On Being-Over-There




Part 2

Dasein : “being-there.” Heidegger knew the connotation. Both the English there and the German da trace back to the Proto-Indo-European *tar-, a declension of the base *to- (“the,” “that”) in the demonstrative case, with the adverbial modifier *-r. 1 Da is thus a demonstrative, a finger pointing to a particular place. Heidegger’s plan is clear : Dasein is always ‘out there’, somewhere, in a particular place of the world. But the very expression carries an odd, unsaid assumption. Out there… from what ? Out of what is this ‘that’ to be found ? Where is the finger that is pointing to this ‘there’ ? Does Heidegger talk of a ‘here’ to which the ‘there’ of Dasein would contrast with ? The question is fundamental, both as an assessment of Heidegger’s universality, and as a bridge to the condition of foreignness. Is the foreigner in exactly the same modality of being-there as the native is ? Would not the foreigner’s being-there be a little further ‘there’ than the native’s ? Should not we critically expand Heidegger at this point, and suggest that in the existential analysis of the foreigner, it is not only its being-there that must be explored, but its being-over-there ?

What qualifies the existential condition of the foreigner? As being-over-there, the foreigner is twice being-there, twice thrown. To the earlier enigma of his existence in an arbitrarily chosen society and time, he adds a twist in the dimension of space, by deciding to shift the geographical environment of his life experience. Is this second thrownness also arbitrary ? Hard to say, but undeniably, cases differ. At one end of the spectrum, political or catastrophe migration arise when the very survival of an individual is threatened in her country. Economic pressures may push individual students, families or entire populations to go prepare a materially more comfortable and serene future. And at the other end of the spectrum, is what Canadian psychologist Greg Madison called ‘existential migration’ in the conceptual elaboration of his qualitative study. 2 Can one’s departure really be entirely free from all political or economic pressures ? Such an absolute case would seem to reawaken old Romantic ideals, but history is scattered over with life stories of individuals living materially comfortable existences ‘at home’ and deciding to leave everything nonetheless, for supposedly more challenging conditions, materially or politically, in a foreign country. While one could wonder whether Madison should have incorporated another category for wealthy individuals – of which the decision of western individuals, in particular, could be perhaps qualified as instances involving ‘post-colonial guilt’, as we will later discuss – it remains that Madison’s collected data reveal, indeed, a number of undeniably existential motivations behind the various instances of migrations : self-actualisation ; definition of one’s own identity ; experience of the Other ; experience of oneself as a foreigner somehow ‘detached’ from her environment ; in the hope, generally, of tackling and finding solutions regarding one’s often bitter relationship with her original culture and country. 3 The existential challenges of the foreigner would thus be manifold, and their widely interpretative frame of formulation invites to believe that the list could be endlessly elongated. But certain trends can be elaborated here.

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Here, the game is changed : the foreigner is an anomaly, the non-native, the external negation of the local human. The foreigner becomes the Other in a radical sense – beyond the scale of the family, of the community and of the national cohesion. Foreigner : the highest possible scale of distance between two humans.

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The foreigner is, initially at least, undeniably not at home in the foreign country. Unsettling change : the culture, society and environment of her ‘home’ country probably remained, back then and there, unsatisfactory or disconnected to her, but it was still her culture. Here, the game is changed : the foreigner is an anomaly, the non-native, the external negation of the local human. The foreigner becomes the Other in a radical sense – beyond the scale of the family, of the community and of the national cohesion. Foreigner : the highest possible scale of distance between two humans. The foreigner seeks accommodation for logistical necessities and for the learning experience, but she will hardly receive incorporation. The local culture, the local population remain an outside from whom the general desire to not mingle will appear ambiguous to the foreigner, at times frustrating, but often liberating. Abroad, the foreigner is like culture-less, society-less. A passing visitor, his eccentricities are leniently forgiven and his criticisms are rejected in virtue of his externality. His intrusion in the political life of the foreign land, from the smallest scale  of passing comments to the largest national ambitions of active participation, will receive the greatest resistances. In the first book, I deplored how the concept of foreignness had been widely addressed in the history of western thought as a political concept. But it is indeed at a political level that the concept of the foreigner carries its last meaning… before vanishing ? While most modern states grant foreigners same civil rights as those of the natives, it is at the level of political rights that the difference remains. Indeed, once liberal, modern societies opened up one by one all the previous legal exceptions – jus connubii or the refusal of mixed marriages ; the resistances regarding property owning and succession rights ; non arrestando or the refusal of an access to tribunals 4 – only one exception would then remain : the impossibility to contest for a public function. This political right is, at the earliest, granted five years after naturalisation – which itself already takes five years to the least. In other words, the foreigner, if she wants to, can become officially local, legally and politically speaking, after ten years. Foreignness lasts a decade.

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But through his “I”-oriented philosophy, Heidegger betrays a European, materially comfortable and self-centred individuality. It is an individuality that is permitted by relatively tightly structured welfare states, through which one can spare the hours and the years of life inspecting old Schopenhauerean anxieties and remaining broadly unaffected by the seemingly cosmetic changes in the country’s political alternations.

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This also means that, as a non-naturalised or recently naturalised individual, the foreigner is deemed as an a-political being. Liberal societies, aided with structures of pluralistic media, allow the foreigner to voice his concerns, but the formal participation to political life is forbidden to him. The foreigner is thus an observer, a visitor whose safety and rights the local state will broadly ensure, but who will not be expected to actively affect the life of the country. As foreigner, the individual is given a break from the modern or post-modern soft-pressure of the human as active citizen. It would not be stretching the analogy to extend this break to all the other forms of expectations that family, culture, religion or society at large awaited from the foreigner, when in his home country. The foreigner is the liberated being, the epitome of individualism, and, interestingly, of the solitude-acclaiming authentic Dasein of Heidegger. But through his “I”-oriented philosophy, Heidegger betrays a European, materially comfortable and self-centred individuality. It is an individuality, permitted by relatively tightly structured welfare states, through which one can spare the hours and the years of life inspecting old Schopenhauerean anxieties and remaining broadly unaffected by the seemingly cosmetic changes in the country’s political alternations. Foreignness, for this historically very particular individual, is an extension of a desire – and a satisfied desire moreover ! – to ‘leave everything’, to ‘just live’, to ‘just’ see the world, now that he is an un-expected subject, a duty-less agent. The foreigner, liberated from all cultural models, is left to himself, to his creativity and his interpretation, to decide of his actions. The foreigner : realisation of the earliest fantasy of western philosophy and science – the absolute observer ? We will return to this shortly.

An observer perhaps, but not a ghost. The observing foreigner is soon noticed, and his externality calls the stares inwards. Kristeva confirms the privilege :

“Since you remain incurably different and unacceptable, you are an object of fascination : one notices you, one talks about you, one hates you or admires you, or both at the same time. But you are not an ordinary, negligible presence, you are not a Mr. or Mrs. Nobody. You are a problem, a desire — positive or negative, never neutral.” 5

Is this the ultimate satisfaction of the foreigner – the creation of an undeserved cult, the self-transformation from a subject into an object of interest, the artificial setting of an absurd reality TV-like ego, a suicidal, voluntary Truman Show ? What can it mean, existentially, to an individual to feel everything but neutral ? We could follow the individualistic thread started earlier, and find this experience as a solipsistic extension of an enhanced ego. But we could also attempt to destabilise the easy moralistic judgement, reminding ourselves of the increased anguish and solitude that this self-centric dynamic has accompanied in western individualism. The cult of one’s person cannot be the final goal, since Marx, Nietzsche and especially Freud have killed – from its very cradle ! – the disproportionate claims of, supposedly, the individualistic ‘modern man’. The foreigner, a subject of cultures, an agoraphobic, wants anything but turning the crowd back towards himself.

No, if the foreigner is exhilarated by her non-neutrality, it is perhaps precisely as a reversal of the logic of individuality. Through her specificity, her uniqueness, the foreigner aims at inviting everyone on her path to try being the foreigner themselves, to try feeling special, to try realising, as she did, that the individual is, willy-nilly, the fundamental unit of humanity, its indivisible, yet myriad multiple core. In this drive of insane passions, the foreigner wants to be a messenger, the foreteller of an updated Enlightenment, not reductive anymore but still strong in its universality. In those trances, the foreigner could also see her role as that which permits the very flow of cultures, the Hegelian train of history. After all, Roman legalism, to take just one instance, could survive the centuries because it left Rome before its collapse. Empires fall, cultures migrate and mutate, and between them, the foreigner realises that the dynamics will necessarily rely upon bridging individuals. The individual : the unit. The foreigner, a historical hero, a trans-cultured facilitator of cultures.

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Empires fall, cultures migrate and mutate, and between them, the foreigner realises that the dynamics will necessarily rely upon bridging individuals.

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No surprise, then, that the residing foreigner looks with the most intense of despises at ehis co-nationals, and co-civilisationals : the tourists. They – the new “they” of Heidegger? – have made the very fruit of this genuine trans-cultural possibility a commodity corrupting the oldest and purest traditions of hospitality into a cash golden eggs’ goose. He departed, left all behind to escape what was expected of him, perhaps, but he contributed to his destiny through a second thrownness, a wilful decision of a specific place where, sooner or later, his futile observations will not anymore justify his sustained presence. While on the other hand, they just left, for a weekend or a five year-long worldwide tour in bicycle, taking the world, its faces and landscapes as the new, 5D innovations of the old cinematic, phenomenological attraction. Occasional benevolent encounters, preferably ‘simple’ children from ‘poor countries,’ offer them instants of a ‘reconnected humanity,’ while the rest of their guides and salesman abuse of their nonetheless never forgivable, astonishingly vast ignorance and indifference vis-à-vis the culture they pass through. There they are, crowding the shores of a Goa or a Vientiane, insignificant to the population except for its local catering class, unaware of the civilisational risks at stake in the simultaneous national elections, whose countryside loudspeakers campaigns they are, anyway, too far away from to hear. The tourist : the parodic, reversed twin of the foreigner, its comical, dramatic and tragic shadow, but also his longstanding dread, when their outweighing, by the millions, always threaten him to be taken for just one of them. Ultimate irony, or perhaps, fundamental self-disruption of the foreigner – he is eager, more than anything, to reassert who really the foreigners are : “the foreigner excludes before being excluded, even more than he is being excluded.” 6

While they come and go, the foreigner stays, persists, rediscovers the everyday entry of solitude, anxiety and his other sore existentialist memories. Yes, being-in-the-world remains a daily challenge for the existentialist foreigner, and the occasional ecstasies of cultural exchange, self-realisation and self-transcending do not permit an immediate closing of the scar of existing. Now an inhabitant of the once fantasised and exclusively novelicised tropics – or has he turned now to the tundra ? – the foreigner can only meander through his Romantic heritage, revisiting Shakespeare and Heidegger to remark that ‘to be or not to be’ is not anymore the question. Rather, his enigma is other : why am I here rather than anywhere else ?


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Supplementary References

Appiah, Anthony. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2006.

Beck, Ulrich. The Cosmopolitan Vision. Translated by Ciaran Cronin. Cambridge, UK Malden, MA: Polity, 2006.

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Critchley, Simon. The Ethics of Deconstruction. Delhi: Motilal Barnasidass Publishers, 2007.

Davis, Colin. Critical Excess: Overreading in Derrida, Deleuze, Levinas, Žižek and Cavell. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010.

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Derrida, Jacques. The Gift of Death & Literature in Secret. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Derrida, Jacques. The Other Heading: Reflections on Today’s Europe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Glendinning, Simon. In the Name of Phenomenology. Oxford & New York: Routledge, 2007.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Existence and Existents. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic, 1978.

Peeters, Benoit. Derrida: a Biography. Translated by Andrew Brown. Cambridge, UK Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2013.

Image courtesy: Borja Suarez



  1. Wiktionary contributors, “there,” Wiktionary, The Free Dictionary, http://en.wiktionary.org/w/index.php?title=there&oldid=26024627 (accessed May 1, 2014).
  2. Greg Madison, “Existential Migration,” Existential Analysis, 17.2 (2006): 238-60.
  3. Madison, “Existential Migration,” 238.
  4. Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 99-100.
  5. Ibid., 39.
  6. Ibid., 24.