The Time of a Foreigner

DE L’INFINI : A FOREIGNER’S METAPHYSICS

BOOK IV

BEYOND THE I’S : A FOREIGNER’S METAPHYSICS

Part 2

We have already touched upon the avenir as a radical modification of Heidegger’s temporal project. There, the serene openness to the avenir, to the future as that which can never be known, is a response, an absolute alternative to Heidegger’s proposition of one’s authenticity as one’s acceptation of one’s own death. It is only in, to say the least, a slightly gloomy climate that Heidegger could have thought that this may liberate Dasein from its existential condition in angst. However, realising one’s radical freedom may indeed be the associated, necessary process in one’s move to authenticity, but again, Heidegger’s programme must be modified to insist on the capacity for Dasein to reinvent itself, to transcend its own achievements, to discover in itself what it could not even imagine. And this takes place, as we have argued, in one’s sprouting away from one’s immediate environment – for instance by becoming a foreigner –, that is, away from what Heidegger conceived as one’s unavoidable and uncontrollable thrownness. There, one’s turn to the avenir, that is, one’s revolutionary redefining of the future as avenir, could be the true response to angst. Not through idealistic or naïve optimism, but through the very realistic and even reasonable realisation that the human mind is not powerful enough to make of the future a known field. And that, throughout history, each epoch has managed to creatively respond, react or assimilate what were previously irresolvable enigmas. The avenir, dimensionality of the serene – Derrida closes the writing of his personal Monolingualism of the Other with these very lines:

“Beyond memory and time lost. I am not even speaking of an ultimate unveiling, but of what will have remained alien, for all time, to the veiled figure, to the very figure of the veil.

This desire and promise let all my spectres loose. A desire without a horizon, for that is its luck or its condition. And a promise that no longer expects what it waits for : there where, striving for what is given to come, I finally know how not to have to distinguish any longer between promise and terror.” 1

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Heidegger’s programme must be modified to insist on the capacity for Dasein to reinvent itself, to transcend its own achievements, to discover in itself what it could not even imagine.

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Let us try to see how the avenir comes on the path of the foreigner. This exploration will allow us to discover how deeply Levinasian the Derridean notion of the avenir is. Levinas says that the Other arrives and interrupts the temporality of the I. It reveals the encounter of the Other, the fundamental phenomenological experience of the face-to-face, as the instantaneous evidence of the short-sightedness and uninspiredness of my egoism. What kind of an Other is the foreigner? Derrida connects the other as temporal interruption with hospitality :

“If it were produced only in time, in the time of everyday representation, the withdrawal would come to modify only the presence of the present, the now-present, the past-present, or the future-present. But here, this withdrawal, this trace of the face, dislocates the order of temporal presence and representation. Translated into the vocabulary of hospitality, this trace of the face, of the visage, would be called visitation.” 2

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The foreigner is not just foreigner-for-oneself. If, understood in the frame of Levinas, the foreigner is a being-for-the-Other, this also means that the main affect of his movement, of his presence, is not on herself, not on the enlargement of her slowly transcended ego, but on the many Other-s she encounters. The foreigner is first foreigner for the locals

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Foreignness is an event radically imbricated in time : the foreigner’s temporality of her old thrownness interrupted ; the time of the subject’s presence in a particular historical context, in her native land, in her land of residence and in the history of the world altogether. Politics, itself the originator of the foreigner’s name, requires the imposition of this context ; it requires, to make the foreigner a foreigner, that she enters a said territory, defined by politics’ very own temporality in the course of a said history. But the foreigner is not just foreigner-for-oneself. If, understood in the frame of Levinas, the foreigner is a being-for-the-Other, this also means that the main affect of his movement, of his presence, is not on herself, not on the enlargement of her slowly transcended ego, but on the many Other-s she encounters. The foreigner is first foreigner for the locals.

What does this imply ? Primarily, that the Other also marks an interruption of time, but, unlike before, it does so for the locals she encounters in her visit. As the local’s Other, the foreigner arrives and brings temporal and historical perspective to the existential flow of the local. The foreigner arrives, and she interrupts the metaphysics of presence of the local. Just like the experience of foreignness reminded her of her own existence in history, it is also their connectedness, across time and space, that the foreigner reminds the locals. Coming from the outside – the outside of a different set of spaces, but also the outside of a different temporality – the foreigner gets to see a number of elements, features and events that had become imperceptible to the locals, perhaps made invisible to them by the climate of habituation and cultural monotony. Having witnessed the global cohabitation of different, at times opposite traditions of customs, behaviours and beliefs, the foreigner can connect the local’s individual attitude to her history, to history in general – to a necessary genealogy, even when the foreigner knows nothing of this particular past. The foreigner is convinced of the dynamic of connectivity between tenses, transcending at once the individualistic ipseity claiming itself as the sole root and reason for the subject’s particular life and behaviours, and the ideology of the sociological ‘all-cultural’ that sees in the individual a historical pawn passive to her deterministic setting. Perhaps this is the fundamental root of the popular saying, ‘no man is a prophet in his own land’ : precisely, the foreigner does not know the future but she is acutely aware of the dynamics of the three tenses ; she is less a soothsayer than a visionary ; and through her first-hand awareness of the harmony of space and time, she knows, at times more intensely than the locals, that the avenir’s unknowability is the playground of human’s liberty. The foreigner is necessarily existentialist : having freed himself of his imposed thrownness, his central message to the locals is one of liberation, one of the joyful realisation of the human capacity for self-transcendence.

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In the instinctual, everyday spoken language, utterances are pronounced and enter a chaotic battlefield of meaning-making, while the terrain of the written permits a distantiation of externalisation that is equal for each statement, thus making semiotic accountability possible.

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But the foreigner can, and should say more. Or rather, he should write more. Indeed : writing and avenir, which have both played a key role in the trajectory of our reflection, must now come back together. Could we suggest a new understanding of writing, fundamentally placed back in time, and in particular, in the avenir ? Language, as generally understood, is already understood as playing the role of verbalisation, of crystallisation and essentialisation of reality – what Levinas calls the said – but the written brings one layer above and beyond the spoken. In the instinctual, everyday spoken language, utterances are pronounced and enter a chaotic battlefield of meaning-making, while the terrain of the written permits a distantiation of externalisation that is equal for each statement, thus making semiotic accountability possible. If we are beings of language, the focus must now be brought to the process and the moment of meaning-making. Truly, it is undeniable that before – and after ! – the written technologies were created, human societies have never been bereft of mechanisms of meaning-making through language in the spoken form. But it is also beyond a doubt that the written has permitted a much deeper consolidation of the traditions and possible trajectories of meaning-making.

Which exact pattern of meaning-making is exclusive to, and shared by all our written texts ? We can look at the case of philosophy, once again. Philosophy is, while not the only one, a central discipline elaborating projects organised around a use of language as a means to consistent and formalised meaning-making. As we discussed, philosophy requires a process of externalisation from the practitioner. The philosopher is attempting to be an ‘outsider’ in his own land, to see the situation as a whole, in an organic set, holistically. But the philosopher is, indeed, first an observer. An observer who starts by attempting an accurate vision of how things have been and how they have become. The philosopher is the hand joining generations, but a hand, if not heavy with, at least aware of the ongoing irrelevance of language to represent and respond to life. The philosopher has the duty of mourning – mourning the death of the other, mourning the failures of the past, mourning the unpredictable, yet unavoidable excesses of tomorrow. Against the radically future-oriented Heideggerean project of authenticity, 3 this conception would thus find in a genuine meditation on the past, and its traces through memory, the root for any vision of the avenir. 4 In spite or beyond his occasionally light-hearted and deceiving style, the very activity of the philosopher, his entry in the responsible realm of Levinas’s saying, recalls that the philosopher has the duty to remain solemn, sober, always acknowledging and keeping at the centre of his mind the violence that goes against life itself – the contradictory and absurd self-destructive dynamic of existence going against itself, analogical to the contradiction of the essentialising said finding shelter within the performative opening of the saying. One more echo of the figure of a fundamental peace welcoming even war.

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The avenir is the realm of the written, and the written takes place in the avenir, because the written ignores itself ; the written permits new meanings by permeating through its medium… but also beyond its medium, when the philosopher-poet understands that language is everything but formal restriction.

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The written is thus not a random practice of the human, or just the useful elaboration of one of its technological developments. The written is incorporated in the uniqueness of the human ; the written is what permits recollection, recueillement 5 but also creative response. The written always happens after – after the events, after the history, after the humanity that has left its present unanswered and unjustified. Humans require meaning to exist, and this meaning always comes a-posteriori, completing the present through a written ex-planation (‘out of the plane’) that is necessarily happening in the future, or rather, in the avenir. The avenir is the realm of the written, and the written takes place in the avenir, because the written ignores itself ; the written permits new meanings by permeating through its medium… but also beyond its medium, when the philosopher-poet understands that language is everything but formal restriction. Language of the avenir, Levinas himself associated – with exclamation ! – the unknowable, unthematisable face with the written:

“Face, already language before words, an original language of the human face stripped of the countenance it gives itself — or puts up with — under the proper names, tides, and genera of the world. An original language, already an asking, and precisely as such (from the point of view of the in-itself of being) wretchedness, penury, but also already an imperative making me answerable for the mortal, my fellowman, despite my own death — a message of difficult holiness, of sacrifice ; origin of value and good, the idea of the human order within the order given to the human. The language of the inaudible, the language of the unheard of, the language of the non-said. Writing !” 6

Thus would meaning come from the outside, from the externality of an avenir that is always, by definition, necessarily ahead of us, away, out of reach. Meaning, as knowledge, would, then, not come from the inside of our rational faculties, but always from the outside : from the externality of the Other, and from the externality of the avenir. The very phenomenology of meaning would be a necessarily a posteriori coming into being, a possibility to be inasmuch its formulation, that is, its birth, could happen only not at the time of the events it reflects upon. The metaphysics of presence must be broken for knowledge too : knowledge is belated. Any writing aims at making sense of a reality that has necessarily fallen in the past. But in the process, it is our very experience of the present that is affected : the present gets complete in its completion as written elaboration, in the unknowable form that reserves its avenir.

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For a species-of-language like the human, a lot of what we understand as justice, humanity, respect, culture or ethics relies on providing to each and everyone’s condition the formal acknowledgement from the rest of society, that is, its transcription into the consistently accountable format of the written. It is a message of liberation and excitement, a final word against angst, depression or negation, and towards serenity, peace and lightweight ambition. It reveals the realm of language as the locus of tomorrow’s making.

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What can the foreigner draw from this ? Not that any problem of a society’s present will be forever solved through its future philosophical formulation in the written. But that, for a species-of-language like the human, a lot of what we understand as justice, humanity, respect, culture or ethics relies on providing to each and everyone’s condition the formal acknowledgement from the rest of society, that is, its transcription into the consistently accountable format of the written. It is a message of liberation and excitement, a final word against angst, depression or negation, and towards serenity, peace and lightweight ambition. It reveals the realm of language as the locus of tomorrow’s making. And it is a language not anymore limited by grammar, logic or literacy, but language as a possibility, a creation, which, in its very historically undeniable genealogy, has been particularly heteronomous. As we know, there is no pure language, no language that did not undergo, or is not permanently undergoing mixing with other languages. It is this flexibility that makes of language a material of plasticity, of innovation, of creativity. Language is the realm of the possible. Thus, we rejoin Derrida’s aforementioned words on the avenir, but this time through the route of language : “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”…” 7 The avenir as the dimension of the unknowable ; language as the means of endless creativity : such are indeed the two prerequisites to say “yes” to the Other.

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References

Image courtesy: Intercon

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Footnotes

  1. Derrida, Monolingualism of the Other, 135-6 (my emphasis).
  2. Derrida, “A Word of Welcome,” 62.
  3. See Simon Critchley’s critique on this point, in Simon Critchley and Reiner Schürmann, On Heidegger’s Being and Time, (London, New York: Routledge, 2008), 147.
  4. The foreigner’s relation to her memory would be yet another question deserving its own analysis. Thanks to Arsh K.S. for bringing to my attention the necessarily central concept of memory in the phenomenology and ethics from, and derived of the foreigner. This domain would rightly require its own study.
  5. French for the word ‘meditation’ or ‘contemplation,’ but with the sense of ‘recollecting’ oneself internally.
  6. Levinas, “Totality and Infinity: Preface to the German Edition,” 170-1. The translation is modified : in French the last word is Ecriture, translated in the English version as Scripture. While Levinas’s reference to (religious) scripture is completely possible here, the French word does carry the plurality of meaning, and allows a rejoining with our discussion here.
  7. Derrida, Archive Fever, 68.