• Zoe McDonald

Humanities on the Edge Presents Thomas Nail



Even before he stepped onto the stage at the Sheldon Museum of Art’s Auditorium, Thomas Nail knew he would present a disturbing argument. During his March 11th Humanities on the Edge (HoE) talk, “The Climate Migration Industrial Complex,” Nail argued three 21st century global catastrophes are not unrelated. Climate change, migration, and COVID-19 form a financial cycle. Deforestation contributes to the spread of deadly viruses. Capitalism profits off vulnerable populations forced to move as their homelands become uninhabitable. For-profit detention centers, private security companies, and employers all benefit from illegal migrants as a class of hyper exploitable people. This is in direct contrast to empirical findings that immigrants benefit their new communities. Nail argues the accelerating impacts of climate change, human migration, and the COVID pandemic are business as usual.


As Nail emphasized several times during his talk, he is interested in macro-level movements, such as people across national borders. This philosophy of motion is at the center of the Denver University Philosophy professor’s books including The Figure of the Migrant (Stanford UP, 2015), Returning to Revolution: Deleuze, Guattari and Zapatismo (Edinburgh University Press, 2012), Theory of the Border (Oxford University Press, 2016), Being and Motion (Oxford University Press, 2018), and Theory of the Earth (Stanford University Press, 2021). In person, Nail’s sandy hair often falls in his eyes as he elaborates on his responses to questions from graduate students in English, philosophy, sociology, and modern languages.


Although it is outside of the scope his talk, Nail’s focus macro movements can lose the nuances of individual experiences. Ramón Grosfoguel, the November’s HoE speaker, emphasized the ways immigrant’s assimilation experiences within the United States depend on geographic, racial, and colonial contexts. Two recent novels, Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt and Gabriela Garcia’s Of Women and Salt, represent fictional accounts of the migration and profit-making cycles Nail described. Although Nail did not directly name the thinkers or experiences of individuals caught up in the viscous cycle he names, during the question and answer period, he elaborated on his experiences working with advocates in Toronto and his awareness that women face compound impacts due to their gender. Through acknowledging these limitations and presenting a clear argument, I found myself comparing listening to Nail to listening to Slavoj Zizek, another contemporary philosopher calling for listeners to act on their knowledge of what is deeply unsettling.


What should listeners do with Nail’s signature movement-focused analysis into the climate change migration industrial complex? What can be done to alter this cycle? These are key questions I wished Nail spent more time considering within his central argument. Thankfully, after I asked him, Nail offered several possible directions. Recognize environmental destruction and anti-immigrant rhetoric are not paradoxes. Capitalism uses people as cheap labor and as labor competition to repress wages. Look at resistance efforts lead by Zapatistas and grassroots efforts lead by indigenous women and frontline NGO staff such as those in No One is Illegal. As I told Dr. Marco Abel, Nail is another Humanities on the Edge speaker well worth listening to due to the ways his theories can inform students within literature, creative writing, and rhetoric and composition.


The next HoE speaker is Anna Arabindan-Kesson, an Assistant Professor of African American Studies and Art and Archelogy at Princeton University. Her April 21 talk is titled, “Plantation Imaginaries: Immigrant Forms and Forms of Enclosure.” Follow HoE on Twitter at @UNLHotE.