15 09 08

The Autonomy of Migration

The Animals of Undocumented Mobility

Dimitris Papadopoulos & Vassilis Tsianos

I. Imperceptibility

The concept of becoming seeks to articulate a political practice in which social actors escape their normalized representations and reconstitute themselves in the course of participating and changing the conditions of their material existence. Becoming is not only a force against something (primarily against the ubiquitous model of methodological individualism and the sovereign regimes of population control) but also a force which enables desire. Every becoming is a transformation of multiplicity to another, write Deleuze & Guattari; every becoming radicalizes desire and creates new individuations and new affections. Becoming is a drift. But these continuous becomings, this ceaseless process of diversification and transformation does not fabricate an infinite series of differences. Deleuze is not a difference engineer. Deleuze is a meticulous manufacturer of unity. Differences, individuations, modalities are only the starting point; they are the building materials of the world. So, interestingly enough, the end of all becomings is not the proliferation of diversity and difference, it is its disappearance. Becoming imperceptible is the immanent end of all becomings, it is a process of becoming everybody/everything by eliminating the use of names to describe what exceeds the moment. Becoming indiscernible, impersonal, imperceptible is Deleuze & Guattari's universal political project because one has suppressed in oneself everything that prevents us from slipping between things and growing in the midst of things[1].

This chapter will trace the political implications of the notion of imperceptibility in relation to migration and its role in the emergence of new modes of cooperation and action. Starting from a discussion of the notion of nomadism, we will argue that the practices of contemporary transnational migration force us to revise Deleuze & Guattari's split between nomadism and migration. Nomadism's dictum 'you never arrive somewhere' constitutes the matrix of today's migrational movements. The following section attempts to delineate various modes of nomadic becoming which govern migrants' embodied experiences: becoming animal, becoming women, becoming amphibious, becoming imperceptible. Finally, in the last section, we discuss how these volatile transformations escape the ubiquitous politics of representation, rights, and visibility. This exodus confronts today's configurations of political sovereignty with an imperceptible force which renders the 'walls around the world' irreversibly porous: this is the autonomy of migration.

II. Documents

Although the arrival of Sir Alfred Mehran has been registered in many European police departments of immigration affairs, his figure remains an enigma. Sir Alfred Mehran's biography seems to be emblematic for the figure of the nomad. His desire was to come to Britain on a refugee passport with his original name Mehran Karimi Nasseri. In 1988 he flew from Brussels via Paris to London. In London he was refused entry into the country and sent back to Paris. But France also denied him entry and Brussels did not accept him back. Since then he has lived in the transit area of the Terminal 1 in the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. When he finally got a UNHCR passport and was able to travel again and to leave the transit space, he declined to acknowledge and to sign these documents arguing that the person Mehran Karimi Nasseri does not exist any more. This person existed in 1988, today he is Sir Alfred Mehran.

This course of events is the ideal type of nomadic life. Nomadic motion is not about movement but about the appropriation and remaking of space. What characterizes the nomad is not his/her passage through enclosures, borders, obstacles, doors, barriers. The nomad does not have a target, does not pass through a territory, leaves nothing behind, goes nowhere. The nomad embodies the desire to link two points together, and therefore s/he always occupies the space between these two points. The enigma of Sir Alfred Mehran's arrival does not result from his multiple displacements and final capture in Paris, rather it refers to the fact that this very moment of arrival lasts seventeen. Arrival has a longue durŽe, it covers almost the whole life of the nomad, one is always there and always leaving, always leaving and always manifesting in the materiality of the place where one is.

You never arrive somewhere. Sir Alred Mehran's spectacular story breaks with a classic conception of migration as a unidirectional, purposeful, and intentional process. In this version of the notion of migration—typical of Fordist societies—the migrant is the signifier of a particular conceptualization of mobility: the individualized subject laboriously calculating the cost-benefit ratio of his/her trip and then starting an itinerary with fixed points of departure and arrival. But migration is not an individual strategy, nor does it designate the option 'exit.' Rather it characterizes the continuous shifts and radical re-articulations of individual trajectories. Migration is not the evacuation of a place and the occupation of a different one, it is the making and remaking of one's own life on the scenery of the world. World-making. You cannot measure migration in changes of position or location, but in the increase in inclusiveness and the amplitude of its intensities. Even if migration starts sometimes as a form of dislocation (forced by poverty, patriarchal exploitation, war, famine), its target is not relocation but the active transformation of social space. By being embedded in broader networks of intensive social change, migration challenges and reconstitutes the sovereign population control which functions solely through the identification and control of the individual subject's movements. Sir Alfred Mehran represents in the most radical way a non-representable migrant: the person who starts the journey is not the same at the end, the space which one inhabits is not the one intended, your documents do not refer to who you are or who you were but to who you become in the journey. Travel becomes the law, becoming becomes the code.

III. Animals

The coyote is more than a canis latrans in the borderline of USA and Mexico. It designates all these commercial 'guides' who are able to cross the national borders and to organize illegal migrational movements and undocumented mobility. British sailors call the elusive helpers of stowaway passengers sharks, in the Greek-Albanian borders their name is 'korakia,' ravens. In Chinese they are called 'shetou,' snakehead, a person who is as cunning as a snake and knows how to use his/her agile head to find a way through difficult situations. 'Shetou' was also the name of the Chinese network blamed by the public anti-trafficking discussion for the Dover tragedy, the death of fifty-eight illegal migrants in a container lorry at Dover in the beginning of this millennium.

The official anti-trafficking discourse is bound to a sovereign conception of border politic: It individualizes border crossing and presents migrants as victims of the smuggler mafia. In the sovereign public imaginary migration is an illegally organized scandal with only two players: lawbreaking migrants and criminal smugglers. But the criminalization of border crossing and the reduction of the complex and polymorphic networks which sustain migrational movements to a single act/two actors piece hides how the alleged sovereign humanitarian doctrine 'save the people' is nothing but the a violent fixation on the politics of 'save the national borders' and on the protection of the national corpus from unchecked intrusion. (We'll come to the importance of this preoccupation with borders for the constitution of national sovereignty later.) Migration is not a unilinear individual choice process, it is not an effect of the push and pull mechanics of supply and demand for human capital. Migration adapts differently to each particular context, changes its faces, links unexpected social actors together, absorbs and reshapes the sovereign dynamics targeting its control. Migration is arbitrary in its flows, de-individualised, and constitutive of new transnational spaces which exceed and neutralize sovereign politics. Migration is like big waves, they never appear precisely where they are expected, their arrival can never be predicted exactly, but they always come, they have a magnitude to reorder the whole given geography of a seashore, the sandbanks, the seabed, the maritime animals and plants, the rocks, the beach.

In Turkey trafficking with illegal migrants, 'koyun ticareti,' sheep trade, is more than an affair of corrupt policemen and has little in common with the phantom of a globally active 'smuggler' mafia. The coastal 'sheep trade' is a whole regime of mobility, a whole informal network in which hundreds of different actors participate, each one with different stakes, to make borders permeable. Migration makes material and psychosocial spaces porous, a Benjaminian porosity, where public and private intermingle, deviance and norm are renegotiated, zones of exploitation and justice are rearranged, formal and informal situations are reassembled. Rendering states' apparatuses and borders porous is the tactic migrants deploy to oppose the control of desire. Becoming animal is not only a mere metaphor for the transactions in the current regime of mobility nor just a new academic theoretical trend; it is the cipher for the corporeal substratum of transnational migration in times of a global regime of forced illegality.

Consider for example the importance of becoming for the migrants' border crossing of the Straits of Gibraltar. In 1991, Spain imposed a visa requirement for migrants from the Maghreb region. Since then migrants from Morocco, Mali, Senegal, Mauritania etc. gather in Tangier waiting for an appropriate moment to cross the Mediterranean. They are called 'Herraguas,' the burners, people prepared to burn their documents when they reach the Spanish Schengen border in order to avoid being resent to their country of origin. In the film Tanger, le rve des bržleurs (Morocco/France 2002) Leila Kilani follows the paths of Rhimo, Denis, and others and documents the de-individualized dreams and practices of all these burners. But the strategy of de-identification is not primarily a question of shifting identitarian ascriptions; it is a material and an embodied way of being. The strategy of de-identification is a voluntary 'de-humanisation' in the sense that it breaks the relation between your name and your body. A body without a name is a non-human human being, an animal which runs. It is non-human because it deliberately abandons the humanist regime of rights. The UNHCR convention for asylum seekers protects the rights of refuges on arrival, but not when they are on the road. And we already know, the arrival has a long longue durŽe, it does not concern the moment of arrival but the whole trip, almost your whole life. This is how migration solves the enigma of arrival. As the burners say, if you want to cross the Spanish borders, it is not sufficient to burn your papers, you have to become an animal yourself. Becoming is essential to mobility. The trope of becoming animal is only one of the options migrants employ in order to claim their freedom of movement. Becoming woman, becoming child, becoming elder, becoming soil, becoming fluid, becoming animal is the migrants' answer to the control of their desire.

Consider for example the 'eternal' becomings of one Interviewee—we met with him doing fieldwork for a project on transnational migration routes in a camp in Northern Greece—a Chinese man on his way to France. He was forced to stay in Romania for some time, married and got a residence permit there, applied for an EU VISA, was rejected, reapplied and got a three month work permit which brought him to Paris, after overstaying his visa for more than twelve months was caught and deported back to Romania (something which means that you are not eligible to apply for an EU visa for a period of ten years), in Romania he changed identity and gender, married again as a woman now, applied again for an EU visa, travelled to Paris, changed again identity and married in France, where he finally got a residence permit. Sometime later this person sent us an email that he or she—because the grammatical conventions of this sentence oblige us to choose a pronoun—arrived in Canada.

Becoming is the inherent impetus of migration. Migrants do not connect to each other by representing and communicating their true individual identities, nor by translating for others what they posses or what they are. Migrants do not need translation to communicate, migration does not need mediation. Migrants connect to each other through becomings, through your own gradual and careful, sometimes painful transformation of your existing bodily constitution, they realise their desire by changing their bodies, voices, accents, patois, hair, colour, height, gender, age, biographies.

“Starting from the forms one has, the subject one is, the organs one has, or the functions one fulfils, becoming is to extract particles between which one establishes the relations of movement and rest, speed and slowness that are closest to what one is becoming and through which one becomes. This is the sense in which becoming is the process of desire.”[2]

But as we argued already in the beginning of this chapter, becoming does not initiate a process of eternal diversifications and differences. Rather, the migrant's becoming creates the indeterminate materiality on which new connections, sociabilities, common lines of flight, informal networks, transit spaces thrive. Becoming is the way to link the enigma of arrival and the enigma of origin into a process of dis-identification. We mean here dis-identification literally, as the way to become more than one. Migrant's material becomings does not end in a new state of being, rather they constitute being as the point of departure on which new becomings can emerge. Being is similar to the transit spaces where migrants rest for a while, reconnect to their communities, call their relatives and firends, earn more money to pay the smugglers, collect powers, prepare their new becomings. Being is nothing more than becoming's intermediate stages. If being is a passport number, the migrant's becomings are countless. The multiplication of beings. Two, three, many passports! Dis-identification=being everyone. Because, you must be everyone in order to be everywhere. Deleuze and Guattari call this the cosmic formula of multiplicity: becoming imperceptible. The imperceptibility of migration does not mean that migration itself is imperceptible. On the contrary, the more migrational flows become powerful and effective by materialising the practices of becoming, the more they turn to be the most privileged targets for registration, regulation and restriction by sovereign power. Becoming imperceptible is an immanent act of resistance because it makes it impossible to identify migration as process which consists of fixed collective subjects. Becoming imperceptible is the most precise and effective tool migrants employ to oppose the individualizing, quantifying, and representational pressures of the settled, constituted geopolitical power.

IV. The cunning of migration

What kind of political subject does imperceptibility create? How is migration woven into the emergence of a post-representational era of politics? The politics of difference of the eighties and nineties intervene in the given conditions of representation, renegotiate and rearticulate them under the imperative that resistance is possible. Cultural studies, postcolonialism, postfeminist positions, queer studies, radical democratic approaches revealed that the given systems of representation generate the effacement of certain differences (the migrant, the queer, the subaltern, the excluded) and introduced a new subversive strategy of visibility. But these times are over. The crisis of multiculturalism, the difficulties of lining queer politics with other radical social movements, the gradual occupation of postfeminist positions by communitarian neo-essentialisms, the obsession of radical democratic approaches with the question of formal rights, all these mark a phase of stagnation of subversive politics and their absorption into the vortex of liberal thinking.

This is the end of the politics of representation. And the decline of representation means simultaneously the end of the strategy of visibility. Instead of visibility, we say imperceptibility. Instead of being perceptible, discernible, identifiable, current migration puts on the agenda a new form of politics and a new formation of active political subjects whose aim is not a different way to become and to be a political subject but to refuse to become a subject at all. Sir Alfred Mehran refused to use his original name when in 1999 he was offered a UNHCR passport which rendered him identifiable by the assimilationist logic of liberal-national administration; many of the migrants in the border camps instead of waiting for a decision regarding their asylum status, escape the camps and dive into the informal networks of clandestine labour in the metropolises; the migrants waiting in the North shores of Africa to cross the Mediterranean in floating coffins choose to burn their documents and enter a life which de facto puts them outside of any politics of visibility. Meanwhile visibility, in the context of illegal migration, belongs to the inventory of the technologies for policing migrational flows.

Of course migrants become stronger when they become visible by obtaining rights, but the demands of migrants and the dynamics of migration can not be exhausted in the quest for visibility and rights. This because both of them function as differentiation markers that establish a clear and visible link between the person and its origins, the body and an identity. And precisely this is not what migrants want when they are clandestine on the road. What the really want is to become everybody, to become imperceptible. They try to become like everybody else by refusing to be something and to become integrated and assimilated in the logic of border administration. Migration is the moment where you prefer to say I prefer not to be. And this is not something which characterizes contemporary migration alone. It is only because of the fixation on a communitarian, humanist, and identity politics oriented conceptual system in social sciences (and associated public discourse) that we are prevented from seeing migration as one of the biggest laboratories for the subversion of liberal politics. Even the emblematic Ellis Island cannot be considered as the melting pot out of which the new American citizen was born, but as the space where endless stories of virtual identities were invented in order to make one eligible to cross the 'golden door' into the American country. The whole vision of an America welcoming everyone from abroad and open to difference is based on an infinite series of inventions and lies. Valuable lies, nice lies, vital lies. America's history and the cunning of migration. Migration is the sister of transience, produces mixed forms, menwomen, new species. The cunning of migration breeds animals. How to register them in the clean and pedantic archives of the administration? How to respond to a sheep or a raven when it has the courage to encounter the gaze of the bureaucrat in a police department of immigration affairs and demand asylum? How to register all these liminal animals? How to record all these paperless subjects? How to codify all these continuous becomings? Impossible.

Of course migration's weapon of imperceptibility does not always succeed, it is a route without guarantees, it involves pain, suffering, hunger, desperation, torture, even the death of thousands of people in the sunken ships into the oceans of earth. But in this text we deliberately decided not to present migration once again as a humanitarian scandal or as a deviation from the evolutionist human rights doctrine of western modernity. Is it a coincidence that the widespread images of migration in the media and public discourse as monstrous tragedies supply equally the ubiquitous humanitarian discourses as well as the xenophobic and racist politics of forced repatriation? This text attempts to change the perspective and to approach migration as constitutive moment of the current social transformation, a moment which is primarily sustained by cooperation, solidarity, the usage of broad networks and resources, shared knowledge, collective anticipation. This understanding of migration puts the issue of citizenship directly on the agenda of post-national polity (consider three different demands of migrational movements related to an enlargement of traditional conceptualizations of citizenship: cultural citizenship, flexible citizenship, and universal citizenship).

The demise of the strategy of visibility marks a turning point in the way we understand politics. How does migration open possibilities for rethinking the end of contemporary forms of sovereignty? The politics of representation and its subversive re-articulations belong to the inventory of the historical realization of democratic social organization. Its core principle is national sovereignty, the ideal correspondence and congruence of people and territory. National sovereignty attempts to establish this correspondence in two subsequent moments: First, it separates and classifies the people of a territory into groups and social strata through the signification procedures of representation; second, it assigns rights of participation to each of these represented groups. National sovereignty is based on the national social compromise between different groups and strata for a potential egalitarian distribution of rights. Migration is part of this process, even if it was treated differently in different countries. In the most European countries, for example, migration was assimilated in the form of Gastarbeit, temporary employment, which performs an inclusion of the right to work on the national level, without the extensive granting of equal political rights. In countries which actively encouraged immigration, migrants were incorporated in the national social compromise by accepting them as an integral part of the national project in general. In this case migrants were granted not only full work rights but also political rights. But despite the seemingly egalitarian treatment of migration in this second case, migrants came across the racist dispositifs prevalent in these societies. Equal rights did not mean the possession of equal symbolic capital in the politics of representation. That cultural studies and postcolonialism (which are primarily, as we said earlier, concerned with the critique of the representational deficit) arose primarily in these countries and came later to continental Europe is the result of this particular historical experience, namely the coexistence between equal rights and racist treatment, between formal equality and de facto ethnic segmentation. Despite all these variations in the treatment of migration the main question was the assignment of rights and representational visibility to migrants.

The demand for unrestricted rights and extensive representation, the so called double R axiom, is the outcome of the pressure migration exerts on national sovereignty to restructure the functional relationship between people and territory. The constitutive outside of national sovereignty is not another extraterritorial national sovereignty but the border as the material manifestation of their relation. The double R principle does not only organize the national-territorial corpus, it primarily designates the relation to outer states and their people. Thus, the double R axiom simultaneously defines the matrix of positive rights and representation within the national territory and the non-existence of rights and symbolic presence beyond its borders. When we think of the double R axiom we have to always consider that it also refers to its exact opposite, to the absence of rights and representation. This is why the state of exception in modern political theory is and was regarded as the crucial moment of modern national sovereignty. Because in national sovereignty is always inherently given its negation. It can always deny its own foundations and withdraw from its function as the creditor of the double R axiom. The state of exception is the moment where the borders are erected within the national territory, tearing up any apparent society of equals. Despite the conceptualization of the nation as an egalitarian unity of the people, national sovereignty is organized around an inner border which traverses the whole society from its very beginning: the hierarchical organization of gender relations and the organization of the national imaginary along masculinized and homophobic ideology. National sovereignty is institutionalized gender oppression. There is no nation which guarantees equal rights and equal symbolic power to men and women, to heterosexuals and queer people. So, from the very first moment of its existence the power of national sovereignty is that it can always erect borders in its own corpus; it can perform surgical operation on its own body, on the society of the people. While national sovereignty is the all inclusive and all digesting belly of Leviathan, the state of exception resulting from erecting borders within its own society, empties the belly, throws out of the body what is destabilising it. Modern national sovereignty is, simultaneously, both the organizing agency which grants rights and secures access to symbolic power, as well as its antithesis a power which systematically nullifies rights and restricts representation.

Up to this moment we have traced how borders under the pressure of migration reveal the changing faces and developments of sovereignty. Now we want to illuminate this same issue from another perspective: that of the moving masses. How do borders, as integral parts of national sovereignty, sustain specific forms of control of migrational movements? Historically the systematic control of the mobility of workforce was the reaction to masses' escape from their enslavement and indenture to the guild. The establishment of wage labour is the attempt to translate the freedom of the vagabond masses into a productive, utilizable, and exploitable workforce. The freedom to choose and to change your employer is not a fake or ideological liberty, as classical working class Marxism suggests, but a historical compromise designed to integrate the newly released, disorganized, and wandering workforce into a new regime of productivity. In fact, from the outset wage labour is more an ordering principle of the surplus of worker's freedom than a mere mechanism of oppression. Only later and gradually with the emergence and global expansion of capitalist production does waged labour again become an oppressive constraint on workers' potential freedom. Fordist waged labour transforms the worker's liberty to be mobility into a fixed and stable workforce market. Fordism transformed the promising force of the freedom of mobility into competitively organized upward social mobility. Disciplinary institutions prepare men to enter the Fordist organized labour market and bind women into the socially effaced and symbolically devalued realm of reproduction. The incorporation of the split between productive and reproductive fields in the Fordist regime stabilized the hierarchical patriarchal order of gender relations pertinent to national sovereignty.

Neoliberalism and the biopolitical turn brought the collapse of national sovereignty and the Fordist regime. On the one hand, global capital practised its own exodus from national regulation. On the other hand, the current border-crossing mobility of work intensifies the existing pressure on national borders. Neoliberalism introduced the virtual order of global markets and irrevocably undermined national sovereign state's monopoly of power. In parallel, biopolitics infused a deregulated and fluid governance of the population in the heart of the established Fordist regime of immobility. Together, neoliberalism and biopolitics, pushed national sovereignty to its end. The dual dynamics of transnationalism and migration accelerated the previously mentioned internal ambivalence of national sovereignty: namely, by increasingly erecting borders in the heart of its own society, national sovereignty is more and more tempted to execute its right for exception in its own body: the proliferation of camps, Guanatanamo, gated communities, banlieues, the prison-industrial complex, favelas. But all this only represents the naked body the new emerging sovereign. We enter a phase were neoliberalism and biopolitics have accomplished their task to decentralize national sovereignty and enter a period where they are starting to annul themselves. There is a new grand transformation of the present taking place, one which leaves behind the post-war national sovereignty, and the neoliberalism and biopolitics of the eighties and nineties and brings us to a postnational and postliberal formation of sovereignty.

In the emerging postliberal conditions labour becomes mobile and migrants become animals enunciating their subjective lines of flight out of the current rigid and exploitative regimes of accumulation. While biopolitics contributed to reactivating freedom of movement against the Fordist national regime of control, slowly but steadily biopolitics have started to consolidate an oppressive global system which controls the released migrational flows and suppresses the autonomy of migration. In this paper we tried to read Deleuze and Guattari's nomadic philosophy as the starting point to overcome the limitations of the biopolitical understanding of migration. Deleuze and Guattari provide unsettling concepts for challenging the holy duality of contemporary migration theory: i.e. the economistic thinking of new mobility studies vs. the humanitarianism of communitarian thinking and refuge studies alike.The concept of becoming can help us to overcome the liberal discourse of the new migrant as a useful and adaptable workforce as well as the logic of victimization prevalent in NGO paternalistic interventionism. In the perspective of a theory of the autonomy of migration inspired by the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari migration is the paradigmatic driving force of the new postliberal sovereignty. But it is simultaneously the worst nightmare of the new emerging sovereign whose new clothes are manufactured in the sweatshops of this earth. The moving packs of mobile workers traversing continents on floating coffins create uncountable new subjectivities which are unlabelled, untamed, unidentified. People act together and make world without giving any permanent name to their alliances and conditions of existence. Without ever intending it this multiplicity of subjectivities is tantamount to univocality. It is a moment where social control is exercised from below, where social change is subjectless, where the new elusive historical actors dwell in the world of imperceptibility and generate a persistent and insatiable surplus of sociality in motion, a new world in the heart of the old world: world 2. World 2 does not redeem this surplus of sociality by establishing a new totalizing and messianic version of a better democratic polis, but it constitutes the exodus out of the polis—the First Transnational?


We would like to thank Niamh Stephenson for her insightful comments and her three-words-present, Jim Clifford for all these ideas in this text which originate in our inspiring discussions in Santa Cruz, Efthimia Panagiotidis for sharing with us her thoughts about our common fieldwork, and Brigitta Kuster for her suggestions about documentary films on migration. Some of the empirical and theoretical research presented here was funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and by the Federal Cultural Foundation of Germany (research project 'Transit Migration'). The ideas discussed in this text have benefited much from the debates in the theory and border activist network Frassanito.

to appear in: Hickey-Moody, Anna, & Malins, Peta (Eds.) (2007). Deleuzian Encounters. Studies in Contemporary Social Issues. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

[1] Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Trans. Brian Massumi, (London: Athlone, 1987), p. 279f.

[2] Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Trans. Brian Massumi, (London: Athlone, 1987), p. 272.


Dimitris Papadopoulos


Vassilis Tsianos


other languages

The Autonomy of Migration Die Autonomie der Migration