Subscribe to more of my writing at https://www.wesalwan.com
King Laius died at the Cleft Way, where he got in the way of an emigrant to Thebes who happened also to be his son. The prophecy was that Oedipus would be the death of Laius, and it was in the name of avoiding this fate that father and son worked together to seal it. Yet what truly made Oedipus a son to his adopted city, and soon a king, was neither birthright nor crime but a kind of genius. The solution to the Sphinx’s riddle—the one that allows one to come in out of the otherness—is not the incestuous metaphysics of permanence and sameness, of loyalty oath or blood relation. It is instead the thing that carries otherness with it, by acknowledging human becoming: that thing which is Sphinxlike in its univocal hybridity, a patchwork of every place it inhabits and leaves behind; that existence which is a cross-temporal pastiche of the development of ego-function, including most visibly the means of moving between places, of crawling and walking and hobbling.
The genius of the immigrant—the key that unlocks the door to a new home—is just a willingness to be remade. Once begun, this remaking is itself involuntary. To spend just a year in another country is to have the experience of being re-personed: to find old abilities hobbled and then refashioned by new environs, to have one’s walking retooled by way of a painful regression to crawling. To spend a life in a new country is to leave behind forever the niche in which one’s existing adaptations make sense.
I’m not making the claim that new identifications are always hard. But leaving behind old identifications can be tragic: it can mean losing everything, not just one’s homeland but one’s familiarity to oneself. What’s at stake here is not just identity as the notion is popularly used today, as a way of talking about one group-based dimension of a personhood whose dimensions are practically infinite. What’s at stake is that thing that Freud thought to be the sum of identifications, character, which differs between individuals more than it could ever differ on average between groups. Yet it is the case that more general traits often serve as the gears by which individual character becomes engaged with the world. To come to a new country is not just to have to learn a new language and adjust to new customs. It is to find that upon these changes is predicated a transformation of the fine grain of oneself. It is to be altered in one’s dispositions, habits, and passions.
Socrates chose death over exile in part because he reasoned that his country and its laws had made him the man he was. They were his parents, as he puts it in Plato’s Crito, and helped nurture him and form his character. To abandon those formative forces, even when they were themselves unjust and pathological, was for him a fate worse than death. It would mean the un-making of Socrates. By staying at home, Socrates was not simply seeking to remain tied to those forces syntonic with his national identity, to remain in the comfort of familiar surroundings. Maintaining a genuinely Socratic character required that he continue to be subjected outwardly to the force of the Athenian values he both shared and opposed. They were so fundamental to shaping him, so second nature—these opinions, these pre-judgments and unreflective assumptions—that bringing them to light and subjecting them to examination required engagement with the fellow citizens who shared them. Internal dialectic required external dialogue, and individual self-examination required a continual subjection to the temptations of mere cultural identity. To be himself, Socrates needed to be an immigrant to his own country: in an unfamiliar place, he would have been robbed of finding the unfamiliarity of his place.
It is inescapable that America owes its existence, its institutions, and its power to the forces of immigration.
Socrates also saw the abandonment of law and country as destructive to both. Whatever the flaws of these formative forces, they had the virtue of breeding the dialectical seeds of their own transformation, the sort of person who might persuade them to change. For Socrates to ignore the law and flee his country would be to detract from this dialectic and this possibility of change. To abandon his laws and leave his homeland was to abolish his state, both political and personal. To live a life worth living, an examined life, required something less like repression and more like therapy. It meant staying at home—politically and spiritually—and heightening his awareness of home’s constitutive powers.
But the argument against Socratic emigration is at the same time one in favor of national immigration. We must prevent our country from losing its Socratic organ, which is I think a more practical worry than that over “brain drain.” The departure of one’s own should be less worrisome than regular, fresh infusions of the alien. We could say the same thing of persons. If we look hard enough we can, like Socrates and Freud, develop and find that otherness at home and within. But it helps, in this quest, to have some external catalysts to self-opposition. What made Athens great, and the place that Socrates couldn’t leave, was its cosmopolitanism. Socrates’s walks to the port of Piraeus were a symbolic embrace of the variety of dialectical, formative forces that found their way through this open gate, the sorts of forces that made it possible for him to find otherness-at-home, and so to amplify the self-awareness and justice of the polis.
Donald Trump need not ever have mentioned immigration, for us to know that it is implicated in a phrase like “Make America Great Again.” It is inescapable that America owes its existence, its institutions, and its power to the forces of immigration. This national origin story—which includes everything from pilgrims to Ellis Island—is something told to every schoolchild, something deeply embedded in the American psyche. “Make America Great Again” rejects this origin story even as it makes a perverse appeal to it. It rejects Walt Whitman’s suggestion that Americans “learn their own antecedents,” their undeniably multi-ethnic origins that are not just Anglo but “ampler than has been supposed.”
“Make America Great Again” is a way of expressing a fantasy in which we reap the benefits of all formative forces without acknowledging their contaminating primal scene. The primal scene in question is not just the tragedy of the violence and displacement of others on which the state inevitably is founded, but the deflating reality of its having any foundation at all, any beginnings, any contingency. The “Again” in this slogan means to reach not just into the past but behind all becoming and (to use Nietzsche’s phrase) the “conditions of life,” beyond the icky sausage-making aspects of nationality to something virginal and pure. The expulsion of aliens signifies a denial of contingent origins, of paternity and anything but virgin birth or autochthony. It tries to leave daddy dead at Cleft Way, that three-way intersection for travelers. The oedipally conflicted cannot give up a sort of Stork myth about where countries come from. There was never an Other involved, the idea goes, and the origin is just a self-same, self-sufficient, desire-less thing whose identity was never at stake.
Creatures have obligations to their creators…but creators also develop obligations to their creatures, and states to their inhabitants, whatever their legal status.
It turns out that the oedipal wanderer is not the one leaving but the one trying to stay home: not the immigrant but the sort of citizen who wants to build walls that will exclude fate. Incest-as-fate is just another way of describing a rebellion against parentage-as-fate, which is in turn a rebellion against creature-hood and its natural, species-adulterating mobility. To expel foreigners is to try to expel the contingencies and formative forces of the state. But this expulsion doesn’t make Thebes great again. It makes it sick.
That’s the hypothetical imperative in favor of embracing immigrants, the argument to the effect that they serve the interests of the state and those Socratic parts that truly make it great. The other imperative is categorical. Creatures have obligations to their creators, as Socrates argues in the Crito. But creators also develop obligations to their creatures, and states to their inhabitants, whatever their legal status. It is not right for Dr. Frankenstein to abandon his work, sourced in a hodgepodge of influences, and formally deny its humanity on the ground that acknowledgement makes the natural messiness of humanity more visible. It is not right for a state to deny the fact that its non-citizen inhabitants begin the process of naturalization as soon as they get off the boat; that they aren’t just inhabitants of the state, but are inhabited by it; that they are altered by it in ways that naturally attach them to their new home; that the law ought to acknowledge this fact. It is not right to suddenly exclude from one’s country those who already are making lives in it, and having their lives remade by it.
“Not right” doesn’t quite capture the severity of the transgression. Cutting ourselves off from sources of otherness is self-defeating and unwise. But when it comes to a failure to honor existing obligations, such as visas and green cards: that is sadistic persecution whose thin practical rationale is an added slight. The failure to do justice to guests in particular violates an ancient norm. It is a form of betrayal, the sort of primal stab in the back that makes “Again” seem positively forward-looking by comparison, and the sort of sin for which Dante reserved his Ninth Circle. As such, it is a strong incitement to retaliatory political violence.
Avoiding such violence means refraining from getting in between people and themselves, or those extensions of themselves that we call family and country. It’s important not to delude oneself—by talking about “safety”—that fear of infiltration is anything more than a desire to break up the intimacies of others and hoard them for oneself, to achieve not greatness but infantile passivity and that greatest of all intimacies, nothingness. Alterity and loss and becoming are not obstacles to our relations, psychical and familial and national, but their glue. Try to exclude them, and you will find not that you have saved yourself, or your country, but that you no longer have either, nor any means of moving to a new place that will fashion each from each other, whether by crawling, walking, or something else.
Subscribe to more of my writing at https://www.wesalwan.com
Nick Burbidge says
Excellent piece, Wes. I particularly like your emphasis on importance of otherness – especially within us – as opposed to its usual bogeyman status in political discussion.
To lower the cultural references a little, I saw Pixar’s Inside Out yesterday and I thought it was a pretty grown up film. Riley (or the Joy homoculus) must accept Sadness – brought on by alterity, loss and becoming – in order to grow up, to step further into the world.
I like Up, too …
Wes Alwan says
Thanks — and great observation. For Freud the original loss involves becoming aware of the mother’s attention to a beloved other than the child (usually the father). And that other beloved is the original alterity. Growing up requires mourning this loss (the loss of the infantile relationship to the mother, in which her attentions to the infant seem total). So that puts anti-immigration in the domain of the Oedipus Complex.
Nick Burbidge says
Thanks for the reply. Anti-immigration is a great example of our not wanting know, People who are against immigration are figuratively casting their eyes out!
I wonder if you have read this excellent article by Adam Phillips on the superego?
At the moment, the right demand strongmen above the law – who stand as exemplars of the freedom they both crave and fear) and a return to a fantasy past: Oedipal blinding. Their vision of the future is aggressive and exclusive, and frightening.
The left, meanwhile, looks to its master in the realm of law: quasi-legislative appeals to morality and the institution of endless and ever-changing codes to “improve” freedom. The left seem to believe that law and justice are identical: Oedipal blinding again. Their vision of the future is poor and restrictive, compared with earlier progressive visions, and only a little less frightening than that cherished on the right. Most of all, it has no image of freedom people can understand immediately.
We are living in the Superegoic Era, I think.
Evan Hadkins says
Thanks Wes. How I love this part, “To expel foreigners is to try to expel the contingencies and formative forces of the state. But this expulsion doesn’t make Thebes great again. It makes it sick.”
Excellent article. I’ll add that the economic argument in favor of reducing immigration have always been weak at best, which suggest other motives are driving the opposition. Even George Borjas, a Harvard economist who is famous for opposing immigration, basically says any ill effects on wages are focused on people without a high school degree. It sure seems odd to spend money building a wall and growing a massive administrative state (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, etc.) to moderately raise wages for people without a high school degree while also cutting those same folks’ other redistribution (Medicaid, etc.). Ultimately, the opposition to immigration must be serving a psychological need rather than a material need, and I do think it has something to do with the primal factors this article explores.
Excellent article and writing. I’m an American living in Europe. Your description of entering another culture is the best I’ve heard, as well as your analysis of the unfortunate happenings back home. I just stumbled upon this site and will be back!
This is very good.
Thank you for this article, it’s so refreshing to read; your sincerity and intellectual integrity shine through.
As someone else already commented, this reflects my experience living as an American expatriate exactly.
I like this so much I’m tempted to share it on social media, but, pearls before swine.
Hector Reyna says
Great piece! I couldn’t help but be reminded of the poem “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost. In particular, in the conclusion when you say: “It’s important not to delude oneself—by talking about “safety”—that fear of infiltration is anything more than a desire to break up the intimacies of others and hoard them for oneself, to achieve not greatness but infantile passivity and that greatest of all intimacies, nothingness.”
I look forward to your future entries.