I Alien

Crises of Presence and the Habitus of Migrancy

in Social Analysis
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João Pina-Cabral Research Professor, Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon, Portugal pina.cabral@ics.ulisboa.pt

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Abstract

What is it to be alien? This article considers the debate concerning alienation/de-alienation launched by Hegel and revisited a half-century ago by Jacques Derrida. It examines the systemic reduction of legal rights of presence that migrants in contemporary Europe regularly encounter. Such experiences lead people to undergo a ‘loss of presence’ in the sense that they question their relationship with the world and the people around them. As Ernesto de Martino proposed, these occurrences constitute a ‘subjective alienation’ brought about by ‘objective alienation’. In this way, they impact one's personal ontogeny, producing what I call a ‘habitus of migrancy’. As a contribution toward ethnographic theory, the article engages the role of long-term self-reflection in anthropological analysis.

If, moreover, I am at times seemingly too personal in style of statement, let it be remembered that well-nigh all anthropology is personal history …

— Frank Hamilton Cushing, “The Arrow”

What is it to be alien? This article prolongs a long line of debate concerning alienation/de-alienation launched by the work of Hegel and importantly revisited half a century ago by Jacques Derrida (1967).1 For Hegel, alienation was “a process essential to and constitutive of human consciousness. It refers to the self-othering involved in self-positing, which is the process of differentiation that constitutes identity; if the same is the same only insofar as it is not the other then the same contains the other within itself, it is itself at the same time as being other than itself” (Skempton 2010: 50). Therefore, contrary to what the natural attitude proposes, for these authors, alienness is not the destruction of an identity that would naturally have been there if not challenged. Rather, it is the very condition and grounds for the emergence of presence. In short, no one discovers the condition of being alien for the first time, because de-alienation is the very mechanism of the institution of the world (or ‘worlding’ in Heidegger's influential formulation)2 including personal self-constitution.

In this article, I examine a case of the denial of legal rights of presence, which regularly confronts migrants in contemporary Europe. Occurrences of this kind lead people to experience a ‘loss of presence’, in the sense of questioning their relationship with the world and with the people around them. Such ‘crises of presence’, as Ernesto de Martino called them in the mid-twentieth century, are a part of the questioning of one's dwelling in the world (see Ferrari 2012). They constitute a “subjective alienation [that is] a reflex of objective alienation” (de Martino [1961] 2005: 321) and affect one's personal ontogeny (see Toren 2012), yielding what may be called a ‘habitus of migrancy’ (see Radogna 2019).

Written as an exploratory piece, this article involves a strong element of self-reflection. It reveals how an experience in the past left a mark upon my own path of analysis as an anthropologist. In order to validate empirically my call for the adoption of ‘metaphysical pluralism’ as the background for the possibility of ethnography (see Pina-Cabral 2017, 2022b), I argue that alienation in the institution of personal presence is an integral part of the ethnographic encounter. Some might therefore claim that this is an auto-ethnography, but I would prefer to avoid using that label, as it suggests that there can be ethnographies where the experiences reported by the ethnographer have no effect upon his or her successive life as an analyst. Ever since the days of Frank Hamilton Cushing among the Zuñi—an ethnography without which, for example, Mauss's ([1938] 1985) essay on the person could not have been written—this element of self-experience has proved to be an integral part of ethnographic reporting (see Saumade 2022).

The article starts by describing a particular instance of ‘alienation’ at which I was present as a foil for exploring how the process of naming involves institutional forms of objectification that contribute toward producing crises of presence in those who do not comply with the accepted norm—and are thus produced as ‘alien’. As a referee to this article kindly noted, this is a term whose routine use in bureaucratic English must not, and indeed cannot, possibly hide its experiential and political impact. Surprising as it may sound to us today, the trigger for a British police officer's aggressive response that I unwillingly witnessed was his confrontation with a Libyan man's personal name—a name the officer considered inadmissible. Over time, I came to realize that this event had contributed toward fostering in me a ‘habitus of migrancy’, including a disposition to sense the dangers of alienation lurking in everyday occasions. Furthermore, this event and others of a similar kind alerted me to the less obvious implications of personal naming, a matter I have explored at length in subsequent published work.3

The Natural Attitude

The story I will now recount took place in 1980–1981. In fact, I no longer remember precisely when it happened during that period. Although I was already a practicing anthropologist by then, the event did not happen to me as an anthropologist. This is why I am blurry about the details, as I took no notes and made no attempt to clarify or explain it anthropologically. Ethnographic accounts change an interactive event one has witnessed into a narrative, but one of a very particular kind; they transform an experience into ‘ethnographic evidence’, the description of a determinable conjuncture of human encounter (see Pina-Cabral 2022c, 2022d). In this article, I make an effort to move away from the ‘natural attitude’ that characterized my first response. That is, I no longer focus just on ‘what the world is’ but attend to its ‘givenness’, the way it presents itself to me and others, and make an effort to analyze systematically “the correlation between subjectivity and world” (Zahavi 2017: 57). In short, I ‘reduce’ the experience I had in order to make it respond to analytical concerns by highlighting particular aspects that correspond to anthropological arguments at the expense of shadowing others (see Sato 2014). This is the difference between me as a participant sharing a ‘natural attitude’ and me as an ethnographer/anthropologist who wants to transform that experience into an analytical object. The two approaches differ but do not cancel each other out. In fact, both are incomplete, in that they are always interactive.

I had studied social anthropology in South Africa before going to Oxford for a postgraduate research degree. What set off this particular event was the need to renew my “Alien's Card”—a small, light-green leaflet in which my conditions of residence in the UK as a foreign citizen were regularly confirmed and stamped. Since mine was a student's visa, I had to present a declaration from the college stating that I remained on course with my studies. That morning, after gathering all the necessary documents, I went to the relevant office. I no longer remember where in South Oxford it was situated, but I do remember that it was a small building and that the door to the office had a set of three or four steps with a ramp for handicapped persons off to one side.

As one entered, there was a line of black chairs against the wall. A small frameless square window had been cut in the middle of the wall to the right. It led to the room next door, to which we claimants had no access. One could just see a desk on the other side of the wall. There were several people waiting; I imagine most of them must have been students like me. Being attended to involved a weird kind of performance. The small square window had been cut rather low in the wall, so in order to make eye contact with the officer beyond, a normal adult had to crouch a little and then look up. The man ahead of me was a pleasant-looking postgraduate student with curly hair and a light-black skin color. As we waited our turn, he told me that he was from Libya and was writing a thesis on some sort of obtuse scientific subject. I no longer remember the precise words of his name but let us imagine that it was Abdullah Aziz. When his turn came, after looking at his alien's card and the letter from his college, the officer seemed to detect something he did not like. The following exchange occurred:

Officer: “First name?”

Student: “Abdullah.”

Officer: “Family name?”

Student: “Aziz.”

Officer: “Huhm. Father's name?”

Student: “Aziz.”

Officer (already irritated): “Father's family name?”

Student: “Abdullah.”

Officer (in raised tone of voice): “Are you joking with me, or what? I asked for family name!”

At this point, the student committed the mistake of trying to be pleasant and smiled at the officer, attempting to explain that that was how naming worked in his country. But it was too late—he had not been apologetic about his name. By then, the officer was burning with rage. I no longer remember his precise words, but they had to do with how he had no patience for cheeky fellows and that if the student thought he could joke around, then he had better go back to Libya. The officer refused to stamp his card and told him to write in to ask for a formal interview to clarify the situation. The student tried to explain that he was in good faith, but he was not allowed to say anything else and was summarily dismissed. I could hear the officer sharing his irritation on the other side of the wall with his colleagues, who laughed at something he said. In that laughter I could detect the work of the ghost of ‘whiteness’—the hegemonically dominant embodied construction of the ‘proper’—hovering over that room. Whiteness did not announce itself; it merely arose as an unavoidable background assumption.

As all this was happening, I was secretly getting more and more worried. I too have a foreign name—a very long one, as it happens, which causes all sorts of confusion for Anglo-Americans. The officer had no means of knowing, but if he were to ask me how my name was constituted, it would certainly take more time to explain than his short attention span would bear. I watched in trepidation as the Libyan student left the office, his shoulders slumped to his chest.

I took my turn uneasily at the window. To my relief, however, nothing untoward happened. The officer continued to vociferate against the Libyan student while he dialogued with the other officers behind him. He looked at me and saw a white-skinned person with a serious demeanor, so he perfunctorily stamped my card and sent me away. As I left that damned place and breathed the cold air outside, a sense of anger overcame me. What if he had refused to stamp my card? I was just starting to draft the final manuscript of my thesis, and if I had been sent back to Portugal at that point, I would have no financial means to return to the UK. I felt I had just escaped by the skin of my teeth from a major setback in my life. As I considered what happened to the Libyan student, all I could think was “And there, but for the grace of God, go I.” What no one present could have known (and even I, at the time, might not have been able to phrase it) was that my own sense of ‘whiteness’ had been breached by my earlier African experiences and, in particular, by my previous encounter with anti-Portuguese racism in South Africa. But the officer had no way of sensing this; he felt safe about me and just sent me on my way.

That night, on returning home, I told what happened to my partner (an Israeli) and to an Indian couple from Calcutta with whom we habitually shared our dinners. They too partook of my sense of discomfort with the event. Over the years, I have recounted it a number of times in conversations with friends and students—in the UK, in Brazil, in Portugal, even in Chicago. When it happened, however, mine was what Husserl ([1954] 1970) called the ‘natural attitude’.4 I confronted the situation with a practical approach; I had no analytical intentions. I was merely reminded of the terrible implications of being denied a visa for my future life. The officer had suddenly unveiled the dangerous side of my bureaucratic condition as an ‘alien’, someone without intrinsic rights of presence in the land. He opened up a potential gap in my relation to the world I was thrown into—a world that both produced and shored up my personal presence. Furthermore, what moved him to do it was the discovery that the Libyan student's name was not what he had expected a ‘proper’ name to be.5 As it happened, the Libyan student suffered the brunt of the stigma of foreignness, while I—lucky me—was let off scot-free. The officer failed to notice that behind my white skin and European name, I was just as alien as the other student. My whiteness (like all whiteness, in any case) was merely skin deep. I simply happened to mimic his expectations of whiteness better than the other guy.6

To sum up in terms proposed long ago by Erving Goffman (1963: 41–42), the Libyan student was ‘discredited’: he was denied ‘normality’, he was found not to be ‘proper’, to use Derrida's preferred term that itself suggests the erosion of presence (see Skempton 2010: 10–15). But for me, too, the event had implications. I became ‘discreditable’, aware of the fact that I lived with the stigma of alienness, that my presence was conditional. I had merely managed to conceal it better than him. Goffman (1963) argued that such experiences of what he called ‘stigma’ (i.e., experiences of being confronted with one's failure to conform to what is expected of one in a certain context) ‘get under one's skin’ in the sense that they affect one's very process of constitution of self-presence—one's internal ‘arena of presence and action’ (see Johnston 2010). They amount to a loss of credit in the sense both of being denied personal presence by others who refuse to grant one interpretive charity (see Pina-Cabral 2022a) and of a distancing from the world they share with one—a denial of grace. They affect people when their presence is denied or when it depends on assumptions that they secretly know to be false. Becoming discreditable, therefore, may not imply an immediate trauma, but it too amounts to a ‘crisis of presence’.

Presence

The notion of ‘crisis of presence’ emerged in Ernesto de Martino's ([1958] 2008) research on the historical roots of southern Italian popular culture. He saw that the funerary rituals, magical performances, and healing rites he studied often responded to situations where people's sense of their own presence in the world—before themselves and others—was put at risk. It was “a risk which is not the imaginary loss of an imaginary unity prior to the categories, but which is the loss of the very possibility of maintaining oneself in the cultural process, and to continue and increase it with the energy of choosing and functioning: and since the relation that founds the historicity of presence is the same relation that makes culture possible, the risk of not being there in human history is configured as a risk of becoming obscured in the ingens sylva [embracing forest] of nature” (ibid.: 16; my translation).

I suggest that the situation in Oxford I describe above conforms to a crisis of presence—the jeopardizing of self-presence and, consequently, of the presence of objects in the world (the capacity for worlding). As Hegel warned us, self-positing necessarily involves self-othering, that is, the process of differentiation that constitutes identity. Thus, self-positing, the instituting of the person in the world, depends on the person both being there and being other. That means it involves what de Martino referred to as an ‘ethos of transcendence’ (see, e.g., [1977] 2016: 378–379). Since world and person are mutually dependent, the confrontation with the non-conformity of non-human aspects of the world also produces crises of presence. Death, disaster, shock, deprivation, exile, torture, and other socially produced forms of suffering were found to be factors that mobilized the crises that de Martino ([1959] 2015) studied in southern Italy.

When the conditions for dwelling in ways that conform to one's earlier processes of de-alienation are withdrawn, one experiences a crisis of presence. The world into which one finds oneself ‘thrown’ when one emerges as a person is shored up by a complex set of objectifications that are permeated by power and protected by formal institutions. Thus, presence—much as it might appear to be an individual experience—is ever mediated by collective encounter, since one's very internal arena of presence and action is a construct that depends on making sense of the world, and that is always a participatory occurrence involving communication. To that extent, being-there (Dasein, to use Heidegger's favorite expression) is jointly personal and collective.7

In one's ‘natural attitude’ as a person among other persons, the enormous complexity of the world is mostly veiled from one's experience. For the sake of practical engagement, the presence of the world is simply taken for granted. The processes of institution of presence (both of persons and of objects) are hidden behind the thick fog of scaffolded objectifications that prop up our everydayness. In the natural attitude, being-there (in the sense of being present) is not regarded as a process that must be instituted from its source in alterity. Rather, alienness—the ultimate and original indeterminacy of a person's presence in the world—falsely offers itself as something that advenes upon a context of always anterior presence.

Inverting this background assumption is one of the central insights that have characterized the phenomenological tradition. It calls on us to be quite explicit that no one is beyond the reach of the dynamics of alienation—that is, of the ultimate incompleteness of presence. One's presence, as well as the presence of other persons and the other objects that surround one, cannot be assumed as having already occurred, as being ‘natural’ or, in other words, as elementary and original. Moreover, in present-day conditions, the modernist ideology of individualism remains hegemonic and is utterly pervasive, further shoring up this apparent naturalness of persons as ‘individuals’, as unitary, foundational, and thus pre-social entities.

We should not be surprised, therefore, to discover that the primary meaning that the English dictionary attributes to the word ‘alien’ should be of an institutional nature and, thus, part of the process of institutional objectification of state domination. “Alien,” the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, is “a person who is not a subject of the country in which he is living.” But then the second meaning (“Foreign, not one's own, unfamiliar”) and the third meaning (“Of a different nature, contrary”) seem to point to a less bureaucratic and more experiential relation to alienness, as if the former was logically anterior to the latter.

However, as Derrida reminds us, we must invert this derivation if we are to understand how presence comes to occur. Contrary to what the dictionary would have us believe, the third meaning—the transformation of difference into a diacritical polarity—is the founding condition for the dictionary's second meaning (to do with being ‘of the land’, being safely rooted in one's surrounding world) and, in turn, the first meaning (to do with not being the subject of a state). Not even the King of England (the subjects of whom are not ‘alien’ in Britain) is beyond the reach of the dynamics of alienation—that is, of the ultimate incompleteness of presence, of what Derrida (1968) famously called différance, a process by means of which things are both distinguished and separated from each other.

For Derrida, as Skempton (2010: 116) explains, “presence is an objectification and reification of the productive negativity of différance, of the living negativity of becoming, of ‘ex-appropriated’ and propertyless, objectless living labour, an objectification effaced and hidden through the fetishistic presentation of the fullness of substance.” This fullness of substance that hides the acts of differentiation that distinguish and separate things is a mere veil over personal and worldly existence. When Derrida and Husserl speak of negativity, they mean that the instituting of presence is both challenged by crisis and produced through crisis. In this sense, the example I provide above is perhaps too graphic, as it involves the actual possibility of a person whose visa has expired being physically and brutally removed from ‘the land’, as happened recently to the more tragic victims of the Windrush scandal.

Most forms of alienation, however, are far more subtle, intangible, and ambivalent. Paradoxically, as Goffman (1963) stated at the end of his book, there is no absolute ‘normal’ or ‘proper’; normality is the eventuality of stigma. In short, in line with this tradition of critiquing our natural tendency to succumb to substance metaphysics, this article argues that, as an emergent self-preserving entity, each one of us as a person remains forever associated with the ground of our emergence. To put it in quantum terms, live entities never free themselves fully from entanglement (see Ball 2019; Barad 2007; Pina-Cabral 2020).

Indeed, these days, the critique of substance metaphysics is coming at us not only from philosophy (see, e.g., Campbell 2015 on ‘process metaphysics’), but also from biology, where it is being applied both to persons as emergent entities and, more generally, to all living organisms. We are being told that “the tendency of starting with objects and then listing their properties … places the cart before the horse” (Krakauer et al. 2020: 212). Thus, the proneness of process philosophers in biology to continue to use the expression ‘individual’ to speak of emergent entities that are self-preserving—that is, as “aggregates that propagate information from the past to the future and have temporal integrity” (ibid.)—is, in my eyes, a serious drawback, as it naturalizes precisely what they are trying to deconstruct.

Alterity being the original condition of all forms of presence, and contrary to what the natural attitude promotes, presence (the fullness of substance of persons and things) has to be both instituted and then sustained. This means that, in the process of worlding, presence demands work on the part of subjects; our subjectivity is burdensome because alienness is both the condition for presence to emerge and never fully eradicable from personhood. Moreover, the singularity of personal emergence is not an anterior condition, as it has to be instituted for each one of us in our early infancy. Rather, emergent personal singularity is the main instrument of world institution for human persons who will ever remain partible. Personal transcendence (de Martino's ‘ethos of transcendence’) is the condition for the presence of persons before themselves, but also for all the objects of the world that are present to persons (see Bodei 2015). This is the main insight that has come out of a long anthropological tradition of analysis of personhood (e.g., Mosko 2001). In fact, even the assuredness of Mauss's initial primitivist argument concerning the unitariness of persons and the reciprocal nature of the gift has recently been insightfully queried (see Guyer 2014).

De-alienation and Names

In light of this, let us return to the event involving the Libyan student. The first thing to notice is how the officer underwent a process of what Parsonian sociology used to call ‘disidentification’ (see Swaan 1997), leading to a xenophobic response. Such a process implies that he confronted himself as ‘other’, thus experiencing a crisis of presence, which he attempted to resolve by ‘othering’ others. Thus, the process relies on the officer's capacity to see himself as existing in a world of which he is a part—it depends on his personal transcendence (being self and other at the same time). The student's phenotypic appearance immediately alerted the officer to the fact that this was a person of a kind that challenged his world, in particular, his ‘white’ privilege, which he hoped would protect him from the utter destitution of unemployment. His own capacity to be a ‘man of honor’ (a family provider) was being jeopardized by ‘immigrants’—black and mixed-race people whose presence he was being told by the media undermined the role that less literate people played in the class niche they were born into. But at the same time, the student was a person of a class (and academic achievement) that normally has more rights than his own; as we know, Britain remains a deeply class-divided society. This was yet another instance of the age-old Oxonian conflict between ‘town’ and ‘gown’. The officer's popular accent, as opposed to the student's less perfectly accomplished but posher accent, immediately alerted all of us to that. A clash occurred between the two forms of classification (class and race) that caused the officer to feel doubly aggrieved by the student's presence in his world.

As it happened, the student's ‘weird’ name functioned as the trigger that launched the disidentification. The student's apparent failure to recognize the ‘strangeness’ of his own name was what eventually triggered the final emotional explosion on the officer's part. The officer became angry because he was being challenged. His sense of security in a world he cherished was breached by the student's presence; he was being re-alienated by the student. His own efforts at instituting his personal presence in the world he lived in were being canceled out. He had to struggle further with “the great power of the daily negative that looms over each individual from birth to death,” as de Martino put it (quoted in Ferrari 2012: 75). There was in the officer's response a circular process of determination at work (a cybernetic dynamic), and it involved a complex relation between different scales of presence: sub-personal in empathy, personal in relation to the company in which we found ourselves, but also super-personal in relation to the national and ethnic/racial categories of identification at play. The certainty of the officer's presence and of the presence of the world that was his horizon of presence now demanded more work; it had to be shored up further. As Husserl ([1954] 1970: 144) expressed it: “The pregiven world is the horizon which includes all our goals, all our ends, whether fleeting or lasting, in a flowing but constant manner, just as an intentional horizon-consciousness implicitly ‘encompasses’ [everything] in advance” (emphasis added).

Unbeknownst to the three of us, a set of culturally specific background assumptions concerning the association between whiteness and personal name was silently at work in that office. None of us at the time was quite aware of those assumptions, but their force as hegemonic definitions imposed itself on our interactions. The student's name did not follow the classical Christian model of first name (of an individuating, spiritual nature) followed by a surname (of a communal, lay nature) (see Pina-Cabral 2015). Note that it was not the patronymic that caused surprise, but the lack of a functional surname that seemed unacceptable to the officer. As Theodora Kroeber (1961: 126) put it, by contrast to California Indians, “personal identity for man in modern Western civilization resides first of all in the family name to which he is born.”

To the officer, the student appeared to be missing what all persons should have—a functionally correct name—thus triggering the sense of strangeness that moved him to disidentify with the student. In view of the unexpected nature of the student's name, the officer could not attribute credit to the student as a proper person. His immediate experience of empathy when faced with another human who clearly could communicate with him was derailed (see Throop and Zahavi 2020), which further caused anger, because it set the original sense of human recognition at risk. The student's failure to identify his own personal diminution (his ‘cheek’) finally destroyed the officer's capacity to interact. He took recourse to all the power he held as an agent of state violence and exercised it in what he could have known to be, if he had attended to it, a sadistic revenge. His natural attitude integrated all of these aspects, but it did not focus on them. My own response of fear before his anger, leading to a sense of anger against him and the politics of xenophobia that were rampant in Margaret Thatcher's Britain at the time, was also initially ‘natural’ in that it was pre-analytical.

The focus on personal names in these examples is fully appropriate to the matter at hand. After all, in an individualist, post-Christian context, the personal name is the principal marker of a person's personhood. In our modern, bureaucratically managed world, it is the main instrument of objectification (scaffolding) of ‘individuals’, that is, of the transformation of a human being into a unitary and unique subject at law, who is recognizably existent even in his or her physical absence.8 This naturalization of personhood is the principal instrument of attribution of rights of presence, namely to migrants.

As it happens, right now, as technologies of personal recognition become more sophisticated from day to day, fingerprints are no longer the main form of validation of the relation between our bodies and our names. DNA, face recognition, and the reading of pupils are among the new modes of further ensuring that our bodies comply with the regimes of management of presence that are formally instituted through our names. In Western Europe, in any case, these new systems have in no way reduced the significance of personal names as the ultimate tools for determining the de-alienation of persons—of logocentrically validating people's presence ‘in the land’, as Derrida (1967) would put it.

Many believe that we live today in a world of increasingly fluid or liquid identities; this opinion, however, may be chronocentric, as it is unlikely to survive a comparison with several historical instances. If we consider, for example, the Roman Empire during the early Christian era, the Yuan dynasty in China when Marco Polo visited it, or the sixteenth-century European presence in the Indian sub-continent, it is hard to assess whether today's personal ‘identities’ are more fluid or liquid than they were in those periods. In any case, the legal and religious centrality of naming systems has by no means been reduced as infrastructures of Western European contemporary lives.9 In common law systems, the legal change of name is a relatively simple process compared to Continental neo-Napoleonic systems. My personal experience, however, of dealing with British and North American university administrators over the decades has led me to conclude that name composition (and emotionally charged judgments concerning ‘correctness’) remain central aspects of the bureaucratic establishment of rights of presence.

We are traditionally prone to assuming that these institutional arrangements are owned and managed by the state, leading to corresponding forms of national sovereignty. This, however, is increasingly less the case, as we are finding ourselves more and more enmeshed in systems of management of presence that are instituted by modes of privilege and discrimination that move well beyond the formal rules that are enshrined in our national constitutions as modes of attributing sovereignty and citizenship (whether by jus sanguinis or jus solis). Among others, the merchandizing of ‘golden visas’ has revealed that the financialization of rights of presence (the ‘traffic of passports’ being its primary mode of appearance in our present globalized condition) has largely bypassed and sidestepped any state-based system of entitlement. Constitutional charters of citizenship reveal themselves, therefore, to be modes of silencing financial privilege. By declaring themselves as universal systems of attribution of ultimate rights of presence (which they turn out not to be), they become props for hegemonic shading and, consequently, for the ideological oppression of those who cannot afford to buy citizenship.

The implicit assumption behind all those forms of attribution of rights of presence depends upon a modern apparatus of bureaucratic registration of births, marriages, and deaths. This system is by now so profoundly naturalized that its radical and oppressive nature has become all but invisible. We forget that not so long ago—in Portugal at least, during the Republican period in the 1920s—there were revolts and popular uprisings largely motivated by the system's implementation. As Mary Douglas (1995) reiterated, in line with a primitivist argument that Marcel Mauss ([1938] 1985) had already developed in his essay on the person and which he inherited from Durkheim ([1912] 1960), the institutions of the modern state not only appear to reveal that individuality is the true condition of humans, but they require that it be so. An inevitable aspect of all modern legal systems and the corresponding application of the rule of law is the assumption of the ultimately ‘natural’ unitariness of the person (his or her fullness of substance) and thus a denial of alienness as the original condition of all persons.

Note that in this context, and contrary to Abram de Swaan's (1997) atomistic approach cited above, the attack on our presence in that particular context (i.e., the fact of having been alienated by the officer) does not mean that the student (or myself secretly) had lost some sort of original, integral, unitary identity. We must attend to Derrida's warnings against the idea that the ultimate backdrop of human existence is an unquestioned, non-constructed presence—a “concept that presupposes the simple unity of an originary human essence” (Skempton 2010: 3). All personal existence, in that sense, is built on a history of differentiation, or, as Derrida calls it (without it being a value judgment), negativity. Alterity is the source of all, which means that each person's own construction of her or his personal identity and of its worldly positioning is a form of de-alienation moved by the imposition of traces. This task of de-alienation is a constant fabrication but one that will never be fully achieved, as it is paradoxically produced by its own crisis. As de Martino would have it, “the crisis should be looked at as the only event giving meaning” (Ferrari 2012: 116). Personal singularity, therefore, is a project, not an original condition—it is a de-alienation. This being the case, presence is always susceptible to deconstruction, and it is at this point that we can return again to the situation of the officer, the student, and myself in that small room in South Oxford.

Having been discredited in the Libyan student's case, and having been made discreditable in my own case, means that our concern to be present was being denied, canceled out, withdrawn. Here, the notion of ‘presence’ applies both in the more outward sense of having a visa to stay in the country and in the more inward sense of ‘feeling at home’ with oneself in Britain as a horizon of dwelling. The two senses are related—as any psychologist would corroborate—but they are not the same thing. Short of the most extreme forms of oppression, no amount of denial of presence (of alienation) on the part of the officer would have totally subverted the Libyan student's sense of personal presence and his correlate sense of being in a personally manifest world. As he left that office, he remained certain of his presence as a person, even as he suffered under the burden of what had taken place. My own memory of anger is a clear sign that my personhood reimposed itself. Much as our rights of presence had been countered, both of us still felt that we continued to make sense in the world. The traces of our original de-alienation as persons (our building of selfhood from an original negativity) could not be that easily wiped out.10

Short of death, crises of presence are always relative, and only in very extreme cases will they lead to the utter collapse of a person's sense of presence, that is, the demise of traces of the institution of personhood. Part of the reason in this instance is that, ironically, the officer's actions were motivated by his own sense of having been challenged in his personal presence—his fear that the world scaffolding his presence would collapse around him if people whose names were not recognizably correct, such as black-skinned Muslims, were to inhabit England, pushing people like him into destitution. For the officer, such people could not be expected to have a ‘correct’ (‘normal’, Goffman would call it; ‘proper’, Derrida would call it) name. His crisis of presence interacted dynamically (cybernetically) with ours; the encounter of the two crises came to be a factor in the objectification of our common world/s.

Note that here I am not ‘putting thoughts into the officer's mind’. Rather, I am challenging the appropriateness of the very notion of ‘mind’ in this context, for the officer's response cannot be measured as some sort of reproducible train of ‘representations’ he might have experienced. Such a thing does not exist, because I will never be able to depict in any way the holistic immersion of his sense-making at the time of the exchange. In fact, what was going on around him at the time—the Tory Party policies, Thatcher's thirst for power leading to the Falklands episode, the neoliberal greed of the people who financed the media campaigns that dominated British public opinion, the officer's correct assessment that salaries were becoming scarce for people like him, the threat that this constituted to the people who depended on him—all of this and much more were not ‘ideas/representations’ in his mind when he responded as he did. That is why I feel we can trace them today. I am not ‘representing’ what he saw inside his head, as it were. I am reducing aspects of the world we shared in order to identify the factors that I see as determining his acts. These aspects were ‘out there’—accessible for anyone who cared to make sense of the officer's own attempts to make sense of his world, not hidden inside his mind as ghostly pictures.

As it happens, the student's response turned out to place the officer's own capacity for presence in jeopardy; it canceled his carefully constructed job of scaffolding his personal de-alienation. In this way, the student's apparent satisfaction with his name re-alienated the officer. This meant that it made sense (it furthered his world) to challenge aggressively the presence of ‘aliens’ in the UK. Paradoxically, the patent ‘alienness’ to him of the Libyan student was a fabrication of the social institutions within which he was immersed and which, in fact, alienated him as well. And then, reflexively, his fear scaffolded our own presence in a substantive way. To identify someone else's denial of my presence as being xenophobic is to claim my own right of presence; it is to fight alienation, to struggle to remain me in this world. This is, I suppose, what I was doing later that day when, over our shared dinner table, I recounted my experience to my Israeli and Indian companions. The student must have done a similar thing with his tutors at his college, when he most likely asked for their support. The officer, too, probably would have some explaining to do and, in so doing, would shield himself in the responses of his colleagues, with whom he constantly interacted as the event unfolded. My own writing of this article, four decades later, should therefore also be interpreted as yet another gesture of de-alienation, as part of the continued job of scaffolding my presence.

I certainly hope that the Libyan student did not find other, more violent means of doing the same, but I am inevitably reminded at this point of Katherine Donahue's (2007) account of the life and experiences of Zacarias Moussaoui. This man, having unsuccessfully attempted to be part of the 9/11 terrorist attack, was captured by the American authorities, was publicly judged, and received a life sentence that he is still serving in Colorado. Whatever Moussaoui feels about it today, Donahue's account of how he came to form his own intention of self-immolation during his youth in France and his early adult life in London shows that even contemplating death can be a way of reinstating one's need for presence, a gesture of de-alienation.

The Habitus of Migrancy

When you are discredited, your personal presence is put at risk; in turn, when you become discreditable, it is your capacity for worlding that is put at risk. That which surrounds you and props up your existence (what Husserl calls one's worldly ‘horizon’) is made to appear uncertain, for it is de-structured. One's daily efforts at shoring up a world of dwelling are undermined, re-alienated. Contrary to the discredited person, whose dwelling space has been shattered, the discreditable (and those who have in the past been discredited but managed to weather the storm) carry with them this ‘concern’, this ‘anxiety’; it does not simply clear away, as the world reflects it back at them. The crisis of presence casts a veil not only on themselves as present but also on their world. They acquire a ‘habitus of migrancy’.11

Presence is built contrarily, by negativity, in constant de-alienation. Thus, ultimately, all of us have always already experienced crises of presence, since our original condition was always one of alienness. This means too that all of us have also experienced the other side of the coin of migrancy, which is the call to shore up one's ability to remain ‘on the land’, to fix the stability of one's world. It must be concluded, therefore, that the ‘habitus of migrancy’ and the ‘habitus of residence’ are relative dispositions, of which one can have more or less. The officer's habitus of residence was triggered by the crisis of meeting someone whose personal construction challenged his own. My own and the student's habitus of migrancy were triggered by his response. As these dispositions are part of one's personal ontogeny—the slow, lifelong process of constant institution of an internal arena of presence and action—they are both cumulative and lasting. The proneness toward experiencing one of these habitus more than the other becomes something the ethnographer can observe in particular persons. Thus, presence, ultimately unsteady as it is, becomes a phenomenon in the world concerning which ethnographers can gather ‘evidence’: one's world is evidently marked by one's habitus (here in the plural).

The habitus of migrancy does not result from travel but from the need to dwell in ‘another land’, to construct another sense of inhabiting. In this regard, it is not the meeting of new lands that matter, but the construction of a new horizon for one's everydayness. This does not abolish one's earlier dwelling, one's horizon in another, earlier land. Being discredited or becoming discreditable, however, alerts one to the unnaturalness of one's objectifications. It alerts one to the uncanny in everyone's experience. While the officer was made anxious by meeting someone whose expectations of personhood were not his own, thus casting anxiety over his relation with his land, the student suddenly found that he was not part of that world, challenging his own sense of who he was. For my part, I was alerted to the fact that the apparent comfort of my de-alienation in England was a thin layer over my deeper sense of having my rootedness jeopardized.

In fact, as Abdelmalek Sayad (1999) argued a while ago, this habitus of migrancy alienates the migrant's relation with both the new land and the old land. In the preface to that book, Bourdieu explains that “emigration and immigration … say two sets of things that are altogether different but also indissociable, that one must forcefully think together” (ibid.: i; my translation). The migrant's return is as filled with anxiety as is his or her encounter with the new land. Anyone who has experienced the annual surge of returned migrants in Iberia or in the Maghreb knows that one's re-encounter with a land from which one has been absent is anxiety-prone. But even those who have lost their land irretrievably (like most of the victims of the Holocaust) never overcome the uncanny sense of the ghostly presence of their alternative dwelling.

At all times, and from its inception, the habitus of migrancy is both a personal disposition and a collective encounter. Over time, a shared cultural background is founded that shapes not only expectations but also reactions to specific environments of movement. These come to constitute horizons for each particular act of migrancy. Sayad (1999: 107) describes insightfully the process whereby migrancy is structured as an objectivizing framework for the Kabilian migrants from rural Algeria, whom he so perceptively and sympathetically studied.

Conclusion

We must not conclude from what I state above that migrancy is a bad thing and that by not migrating one can avoid confronting experiences of xenophobia or of the uncanny of alienness, such as the student and I experienced and Sayad's informants described. On the contrary, the habitus of migrancy—the potential for the erosion of the objectifications that shore up the dwelling experience—is an integral part of the dwelling experience. Moving is not something that only migrants do; the naturalization of that conviction is the product of the symbolical infrastructure that supports the nation-state as a form of domination. Everyone moves and has always moved throughout human history. The near universality of the human need for alliance (what used to be called the ‘incest prohibition’) means that at least half of humanity has always moved home. As has been corroborated by so many studies of the condition of being a bride in a virilocal context (e.g., Wilson 1951; Wolf 1972), it can be more traumatic and alienating to find oneself in one's husband's strange home than to find oneself discreditable in contemporary Britain.

Learning to live with the habitus of migrancy—and the knowledge that ultimate charity may not be extended to us and that, consequently, we may not be given credit for living in that land—is one version of the process of human movement in the world. The other side of that coin is the experience of uncanniness when confronted with objectifications of the world that break with the objectifications that shore up one's presence—the habitus of residence. The latter was the experience of the officer in that South Oxford office. The very fact that there are people whose names do not comply with the naturalized expectations that conform to British normality had the effect of shattering the transparency of this man's habitus of residence, casting upon his certainties a veil of alienness. He could no longer afford to extend to this student the charity of interpreting him as being a reasonable, normal, proper person. The student's presence countered the very presence of the world that shored up his personal self-presence. Yet the officer's fear of losing his world challenged our own sense of presence in our own worlds (those of myself and the Libyan student). But on our return to Portugal or Libya, our having had this particular experience will not simply fade away. It will have remained with us, and it will have, in turn, moved those who meet us (both in our lands of origin and our lands of destination) to be open to the uncanniness produced by migrancy.

Considering how globalization over the past centuries has been a history of evermore intense human movement, this may seem like a horribly depressing conclusion to reach. But it is not. Contrary to our natural attitude, presence is an ever-unsteady scaffold, forever challenged by indeterminacy and underdetermination. All life is set within the horizon of death. Identity is not the original condition, but an ever-challenged product of the game of alterity, the game of boundary setting that life constitutes. The habitus of migrancy and the habitus of residence are in the end merely two modes of the same human experience of constant unstable establishment of presence. As Derrida has reminded us, “the notion of a fundamental difference, or différance, … underlies and undermines the full self-presence of identity” (Skempton 2010: 50). Thus, in a paradoxical but inescapable way, the very process of instituting presence is operated through crises of presence.

The lesson to take, therefore, is that all objectifications are always dependent upon the ground of uncertainty over which they were established. In this sense, as we seem to have been alerted since the days of Hegel, alienation is the ultimate condition upon which our presence and the presence of the world is instituted in the course of our life as persons. Our very personhood is the result of the ultimately unstable process of constitution of stability that is one's engagement in life.

In this article I have explored the notion that personal presence is a really (objectively) existing aspect of our common human world while, at the same time, refusing to engage in a ‘metaphysics of presence’, in the sense that Derrida (1967) gave to the expression. I fight the latter by explicitly assuming that metaphysical plurality is both the original and the ultimate condition of human persons (see Pina-Cabral 2017: 182–184), thus moving from an atomistic notion of personal presence to an ethnographic account of personal presence that sees it as always relative and pluralistic in its ultimate incompleteness. This is the conclusion de Martino came to at the end of his life, for example, when he commented to Carlo Ginzburg that “as elements and data of consciousness do not exist (except perhaps by abstraction), so there does not exist any presence, any empirical ‘being here,’ that might be a datum, an original immediacy beyond all risk and incapable in its own sphere of any sort of drama and of any development—that is, of a history” (quoted in Ferrari 2011: 82)

This being granted, there is no denying that the effects of presence are phenomenologically valid to the extent that they are a part of what ethnographers observe and anthropologists theorize. As anthropologists, we cannot afford to bypass metaphysical examination, because it is the very transcendental aspect of personal emergence (the ‘ethos of transcendence’) that gives rise to what we study. Thus, for us, neither an utter denial of metaphysics nor the atomistic assumption of a unitary presence will do. We are caught in the middle. On the one hand, we acknowledge that there is no ultimate substantive core to human personal presence, that alienness is our originary condition as live beings. Yet, on the other hand, we are led to objectify—that is, to treat as evidence—the ways in which that presence actually manifests itself in human interaction, becoming a subject of struggle in the world of humans.

Acknowledgments

For the initial encouragement to write this article, I am grateful to the members of our LabPub and “Presence” discussion groups at ICS: Francesco Vacchiano, João Baptista, Susana de Matos Viegas, and Amanda Guerreiro, among others. The article was discussed with colleagues and graduate students at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, notably Franca Tamisari and Valentina Bonifacio. I learned much during my prolonged presence among them in the spring of 2022. After all these decades, I remain deeply grateful to Ruth Rosengarten, Swati Mitra, and the late Chandan Mitra for their support and encouragement during those difficult days of thesis writing.

Notes

1

The theme of alienation has had a long and complex career in the social sciences of the twentieth century. It would not be possible to even start to honor such a history (including such luminaries as Marx, Kierkegaard, or Sartre) in an article such as this one. In particular, it seemed important to me to avoid getting entangled in the convoluted problems of mistranslation that characterized North American French Theory in its heyday. Concerning the work of Derrida and his use of alienation, I guide the reader toward the excellent overview by Skempton (2010). Especially with regard to Derrida (1967), see also Pina-Cabral (2022b).

2

For a discussion of how the notion of ‘worlding’ can be mobilized within anthropological analysis, see Pina-Cabral (2017).

4

For Husserl ([1954] 1970: 145): “The natural life … is life within a universal unthematic horizon. This horizon is, in the natural attitude, precisely the world always pregiven as that which exists … the world is constantly actuality for us.”

5

For a more extensive study of the implications of ontological weight in personal naming systems, and particularly in Western European traditions of naming, see Pina-Cabral (2010b).

6

One of the referees thought it was strange that an officer dealing with the validation of alien cards in Oxford should not be familiar with a name formation of the kind the Libyan student presented. Note, however, that this bureaucrat's response was by no means uncommon. For example, a similar problem was confronted in 1916 by those who deposited in a Californian cemetery the ashes of Ishi, the ‘last wild Indian’. In his book on this fascinating figure, Starn (2004: 125) comments that “because a full name had been needed for the exigencies of filing, the doctors had filled out their unusual patient's charts under ‘Ishi Indian.’” Ishi too lacked a surname.

7

See De Jaegher and Di Paolo (2007) on ‘participatory sense-making’.

8

See Mary Douglas's (1995) fascinating article on this quandary.

9

For the Portuguese case, see Pimenta (1986) and Pina-Cabral (2008).

10

I leave aside here crises of presence of a pathological nature, leading to actual psychological dissolution. This difference is one that de Martino seems to have contemplated, according to his translator Dorothy Louise Zinn (personal communication, 2021).

11

A kind reviewer reminded me of Bourdieu's notion of ‘hysteresis’, that is, the situation where there is a lag between a person's dispositions and the new conditions that characterize the social environment (the field) (see Hardy 2008). I hesitate to use this concept here, however, as I do not want to naturalize the very occurrence of what Bourdieu calls the ‘individual’ or the ‘agent’. To the contrary, I mean to emphasize how processes of alienation and de-alienation are integral to personal ontogeny.

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Contributor Notes

João Pina-Cabral is a Research Professor at the Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon, and Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Kent. A Co-founder and President of both the Portuguese Association of Anthropology and the European Association of Social Anthropologists, his work deals with personhood and the family, ethnicity in post-colonial contexts, symbolic thought and social power, and ethnographic theory. He has carried out fieldwork in Portugal, southern China, and northeast Brazil. Recent publications include World: An Anthropological Examination (2017) and articles in journals such as Anthropological Theory, HAU, and Journal of the Royal Anthropological Society. ORCID-ID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-7180-4407. E-mail: pina.cabral@ics.ulisboa.pt

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The International Journal of Anthropology

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