and pleasure to a higher form of joy–an experience of life more intense than balanced happiness. This higher joy, Ure explains, “hinges on maintaining our vulnerability to chance”.

One way of reading Nietzsche’s later rejection of Stoicism is that he criticizes what the self-help industry now calls mindful techniques (esp. negative visualization) because such practices ultimately provide a buffer of indifference rather than intensifying exposure to chance. The mindfulness industry is based on integration and balance, and the “untimely” message of Nietzsche is that we might need to occasionally interrogate those virtues.

However, it’s also true that, in a sense, Nietzsche advocates an “integration” of sorts with his will to power. But Nietzsche’s integration works through active differentiation and selection rather than suspending judgment. The main target of his critique is how integration is achieved.

Why I might start eating rocks: A review of Jeffrey Nealon’s Plant Theory

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When I was a kid I remember reading through Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories for Late at Night and stumbling on Roald Dahl’s short story, “The Sound Machine”. The plot follows Klausner, a man obsessed with sound, who invents a sound machine that can pick up the screams of plants. As a budding rationalist I experienced disbelief but was nonetheless affected when Klausner snipped a flower and his machine recorded a distinct shriek arising from the plant.

I would later discover in graduate school that Dahl’s story was most likely a playful innovation within a long tradition of imagining objects as subjects that hearkened back to the 18th-century “cult of sensibility”. In fact imagining that flowers have pain is much less ambitious than these earlier precedents–some depicting circulating commodities such as British coins as having secret inner lives that only a novelist could capture.

The difference between a shrieking plant and an adventurous coin, however, is that there’s an emerging consensus within the scientific community that Roald Dahl’s Klausner wasn’t too far from the mark, that plants might indeed experience pain that we’re just now figuring out how to record.

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Jeffrey T. Nealon’s Plant Theory: Biopower and Vegetable Life attempts to do justice to this development in the biological sciences by updating biopolitical theory–the same theory that currently underpins animal studies. Where animal studies rocked the world of “identity theory,” showing that various forms of disability studies, queer studies, feminism, etc., took it for granted that human rights were the only form of life deserving serious consideration, Nealon shows that Peter Singer and his disciples didn’t push their critique far enough; that perhaps the real “abjected other,” the loneliest minority, might be plant communities.

Plant Theory opens by gesturing towards advances in modern science in an attempt to convince the reader that our theorization of “life” is outdated. Nealon suggests that, since “recent research has uncovered that plants evidence active, purposeful, future-oriented movement and exhibit both competitive and defensive behavior … [and] also have a certain kind of language” (12), and these are the same characteristics that embolden animal studies to advocate for certain rights, it would seem that they should also be concerned about the health of plants. But Nealon doesn’t push his case that far. He does tease the reader with provocative questions such as, “if plants become recognized as an ethically compelling figure for life … what’s left for us to choose if we decide no longer to kill plants for humans to survive? … What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent, if the salad bar can no longer function as an ethical refuge from the rest of the menu at the steakhouse?” (27). Yet towards the end of Plant Theory he backs away from the language of rights altogether and simply suggests that his goal is to simply to problematize the field, to raise questions about our assumptions concerning what constitutes “life” and “health”.

The remaining arc of the book (somewhat sporadically) follows Western civilization’s assumptions regarding “vegetable souls” from Plato’s Timaeus and Aristotle’s Parts of Animals to 20th-Century Continental Philosophy. For me, the standout chapter here was Nealon’s reading of Aristotle in the section, “The Power of Soul”. He shows that Aristotle’s hierarchy of life, from the passive vegetable souls to active humans as rational animals, is sutured by the latter’s “stomachal sac” as a higher substitute for soil. Our digestive system suggests that we remain tied to the lowest rung of life; it’s as though we carry the earth within us; and in that sense humans can be considered “walking plants” (36). This ancient kernel of the human-as-vegetal provides a key concept for Nealon. He returns to this Aristotelian figure of the “walking plant” in his penultimate chapter on Deleuzeguattarian rhizomatics.

Even though Nealon strings together Aristotle and Heidegger in the way he organizes the book, the focus more or less shifts from ancient Aristotelian conceptions of what “life” entails to Heideggerian-Derridean constructions. Heidegger and Derrida are a pair for Nealon because they both assume (with some subtle qualification) that the main badge of a “living being” is that it has a distinct “world”. His critique here is that, even though Derrida replaces classical identity with event-emergence, he remains faithful to the way that Heidegger’s reserves life for organisms that have a “world”. Hagglünd’s commentary on Derrida helps clarify the case for Nealon: “everything in time is surviving, but not everything is alive … [and] only a living being cares about maintaining itself across an interval of time” (qtd. on p.57).

In the final sections of Plant Theory, Nealon moves forward by suggesting that this reservation fails to do justice to the Deleuzeguattarian rhizomatic “swarms of molecular emergence,” which force us to think beyond individuated worlds and distinct organisms. The main take-away from Nealon’s reading of Deleuze/Guattari is that, if boundary of life extends beyond the human-animal dyad of earlier assumptions, then in some cases it might make sense to speak of plants as actually having lives.

Some plants (as distinct organisms or as molecular swarms) do maintain themselves “across an interval of time,” as well as show other evidence of life such as pain and language, and thus should not be discounted from political discourse. But that’s not Nealon’s main concern. Rather than extending the language of rights to (some) plants, which would probably set up an untenable ethical situation for modern consumers, he wants to shift the conversation from principles and rights to “what doing does” and “how the mesh of life is altered by x or y practice, rather than securing the best theoretical or epistemological ground for our political actions” (114).

This “what doing does” ethic backs away from the salad bar scenario. The point isn’t whether someone should decide whether or not to eat a certain category of food, but rather how their consumer practices contribute to the emergence of a new ecology. Nealon is suggesting that it’s never going to be clear in advance what kinds of foods consumers should eliminate from their diet because “life” (in the biopolitical sense) doesn’t work that way. This is his attempt to un-ground animal studies.  

It’s with this pivot towards a non-grounded ethic that I think Nealon may fall a little short. Here he hews a little too closely to Deleuzeguattarian philosophy. Rather than shift the biopolitical conversation towards a nebulous “what doing does” (which can hardly ever be determined in a straightforward manner), the critical project executed so well by Plant Theory might be better served by a Nietzschean attempt at purposeful self-grounding. Beyond Good and Evil famously shows how it’s possible to both undermine all previously grounding attempts while still grounding future endeavors. It’s a matter of purposeful construction–setting new limits in order to create a new and better world.  

Until then I’m going to experiment with whether it’s possible to eat rocks.

Best 10 Philosophy Books I Read in 2015

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I read only a handful of philosophy books published in 2015 (on this list: Nail’s Figure of the Migrant and Agamben’s Stasis) because I dedicated most of my “slow reading” to ancient and modern texts that contributed in a significant way to (mostly Western) understandings of self-discipline. The place to begin here was Foucault’s immensely influential 1983-84 lectures on the Stoic & Cynic ascetic traditions, followed by a comprehensive survey of the Cynic tradition by Desmond, and then a Stoic emphasis by Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life. William James’ Energies of Men offered a modern psychological spin to all of this. Next, Svedson’s Philosophy of Boredom showed what happens when Western Civilization loses interest in asceticism more generally. Departing from this theme entirely: Sloterdijk’s Globes: Spheres II is one of my favorite philosophy books of all time; Nail’s Figure of the Migrant should be read by every citizen of the globe; and Agamben’s Stasis wasn’t great but I persuade myself to like everything he puts out.

  1. Peter Sloterdijk – Globes: Spheres II
  2. Lars Svedson – A Philosophy of Boredom
  3. William James – The Energies of Men
  4. Pierre Hadot – Philosophy as a Way of Life
  5. Diogenes Laertius – Lives of Eminent Philosophers
  6. William Desmond – Cynics
  7. Gavin Flood – The Ascetic Self: Subjectivity, Memory and Tradition
  8. Thomas Nail – Figure of the Migrant
  9. Foucault – The Courage of Truth: The Government of Self and Others II (Lectures at the College de France, 1983-84)
  10. Giorgio Agamben – Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm

Best 10 Works of Non-Fiction I read in 2015

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2015 was a big non-fiction year for me. I researched three separate tangents that led to some interesting book discoveries. Early in 2015 I was researching habit formation. That’s when I stumbled across Nir Eyal, Charles Duhigg, and Daniel Kahneman. Later on in the year I did a crash course in geology. Ward & Kirschvink was helpful here, but I found the older introduction by Tim Flannery to be outstanding for someone relatively new to that area. Finally, I tried to keep in touch with what was floating around Silicon Valley circles. That led me to read Ashlee Vance’s biography of Elon Musk and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens (Mark Zuckerberg approved), but Nir Eyal’s Hooked also belongs to that thread.

  1. Tim Flannery – The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples (print)
  2. Dan Barber – The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food (ebook)
  3. Nir Eyal – Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products (audiobook)
  4. Charles Duhigg – The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (ebook)
  5. Mary Beard – SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (audiobook)
  6. Ashlee Vance – Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (audiobook)
  7. Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast and Slow (audiobook)
  8. Mohsin Hamid – Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London (audiobook)
  9. Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (audio/ebook)
  10. Peter Ward & Joe Kirschvink – A New History of Life: The Radical New Discoveries about the Origins and Evolution of Life on Earth (audio/ebook)

For my Best 10 Works of Fiction from 2015, see this post. I’ll post one more “Best 10” list soon on Philosophy and Criticism.

Best 10 Works of Fiction I read in 2015

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This represents some of the better fiction I read in 2015. In the list below I’ve included the medium as well. 2015 was a year of audiobooks, ebooks, and almost no print. I suspect 2016 will remain similar.

  1. Liu Cixin  –  Three-Body Problem (audiobook)
  2. Liu Cixin – The Dark Forest (audiobook)
  3. J.G. Ballard – Concrete Island (audio/ebook)
  4. J.G. Ballard – High Rise (audio/ebook)
  5. Mohsin Hamid – How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (audiobook)
  6. Jonathan Franzen – The Corrections (audio/ebook)
  7. Andy Weir – The Martian (audiobook)
  8. McCarthy – Satin Island (audiobook)
  9. Richard Powers – Orfeo (audio/ebook)
  10. Margaret Atwood – The Heart Goes Last (audiobook)

I’ll post two more 2015 lists soon: one on my Top 10 Philosophy & Criticism Works and my Top 10 Non-Fiction Works.

High-Performing Soldiers and Workers: A Note on O’Hanlon’s ‘The Future of Land Warfare’

A few years ago (around 2012) I started following research updates published by the Brookings Institution. That dropped off when my interests drifted elsewhere. Then more recently I’ve been looking for political podcasts with some heft; I searched for the Brookings Institution once again.

I’m glad I did. Their Oct. 30 podcast event, “The Future of Land Warfare,” offers a roundtable on…the future of land warfare. The main interlocutor is Michael E. O’Hanlon, whose book, The Future of Land Warfare, argues for a build-up a conventional U.S. forces in order to prepare for future (and ongoing) conflict. He sees this as a correction to the present trend towards de-militarization (although he does laud Gen. Allen & the White House for its unprecedented coalition-building breakthroughs).

What I found most interesting about the podcast, however, is Gen. Petraeus’ comments. He more or less backs O’Hanlon’s call for an increased military presence; at the very least, they both agree, it creates deterrence. But Petraeus’ key addition to the discussion is that land forces in the future should be made up of what he calls “pentathlete soldiers”. I did a quick web search and found that he’s been pushing for this since at least 2007. Basically, a pentathlete soldier is different from a conventional Army soldier in the range of skills they’re expected to deploy. These future soldiers should be able to respond not only to conventional warfare, but also humanitarian crises, outbreaks, disasters, etc.

The trigger for any given scenario would be global instability. This is key. “Instability” is more general than traditional “warfare,” and this lack of specificity means that a pentathlete soldier must adapt to many different circumstances–the context here determined by shifting geo-political configurations. As world revolutions emerge and submerge at a faster rate, and as national boundaries are increasingly disrupted by globalizing forces, future soldiers must become high-performers.

This emphasis on varied high performance, capable of adapting to unforeseen instability (i.e., risk), is fascinating because it offers a strong military parallel to the emphasis on adaptation and varied skills in the economic arena. Just as the increasing instability of conventional domains demands that soldiers become more plastic, more “athletic” in their training, so must potential workers (students) view education as risk-minimization training, wherein they too learn skills varied enough to survive multiple economic cycles.

However, what stands out in this comparison is that there’s a strong spatial (strongly geographical) component that’s driving the demand for pentathletes. Petraeus explicitly makes such a connection in the “Future of Land Warfare” discussion. It’s as though the new geography is creating new military subjects.

But the economic instability leading to demand for entrepreneurial risk-taking seems rather non-spatial. It’s a matter of economic ebbs and flows rather than spatial alterations. 

There’s much more to the podcast. Do check it out.

Plasticity Everywhere

We live in the age of plasticity.

The most obvious form is psychological. Plasticity is driving a lot of neuroscience right now, as well as the cognitive-behavioral emphasis on habit formation. Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit (2012) codified this trend for a wider audience, but the real hero here is Wendy Wood: her work on consumer habits undergirds Duhigg’s book and she keeps plugging away (side note: the Sept. 2015 Annual Review of Psychology includes one of her more recent articles on this topic, “Psychology of Habit”). The therapeutic correlate to all this, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), works precisely because it harnesses the brain’s inherent plasticity.

Neuroscience and psychology are obvious domains, but the term “plasticity” is invading other disciplines.

In an Oct 2014 Issue of Nature, Kevin Laland and his colleagues presented a modified version of evolution, termed “extended evolutionary synthesis” (EES). EES re-works standard evolution theory (SET) by incorporating the emphasis on ecological adaptation that has been the focus of more recent evolutionary developmental biology (“evo-devo”) (162). Laland argues that SET is too “geno-centric,” whereas EES does justice to the ability of individuals to “respond to their environment by changing their form–a phenomenon called plasticity.” The effects of plasticity can have long-term effects, eventually selecting for “genetic variants” that “cement” the adaptive behavior (163). That is, genetic mutation can in many cases be traced back to the ingenious behavior of individuals rather than vice versa.

And now there are hints that even novelists are making use of plasticity. This week I read Richard Power’s 2014 novel, Orfeo, which follows the rise and fall of Peter Els, a musician-turned-biohacker. The novel is about art, taste, and the relationship of those terms to natural life. What’s so remarkable about Orfeo is that, in the process of figuring these relationships out, Powers offers a kind of aesthetic of plasticity.

To do this, Powers frames discussions of art in terms of habit. For example, the musician Els discovers “late in life … that the time to concentrate yourself was right before sunrise.” He hammers out a “routine” that induces peak creativity–a discovery that, he laments, could have worked wonders on his earlier, more puerile version of himself.

It’s when he performs this routine one morning that he comes across another physical specimen, a young woman who runs “like an anatomy lecture” and is “preternaturally desirable”–a kind of reconstructed nymph. As a musician, Els immediately focuses on the fact that her earbuds play an important role in this morning ritual. And so, as she runs circles around the ageing musician, he tries to figure out her taste in music. Consumerism, daily routine, and art become intertwined.

This jogging scene allows Powers to explore the impact of individual behavior on modern taste. Els decides that the woman’s routine is built around breaking away from the rhythms of nature (here represented by sounds from the surrounding trees & a particularly insistent bird) to remain within a contented bubble–her playlist. It’s here, in this protective coating, that she can perfect her own body. In terms of plasticity, this suggests two things. First, Els’s refined taste is normalized by Nature, whereas consumer-driven, appetitive taste is purely self-referential. Second, inferior, self-referential taste drives the process of habit formation in everyday consumers. The problem, according to Els the musician, is that the female runner has crafted a self (through an exercise regimen) that remains insensitive to the rhythms of the world.

This consumerist bubble offers a foil to the EES/SET debate in Nature. Whereas the EES theorists claim plasticity pays homage to the relationship between individuals and their habits within local ecologies, Orfeo shows that, for modern humans, plasticity breaks the individual away from locality. Becoming more plastic means becoming more impenetrable.

However, the great irony that emerges later on in Orfeo is that, in an attempt to awake consumers out of their appetitive and consumer-obsessed misery, Els attempts to subtly improve their routine by nudging them. Nudging is the artist’s attempt to bring the individual back into a relationship with their natural ecology. The first form of nudging is by music. Sitting in a coffee house, Els scans the oblivious, ear-phoned teenagers who nonetheless remain susceptible to the “spell of something” cast by a piece of sophisticated classical music playing in the background. The second, more obvious form of nudging is by using a form of genetic manipulation (I assume CRISPR, but Powers doesn’t say) to insert a musical composition into the DNA of living bacteria. Els’s aim is to both bring the art to life but–as a necessary consequence–propagate it through pathogenic colonization. The ceaseless reproductive cycle of the bacteria works as an analog to the musical composition seeping through the coffee house speakers. In both cases the art penetrates consumers, who remain unaware.

What seems ironic about Els’s search for aesthetic purity is that he begins with the belief that real taste adheres to the rhythms of life, but when communicating that taste to others the artist must somehow violate their self-constructed spheres. 21st-Century aesthetics becomes a matter of hacking the self-hackers. 

Some Thoughts on Thomas Nail’s ‘Figure of the Migrant’

A few weeks ago I saw on Stuart Elden’s Progressive Geographies blog that Thomas Nail’s The Figure of the Migrant was being released in early October. I snapped it up as soon as I could. 

Nail’s Figure of the Migrant attempts to provide a counter-history of the migrant by prioritizing movement. Most historical accounts of tourism, vagabonding, migrancy, and refugees begin with the assumption that populations tend to be localized and stable; migrant movement, in this traditional reading, is then read as an accidental offshoot of how humans tend to communalize. Migrants are nothing more than “failed citizens”. This state-first, migrant-second approach views in purely negative terms. And so Nail attempts to re-read that history from a positive point of view.

To do that he offers a new theoretical scaffolding, what Nail calls “kinopolitics”. This “social theory of movement” begins with the assumption that human groups function first and foremost as “flows,” that is, as a continual movement (think hunter-gatherer strategies). From there he layers concepts that explain how bustling energy of human flows become ordered and controlled: by junctions (“redirection of a flow”) and “circulation” (connections of junctions into “larger curved path”). It’s only when junctions & circulations manage flows in accordance with ancient power centers (such as temples, later palaces) that flows territorialize the earth and its resources, domesticating Nature and other homo sapiens. Emerging territories are sustained in turn by “centripetal” (circulating resources towards the center) and “centrifugal” (expelling unwanted detritus outwards) energies.

According to Nail, this territorial ordering is what produces the migrant, which varies over time but remains the expelled other. The centripetal concentration of agricultural communities expel a certain untamed percentage to beget the nomad; empire begets the barbarian; feudal power begets the vagabond; and modern liberalism (market-driven governments) begets the proletariat. That’s not to suggest each migrant figure only appears at that circumscribed historical period. Nail interprets refugees as contemporary barbarians, for example.

What lends the quatrain a common leitmotif is that, due to carefully orchestrated expansions and circulations, a remnant is forced to flee. Although the migrant isn’t helpless. Nail pointedly argues the movement is a mixture of compulsion and self-direction (ancient migrants expelled from middle eastern agricultural communities, for example, strategically headed for the steppes, establishing a nomadic way of life). But either way this mixture is enough to separate, e.g., the vagabond from the tourist.

Yet it’s in these finer details that I start to wonder whether Nail might need to be supplemented with a theoretical framework that’s used to working with theological traditions. The Figure of the Migrant is all about movement. The first historical instantiation of the migrant is the nomad. And yet there’s an entire theological tradition devoted to mythic expulsion that Nail never even hints at. He does refer briefly to Yahweh’s preference for the nomadic Cain rather than the agriculturally-minded Abel; but this allusion only draws attention to the fact that the original mythic expulsion–Adam and Even from the garden–is never explained in “kinopolitical” terms. Furthermore, the most famous polity from the medieval period–Augustine’s City of God as a floating ark moving precariously towards a higher world—doesn’t seem to have a place within the dualism Nail sets up between migrant flows (such as nomads on the steppes) and territorial concentration (such as ancient Sumer). Perhaps Nail would argue that the ark, like the city, is spherical with centripetal circulations; but the Church body within the ark isn’t setting down roots on terra firma. If anything it’s supposed to launch off at some point. Doesn’t Stuart Elden’s The Birth of Territory show that the medieval City of God departs from Roman territorialization? How would Nail account for this body politic that fits somewhere between Roman and feudal territory? 

And the most common figure representing movement in the same period–the pilgrim–doesn’t appear in The Figure of the Migrant. In Denise de Rougemont’s Love and the Western World, pilgrims and their chivalrous offshoots are driven more by compulsion than by choice. This seems to align them more with vagabonds than tourists. Where do the otherworldly and (sometimes) anti-territorial movements of non-expelled figures belong? Do pilgrims “become migrant” if they occasionally work against centripetal forces? 

In other words, what seems to be missing in Nail’s otherwise amazing contribution to geographical studies is a fine-tuned scale that accounts for anti-territorial movements that fit somewhere in between “good citizens” and “migrants”. There’s certainly space in his account for such figures, but The Figure of the Migrant leans towards an either-or scenario. Either migrants challenge the status quo or everyone else resides contentedly as a peaceful citizen. 

As with most dualisms, the payoff is normative: by suggesting one is either a citizen or an excluded migrant, Nail valorizes the latter as the secret to civilization that needs to be recovered. Migrants are Deleuze’s universal minority that flees entanglement and stasis.

– Nail, Thomas. The Figure of the Migrant. Stanford: SUP, 2015. Ebook.