Vassilis Lambropoulos


There was a time in recent memory when "immigration" referred to a rather restricted economy: the economy of the illiterate working and peasant classes who left their native place and settled in a new region in search of better means of survival. These were the immigrants of yesterday: they were very poor and uneducated. Nobody else immigrated. Other classes and groups moved into new places too, of course, even abroad, but they did not immigrate. They became refugees (like the victims of persecution), exiles (like radical artists), ŽmigrŽs (like political dissidents), expatriates (like disaffected writers), but immigration was not part of their history.

Over the last few years, however, the semantic economy of "immigration" has been radically generalized: it has lost its financial specificity and class connotation, and has become available to practically everybody—machinists, students, bureaucrats, opera directors, ethnic populations, journalists, asylum seekers, academics. The immigrant status is no longer just a category—it is an identity that denotes an experience more than a biographical event. "Migrancy," together with sister terms like diaspora, creole, and hybridity, refers broadly to the universalized instability, ex-centricity, and plasticity of personal experience as people become "empowered" to immigrate not only to new lands but to other races, colors, bodies, genders, denominations, professions, "realities," and lifestyles in general.

Amidst all this frantic, often exuberant, movement across frontiers of selfhood and status, there remains a puzzling silence—the absence of philosophical participation in this development. Twentieth-century philosophers from Simmel to Sartre and from Arendt to Levinas wrote trenchantly on the various incarnations of the other—the stranger, the pariah, the exile, the outsider. Despite the global spread of immigration today, philosophy has not expressed any serious interest in this phenomenon. Instead, the task has been undertaken by cultural studies and certain post-structuralist reflections on space and motion. Why is migrancy so philosophically uninteresting? Why has it not generated any phenomenological, metaphysical, feminist, Aristotelian, Kantian, or Deweyan inquiry into the human condition?

The reasons must be sought in the limited intellectual promise of the subject. The study of otherness has undergone a major transformation from general reflection on negativity to the ethnographic recording of difference. Grand theory has been superseded by local narrative, sociology has been supplanted by anthropology, the allegorical urge to look at humanity through the eyes of the foreigner has been annulled by the therapeutic impulse to recover repressed experiences of estrangement.

More importantly, explorations of immigration, diaspora, trans-national and trans-identiary identities still operate within the Modernist problematic of alienation. Both conservative Modernist thought (Lawrence, Eliot, Heidegger), which was fascinated with land, and radical Modernist thought (Joyce, Celan, Adorno), which was attracted to exile, lamented homelessness, the existential condition of modernity as defined by Hšlderlin. The generation of Thomas Mann, Kazantzakis, and Luk‡cs felt that modern rationality, technology, capitalism, secularism, and barbarism had left Westerners without ancestors, roots, tradition, continuity, or faith. The land could no longer be inhabited: it could be usurped, raped, occupied, or auctioned but it had lost its capacity to nurture and preserve. Homelessness was alienation from one's native community into history and labor, a punishment for the sin of the human domination of the earth through reason, capital, experiment, and mass communication. Thus Modernist art and philosophy drew on Romantic notions of origin, nativism, and nature as well as the aesthetics of the sublime and the fragment, to portray in resplendent colors the individual who consciously confronts homelessness and struggles heroically and creatively with this irreversible predicament. The result was the portrait of the cosmopolitan intellectual—artist, philosopher, woman of letters, poet, social critic. Philosophers from Marx to Bloch and Ortega contributed greatly to the study of alienation because they felt that the issue involved human essence, worth, direction, and self-justification. The search for home in a world haunted by exilic memories, ruins, and negations represented a quest for ground and value, for new morals, for consummate aesthetics.


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