The Space of a Foreigner

DE L’INFINI : A FOREIGNER’S METAPHYSICS

BOOK IV

BEYOND THE I’S : A FOREIGNER’S METAPHYSICS

Part 1

The fact is so evident that we have managed to explore foreignness extensively without discussing it in depth : foreignness is a matter of space. Internally, phenomenologically, and, as we will soon discover, epistemologically, it is the process of externalisation that may attract our attention around foreignness. But more generally, and as commonly understood, the foreigner is one who undertakes a movement of spaces. The foreigner combines two space related experiences : first, the movement, and second, the multiplicity of spaces. The experience of foreignness reveals to the philosophical mind the impossibility of space in the singular, as the dimensional root of any ethnocentrism. Space is always in the plural. The foreigner discovers the meanings and implications of movement, and realises the concept of space as necessarily differential, plural, internally multiple. There can be a space only because there are spaces. The foreigner experiences spaces, and he does so through his very presence in these spaces.

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Presence thus becomes the arch-structure of any possible thinking in the western traditions – spatial presence, such as in the case of reason, knowledge or consciousness, but also temporal presence, such as in the conceptualisations of history and change. Like an empirical science, western philosophy would then be incapable of evaluating or merely describing what is not ‘present at hand’ before it, present to its scrutiny, or potentially present in the future, conceived as a projection of the current present. The discrimination is radical, tragic : by refusing that which is not immediately present, western thought closed numbers of fecund doors for itself.

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The infamous keywords are mentioned : metaphysics, and presence. Since Derrida is without a doubt the major intellectual support for this study and one of the rare sources of truly innovative ways to bypass persistent conceptual hurdles in the understanding of foreignness found within western philosophy, we must also follow the thread of his own work and evaluate our interpretations in the light of his larger critiques. As an over-arching concern throughout his career, Derrida set his body of works against what he called logocentrism, or the running belief, in western philosophy until and including Husserl, in the inner sense of reason as the means of approaching truth and meaning. In Derrida’s argumentation, this privileging also corresponds to the arbitrary favouring of speech over the written – in Greek, logos refers both to reason and speech. Derrida’s exploration of the history of speech in western thought reveals one key feature, later extended to a reason-centred philosophy altogether : presence. With Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hegel or Husserl, objectivism, temporality, knowledge, consciousness and subjectivity are defined in terms of presence. Presence thus becomes the arch-structure of any possible thinking in the western traditions – spatial presence, such as in the case of reason, knowledge or consciousness, but also temporal presence, such as in the conceptualisations of history and change. Like an empirical science, western philosophy would then be incapable of evaluating or merely describing what is not ‘present at hand’ before it, present to its scrutiny, or potentially present in the future, conceived as a projection of the current present. The discrimination is radical, tragic : by refusing that which is not immediately present, western thought closed numbers of fecund doors for itself.

Should we abandon altogether any defence of presence ? The contemporary, popular understanding of foreignness would in fact seem to be inspired by pseudo-Derridean sentiments : in an age of fast transportations and instant communications, one’s experience of space would be mostly virtual, shyly deduced from the brief instants between one’s truly translocal existence. In this network of connectivity, one would rarely get a chance to properly experience presence, that is, posited-ness, exclusive dedication to the immediate space, and therefore also, absolute absence to any other space. We would be everywhere and nowhere at once — always and never, present and absent. After all, the ages of colonial explorations would seem very far behind us, with their adventures in lands out of reach from any communication. But is it indeed the end of the notion of presence ? More connected than ever before, is today’s foreigner so deeply incapable of experiencing spatial presence ? Derrida’s critique of logocentrism as metaphysics of presence is certainly a key moment in the intellectual history of the west, but it is formulated primarily as a response to these very scholarly traditions. This does not mean that, along with it, the experience, the value of present-ness is withdrawn for good.

No, instead, one may even suggest that the foreigner’s experience of spatial presence may be the continuation of Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence. The high numbers of temporary or permanent migrants, in particular from a new generation of westerners today, is perhaps the natural extension of Derrida’s intuition. Presence must be criticised when it is a monolithic presence ; a despotic, authoritarian, exclusive conception of what space and being-in-a-space may be. When the scope widens to incorporate a pluralistic understanding of space, then presence, or, if one may dare still call it thus, a metaphysics of presence, would still be worth of passionate explorations. Indeed : what does presence make possible ? Defending presence in the age of the virtual, it is precisely contending that a book is not worth a teacher, that a documentary is not worth a personal journey, and, more radically, that a fortnight tourism is not worth a long-term residence. Western intellectual traditions may have succeeded in celebrating the plethora of the world as ideally, democratically accessible to all through reason and its many discourses, but this appetite should not turn into the belief that first-hand experiences are equal to a bundle of intellectual conclusions. It is, perhaps, our reading of foreignness through and beyond Heidegger and existentialism that may be called in support here. While Heidegger’s ‘standard’ existential analysis stood for a human being experiencing space in a unity, thus being still possibly subjected to Derrida’s critique of logocentrism, or, we may add, to Levinas’s rejection of thematising projects, the existential foreigner’s take on spaces is differential, multiple, contrasted. The pitfalls of space have been transcended through the discovery of spaces.

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The voice of the foreigner as a foreigner’s voice is one that requires her own spatial presence in the land she addresses. But paradoxically, it is the very experience of residence abroad, that is, of absence from home, that justifies her credible discourse.

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The foreigner is defined by a differential condition in spaces. But at each instant, she is posited in only one space. Jumping from one location to the next, she becomes a tourist, out of the borders of our focus on the foreigner. What distinguishes the two ? The foreigner decides to stay in a place, thus adding the dimension of spatial presence to that of temporal presence – the other dimension of presence, to which I will turn shortly. A foreigner, she is not aiming at any immediate departure. Either she remains a foreigner, and then foreignness is more than a matter of movement, more than the event of the departure. Or her foreignness slowly fades as she stays in one space, proving the plasticity of the anchoring of societies and cultures onto specific spaces. But in both cases, the foreigner, as a voice, and especially, as a philosophical voice, must be spatially present to justify her discourse. The foreigner cannot speak of the space in which she is not. When abroad, her reflective insights on her own culture find no appropriate ears : her natives are back home. When at home, her outsider’s perspective on the foreign land sound like unnecessary elaborations to her co-nationals. The voice of the foreigner as a foreigner’s voice is one that requires her own spatial presence in the land she addresses. But paradoxically, it is the very experience of residence abroad, that is, of absence from home, that justifies her credible discourse. None of this would have been possible without physical presence abroad.

Another level of implications is at stakes in the foreigner’s discovery of spaces. While phenotypical variations and differences of customs may form the ‘content’ of one’s immediate impression of foreignness, the very event of being a foreigner is fundamentally dependent upon a political structure. The foreigner is a native who moves, and this movement is considered as ‘moving out’ exclusively through the perspective of politics. The foreigner realises the first dimension of political obsession : space. Before desiring a control of time, first, and much more intensely, politics as realpolitik emerges as a form of collective effort aiming at taking power over a territory, and ensuring its control in the present. Politics is a management of space. Politics of space between nations ; politics of space within nations. A territory is the first, immediate, and perhaps sometimes, only representation available for a force coming to power, if trying to justify its action. It is by invoking the idea of a nation, of a fantasised, collective unity taking shape primarily through geography, through space, and through space delimitation, that any political discourse can acquire meaning. There is no politics without space, and there is no politics without division of spaces.

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Politics is a management of space. Politics of space between nations ; politics of space within nations. A territory is the first, immediate, and perhaps sometimes, only representation available for a force coming to power, if trying to justify its action.

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The foreigner, an experiencer of the transient and of the transitory, remembers the nomadic days of the human species, but she is also forced to admit the stratification of populations, certainly artificial, but undeniably profound, onto spaces. The realisation that space, once an abstract metaphysical category, can also be purchased, in the odd combinations of nation-states with increasingly liberal markets. The market, the commodity, enters the older category of the communal or national space, to further affect the outsider. Without the least traces of faraway strangers, a village arranges its population into insiders and outsiders, on the basis of the ownership of land within the space of the commune. In certain contexts, land acquisition is technically possible for an outsider, but this would be followed by a state of alienation from the rest of the group. The foreigner realises, as an outsider, that, inversely, the inside, is more than just the outer crust of a pluralistic set of practices, customs and traditions. It is also, and primarily, an understanding of space, of spaces in particular, of the space of the inside, and of the space of the outside. Quoting Aamir Mufti, Debjani Ganguly recalls that “the experience of being at home can only be produced by rendering some others homeless.” 1 Aware of the outsiders in his homeland, the foreigner, abroad, is now eager to wish the departure of other foreigners he deems unfit. Leaving a welfare state with airs of eternal social cohesion, the western foreigner reenters history, but he also does it through space. He realises that space, this fundamental, natural dimension, may well be more than a naïve, neutral and homogenous background for humanity’s history.

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From its very etymology, politics is a matter of space : it is limited to the walls of the polis, of the city. Contrasting with politics is governance. Governance, from the Greek kubernan, is the act of guiding, the flexible, yet self-transcending overcoming of the present through the necessarily differing conditions of the future.

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At a pragmatic level, politics is a very conservative type of dynamics, since a party’s fundamental objective is to ensure its perpetuation. It is to make sure that today’s political control will guarantee tomorrow’s political control. The hope is that tomorrow will look like today – everyday politics is absolutely bound by the metaphysics of presence. From its very etymology, politics is a matter of space : it is limited to the walls of the polis, of the city. Contrasting with politics is governance. Governance, from the Greek kubernan, is the act of guiding, the flexible, yet self-transcending overcoming of the present through the necessarily differing conditions of the future. It is the reflexive, pragmatic field of a political entity aiming at constructing itself between the needs of the citizens. It is perhaps only at that angle, at this level, that Levinas can dare positing peace as primary, above, beyond and before war. And, indeed, Levinas is soon to separate this level of collective events from the present-bound realm of the political : “peace is a concept that goes beyond purely political thought.” 2 Then, if the foreigner is, by definition, rejected from the realm of the political, it is perhaps towards the adaptable route of governance that she can now turn. Foreigners can, and in fact, do partake in the direction, in the guidance of what a country, what a culture may become.

What if such a governance was the institutional form of what has been called the experience of the flow ? Logically, politics, just like foreignness, would be the antitheses of flow. How could the experience of differences, and of the required arrangement, the required economy of differences, be assimilated to the fusional phenomenon of the flow ? Perhaps this can achieved by transforming politics into the more adaptable and serene vision of governance. By putting the old opposition in motion, by placing back politics, foreignness and spaces in time. And in more than time : in the avenir, the realistic hope of tomorrow’s harmonious combination of today’s antonyms.

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References

Image courtesy: High Country News

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Footnotes

  1. Debjani Ganguly, Caste, Colonialism and Counter-Modernity (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), 20.
  2. Emmanuel Levinas, Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures, trans. Gary D. Mole (London: The Athlone Press, 1994), 195.