Language and Reconstruction

DE L’INFINI : A FOREIGNER’S METAPHYSICS

BOOK III

US, FOREIGNERS : THE RECONSTRUCTION OF FOREIGNNESS

Introduction

Foreignness starts with the foreigner. The argument would be unsurprising, acceptable, evident, perhaps commonsensical. As a reaction to Kant’s indulgent hypothesis of the human being as primarily an epistemological observer, Hegel came and threw this observer back into the global temporality. The time of the subject, thus, but also and especially, the history of the world. A few decades later, it is the elaboration of the Hegelian structure onto the human institution of exchanges, with Marx, which confirmed the unitary subject as, first, an economicus subject. But the history of individualism in western thought also traces back to some of their contemporaries, among whom Bentham and Mill, the first a jurist, the second an economist. It is in the multi-faceted elaboration of the disciplines, institutions and practices of the modern state that the individual becomes the locus of interest. When Nietzsche debunks tradition, or when Freud shows the internal disruptions of the human subject, it is only as reassertions of the subject as still the fundamental, primary unit of what makes humanity. To this extent, the existentialist élan that we used in the previous chapter is only a radicalisation of a combination of, among others, the Husserlian extension of the limited Kantian subject, the Romantic sensibility of 18th century Germany, and the importance of personal narratives in the early Freud. Individualism has a coherent history in western thought, and it is within it that we must place existentialism. Existentialism may be a humanism, but it is also an individualism.

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How to bypass the individual ? The aforementioned heritage demonstrates how much of a conceptual, axiological and moral wall a critique of existentialism holds before itself, if it is willing to deflate the individualist bubble.

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How to bypass the individual ? The aforementioned heritage demonstrates how much of a conceptual, axiological and moral wall a critique of existentialism holds before itself, if it is willing to deflate the individualist bubble. What are the options? One would be a return to the overarching and soteriological discourse of religion, and in particular Judeo-Christianity, in a language that is not anymore rational but primarily spiritual. This would be forgetting the acutely critical cultural history of religion, offered by Nietzsche and others. Another would be the revival of a positivistic thrust in reason, an optimistic leap towards science and technology. This would be relying on a pan-historical understanding of the discourse of truth, against Foucault ; it would be positing the self-sufficiency of reason, against Nietzsche or Freud ; and that would be believing in the benevolence of technology, against Heidegger. Indeed : these routes have been examined, and rejected. Remains another direction.

Post-structuralism has been received as a critical discourse, but it also provided the creative impulse towards certain other, innovative and inspired paths. However, its main feature is a return to language, in the frame of a nonetheless still subjectivist approach, where the old quest for truth has become the exploration of the art-like internal plays and dynamics of meaning. Thus is the credence of post-structuralism – that, even if we have debunked all older systems of truth, it still remains that we, humans, use, and rely upon words. Besides and above all other, age-old metaphysical postulations, one reigns : the human is an existant living with, and arguably, in language.

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Thus is the credence of post-structuralism – that, even if we have debunked all older systems of truth, it still remains that we, humans, use, and rely upon words. Besides and above all other, age-old metaphysical postulations, one reigns : the human is an existant living with, and arguably, in language.

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How is this affecting our subject matter ? The argument is not only that foreignness deals with language. This is an evident connection, either hollow if not further qualified, or particularly dense for whoever would enter into it impatiently. Rather, what one can do is to attempt to visualise, behind certain words of our conceptual landscape, the traces of foreignness. Derrida did something similar, with his deconstruction as a method of analysis unveiling the unresolved plays of binaries behind presumed stable words and claims. Derrida’s exercise is at once expectable – inasmuch it will always undermine the claim that the studied text is aiming at demonstrating, but also creative to some extent, in Derrida’s presentation of the other possible options of interpretation one encounters when bypassing the original author’s unresolved dichotomy.

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If Derrida attempted deconstruction, we should aim at organising an exercise of reconstruction. The point, here, will not be to take certain concepts and to create imbalance in one of their popular or even scholarly definitions. Rather, this exercise will be willingly oriented, with the preliminary setting of a particular horizon to reach, of a particular conceptual connection to establish.

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Here, we are aiming at a slightly different exercise. If Derrida attempted deconstruction, we should aim at organising an exercise of reconstruction. The point, here, will not be to take certain concepts and to create imbalance in one of their popular or even scholarly definitions. Rather, this exercise will be willingly oriented, with the preliminary setting of a particular horizon to reach, of a particular conceptual connection to establish. This is the method we shall try to develop and use in this study. In this book, I will attempt to elaborate the intrinsic connections with the themes and imaginary of foreignness that I could intuit in four concepts : culture, ethics, language and philosophy. This method is analogous to Derrida’s deconstruction, in the sense that it unveils the lack of an internal self-sufficiency in terms that appear at once commonsensical and exclusively defined. But here, the intellectual exercise aims at reconstructing a whole network of conceptual categories vis-à-vis one unexpected and uninvited guest in particular : foreignness. This is a reconstruction of foreignness.

Finding foreignness within culture, ethics, language and philosophy, it is asserting that culture, ethics, language and philosophy are each bereft of a possibility without the historical and existential phenomenon of foreignness. I contend, here, that none of these four concepts can be explored, elaborated or even simply used, without presuming a particular understanding of the idea of foreignness. As we shall see, foreignness is located within these four massively foundational concepts for the humanities and the social sciences, that is, for most of our perspectives on the human, but it is found there at various levels and scales, from being radically central in their definitions, to being their main analogy, whenever one aims at describing their mechanisms and phenomena. And these four term-concepts could seem disjunctively combined here, in an incoherent patchwork of remarks on foreignness. One should remember that this demonstration contributes to the initial project of this thesis – bringing the foreigner back from the margin – and also, it sets the scene and stimulates the present intellectual energy towards our larger project : the proposition of a metaphysics of exteriority.

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References

Image courtesy: Greyfell

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