On Departing

DE L’INFINI : A FOREIGNER’S METAPHYSICS

BOOK II

FOREIGNER, HERE : EXISTENTIALIST FOREIGNNESS

Part 1

Why is one departing ?

Can one depart ?

But depart from where ? The foundation stone of the existentialist project after Heidegger, 1 Geworfenheit or Thrownness indicates our subjection to an imposition of our personal existence within a set environment, historically and spatially. The powerful idea hardly finds any counter-proof in our lives, or at least within the tenets and concepts of western philosophy. Perhaps only alternative traditions, contending the phenomenon of karmic reincarnation, rebirth or becoming (bhava) could go against the claim that one does not choose both her coming to existence, and the setting and surrounding of this existence. In our western frameworks, we would agree, indeed, that the past is imposed on us, just like the familial, social, cultural and political setting of our Being-in-the-world, but also our relative position in space, and our natural environment. The world precedes and surrounds, captures the existant. Forceful coercion to a culture, to religious and moral values, to one language or a set of languages – as idioms of expression and as logical structures – the thrownness implies that we always deal, in life, with the ‘hands we are given.’ The individual is fundamentally free, however, as Heidegger and the existentialist tradition insist upon extensively. But free of what ? Moulded by our thrownness, our choices are limited, soon rejoining the closed circles of a Hegelian-like dialectic : sheepish or covert conformisation versus partial or radical opposition. In both cases, the individual defines itself vis-à-vis its immediate culture, that is, in the terms imposed by its thrownness. Thrownness would thus operate on us as a form of proto-language, before and much more fundamentally than the later development of the symbolic idioms of our commonly understood languages : thrownness is the immediate foisting of a structure, that is, of limits, but also of a medium and a modality for one to realise her needs, her creativity, her freedom.

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An individual’s thrownness happens within the thrownness of humanity. What does this imply ? That the thrownness of a singular individual is working in closed circles. It is not an alternative, a denied choice between being and not being that is at stakes here, but the space-time of one’s unquestionable existence.

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But thrownness where ? Heidegger’s intuition is deeply convincing, but it is in the silent assumptions of his concept that we may find the cracks of a self-dismantling of this supposedly obvious evidence. Heidegger, to avoid the ontological language of Humanism, departs from a discussion of the human to favour the ‘being-there’, the Dasein, but it is indeed of the commonsensically conceived and understood human that it is still question here. A human that, through its very species, occupies a particular space-time in the history of the universe – one could dare say that humanity itself was thrown in the cosmos… Heidegger’s thrownness is one of being thrown-in-the-world, that is, the imposition of a particular time, and especially, space, within the limits of the earth, of our globe, our planet. Here, the distinction is drastic : the thrownness of Dasein is the imposition of a particular spatial place, while the ‘thrownness’ of humanity – if we may dare call it so – is the imposition of a spatial place in general. Through thrownness, Heidegger discusses the arbitrary positioning of the singular human within the history and spatial spread of humanity, and not of the singular human within the arbitrary and enigmatic possibility of existence and absence at a cosmic, and metaphysical level. An individual’s thrownness happens within the thrownness of humanity. What does this imply ? That the thrownness of a singular individual is working in closed circles. It is not an alternative, a denied choice between being and not being that is at stakes here, but the space-time of one’s unquestionable existence. If every Dasein, every human being in the history of humanity, has been subjected to thrownness, then thrownness is not more an existential limitation or handicap than the common possession, among humans, of limbs, of a heart, of a brain, and, arguably, of reason, language, etc. To be is to be somewhere. Dasein’s thrownness is not its curse. The story is not over.

Indeed, thrownness is only the beginning. There is thrownness, but there is also freedom – and here we can return to rejoining one of Heidegger’s assumptions. But in the inseparable and deeply complex imposition of both space and time through thrownness, it is first the imposition of place as a supposedly violent coercion that we must question here. Forever, humans have been able to leave their place and culture of birth, for temporary journeys or permanent residences in other localities. Permanent would mean, here, until the death of that individual — understood as its bodily decay. Here, again, Heidegger’s existentialist framework would call for major revisions if one considers the question far beyond the body-mind dualism underlying the existentialist solitude. If we think, for instance, about the intuition that an individual lives ‘from’ her ancestors and ‘through’ her descendants. What are heredity, familial and collective culture, or language if not these ? The waltz of cultural nationalities then, as generations pass, demonstrate that “one” ’s thrownness is not a universal imposition, a given of the existential reality of the human or Dasein. If I depart from my country, marry a local person abroad, lose or ‘dilute’ my physical traits, language, familial and social culture and history through my descendants, all staying in what were once for me a foreign land, have I not transcended my thrownness ? How did my ‘initial’ thrownness (an ‘initial’ stage would be questionable here, since the process is trans-generational 2) affect the undeniable tango of one’s lineage across generations and localities ? What can Heidegger reply to the Hegelian spectre of a historical journey across populations and millennia ?

Back to Heidegger’s proposition – back to the individualised Dasein, with its set beginning and its set ending. Even within these (conceptual) limits, foreignness comes and affects thrownness. Foreignness, the possibility of departing, the odd and unexpected, uninspiredly political vocable, would indeed transcend the political, to call for deeply existential and metaphysical possibilities. Foreignness, in its possibility, tells the subject that s/he can be more than a pawn in one’s culture. In one’s history. In one’s family and collective evolution. Foreignness, or the option to leave one’s world for a time, to come back, stronger, more inspired ; but, foreignness, also the option to leave “for good”, for ever, to be “like dead” to one’s culture. Heidegger presents one’s full acceptance of an unavoidable death as a part of the move towards an authentic life. Could foreignness, in this radical alternative, be a form of authenticity ? What happens when one wilfully decides to put her native culture forever behind ? Is foreignness, as the cultural suicide of oneself from a particular society, an affirmation of life, freedom and self-transcendence ?

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But the question is worth asking : do I belong to the country of my birth ? What, in myself, remains determined, connected to this native land to the point of the (deceitful ?) appearances of a state of attachment, of belongingness to it ? If body and mind can detach oneself from one’s native land – and that is precisely the state of the resident foreigner – what is left of one’s debt to one’s country ?

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Belonging. The term, found in passing in Heidegger, has surprisingly survived in a popular version of Indian English. “Which country do you belong to?” – an oft-heard curiosity on the part of working class encounters in the street or during a train ride. For a Frenchman, the terms are absurd : with our heritage of phenomenology and existentialism, it is evident that our country, our nation, our state, has nothing to do, and can do nothing with the arbitrary happening of our personal existence. The subject ‘bears’ the country as nationality, as cultural heritage and direct environment, but s/he always transcends it, outweighs its absurd patriotic conceit. No country ever possessed anyone. Sartre’s existentialism said : existence precedes essence ; our existentialist foreignness would say : existence precedes national identity. But the question is worth asking : do I belong to the country of my birth ? What, in myself, remains determined, connected to this native land to the point of the (deceitful ?) appearances of a state of attachment, of belongingness to it ? If body and mind can detach oneself from one’s native land – and that is precisely the state of the resident foreigner – what is left of one’s debt to one’s country ? A distance of the body, certainly, but also a distance of the mind ? To what does one owe one’s thoughts, one’s ideas, one’s creations, one’s concepts, one’s philosophy : the culture of origin, the culture of residence or one’s supposedly autonomous sustenance ? Does the Indian English expression of the ‘belonging’ indicate a deeply engrained, and potentially often verified popular wisdom : that one’s perspective, that is, one’s worldview is primarily determined by one’s original cultural and conceptual environment ? Foreignness and belongingness – a departure, certainly, but an escape… ? Can one actually escape ?

A world-view, indeed, and the Heideggerean echo should not go unnoticed here. Heidegger’s being-in-the-world does not refer to being in the world in general, but being, almost, ‘assigned’ to a particular world, to a particular society in a particular space and time. The question, here, is whether one can escape this imposition, inasmuch it is, according to Heidegger, a part of Dasein’s very structure as being-there. For Heidegger, it is not the structure of being assigned to any particular world that characterises Dasein, but a specific assignation that cannot be altered in the course of the existant’s life. Thus, we could expect Heidegger to assert that one’s becoming a foreigner will not affect one’s attachment to a particular world. This has to do with Heidegger’s understanding of Dasein within time, through the notions of historicity and temporality. The progression of Dasein is permitted by its self-projection onto the future, as defined by its past. Only there, in the future, can Dasein move towards its being-whole or its transcendence as authenticity – the acceptation of its own death. In this understanding, authenticity arises for Heidegger as a response to angst, the state of Dasein realising its own freedom and solitude. But this is a very ‘conservative’ response to angst : it replaces one’s doubts and fears by the certainty of one final event. Heidegger does not propose a response to angst that also respects the unknowability of the future. In his late 1940s explorations and elaborations upon Heidegger’s existential phenomenology, Levinas suggests that time, and the future in particular, is the medium of true otherness : “The other is the future. The very relationship with the other is the relationship with the future. It seems to me impossible to speak of time in a subject alone, or to speak of a purely personal duration.” 3 Here, Levinas explores the first foretelling signs of what will later be his philosophy of alterity. Nearly five decades later, Derrida conceptualises this intuition of the future as radical novelty, as the utmost unknowable : the avenir :

“The affirmation of the future to come [à-venir]: this is not a positive thesis. It is nothing other than the affirmation itself, the “yes,” insofar as it is the condition of all promises or of all hope, of all awaiting, of all performativity, of all opening toward the future… The condition on which the future remains to come is not only that is not be known, but that it not be knowable as such.” 4

Nonetheless, it remains that when the native decides to depart from her country, she is following Heidegger’s existential programme, refusing an accommodation within the anonymous “they,” avoiding the subsequent “fallenness” into crowd influences and day-to-day preoccupations. The departing Dasein rejects the very possibility of its being a part of the national and cultural community of her birth, and ‘bets’ on the future, on the avenir as the possibility to realise her “I” in the very process of reinventing it. This only, it appears, could truly dismantle the existential curse of angst by revealing its own potentialities, but also by demonstrating the very realistic possibility of the adaptation of the environment to one’s existence through one’s volition. Thrownness may be the imposed choice of an epoch, but it is also what permits the infinite possibility of a creative and inspired take on one’s own temporality. Through the departure, the subject is given a chance of a second thrownness, yet one in which she will have a slightly wider control, and, above all, the capacity to experience and discover it throughout, with a deeper attention and awareness than during her primary thrownness.

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References

Image courtesy: John Pavlovitz

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Footnotes

  1. This chapter is based on liberal interpretations from Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie, and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper and Row, 1962).
  2. Could we find inspiration in Derrida’s views on language here, to ask whether one can trace an origin of one’s foreignness at all ? We shall return to this question in the following chapter.
  3. Emmanuel Levinas, Time and the Other, trans. Richard A. Cohen (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1987), 77.
  4. Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 68, 72.