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The Power of Example – A Conversation with Thomas Nail

by Joanna Ruocco

One in a series of interviews with faculty writers. - Ed. 

Thomas Nail is as an Assistant Professor in the Philosophy Department. His research focuses on French political philosophy, environmental philosophy, and philosophies of migration. He has already published one book, Returning to Revolution: Deleuze, Guattari, and Zapatismo (Edinburgh University Press, 2012), is finishing a second with Stanford University Press, and beginning a third.

Joanna Ruocco: What sustains you through a book-length projects?

Thomas Nail: To write a book you need to have some inspiration and passion, or at least I do. I have to feel inspired by something important to me. That's the number one component. If there is no inspiration, I'll lose interest later on. There will come a point where I don't care anymore. I need to believe the work I'm doing is important in some way.And for me, because I do political philosophy, the writing has got to be connected to the world, to engage with a political cause. My first book is about Deleuze and Guattari's philosophy of revolution and the Zapatistas. Now with the Zapatistas there's an obvious connection. The Zapatistas have been an inspiration for me and have guided my thinking about what's politically possible. In fact, they've had a similar effect an entire generation of global activists. They are an inspiration, a running inspiration, propelling much of the last fifteen years of global revolutionary and political struggle around the world.

JR: Was the process similar for your second book?Spotlights on Snow

TN: The first book focuses on particular philosophers, Deleuze and Guattari, and even more narrowly on the concept of revolution in their political philosophy. I spent a lot time learning and then unlearning their jargon so I could explain it in a way that makes sense and feels concrete. The example of the Zapatistas helps concretize the philosophical concepts. You can see them in practice. I think scholarly exegesis is important, but I'm excited to move beyond it with my second book. I'm not just trying to reproduce Deleuze and Guattari's work over and over again but rather trying to move forward in the spirit of their work. My second book isn't tied to any philosopher. It's thematic. It's much more creative. I'm influenced by various thinkers but I'm trying to do something more original. So it's a very different project. In both cases, whether you're planning on writing something exegetical or something new, you have to read the literature before you can figure out where you can make your intervention as a writer. Before you can think, "I have something to say," you need to understand what's already been said, to some degree.

JR: Now that your first book is in the world, what kind of effects do you hope it has? Do you imagine yourself writing for political activists?

TN: My goal is sort of the other way around. I work with activists to reach other people, to explain what the activists are doing to the people who are not doing it. The book isn't for Zapatistas, but for non-Zapatistas. It's for people who don't know about the Zapatistas, who don't understand what the Zapatistas are doing, and who don't understand the significance of it. The book will illuminate that, and, I hope, supply meaningful analysis that will maybe inspire other sorts of practices in the same vein. The Zapatistas are doing what they do. They don't need me. The members of No One is Illegal, the migrant justice group I worked with in Toronto, don't need me to write theoretical books about their work. But other people who have no idea what the Zapatistas or No One Is Illegal are all about, and how interesting and important it is—they do need writers to understand, interpret, analyze, and present what's happening in these movements. That said, my second book, The Figure of the Migrant, might have more of an appeal to activists. It's going to be released immediately in paperback at an affordable price and will be on the shelves in bookstores.

JR: You mentioned that exploring the concrete practices of the Zapatistas enabled you to explain Deleuze and Guattari's philosophical concepts. How important is it to concretize abstract ideas?

TN: In my pedagogy, I always try to engage my students with examples. They often find philosophy weird and abstract. We're often talking about very general phenomena that seem to appear nowhere and everywhere at the same time. They seem so ephemeral, even though they're also quite real and meaningful. I'm helping to expose these ideas in a concrete way, to show students ways of formalizing and expressing these ideas, and to introduce them to new ideas in the history of philosophy.

JR: What kinds of examples do you use?

TN: Oh, everything. I draw on whatever I can—films, television shows, music, history, mathematics, politics—nothing is off limits with respect to examples. Some of them are thought experiments. For instance, I try to get them to understand exactly what a concept is. I say, "Okay, think of a triangle right now. Imagine a triangle." Then I ask them what they're imagining. And they describe the triangles. They say, "It's acute," or "It's equilateral," or whatever. Then I say, "But a triangle is just a three-sided shape. So it's got to be all of those—acute, isosceles, equilateral—it's got to be all triangles at once. If you're thinking of a specific triangle, that's not the idea of the triangle. That's the idea of a specific type of triangle. Now, try again. Imagine all of them, but none of them at the same time. That is the concept of the triangle."

JR: That's awesome. My mind is bending.

TN: I get a lot of mileage out of paradoxes. I suspect most philosophers do.

JR: You also stressed the importance of reading the literature. How do you guide students through texts?

TN: Philosophy requires very close attention to the text. When I teach Kant, we'll spend an hour and a half on one paragraph, which is a long time to spend. Poetry is probably the most intensive when it comes to focus on individual words placed side by side, but philosophy is up there.

JR: But you don't want them trying to write like Kant?

TN: Definitely not! I'd say don't follow Kant's style. His sentences are sometimes half a page long!

JR: What do you look for in student papers?

TN: I think I'm most happy with the papers that take a lot of time with something very small. Because that's hard. It's closer to what one does in close readings and literary analysis. In philosophy, a close reading is tough to do. It requires a larger grasp and then a focused application of that grasp. It's one thing to be able to explain what the lecture said, or to summarize Kant's arguments for the transcendental unity of apperception in a couple of pages, and then it's a different thing to use this knowledge to explain in detail a specific section of the text. I'm impressed when I see students elucidate something large by choosing a specific passage. Paying attention to a small piece doesn't necessarily require less from a student. It can require more.