Centripetal Foreignness (1800-1920)




Part 3

What happens to the foreigner after the Enlightenment century ? The general epistemic shift operated by cross-disciplinary thinkers like Marx, Nietzsche or Freud, marks a departure from Kant’s idealised attempt to observe the human a-historically, to reassess the entire world through the lens of the self-affirmed subjective perspective. And in this process, foreignness becomes centripetal : slowly, following the inspirations of Montaigne and some of the “allied patriots” of the Revolution, it is within the subject itself that the question of foreignness is addressed : what if, after all, the stranger was inside me ?

In parallel, the last two centuries of our history also had to account for another face of today’s question of foreignness : nationalism. The French Revolution is a moving force in this direction, witnessing in less than a century the shift from a popular support of the royal authority to the construction of a national identity. In France, during and after the Revolution, nationalism mingles also with another, later associated tendency : terrorism. In the mid 18th century, the progression is more conceptual and intellectual : various British authors formalise what they perceive as the growing impression of a “national feeling” with regards to certain customs, values and moralities. 1 Influential in France, the new category of the ‘national’ inspires French authors to find the concepts that may, according to them, constitute French culture:

“Nostalgia for the Geneva hearth, which identifies the individual with his geographic and familial origin ; the concern for preserving the person even within its closest kinship ; the emphasis on free will, which alone must create a national community — such are some of the features of Rousseau’s patriotism, which combine sentimentalism and rationalism, passionate withdrawal and demand for justice and freedom, romantic latencies and political lucidity based on the contract of citizens conscious of their equality and their right to happiness. Beyond its sensitive tones, there is a political rationalism that underlies the national idea with Rousseau, allowing patriotic pride to rest on the “common sense” inspired by the Cartesian “free will” and cogito ergo sum as foundation of the national contract.” 2

Something new emerges here, distinct from religious traditions and regional customs : a national consciousness. But it is specifically to Germany that our modern sense of patriotism and nationalism must be traced. German Romanticism provides at once the sufficient components of feudalism and spiritualism to foment the first, powerful mystical aura of a nation. Organised around the argument of special kinship and linguistic identity, German nationalism finds its source also in the pragmatic mystic that Lutheranism would turned out to become. 3 The Volksgeist or national genius reaffirms the individual within the group and the nation:

“Within this familial and irrational pouch there was room both for national withdrawal (in times of defeat and difficulties, as a structure insuring an archaic integrity, an indispensable guarantee for the family) and national pride (during periods of aggression, as the spearhead of a policy of economic and military expansion). Henceforth the supreme good no longer was the individual according to Rousseau but the nation as a whole.” 4

Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), historian and philologist, contributes to this emergence, exploring the genius of the German language, but also recalling the permanent necessity of new linguistic emulations. In this reflection of a proto socio-biological nature, civilisations are increasingly evaluated in an evolutionary framework, and the cult of a ‘national original language’ is sustained. Through this process, the national, the inner is defined primarily in terms of (oral) language and cultural heritage, thus moving the difference of the foreigner to be mostly one of a linguistic and cultural gap. A Romantic evolution, this new type of understanding places the specificity of culture within the universal of the natural man : “Rooting the specific in human’s universality’s (the gift of speech) diversified manifestations (national languages) went hand in hand, with Romanticists, with the concept of the invisible foundation of universal, visible nature.” 5

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In this reflection of a proto socio-biological nature, civilisations are increasingly evaluated in an evolutionary framework, and the cult of a ‘national original language’ is sustained. Through this process, the national, the inner is defined primarily in terms of (oral) language and cultural heritage, thus moving the difference of the foreigner to be mostly one of a linguistic and cultural gap.

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But a breach opens within this effort of internal coherence. Spiritualism too affects the intellectual developments of the era, and one can then observe the early forms of the hypothesis of an unconscious, in a variety of forms – man’s connection with nature for Carus and Schubert, the reminder of man’s will to representation for Schopenhauer, or a dynamic design behind the appearance of the universe in the Hegelian Hartmann. 6 The speculation of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) is thus anything but an autonomous intuition : Freud is a humanist and a romantic, inspired by the biologic developments of his age and still marked by a somehow Judeo-Christian play of symbolic representation and alterity. Here, Julia Kristeva marks the final step of her historical exploration of foreignness, seeing in the psychoanalytic hypothesis the internal and organic solution to the ethical and political ‘problem’ of the foreigner : “How could one tolerate a foreigner if one did not know one was a stranger to oneself?” 7

Freud elaborates his own take on strangeness in the late 1910s, with his study The Uncanny (1919). The Unheimlich, translated as ‘Uncanny’ or ‘Worrying Strangeness,’ refers to the introspective realisation of an inner, mental and representational disruption within oneself. The Unheimlich is the experience of the ambiguous in the familiar, of the deeper loss of one’s marks ; and it will become, naturally, the object of the process of exploration of one’s unconscious. This process is placed in time : the unconscious is built by past experiences of the subject ; it is, thus, paradoxically one’s own past that becomes foreign to oneself through forgetting and repression. My unconscious becomes my other ; strangeness becomes the key metaphor of one’s own psychic functioning. In a premonition of the existentialist interpretation, Freud suggests that the existence of one’s past is known to the subject, but simply put to the background, just like one forgets the foreignness of her neighbour : “for this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.” 8 Freud’s hierarchical model remains controversial, placing on the side of the unconscious and strangeness, death, but also the feminine and drives. The therapist also notes how the inconsistency of language becomes yet another hurdle, as the subject experiences herself deeply through language. It is the personal, psychological construction that is at stakes here : “The uncanny strangeness allows for many variations : they all repeat the difficulty I have in situating myself with respect to the other and keep going over the course of identification-projection that lies at the foundation of my reaching autonomy.” 9 But this inner strangeness becomes a regulating principle, creating personality in its ambiguity and growing as the main challenge of the contemporary subject : how can we deal with our inner disjunction ?

While Freud never talks of foreigners in the political sense, Kristeva reasserts the Freudian hypothesis as perhaps the only antithesis shaking the concept sufficiently to open up a solution : convincing ourselves of the possibility of subjectivity as the fundamental locus of strangeness, and thus radically diminishing the external chase of the foreigner. Is this, indeed, the only way ? Soon after Freud, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) borrows the concept of the Unheimlich to refer to the lived experience of the inner disruption that surrounds one’s thrownness in the world, in a particular place. This, as such, creates a motor force that can lead the subject, a native, to move, and become a foreigner. What, then, happens ? It is to an existentialist interpretation of foreignness that we must turn. If this journey led us to find the foreigner within each of us, let us now reverse the question and start with asking what happens within the foreigner.


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Supplementary References

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Levinas, Emmanuel. Existence and Existents. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic, 1978.

Peeters, Benoit. Derrida: a Biography. Translated by Andrew Brown. Cambridge, UK Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2013.



  1. Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 174.
  2. Ibid., 175.
  3. Ibid., 168.
  4. Ibid., 177.
  5. Ibid., 180.
  6. Ibid., 181.
  7. Ibid., 182.
  8. Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny, trans. James Stratchey (London: The Hogarth Press, 1955), 17:241.
  9. Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 187.