In-Finir

DE L’INFINI : A FOREIGNER’S METAPHYSICS

General Introduction

In the beginning, there never was the foreigner.

Foreignness is not in nature. No animal has ever been foreign. It is not a quality in the old sense of the word ; it describes an entity neither in its physicality nor in its inner features. Foreignness is more than cultural : not only nature is altogether bereft of foreignness, but any particular human culture would also, surely have the same pretension, in the fantasy of its autonomous genesis. In certain countries of the world, it is impossible to be born a foreigner, and in others, it is the years till adulthood that shall resolve and rectify this abnormality. Foreignness is trans-cultural, at best ; the fruit of a humanity that has consistently turned towards the passions of the political, from its proto-form in the exclusive communities of small scales, to the normative and generic model of the nation-state that obsesses us today. The foreigner would be, more than a faraway offspring of a history of the cosmos, the result of a variety of minute turns in the evolution of human societies. There would be nothing fundamental in foreignness.

And yet. These very cosmic and political developments have given rise to the spread of foreignness as a subjective experience. A deep exploration of our collective imagination is not required to recall the familiar figures of outsiders, from the ancient myths till our times of so-called cosmopolitanism. And this shared experience has given rise, or may give rise, to a set of coherent perspectives on a number of concerns of politics, culture, administration, the arts or philosophy. These specificities, too consistent to be addressed individually, demonstrate how an initially hollow category may have become a trait of the human condition – or, to start modestly, of the condition of certain humans. If the human does not choose the temporal occurence of her existence in history, the other dimension, space, remains the plane of development for her liberty. And this option has been ardently chosen, by the millions, for thousands of years now. It is this progressively common history, this soon undeniable condition, which calls for a general reflection – a reflection on its foundations, its past, its reach, its idiosyncrasies, its language and its inspirations. After the inspirations of racial perspectives, after the explorations of gender, we must maintain the ambition of finding in the condition of some humans insights and visions possibly profitable to all humans. Foreignness must become the centre of a discourse.

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We should hear, that the advent of liberal democracies in welfare states still invalidates the format of the conclusion as the sufficient aim of any reflection. That all explorations – political, cultural or otherwise – are valuable only inasmuch they permit a possibility of self-transcendence – that is, inasmuch this possibility is their basis. Foreignness, in its inception, must follow this understanding. This essay is not a claim, it is not a thesis : it is a trajectory.

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A discourse, indeed. Not a system. Not a theory. Not a claim. A discourse, with its multiple voices, external and internal. A terrain, with entry doors from all possible directions, from the existing disciplines, from the administrative and material realities of our societies, from religious and spiritual traditions, from the arts, and from those destinations still bereft of their own name. This discourse, this fundamental term-experience, must be deployed, demonstrated, enacted, to reach the ears and hearts of those who tomorrow will feed it. But foreignness is not a field, not a discipline, and hardly a singular topic. If at all, foreignness is a theme, and a theme is to be explored. We should perhaps hear, again, the latest lessons of our intellectual traditions – we should note, for instance, that a deep understanding of language, and of time, are now unavoidable for any serious intellectual undertaking. We should hear, that the advent of liberal democracies in welfare states still invalidates the format of the conclusion as the sufficient aim of any reflection. That all explorations – political, cultural or otherwise – are valuable only inasmuch they permit a possibility of self-transcendence – that is, inasmuch this possibility is their basis. Foreignness, in its inception, must follow this understanding. This essay is not a claim, it is not a thesis : it is a trajectory.

A trajectory. And a trajectory is not the arithmetic addition of destinations. In a journey, each place follows from the previous. And each step already contains all the precedents. It is such an organic progression, highly contextual and personal, that we shall attempt in the present discussion of foreignness. While it is a set of philosophical viewpoints and improvements that will occupy the centre of this reflection, another type of discourse will be inevitable to set the scene. It is naturally with a history of foreigners, that we must start. A history of foreigners ? The name is ambitious, pretentious, perhaps even pedant. A few pages will not suffice to cover thousands of years of accounts, mostly undocumented, over the five continents. A ‘history of foreignness’ would thus be necessarily very limited, not to say minutely curated, and this partiality will have to be kept in mind in its process. But the rarity of general studies on foreigners across history reveals how this theme is void of even its first stones. With the help of a work first published not earlier than than three decades ago, we shall briefly discuss the traces and stories of notable foreigners in and around modern-day Europe, and more specifically, the political and philosophical voices that were deployed to arrange the situation of foreigners in each society. This history will move our attention all the way to psychoanalysis and the emergence of the contemporary subject. Keeping with the epoch of arrival, the second chapter will be an existentialist analysis of the condition of foreignness, through a critical assessment of the foundational claims of Heidegger on phenomenological existentialism first, and then with an inflection on a very specific instance of foreignness – that of the author of these lines. This critical evaluation of the existentialist framework will lead to a search for foreignness in another locus, transcending the individual : the collective. We shall try to reformulate various layers of collective life to find within them the marks of foreignness. Four concepts will attract our attention : culture, ethics, language and philosophy. An outlook on philosophy, or a philosophical outlook, which will ultimately bring foreignness back to the individual, not anymore in the solitary climate of the existentialist angle, but to the individual understood still as the ultimate source for fundamental, and potentially new, perspectives on primordial questions. In the fourth and final chapter, we will thus reflect on the kind of metaphysical insights the foreigner can bring up, with a particular attention to space, time and knowledge.

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The Infinite, for Levinas, is the other name of the exteriority or transcendence that shines from the Other’s face. It is what surrounds and resists Totality, the hastily conquered realm of the reductive Same. It is this very exteriority, the possibility of an outside, which possesses the soul of this reflection, and more : the general possibility of a voice from the outside.

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It will, thus, be question de l’infini. ‘De l’infini’, as in the style of the old French treatises, a tradition Jacques Derrida was winking at, with his De la GrammatologyOf Grammatology. But here, ‘de’ is also to be taken as the preposition of provenance : de l’infini also means from the infinite. It is this perspective – this ambitious possibility – that we shall attempt to actualise with the present subject : unveiling the discourse that may come from the infinite. An actualisation, indeed, because this very idea is indebted to one man, and in particular to one work : Emmanuel Levinas’s Totality and Infinity. The 1961 text was subtitled An Essay on Exteriority. The Infinite, for Levinas, is the other name of the exteriority or transcendence that shines from the Other’s face. It is what surrounds and resists Totality, the hastily conquered realm of the reductive Same. It is this very exteriority, the possibility of an outside, which possesses the soul of this reflection, and more : the general possibility of a voice from the outside. With Levinas, and with his later reformulation and new elaboration through the works of Derrida, we shall re-place the instance of the foreigner within this setting of the play of interiority-exteriority. And we shall try to evaluate the developments of this subjectivity, of this temporality, of these propositions of and from the foreigner, for the inhabitants of the inside. And all this, through the voice of the ‘I’ of this text, a foreigner himself.

A discussion on the infinite, therefore, but a discussion nonetheless bordered by limits. The limits of space, the space of a text. And also its corollary, the limits of time, altogether imposed on a foreigner writing about foreignness. The time of a thesis, as Derrida once called it – the time of this thesis, in the years that prepared it in the underground of my unconscious, or in the months officially dedicated to it but practically used for virtually everything else… A short time, thus, to assess this vast a topic ; too short a time also, perhaps, to avoid tens of pages of paraphrase in lieu of a ‘history of foreigness,’ or to give better than a hasty and approximate account (critical, sometimes not even) of authors as complex as Heidegger, or as literarily delightful as Levinas and Derrida. Only years of patient readings, and re-readings, may suffice and allow one to actually enter the stage of this incredible play more seriously. But this is an attempt, an entry disguised in the form of a modest body of naïve suggestions. A body, an object, an offering from the outside, submitted to your rigour, to your knowledge, to the borders of your imagination, to the sensibility of your creativity. And especially to the latter.

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References

Image courtesy: Jean-François Rauzier

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