Here and Now : Being a Foreigner




Part 3

The foreigner : whose voice ?

In continental thought, existentialism is not reduced to the cliche of a literature genre compiling an inconsequential amount of personal reflections and interpretations by a self-centred author. Through the existentialist approach, the thinker attempts to transcend her own, personal and historical self, to see in her life experience the signs of wider traits of the human condition in general. There are, in existentialism, certainly some remnants of a subjective universality tracing back, perhaps, to Kant. But this does not refrain the existentialist to engage with the pronoun, to say the ‘I’, to become more vocal and explicit in the lived experiences that can illustrate or support her more over-arching hypotheses. It would be, in fact, a necessary warrant, since, through existentialism, one is too often and too soon tempted to generalise the speculations regarding one’s conditions in a specific context, onto the supposed conditions of many or even all human beings. Pushing beyond the singular ‘I’, but too subtle to aim for the general ‘all’, the existentialist orients her energy to coherently reach the category of the anonymous ‘particulars’, the realm of those ‘some’ that may connect with her life experience.

Every discourse requires an inward reminder, thus, a word of caution, a self’s warning. What is the background, the hidden context of a reflection ? The foreigner, this foreigner, and his voice, must step down from the podium of philosophy proper to dare the ‘I’, even as anxious as he is to stumble into the pitfalls of a philosophised diary. But this is needed : to legitimise the bending forward, the reflection, one requires the precaution of a bending inwards, an inflection. As a compromise that will secure, through barter, the philosophical digressions of outrageous generalisations, this voice, the familiar, ideal, universal anonymous voice of the written, accepts to acknowledge its identity as my voice. French native of the late 1980s ; short exchange programme in the USA two decades later ; and a residence in India for the last five years and running – three in the capital, two in a small university town of the western Deccan. Good enough : sufficient exhibition.

What is this foreigner talking about? The lucky owner of a lenient timetable, and subjected to no pressing financial needs, this foreigner finds himself turning into a full-time, large-scale ethnographer — in secret. Without even the pressure of having to come up with scientific results. The curious mind, still under the high of this enigmatic cultural discovery, takes every occasion to keep eyes, ears and lips wide open, and every slow evening or calm Sunday to gather observations and attempt the writing of disproportionately ambitious treatises on cultures, society, religions, civilisations, politics or history. The readership is modest but faithful, enthusiastic and encouraging, behind each online publication, as the rhetoric and narrative quality steadily grow. The foreigner writer is soon re-christened ‘the Indian,’ an eternal enigma to him, which even his local acquaintances adopt : “you have become fully Indian now !” “You are more Indian than us !” But his frail social life back home succeeds in stagnating even further, so the main language of expression shifts from French to English, a few years later, so to be understood by the local, his new, real nears and dears. The regularity of the opinion pieces slows down, as his daily occupations increase in intensity, now that he is more than an observing witness – as a student, first, and soon, a working professional. Progressively less numerous, too, are the lenient excuses to justify his impatient and generalising speculations. The foreigner is not so sure anymore.

Indeed: what could the foreigner be talking about? Reflective, existential outlines suffice for a time only ; the new environment is too fundamentally affecting him : it must, in fact, become the focus. The foreigner-writer is happy to slowly see himself as a bridge, as the convenient observer and interpreter of the faraway, exotic land. A translator of the outside for his co-nationals who stayed at home, he simultaneously becomes, eagerly, but not without a certain humility, a dissenting and inspired voice for his local network. Coming from the outside, he kicks and slaps the local standards and norms quite gracefully. Before realising that he is, finally, only a drop in the ocean of a definitely transcending social, cultural and historical terrain.

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So, what is left for the foreigner ? To talk about India ? To talk about ‘the Indian’, in its fantasised ideality ? To talk about Indians ? Which Indians ?

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So, what is left for the foreigner ? To talk about India ? To talk about ‘the Indian’, in its fantasised ideality ? To talk about Indians ? Which Indians ? And from which angle ? The question of authorship is fundamental to the foreigner becoming resident alien. He even discovers around him, within his dual terrain of observation-action, the echo, the inward reflection of his asymmetric, hypocritical, almost schizophrenic voice. Reminded of what is known in social sciences as the Standpoint Theory, the foreigner discovers and acknowledges the local structure of sociality, noticing that, indeed, and for instance, the Brahmin can and should hardly speak of or for the Dalit. In that case too, the universal pattern of the outsider, his differing background and problematic voice, are visible, but this time. national borders are nowhere to be found. And the legitimacy of his initial, naïve, diplomatic-like visit seems utterly lost. Like the Brahmin, should the foreigner speak of the local ? Speaking : vocalising an ‘understanding’ of the local, that is, reducing the latter onto the limited set of concepts and sensibilities he has access to. Levinas, anyone… ? At home, the epistemic challenge seemed much more accessible : the subject was just to find his inspiring figures first, and then, choosing his targets, his opponents in today’s battle of world-views, in order to be able to make sense of one’s country and of its culture as a movement to which he somehow belonged. At home, the intellectual could live in peace, protected by the camp he decided to side with. Abroad, behind the veils of its warnings of modesty, the intellectual project altogether seems, suddenly – to say the least – ambitious. What if interacting with the other as other would be precisely interrupting the intellectual project, the project of ‘knowing’ altogether, and knowing first ? What if the foreigner stopped being foreign right there — only once he decides that he has truly exhausted the standpoint of the foreigner ?

But will this be a peaceful journey ? A beneficiary of the comfortable welfare states of today’s modern European societies, this western subject is tempted to see in his inclination towards existentialist world-views the intuitive proof that human existences are history-less. That the elements that make an individual’s life, fundamentally, are independent from space and time — from countries and histories. But the subject has a history, and in this privileged situation, perhaps only the migration, and a sustained residence abroad, can truly remind him of this. Indeed, the newly reborn foreigner is now liberated from all that his family, surroundings and national culture expected of him. And he has, proudly, or hopefully, short-circuited the impositions of what Heidegger saw as an unbreakable existential condition : one’s thrownness, one’s undeniable, initial attachment to one space and one time only. But, in fact, the foreigner is truly subjected to another imposition, and one that is of a different kind : an ethical imposition. The foreigner cannot remain passive, like before, waiting from his environment to ensure his survival and much more, his self-realisation. He cannot be integrated by default, as he used to be in his native land. Living cannot be taken for granted anymore.

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In the post-colonial world, the Romantic existentialist of the Old World enters history, enters the troubled waters of humanity’s bloody interactions across centuries and millennia. And at this particular juncture, the westerner in the post-colonial country owes something, comes after, always after the historical turning point of the western colonialist’s visit.

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And while all of this may be true for every hosting nation, the present statement must be further inflected to account for the historical dynamics at stakes in this present scenario. In the post-colonial world, the foreigner as westerner is directly implicated, ethically speaking, in his new situation in the non-west. Perhaps due to a certain Christian heritage or subconscious, the westerner’s presence in a post-colonial society starts for him with a sense of guilt, with a prejudice, with a deficit that he feels he will have to balance out. In the post-colonial world, the Romantic existentialist of the Old World enters history, enters the troubled waters of humanity’s bloody interactions across centuries and millennia. And at this particular juncture, the westerner in the post-colonial country owes something, comes after, always after the historical turning point of the western colonialist’s visit. Some locals come to differ as to the outcomes of this historical turn, and evaluate – sometimes even praise – the positive fruits of the British Raj. But, by and large, the period was more than a historical contingency – it was an invasion, an unjustifiable imposition of one’s culture and economic scopes onto the million lives of another civilisation.

Has the descendent of the invader always felt such a sense of guilt across history, when visiting the freshly liberated territory ? Would the Ottoman soldier feel like apologising when returning to France, decades after Charles Martel ? Maybe not : at that point of time, the individual was viscerally aware of the necessary compromises of violence that come in the hard work of borders-making. But, since then, the scene has changed on the surface. This violence has undergone a metamorphosis, disappearing from the western sight but kicking from within other cultures. While the west colonised the world, its world, or so it thought, back home, its very philosophers were laying the foundations for the transformation of the imperial ambition itself, reformulating Christian evangelism into softer and subtler forms of cultural and moral dissemination. And soon would an Edward Saïd remark the pervasive and silent, and therefore expanded western incursion through the discourses of culture, leaving its marks decades after the last governor returned home. Not to mention the massive diplomatic, military and especially economic architecture in force around and through those post-colonial societies, confirming the foreigner not of his personal implication in the contamination, or of a Manichean play of powers on passive victims, but of the true, historical implications of the philosophy of his civilisation. Of, in fact, the tragic outcomes of all that he had ever been benefiting from, back home. Of what, also, permitted the very comfortable conditions of his migration to the non-west, in an age when the opposite movement is immensely harder and violently more controlled. Thus, stepping inside the doorway of another, tangential and intersecting history, the foreigner repents, excuses his presence, his interlocution, to say : “I came after, therefore, perhaps, I should not have come.” And he demands : “but it is your hospitality that I require, and to it, finally, I surrender.”

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Flashing lights of a foreigner in the capital, rehash of a fantasised Paris of the 1960s where intellectual migrants could mingle with the cream of the country’s journalists, thinkers and politicians.

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But generations pass, generations forget, and generations accept. And the foreigner is granted hospitality. Soon, comical episodes of street encounters or interactions with nationalist spirits remind him of the historical baggage that follows him along his elongated visit. On the whole, the foreigner is welcomed, cherished, praised from afar, but yet, and also, sometimes treated with indifference from near. Still, he cannot complain, when, two or three months after stepping on the tarmac, he ends up at the birthday party of the posh, South Delhi residence of his classmate, whom he will discover years later to be the son of a scam-ridden Congress minister of commerce, turned law and justice, turned external affairs. And his ride, on the way, was guarded by six or seven security employees, spread over two SUVs – he asks the other passengers : “is Madhav famous or something ?” – chuckles. A few days later, he learns he had danced the twist with the Prime Minister’s grandson. Flashing lights of a foreigner in the capital, rehash of a fantasised Paris of the 1960s where intellectual migrants could mingle with the cream of the country’s journalists, thinkers and politicians. A superficial introduction, also, years before the slow awakening of a deeper political consciousness, making him realise how, in India perhaps more than anywhere else, it is always the outside gaze that is necessary, the out-look, the reminder of the reality -check, especially when it comes to the national decisions made in the (urban) capital of a country urbanised at only 30%. In India, outside is always bigger. The foreigner enters politics, thus, and, more : a particular, national politics. Second figure of the inflection.

Politics. The existentialist approach, in its very organic progression, sufficed to engage the deconstruction of a self-centred, angst-heavy subject. But the foreigner as westerner in the post-colonial country now realises and enters history, and he cannot anymore find satisfaction from the Romantic themes of his existentialist exploration, once at the heart of his intellectual journey. An existentialist by soil and by birth, the foreigner, this foreigner realised that the subjective, slowly, is transcended. Like Levinas, after Heidegger, the foreigner starts with existentialism, but finally succumbs to the experiential irreducibility of the stranger as Other, to realise the higher truth of – blasphemous idea – a shared existentialism. He tells himself : “I am not just in a solitary state ; the Other, before me, may suffer too, and it is perhaps my role in the existentialist struggle of the Other that must take the forefront.” In her own existentialist account of foreignness, Julia Kristeva, similarly, comes to make of the question of the foreigner in France the general question of ethics with the Other:

“… in France, the discussion being immediately ideological and inspired by passion, it reaches the principles of civilisation and the borders of the individual psyche. “What is my relation to the other ?” “What are the limits and the rights of a group ?” “Why should not every man have the right of a citizen ?” In France, pragmatic matters immediately become ethical.” 1

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When pragmatism and ethics meet, arise politics, the exit of existentialism into the discovery of a shared world, of a to-gather, of a together that brings meaning to one’s individual life only inasmuch collective, cultural and societal meaning is achieved.

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The French, not as host but, in his turn, as foreigner, thus, perhaps, carries this automatic pragmatism of ethics, refusing to see in his once leisurely expedition anything less than a larger-than-life encounter of the Other. An Other, both limited by, and rich of, her own culture, her traditions, her languages. Or perhaps, inversely, the coming of the French subject in a foreign land forces him to reverse the ethical heaviness of existence in France, to return to pragmatism, to the everyday concern of simply living with or alongside a nationally and culturally Other. When pragmatism and ethics meet, arise politics, the exit of existentialism into the discovery of a shared world, of a to-gather, of a together that brings meaning to one’s individual life only inasmuch collective, cultural and societal meaning is achieved. Leaving his home, uninspired and thus expecting, by default, the old ‘search of the self’, he reaches finally his discovery : the Other, but not the Other before him – no – the Other speaking through him, the trans-subjectivity that always speaks when he opens his mouth. The edgeless polis of today’s world has at least proven this : that behind the mirage of the subject, the for-oneself is nowhere to be found.

Never just for myself. And when self and Other within one’s culture are not enough anymore, enter the third. For Levinas, it is the entry of justice, of language within the phenomenological existence. In the Book III, I will explore this symbolic milieu, and it is indeed Levinas, a foreigner himself, who shall lay the grounds for an innovative ethical account, which we will attempt to revive through the story of the foreigner. An ethics through culture, through language, and a final bifurcation via the character of one of these trans-cultural symbols : the philosopher. Besides Levinas, stands Jacques Derrida, yet another personal product of the odd waltz of history’s internal strangers, but also the bridge-maker par excellence : a human encyclopaedia of the western intellectual heritage, he challenged frontally the fundamental assumptions of European philosophy, prolonged the exploration of the Judeo-Christian roots of our morality, re-conceptualised our tropes – guilt, gift, hospitality, welcome… – faced actual, historical and often contemporary situations, while, all throughout, defending the political construction of a cosmopolitan European Union. With this second foreigner, the conclusion will soon become clear : the foreigner’s business is only the tip of his iceberg ; foreignness is an ageless and far-reaching founding stone for all human societies.


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Supplementary References

Appiah, Anthony. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2006.

Beck, Ulrich. The Cosmopolitan Vision. Translated by Ciaran Cronin. Cambridge, UK Malden, MA: Polity, 2006.

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Derrida, Jacques. The Other Heading: Reflections on Today’s Europe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

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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.

Image courtesy: Illusion 360

A version of this text was published (with minor edits) in the
FIND Indialogues N°5 September/October 2014



  1. Ibid., 39.