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Homecoming to No Home: Reflections on Samir Gandesha’s “Hegel’s Homecoming of Spirit”

November 19, 2019

Dr. Peyman Vahabzadeh, Sociology, University of  Victoria

I am afraid that there is an irony at work in inviting me to offer response to Samir Gandesha’s fine paper on “Hegel’s Homecoming of Spirit,” which expects and demands from the interlocutor something intelligible.  A displaced and trivial refugee from Iran—coming from a part of the world where, according to Hegel’s philosophy of history, only one man (the ruler) is free—is now mandated to respond, via the learned son of refugee parents, to the world-historical German philosopher.  It goes without saying that I am not—indeed, I cannot be—Hegel’s perceived free Asian by virtue of being a refugee.  From out of a society that purged myself, and thousands others in my generation, for being the voices of its conscience, from out of a society that quickly forgot about the generation it purged, I was thrown from the troubled Middle East to the peaceful West Coast of Canada.  Following Ian Angus, I call this my experience of “clearance”—the process necessary for my homeland to take new turns in its politics and society following the 1979 Revolution.  In a Marxian way, my perceived freedom comes from the practical aspect of my life and not entirely from my ideas.  Nonetheless, my life is perhaps just a minute embodiment of Hegel’s universal world history as it (supposedly) moves from the East to the West in increasing rationality and thus freedom.  Being situated at this nexus of universal and particular gives me individuality here, in this Abendland or the Land of Sunset, the destiny of western civilization as it is inclined toward its destitution, as Heidegger points out, and as it is, in a spooky manner, depicted on the flag of the Province of British Columbia.

A refugee in the Land of the Sunset: this invokes Nietzsche who said in Human, All Too Human, Aphorism 513, “Life as the yield of life. –No matter how far a man may extend himself with his knowledge, no matter how objectively he may come to view himself, in the end it can yield to him nothing but his own biography.”  Now that Nietzsche has demystified the process for me (I love shortcuts!) I can fast-forward my point and say that my engagement here cannot be detached, esoteric, or scholastic: it is so intimately tied to my concrete experience—my Erfahrung (experience) which include my unforgettable Fahrt (voyage or crossing)—it cannot be any other way.  And although the yield of life is the return of the sweat and toil that one invested in life, the way Lou Salome interprets Nietzsche, in my case the yield is not mine alone: within the pouch of my recollections, I carry the investment of all fellow refugees whose experiences and journeys crossed with mine.  I am thus the keeper of yields and investments and that makes me feel like an existential agrarian cooperative or an experiential credit union!

Another way of saying this is that a refugee’s “love of wisdom” (philosophia) remains inevitably tied to his or her concrete and always already historically specific experience of the cut, the rupture, the throw, and the landing (not necessarily on the feet, though!).  It is tied to his or her “naked philosophy”—a philosophy conscious of its finitude and partiality, which does not claim Absolute Knowledge as the unity of “in-itself” and “for-itself,” although it may opportunistically feign it for utilitarian purposes every now and then.  Naked philosophy exposes the body or the body in mind—it bears naked the “lived experience” or Erlebnis through an experiential sojourn or Erfahrung.  In its nakedness, this philosophy is primarily one of exposition, of pointing out chasms and aporias: the sites of injustice, displacement, violence, expulsion, injury, or flight, and last but not least, of sharing the stories behind each scar, if anyone cares to listen, and wondering whether a scar is an insignia of continued, terminal pain or a referent of triumphant healing.  And in its being tied to the places where trauma has scared memory, the refugee’s naked philosophy remains topological and recollective: when naked philosophy poses a question in relation to an experience, it is already pointing out a place without whose knowledge the experience cannot be fully comprehensible.  It is a lived, personal experience of an injury.  Inevitably, since it is tied to the upholding, expansion, and proliferation of human rights not as an abstract concept or state policy but as a space in consciousness that allows for communication between the strangers across different histories and different existential plains.  These strangers greet each other for the first time like old friends because of the family resemblance of the scars they bear on the body or on the memory.

Here’s my dilemma: I really have no problem agreeing with Hegel’s homecoming of the Spirit through experience—a journey through which the strange becomes familiar within an eschatological history.  Unless I am missing something here, though, I can only agree with Hegel if I close my eyes unto my own Erfahrung.  My life has affinities with Georg Simmel’s stranger “as the man who comes today and stays tomorrow.”[1] I left one place and arrived in another, while never leaving, in my consciousness, my homeland, the place of my natality that is filled with my childhood memories, and while not quite dwelling in this hostland, this lovely place that embraced me like one of “its own,” with a sense of permanence.  Being honest about my experience dictates this observation: the rift between “in-itself” and “for-itself” seems irreconcilable to someone who has lived the contingency of destiny, and the knowledge of this rift, itself a gift of naked philosophy and not Absolute Knowledge, renders me just another candidate for Unhappy Consciousness—a thought at variance with itself.

Refugees are nightmares for nation-states, as Warren Magnusson observes.  The irony about such an existence is that a refugee must positively prove to the UNHCR (as I did) or the state, whose border security and thus sovereignty he or she just undermined by virtue of uninvited arrival, that he or she is indeed a stateless person, while by virtue of statelessness in this world of competing sovereigns, the refugee is in fact an embodiment of negativity.  As such, the refugee becomes an embodiment of the Hegelian “rabble” (Pöbel) and its non-place in the civil society.

Allow me a detour into Hegel at this point.  Let me first confess that amidst the superb garden-variety expansions and constrictions of Hegel’s philosophy, my brief interjection below is in need of conceptual lubrication.  So be it.  For Hegel, the ethical state is the realm of integration of the particular into the universal.   According to Hegel, “the civic community is the realm of difference.”[2] Also: “My own particularity, and likewise the particularity of others are, however, a right, only in so far as I am free.  They cannot maintain themselves in opposition to their real basis.”[3] The problem of the poor for Hegel’s theory is tied to the possibility of their evolving into a particularity that will ultimately be subsumed under the universal.  Hegel observes that the poor indeed can be integrated into civic community and he offers England as an example.[4] But within the poor there resides “the pauper,” the unincorporatable “pauper,” or Hegel’s “rabble” as invoked by Gandesha: the source of potential evil: “The pauper state implies a frame of mind, associated often with poverty, consisting in inner rebellion against the wealthy, against society, and against constituted authority.”[5] The rabble is the potential lümpenproletariat in every proletariat, which Marx, in inverting (and adopting) the Hegelian conceptual model, also had a problem integrating into the communist society except by dissolving its being: hence his “solution” of “proletarianization,” implemented following the Bolshevik Revolution by Anton Macarenko in the form of model-school which successfully combined physical labour and mental training.  As regards exile, the parallels are striking: within the refugees from Chile after 1973 you might allow members of MIR urban guerrillas into Canada; within the Muslim-Canadians you might end up having an Omar Khadr; within the Sikh community of BC you might have the jetliner bomber.  Examples of the presumably unintergratable abound.

The problem, in other words, is that the rabble and the pauper represent the  “particular” that cannot give “to the universal its adequate content and unconditioned self-direction.”[6] Thus, the rabble poses “disunity”: “bringing disunity into” is an English rendition of veruneinige which actually denotes “to pollute” or “to contaminate.”[7] Given the universal-particular relation within Hegelian dialectics in which the particular (anti-thesis) will be eventually integrated into the universal (thesis) and unity (synthesis) will thus be achieved, the unintegratable position of the pauper and the rabble becomes clear.  The rabble is the contaminant.  The pauper threatens the purity of the synthesis of the particular and universal.  By implication, the rabble (although ultimately powerless to do so—thanks to closed history!) potentially impedes the reconciliation of the Spirit.  Its “inner rebellion” makes the rabble think dirty thoughts all the time, just like the lümpenproletariat and the refugee, because their positions are informed by a different childhood memories due to their event of natality taking place outside of world-history.  Hegel obviously could not have been aware of Reiner Schürmann’s concept of singularity, Jacques Derrida’s differànce and aporia, or Jean-François Lyotard’s différend, or many other concepts expressing inassimilable alterity.  For Hegel, any such alterity could only amount to evil: an expression of violence.[8]

I have explained elsewhere that the refugee is different from the immigrant.[9] For the immigrant the journey from homeland to hostland is primarily about the continuation of life in other forms and in a place different from home.  With immigration, normally, the prospects of life expand.  The immigrant already has a perceived place in the hostland.  He or she does not experience the existential cut, only homesickness.  The refugee, in contrast, is thrown out of his or her homeland and has no place to return to.  The immigrant’s journey to new life is as long as the jetliner’s flight (give or take a few months).  The refugee’s journey remains unending, and that is a curse.

Here is where Marx, a prominent exile, responds to Hegel’s problem of the rabble in Gandesha’s paper.  The refugee’s disruptive non-place connects with the non-place of the rabble in the Hegelian Sittlichkeit.  In Marx, the rabble finally gets a chance for reconciliation with history in the shape of the proletariat.  The refugee in question might ultimately become an Associate Professor in an island university on the West Coast of this continent (any resemblance to true persons is fictional!), which means he has been integrated into civil society prior to an epoch-making revolution.  Yes, the body and part of the consciousness of the refugee-turned-citizen has been integrated into civil society: he votes, pays income tax, owns property, drinks booze, and hangs out with cool academics once in a while to discuss issues of mutual interest.  And yet the refugee, the exile, the stranger, stays with him, stays within him.  Once a refugee, always a refugee.  It can’t be helped: it’s a trick of the untameable part of consciousness—the part of the memory that constantly broods over the cut while it has long overcome the pain.  The sign of alterity stays with me: even in complete darkness when those present hear me read out my paper, they know a stranger is present, thanks to my unsanctioned accent.  The accent is the contaminant’s sign that is present and communicative and it is also the marker of the unassimilable among us.

The bottom line is that once inflicted, violence is here to stay with us and within us.  It can be contained but not exorcised.  We can recover from it but you will inevitably carry its scars with us forever.  The journey to recovery is a long one in the case of traumatized consciousness, and my response here, my attempt at naked philosophy using this opportunity, indicates such a journey.

But here is the happy note: lets be playful with the Hegelian model.  Lets picture take exile as a universal and link it to the homecoming of Spirit in its history to overcome its alienation.  And lets picture also the particular as my specific exile and my failed homecoming (and we ignore my radical alterity for the moment).  Now my individuality links my exile to world-history.  We do know that the universal cannot express itself unless through the particular, or in this case, by virtue of being an exile I inevitably (and helplessly) represent the phenomenon of exile.  I think I will be allowed this picture since Gandesha states in his paper: “Hegel seeks to show how the historical element of Spirit through the various shapes through which it passes forms the basis for the overcoming of the diremptions that characterize the modern world” (p. 10).  I hope it is not presumptuous on my part to interpret Gandesha in this way: my life as a refugee and an exile has been an individual case that represents the diremption.  This unenviable position, however, fills me with Joy.  I am so happy to have discovered, through Samir Gandesha’s paper, that I might have been, unknowingly and unwittingly, a trivial and negligible vehicle for allowing the Spirit’s homecoming through my irreversible, life-altering, and displacing journey called exile.  I sleep better knowing that by virtue of this rabble’s refuge Hegel’s world-history is in a better shape and one step closer to reconciliation.  Although Hegel asserted that “The wounds of the spirit heal and leave no scars behind,”[10] and Jean Amery said, “Nothing has healed…,”[11] I happen to be of a third opinion: I actively seek healing but do not dwell, or insist in dwelling, in the ultimate impossibility of erasing the memories of violence and trauma, and thus healing.  The scars remain.  They sadden me, but also fill me with pride and joy.  My scars invoke my advocacy of human rights and non-violence because I selfishly keep them to myself.  They are my friends, and it is thanks to them that I can perform naked philosophy.  I wonder if Hegel, with his inherited Eurocentricity, could ever thought of the Spirit in this fashion.  I have discovered something else in this process too.  The possibility of healing rests with the possibility of homecoming to a home you can never return to.  What are left behind in the refugee’s consciousness are memory of a vanishing homeland and the cause of his or her scars.  Perhaps we need to find the proper name of possibility of returning to a home that no longer home, properly speaking, but a place to which you are connected through memories of pain, a place that cannot be abandoned but it does not allow you to dwell in it either.  In the meantime, telling stories and sharing secrets, the exile seeks refuge among friends.  Not every displacement is misplacement.  This happens when forced departure and loss of home lose their grip on the shaken life of the displaced.  This is also when, regardless of world-history and the concern for the reconciliation of the Spirit, the refugee feels at home when surrounded by continued laughter and occasional tears and in good company, since the word “Samir” in Arabic means “companion.”  Perhaps we can explore the possibility of dwelling in our proper homes through our friendships.  Perhaps.

Peyman Vahabzadeh is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of Cultural, Social, and Political Thought (CSPT) Program at University of Victoria  He is the author of Articulated Experiences: Toward A Radical Phenomenology of Contemporary Social Movements (SUNY Press, 2003), A Guerrilla Odyssey: and the Fadai Period of National Liberation in Iran, 1970-1979 (Syracuse University Press, 2010), and Exilic Meditations: Essays on A Displaced Life (H&S Media, 2013), the guest editor of the special issue of West Coast Line on “Writing Rupture: Iranian Emigration Literature” (2003) and special issue of Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory on “Democracy at the Time of Politics of Fright” (2007).  He is also the author of nine books in Persian.  His essays, poems, short stories, and interviews have appeared in English, Persian, Kurdish, and German.

Notes:

[1] Georg Simmel, On Individuality and Social Forms (Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 143.
[2] G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, tr. S.W. Dyde (New York: Prometheus Books, 1996), p. 185.
[3] Ibid., p. 120.
[4] Ibid., p. 231.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., p. 191.
[7] See translator’s note in: Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, tr. Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 205.
[8] Singularity, or in other words, the unrealizable individuality seems like the source of fright for Hegel!  See: Hegel,Philosophy of Right, p. 232.
[9] See: Peyman Vahabzadeh, Exilic Meditations: Essays on a Displaced Life (London: H&S Media, 2013), Ch. 1.
[10] F.W.G. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, tr. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 407.  My emphasis.
[11] Jean Améry, At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor of Auschwitz and Its Realities, tr. S. Rosenfeld and S. P. Rosenfeld (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1980), p. xi.